Books: A Point of View: Sheer Poetry |
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Sheer Poetry : on the appointment of the new Poet Laureate

(S05E07, broadcast 8th and 10th May 2009)

"Why poetry will never leave us"
— in praise of public poetry

Poetry has been in the news lately. As the next Poet Laureate takes up her appointment, there have been headline stories, photographs, interviews. But poetry is never in the news for long. Not even in Elizabethan times was it front-page news for more than a couple of days, even if Christopher Marlowe got stabbed in a pub or William Shakespeare broke all box-office records with his new comedy that had a live dog in it.

Those who deplore the debased language of the modern age are always looking back to a time when poetry was a talking point. But Byron, though he got famous overnight, was already less famous the day after, and Tennyson, though everyone knew his name, was always less interesting to small boys than a new steam train. They wanted to drive that. They didn’t want to be him. Compared to the tumult of everyday reality, poetry is small-time stuff. But the great thing about poetry in Britain is that it is always there in the background. It was in the foreground last week only because of the handover from one Laureate to the next. Andrew Motion, seemingly born to be an Establishment figure, had given way to Carol Ann Duffy, on the face of it scarcely an Establishment figure at all.

The transition having been accomplished, poetry will go back to the background. But it won’t go away entirely. Britain doesn’t officially celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, but it does, continually, celebrate Shakespeare’s language, the English language. It’s just that the continuous celebration is very quiet, with a toot on a cardboard trumpet, the tweet of a penny whistle, and a tap on a tin drum.

The focus of this non-uproarious party is the Laureateship. The Laureateship is the centre around which almost nothing revolves, and has been since the time of Charles II. It wouldn’t even matter if a hack had the job. It’s the ritual that counts, and it’s part of the ritual that it isn’t very elaborate. The Laureate doesn’t have to walk backwards out of the monarch’s presence, or indeed have to do anything. Admirably performed, the duties of the outgoing Laureate, Andrew Motion, were nearly all self-imposed. The Laureate just has to be a poet and do whatever poets do, with a few bottles of sherry from the monarch to prove that the state respects poetry even though the state has no particular use for it from day to day. The diffidence of the post — just do us a poem whenever you feel like it, old boy, or in this case madam — is part of its stature.

More aesthetically-minded countries do without a poet laureate because they can’t bear for art to matter so little. Italy is a far more artistic country than Britain. You will meet Italians of quite humble education who know the difference between Michelangelo and Raphael, and in the gallery at the opera during La Bohème you will see a truck-driver mouthing all the words of Rodolfo’s first aria along with the tenor, and somewhere in the country there is always somebody, an accountant or a librarian, who can recite the whole of the Divine Comedy.

But poetry isn’t part of the state structure. This week, Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was served notice for divorce by his wife, who has finally had enough of his belief that a pretty face and a nice figure are good qualifications to stand as a European MP. But there is no Italian poet laureate sweating through the night while wondering how to dodge the duty of writing up this national crisis in a suitable poem. If the Italians had the equivalent of a Poet Laureate-ship occupied by Carol Ann Duffy, she could have tackled the subject. A wonderfully accurate observer, Duffy could have started the poem with the details of the strange event which has been taking place on top of Mr Berlusconi’s head for some years now without ever quite turning into a hair transplant.

Duffy has written a deservedly popular series of poems about great men seen from the viewpoint of their wives. She would be good at pretending to speak for Mrs Berlusconi, perhaps evoking the wronged wife’s state of mind as it finally snapped under the strain of failing to protest about the discrepancy between her husband’s hair arrangement and his evident belief that adolescent females were drawn to him by his physical charm. When Duffy spoke for the wife of King Midas, she proved that she had one of the most precious qualities a poet can have: wit. What would it be like to serve King Midas with his dinner?

For starters, corn on the cob.
Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.

Isn’t that a fabulous little stretch of writing? So much happening in a flash. No wonder schoolteachers love teaching her poems. There’s always a phrase to catch the attention even of the little boy with the pyromania problem. When someone speaks so wittily, it’s impossible not to appreciate it, especially when you can’t do it yourself. And even Carol Ann Duffy might have had to pick some of it up by example. She had a mentor, the poet mysteriously named U. A. Fanthorpe.

A schoolteacher who never published a poem until she was fifty, U. A. Fanthorpe had wit to burn. But being an essentially British poet she was quiet about it, so you had to go and find her. Fanthorpe was still not famous when she died at seventy-nine, on the same day Duffy took the post of Laureate. I myself knew Fanthorpe for only a single poem, about Paolo Uccello’s painting of St George. In the poem, St George, the dragon and the king’s daughter all get to speak. The king’s daughter speaks like this:

It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail.
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.

Partly inspired by Fanthorpe’s example, Duffy has never been afraid to make her poems funny. It’s lucky that Duffy is a dream to teach, because poetry still has to be taught. For a long time I thought that poetry could be made more popular if it was banned in schools, with possession of poetry regarded as a misdemeanour and dealing in it as a felony. But I had forgotten that I had been taught poetry myself. In the Australian schools after World War II we were made to memorize a poem or we couldn’t go home. Looking back on it, I am glad about that method, but it did amount to a prison regime, and others may have suffered. Indeed some of my classmates are probably still there, growing old in their desks, forever trying to remember what comes next after ‘I come from haunts of coot and hern.’

There are better ways, and there could be better prizes. The bolder teachers could always remind their more precocious pupils that a memorized love poem is hard to beat as an instrument of seduction. But the best way, surely, is for the teachers to read out one of the phrases that drew them into a particular poem in the first place. Every good poem has at least one of them, the phrase that makes your mind stand on end.

I heard one of these yesterday, on a marvellous website called Poetry Archive, a creation for which Andrew Motion was partly responsible. On Poetry Archive you can hear the famous poets read out what they wrote. One of the poets is Richard Wilbur, the American poet who helped, fifty years ago, to do for me what Fanthorpe did for Duffy — provide an example. The Wilbur phrase that caught me this time, and took me back to when I was first under his spell, came from a little poem about mayflies. He visualizes millions of them rising and sinking in the light, and he calls them ‘the tiny pistons of a bright machine’.

I was knocked out, and I couldn’t imagine anyone hearing that and not wanting to know more about Richard Wilbur. When they look him up, they will find that he was a soldier throughout the last campaigns of World War II from Cassino onwards, but when he came back from the slaughterhouse he hardly ever wrote about it. He preferred to write about mayflies. It’s a reminder that it isn’t the poet’s job to keep in step with events. It isn’t even the Laureate’s job.

Her job is to provide part of what Seamus Heaney called the redress of poetry. Poetry is part of the artistic compensation for the fact that the workaday world isn’t artistic, and can’t be. Sometimes the poet can respond to events only by waiting for the events to go away. In the short term, what happens to us in the world is all there is. In the long term, it’s all an illusion, as Shakespeare told us when he gave us that farewell speech by Prospero as the old wizard lost the last of his power over his magic island,

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant, faded,
Leave not a wrack behind.

Shakespeare was never asked to be Poet Laureate, a fact which reminds all Laureates that it’s just a job. But it’s an important job, because its very existence, no matter who holds it, is an acknowledgement by the state that there is something a state can’t control, which is the national memory, and that the national memory travels in the language, like an arrow shower, as Philip Larkin said, sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.


Of the two senior public posts for poetry in Britain, the Laureateship is a cushier number than the Oxford Professorship of Poetry because the latter job involves at least a few things that must be done. The Laureate doesn’t really have to do anything except write the occasional poem, and Ted Hughes got close to not even doing that. His ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’ was the only attention-getting poem he wrote in connection with the job, and it was more about rain than about the Duchy. It was supposed to have something to do with the Queen Mother but she received no direct mention. Hughes was in a great tradition of inactivity that stretched back to Dryden, the most gifted poet of his time but not very energetic in the role of Laureate. In recent times, Andrew Motion threatened to spoil everything by inventing duties that had never previously been performed or even mooted. He got out there to preach poetry in the schools, he recruited poets both living and dead for his poetry website. He was a dynamo. He was worse: he was Serpico, the honest cop who threatens to spoil the racket for all the other cops who are on the take.

My joke about encouraging poetry by banning it in the schools was only half unserious. It was a joke I used often, in various contexts, but always to the same purpose: I wanted to raise the possibility that to encourage people to appreciate poetry might do little good, and that to encourage them to write it might do no good at all. Even Seamus Heaney, who in his Harvard post had to read the manuscripts of thousands of creative writers, must have had moments when the nearly good but giftless poem revealed itself as a threat to the art he loved. Yeats said, ‘Always I encourage, always.’ My own motto would be precisely the opposite if I were not so afraid of seeing tears. On the other hand, and speaking from the more civilized hemisphere of one’s brain, it is terrific fun to throw out some blood and guts and watch the water boil. Big-game fishermen call it ‘chum’. You throw out a quotation to the class and see whose mouth opens. In this broadcast I got a real thrill out of finding room to mention U. A. Fanthorpe and quote her marvellous stanza. The beautiful fragment from Richard Wilbur I misquoted, having foolishly trusted my memory: the ‘tiny pistons’ should have been ‘fine pistons’. But I still bet there were a few takers. (Young poets, especially, flip when they first read Wilbur, as if they had been taken for a ride in the back seat of a Tomcat.) When talking about poetry on stage, I try to quote as often as possible, on the principle that half a good line from someone else’s poem beats any ten minutes of my own prose. There are, alas, speakers about poetry who can’t quote it very well. Too many of those bad speakers are poets themselves, confirming your suspicion that the reason their work has a halting voice is because they can’t recite.

But the actors are the worst. Nearly all actors should be forbidden to read poems aloud on pain of death. Actors tend to add emotion to a stretch of words that is already packed with it to the limit. When you have heard a famous actor go through a Shakespeare sonnet as if its lines ran straight on each into the next, it is quite permissible to conclude that you have wasted your life. Yet soon, if not straight away, some other voice will remind you that poetry is still your reason for living, and occasionally you will hear someone who recites poetry with the ideal combination of reticence and emphasis. In his series Civilization, Kenneth Clarke recited poetry ten times as well as the actor who was brought in to mangle the longer passages, and I once saw a little programme about John Clare in which the poet P. J. Kavanagh recited so effectively that I sat up reading Clare for half the night. And once in a thousand times, even an actor can do it. Listen to John Gielgud being Prospero. (You can get it on YouTube.) Why did so few critics remark on the lilting musicality with which Gwyneth Paltrow spoke the verse in Shakespeare in Love? About poetry one could go on for ever — the very thing that a poem, by setting boundaries to itself with its form, tries not to do.