Monday, July 7, 2014

Give Yourself a Round of Applause

I was shelving poetry books today when I felt a surge of gratitude that the readers of this blog (you!) have been open to the inclusion of poetry-- both my own, and the discussion of poetry in general.

This is rare, I can tell you. The world's indifference to poetry is something that has bothered me for at least two-thirds of my life. I'm not talking about my own poetry. I mean poetry in general.

If a person has tried poetry and never liked it-- that's understandable. I commend their honesty. But it bothers me that so many people who consider themselves cultured and well-read seem to feel they can just do without poetry, and don't seem in the least bit ashamed of it.

(By way of analogy, I don't understand or appreciate classical music. I've listened to Mozart's Requiem Mass three or four times, most attentively, and it left me cold. I've tried the same with other classical music masterpieces. The piano quintents of Dvorak held some mild appeal for me, but that's about it. I feel bad about this. I know I'm missing out on part of what it is to be human.)

I'm not being unwontedly idealistic here. Very few people, I imagine, read poetry in the way that they read fiction, or the newspaper, or history. I certainly don't, and never did. Poetry is something that one reads in small doses, at intervals. It's a cordial, not a beverage.

But...even a tiny, tiny increase in our consumption of poetry, as a society, would (I am convinced) make a huge difference to our civlization. It would make us more civilized-- not by virtue of any effects it had (though it might have some effect), but simply in itself.

Our culture is quite willing to quarry Yeats and Eliot and Housman for quotations, and epigraphs, and captions for tea-towels and tee-shirts. Writers of blockbusters and thrillers are quite willing to filch titles from great poets, but their publishers and agents wouldn't even give a second glance to a poetry manuscript that arrived in their offices. That's what Faber and Faber is there for, after all.

But where do people think poets like Yeats and Frost come from, if there is not a culture of poetry reading and poetry publishing?

I'm not just talking about literary life. I'm talking about social life. Why should you be looked at like you are an eccentric if you propose poetry as a topic of conversation, in an ordinary social situation?

So I thank you. I've thrown all sorts of stuff on this blog, and I'm always surprised how willing its readers are to follow my rambles. But the fact that the poetry gets a hearing....that's very rare, and much to be prized.


  1. Well, from my point of view it's you who deserves the applause, for beginning the conversation in the first place! I have been amazed to find a blog like this, and amazed that I am amazed - just as you say, why should it be so unusual?

    I wonder whether the reason behind all this is that poetry (as understood on this blog!) is misunderstood in culture from two directions. Many people who are used to verses such as pop lyrics (many of which are often not really poetry, and, to be fair, don't try to be - I think they often enable the voice to be used as a musical instrument rather than to make a poetic utterance) think that anything 'higher' than this is something like too pretentious. And to an extent they are right, because the only thriving alternative is the intellectual, edgy, heavily allusive, problematic poetry that fills all the magazines that won't publish your verse, and for whose authors anything short of this kind of poetry is too light or cheap. So there is now a void where once almost everyone dwelt. It's terribly sad. But it does leave a niche. There must be many more people hungering for traditional verse than there seem.

  2. I think there are, but this phenomenon has been noted by so many people for so long now, that it's difficult to see why it persists. Thanks for the kind words.