Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Reconciliations: An Apology to Poetry

Just over a year ago I published a piece venting my frustration with the medium of poetry. I would like to announce a change of heart. After spending the last 12 months reading and writing poetry, in an effort to force myself to understand it, I have come to accept it as a necessary, even if sometimes dull, artform.

The aforementioned blog post is no longer available but its core contention can be distilled down to "poetry is too obtuse to be of any real value and we would lose little by jettisoning it from our culture". In hindsight it was foolish of me to even suggest that poetry could be done away with. It's musicality and rhythm come naturally to the human ear and the directness of vers libre would demand inventing, if it weren't already in existence. Indeed, although I was blind to it at the time, it was the giants of vers libre with which I took umbrage.

 Free verse is most notably what people refer to when they say they hate poetry; after-all few, my former self included, would begrudge the charm of conventional rhyme. And the vox-pop criticisms of free-verse are pretty close to the criticisms I wielded against it a year ago. Even Stephen Fry, a private poetry aficionado, shares my worries:

I think that much of poetry written today suffers from anaemia. There is no iron in its blood, no energy, no drive. It flow gently, sometimes persuasively, but often in a lifeless trickle of the inwardly personal and the rhetorically listless. This lack of anima does not strike me as anything like the achieved and fruitful lassitude of true decadence; it is much more as if the volume had been turned down., as if poets are frightened of boldness. - Fry, The Ode Less Travelled p.g. 325.

It is important to note that elsewhere in "The Ode Less Travelled", Fry expresses his love of T.S. Eliot: the grand-daddy of modern poetic crypticism. Fry doesn't fail to "get" modern poetry but he does worry for the effect of obscurantism on poetry's ability to say what is important.

Yet free-verse seems unusually predisposed to the introverted meanderings that Fry criticises. Such introspection is a by-product of free verses' directness which facilitates unmediated outpouring. This intense need to take what is inside and place it on paper is what makes the work of Plathe, or even the later plays of Sarah Kane, incomprehensible to someone with little biographical knowledge of the author. Such authors use free-verse techniques to encapsulate intensely intimate sentiments which most modern readers will struggle to unpack without the aid of contextualising references.

This particular style of free verse reflects the artist qua artist, which is why it is worth defending. It represents the legacy of conceptualism: art as a mode of expression and experimentation rather than as commodity or product of patronage. There are those who bemoan entitled art students who refuse to master their field and instead churn out conceptualist guff;  but perhaps it is the other way round. Perhaps the real entitlement lies with the on-looker who cries fraud when encountering art which doesn't speak to his interests or function within a familiar frame of reference. Defending this particular exercise in solipsistic free-verse by emphasising its artistic purity is to admit that while this kind of poetry has its place, it is far away from the limelight. But what of the more accessible, pleasing or otherwise extroverted poetry of Whitman, Shelley or Byron? Why are these forms of poetry not flourishing?

While I wish to avoid being dragged into the "Is poetry dead?" debate I think it's worth acknowledging how little poetry sales account for in the book trade. With this context in mind, poetry is often talked up as a much needed yet maligned hero fighting against a quick-fix culture. This seems somewhat rash. The contemporary era of the twitterati is one which is dominated by the succinctly written word. The memorableness, poignancy and sheer stick-ability of poetry should make it the perfect candidate to under-go a digital renaissance and yet it still remains a cultural outsider.

Perhaps the poetry industry has yet to recognise the potential of social media. Alternatively, the snobs might have a point. It may be that one of the joys of poetry is chewing over stanzas until they fall into place and its decline is due to a lack of slow-thinking engagement among modern readers. I hope for the sake of humanity that that is not the case and, whether poetry makes it to the centre stage or not, I wish it all the best.

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