Lately, there have been several articles in the national press to the effect that ‘poetry is dead’, or ‘poetry is being devalued’, or ‘poetry should be learned by heart’, or ‘poetry is only worthwhile if you have to furrow your brow to understand it’, or ‘poetry isn’t discussed at dinner parties any more’.
Dinner party conversation? Is this how we judge the importance of poetry?
In fact, all these articles say the same thing: ‘The Only Worthwhile Kind of Poetry Is the Poetry I Like.’ The writer has been paid to stir up a conversation, or is the kind of person who writes a thought piece because they think their opinion needs to be heard. The sentiments in the article may not be sincere, and the editor doesn’t care whether they are sincere or not – s/he wants to generate discussion and attention.
The only worthwhile kind of poetry, dear reader, is the kind you like. Personally, I am fairly omnivorous as a poetry consumer. I read widely and there is much poetry which, though I don’t like it, I can respect.
I don’t mean that all poetry is equal. But all of it has a right to exist. All of it can help someone through the world, if only the person who wrote it. If you don’t like it, stop reading it.
Yes, a lot of slam poetry is crap. A lot of page poetry is crap. It always was; the good stuff endures. In a chat with a conservative-minded friend, he said, ‘why can’t modern buildings be as attractive as Tudor buildings?’ Well chaps, a lot of Tudor buildings were horrible. They were cheap and shoddy, or ugly. They got knocked down, or fell down. The ones which survive are the best, the most beautiful, the best fitted to their purpose; a self-selecting anthology, if you like, of the period’s building. Likewise in poetry. If you want the best of British poetry, buy a ‘best of British Poetry’ anthology. If you go to a slam then you will hear young poets, bad poets, dreary poets, foul-mouthed poets – and the occasional gem. What were you expecting? Why on earth would every poet you hear be brilliant? How could that ever be likely?
I write this little outburst, because I was so very moved by Michael Rosen’s poem For My Parents in today’s Morning Star. In technical terms, this is not a complex poem. It has no particular form, it uses repetition as its main poetic device, and it has an energy and anger which suggests, to this reader at least, that it might have been written swiftly. I hope Michael Rosen takes no offence at my saying this. I don’t mean to do him any injustice – because the effect of this poem on me, at least, was immense. It is simple, and strong, and conveys a deep sense of love for his parents, anger at those who wanted to harass them, pride in their actions, gratitude. You can read it here.
Read it, and weep. It certainly does what a poem should do, which is to elicit a powerful response and make you look at your own life a little more closely. And if you don’t like it, dear reader, you are free to read anything else that is more to your taste.