The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

We shall write them on the barricades

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Mosley and his Blackshirts

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, by definition; the most beautiful, the best fitted to their purpose; a self-selecting anthology of the period’s architecture. 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.

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5 comments on “We shall write them on the barricades

  1. Robin Gilbert
    February 7, 2013

    I’m with you on this, Jo. I think what you have written is exactly right. Not finely crafted, but very moving and perhapps the more so for not being finely crafted.

  2. Adam Horovitz
    February 7, 2013

    I’d dispute that the poem has no particular form – it follows nobly in the footsteps of the poetry that came out of the Spanish Civil War, notably – and I’d say very deliberately, right down to the choice of title – in the footsteps of poems from people involved in the International Brigades, which named people and place, the small, essential details of lives, in just this tenderly declamatory fashion.

    This anonymous poem, for example, strikes a similar tone and comes in a similar form (full poem can be found here – http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/books/archive/poemsfromspain.html)

    “Where shall we find you, George Brown?
    We shall find you laughing in the mountains of Guadarrama
    When we come back.
    We shall find you at Teruel
    When there’s dancing in the streets.
    We shall find you again in the streets of Madrid,
    When Manchester and Brunete
    And Villanueva de la Cañada have become
    One and the same.”

    Agree with you wholly on the power of the poem, though.

    No Pasaran!

  3. Alwyn Marriage
    February 7, 2013

    Hi Jo
    When I edited New Christian Poetry for Collins, I received eight and a half thousand submissions and read them all several times. Many of the poems were not at all good as poetry and certainly could never have been considered for inclusion, but I actually found that in nearly all cases I ended up respecting the poets.
    xA

  4. Martin Shone
    February 7, 2013

    I agree, Jo, the best kind of poetry is the poetry I like. I read the poem and didn’t like it so that isn’t for me but it is still a good poem. I shalln’t loose any sleep over the fact that I don’t ‘get’ it as there are so many poems I can’t read. The poems of Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy for example, I just can’t read them without hurting my brain so I try not to.

    But then I’m not a poet so what do I know!

  5. Josephine Corcoran
    February 8, 2013

    Michael Rosen’s poem made me cry and I found the poem that Adam posted very moving, too. I don’t know if the fact they were able to make me feel different in some way means that they are ‘good’ poems, nor do I care. I’m glad, grateful, they were written and I’m glad I read them.

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