The meaning of modern poetry
Contemporary poetry is lacking something, argues Jeremy Noel-Tod
“The best contemporary poetry”, wrote TS Eliot, “can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment different from any sentiment aroused even by very much greater poetry of a past age.” The judges who awarded the annual TS Eliot Prize last week, for the best collection of new verse published in the UK or Ireland, will know what he meant. In awarding the prize to Jen Hadfield for her Canadian travelogue, Nigh-No-Place, they rewarded the freshness of a new voice. Only time will tell whether it will take its place alongside great poetry of the past.
Most poetry readers tend to be time travellers: browsing among anthologies and old favourites, and only occasionally setting foot in the futuristic present. This is understandable. Poetry is the richest history we have of our inner life. But the history of the present is still being written, and the excitement of the new can be bewildering: every poem about using a microwave starts to look sexier than Shakespeare’s sonnets. Eliot’s “sense of fulfilment” is less easily had. Ezra Pound, his severer friend, used to lament that “the thought of what America would be like if the classics had a wide circulation troubles my sleep”. But the thought of what the world would be like if everyone only read “Now That’s What I Call Poetry 2009” is equally worrying.
The effort that goes into widening the readership for contemporary poetry, therefore, often seems misplaced. The late Adrian Mitchell used to say that “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. But the solution is not to lower the common denominator. The problem with much modern poetry is it plays down what people really like in the arts: mystery and drama. As WB Yeats discovered in his own search for the formula of “popular poetry” in the 20th century, true folk poetry delights “in rhythmical animation, in idiom, in images, in words full of far-off suggestion”. The idea of poetry that ought to be popular is the diluted elixir of a later age, which has never sold to the masses.
Children still like real poetry. A recent anthology of playground songs edited by the poet Richard Price reported this sublime lyric from Aberdeen: “Under the black bushes, / Under the trees, / Boom boom boom / Under the blue berries, / Under the sea.” There’s not much to do with that but enjoy its rhythm, its rhyme and its far-off suggestiveness. But when, as teenagers, children start to have to explain literature to pass exams, the homebrew of skipping rhymes gets left under the hedge.
When I was young and easy and doing my GCSEs, the poem I enjoyed most was Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”. It is also the poem I remember learning least about, apart from the fact that – according to my teacher – Thomas would get very drunk before he wrote anything. I could believe it when I read these bubbling memories of a childhood farm: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay / Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys.”
Seamus Heaney, of course, ploughed the same furrow, but more soberly, and always with a moral at the end of the field. In “Fern Hill”, Thomas left his younger self in a state of tragic innocence: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea” – an unexpected and almost inexplicable closing image. Heaney’s final metaphors came with the meaning conveniently clarified: the blackberries of boyhood went off; the poet’s pen dug up meaning like a spade; his frail old father reminded him of a child.
Now more than 40 years old, these poems are still on the GCSE syllabus as touchstones of best practice in contemporary poetry. Heaney’s evocative economies of language have earned the appreciation of readers. But as a model of poetic writing the weakest point of these early works – the patness of the meaning – has been artificially prized by a system that tests literal rather than lateral thinking.
The more recent beneficiaries of this situation have been Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Both, again, poets whose ears are worth listening to. But in the school anthologies they tend to be represented by poems that offer a neat personal story for dissection. This template also informs the selection of poems from “Different Cultures” . Cultures can be considered different if the people they feature are poorer and more exotic than the average British schoolchild: “Island Man”, “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes”, “Night of the Scorpion”, “Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan”.
Segregation by identity inevitably favours poems cast in the form of relatively stable monologues. The idea that poetic language might be a way of imagining modes of being and emotions that won’t sit still has to wait outside until playtime. Then it returns in the form of popular music, the lyrical abstraction of which would look worryingly avant-garde in an exam board anthology. Even a radio-friendly couplet such as Coldplay’s “Lights will guide you home / And ignite your bones” fuses sound, feeling and sense more interestingly than the simple onomatopoeic “squelch and slap” of Heaney’s spadework.
Yet the rationalised critical model now runs right through the system, from schools to university and on to publishing and arts funding. Contemporary poetry is praised and approved, but rarely loved as much as the other arts. The American poet Frank O’Hara saw what was happening 50 years ago: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with dripping (tears) .” Wisely, he took the children’s side: “If they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.”
But music and movies are no substitute for what poetry can do as an art, and that is to display the life of language with wit and intensity. Barack Obama – who promises to be more attuned to the life of language than his predecessor – chose to have the poet Elizabeth Alexander read at his inauguration. Her definition of poetry identifies the characteristic curiosity of versified words about their own power: “Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) / is the human voice, / and are we not of interest to each other?”
Unfortunately, reforming the poetic culture of Great Britain is not on Team Obama’s to-do list. But there are plenty of poems out there that would fruitfully complicate the current GCSE anthologies, and possibly even enthuse turned-off students. The late Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader(2008), for instance, takes the Heaney-esque story about the child-poet into darker territory with “Railway Children”. Daljit Nagra, himself a secondary school teacher, included a clever satire on the “Different Cultures” section in his 2007 debut, Look We Have Coming to Dover!(“My boy, vil he tink ebry new / Barrett-home muslim hav goat blood-party / barbeque?”) And Alice Oswald’s Dart, which won the TS Eliot Prize in 2005, presents real modern voices mingling in an evocation of the Devon landscape.
All these poets, however, still work within the frame – albeit towards the edges – of the stable monologue, where words flesh out the fiction of an overheard speaker. Working beyond that frame there are poets who, like Dylan Thomas, let language run away from the everyday into unexpected meanings. Of the younger generation, Keston Sutherland’s poetry especially impresses as a passionate and satirical incantation of English now (“Some cops boo. Evidently run about pin / airbag down make a ripped off picket / stunned. If you want to change the / tick alright”).
One of the classics of early 21st-century English poetry, however, is the work of RF Langley, a retired Suffolk schoolteacher, whose Collected Poems were shortlisted for the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize in 2000. He has published a fine follow-up, The Face of It (2007). Langley’s meditations on the natural world make English strange with Shakespearean animation, jumping from rhyme to rhyme and thought to thought. As TS Eliot also said, “there is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts” – and it can follow patterns as involved as 50 swifts on a summer evening.
from Tom Thumb
We should accept the obvious facts of physics.
The world is made entirely of particles in
fields of force. Of course. Tell it to Jack. Except it
doesn’t seem to be enough tonight. Not because
he’s had his supper and the upper regions are
cerulean, as they have been each evening
since the rain. Nor just because it’s nine pm and
this is when, each evening since we came, the fifty
swifts, as passionately excited as any
particles in a forcefield, are about to end
their vesper flight by escalating with thin shrieks
to such a height that my poor sight won’t see them go.
Though I imagine instantly what it might be
to separate and, sleeping, drift so far beyond
discovery that any flicker which is left
signs with a scribble underneath the galaxy.
‘Tom Thumb’ appears in R?F Langley’s ‘Collected Poems’, published by Carcanet at £6.95
After the branch line went to Ochiltree –
I would have been fifteen – two men were shut
In the station waiting-room, and one of them
Brought out his pocket anecdote of me:
“The boy’s a splurger! – hey, when Danny Craig
Passed him a flask on the train the other day,
He gulped it, just for the sake of showing off.
And he’s a coward too, for all his face.
For after he’d taken the drink, he noised about,
And Dan, to clip his wings, made up a threat
To hang him out o’ the window by his heels –
You know Dan didn’t mean it, but the boy
Grew white at the very idea o’t – shook
Like a dog in the wet – ‘Oh!,’ he cried, and ‘Oh! –
But how would tha ground go flying past your eyes;
How quick tha wheel beside your face would buzz –
Would blind you by quickness – how tha grey slag
Would flash below ye!’ – Those were his actual words;
He seemed to see it all as if for real,
And flinched, and stopped, and stared, like a body in fits,
Till Dan was drawn to give him another drink;
‘You’d spew with dizziness,’ he said, shut
His eyes where he sat, and actually bocked himself.”
‘Railway Children’ is taken from ‘The Lost Leader’, published by Faber & Faber at £9.99