On The Silence of the Poets
PublishedSeptember 13, 2012 CategoryArts Social Action

On The Silence of the Poets

Given the etiquette and conventions surrounding a Poet Laureate, it was refreshing to see Carol Ann Duffy both capturing the ‘gold, silver or bronze’ mood of the recent Olympics, but also risking a tilt in the direction of some bigger, tougher contemporary realities ….

Translating the British, 2012

A summer of rain, then a gap in the clouds
and The Queen jumped from the sky
to the cheering crowds.

  We speak Shakespeare here,
a hundred tongues, one voiced; […]
we say we want to be who we truly are,
now, we roar it. Welcome to us.

We’ve had our pockets picked,
  The soft, white hands of bankers,
bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
we want it back…’

But why the bigger, deeper, wider Silence of the Poets?

Where have they been since 15 September 2008 when, as some are saying , ‘capitalism came to a grinding halt’, western banks imploded, and what was filched was not only our gold but our futures and our children’s destinies ?

If true, this would be a serious disengagement, part of a longer, wider withdrawal from the active , social agenda which I commented on in the context of the recent death of Adrienne Rich in America . I quoted from Mary Rourke’s obituary of her in the LA Times:

“Her intense critique of contemporary US society combined with her political activism set her apart from other leading women poets of her generation , including Sylvia Platt and Anne Sexton … and she urged every writer to address social justice in their art“.

Though not to much avail, it would seem; nor much helped by the phenomenon which Michael Lind – a mite intemperately – described (‘Prospect ’ July 2001 ) as “ The collapse of American poetry into the black hole of academic obscurity after 1945 ”; a captivity “ prolonged by the explosion of ‘creative – writing’ programmes ”.

A more convincing analysis of these elements of poetry’s social and cultural disengagement is to be found in Dana Gioia’s masterly ‘ Can Poetry Matter ? – Essays on Poetry and American Culture ’ ( Graywolf Press 1992).

Gioia who, with Derek Walcott, has himself done much through his own poetry to revive the rich and diverse metrical toolkit lost to ‘ free-verse and chopped-up prose’ (another of Lind’s angry phrases ) has a more measured critique of the university ‘ghetto’ phenomenon.

“In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet asks another upon being introduced is ‘ where do you teach?’.”

“The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform to institutional ones ….”

Sadly, the UK poetry scene seems set on a similar pattern, and it is often difficult to see the wood for the trees of ‘ creative writing schools ’ , poetry professoriates , festivals and celebrity road-shows.

Our Tony Harrisons seem to be in short , rapidly dwindling supply.

In so far as ‘ poetry’ is a ‘profession’ and poets a ‘professional group ’ would their alleged ‘ absence-without- leave ’ matter at such a desperate time of unprecedented social and economic meltdown ? Isn’t it enough that the ‘politicians’ are first in line, alongside the banking and financial ‘professionals’ who comprised – uniquely – both prime instigators of the crisis and the most expensively educated of our supposed elites ( think of all those Davos junketings and business school ‘ leadership ’ symposia over so many years) ?

The question remains – at times of social crisis and change such as this what expectations, if any, should we have of a response from our so-called ‘creative’ elites – in theatre, music, film, the visual arts – perhaps poetry even ?

Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron would have regarded that as a ludicrously otiose question – though it has much more contemporary significance for UK poetry now as it tries to battle its way out of its more recent cul-de-sacs and back into the line of vision of its neglected citizen audience in homes, schools, factories, shops and offices.

Who’s writing what to match the fervour and incisive critique of Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’

‘An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king –
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, – mud from a muddy spring,-
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow…’

Imagine what such a pen would be making of our bloated bankers and the demolition of young hopes…

Nor was such ‘engagement’ exclusive to politics.

Richard Holmes (‘The Age of Wonder’) and Ashley Nichols (‘Romantic Natural Histories’) have been reminding us throughout the Darwin bi-centenary years that the so-called ‘Romantic Poets’ were in the very thick of the run-up to Darwin and the break -through of science.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were rubbing shoulders with Humphry Davy and Priestley. Shelley was experimenting with chemicals in his Oxford rooms . Coleridge at every physiology lecture he could find in London ‘ to increase my stock of metaphors ’. Involvement and engagement have always been, and should remain, critical aspects of poetry’s collective public role.

More recently, was President Kennedy simply hallucinating when he said (honouring Robert Frost) just one month before his assassination:

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses …. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society…”

I think this is a good and necessary time to be asking where poetry now stands in relation to this massively changing world around us and whether its alleged ‘silence’ is, indeed, real or relevant. In particular, where – if anywhere – are the signs of poetry’s own innovatory changes which might, for instance, parallel the great adjustments to the immediacy and dramatic relevance of contemporary theatre pioneered by David Hare’s ‘The Power of Yes’ at the National Theatre ? Its subtitle is – ‘A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis’ and it is quite definitely ‘art’.  Who would ask less of poetry?

‘On the Silence of the Poets’ marks the beginning of a new dialogue I am initiating to find the evidence and some overdue answers.

Watch this space!

 Ralph Windle  Oxford 13 September 2012

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