The Muddy World of Poetry
PublishedJune 28, 2015 CategoryArts Social Action

The Muddy World of Poetry

With the probable exception of Wole Soyinka, who might well have won but for the machinations of our never-sleeping, omni-present, culture-celebrity Melvyn Bragg, the world has generally welcomed Simon Armitage to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, and the dreaming spires quietly resumed their slumbers.

Here, at Arts Social Action, where we encourage poets, and others in the arts, towards a more active involvement in this dangerous world about us, our usual regrets about another creative talent temporarily lost to an academic ivory-tower, creative writing school or perpetually-rotating literary festival, was happily tempered by Armitage’s promise, via Alison Flood in the Guardian, to eschew “professorial grandstanding” and give Oxford an insight into “what is occasionally quite a muddy world, and a muddy artform”.

This is encouraging, though hopefully not to be confined to Oxford’s callow youth; a late frolic in the mud and touch of the Edward Snowden‘s could do wonders for the enlivenment of poetry’s opaque establishments, so we will be cheering Armitage on.

And can it be entirely coincidence that Ben Lerner plots a possible course forward in the current London Review of Books (Diary. 18 June 2015)? As with most significant revelations, he is obliged to start with an uncomfortable truth for all aspiring poets: “what if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures?”

He quotes poet and critic Allen Grossman to explain the dilemma…

“you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure”

Thus, the fatal problem with poetry is – poems… a rueful Lerner concludes.

He cites Keats as coming nearest to resolution of this paradox, but even he cannot finally pull it off – he may suggest the ‘music’ but it can never be played…

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Though there is more to come, this argument already adds conviction to ArtsSocialAction’s own, sustained advice to fellow poets – not to exhaust all their creative energies on a desperate search for the unattainable, high on some imagined Parnassus; but to look where Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison and – earlier – Sappho, Shelley and many another inspired role model has, through history, found a sufficiency of wonders about them to compel the potent spinnings of their muse.

So, when Lerner goes on from his concept of every poem as a record of failure to the even more startling conclusion – that this explains why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing – I begin to sense some pulling of the poetic leg by this self-confessed writer of several collections ! At the very least, there would seem to be a little of that poetic mud here, which Simon Armitage is pledged to dispell .

However, the Lerner thesis was not, even now, fully exposed, and I was delighted, as a welcome antidote to his unattainable poetic dream, to be pitched into the irrepressible William McGonagall’s “ Tay Bridge Disaster ” and – one of my favourite poetic worlds – the Anthologies of Bad Verse (Lerner quotes from ‘Pegasus Descending’ – a ‘ book of the best bad verse’; my own favourite is ‘The Stuffed Owl’ Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, JM Dent 1930).

Lerner’s descent into McGonagall‘s Tay Bridge Disaster is explicitly based on its being “famously considered one of the most thoroughly bad poems ever composed”, a view amply confirmed by his quote (though happily overlooked by McGonagall himself, to our great gain).

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas, I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away…

Yet McGonagall, along-side Lerner’s Keats and Dickinson exemplars…

“makes a place for the genuine by producing a negative image of the Poem we cannot write in time. The very bad, and the great have more in common than the mediocre or OK or even pretty good because they rage against the merely actual, have a perfect contempt for it…”

So since – if I begin to understand this impasse – we can never aspire to write that perfect poem in time, and our best remaining options lie between ‘failing big’ or rivalling Keats, I anticipate heavy bookings for the creative writing school with the most secure franchise on the McGonagall method.

Meanwhile, against historically stiff competition from several past Poets Laureate and Oxford Poetry Professors, I’m gunning for a spot in the next edition of The Stuffed Owl, my much-preferred Anthology of Bad Verse.

(Illustration by by Paul Rainer)

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