"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.”
Most poetry readers tend to be time travellers....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 occasion for this piece musing on the future and meaning of modern poetry? The annual TS Eliot Prize, awarded last week for the best collection of new verse published in the UK or Ireland to Scottish nature poet Jen Hadfield for her Canadian travelogue, Nigh-No-Place. Her joins Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as winners of the award..
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”.... 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.
Exam passing is part of the system that tests and rewards literal rather than lateral thinking. Poetry is lateral thinking, sound, rhythm, powerful language pushing the envelope as Octavio Paz explained it - but still ludic, capable of play, language at play in the fields of the human. Turning this into fodder for exams and explications effectively shuts it away far more effectively than censorship, How much greater and irresistible the pull were if the turned off only knew how sublimely subversive and wildly alive it is.