Living with poetry

Maybe this is something that happens to all university Presidents, but I frequently get asked to be a member of a judging panel for this and that. On the whole I like to help where I can, but if I have no special knowledge or expertise I do think twice before setting myself up as a judge of quality. So for example, I always turn down requests to be a judge at garden or flower events, since I always kill absolutely anything I plant myself.

However, a little while ago I was asked to be one of the judges in a poetry competition, and as I like poetry (and have attempted to write some) I accepted the invitation. But then I got the entries, and was left wondering what on earth to do with them. As far as I could see, absolutely every one of them was terrible. They were either bits of doggerel where the poets were wrestling with the compulsion to rhyme everything, often really badly, while knocking over all other fundamentals of poetry in the struggle, including meter, imagery, insight and meaning; or they were really somewhat banal prose with unusual line breaks; or they were pretentious abstractions that never really managed to be poetic. But then I decided I just could not judge them, for who was I to say that these were all bad, when I had never published a poem in my life?

In fact, what do we really think poetry is? Is it a verbal or linguistic mechanism that needs to satisfy certain formal requirements to qualify? Does it need to have, or must it not have, any particular function in terms of what it communicates? Indeed, should it communicate in a verbal sense? Is what we regard as poetry mainly a product of our particular culture – in the sense for example that Eastern poetry is different from that of the west? Some questions along these lines are interestingly put on this website. If we were choosing the Oxford Professor of Poetry, what criteria would we employ?

Poetry may be influenced by culture, but it is also something deeply personal. We are affected by it in different ways, and expect different things of it. As for me, I have started to re-read the poems of Philip Larkin, who was in his professional life the Librarian of my former university, the University of Hull; but he is much better known as one of the most recognised English poets of the 20th century. There is something about this man, who was a misanthrope in his personal life but who produced some really deep insights in his verse. If you have never read anything by him, my own favourite poem of his is ‘Church Going‘ (not a religious poem per se, as Larkin was an agnostic).

Of course, you will have your own favourite poets. But for most people, there is a need at some point in our lives to see the poetry in what we experience or long for, and that need is probably something set apart from our rational and objective self. So on the whole, I was probably wrong about all those poems I was asked to judge. Let us all express and appreciate poetry in whatever way works for us. And let us support the poets, whoever they may be. After all, as I have mentioned previously, I greatly admire the work of that wonderful, unique, terrible poet, William McGonagall.

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8 Comments on “Living with poetry”

  1. Aidan Says:

    I think that the BBC deserves a lot of praise in its efforts to bring poetry to life with regular efforts like the current Poetry Season. Unfortunately poetry is somewhat maligned in comparison to the other arts and there are relatively few readers of poetry compared to other forms of literature. Revealing that you write poetry is often met with quite averse reactions but an amateur painter is more likely to encounter encouragement and admiration.
    It is a pity that many people don’t read another poem after leaving school. When you ask an average person what their favourite poem is the will more often than not name a poem from the school syllabus since this is their last reference point. There seems to be a big gap in the educational experience between the final years at school and real life. The idea that one should read poetry autonomously or read a novel in that French you learned at school is an alien concept to a lot of people. It would be great if poetry really were just part of everyday life.
    I live near Leiden and we have poems on walls all over the city (see http://www.muurgedichten.nl), I have often wondered my more cities have not followed Leiden’s example because poetry is all around you here.


    • I agree with your points, Aidan. There are in fact very useful poetry initiatives in Britain – as you say, the BBC, but also Poems on the Underground, for example.

      The problem with the BBC poetry seasons is that in the end they always end with Kipling’s If, which will make me scream if I ever have to hear it again… 🙂

      • Aidan Says:

        Agreed on “If” but amazingly Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning” won the BBC Nation’s Favourite Poem a few years back and that is not exactly a chocolate digestive poem. They have a really nice show now on the BBC called “Off By Heart” where children recite poems they have learned off by heart. In the episode I saw half the kids were bilingual which says quite a lot about the ethnic diversity of Britain and the advantages of growing up bilingual.
        Poems on the underground is another good example, the institions of Britain deserve a clap on the back for their attitude to poetry.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Poems, hmmmm, yes. I was the fellow Aidan was on about. And Greys Elegy was the poem. That was until a saw Dead Poets Society where I cocked my head to one side furrowed my brow and thought maybe.
    A few years later I went to UCG and got my hands on Catullus, Horace and Virgil, along with the Greeks of Asia minor. Guiding me through were the Gentlemen of the Classics Dept’ who encouraged all of us to expand far beyond the reading of the set texts to the Bible, to Japan, China, Russia, India and Egypt. To anyplace anyone and at anytime. They nodded to the Hardiman and said use it.
    Through all this I came to one or two conclusions. The teaching of Poetry in particular, but Lit’ in general during the high school years is very near cultural savagery. And that any Poem sticks is a triumph of Humanity.
    Other conclusions, you need to be in the mood for poetry and the type of poetry. That there are as many different genre as there are people. And stay well the hell away from the self-conscious Poet and no matter how much you crave that coffee, Run, when you see the person pulling the Iliad sized sheaf out of the bag.


  3. Thanks, Vincent. Poetry is in fact really hard to teach, unless you are a poet or have very special insights into poetry. I can still recite dozens of poems from memory, which I suspect very few young people could today.

  4. Vincent Says:

    Thank you too, Ferdinand. Poetry, should not be in the hands of the teachers at all. And I am rapidly arriving to the conclusion that the Language should be handed back to the children also.
    There is not a 4yo on earth who is not a Poet. Who when asked to describe a Daddy-long-legs will use the bit of voice he has and transform it into liquid beauty.
    Then off he goes to school, to be told he is wrong wrong wrong. And be mathematicked into facts. Why cannot grass be blue or orange for that matter, why attempt to put them in a box. Kids speak on what they feel and what they imagine.
    As to the dozens of poems you can remember, what age were you before you came to any sort of understanding of them. And yes it is true some of the very good ones are ageless, or rather they fit to the experience of ones own age, most do not. Catullus, as an instance, there is little point in giving him to teenagers, his meat is for later.

  5. backwatersman Says:

    Hope you don’t mind a comment from someone who’s come across this blog quite randomly, but one of the few poems I had to learn by heart at school (in Latin) was actually by Catullus – “Vivamus mea Lesbia atque Amemus” etc. – I must have been 12 or 13 at the time. Given at a little prompting I can still recite most of it now, and I do think some of it – “una nox dormienda” – did make quite a deep impression on me at the time.

    I’m not sure what this proves – perhaps that the compulsory teaching of Latin and learning poetry by heart is a good way of expanding the horizons of 12 year olds? Perhaps not.


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