Posted tagged ‘Philip Larkin’

Living with poetry

May 26, 2009

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.