As the Saison Poetry Library celebrates its 60th birthday with a series of Autumn events at the Southbank Centre, I got to wondering as to the relevance of poetry in the modern era.
As a writer, reader and lover of poetry it worries me when I hear people saying that “poems are just a jumble of words”, or when they describe them as “pointless”. I think a hatred of poetry stems from a forced learning at school, in much the same way as a fear or separation from Shakespeare occurs. The deep analysis of the words and their meanings often creates a sense of frustration, disillusionment and trepidation within the young and this can easily travel into adulthood. This dread of poetry often stops people enjoying language at its most descriptive and passionate.
Being bogged down by form, content and context can often lead one away from the heart and soul of the piece. Despite an educators best attempts, they will never persuade me that every time pen is put to paper – planning, preparation and thought occurs. In my experience writers create before considering, and consider before editing, trimming and tidying…should it be necessary.
“Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers yellow’d with their age
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.”
Sonnet 17. William Shakespeare
Hundreds of books have been written on how one should go about analysing a Shakespearian sonnet; proving that not only do they want us to delve deep but they want to tell us how to do it. Most of these books will give rather broad brushstrokes followed by intricate details i.e. Examine The Literary Devices – seek out alliteration, antithesis, enjambment, oxymoron’s etc.
The idea of this analysis is obviously to teach different forms but it is well known that Elizabethan writers, amongst others, paid little attention to literary devices and neither did early editors. So, the deconstruction of a sonnet allows us to understand the literature in a postmodern theoretical sense but allows little insight into the passion and power of the words. Shakespeare was first and foremost a playwright (Hamlet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing) therefore much of his writing can be brought to life more rapidly by performance, including his sonnets and poems. A reading, rehearsed or otherwise, might allow people to access the words and meaning (as they individually see it) far easier than by noting down every dropped consonant. Of course, a knowledge of the history of words and their definitions is sometimes necessary, particularly if there are words that are no longer in common parlance but is there such a thing as a right or wrong view?
To me Shakespeare has lost none of his relevance as the themes and issues he dealt with in his lifetime are still present today. Love, anger, vengeance, jealousy, greed and sex are part of everyone’s psyche. This of course doesn’t mean that you have to like or enjoy his works or, for that matter, even appreciate them. So does Shakespeare help make poetry relevant? To a degree his works will always be understood, but time ages and distances individuals as more recent and current pieces appear.
When talking about John Keats, Andrew Motion once described his works as “Astounding, contemporary-seeming brilliance and deep wisdom.” So a poet whose most well known and appreciated works were written between 1817 and 1820 can be described as ‘contemporary-seeming’. Keats has managed to stay viewed as current even though his works were written nearly 200 hundred years ago.
“The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead.
That is the Grasshopper’s – he takes the lead
In summer luxury, – he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun,
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.”
On The Grasshopper and Cricket by John Keats
Written at the age of 21 “On The grasshopper and Cricket” stand out as a reason why Keats is still accessible. A love of nature remains almost unchanged – the appreciation and warmth a person might feel from hearing a cricket’s song is the same in 2013 as it would be in 1817 and as it will be in 2099. Keats, unlike Shakespeare, used often simplistic and basic imagery paired with a romance and youthful exuberance which shone through his poems.
The public also seem to have a close affection for a tragic story, for instance the idealistic tragedy attached to “The 27 Club” – singers and musicians who have died at the age of 27. This could be the same with Keats as he died in poverty and obscurity aged only 25. His short but brilliant life became the subject of a film in 2009, Bright Star, which catapulted his works back into the spotlight and thankfully back into schools. However back into schools might eventually mean back onto the shelves of time collecting nothing but dust, and reams of analytical studies, theories and dissections. His tombstone reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
Other poets whose resonance can still be felt, in my opinion, include William Blake (Songs of Innocence & Experience) and T.S. Eliot (Rhapsody on a Windy Night).
What about poets of more recent times? Is there still a place for them in the world of today?
Wilfred Owen was an English soldier who was killed in action aged just 25 in 1918…he also happened to be a poet who, like most, wrote about his experiences. In much the same way as Siegfried Sassoon, Owen wrote about his knowledge of warfare, his understanding of the horrors of the trenches and of the reality of the situation he and his comrades faced. His poems heavily contrasted the vividly glorious picture painted by the media…he revealed what was happening in The Great War.
In the case of Owen, and many like him, it is the honesty and seeming integrity which still strikes a chord. The pain of war doesn’t change though its techniques and armoury may. His stirring descriptions could be used to portray almost any war situation since World War I. Similar to Keats, his own tragic story softens the reader to his words. He wrote about warfare, he lived through warfare, he fought in the war and he died at the hands of war.
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Sylvia Plath remains one of the most fascinating characters in literature, I’m sure many of you saw her portrayed by Nicole Kidman in ‘The Hours’, and her poetry stands amongst the finest ever written. Plath had suffered from depression most of her adult life, something that is a common theme throughout her works which almost all of us can relate to. Like cancer, depression touches everyone on some level, knowing someone who suffers, has suffered or may have suffered yourself. Her modern turn of phrase and incisive perceptiveness make her easy for ‘non-believers’ to appreciate.
In the following poem, there is perhaps a hint of Plath’s own depression, her own image seen in the looking glass and even a cry for help. This emotive response to her work is far more important to me. The visceral response rather than the critical captures more and ensures relevance beyond a simple textual understanding and allows all readers to be captured by her work.
“I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful ‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”
Mirror by Sylvia Plath
Plath remains a figure of intrigue not only because of her works but because of he life story itself – she was married to another great poet of the 20th Century, Ted Hughes. She committed suicide (1963) aged 30 just six months after separating from Hughes. Hughes remarried. His second wife also took her own life…leading to much speculation about whether Hughes was ever cruel to them both. In 2009, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Nicholas, committed suicide aged just 47. This tragic story could be the inspiration for their words…but we’ll never really know. We are just lucky that we have them in our homes and not hidden away unread.
Other modern poets who have inspired me and encourage my belief (yes, I’m a believer) that poetry is still relevant, important and vital to the survival of the English language are William Wordsworth, Sir John Betjeman, William H. Davies, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Judith Wright.
Nowadays there is a tendency for people to view poetry as overly romantic or torturously serious, which just isn’t true. Shakespeare and Betjeman both used comedy to fine effect to convey their points. Sometimes comedy is taken to the hilarious and absurd. The great comic, actor, writer and poet Spike Milligan made humour seem effortless when on our radios or our screens, but he could do the same in his poetry, which much like his humour was eccentric and a form of “controlled madness”.
“Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee,
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?”
A Silly Poem by Spike Milligan
“On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can’t catch ’em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong
is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!”
The Ning Nang Nong by Spike Milligan
Milligan’s marvellous wit still leaps of the page with unrivalled fearlessness and craziness. This makes it easy for anyone to enjoy these works, from childhood to adulthood – his works can come with us all. Some of his works are more complex and can be viewed critically (just take a look online and see the amount of pieces written about his works) but one can take pleasure in their simple charm which is how I like to think he wrote them. No thrills, no examination – just creative thoughts and a blank piece of paper waiting to be filled.
Another famed star whose works have a dark, gruesome appeal is Tim Burton, the genius behind Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas. In one of his collections, The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, Burton brings to life a group of bizarre, unusual, macabre children and exposes, in a sympathetic ultra-modern way, the difficulties of adolescence and of being an outcast, a misunderstood citizen. These poems are accompanied by brilliant illustrations that are as essential to the poetry as the words themselves. The characters are brought to life, and the grisly impact is widened.
“Her skin is white cloth,
and she’s all sewn apart
and she has many colored pins
sticking out of her heart.
She has a beautiful set
of hypno-disk eyes,
the ones that she uses
to hypnotise guys.
She has many different zombies
who are deeply in her trance.
She even has a zombie
who was originally from France.
But she knows she has a curse on her,
a curse she cannot win.
For if someone gets
too close to her,
the pins stick farther in.”
Voodoo Girl by Tim Burton
“‘The time has come’, the walrus said” to talk of one of the giants of poetry today. Born in 1955 in Scotland, she has gone on to become one of the most well-known and most publically taught and loved poets of all time. In 2009 when she became Poet Laureate (a post she still holds) she was the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly LGBT person to ever do so. I am talking about Carol Ann Duffy.
She and her work have been described respectively as “witty, penetrating and lucid”, “poems of beautiful lyricism”, “extraordinary verbal power, cutting scepticism, vivid compassion and humour”, “a genuine and original poet”, “a sense of life as it is lived now”, “brilliantly idiosyncratic and subtle”, “a fresh voice…a dexterity with language”, “effortless”, “current” and “spectacular”.
Her collections from Mean Time to Rapture and The World’s Wife to Feminine Gospels all display her skill as a poet. She is a technician. But she clearly writes from the heart with no need to overstate a point but a “tell it like it is” attitude to form, content and context. The reader is grabbed not by a critical view but the feeling of association with ones own life. She is speaking about the modern world for the modern person to the modern reader.
She is taught extensively in Secondary Schools and at Universities…which may have a similar effect to Shakespeare etc…future generations will not be allowed to simply enjoy her writings. However, she may be the one exception – she is being taught in her time and being shown to be part of her time. Her clever retelling of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” is a joy to read. It keeps the traditional fairytale Christmas spirit alive but with modern references that children (and adults) of today could understand. Young parents would more than likely find a better common ground with her re-telling (‘Another Night Before Christmas’) than with Moore’s original.
In Carol Ann Duffy’s retelling, Santa has just come somewhat noisily down the chimney into the room where the little girl is sleeping,
“All this noise woke the child who had fallen asleep,
so she popped up her head and made sure she could peep
(without being seen) at whoever it was
who stood in the fireplace. Big Wow! Santa Claus!
Though she lived in age where celebrity ruled
and when most of the people were easily fooled
by TV and fashion, by money and cars,
this little girl knew that here was a real STAR!”
Taken from “Another Night Before Christmas” by Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy’s collection, Rapture, featured a series of poems on the subject of love – in essence it is one long love-poem. It is more complex than that as, through her knowledge of poetry and her natural urge to get the words out and to express, she creates a world of lust, compassion, infatuation, separation, grief – every stage of love, from it’s awkward beginnings to it’s sometimes sad demise, are expressed clearly, succinctly and beautifully. Below is my favourite poem from the collection:
“I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.
Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.
I like the questions – sugar? – milk? –
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.
Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say
but it’s any tea for you, please, any time of day,
as the women harvest the slopes
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.”
Tea by Carol Ann Duffy
Her power as a writer is her ability to reach out and touch anyone who reads her works; writing with the same verve and tenaciousness whether for children, teens, young adults, middle-aged or the elderly. Like all good writers time and age are no barriers to the words on the page. Many adults enjoyed the works of Roald Dahl and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many children enjoy the works of Duffy – even the ones not aimed at them.
Is poetry relevant? Does poetry have a place in the world today? For me the answer is simple. Yes. It may not be for everyone, but for everyone there is something to be held precious and that is the freedom to express through whatever medium you choose.
Poetry is alive and well on the internet with many sites devoted to letting people post their poetry and get comments and views. Type in ‘Love Poems’ into a search engine and you will be inundated by famous poems, new poems and unfamiliar gems that sparkle in the sea of words.
My advice is to get out there and read some poetry – you never know it just might change your life.
“Sifted like flour,
I’ve been removed from the good,
Discovered as bad,
Waited for hours,
‘Neath the cover of the hood,
Torn, lonely and sad.”
The Burden Of Ostracism by Simon Clark
“Not as a possession,
Not as a prize,
But as a lover,
Here at your side.
Yes, I want you for always,
Want you for life,
Not as your keeper,
Nor as your wife.
Don’t mean to sound needy,
Don’t want this to change,
Just being true.
Yes, I want you always,
Want you to know,
I’ll be your safety,
And watch us grow.
Yes, I want you always,
Here in my heart,
As lovers and friends,
Finish to start.”
Want You Always by Simon Clark