To write the obituary of poetry may seem premature and, indeed, reckless, but most of us cannot recall when we last read any poetry. If an individual has been missing for a sufficient number of years, we safely conclude that he is no longer with us. It would, consequently, be legitimate to infer the demise of poetry from our prolonged estrangement.
But how do we reconcile its fugitive memory with the fact of its proliferation? For the fact cannot be denied. There’s poetry, poetry everywhere! But like that other plenitude celebrated in a justly famous work, we cannot quaff an iota of this saline outpouring. For the fact of its salinity cannot be denied, either. Most poetry today is indigestible, to vary the metaphor.
Therefore, I read with unwonted pleasure in newspapers that there was to be a poetry reading session in the city. My pleasure was transient; the announcement was followed by another, like the death of a baby following its birth. There was to be a poetry workshop! The word ‘workshop’ has a sufficiently industrial connotation to put the lover of craftsmanship on his guard. A workshop denotes a place where there is hammering, chiseling, a liberal use of screwdrivers...output. In economics, when output exceeds demand, inventories pile up and producers cut back on production and lay off workers (a fate that may soon befall the biggest economy of all). But poetry is not economics, and poets are not workers, and poems are not widgets. And, as a poet put it, ‘there’s the rub’!
It is true that the industrial workshop isn’t what it used to be. The assembly line perfected by Henry Ford has yielded to more creative teamwork. We are told by management gurus that a Ford Mondeo is produced by a team, not a robotic herd individually bolting bits and pieces to produce a car they will never recognise as their own workmanship. But, still, a Mondeo is not a sonnet.
The plethora of output that is checked by a lack of demand in the economic sphere has no corresponding mechanism in the poetic. It is almost the definition of a poet that he or she will continue to produce irrespective of the reception, if any, their work invites. Sometimes poets are killed by, or kill themselves because of, the reception, or the lack of it – Keats and Davidson, respectively, spring to mind. However, in the past they were unable to obtrude into the public domain, which was part of their tragedy and enduring charm.
Today, poets are their own producers and consumers. This inbreeding has had the consequence that it does in human reproduction. We have a lot of inane and incomprehensible gibbering and exchange going on. But since the industry produces for its own, the industry calls the gibberish, well, poetry. The man in the street, you and I, those ancient consumers, are left baffled, ignored. Can we be held responsible if we consider a Mondeo a sonnet under these circumstances? At least Jac Nasser showed some respect for our likes and dislikes!
Creative writing courses have created an industry in which the output is poetry and the consumers are poets, students and teachers. Where at one time you might have had a great poet intimately familiar with the workings of the human heart, today you have writers who are intimately familiar with what his colleagues think is great poetry. We could call it the Sovietisation of poetry, if you like. Just as the Soviets produced output that no one cared about, which no one wanted, but which satisfied officials and bureaucrats, so today we have poetry no one cares for, but which satisfies the official poets. Technique has replaced soul; sheer linguistic dexterity passes for genius!
Of course, the tendency towards technical sophistication has been evident throughout the twentieth century. The creative writing course was but its logical culmination. And it is no accident that the twentieth century has been the century of The Prize: the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize ... the Nobel Prize. When a writer wins a Nobel, one can be fairly certain that his work is incomprehensible. Adjudication by ‘experts’ has replaced individual taste. One finds it remarkable that a democratic age should tolerate such deference to the opinion of a secretive coterie ensconced in a country that sees no sunlight for six moths of the year!
It may be retorted that expert judgement conduces to excellence. If so, then the poet laureates of the past should all be immortal today. And yet how many poet laureates can one recall? Southey was poet laureate, but not his friend Coleridge; and who reads Southey today? On one or two occasions, the choice of laureate was felicitous; Tennyson, for instance. But how many of these ‘official poets’ survived ‘the night in which suns perished’. And the day is not too far off when these various book prizes will degenerate into another Turner prize, the award for best artwork of the year. “Mother and child’ no longer means ‘Madonna and the infant Jesus’ but a cow and calf preserved in formaldehyde!
Therefore, it was with a heavy heart that I read about a poetry workshop – the first of its kind, I was informed - in Bangladesh. Our intelligentsia are already so divorced from the obvious and the ordinary, that any further encouragement along these lines cannot fail to have an insalubrious effect. If I want poetry to lift up my spirits, whom do I read? Hardly any of the modern and none of the contemporary poets. I pick up Shelley’s Epipsychidion, the greatest love poem ever penned in the English language. To describe it as a love poem is an affront to Shelley (and to Mrs. Shelley, with whom Shelley was very much in love, though she was not the subject of the poem); he has so widened and universalised the meaning of love as to render it, rather, a hymn to the human spirit.
Can any amount of technique scale such heights? Poetry can no more die than that the memory of a great man can be forgotten. But when he has been reported to the Missing Person’s Bureau and has not been found in a hundred years, we can conclude that he is no longer among the living.
Requiescat in pace.