Poetry, like song, is as old as human speech. Perhaps song is even older, a hark to community from pre-Homo sapiens; cadences without words but yet full of meaning. The first stories were carried in memory and poetry lends itself to memory with its rhythms and word chimes. It’s no accident that much ancient religious text is poetic. By the time we come to recorded history poetry can morph into a written medium and lend itself to many forms: romance; political rabble rousing; humour; religion; ballads of deeds gone by. All with their audience, their place, their time, their passion.
Our urge to create art, to communicate, to be something more than ourselves fights back against mass media, slick promotions and accepted norms. This is what art does. It is what art has always done: it sets out culture and, at the same time, it challenges culture. Meanwhile it’s all become big business. Music is a huge boost to the British economy; Ed Sheeran brings in millions.
Even poetry is big business. Not usually in book sales or reading fees but in workshops, training and, above all, in academic settings: preschool picture books; SATs; cultural studies; languages; literature; creative writing MAs and PhDs.
In the early Twentieth Century the imagists disagreed with the Georgians; the Dymock crowd did their own thing despite Eliot and the war poets captured horror that moves us still. Poetry movements and manifestos proliferated.
These days new poetry book sales are small – a few hundred units if we are lucky; an ad showing on the telly, perhaps – but poetry’s influence extends far beyond its sale units. While academic poetry studies the cannon (all too often great white men chosen by white men who would like to join their ranks) and the “best” of the new (see previous brackets though women are now allowed) the swamps beyond our ivory towers bubble up all kinds of poetics. Because poetry is still the most basic of the arts. It’s still something that is in our brainstems and our guts. It’s something a lot of us post on the internet and take to local cafes or pubs to share with others of a like mind.
Poetry and song. Pop pap vs hip hop and rap. A mainstream that plays for money. An unashamed search for emotional punch, crowd-pleasing, ego-teasing, obliging or the opposite: defiant.
Punks and ranters telling it in the eighties – Attila the Stockbroker, Seething Wells – and still telling it now but maybe in rap – Kate Tempest, Dreadlock Alien.
We laugh it when it’s out of tune, amateur and uncertain. Kids singing karaoke in their bedrooms; Grandad reciting If at the Christmas party. We denigrate it when it sells. Anything that sells must have sold out, right? It only feels “authentic” if it’s edgy and on the edge; Ed Sheeran is embarrassing rubbish. Hollie McNish is crap. We can see where they’re coming from. It looks easy.
Try it: it isn’t.
Ed Sheeran learned guitar very young and sang in his church choir from the age of four. He was already writing songs in Middle School and recording them when he was in his early teens. He made use of social media and home tech to record, network and collaborate with other young musicians. He helped others who helped him. He worked and then worked some more. A combination of talent, creativity, sociability, hard practice, skill and, above all determination, carried him to his breakthrough album at only twenty. Whether or not you like his music he knows exactly how to grab his audience and carry them.
Would you send an opera expert to review a Sheeran gig for an opera magazine? Would you even mention a new Ed Sheeran album in an opera magazine? No. So why is academic magazine PN Review setting a determinedly classical poet to review a new book by Hollie McNish? The resulting embarrassment and upset all round was foreseeable, surely. The review is utterly inappropriate at best and, at its vilest, vilifies the poet and her audience not just the book.
I’ve been writing poetry for fifteen years now (and reading it since childhood) but I am what Patterson labels as amateur (2004 TS Eliot lecture). As I asked at the time, how does one become a poetry apprentice? By taking a degree tutored by him?
And now he’s done a volte face, blurbing McNish’s Plum.
I’m coming at this from a rarefied corner, perhaps. I am an academic by training but in science not the arts. I am working class and middle class, depending on mood (my gran went into service aged 12 but I went to uni and worked at Cambridge and Stanford). I love well-crafted, intelligent poetry – page poetry, though I always read it aloud to myself – and I love a good performance, too.
Above all, if you are reviewing something you hate but others apparently love, try to work out what it is you lack, rather than denigrating its wider audience’s lack of taste, education and intelligence.