As arrangements for the election of Oxford’s next Professor of Poetry are announced, a practising poet suggests the new incumbent should forget books and listen.
By Paul Gittins (Exeter College, 1964)
The direction of modern poetry should not be viewed solely as the prerogative of academia. To see where it is going, you need to take into account who is actually going to read or listen to it. The most accurate and immediate way to gauge preferences is the poetry recital. And the truth revealed by poetry recitals is straightforward: an audience that does not understand what is being said, or cannot keep up with it, is not going to like what it hears.
Poems that use the time-honoured techniques of verse are more likely to be chosen for recitation — they are easier to remember. That’s the finding of Debbie Pullinger, who is leading research into poetry and memory at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Rhyme, metre, stanzaic form — all these help to organise a poem, to give it shape and definition, and so make it easier both to learn and to follow. Of course, traditional technique need be no guarantee of quality. A limerick may be easy to remember, but what more can it be? The findings of the Poetry and Memory Project, however, do point up the direction of interest from the public.
This preference is backed up by sales figures from The Bookseller. They show that the traditional titles drive the market, and small publishers who mainly publish free verse make up a comparatively small proportion of sales. Market forces obviously play a dominant part in what is published. But they do not dominate in academia — hence a more rarefied approach to poetry there, and a resulting divide between pundits and public.
The situation is exemplified by Geoffrey Hill, the outgoing Oxford Professor of Poetry, who is happy to admit that his own poetry is difficult and, with a perverse sense of humour, maintains that difficult poems are ‘the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings’.
Much of the blame for this diffuseness in modern poetry can be attributed to T S Eliot and his view that ‘poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. . . . The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect’ — as if there had never been complexity before his era!
Such rarefied attitudes to poetry are at odds with the findings of the Poetry and Memory Project. Its online mission statement contends: ‘If, as most poets and scholars argue, poems communicate meaning fundamentally through sound, it would seem that to replace performance of a poem with talk about that poem must be to lose something vital.’ This stress on recitation is reflected, too, in the Poetry By Heart project, in which school children compete in reciting two poems (one pre-1914, one post-1914), with a prize for the winner. Meanwhile, the wisdom from the online audio-only Poetry Archive, which is serving up a wealth of poetry recordings to some 250,000 users each month, is that recitation is ‘growing very rapidly as the preferred audience encounter’.
Memorisation and recitation of poetry were ‘once inscribed in British education and woven into the fabric of cultural life’, to quote the Poetry and Memory Project again. The next Oxford Professor of Poetry would do well to get out and about, encouraging appreciation of poetry at all levels, especially at schools — so that these rich and powerful arts can once again be a feature of our lives, yet inscribed with enthusiasm rather than by dry didacticism. Then the future for poetry in the growing area of popular recitation should be assured.
Paul Gittins’ Scratching Around: Selected Poems is published by Editions Illador (2014) in English and bilingual English–French editions.
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