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.


Where is poetry heading?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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Comments

By R.J.R. Stickland
on

I am not an expert on poetry, but I know what I like and I know very well what I dislike. Poetry to me should ensure the end of lines rhyme, and the meaning of the poem should be understandable. What I dislike, and soon stop reading, is poetry where there are no rhymes, and where it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is the meaning of the poem.

By David Mitchell
on

The college and university alumnae magazines regularly feature a poetry section and I have made these observations before without getting any reaction. A high proportion of the entries are, essently, prose. They lack any of the characteristics normally associated with poetry, such as rhyme and metre. Typically, they try to be unprosaic in the words used and the grammatical structure. They also introduce odd line lengths, apparently to give a visual appearance of poetry. When put to the test of being written without the artificial line endings, they are indistinguishable from pompous prose!

Another characteristic of these "poems" is that they are mostly contributed by professors and lecturers in poetry. In my view they are examples of "the Emperor has no clothes". They LOOK like poetry, but poetry is not a visual art form. They don't SOUND like poetry. Achieving that effect takes work, but the pseudo-poetic prose can be dashed off easily and quickly. Throw in some long words, odd grammar and strange line endings and you might persuade some people that you're a poet.

Poetry MUST be defined by aural characteristics, mainly rhyme and metre. Of course these don't necessarily make GOOD poetry but that's the next step up. Limericks and doggerel may not be professorial material, but they ARE poetry. The point about memorizing is vital as is the one about reciting or singing. I can remember almost every poem I ever learned, even in Latin and Greek, but not so with prose, and this is due to rhyme and metre. Let us please get away from the pseudery and clothe the Emperor!

By Duncan Jones
on

Recitals are a a great opportunity to hear poetry and experience it in a different way from reading. However, doesn't a poem need to stand on its own merits and not be propped up by recitation? I hear a lot of lazy poetry; poetry where the poet has made little effort in composition but can sell it to an audience by his emphases. Making your words sounds significant is skill, but an oratory, not a poetic one.

By RH Findlay
on

The SCR

. . .
Who amongst us
marching forth with that brazen trump
of alphabetical management
has not reinvented revisions of verbosity;
that glow-worm pomposity
of our citation index?
. . .

From: Mosquito Bites Back and Other Poems, by H. Shaw

Ah well, I suppose that the ends of these lines don't rhyme. Shakespeare often had the same problem, as did TS Elliot's obscurantist and arrogant poem, "The Wasteland". Ezra Pound seemed to suffer from similar difficulties, from time to time. Robert Burns is fun, though.

By RH Findlay
on

And as a PS I forgot to add that poetry is not always written in English. Whilst by no means a fluent speaker of Vietnamese, some Vietnamese poetry is delightful, especially when the author deliberately changes the tonal marking/enunciation of some of the words; Vietnamese has 6 tones, not to mention subtle changes in vowel sounds, which leaves the poet in the delightful position of being able to pun in several ways, and seemingly frequently in such a manner as to make the classically vulgar British seaside postcard blush red to its ears. Now THAT is poetry! In English poetry humour and satire are too often neglected, Edward Lear being a shining exception.

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