On poetry

I have a terrible confession. When I stumbled upon news of UA Fanthorpe's death a couple of weeks ago, I had to stifle a little cheer. Not because I'm some hideous bitch who delights in the death of others (though there may be some truth to this, given my reaction), but because she can produce no more poetry. It's an easy get-out to say the texts we study in school are destroyed for us forever, but even now I occasionally flick through a book of Fanthorpe poetry in a bookshop and am struck by how predictable she is. Poetry should surprise. She does not.

As an exercise for A Level, we had to write a poem in her style. And it was so, ridiculously, easy to satirise. Take an everyday object, throw in a couple of references to mythology, a few flowery descriptive phrases, a turn of wry humour, let your sentences run on to the middle of the next line and end it by bringing it back to death. I wish I'd kept my poem, but I burnt it along with the photocopies of her poems on results day. I chose a pier to be my subject, Victorian and derelict, once filled with life and now a reminder to us all of how things pass. I can't remember how I got the mythology in there, but I do remember using the phrase "(Wrought iron filigree.)", in brackets, stylised just like that, after talking about the railings. (You probably need some familiarity with her poems to get that one.) I could never get over the feeling that surely there were poets out there we could be studying, poets who didn't return to the same damn themes over and over and over again and yet never manage to say anything new. (Browsing the LRB's shelves this afternoon I came across a collection from 2003, still mining the hospital waiting room theme.)

Mnnngh. Anyway. I've been considering bad poetry, or at least poetry that winds me up, for several weeks, prompted by a poem on the underground:

Menna Elfyn (in memory of Stephanie Macleod)

They have their place, accessories
earrings, the odd necklace,
gemstone bracelets…
and yet, it’s from the soft inner depth
we work the brooch of our lives,
that jewelled keepsake set to outlast us.

Yours, it was a brooch ablaze –
the passion-crafted clasp,
the light chain to keep it safe; 

others, now, will wear your brooch –
this jewel fashioned from a golden hear
It will catch the sun. It will dazzle us.

From my Fanthorpe sneering you can probably guess my feelings about a poem that oh, takes an everyday object and ends up talking about death. It's perhaps unfair – perhaps my extensive exposure to UA Fanthorpe has been an innoculation against this vein of poetry. But when I read "and yet, it's from the soft inner depth / we work the brooch of our lives" I wanted to leap up from my seat and scribble 'tortured metaphor' across the poster. Can poetry do no better than this?

Of course it can. Thank you, BBC, for the Poetry Season. I've been looking for video clips of Lauren Laverne and Phill Jupitus doing their little trails because their performances make the poems live – particularly Jupitus, who makes a jar of honey sound melancholy, when the words themselves don't perhaps suggest so much. And while you may question the populist approach of getting slebs to read poetry in the trailers, another trailer that features Simon Armitage confirms the wisdom of the approach. Don't get me wrong: I love Simon Armitage. All Points North is one of my favourite books, but his voice is so soft and inoffensive and ineffectual that I find it hard to focus on the words when he does a reading. Back when he appeared on the late night Mark Radcliffe Radio 1 show (god, we're back to A Levels again) it was his banter with Mark, rather than the poetry, that made me warm to him. Not all writers are equipped to read their own material, no matter how deeply they might feel it in their souls. Sorry, Simon.

In case you wondered what the Laverne and Jupitus poems are, I've dug them out from the corners of the interweb and here they are for your delight (I suspect I may be breaking Jacob Polley's copyright, but Keats is long dead so hey).

On leaving some Friends at an early Hour
John Keats
Give me a golden pen, and let me lean   
On heap’d up flowers, in regions clear, and far;   
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,   
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen   
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,   
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,   
And half discovered wings, and glances keen.   
The while let music wander round my ears,   
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,   
And full of many wonders of the spheres:   
For what a height my spirit is contending!   
’Tis not content so soon to be alone.

A Jar of Honey
Jacob Polley

You hold it like a lit bulb,
a pound of light,
and swivel the stunned glow
around the fat glass sides:
it's the sun, all flesh and no bones
but for the floating knuckle
of honeycomb
attesting to the nature of the struggle.


4 responses to “On poetry

  1. Kate May 24, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Really? I thought the BBC poetry stuff was crass, patronising and mediocre.
    Does Andrew Flintoff care if you understand what silly-mid-off is? Poetry is constructed around a series of rules, half-rules, guides and contours, an incredibly complex set of cultural signifiers and references. If you don’t know the rules of cricket, it will make no sense to you. Ditto Fanthorpe, perhaps?
    One potential response: I know what I like (and I like what I know).
    Or maybe it’s worth trying to find out what made Fanthorpe so well respected among those who know the rules?

  2. Rachel May 25, 2009 at 12:36 am

    Oh, I know what the guardians of poetry liked about her. I chose to forcefully disagree at the time and on the occasions when I’ve run into her since I’ve seen no reason to modify that opinion.
    I also hate Dickins too; just because a writer is respected doesn’t mean they resonate for everyone.

  3. Kate May 25, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Dickens is fantastic though.

  4. Kate May 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    … but arguably Trollope had a better grasp of the cynicism of power-politics. ‘The Way We Live Now’ says so much about … well, the way we live now I guess is what I’m suggesting.

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