Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures given while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on ‘clarity and obscurity’, the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here).

After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for written intros, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the modern tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – is an attempt by poets to recreate the kind of enigma which form previously provided.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the examples of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only someone ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all.

What, Armitage asks, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information? And what does that say about our responsibilities as readers?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, one of my favourite poems full stop, describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image.

That image, The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

I think the questions Armitage is raising are important ones, although, like him, I am not clear about the answers. There are no universal references, but poetry cannot be a private language.

I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that), or find a reproduction.


NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture

Tweeting Ourselves to Death

I was once part of a large, discussion-based event for secondary school students, where the organisers (myself included) tasked the participants with discussing whether social media was bad or good for the world. The arguments they came up with were, as you might expect, varied and nuanced, and, when they drafted them, pretty much fifty-fifty.

But when it came to putting the motion to a vote, the room was overwhelmingly in favour of “good for the world”. Judging by their presentations, and the general mood, the participants had clocked that the question implied a kind of judgement on their own lives, of which social media was simply a fact, offered by older generations that thought it was still somehow optional.

Literature is full of pessimistic prophecies about the future of society and culture, or the destruction of the planet. These judgements are frequently issued with good reason and they often come true. But the more they hit home, the more condescending they feel. Philip Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’, for instance, with its vision of ‘England, gone’, buried underneath motorways and service stations: most of my life has been spent driving around motorways, stopping at service stations. I am the ‘crowd at the M1 café.’

Concrete is one thing. When culture is involved, the judgement feels even more personal. I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1984 polemic about the effect of television on public life, for the first time. His argument, the general gist of which feels undeniable, is that television’s ubiquity, in the US especially, has changed how we see the world, and not just on TV: everything is entertainment and context is irrelevant.

Postman is remarkably open about judging the present by the standards of the past. In brief, his thesis is that nineteenth century America was an exceptionally print-based culture, which in turn meant rational argument had a genuine purchase on public life in a way it no longer does. By his reckoning, audience members at political debates in the US at that time would happily sit through up to seven hours of back and forth, often over dry, technical issues. You do not get Boris Johnson or Donald Trump without television, and they are just the surface.  

I say remarkably open, because, if Postman is right, by now the thinking apparatus of almost everyone on earth is seriously fried and no one wants to hear that.1 When a technology is as constitutive of culture as television was (according to Postman) in the late twentieth-century, or as social media is today, anything positive or exciting will either be indirectly associated with that technology, or happen through it. Because that is where people are.

So, I can understand why the students would interpret the question “is social media good or bad for the world?” as a referendum, not on social media, but on ‘the past’ vs ‘the present’. And if you are going to be the ones living in the present, self-respect means there is only one answer. No one wants to think of their lives as someone else’s dystopia.


1 The reason Postman’s argument is convincing, to me, is that it is more subtle than that joke implies. It does not rely on any quasi-scientific, and probably unfalsifiable, argument about the damage TV does to our brains: it is a question of what modes of representation – what standards of truth – we are most used to. Similarly, a lot of the debate about what social media does to our attention spans is irrelevant, however close to the bone: the question is what it does to our expectations.

The Long Haul

For reasons not unknown, but entirely arbitrary, I read two epic poems for the first time recently: Milton’s Paradise Lost and Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night. It wasn’t my first stab at Paradise Lost: we had ‘done’ the first two books for A Level (most of the term was spent trying to get the class to comprehend the plot by turning it into a story board). But we weren’t expected to read the rest, and I rarely go beyond expectations.

I rarely read an ‘epic’, let alone a really lengthy poem, either. Much longer than a page is usually a reason to skip a poem in a book that is new to me. I am pretty confident I am not alone in this. Most readers have no idea what to expect from poetry, but even the few of us who might have a sense of what we are looking for, are usually looking for something like a lyric: a modest shape on the page which, as Robert Frost put it, begins in delight, and ends in wisdom. Ends quickly, he might have added (Frost’s own longer poems are not his best loved, perhaps unfairly).

Epics are another thing entirely. Stories written to be recounted, although more than stories: fables, myths, almost arguments. It might seem obvious, but what struck me about these poems was not just the sound, but the relentlessness of that sound. Line after line after of blank verse or alliteration. And all that space, meaning the imagery and the ideas, the repetitions, and the contrasts, build up and interlace across the huge chunks of verse, yet wound more tightly than a novel.

I enjoyed both Gawain and Paradise Lost a lot, though it took me two holidays to finally finish the latter. The form is so unfamiliar. Even putting aside the language, you are not likely to have come across a thing like it unless you studied English or a classical language at university. And by then, for most people, it is probably already too late. It is not a poem. It is not a novel. It is something else.

The form is unfamiliar. It had also, to my mind, which is invariably instrumentalist, been superseded by other types of writing. If you want narratives, there are novels. If you want language, lyrics. Argument, philosophy. And that relentlessness of sound, that was partly a way of helping the recounter remember the thing. What purpose does the epic serve in a text-based culture?

I find it hard to think of a future where long poems (let alone epics) don’t remain rare occurrences or largely academic interests. But what purpose does a novel serve? Or a poem? By holding longer poems to a standard I don’t hold any other kind of writing, I was just giving myself an excuse not to read them.


1 The thing is there are plenty of long poems, if not epics, I know I like a lot: Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wendy Cope’s The River Girl, which is one of the best things she’s done. But when I think ‘what do I want to read next’, it is never ‘a really long poem’.

Throwing it all away

The other day the philosopher (you can be one of those) Julian Baggini wrote an article which annoyed a lot of people on the internet. The title – ‘Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?’ – probably didn’t help, nor did the screenshot circulating on Twitter, where Baggini wondered whether “the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read.”

In fact, most of the article was dedicated to a survey of all the other perfectly good reasons someone (or, at least, Baggini, his friends and his acquaintances) might have for keeping a book: as a reference, or to share with someone else, to re-read later, or as a treasured memento of a time or a person – or a time you were a different person. He admits that the aesthetic attraction of a bookshelf depends on seeing them en masse ‘irrespective of what lies between the covers’. (They’re good insulation, too.)

Which all seems pretty uncontroversial. What rubbed people up the wrong way was the fact Baggini had dared suggest it was possible to use books as status-symbols (as if this pretty mundane observation was itself an assault on knowledge), combined with the faint hint whiff of ‘personal optimization’: at one point Baggini describes how the process of throwing away a book means coming to terms with ‘failure’ (as if not having enough time to read everything you want to read says something about you, not life).

Put those two together, ignore the nuance, and what was a harmless if anodyne series of reflections by a man moving house starts to look like yet another attempt to police people’s behaviour, right at the level of the most sacred thing there is: books. How dare he!

The fact is, philistine as I am, Baggini’s driving argument was one I recognised and agreed with: holding onto books can be a way of holding onto ‘unrealistic illusions’ about ourselves. “We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them,” he writes.

I don’t read this as an assault on the concept of literature so much as an attempt to square up to the conditions under which literature is made and read, and which make reading and writing meaningful in the first place: our limited time on earth, our limited attention spans, and our willingness (or not) to change our minds.

Like many people, I buy more books than I will ever read and I keep more books than I will ever revisit or re-gift. That won’t change. But I am well aware that one of the reasons I do this is to fool myself: to pretend, against all the evidence, that I will have time to reread this, or write something about that, or read everything I want to. The books are an escape. Every now and then I try and be brutal about it and chuck a load out. Probably, that is a kind of escape too. But at least it makes space.

And one more thing

Disclaimer: ever since writing this blog I keep noticing and/or remembering examples of poems 1) doing all the things I say are a problem and 2) doing them very well, like this by Howard Nemerov.

Some poets like the sound of certain words too much. Seamus Heaney crammed many of his poems so much richness they sometimes become sickly. ‘Usquebaugh’, Wendy Cope’s Heaney parody from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, implies the poet writes like he is talking drunk.

In a recent piece for The Friday Poem, Steven Lovatt takes a pop at the Heaney-esque word ‘heft‘. His concern was less the sound than the significance it is freighted with. But as the poet and publisher Helena Nelson recently (and very entertainingly) demonstrated on her blog, if rich, complex words are more likely to stand out, there are plenty of ‘unassuming’ ones which creep into poems unnoticed and threaten to cause a different kind of damage.

One word I personally use too much is the modest conjunctive ‘and’. Often it will crop up at the beginning of a stanza or a line — yet this is exactly where a linking word is most superfluous. A poem ought to be able to hold itself together as it moves down the page: the stanza or line that comes next is the one that comes next by virtue of the fact it comes next. It is already a sequence.

If most poetry has something to do with speech (its shape on the page being one way of notating that voice) then ‘and’ is a prosaic word, more often written than spoken. It allows for long, intricate sentences, whereas a speaker might leave a phrase hanging for effect, pause for breath or simply stutter. At the beginning of a line, ‘and’ is a block to variation, an invitation straight back into an ordinary iambic metre where another word might have been stressed differently. Or else it is the word of someone making a point that has gone on a bit too long…

There are plenty of exceptions which prove the rule. Not only can we not do without ‘and’, obviously you can do a lot with it. In Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’ the first example comes after five lines of repetition and by the time you reach the second, the gloomy atmosphere means the word feels like a deliberate choice by someone at the end of their tether.

I ought to provide an example of a poem which falls prey to some of the risks mentioned. I have gone for one I like by poet I admire, since both the poet and the poem can more than bear being made an example of by me: Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’. I am in two minds about the final line, but to me that ‘and’ introducing the fourth stanza feels like a straightforward dud. See what you think.