Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures he gave while 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 individual introductions, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the contemporary tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – may even be attempts to recreate the kind of ‘enigma’ which was previously summoned up by the conflict between form and meaning, when poetry itself is increasingly formless.

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 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 the ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all. What, Armitage wants to know, 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 and the header image is an excerpt from The Fall of Icarus (c.1555).

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.

Modern vs Contemporary Poetry

All categories are slightly artificial and perhaps none more so than periods in literary history. When I wrote about first encountering ‘contemporary’ poetry, I wanted to emphasize how far our ’now’ can, or should stretch. Decades, not years

Perhaps it should stretch further. Playing with categories is like shuffling cards: potentially endless and, after a certain point, pointless. But the way we use words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ says something about our attitudes to the past and the present and this is always interesting to me because it means they are also value judgements, statements of feeling as much as descriptions.  

For example, you could argue that having a very narrow conception of the contemporary is simply an extreme version of a much older debate about the value of modern as opposed to ‘classical’ poetry: whether literature should reflect the world the writer is living in or be based on ‘timeless’ principles, usually associated with particular forms and conventions.

If what distinguishes the modern from the classical is its ‘present-ness’, then we should expect poetry to change as often and as drastically as the world does, i.e., a lot. So, although Milton, Wordsworth and, say, Elizabeth Bishop, are all ‘modern’ in comparison to Homer, they represent distinct eras. What now tends to get called modern poetry is just the era before whatever era we are in right now.

Then again, none of these writers (or their contemporaries) are as distant as we might think. People once dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English at all, or of writing plays which weren’t modelled on Greek tragedy. Then they dismissed poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as, well — romantics. W. H. Auden feels pretty contemporary right now – but so does John Clare.

One the things which makes poetry poetry is the way it sits somewhere outside of ‘day to day’ time. It speaks to — and is a way of listening to — the past as well as the present. There is no point in quibbling about where the contemporary begins, because all poetry is contemporary.

And yet: there is a lot of past to choose from. And because poetry is so time-specific, it is easy to take out of context. How people chop up history almost always says more about the chopper than the thing being chopped. There is something inevitable about this. Everyone has to work out for themselves what they want to listen to, who they want to speak to. You have to chop your own wood.

The problem comes when history is wielded in order to exclude or diminish other kinds of writing with different concerns, or to demarcate a particular community: ‘everyone should read and admire X, not Y, or they are not truly one of Z’. (The traditional sign that something radical has become prescriptive is that you have to study it in school or at university.) The rebels always end up inside the castle.

Louis MacNeice said it best when he advocated for ‘impure poetry… for poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.’1 Beyond that, perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it.


1 The quote comes from MacNeice’s book-length essay Modern Poetry, which was published in 1938.

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms and so, rightly, is criticism.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden), poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

It is an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.

On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)

Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.


1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.


NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.