No One Expects the Poetry Inquisition!

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s news events, I see that the old rogue Jeremy Paxman has stirred up some trouble on the poetry scene when he made some controversial remarks while judging the Forward Prize.

Shelley had it that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, and that ‘poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds’.

For Jeremy Paxman, though, it is an art form that has ‘connived at its own irrelevance’, as he believes that poets today have stopped talking to the public and are only addressing each other.

Paxman called for an ‘inquisition’ in which ‘poets [would be] called to account for their poetry’, appearing before a panel of the public where they would have to ‘explain why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it, because it would be a really illuminating experience for everybody’.

There is a lot of good commentary on this: from Padraig Reidy, in agreement, and from the brilliant and gentle George Szirtes, in disagreement. Although I don’t share the somewhat aerated response from professional poets, I do not believe there is a mechanism that prevents the general public from reading and enjoying poetry. The texts are not in Latin, or locked behind glass. You can read, write and see poetry for very little financial outlay. Of course, there are loads of obscurantist bores, but there are those in every field of artistic endeavour.

The issue is: is complexity necessarily elitist? Further maths is complex. Physics is complex. You can still sign up for an engineering course at the local college. You might not get to fly the space shuttle, but maybe there’s a reason for that?

There is all kinds of poetry. There is complexity that is just abstruse, and complexity that is like a song. It’s all out there.

Ironically, part of the reason people are turning away from poetry is that there are too many Arts Council slam nights full of performers doing bad stand up comedy masquerading as poetry. This alienates the audience which, being a poetry audience, typically wants serious stuff rather than scatological jokes and audience participation.

I say this as someone who goes to poetry nights regularly. Poetry done as performance can be superb. But then there’s the open mic section. I remember one open mic guy who, prior to the start of the night, was sitting by us and spent half an hour going on to his companion about the rejuvenating qualities of yeast intake. My girlfriend is a scientist and kept texting me saying: ‘This is bollocks.’

When it was his turn to read, this open micer read a poem complaining about people who had college degrees. The point of the poem I think was that having a degree is elitist and bad (which I thought was a bit harsh considering this man looked old enough to have grown up at a time when higher education was basically free).

He then said that he wasn’t getting paid for his poetry and berated the audience for donations. There were no takers.

‘Get a job,’ I said (inside).

So let’s have an inquisition or poet X Factor by all means but a) can it not be paid on public money and b) don’t expect big ratings.

As the poet says in John Dufresne’s Love Warps the Mind a Little (during a very similar debate) ‘Maybe we could just make endearing noises?’


‘Our one weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear. Two weapons! Surprise, fear and a populist critique that will generate headlines. Three weapons! (continues)’


One Response to “No One Expects the Poetry Inquisition!”

  1. gaborgyorgymiklos Says:

    Nice to come across this, Max. I think the problem is that poetry is regarded as a problem at educational level. I have often quoted my first and marvellous mentor, the poet Martin Bell who, having taught English i nschools for seventeen years, mumbled under his breath: ‘Poetry should not be taught in schools. It should be a secret and subversive pleasure’. That is an exaggeration of course but the perception is essentially good (and is in fact the way I got to poetry, reading and writing the stuff when I should have been doing Physics, Chemistry and Zoology). There is of course very good discussion to be had about poetry, there is proper understnding of what poems in general and any specific poem in particular may be doing. I have been engaged in that for over twenty years. It’s not mystagoguery, it is simply an understanding that can come like a revelation that language doesn’t have to work in just one way, that there is more between the cracks of conversation, journalism, functional prose, even fine prose, than you’d imagine, and that it can be beautiful, mesmerising and true in ways you’d never consider truth – except of course you always knew it but are rarely presented with it. It’s instinct and hunch and intense listening that make it, and the poet’s own knowledge is so far instinctual, based on a learnaed and developing instinct) that they themselves may not be able to answer certain plain questions. And that of course makes them no different than anyone absorbed in their craft.

    This is a long answer, almost the precis for an essay and I may well adapt it for FB. Good questions make one think. Thank heaven for thinking, especally when it doesn’t claim to know everything.

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