Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

In the UK we have a number of national treasures and Jeremy Paxman is one of these. He fronts the BBC Newsnight programme which tries to delve a bit deeper into the stories that politicians spoon feed lazy journalists with. We love Paxo because his interviews of the powerful are a mixture of disbelief and contempt: the humbling of the mighty is always good to watch.

Paxo has become the news this week with the stunning and prescient observation that poetry has lost touch with the public, that it is as remote from popular culture as it is possible to be. This is the gist of his argument as reported in the Grauniad:

“I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing,” said Paxman. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

He is of course correct, it’s a view that I’ve been known to express over the last four years and have made arduity as an attempt to bridge at least one of the gaps.

Ten years ago I would have pointed at the material that is currently produced as the main problem with work too often being chronically self-indulgent or inaccessible or both. I’m no longer entirely of that view but the problem is real, the same article reports a drop in the value of UK poetry sales from £8.4 million in 2009 to £7.8 million in 2013 yet the response of those poets quoted is largely one of denial.

I’d like to start with some basics; poetry in the UK is enclosed, it has conversations with itself and argues about things that nobody outside of poetry either relates to or cares about; poetry covers a wide spectrum with a variety of styles, genres and subject matter but most of it isn’t very good; poetry’s relationship with academia is not helpful.

There are comparisons to be made, fiction and music do remarkably well and both of these range from the ‘popular’ to the (much) more esoteric. Poetry does the same but very few people care about the Poem compared with those that care about either music or fiction. Unlike these two competitors, there are many more people that write poetry than those who read it.

I’d like to pay some attention to Paxo’s charge of irrelevance because I don’t understand the ‘leap’ from being incestuous and self-obsessed to relevance. At the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum there is certainly material that is pertains to and engages with most aspects of public life. Of course, the ‘message’ emanating from this material may not readily fit into what appears to be the current consensus but it certainly challenges the status quo. So, the material is relevant but some of the most relevant is wrapped up in vocabularies and formats that most people find challenging. Without naming any names it must also be said that most of the mainstream poems and poets (ie those that attract the ‘quality’ press and get awarded prizes) are appallingly bad in terms of skill, subject matter and relevance. There is still too much of the confessional and the observational and little or nothing that gives me any indication at all of what it might be like to live and act in these dismal times.

Then there’s the issue of what we want the Poem to do, a question that is clouded by the Image Problem. A recent and entirely random poll conducted by this blog would suggest that poetry either:

  • expresses strong eomotions or;
  • describes lyrical scenes or;
  • is profound

I must stress that this poll was less than objective and only involved about ten individuals but most people felt that the Poem had lost its way with Eliot and what they see as the descent into obscurity and inaccessible elitism.

Also, in my small part of the world, the only venue for poetry has been an open mic event attended exclusively by poets who read their material. I attended for a couple of years and then decided to produce a few gigs last year that featured a mix of poetry, music, storytelling and elements of the visual arts. We attracted a mixed crowd and managed to change some people’s minds about the Poem. As regular readers might know, most of my output is experimental but I was gratified by the strength of response and by the subsequent interest that was shown, especially from music fans. What surprised me was how the best reaction was to the most experimental aspect of my work rather than material that I considered to be more accessible.

For me, the best result from this is that I’ve been able to broaden my range of collaborators and now work primarily with visual artists, musicians and writers of fiction. I’ve found that I get a much more objective reaction to my work. One evening earlier this week I was working on mixing some multiple vocal / jazz material with a composer and he made the (gentle) observation that my more recent contribution wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier versions. In the past I would probably dismissed this as the response of a non-poet who didn’t fully appreciate the poetic subtlety of what I’m trying to achieve. In this instance, because he wants to make this ‘work’ as much as I do, I reviewed my various versions and am now in the process of radical modification- I need to do this quickly because I’m working with a guitarist tomorrow evening.

So, performance alongside other means of creative expression and collaboration with practitioners in different fields may be a couple of ways of addressing the Paxo challenge in terms of engagement and relevance. It can’t do any harm. Can it?

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One response to “Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

  1. Such an interesting article: re your final paragraph and the question…. It can’t do any harm. Can it? I’d just like to say that I’ve been to far too many performances where someone reads and someone else twangs something, or hits something or makes some sort of vocal sound that doesn;t reflect much about the poem in any way that I can fathom. Oddly, the vocal contortions usually described as innovations and experiments tend to sound very much the same and very repetative. But I’m going off the point, which is simply that innovative ways of showing/performing poetry are only as good (and so as effective) as the show/performance. Personally I almost always find myself wishing that the musician had played then the poet read in sequence, as the combination detracts my attention from one or the other in a way that seems to diminish both. In other words it need doing really well. I have seen it done really well but probably only on a handful of occasions.

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