Every quarter the Poetry Society sends me its Review magazine, showcasing the work of the nation’s top contemporary poets, and every quarter I go through it and think “crap, crap, crap, rubbish, rubbish, crap, rubbish, crap.” I suppose I ought to cancel the subscription, really.
In his notorious trashing of luvviedom and the accepted wisdom that theatre is something “the British do best”, the Yard wrote: “No, the British do poetry best, they merely do theatre a lot.”
He got that wrong. The British do pop music best, their poetry is almost entirely crap.
I don’t just refer to Sturgeon’s Law, whereby 90% of everything is crap, though that certainly applies; I mean that the whole game is rotten. Let’s get the handful of exceptions out the way: at the microscopic peak of the pyramid are Heaney, Hill, Ellis etc, (though even there one sometimes feels like saying “Oooh, la-dee-da, yes we’re all going to die and life is hard and we’ve lost touch with nature and history. Get over it, soft lad!”) and playing a slightly different game are the likes of Armitage and Cope who rescue the thing with humour or accessibility or satirical bite.
But between the peak of the pyramid and the vast base consisting of amateur scribblers and compulsive rhyme jockeys, are the professionals: the competition winners and collection-publishers. In other words, the British poetry ‘Scene’. And the Scene is crap.
The source of its crappiness is the stifling uniformity of tone. Prissily self-conscious, breathily earnest, knowingly wondering. Designed to be uttered in a halting semi-whisper by Juliet Stevenson to an audience of the kind of headscarf-wearers who laugh unnaturally loudly at certain Shakespeare lines to prove they get it, and then to be discussed with gesticulation-heavy intensity by the middling Newsnight Review panellists.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at it some time. Except you probably haven’t and won’t because hardly anybody does. Alex Turner and Amy Winehouse don’t count as poets because they’re far too good for the Poetry Scene. The technical side has disappeared up its own esoteric half-eye-rhyming posterior, so like modern opera it is an Unpopular Art, which makes it an impotent art, a failure. Topics are relentlessly re-peddled (language, losing touch with nature, middle-class angst).
Supply so far exceeds public demand for this stuff that the poets write not for the pleasure of the reader nor even, I imagine, for themselves but for the Scene, for the editors and judges. The consequence of this is a crippling self-awareness: look, I edited this poem until it was just obscure enough, see what I left unsaid! Observe my carefully-crafted last line: doesn’t it leave just the right amount