Friday, 25 June 2010

Time to ditch the daffodils?

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 85 of NAWG LINK)

Having had a few choice words to say about pseudo-intellectual free verse in a previous Poet's Soapbox, I think it's time to direct my ire elsewhere. Critics of the poetic "establishment" often raise the accusation that the more prestigious poetry journals seem to have no time for verse which the general public would actually recognise as poetry. The mystical, the avant-garde and the just-plain-pretentious is fine; but try sending these journals anything which has a regular metre or which actually rhymes, and your chances of publication are about as remote as my beloved Tranmere Rovers' hopes of winning the Champions League.

Many poets feel hard done by on this score. Rhyming verse, after all, is central to the British literary heritage. Shakespeare's sonnets, Blake's Jerusalem and Lear's nonsense rhymes are as much a part of the English psyche as cricket, roast beef and rain-swept seaside holidays. Burns' ballads and satires are at the heart of Scottish lore and its modern national identity. Rhymesmiths like Roger McGough, Pam Ayres and the two great Barkers (Les and the late lamented Ronnie) are almost national treasures. More importantly, their verse is actually recognisable as verse – a relief in a world where poetry can be so mystifying it seems to require a doctorate to appreciate it.

So why do the premier journals and the competition judges seem to despise rhyming poetry? I have a few theories about this. And the most persuasive, for me, is that such a lot of today's rhyming verse is awful.

Is that controversial? Good. To support my thesis I'd like to cite poet Norman Johnson, who a couple of years ago set up a journal specifically dedicated to rhyming verse. You'd think that Star Poetry, as it was known, would be inundated. After all, isn't this what the grumblers had been crying out for – an editor who knew and loved good rhyming verse and was willing to go the extra mile to champion it? The sad fact was that Star Poetry closed after just two issues. The reason Norman gave for closing it down was that he didn't get anything like enough submissions that were of a standard worthy of publication.

When I judged the Speakeasy poetry competition a few years back, roughly 1 in 3 of the poems I received was a rhyming poem. Only three made it to the shortlist. The year before it was even worse, with just one rhyming poem shortlisted from a postbag of over 160. The reasons that all the others were eliminated? Many were binned on technical grounds. The rhythms were inconsistent, so the poems didn't hold the music which is essential to rhyming poetry. The words were often jumbled up in ways that meant they rhymed, but lost all coherence in the process. They read as if Yoda had written them. A few were better crafted, but were so full of "thee"s, "twixt"s and "'neath"s that they read like pastiches of Victorian verse instead of modern poems with something to say in their own merit. And an even larger category went into the recycling bin on the grounds of toe-curling sentimentality.

Why is there such a dearth of good rhyming verse? When those who complain about the poetic status quo insist that the people want rhyme, why do the people seem to be so incapable of producing it to an acceptable standard?

I think I know the answer to that. It's because generations of English-speaking people have been brought up with the idea that William Wordsworth's Daffodils is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment.

The popularity of this poem (listed at No. 5 in The Nation's Favourite Poems) mystifies me. For the standards of its time, Daffodils is mediocre. Its formal structure is flawed; the iambic tetrameter stutters in ways that no poetry tutor would allow nowadays. And that opening line contains one of the most ridiculous similes ever penned. I wandered lonely as a cloud, for goodness' sake? Never mind whether or not clouds can feel loneliness – even the most anthropomorphic cloud "floating on high" o'er the Lake District would be anything but lonely. It’s the one part of England where you can guarantee there will be plenty of other clouds for company!

Daffodils presents a whimsical, sentimentalised view of the natural world, or Wordsworth's corner of it. For me, the great thing about nature poetry is the way it provides a window into the human soul. Robert Burns' "sleekit, cow'rin', timorous beastie", for instance, is a metaphor for the frustration of human (as well as animal) endeavour. Oliver Goldsmith's memories of The Deserted Village form the backdrop to a ferocious social and political commentary, making this ostensibly rustic poem one of the first truly modern protest songs. Even Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gipsy, which contains some of the most overblown pastoral wittering in English verse, has a serious point to make about the threat of Progress to traditional wisdom. But Daffodils offers no such insight. Nothing new or surprising, or especially deep.

Herein lies the problem. All the time Daffodils has been held up as the quintessential English poem, generations of English people have been brought up believing that this is how poems should be written. Schoolchildren, at least until recently, were taught to emulate Wordsworth's Daffodils when writing their own poems. Thankfully, these days poetry in schools tends to be more contemporary; but the damage has already been done. Countless thousands have grown up thinking that poetry means trite nature studies in forced rhyme schemes, interspersed with sentimental metaphors.

No wonder so many fail to get beyond this, and lose interest in poetry altogether. No wonder, too, that many who return to writing poetry later in life start flooding the literary presses with over-sentimentalised nature poems filled with twee poetic inversions and awful rhymes. They were first taught poetry as children re-hashing Daffodils – and are writing it now, like children re-hashing Daffodils, because they don't know any better.

There is great rhyming poetry in the English-language poetic canon. But Daffodils is not it. Those who want to know how to write good rhyming verse with a modern feel should be looking at Auden, Larkin or Betjeman – or even at Roger McGough, who combines the music of rhyming verse with an exhilarating freedom of form. They should appreciate the intensity of craftsmanship that goes into sounding as effortlessly silly as Pam Ayres or Les Barker. And they really should ditch the Daffodils.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Poetry and free speech: the Patrick Jones controversy

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 83 of NAWG LINK and appears here with a couple of minor modifications)

It's not often that poetry makes headline news. But that is exactly what happened in November 2008 when the Cardiff branch of Waterstone's took it upon themselves to close down a book launch by Welsh poet Patrick Jones. They were responding to complaints and threats of direct action by a pressure group on the extreme fringe of Christianity, who had read Jones’s poetry and condemned it as "obscene and blasphemous". Fearing violent – or at the very least, objectionable – altercations if the launch were to go ahead, senior management at Waterstone's cancelled the event at the last minute, leaving supporters of the poet and staff from his publishers Cinnamon Press locked out.

My immediate reaction was What on earth is going on? This is supposed to be a democracy, after all, which upholds an individual's right to freedom of expression even (or especially) in the face of violence or intimidation. Waterstone's never took this action against Salman Rushdie when his controversial writing made him the subject of violent threats, so why pick on a poet whose sales are likely to be pitiful by comparison? When The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – surely a far more influential and (to religious extremists anyway) dangerous thinker – was published, many branches promoted it as a staff recommendation. There were no crowds of picketing believers outside.

Was this pressure group attacking a poet because he was a soft target, with nobody influential to fight his corner? And were Waterstone's caving in because they thought the launch of Darkness is Where the Stars Are was a small event, and nobody would notice if it didn't go ahead?

It seems both Waterstone's and the protesters miscalculated. The unforeseen publicity has prompted all sorts of people, who might never have opened a poetry book otherwise, to read Patrick Jones. The first thing I did when I heard about the furore was log on to the Cinnamon Press website and order a copy.

Personally I find Jones's poetry to be a mixed bag. There is so much atheistic polemic in Darkness is Where the Stars Are that other good writing in the collection (and some of it is very good writing) is rather eclipsed. I can't criticise his sincerity. His anti-war poetry is ferocious, invoking the spirit of Wilfred Owen in Keys to your Kingdom when he writes "pro patria mori, the old lie, / you warned us yet no one heard / and your words drifted like ash". But his determination to pin the blame on organised religion is so relentless that at times it loses the personal focus, resorting instead to abstracts. It's a pity, because when he is talking in the first person, Jones's poetry is raw and immediate – and correspondingly powerful. Moment of Light, which for me is his most persuasive "political" poem, is effective not because of doctrinal conviction but because it comes straight from the heart: "today / I have become a born again / atheist / bow to a river bank not the parting of the sea / sing to a star not an invisible man."

It has been argued that Jones is the architect of his own controversy. He has a habit of sending samples of his writing to people who are bound to object to it, in an effort to encourage debate. Is this commendable idealism, or self-publicity? I'm not entirely sure. His publishers state that "Patrick Jones has corresponded with many organisations with whom he strongly disagrees and on every other occasion the result has been mature, if passionate, discussion, not threats. Patrick has never threatened anyone nor tried to curtail anyone else's freedom of speech."

And to be fair to Waterstone's, they have never refused to stock Darkness is Where the Stars Are. My local branch had plenty of copies on the shelves last time I looked. I can’t help thinking they're a little embarrassed by the whole sorry episode.

What the uproar does illustrate is something fundamental about the nature of poetry. You see, poetry is a powerful beast. Whether or not the modern, short-attention-span world claims to understand it, there remains a sort of visceral awareness that poetry packs an emotional punch. That distillation of words, emotions, ideals, into a few short rhythmic phrases seems to have the capacity to disturb, inspire and challenge humankind in a way that few of our arts and none of our technology can achieve. Perhaps that is the real reason why the enemies of free speech are so afraid of it.

Patrick Jones's poetry tackles subjects which many of today's poets don't have the guts to approach. We have become used to the poem on the page as a sanitised thing. We can agonise for hours about the metaphor hiding in a raindrop on a branch. Or, when we dare to tread in sensitive areas, we prefer to whisper and hint, using the gossamer of our imagery to ensure we don't have to touch the bloody, smelly, repulsive things of our world.

There is no such fear in Patrick Jones. He speaks unflinchingly about the (male) victim of domestic violence (in the title poem and numerous others), or the friend carted off to the psychiatric hospital (Spring Asylum). He likens the ruined woodlands where he played as a child (Flowers for the Trees on Mother's Day) to terrorist victims, "a field of fresh corpses". He gives a voice to the persecuted asylum seeker, the victim of female genital mutilation. He may not be Wilfred Owen, but his words reduce war to the ugly, irredeemable mess it is. He may not be Richard Dawkins, but his critique of religious hypocrisy is just as scathing. As a Christian myself, I can’t agree with his condemnation of all religious belief, and can understand why some find it offensive; but I applaud him when he likens the distorted fundamentalism of the group which scuppered his book launch to that of the Taliban. As a poet, I can only admire his determination to keep using poetry to "redress the rigours of th' inclement clime", to borrow a phrase from that other great protest poet, Oliver Goldsmith.

It could be that Patrick Jones is exactly the kick up the backside we poets need. The bards and poetic agitators of yesteryear made their words and their principles work together. Let's see if today’s poets can do the same.