Thursday, 19 June 2014

Le Grand Débacle

It’s only a couple of weeks until the opening stage of this year’s Tour de France hits the streets of Yorkshire. And you could be forgiven for thinking the poetry world has gone just a little bit, well, bicycle crazy.

The wretched things seem to be everywhere. Bike-themed anthologies, bike-themed poetry nights – no doubt someone has had the bright idea of being Poet-in-Residence-on-a-Bike and will be chasing the peloton up hill and down dale, declaiming verse from their latest collection as they go.

Now, I know a lot of poets. And I can probably count the number of them who are genuine cycling enthusiasts on the fingers of one hand. For those fortunate few, the Tour de France is a dream come true: one of those rare occasions when a genuine personal interest meets a genuine public interest. Any poetic cyclist who can write authentically about their two-wheeled passion deserves to be able to seize the moment, and milk it for all it’s worth.

But excuse me for being a bit cynical here. This deluge of bike-related poetry anthologies is more than the work of just a small number of genuine enthusiasts. In fact, the whole thing has a distinct whiff of band-wagonry about it. And there is nothing – nothing – that creates Bad Poetry like trying to force verse out of a subject you don’t really care about, just because it happens to be the theme of the day.

I can understand the temptation. Because the coming of the Tour de France to Yorkshire has also meant the coming of the 100-day Festival of Yorkshire – and with it, perhaps more importantly, a lot of money. Poets and arts organisations who have spent the last few years searching the backs of their sofas for any scrap of loose change that would help finance their work, have suddenly found that if they can somehow manage to shoe-horn bikes into what they’re doing, local authorities and the Arts Council will positively throw money their way. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that?

The money may be all very well. But I have major reservations about the quality of the work that’s the result of it.

I have even more serious concerns about the longevity of the work. Because that’s the trouble with the theme of the day – tomorrow’s theme will be something else. Once the dust has cleared, the cyclists have left the hills of Yorkshire far behind them, and the money has run out, who is actually going to want to read a pile of sub-standard poems from writers who don’t really give a cuisse de grenouille about bicycles, or the Tour de France? They’ll be consigned to charity shops, bargain bins, the 2-for-1 giveaway.

Poetry deserves better than this. Frankly, the Tour de Yorkshire, or whatever it’s called, deserves better than this.

If you’re a poet with a passion for cycling, be glad. This is your moment – so make the most of it. When you write from the heart, it will show. You will write fantastic poetry.

And the rest of us should keep our mouths shut and let them have the moment of glory they deserve. Our time will come, eventually. But let’s not sell out our art just because someone has a bit of money to throw around, or a new raft of opportunities to get published. Let us write what we believe in, what we can speak about from the heart. Otherwise our verse will be as rusty and as wobbly as an out of control penny-farthing on a cobbled Yorkshire snickleway.

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