Sunday, 31 December 2017

Some poets just need to get over themselves

A little rant to end the year.

Back in September 2016, I wrote a silly little poem in protest at the way the CEO of a certain nationally famous pub chain used his influence, and his company’s money, to generate pro-Brexit propaganda which was circulated amongst patrons of his pubs in the run-up to the referendum on leaving the EU. I subsequently posted the poem on my blog page on Write Out Loud, to receive the unexpected accolade of being voted Poem of the Week.

There was nothing solemn or pretentious in the aforementioned Silly Little Poem (which you can read, in all its glory, here). It was a skit – a pastiche – deliberately written in the metre most famously used by Dr Seuss in his comic rhymes for young readers. It was written to let off steam, and maybe raise a laugh. I wouldn’t ever have entered it for the Bridport Prize, or submitted it to a highbrow poetry journal. It’s not that sort of a poem.

I’ve re-posted links to the poem a few times since September 2016, when the pub chain which inspired it has cropped up in Facebook discussions. Most of the time it is received with the sort of droll amusement I hoped it would evoke. But not recently. The last time I mentioned it, a certain poet and Editor of a Respected Online Poetry Journal pounced upon the link and publicly denounced me for choosing to express my ire in the form of a Silly Little Poem. The poem itself came in for some Serious Critique for its “trite rhymes” and childish metre, and I was made to feel somehow kind of sordid for besmirching the good name of poetry by making a political point in such a light-hearted way.

And you know what? This made me angry.

OK, I should have guessed that my post would be read by some Serious Poets. The correspondent to whom I sent the link was a Facebook friend who is himself a Serious Poet of some distinction. He is however someone who has similar political sensibilities to me, and someone whom I know to be not averse to a bit of satire (and to be able to take it in the spirit with which it was intended). I suspected my contribution would raise a smile. I didn’t suspect that the Poetry Police would be scrutinising every word of his Facebook feed for signs of anything that could be seen to suggest that poetry is ever anything other than a Serious Artform. I certainly didn’t expect the sneering, the self-righteousness or the arrogance of the response with which my light-hearted little contribution was met.

In fairness to my friend, I should point out that he was not the source of the response. It came from somebody who followed his page – someone whose name is well known online in the poetry world, and who in my humble opinion really needs to get over himself.

First of all, who gets to dictate what does, and doesn’t, constitute suitable material for poetry? Political points don’t have to be made exclusively through serious poems – in fact, as I’ve argued before on this blog, sometimes the silly poem is more effective by virtue of being memorable for its daft rhymes, or for a refrain that gets lodged in the mind. After all, the satirist’s job is to make the self-important look ridiculous. The poems in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were social and political satires; often they were pastiches of poems and songs of the day, or of well-known poetic styles; they were all very silly. And today they are fondly remembered, they are proudly recited by young and old alike, and some of them even feature in The Nation’s Favourite Poems. Now I’m not saying that my Silly Little Poem has anything to commend it to the extent that Jabberwocky does, but that’s not the point. The point is that you simply can’t say, with any justification, that serious political points can’t be made through light verse. A whole tradition of British poetic writing that encompasses Carroll, Lear, Betjeman, Auden, Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker and Les Barker will prove you wrong.

Secondly, there’s that sniffy assumption often made by Serious Poets, that writers of light verse somehow don’t take their craft seriously. I beg to differ with m’learned friend when he says that the rhymes in my Silly Little Poem are “trite”. I worked bloody hard at those rhymes – and though I say so myself, I think they are effective. The “Dr Seuss” metre requires them to be deployed with the subtlety of a rhinoceros driving a Sherman tank, but that doesn’t mean they are bad rhymes. One of the reasons I love writing Silly Little Poems is that they really make me work at rhyme, scansion and the musicality of a poem; they are great training for the moments when I get the urge and the inspiration to write Serious Poetry. As I’ve blogged before, it takes a great deal of skill to make light verse actually sound light – more than most Serious Free Verse Poets realise.

(Again, read the poem and judge for yourselves. I don’t make any claims as to its literary greatness; I just happen to think I came up with half-decent rhymes that work moderately well).

Lastly, I think I’m just sore at the fellow’s implication that somehow, by writing this stuff, I’m Not a Proper Poet. OK, so it would appear I’m never going to be published in his journal – I think we can be quite Clear about that, can’t we? – but I’ve published a whole collection of (mostly) serious poems and I’ve won 10 First Prizes in UK-wide and international poetry competitions – mostly with serious poems. I shouldn’t have to justify myself. I’ll be a poet in whatever medium I choose, thank you very much. If I choose to write Silly Little Poems, by all means judge the poems, but not the poet. If my output really isn’t for you, then fine – there are plenty of Serious Poets (and some silly ones) whose work I can’t stomach either. But the point is that those words speak to someone. Who are you to silence those words, just because that someone doesn’t happen to be you?

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