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Thursday, 14 May 2009

‘Does Poetry Matter?’

The recent appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new poet laureate generated a flurry of publicity. Most of this, of course, was about the person, not the poetry: first woman to hold the post, first lesbian, first born in Scotland to take up the role...and so predictably on. We could not expect anything different – the cult of personality is the dominant national trope and has the media in its clammy, celebrity-fixated grip.

This media response, as well as a new film, Little Ashes - concerning the life and execution (aged 37) of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca - has set me wondering about the ways in which poets have mattered (or not) in recent times. (And I suppose that, for me, ‘recent’ stretches back a hundred years or so).

The film, directed by a friend of mine (Paul Morrison), revolves around the relationship between Lorca and Salvador Dali - their early careers overlapped and each was an inspiration for the other - and as well as being beautifully photographed the film contains a sensitive and nuanced portrait of the poet by the Spanish actor Javier Beltrán.

Hearing some of Lorca’s poetry within the film returned me to my bookshelves – and the realisation that I had never taken the time to become acquainted with his work. Which has meant that I’ve missed out on a poet of rare sensibility, and that great gift of capturing in words those fleeting, tangled, half-thoughts and evanescent moods that lap on the furthest shores of our consciousness but which we may never fully dwelt upon, or even recognise as part of us – until we come upon them unexpectedly, written on the page, and then, with a gasp of recognition, feel we’ve known about forever.

Every Song

Every song
is the remains
of love

Every light
the remains
of time.
A knot
of time.

And every sigh
the remains
of a cry.

But does poetry matter? Shelley wrote that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the World’ for they ‘actually advance the interests of Liberty’. And how do they achieve this extraordinary effect? (For if it were true we surely need to know, and pay heed). Akin to the belief of the sixties’ radical that the personal is the political, for Shelley the psyche of the poet acts as a conduit for larger forces at work in society : ‘They measure the circumference or sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit at which they are themselves perhaps most sincerely astonished, for it is less their own spirit than the spirit of the age’ (all quotations from ‘A Defence of Poetry’, 1821).

There is a way in which this Romantic notion that poets exert some exemplary moral power through their capacity to be alert - even if not consciously so - to the deep currents of their time and place sounds hopelessly naive to my 21st century ears. That is, until I recall my own youthful idealism; and remember that Shelley died at 29; and recognise that in his defence of the primacy of the imagination over ‘reason’ he was articulating a visionary belief that I lose sight of over and over again – and need to be reminded of over and again lest this occlusion within me becomes permanent. This vision insists that the spirit that animated the prophets of my own Jewish tradition is still available to those who attune themselves to its Presence.

Poets, wrote Shelley in that same electric essay, ‘are the priests of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Poets, in other words, are the inheritors of the prophetic mantle of old – even if, like Shelley, they deem themselves ‘atheists’.

So from this perspective, poetry, it seems, does matter. And yet, on the other hand, who would be able to contradict W.H. Auden’s blunt disavowal in 1939 that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ ? In the so-called ‘real world’, poetry is just words. And as we all were taught, actions speak louder than words.

The pragmatist in us will insist, reading the daily news, that poetry can hardly matter in the face of the harshness of life. Yesterday (May 12) I read that ‘An estimated five [US] soldiers in Iraq try to kill themselves each day .’ Five? A day? And today (May13) I read the report of someone working in a temporary medical facility shelled in the supposedly safe ‘no-fire zone’ in Sri Lanka: ‘The most terrible thing that I have seen was when a mother had a bullet go through her breast and she was dead and the baby was still on the other side of the breast and the baby was drinking her milk...I was at that place where it happened.’

Does poetry matter? If poetry could emerge from the trenches of the Great War, from the gulags, from Auschwitz, then perhaps it still does. The wrestling with language for new ways of seeing, the salvaging of the human from asphyxiation by the forces of dehumanisation – poets go on working with words to see what they can do. (Except when the poet too is defeated by the task – let Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath be called as witnesses, let them remind us of that desperate host of 20th century poet suicides...)

So are we with Shelley – or Auden? Or both? Perhaps paradoxically, communist dictators and fascists alike seem to agree more with Shelley than Auden. Why else during the Spanish Civil War kidnap and execute the poet Lorca in 1936? Why else did Stalin hound his country’s greatest poet, Osip Mandelstam , to a premature death in a labour camp (1938)? And imprison and execute the great novelist Isaac Babel (1940)? And arrange the ‘Night of the Murdered Poets’ on August 12 1952, when thirty Yiddish writers and poets were executed by firing squad? Peretz Markish, Dovid Bergelson, Der who only had words to offer, their murders confirming Mandelstam’s bleakly ironic words: ‘Only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?’

Think of the BNP rounding up Seamus Heaney and Benjamin Zephaniah and Ruth Padel and Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker and Elaine Feinstein and Simon Armitage and Paul Muldoon – and Carol Ann Duffy. And dispensing with them in one night.

To murder a poet for his or her words is a perverse form of honour. The totalitarian mind seeks to define and dominate reality: everything and everyone must be subservient to the Leader’s vision. But art – and perhaps poetry in particular – offers us an alternative reality, another angle of vision, another world to inhabit. That’s why , for dictators, it is so dangerous. It gives one room to breathe. It gives one room to think. And dictators cannot abide anyone having thoughts of their own, thoughts different from the Leader. (Twenty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a contemporary variant on this theme).

Well, this is a long way from Carol Anne Duffy and her new role of nurturing our interest in poetry in all its capacity to move and inspire and provoke us, its capacity to offer us webs of words in which we see our lives anew, words which offer ‘an intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions’ (Shelley). A bit, I suppose, like prayer used to do.

So, for all those for whom traditional liturgical prayers no longer work (or are no longer sufficient) - no longer help us connect our mortality and helplessness and impoverishment with our potential and our indebtedness and our creativity, no longer give us the strength to transform what we are into what we could be, no longer help us both to celebrate what we have and acknowledge the inevitability of loss – for all who, nevertheless, still look to words arranged on a page as sources of inspiration and comfort and hope, here is another form of prayer: a poem by our new poet laureate.


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(C.A. Duffy, 1993, Mean Time, London, Anvil Press)


  1. Yes, indeed, Howard. And I have always thought Carol Anne Duffy's Prayer the greatest sonnet, and possibly one of the best poems, of the 20th Century. What a blow it was when the Met Office renamed Finisterre, now FitzRoy.

  2. from Alix, with any luck...
    we have spoken before about Keats, and negative
    capability, and this life being the vale 0f soul making. I thi nk the early deaths are part
    of that. They know, consciously or unconsciously, what is to come. Death, and pain. Thus the often excruciating intensity of
    the work. Whom the gods love...

  3. I would like to see wall space at FRS devoted to a rolling collection of Art and Poetry, I find that weeks without these influences leave me withered and weary. And it's so easy with the easiness/laziness of television eating ones free spaces.

    I also particuarly ask in relation to the shul as there are times (including the most busy and bustling such as a kiddish) when one can be quite alone in a room and in need of a place to focus ones attentions. Plus it never hurts to stimulate different thoughts and reach other audiences in shul.