“Poetry is a very inexpensive form of entertainment,” says Fiona Sampson in this interview (http://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=27026) which I stumbled upon when someone put a link on Twitter. It is odd that in the same interview she implicitly agrees with the interviewer’s remark “It’s a concern of some magazine editors that there are many people writing poetry but not enough people reading it”:
Poetry Review gets 60,000 submissions annually. It has 4,000 subscribers. Why is this? Most people have literacy, most people can write. So everyone thinks they can write poetry. It is like photography. If I take a photograph and it comes out OK, I think There’s nothing much to this, I could be a photographer. Of course, that’s not true. Not everyone who plays occasional football for fun will get to play at Wembley, nor do they expect to. The problem’s not with quantity but with attitude: hear the difference, have curiosity, read poetry, recognise the rules, do the hard work.
This is odd, as I said, because if ‘the hard work’ means what it seems to mean—that is, that if one wants to write poetry, one ought to subscribe to Poetry Review, become au fait with the contemporary poetry scene, and, perhaps, read the poetry of other eras in detail too—then it may be less expensive than the photographer’s camera, but it will cost money, and it will cost time. My Complete Works of Shakespeare cost £1.50 from a charity shop, but it would take an awful lot of mental energy to get to grips with it properly. So if poetry, as Ms. Sampson suggests, is “the highest form of discourse to which we have access,” is that access barred to all but the privileged few who have the money and the time? How does the demand ‘do the hard work’ fit with the her assertion that ‘people who are in extremis’ are ‘moved by the real thing, and only the real thing’? Perhaps only the people in extremis can appreciate poetry, and only the people who’ve worked and worked at it can write it? Isn’t the whole situation a bit unfair?
Something seems to be confused here. ‘So everyone thinks they can write poetry’—so they should, if they like it, just as anyone should take a photograph or kick a ball around if that’s what comes naturally. At the same time, not everyone will be remembered by future generations as the most remarkable poet, photographer or footballer of the era. These facts are only problematic if we elevate poetry to pseudo-religious status—‘the highest form of discourse to which we have access’. ‘It is no coincidence that it is used widely at weddings and funerals,’ Ms. Sampson adds, and I wonder, cynically, how often this happens because the organisers really like the poetry, and how often it happens because they like nice solid conventions. Less cynically, I wonder whether musicians and artists and prose writers would object to this claim about poetry—whether, in fact, a football fan might feel that no poem can match the beauty of a really beautiful goal.
Poetry, I think at the moment at least, is a bit like clothes. One kind of clothing is necessary for a wedding, quite a different kind for a trip to the Himalayas. A good example of each will have some things in common, such as well joined seams—and the clothes are necessary either for the wedding or the Himalayan expedition, but other things are necessary too. Some poetry is intensely beautiful, powerful, important—some poetry is interesting—some poetry changes the way we think, sometimes in good ways. But all of it is, in the end, just something we do—one of the many things that people do.
It does seem to be something that we do instinctively: that the football fans chant rhymed, rhymical songs all round the stadium might to be evidence that there’s something innately satisfying about rhyme and rhythm (and tune, if any tune remains in all the shouting). But the football chants put the hard labour of the wannabe Legendary Poet in perspective: the Aston Villa stadium, for example, seats more than ten times the number of subscribers to Poetry Review, so that after all your efforts to present people in extremis with The Real Thing, you might find that most of them would rather be declaring that John Carew, Carew, is bigger than me and you, he’s gonna score one or two, John Carew, Carew. And really, who knows best?