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Sunday, 3 May 2009

How Poetry Was Defiled

I was brought up on poetry. My mother often read it to us from the many poetry books on her shelves - Tennyson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Masefield, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Lakeland Poets and many, many more besides - and she quoted it quite naturally while she bathed us or while she cooked the tea. The beautiful rhythm of the beautiful words; the way it touched something that a child's mind could not grasp but a child's heart knew instantly, was so wonderful. The lines remained with me and remain to this day: the sheer beauty of language:

...Quinquereme of Ninevah,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory, of apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood and cedarwood
And sweet white wine...


Grey's, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; the incredibly beautiful language and images evoked by the Lady of Shalott; and the immortal Mary calling the cattle home across the sands of Dee. All of those words were so beautifully and deeply imprinted on my mind. When I was too tired to read a whole book, I took a poetry book to bed and read the beautiful words till I fell asleep with them running through my mind. I wrote poetry from simple childish verse to words that sometimes just sprang into my head and I hardly knew what they meant or where they came from but, whether or not they were 'good' poems, they were never meant for anyone else to read and the utter joy of putting words together that expressed something deeper than the superficial - something that caught the ineffable - was like a miracle to me!

So many, many times, I have looked at scenes or been in situations - happy or sad - when words seem barely able to suffice, but lines from great poems capture the sense so clearly. Among people who also love poetry, it is possible to quote a line and say, "It was like this...."

Poetry provided the words which I lacked as a child. It gave me a voice to reassure myself that the depths of things were so real and other people saw them too. It didn't shy away from the squalid aspects of life, but is transformed them. It didn't deny pain, heartache, or the loveliness of joy in simple things, but it transcended the mundane and reached to the true dignity within us. I adored poetry and was so grateful for it. I still adore it and yet, nowadays, I have completely broken that relationship because - to put it dramatically - I think poetry has been 'raped'. That does sound dramatic but I think it is so.

There are undoubtedly many wonderful poets today but some ridiculous idea was somewhere spouted (no doubt by the same people who believe that an unmade bed is equivalent art to the Sistine Chapel) that poetry is about catering to the lowest aspects of humanity. Let people describe squalor in squalid words. Let everyone be a poet by describing their most basic self and, the more coarse it is, the better. Let us write of the worst things we do, in the worst possible way and then we will acclaim it, put it on an exam syllabus and pat each other on the back because we are so clever.

Studying English for my degree, I sat through the speeches of several acclaimed 'poets' and felt sick at the way they degraded language and the great applause they received for their descriptions of ugliness. I began to despise poetry, or rather what had been done to poetry. I determined to write no more poetry and haven't done for over 15 years because all I loved felt abused and degraded.

Now, years later, I hold 'Palgrave's Golden Treasury' and the 'Oxford Book of English Verse', the 'Everyman Book of Verse' and the 'Nation's Favourite Poems' in my hand as the greatest treasures. The poems still have their beauty. The real beauty is unadulterated by so much of the trash that has since been labelled 'poetry'. Looking at the words, I can still hear my ancient grandmother - even before my mother! - quoting, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" that she had learned in school in the early 1900s. I hold the book, read the first line of a poem and the beauty returns like a wave of light and, without needing to read another word, the entire poem floats effortlessly through my mind and heart. Whether if be Caroline Norton's "I do not love thee," or Emily Bronte's "No Coward Soul Is Mine" - the absolute perfection of the language is like listening to the purest music or seeing a glorious sunset.

As art has been reduced to its lowest level with the excuse that it speaks to people today, may I suggest that it speaks to the most base aspects of our humanity. I put this out as a plea for beauty, for attention to detail, for reaching what is finest in us, rather than dragging everything down into the quagmire that sees no further than the worst in us. Poems that speak of crashed cars, or burning people's hands from bunsen burners, or dead animals are not poetry at all. Real poetry is, "the best possible words in the best possible order" or "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Please, let us have beauty again!

If you had to choose you favourite poem, what would it be? Well...in spite of the dross of recent years, "If" by Rudyard Kipling remains the nation's favourite, which is so reassuring. I would list, too, among some of mine:

Wordsworth's "Westminster Bridge"
Causley's "Sands of Dee"
Masefield's, "Cargoes"
Keats' "Bright Star" and "Ode to a Nightingale"
Norton's "I do not love thee"
Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"
Eliot's "Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" and "The Wasteland"
For amusement, most of Stevie Smith
Stevenson's, "I must go down to the sea again..."
Prevert's "Barbara"
Victor Hugo's "Boaz"
and this list could go on for another 20 pages....

2 comments:

MissDaisyAnne---Annette said...

I was never read poetry when I was a child, unless nursery rhymes count, I was read those.
I discovered my love of poetry as an adult. I was introduced to poetry in high school and then later college. Just a few years ago I did a study of poetry on my own. I read Shakespeare, Chaucer, and then spent several weeks in the Romantic period.
Some of my favorites are:
"My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold" by William Wordsworth
"Imitations Of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood" William Wordsworth
"Lines Written In Early Spring" and "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud" both by Wordsworth
"The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Ode To A Nightingale," "I Stood Tip Toe Upon A Little Hill," "To Hope," "Endymion," "To A Cat," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." All of these by John Keats.

Christina said...

Thank you for your comment, Annette :-).

I love all the poems on your list. There's something about the Romantic Poets that never lets you go, isn't there!