Tag Archives: philip larkin

Why Are People Disinclined To Engage With Poetry

I am part of an informal network where people meet over coffee to discuss their jobs. The idea behind the network is to enable individuals from diverse professions/disciplines to learn from one another in an unpressured environment. These informal chats also furnish people with the chance to discuss non work related matters, for example hobbies. During a recent meeting (having exhausted work related issues), the conversation turned to outside interests. I mentioned that I write poetry. At this juncture there emanated from my companion what I can only describe as a distinct titter. “So you don’t like poetry?” I said. “I don’t have much time for reading”, replied my newly made acquaintance.

Shortly after the above exchange, we shook hands and went our separate ways.

Looking back on the incident, I am torn between amusement at the fact that the writing of poetry elicited mirth from a grown person, and sadness at the seeming inability of my acquaintance to engage (or at least attempt to engage) with something other than their own narrow profession (that of finance).

There are, of course things with which I find it difficult to engage. For instance I am not a lover of opera. I would not, however dream of dismissing (or laughing at) this art form as to do so would indicate boorishness on my part. If a friend where to invite me to the opera I would go along as I am open minded and prepared to develop my tastes. Where I to attend an operatic performance and not find it to my liking I certainly would not titter but, as is so often said it takes all sorts to make a world.

My encounter with this individual reignited within me a curiosity regarding why some people dismiss poetry out of hand. One possible reason explaining the disinclination of people to engage with poetry is that the art form is often associated in the public’s mind with complex imagery and metaphor. For instance to fully grasp Eliot’s “The Wasteland” demands copious reading of notes with their references to mythology, history etc. I, personally find the effort entailed in following up on often obscure references enhances my understanding of Eliot’s work. I do, however understand that others feel differently.

While much poetry is complex, a good deal is not. For instance Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” is a wonderful balad describing the doomed love affair between a highwayman and an inkeeper’s daughter. No arcane knowledge is required to enjoy the poem. None the less the idea that poetry “is not for me” persists in the minds of many.

Does the reluctance of some to engage with poetry stem from a fear of deep emotion. The best poetry frequently tackles issues with which many are disinclined to engage. To take a concrete example, in “Aubade” Larkin ponders on death and, in particular our fear of dying. It is often said that in Victorian England sex was the taboo subject. Perhaps in today’s consumerist society the great taboo is death, hence the reluctance of many to engage with poems (and other art forms) which tackle this topic. It is easier to flick between TV soap operas than it is to immerse oneself in the profundities of poetry.

However not all poetry is of a serious nature. “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear and the many limericks, written by countless individuals prove that verse need not be serious.

In conclusion, poetry is for everyone so why are significant numbers of people not attracted to this art form? As stated above, I believe that part of the answer to this question lies in the mistaken belief that poetry is by its nature intrinsically difficult. While some poetry is difficult to interpret, by no means all poetry falls into this category. Consequently any attempt to tackle the misconception that the art form is difficult needs to ensure that young people (and others) are introduced to as broader range of poetry as is possible (both “difficult” and not “difficult”).

As regards the saturated consumerist society in which we live, one in which beautiful women are used to sell all manner of products, this is a more difficult issue. As a liberal (with a small l), I have no desire to tell others how they should spend their leisure time. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and it is not for me to force a dish of my choosing on others. I can only hope that through a rounded education people will come to appreciate poetry at a young age and that this love will remain with them throughout their lives.

Advertisements

Do you judge writers?

Christopher Slater raises an interesting issue in this article entitled “Do you judge writers?” (https://ryanlanz.com/2017/02/16/do-you-judge-writers/)

My own view is that while it is difficult not to judge writers (their morals or lack of them), one should, so far as is humanly possible avoid doing so. A great writer remains so even if he (or she) was/is a terrible parent to their children or held/holds views with which most liberal (with a small l) individuals would disagree.

In this article for the Telegraph A N Wilson mentions the poet, Philip Larkin’s wish (expressed in his correspondence) to join the far-right National Front and Eliot’s anti-Semitism (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3588935/World-of-books.html)

Wilson argues that we need to separate the author’s artistic creations from their views. This is a perspective with which I concur absolutely. We don’t have to share an author’s views to admire their work and if we only read those who concur with our perspectives our lives and the world in general would be a very arid place.

The Personal In Poetry

Recently I asked an acquaintance whether, in her opinion my poetry “is to personal?” She responded that poetry is, by it’s very nature personal and that my writing does not, in any case fall into the category of overly personal poetry.

The above conversation started me pondering on what a poet’s work says about the writer. The first point which must be made is that the mere fact of writing about a topic does not imply that the poet has any involvement in it. For example he may write about boxing or stamp collecting without ever having participated in either activity. One must be careful therefore not to draw erroneous conclusions that A must be somehow involved in Z merely owing to A expending much ink on Z. Having entered the above caveat, it is undoubtedly true that much poetry is personal and by immersing ourselves in the poet’s work we gain an enhanced understanding of both the poet and his poetry.

In his poem, “Aubade” Philip Larkin describes waking at 4 am, looking around his room and thinking about death, from which none of us can escape, try as we might to hide from the fact of our own mortality. Larkin’s poem is intensely personal, “I work all day and get half-drunk at night …”. Larkin describes religion as a “moth eaten brocade” and his lack of religious conviction adds to his fear of death. Larkin’s fear of the grim reaper is intensely personal and the brilliance of Aubade lies in the manner in which the poet communicates his dread of “unresting death”. (For an interesting article on the poem please see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/anwilson/3554550/Philip-Larkins-almost-perfect-poem.html).

Ernest Dowson’s Cynara is another profoundly personal poem. In it the poet describes his encounter with a prostitute,

“All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,

Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;

Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;

But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:

I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion”.

Dowson’s hedonistic lifestyle, “I called for madder music and stronger wine” is an attempt to escape from the memory of Cynara, the poet’s unrequited love interest. Despite Dowson’s attempts to blot out the recollection of Cynara she remains ever present, a kind of Banquo’s ghost at the poet’s parties. Dowson’s life was cut short (he died at the age of only 30). Yet he left behind the wonderfully moving and personal Cynara.

In conclusion it can be seen that poetry can (and frequently) does reveal much about the poet. Indeed it is virtually (perhaps entirely) impossible to write poetry without revealing something of oneself. However, as pointed out earlier in this post we should not conclude that writing about a subject necessarily implies that the writer is somehow a participant in the matter being described.