The death of public poetry

There are many types of poetry, but I’ll limit myself to the division between the personal – with its private reflections on life and death, love, loss and transfiguration – and the public – which is a reaction to the current of social events and opinions. The former may be written by anyone, anywhere, any time (talent allowing), but the latter depends upon the current to carry it to its destination, and if the current runs sluggishly, then no great poetry will be written, even by the talented.
Looking at public poetry today in Britain, much of it seems inspired by vicarious, usually literary, sources. Sassoon, Owen, MacDiarmid, Auden and others all reacted to powerful events – the Western Front, the Depression, the struggle against Fascism in the thirties. But after 1939 this poetry goes off the boil. The Second World War against Germany and the Cold War against Communism inspired lesser works. Keith Douglas and Hamish Henderson seem slight figures when measured against their predecessors in the trenches, and no cause, not even nuclear oblivion, reaches the creative heights of the pity and anger provoked by the torment of Spain.
Since the last war, Britain has stepped back from Empire, from World Power status and from global dominion, and British poets consequently have not faced the dilemma of their American cousins – of living in a democracy capable of tyrannical actions on a grand scale, whose myth has been, at least on occasion, so flagrantly at odds with her deeds. No British Ginsberg has appeared, but many inspired by Ginsberg’s writings imitate Howl and America; and these have been good imitations, moving imitations, powerful imitations sometimes, but imitations for all that.
Nor have we succumbed to dictatorship and the one party state. A British dissident writer is a meaningless term: those who most seek the title are likely to be the very ones most petted and applauded by those with the power to bestow titles upon them. How many editions of Sunday literary supplements go by without yet another radical, alternative, ethnic, neo- or post-feminist, gritty working class realist being praised to the skies and showered with lucre? There have been no Yevtushenkos in this country because there have been no Babi Yars to shock one into existence.
Should there have been? We have had our own Bosnia and Kosovo at the end of the Stranraer ferry for many years, and yet what art has it inspired? That strife seems to have affected literary Britain as a depressing minor pain better ignored and not as an obvious injustice demanding clear commitment to the truth. While the casualties mount, British writers have contented themselves with the role of “gritty” court jester, and “outraged, Stockbridge”, grumbling about the government while digesting a full meal.
The poetry is in the pity, but what do we have to occasion the pity? Is there a poet in Britain who has not wished, secretly, just once, that we were at war, or being terrorised by the secret police, just so he/she might have a worthy subject to write about? Is there a writer of public verse, committed to x, y and z, who has not suspected himself in his more honest moments of being an ambulance chaser?
Someone once bombastically likened poets to those who hold the frontiers of human consciousness. If so, then poets today are caught in the frontier paradox – namely, those who hold the frontier against barbarism are valued only to the extent that barbarism is seen to be a threat, and if the barbarian tide is repelled, the threat diminishes, and the social importance of those who guard against it disappears. Thus does victory defeat the victor.
So it is in this country now. The art which illuminates the soul through the dark hours throws only a feeble radiance in the noonday of peace and guaranteed freedom. I cannot but think that, in public poetry at least, Britain’s art has been a weak and guttering light for many years, and that this has contributed to our national Alzheimer’s disease – because our society is slowly losing its sense of the past, and, feeling no need to develop a vision of the future, is living instead in a hedonistic present where the austere rights and thoughtful duties of the citizen have been exchanged for the pampered privileges and superficial joys of the consumer.
Perhaps, as never before, the frontier, and the barbarism, is within.

Published 21 April 1999
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Contributed by Chapman / Eurozine

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