Monday, 10 March 2008

ON POETRY - Simon Armitage's 9/11

“Am I more of a poet than a man of prose? “

That is the question I was asked very recently. Nor, having observed the questioner’s efforts with interest, was I in a position to answer it - except in very general terms. Poetry is prose on the wing - a paean to the transcendence of the human spirit and the beauty of the human thought. The Germans put all their poetry into their music. The Anglo-Saxons put their music into their poetry. The Africans put poetry into their voices. But post-modern poetry, even under the spell of individual eloquence, is bereft of harmonic contemplation. This is the age of the common man, an age of violence, not of poets, and anyone doing verse today, should be prepared, in my humble, untrained opinion, to do it for his own blog rather than municipal masturbation.

Which, incidentally, also holds true for modern art.

Modern art is God’s personal joke on the greedily rich who are compelled to vie for the latest artistic conception in such places as New York, Paris, London and Tokyo. But then, perhaps, I am not qualified to deny the world her versifiers. The Romantic age of Byron, Keats and Sir Walter Scott, opened the notion of poetry to me, rather than Dylan Thomas or Ezra Pound, as did the purple of ancient ballades with their lasting refrains, from Francois Villon to the likes of Baudelaire and Verlaine, or the German romantic movement, Schlegel and Novalis, sooner than the Communist poet Berthold Brecht.

To prove my point, and for what it is worth, here is the link to a Poem for 9/11, Simon Armitage’s 878-line “elegy”, to provide an example of what I have in mind. Read it at your own peril:

Out of the Blue

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

I’m afraid, as a non-specialist in poetry-processing, what I see are monotonous one-dimensional rhymes, lacking in the ability to radiate charisma, the type of construct that pasty-faced male geeks sometimes send in to local papers:

Then a thump or a thud
But a Pepsi Max jumps out of its cup,
and a filing cabinet spews its lunch.

...and predictable imagery:

The cables, wires, pipes and ducts,
The veins and fibres and nerves and guts
exposed and loose.

Nor did I find the deep emotion and the cry of anguish, that touch of tragic agony, in any of these “limericks.” Above all, I miss the craftsman. This is the natter of an overactive mind, rather than of true vocation. The sort of poetry it is easy to say no to; weighed down with placement stereotypes, inert and passive, rather than impassioned.

Municipal establishments that are also forced to endure the office of Poet Laureate (albeit that this one is still “in waiting”), very obviously, are no longer considering art as a two-way process but as a clash between public ambition and personal aberration. Arthur Schopenhauer said, a “married philosopher” is a contradiction of terms, and so, in my opinion is an itinerant poetaster or “writer in residence” who is exempt, apparently, from public flogging. The very prototype of the window-licking special needs geek. I expect this is his flagship poetry used for spiritual showing off, semi-official auditioning and the loveless beguilement of paid office-holders. Somehow, the pain other people experience becomes pain he has elevated to a personal poetic possession. How terminally desperate would a versifier have to be before he got round to invading the privacy of a broken heart with this sort of trash. To me this is the most stultifying poetry outside junior high. A dullness so intense that it is almost a physical ache. There are parts of verse where you have to say “Shut up, shut up!!” out loud.

here is a calendar, counting the days.
Here is a photograph snug in is frame,

this is my wife on her wedding day,
here is a twist of her English hair.

Here is a picture in purple paint:
two powder-paint towers, heading for space.

I was told of a visiting American relative who refused to read it, on the grounds that it made him want to throw up. How can anyone accept this as poetry, when in fact it looks to me like the very antithesis of it. Every skyscraper in Manhattan is now some sort of symbol for the annual pilgrimage of poet acolytes who come for the pretext of personal sacrifice and pixie propitiation that are the new poetic testament. So 9/11 has long since become a public sore invariably stereotyped by the repetitive pictures of pleading flames swaying brightly against the blackness of the human heart. But it’s only if you really care about something that you can get sufficiently infuriated when soulless zombies disparage it.

Let me be very clear here, lyric aridity is an attribute which defines its possessor's soullessness. Instead of creating a poem, this man created a void.



Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

What conclusion did you come to, Selena?

Selena Dreamy said...

...that, instead of creating a poem, this man created a void!

Jonathan said...

For me there has routinely been something flat and lumberingly dense in so much poetry since T.S.Eliot, a poet who untypically for the 20th century centred his vantage point at least partially in an unironic allegiance to transcendence, traditionally, unembarrassingly wrought.

The tenor of modern verse strikes me as lacking that musicality which speaks of a questing, tentative, aspirational spirit, allied to the awareness that man is spirit, built into a body, stood upon the earth with open skies above.

Modern laughter congregates with confident smugness around talk of the transcendent. A laughter rooted in an impassioned disdain for what is drearily deemed to smack of Religion, Metanarrative and, heavens above, Morality (i.e sexual morality, not liberal morality, which is mandatory).

Instead what thrives is an excess of horizontal referencing of the mundane in a closed circle, from which no exit is allowed, no possibility to breathe vaster airs, or sense a higher richer light. Maybe this holds hands with what you mean by ‘harmonic contemplation’?

The customary association of transcendence with religion is both partly justifiable and very tragic.

In the public sphere transcendence of a kind lives on in religion, but precariously so, clinging to the outworn, leaking from ancient wineskins. Where it appears in art, it arises too much as an exception. Where it exists elsewhere, in new age spirituality and psychedelic drugs for example, it has been colonized and banalised by commercialism in both cases and allied to a mindless, ritualized ‘hedonism’ in the latter, a revelling in the finite- the glory of what we understand and have constructed to be the reliably unspiritual animal that we take ourselves to be (but who ever said that animals are not spiritual anyway?).

Surely it is no surprise in a world made purely immanent, with no outlet in the overarching, that the superficial and the violent will flourish. Where else can our higher emotions of longing go, when we are encased in forbidding cages of the unremittingly empirical? They cannot go within, except toward sentimentality, for ‘as above so below’; they cannot expand or go outward either; and so, as they turn inward, grow wounded, disenchanted and bitter, the clouds of war gather.

He said Elberryesquely…but with, I hope, an undercurrent of optimism, that the skies might fall on our heads.

Richard Madeley said...

I'm almost falling asleep as I write this but I can't let a wonderful little rant against modern poetry and art pass me by without lending it my support.

You are especially perceptive today, Selena. While modern poetry doesn't have an ear it suffers from having far too much brain. The same is true of modern art. I say let modern poetry die its death among the banal toadies in their black roll-neck sweaters.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is a lot easier than you think I have written a lot myself - including Haikus and sonnets. I would have thought a sonnet form would have been appropriate to the 9/11 poem... I shall do one myself I think as I have a spare moment due to unemployment!! It is a pity though that Spike Milligan is no longer with us... but we have Pam Ayres...!!

Selena Dreamy said...

I agree with you about Spike, Mutley, but who's Pam Ayres?

Gosh, sometimes I wish I was better informed...

Selena Dreamy said...

Thank you, Jonathan, for the great care you have taken over your comment. It is, I think, a curiously appropriate summary: almost taking on an incantatory quality and thus in itself the equivalent of the coming of age of a poet.

And I can share your feelings.

By contradistinction, Richard, in few words, neatly expressed the total dilemma. While modern poetry doesn't have an ear it suffers from having far too much brain. Open and shut. So that’s my entire column put in its place. Bingo!

Thank you both!


Anonymous said...

The wonderful PAM AYRES can be found on that link ... I am happy to contribute to your poetical education as I am a noted master of poesie myself..

Bet you don't know how I got the linkin...did you actually read my Jeffrey tribute? If you did you are the only one... and it was bloody hard work.

Selena Dreamy said...

I've printed off the J-tribute, my dear Mutley, and am still in the process of perusing it.

An important literary document, to all appearances.

Now, how about the missing "linkin"...?!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The tag for a link is


but no gaps in the starting and ending anchor tag and display text is what is visible - hopefully...

My Jeffry tribute is at

Nige said...

That is spot on, Selena. It is somehow perfectly expressive of the age that we have Andrew Motion as poet laureate - a man as incapable of writing a poem as I am of climbing Everest without oxygen.

Selena Dreamy said...

...climbing Everest without oxygen!

Rather apt, that. There's something suffocating about this type of poetry.

Thank you Nige, very gratified by your visit...


Selena Dreamy said...

Hey Mutley, you're the cutest puppy of them all. Now I've got to knuckle down and decrypt your info...


P.S. Still reading your "Panopticon"

Anonymous said...

errrmmmm...there are another 90,000 words should you be interested - I have learned that it is necessary to have no sense of humour if one is to write thrillers...

Anonymous said...

Some of Armitage's poetry is pretty good, i think. We're both from Huddersfield so i can half-relate to him...the thought of a Huddersfield man writing an epic poem about 9/11 is ridiculous, however.

There is almost no strong poetry around today. A friend of mine went to a poetry reading by some Irish poet and said later, "It was nice. Nice poems. But I don't want nice poems: I want great poems."

i think the decline of poetry is to do with more than just a faster pace of life. i'm groping towards a sense of poetry's old ties to religion, or rather to a sense of the sacred...

Selena Dreamy said...

...and with the loss of craftsmanship and rhythmic contraint, too, Elberry.

There's a distinct lack of personal investment - as there is in the visual arts!

I notice you comment function is off!?

Selena Dreamy said...

I hope to get back to you with my Panopticon evaluation, Mutley, eventually on this here


Anonymous said...

Good lord!!

Anonymous said...

couldn't agree with you more: void

buddhaseye said...

You, Selena, are a void to be avoided.

Anonymous said...

how are you?

Awesome post, just want to say thanks for the share

Anonymous said...

Obviously you havent read the whole poem. It is astounding. Watch the rufus sewell reading...feel the rhythm and the pace...the use of imagery is startling.

Selena Dreamy said...

...astounding, indeed, how someone like Rufus Sewell may impart poise to a “poem” that has no sense of perspective, or dignity without compromising his own.