Sunday, 16 March 2008

Cliches can be quite fun. That's how they got to be cliches

Back home again today, this time for good - or til April, at least. There is absolutely nothing as dreary as driving through suburban London on a rainy day. Except perhaps Siberia. Or Hull. But nice to be back, and we now have wireless, huzzah (although slow, chiz chiz).

And so to peotry*. I thought I'd give my tuppen'orth (that was a case of stick the apostrophe somewhere and hope it's right - can anyone enlighten me on where it should actually go?) on the matter of the Graun's Seven Great Poets of the 20th Century series. This is, after all, a literary blog, and this is a genuine literary news story, so there ya go, I'm writing about it.

Speaking generally, I was soothed by the absence of any particular ranking - a pointless exercise, in my opinion, since good art is very subjective and poetry especially - which has made the series an exploration rather than a competition. But nonetheless there was a value judgement made to get to this seven, and I can't help but feel that the selection could have been more ... adventurous, perhaps? Rather than choosing these seven - all as famous as famous can be - perhaps they could have collated seven underrated 20th century poets? It all seems a little Classic FM-y - no one denies the quality of the work, but the choice is obvious and sometimes you'd like to hear something other than Pachelbel's Canon or the theme to Spartacus**. But then I suppose that this lot are all famous for a reason, so maybe I'm being unfair.

To the selection itself, I wouldn't really change it much, if I'm honest. And to be even honester, those I would change are those I just don't know very well, which only reinforces my belief in the inherent silliness of listing art by "quality" rather than by "favourite". I don't doubt that Seamus Heaney is a vg poet. But personally (pronounced "poyysonlly" of course), I wouldn't have him on my list because it'd be dishonest. I think I've only read one of his poems, and that was for GCSE English. It was a bit self-consciously earthy, I thought, but also quite haunting and nostalgic, and nostalgia is, as we all know, my hobby, so I'd probably like him if I read him but I haven't. Similarly, Plath is loved for a reason, but I've only read Mirror. However, I have a feeling that even if I had read lots of her work, I still wouldn't put her in. Peversity, perhaps? A faux-originality? The only poet I genuinely think doesn't deserve to be in there is Sassoon. He's good, but even if they'd said "Right, and we have to have a war poet, let's have Sassoon", surely they should have chosen Owen? Or maybe he's too obvious even for the selectors (sounds like cricket, doesn't it?), and that shows me up to be an awful hypocrite. I've had good things about Isaac Rosenberg (my grandpa's fave), but again, he fails the Yorick Test ("Ah, I knew him well" - har har har).

But then we get to Larkin - tick! - Auden - tick! - and Eliot - ticktickticktickTICK! I'm still only just discovering Larkin, but what I've read is just right up my strasse, especially the beautiful Mother, Summer, I with its iambs and feeling of blank verse (although, granted, it rhymes) and eminent speakableness, just rolling off the tongue. Auden ditto - he hasn't appeared in the Oxfam Bookshop yet and we don't have a copy at home - but again, what I do know I adore. Lullaby, for instance. And Eliot too - I know more of his work than the others, but I'm still far from knowledgeable, let alone an expert. At times I barely understand what I'm reading. But there's a rhythm to the poems, an odd sort of correctness in his word choice. Some poetry, equally impenetrable, feels permanently so, and I get a headache and give up. With Eliot, I feel like it's just a question of reading it again - a series of barriers that fall easily. It is majestic, haunting, elegeic, grounded - far-sighted and yet fiercely focused at the same time. It's not just Prufrock that is full of repressed passion - it runs throughout.

But why in God's name did they not include The Hollow Men?

So who would make my list, since I've only approved three of seven? Dylan Thomas, probably, simply on the back of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, one of my all-time favourite poems. Roger McGough, almost certainly, for his wit and his empathy and his clear-sightedness, and his brilliant use of rhythm and metre, and because he is rooted firmly in an oral tradition - I saw him perform at last year's Latitude Festival and he was brilliant. I can't resist mentioning Cole Porter - few would call him a poet but his wit and grasp of language is masterful. And my seventh? Edna St Vincent Millay, without a shadow of a doubt.

She is my favourite poet by a mile, and I consider her to be criminally underrated. She has a knack for identifying an emotion and describing it clearly and with pin-point accuracy; her tone is conversational, her language simple, her sentiments universal. She prefers to tell stories in her poems, rather than the abstract descriptive poems which are so popular nowadays but which I loathe. Her sonnets are passionate but witty and sharp, unconventional as her life was; her descriptions of grief in Interim and Time Does Not Bring Relief are unparalled. And the last words of one sonnet are "biologically speaking". What's not to love?

But now this post is hideously long, so I will finish. Expect soon the ever-promised, ever-postponed Captain Wentworth post, and a better introduction to Edna.


* Sissy stuff that rhymes.

** Which is a name I'll never be able to say now without thinking of Hank Azaria in The Birdcage...

1 comment:

  1. Roger McGough is quite possibly responsible for my engagement with poetry on any level. When I was small I had a tape of him and Brian Patten reading their poems, utter love.

    Seven is just not a large enough number for a list, really. I mean, where's Michael Rosen, for his appreciation of chocolate cake in verse?

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