Poetry is a dangerous word

Posted by in April's Magazine

Now I don’t subscribe to the life teachings of obdurate monotheistic prophets or philandering philosophers of Zen but it seems to me that your average kung-fu fighting Rasta vegan poet speaks softly but with no need of amplification.

Said Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah: “I started writing poetry because I didn’t like poetry.”




For some, poetry will never be more than a burst of gastric prattle, an intellectual dirty protest favoured by pseudo types and raging cultural narcissists. Tony Hancock’s The Poetry Society captures that sometimes warranted distrust to maximum comic effect (“Mauve world, green me” indeed). My favourite poet – the ever so funny, very political and entirely soulful Adrian Mitchell – put it thus: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”

Yet despite the risibly poor sales of many poetry books, it is invariably for a verse we reach when required to voice our emotions in terms more lyrical than I love you so much or why the hell did you have to go and die? For weddings, Valentine’s Day, funerals, political speeches even. Really? Listen, if the President of United States of America crooning the intro to an Al Green song isn’t poetry to you, I say the condition of your human condition is in need of serious reconditioning. And go read some verse.

Poetry’s Les Dawson
What then is poetry? Where is it now? Who even reads it? How do you make sense of The Waste Land? Is a Radio 4 in-house poet an Uncle Tom? What’s for tea? Some, if not all, of these questions will be answered as we go.

For me poetry is the assassin’s brand of cigarette: an or-your-money-back aphrodisiac; every rabbit who refuses to be stuffed back into the hat; high noon for cliché and mendacity; interior design bespoke for a black hole; the moment that one’s heart realises it’s but a rhythm section player and another organ is calling the shots in this sorry-arsed cabaret band; the cartography of your soul scribbled on the back of that assassin’s fag packet and some place we all go to die happily ever after.

Often all in the one poem – if it’s any good.

According to North South divide correspondent Simon Armitage: “We’re bombarded by colour, noise, mishmash…usually lies…poetry tends to be one person saying what they mean with one voice.”

So you tune into that voice or you don’t. The frequencies I most pick up emanate from Blake, Whitman, Burns, Rimbaud, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Carroll, Milligan, Carver, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Dr Seuss, Stevie Smith, and Wendy Cope. Others feature or fade and fizzle depending on the quality of medium wave reception. Decades on, Plath defeats me still and Hughes I’ve only just got from a reading of Crow that blew off my ears, though not before painting my wagon and all the colours of the rainbow black.

And as Bukowski spat in So You Want To Be A Writer:

“unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.”

The spoon-fed advice to tomorrow’s poet is read lots of today’s poetry but I’m not convinced. I do try, I try hard, but…

Say it’s me. Quite plausible. I could hold the moon in my hairy werewolf palm but obtuseness or laziness or quadruped envy might be concealing the beauty of its lunar meaning. It must be me.

Former children’s laureate and still-fighting-the-good-fight leftist Michael Rosen was once asked if there was an art form that he couldn’t relate to. Classical ballet he said. “I can’t see the emotion behind the movements; all I can see is pointy toes.”

That’s it – pointy toes!

Where’s the wit, the polemic, the slam dancing in the void, the songs of pirates and pariahs and partisans, the siren’s story as told exclusively to the Greco-Roman tabloid press, and the dreams of electric sheep counting insomniac androids in the shadow cast by the streetlight of our imaginations. Where’s Wall-e? Where’s Wally? Where’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti?

It could be me, yes, or might we be defining poetry too narrowly? Ian McMillan, that self-declared beat generation Les Dawson has suggested as much.

Must poetry therefore live and die on the pages of low print run books or esoteric periodicals or e-zines read by other poets aspiring to be published in books etc bought and read by other etc.?

There’s poetry everywhere if we care to look: in popular song (and it can be no coincidence that the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen were poets before making music), in the 140-character discipline of Twitter, in those funny things your children say at breakfast (but never at tea), in the braggadocio of hip-hop, in the ribald chants of the terracing (I’m being fanciful now), and cut into the concrete walls of Enric Miralles’s Parliament building.

“Poetry is a very dangerous word,” said another sucker on the vine, Tom Waits. The piano has been drinking. The poet has been drinking. I started drinking because I didn’t like drinking. I love poetry. I hate poetry. I love poetry. Maybe it’s time we came to an understanding, she and I.

3 responses to “Poetry is a dangerous word”

  1. @MWheelaghan says:

    Hey Rodger,
    really interesting article. Pointy toes indeed! Cheers. Look forward to reading more from you:)

  2. home tutor says:

    hey there i came here by searching poems and its good poem

  3. alvin says:

    Pointy toes indeed! Cheers. Look forward to reading more from you web designers in long island

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