Where are we now?
Kevin Williamson favours us with the third in his thought provoking column on Poetry
The first time I heard the words ‘poetry is the new rock’n’roll’ was back in 1993. It was a phrase that got bandied about - by folk who should have known better - when the first National Poetry Day was launched. It gave me the dry boak then just as it does now. It’s like saying Usain Bolt is the new Pat Stanton or unleaded petrol is the new Tartan Special.
Poetry has been around for a long time. Homer transcribed his two great epics of war and peace - the Iliad and the Odyssey – approximately 2,700 years before Chuck Berry recorded Roll Over Beethoven. I say transcribed because there is a substantial body of opinion that believes these classic Greek epics were folklore that existed as part of an oral tradition long before Homer wrote them down.
No one knows the true age of poetry. We know it goes back thousands of years but how many thousands is pure guesswork. Poetry doesn’t need a media-hyped renaissance to survive. It learnt how to do that long before the first printed newspaper told its first lie to the people.
Art has to keep evolving and mutating or it stagnates. What was once considered the epitome of innovation may come across now as arcane or foostie. Do people still want to read dreamy cloud poems sprinkled with Thees and Thous? Or Oh this and Oh that? Well, some people do. I’m one of them. Much as I love poetry’s new wave of linguistic revolutionaries, experimentalists who push and pull at the form, such as Jay Bernard, Ilya Kaminsky, Caroline Bird, or Harry Josephine Giles, I’ll return to pre-modernist loves like Burns, Coleridge or Dickinson whenever I feel the urge. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Languages evolve too and if poetry doesn’t dirty its hands and feet with our ever-mutating vocabulary, slang and syntax, nor incorporate the foreign tongues we hear, nor the hybrid written languages we read, including textspeak, adspeak or twitterspeak, it would yawn away into irrelevance.
Before he died, David Bowie asked the question, Where Are We Now? It’s a good entry point. Poetry is not where it was in 1993. Back then older more conservative white blokes controlled everything. It was difficult for working class poets, black and asian poets, or female poets to get past the gatekeepers of publishing in significant numbers, nor have their work taken seriously by staid academia’s critical mafia. 1993 was also the year that the game changing Mosaic web browser was launched. Nothing would be the same after that.
The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in poetry. It stocks enough publications to test a pet theory of mine that poetry, like the rest of the world, crossed a Rubicon in 2008, when the banks crashed, and the world economy tanked. I ran an unscientific survey of poetry anthologies from 2005-2007 to compare them with what was happening now. The type of poetry dominating these older anthologies tilted more towards the pastoral, personal, more domestically reflective, than what has emerged since.
Renaissance is a loaded term. Consensus comes much later. How can you tell where a river flows if your main reference point is the rapids you’re being dragged through? But there’s enough evidence to suggest the form itself, and crucially, how poets and poetry connects with their audience, have been turned upside down and inside out in the last decade.
Last month saw the British-Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson win the prestigious T S Eliot Prize. His poetry is politically engaged. He writes passionately about the Grenfell disaster, the NHS, and black history. Robinson is not the sort of poet who won the T S Eliot prize before 2008. He made his name as a dub poet, a brilliant performer of his work, a radical voice within his community.
Robinson isn’t alone. This year’s T S Eliot shortlist had a series of poems by Fiona Benson about Zeus as a serial rapist; a disturbing dystopian sequence by Ilya Kaminsky about resisting an unnamed authoritarian dictatorship through silence; collections engaged with the 1981 New Cross Fire that led to the Brixton riots; Brexit, and a wide spectrum of living in the here and now.
Patterns emerge. Poet and judge Clare Pollard described the 2018 TS Eliot Prize short list as “an intensely political list, and right now it needs to be a political list. Poetry’s ability to engage with language when it is being so debased, when there are so many lies and so much fake news, its ability to look at the discourses around us, is so important.”
This is an age of anxiety and fear which needs renewed art forms, different approaches. You can hardly write a poem about a tree now without it referring back to climate change. Poetry is renewing its artillery.