Poetry – What Poetry?

I could read well by the time I was four, and for my fifth birthday my mother bought me two books of poetry, not for her to read to me but for me to read aloud to her.

I could read well by the time I was four, and for my fifth birthday my mother bought me two books of poetry, not for her to read to me but for me to read aloud to her. I loved doing so and I loved the poetry even though, of course, I didn’t know why. Its rhythms gave me a sense of harmony as a young musician might feel learning Mozart on the piano. I then went to elocution classes, for which I have been more than grateful throughout my life, as I learned how to speak and be heard, but even more for introducing me to a lot more poetry.

As vicar of a rural parish, each morning I would walk along and back the mile-long lane in which I lived, reading aloud poet after poet to the cows and sheep, and living now in the Cathedral Close of Salisbury I do so still, often as early as 6:15am. Someone on her bicycle stopped one morning and commented that it is was a strange thing to do (this from someone wearing lycra, for heaven’s sake!) I replied that what was far stranger was that more people were not doing so!

It was poetry that obtained for me my first benefice. I had come to Ely to interview the Bishop, Peter Walker, classicist and friend of Auden, about a biography I was writing, and had anticipated perhaps 20 minutes of his time. I stayed with him for almost three hours and looking back I can’t recall a word spoken about my intended subject! Instead, I had noticed that of the myriad of books in his study, almost all were works of poetry and so a wonderful friendship was begun. By 5:30 when he dashed off late for Evensong in the Cathedral, he had asked me to come to work in the diocese. How could I not?

Peter and I once got stuck in a churchyard for fifteen minutes with a congregation waiting inside as we shared together our mutual joy at a new discovery; a churchwarden was dispatched to find us and he once boiled dry the soup prepared by his wife for us when he asked me to drop by for lunch, so engrossed was he in reading to me a new work by his great friend Geoffrey Hill. It was through Peter that I came to know Geoffrey, visiting him in Brookline, Massachusetts, as well as in in Cambridge, and remembering one morning when to my surprise, he, Alice and their daughter turned up for the Parish Communion. Afterwards at the Vicarage he expressed great pleasure that I had read aloud to the beasts of the fields every one of his published collections.

It is in the reading of poetry aloud that I have found the measure by which to judge what I am reading, not listening to others reading, and perhaps especially not the authors. To make it mine, it must be spoken aloud by myself. What began as the North Lancashire Test of poetry morphed into the Salisbury Test.

How fortunate I was to become a priest before the vandals robbed England of the Prayer Book. I adored speaking the words and always took funerals using the 1928 BCP – no one ever complained, because it sounded right for the occasion: serious words with profound resonance. Each morning, I pass under the gaze of George Herbert, he is  added to the statuary on the West End of the Cathedral. Regardless of the narrowly Protestant content of some of his poetry,  you cannot miss the sheer craftsmanship that he put into his writing and because he was the master of form and technique his poems work. Who can doubt that Vaughan William’s setting of the Five Mystical Songs (including “Love bade me welcome, the greatest poem in the English Language properly expresses the heart of the poems?

Lucy Newlyn’s superb book The Craft of Poetry should be open before any who wish to call themselves poets, because her central intent is to show that poetry is a craft, and like all crafts must be acquired in an apprenticeship that can last years before a poem worthy of the name should be allowed the light of day.

I am not a poet. When I have tried, it almost always ends up like a cushion from which a bottom has just lifted, bearing the hallmarks of the last poet I read. For five years I was the editor of The Sign, an eight-page inset which parishes bought to supplement their parish magazines. This was before the days of the internet, and the circulation was a hefty quarter million per month, and because I wrote most of it, even assuming that just 5 per cent of copies were read each month, that gave me a readership of 12,500. Each month I received poems in my post-bag. In five years, I published none, because few were little more than sentimental religious doggerel. Only two I thought worthwhile and wrote to the authors recommending other journals, and I wrote to every single person who offered contributions by post, thanking them even as I had to disappoint them – most literary agents now rarely, communicate a rejection, even with email, not available then.

A great deal of what I read now in journals and books described as poetry disappoints me. Rebecca Watts in Cambridge stands out among modern poets and has written about defending poetry as an art demanding discipline, but I have sometimes returned home to my breakfast thinking that the stream of consciousness I’ve just read might pass muster as a possible “thought for the day”, but it does not have the stamp of the hard work demanded of words that carry weight and give the form they require to communicate more than passing meaning. My wife will ask as I eat my porridge what I have been reading. Too often I have replied: “thoughts and opinions, but not poetry”.

A great deal of what now appears in poetry journals reflects the liberal agenda of inclusiveness and is blatantly political in content, and I still hear contempt towards the former Laureate Sir John Betjeman mainly because his work still outsells everyone else put together. There is a reason for that and it isn’t just that some of it rhymes and had rhythm. He dealt with things that matter to all of us, not least the reality of death and the possibility of meaning.

Despite having driven two women to suicide and one to commit a murder, Ted Hughes succeeded him and followed three who have allowed the post to decline into almost total obscurity, though all over the world (but mostly in America) poets laureate appear, mostly serving just a year, which may be longer than most of their poems are remembered. Many who wish to speak of themselves as poets are just not prepared to engage diligently in learning their art to be what they wish to claim.

No doubt the ghosts of Ezra Pound or the over-trumpeted Basil Bunting will come to haunt me. Let them, I don’t care. Nobody I have met can recite from memory anything of the Cantos or Briggflatts because they are so very unmemorable. Who told the emperor he was wearing wonderful clothes?

When I am asked how to write, my reply is that you cannot write if you have not yet read. Reading is the only route to writing, and for those aspiring to call themselves poets, being rooted in the canon is irreplaceable, and I regret to say it shows when subject to the Salisbury Test. Poetry can be the easiest and, so, the laziest form of writing.

Interestingly, those with dementia can often speak poetry aloud,  once learned when most everything else has gone. Along with music its potency continues, and continues to surprise me when I meet it, especially in my own wife afflicted with this terrible illness.

My five-year-old self knew this intuitively and speaking poetry from memory came easily because the poetry was memorable, because it brought together the hard work put into giving proper form to thoughts worth communicating to others.

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