Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: I loathe the Establishment but love poetry’s potency

“Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores people” – Adrian Mitchell

IT is autumn and, therefore, time for poetry. In case you happened to have been on a business trip to Saturn this week, on Thursday we enjoyed National Poetry Day. In addition, the successful 10-day-long Essex Poetry Festival ends tonight at Chelmsford’s Cramphorn Theatre. I think it’s because I know something of modern poetry that I dislike so much of it. Since the definitions of the poet’s work lie somewhere between those of court jester and soothsayer, the question of what may constitute poetry is highly interpretable.

Poetry, that eternal Cinderella of the arts, comes, broadly speaking, in two tiers. There is pop poetry: a mainly performance-based affair which is home to modern penny balladeers, a few comedians and sundry ragged ranters. And then there is “serious” poetry, hijacked many decades ago by academics, who contrive to keep it arcane and often downright incomprehensible to the rest of us.

To paraphrase George Orwell, who accused the English Establishment of being like a family with the wrong members in control, Establishment poetry is in the charge of all the fustian professors, pedantic crossword-puzzlers and people who’ve attended one too many creative writing-courses.

What little finance there is available for poetry’s sustenance is usually provided by the Arts Council, an organisation whom I’ve always considered as being of less use than a cardboard saucepan. Many of those modern poets whom the hapless public have been force-fed in recent years really are fairly useless – it’s not your imagination. Few have performance skills to speak of and some encounter difficulties even reading clearly.

The public actually hates and fears serious poetry and at any suggestion that a recitation is imminent will flap off like panicked flamingos at the approach of a crocodile. It was discovered recently, too, that more people write poetry than read it. Scary? I think so.

Even literary agents, especially literary agents, will rarely look at poetry. Whenever it is promoted by an official body, or a national broadcaster, poetry is at its most embarrassing. National Poetry Day for most working poets is like being forced to don a home-knitted safari suit and attend the school dance. To add to the well-embedded chagrin of poetry’s self-appointed auditors, whenever the public is asked which is their favourite poem, they usually choose Rudyard Kipling’s If, which they like because at least they can understand it. In the eyes of poetry snobs, this misses the whole point.

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Poets who can regularly fill venues, and they are few, include John Cooper Clarke (featured on pages 34 & 35), Roger McGough, Luke Wright and Pam Ayres, who is now so popular that the poetry elite daren’t even mention her.

The rewards for becoming a truly popular poet are scant, however. A poet’s laurels may wither quickly, too. If the public can recall even a stanza of a poet’s work, they’re doing well. If, however, they can match the stanza in question to the correct poet within 50 years of his or her death, then the poet concerned is really motoring. Recognise any of the following opening lines? “I wish I’d looked after my teeth.” Or “I fell in love with an alien being.” Or “This is not a poem about ice cream.” In the following order, they are Pam Ayres, John Cooper Clarke and Andrew Motion.

Poetry nowadays is usually freeze-dried in a cool exhalation of literary approval before being permitted to languish mostly unnoticed and unpurchased in the dull corners of even duller bookshops. The Body Poetic ameliorates any ego damage caused by this self-created ignominy by constantly awarding each other prizes. Study the form and any poet you’ll find who hasn’t won some sort of prize will be the rareity.

Rules are strict, however. Attempts at humour are frowned upon; rhyme or scansion regarded as little more than cheap conjuring tricks. Unsurprisingly, therefore, much modern poetry is un-rhyming, unreadable and ghastly, with its Laureateship little more than the beauty competition nobody should have won.

And yet, I love it. I have read and remembered poetry since I was a small boy and have written it since I was 13 years old. For many years I even made a living at it.

I believe poetry to be the brandy in literature’s drinks cabinet – medicinal as well as intoxicating. Poetry, too, is surprisingly utilitarian. It’s handy for amusing people, lampooning, informing, charming or enchanting them. As a performance medium, poetry is generous and will accommodate comedy, politics, story-telling, history and spirituality. Poetry has taken on board its creaking galley everyone from Juvenal and Sappho, through Christopher Marlowe to Spike Milligan.

In a cardboard box in a local chip shop a few years ago, much to my amazement, I recognised an old poetry textbook from my schooldays. Published by Longmans in 1953, the year of my birth, it was an anthology called Fresh Fields, edited by E W Parker – who really knew his stuff. It cost me 20p to recapture it, that’s all. I was mostly pretty useless at school: fair at English and history and that was about it. Then, one day, when I was 13, Mr Smith my English teacher awarded me 10/10, a big red tick and a jaunty “Excellent work!” at the bottom of my newly-written poem about autumn. It changed my life.

Part 2 eventually.