Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Smart cookies give this old ‘poetry guerilla’ some hope

MY Joy of Essex written a few weeks ago upon the subject of modern poetry drew a response from our readers, one of whom, B. Murray, told of being castigated by a writing group for producing mere “rhyming verse” instead of “poetry”. I’ve heard many such stories over the years. The late Auberon Waugh, when editor of the Literary Review, ran a regular “real poetry” competition. It accepted only poetry which rhymed and scanned. Some were angry or dismissive about this. I thought it was hilarious.

Whilst not quite as strict as Waugh, however, I generally like poetry to at least be “about” something.

Many years ago, a national broadsheet for whom I was poet-in-residence despatched me to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the new Oxford chair of poetry was about to be appointed. Although I’d never heard of the post, I was told that after the actual laureateship it was the country’s second-most-important poetry job.

Walking on a sunny Saturday morning among the honeystone splendour of Oxford’s Catte Street, I was stopped at the Bodleian Library gates by two stewards, who politely but firmly informed me that unless I was, or had been, a member of the faculty, I could not enter – not even into the yard, let alone the actual hall. I stood like a peasant at the gate, as the mortar-boarded Great & Good swept past me, ushered through by the lickspittles who’d barred my way earlier.

Here I was, the most published living poet in England at that time, representing a national broadsheet – a British taxpayer to boot – and they wouldn’t even let me stand in the yard. I phoned my editor. “So write about it,” he said, and put the phone down.

You may imagine the vengeful glee with which I tore into them. Sarcasm wasn’t in it. They were, so far as I was concerned, swan-noshing, elitist no-necks who would be first up against the wall when the poetry revolution came.

Do you know who the current Oxford chair of poetry is? No, and neither do I, but if they really are in charge of the nation’s poetry, Ford help us.

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I’ve been fighting a guerilla war against them for decades now. Every so often I do a day, or a few days, in a local school, trying to fire the young clients up about poetry. Rhyming and scanning is good, I tell them. “If you can’t understand a poem, then don’t waste time on it. There is far too much poetry and far too little time.”

The Poetry Society’s recommended day-rate for a visiting poet, incidentally, is a bracing �300, which many schools can’t afford. I’ll work for about half that – or less. I’d rather do without the money if only to sabotage poetry’s self-appointed curators – that’s how angry I am.

I want those kids to know about rhyme: to hear at least one piece of the genius found in Betjeman, Keats, Housman, Poe, Coleridge, the Thomases – Dylan and Edward – and Tennyson; for they will remain my poetry building blocks.

Last week, I did a poetry day at East Bergholt High School, just over the Essex border. A rural school of about 900 children, they have a large catchment area, which I am informed encompasses Ipswich’s Chantry estate and Colchester’s Greenstead estate, as well as all the villages within its environs.

With a seven-member English department, one of whom has taught there for over three decades, the school is a happy ship with a happy crew. The whole place, in fact, set in Suffolk countryside and surrounded by trees, almost has the feel of a woodland school.

So far as poetry was concerned, I was in for another pleasant surprise. They’d sacked all the Ofsted inspectors and replaced them with poets? Not quite, but part of the GCSE exam, apparently, now has a special section on poetry.

I was told that this had been the case for two years. For too long, poetry, within general English studies, has been a cousin rarely visited, with hard-pressed staff in certain schools where I’d been being able to teach only the bare bones of the subject.

I gave two live performances in the school hall – 50 minutes each for two audiences of 180. Teaching, however, should be more than straight entertainment, so in three subsequent sessions I set them some work.

I gave three choices of classic poem subjects: 1) A dead hero/heroine. 2) A season. 3) An animal – not to include any puppies, kittens or hamsters. “Research, write, re-write, then edit,” I told them.

It was at this point that I began to feel a little old. Research, you see, no longer means looking things up in books. Our class of Year 8s scrambled like a cavalry brigade to their steeds, in this case a row of laptops .They were highly enthusiastic: “Can we have an imaginary season, sir?” Or, “Can I have a dead cricketer, sir?” Or, “What about a mythical animal, Mr Newell?”

I found their energy catching. They weren’t just smart cookies, they possessed lively imaginations. They were good kids.

How, though, further down the line, do we prevent stolid old Academe from ironing out all this natural creativity? Well, we can’t, really, but with poetry slightly more prominent at last, perhaps we might add another R to the existing three. Rhyme.

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