In honour of Armistice Day this week, we offer the following guest essay by Louise Galvin.
Poetry is for teenage girls, goths and people with Labradors. Isn’t it? In the world beyond this screen I don’t know anyone who admits to the consumption of poetry. It has no place in popular culture. It’s something that we give to children to write and old men to read. There isn’t space for it in between. Poetry is not for people who have deadlines, commutes and mortgages; we simply don’t have time for rhyme. And, well, would we want it even if we did have the time – all that uncalled for thrusting of feelings, its moribund metaphors and iambic smugness? Poetry is effete, exclusive and embarrassingly earnest, a frilled-cuffed flourish of look-at-me that, well, is just a bit poncy. Poetry is up itself. It’s not for us. Poetry doesn’t have the X-Factor.
And yet, when I think back to the classroom, it’s not lines of prose or plays that I re-hear – it’s fragments of poems. I still view landscape through the tooth and claw of Ted Hughes and snow will always be coloured by Wilfred Owen (‘the crunch of boots on blue snow rosy-glistening’). Somehow these images linger. Rhyme sticks. Is this some sing-song sorcery? Perhaps there is something in a poem’s construction, in a regular rhythm, which appeals to the mathematical parts of the brain? Or perhaps it’s the occasional precision of a poem, the scalpel-sharp clarity, which makes a connection? Poetry obliges the writer to weigh every word, to scrutinise sound and nuance. It’s a close-up act. It strips to the essential observation and emotion, such that words carry more than the sum of their meaning. Those words, those images, those sounds stay. But, no, I haven’t got a Labrador.
There are a few occasions when poetry is socially acceptable:
- With the sanction of Richard Curtis (knowing that in the next scene we’ll all be jolly and a bit sweary and we’ll have got away with sneaking it in. Phew.)
- When put to a beat. Is pop music not, after all, the bastard child of poetry and Africa? It might not be epic and enlightenment, but lyric poetry still kicks a drum.
- In November.
November is a window because popular culture permits war poetry. At this time of year it’s everywhere. Owen, Brooke and Sassoon have their annual airing and television is all going down of the sun and corners of foreign fields. Perhaps this poetry is acceptable to the public palate because this is solid fellers responding to frightfulness? It’s not full of embarrassing emoting and lost-on-us Greek legend. But it’s more than that, I think. We can somehow relate to the sensations that it communicates – that mesmerizing mix of the mundane, the small details of khaki drudgery, and the shocking rule-breaking red. It can communicate the intelligible textures of something that is otherwise incomprehensible. And perhaps poetry can, in turn, express our response to that more than prose? In this subject verse reverberates. It says more than statistics and a screen full of cemetery. Perhaps this is a place that only poetry can touch?
I grumbled at the radio last week. Poetry, of the number 3 variety, was being aired in accordance with rule 2. Mike Scott, the big-haired whimsical Waterboy, is putting Yeats to music. This intrigued me. I wondered if he’d done the Irish Airman. And then he did it. And I really wished that he hadn’t. To my ear it was a twisted, mangled murder of a thing, all un-empathetic emphases and chest beating to 4/4 time. In responding to this contrary interpretation I realised that this poem, in some odd way, matters to me. It’s part of my measures and references. I remember first reading it as a teenager and only hearing the snarl of bitterness, the bleakness in that balance of life and death. But, when I re-found this poem in my twenties, I heard something different in it. Instead of a chest beat it became a strange joyous leap. There is a reckless elation in the last six lines, a tumbling in-the-moment intensity, a grinning plunge at gravity. This isn’t about dying; this is the joy of flying.
An Irish Airman foresees his Death, W.B. Yeats (1919)
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
It leaves me with peculiarly positive emotions. It is intense with life, not death. Other people, seemingly, read it differently. I wonder how Yeats meant it? That’s the trouble with poetry; it’s so bloody (and beautifully) oblique. Anyway, Mike Scott’s mangling of it made me emote like a teenage goth in possession of a Labrador.
This one matters too. (Indulge me. It is November.) Again, it’s the end.
The Send-Off, Wilfred Owen (1918)
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
It’s something about the quietness of that last stanza. Its silence stretches. It makes me hold my breath. It is beautiful and awful.
Edmund Blunden described November 1916 as ‘melancholy and the colour of clay’. My mind keeps skipping back to that. The view from my window is that colour today. I’ll take a November measure of permissible poetry. If I’m honest, I say yes to Owen in August (some poems are for life, not just for November). I may once, long ago, have patted a Labrador with black-painted fingernails. Just don’t tell anyone that I know, eh?