I was skimming through Life and Work, the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland. This month, unexpectedly, there is an article by Scottish poet, Kenneth Steven, on poetry.
Kenneth Steven argues that poetry is an art form “ripe for our time” and can present “new ways of looking at world.” That perception is at odds with the invisibility of poetry from bookshops and television, but it’s still true enough. Even without “dumbing down,” I’m convinced poetry could have a much larger audience if people overcame their fear of trying to read it.
Steven then goes on to say that “the poet’s task is to make the known world strange again, to take the reader and let him or her see that world afresh.” Here’s where I begin to differ. I don’t believe there is a single “poet’s task.” A poet’s task is whatever a poet wants to do and that may be different for every poet. Variety of purpose is a good thing.
Then Kenneth Steven says – “I’ll be bold and say [that enabling the reader to see the world afresh] is sadly lacking in the bulk of our contemporary writing. There are some fine exceptions, but most of the lauded Scottish writers I read are wandering round playing games with the trivial, waxing lyrical about the inconsequential.”
Now that’s quite a claim. My first reaction is to disagree completely. I wish he had named the writers he is talking about, as without naming them, he’s talking into a vacuum. Most of the “lauded Scottish writers” I read certainly aren’t concerned with the inconsequential and trivial. I can understand why he wouldn’t want to make enemies by quoting examples, but without such examples, his allegations mean nothing. And – quite honestly – such allegations aren’t exactly going to encourage people to try reading contemporary poetry.
He then makes an interesting statement – “we used to write about things that matter, now we write about what matters about things.” Interesting, but very vague. Who is this “we”? Presumably Kenneth Steven doesn’t include himself - despite the odd first person plural - so who is included?
In any case, poets have always written “about what matters about things” and have used these reflections to consider the “things that matter.” I don’t think things have suddenly changed in that regard. Poets may disagree over what matters most, but the best poets surely write about what matters to them.
He goes on to examine the relationship of faith and poetry, which I might come to on another occasion.