Thursday, July 31, 2008

Liz Who?

I hadn’t really planned to say anything about iconic actress, Joanna Lumley’s comments on poetry, written as an introduction to a friend’s (Liz Cowley) debut collection. She says some of it is obscure and self-indulgent, which is self-evidently true. She also says that less demanding poetry can be humdrum and commonplace, which I agree with wholeheartedly.

I suspect her knowledge of contemporary poetry isn’t that great, which is why I didn’t think her comments worth responding to. Also, I used to watch Sapphire and Steel when I was 15-years-old and thought JL was the sexiest woman alive. So I have reason to be grateful to her.

However, I was struck by Liz Cowley’s comments:

“Poetry is so obscure and inward-looking that it loses people - Carol Ann Duffy, for example, is almost impossible for anyone who has not been well-educated to understand”

Wait a minute – Carol Ann Duffy, one of the UK’s most popular and accessible poets, obscure?! It just shows – what’s obscure to one person will be highly accessible to another. A good education is bound to help with reading anything (otherwise what’s the point of education?), but she seems to be suggesting that poetry should be written only for those who have been badly educated or uneducated, as if poetry should ape the basic language of a tabloid newspaper and avoid all complexity like the plague: poetry as sound-bite or slogan, at a remove from real life which is, like it or not, extraordinarily complex.

Good poetry is worth the effort. OK, so Wallace Stevens can be ‘difficult’ (more so than Carol Ann Duffy – whose work I often like, incidentally), but there are great rewards for perseverance. You have to learn how to read someone like Stevens, but the effort is entirely worth it. There are many lines in Stevens’s poetry that I don’t understand but still think of as strikingly beautiful and affecting. I now ‘get’ more of it than I could have five or ten years ago. It’s not as though my intelligence has miraculously increased in those years. It’s just that the more I read, the more I learn how to read.

People like Liz Cowley, and others who demand that poetry should be easy, simplistic and ‘accessible’, do poetry a huge disservice. They are the true enemies of the written word. They want everyone to conform to their own limited and limiting standards. God only knows what LC’s own poetry must be like, but she certainly doesn’t make me want to find out. You don’t hear these people calling for all novels to aspire to the low literary standard of Jeffrey Archer or Barbara Taylor Bradford. They reserve their patronising judgements for poetry, which they want to be spoon-fed and to make no effort for whatsoever.

Except, of course, when it comes to the classics. When Liz Cowley says, “With rare exceptions, I stopped enjoying poetry written any time after the 18th century,” I can only presume she doesn’t think such pre-19th century poems demand an education. Otherwise they wouldn’t be ‘accessible’ enough for her, would they?


Rachel Fox said...

I agree with you on this one, Rob. The tone and content of what both Lumley and Cowley wrote was horrible and self-centred and mean-spirited - 'buy me, don't buy them, look I'm friends with a famous person'. It made me cringe. Like you I was astounded by the comment on Carol Ann Duffy! Of all the people to mention in that context...Again like you it made me put that book right to the back of any potential pile. Maybe all that sniping and nonsense will help sell a lot of copies (so which celebrity are you getting to intro your next book...I'm thinking of approaching Bruce Forsyth...) but nonsense is what it was. Now I'm cringing again just thinking about it!

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, you're spot-on, Rob. What little I've found of Cowley's work on the web reads like Wendy Cope with all the technical skill, lightness of touch and wit removed.

The comments about only liking pre-19th century poetry were particularly bizarre. I'd have thought the 18th century had a reputation for producing exactly the sort of poetry they claim they don't like (a gross generalisation, of course, but I'll risk it).

Luckily JL must have passed me by in my formative years (it was Daisy out of the Dukes of Hazzard who did it for me, and I don't think there's any risk of her weighing into the debate), so this little outburst of hers doesn't ruin any fond memories.

Ben Wilkinson said...

Lumley and Cowley's comments are bizarre, self-contradictory and idiotic, for sure, but they don't strike me as particularly shocking.

Rather, they seem like a marketing and publicity technique that works on general assumptions about people who don't read very much - if any - poetry. Hence the usual complaints about contemporary poetry being inaccessible (the sort of attitude that would have Otherness trampled under by a wave of culturally-familiar and mentally-untaxing homogeneity that offers nothing new) and pre-19th century poetry being the only stuff of merit (based on their guesswork that non-poetry readers still believe this to be a period when end-rhymes were everywhere and obfuscation or difficulty were nowhere to be seen - an obvious falsehood, but one that is still naively put forward in some quarters).

Based on the growing number of independent poetry mags and the diverse crowds that attend poetry performances (Duffy, Armitage, Mitchell and Hegley all drew huge numbers of poetry fans and non-poetry readers alike at Latitude on separate occasions, for instance), I suppose we can only hope that their little scheme fails miserably.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've done my best but I simply can't find an example of this woman's poetry online to have a look at. I did find another article by Joanna Preston who take a similar stance to you. I really think enough time's been wasted on the whole thing. I'll not go looking for the book and if, in the dim and distant future, I find it reduced to 99p in one of those bins the odds are I'd flick through it, not remembering any of this, and chuck it back in. I really have better things to do.

Colin Will said...

I too agree with you here Rob, and I also agree with Jim. Cowley's comments are bizarre, and they strike me as untruthful - she's striking an attitude rather that proposing an argument she believes in. But it's nothing grown-up poets need to get involved in.

Dick said...

A good and necessary rant, Rob, but so sad that it still needs to be voiced. 'A good education is bound to help with reading anything (otherwise what’s the point of education?)'. Poetry in schools - don't get me started...

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Personally, I think this was worth responding to. I don't care about LC's book at all, but I felt her opinions had to meet with some fierce but reasoned opposition. I appreciate why some of you have no interest in the whole thing.

Ben Wilkinson said...

There's a poem of Cowley's at the link below for those who're interested. As Matt said, it reads like a poor imitation of Wendy Cope or Sophie Hannah.

Emerging Writer said...

Actually, if CAD changed what she said to
Poetry may be so obscure and inward-looking that it loses people (and often does)
then she's right. There is such a small audience for up-your-bum, look at me I have an education and a spell check that it rubs off on the less obscure, more accessible but nonetheless good poetry. )I don't include Cowley in this as I haven't read her)