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?