The limits to poetry

Are there things we can’t talk about in poetry? Are there any limits? I have to confess to a temptation to answer, simply No, and crack on and write some, since that’s what I signed up for this MA for. However, those questions probably do merit further consideration, so I have been further considering them.

Early in this poetry module when the question arose of why we were there, the lecturer joked that writing poetry was not going to change the world, and a colleague joked back (or was it a joke?) that he absolutely does want to change the world with his poems. We laughed, I guess because we have a clear sense that poetry is a marginal activity. When we considered the furore surrounding the removal of Carol Ann Duffy’s Education for Leisure from the AQA GCSE Anthology, I think we all agreed that it was ridiculous, probably less because we felt it was an innocuous poem, than that the idea of teenagers in significant numbers paying meaningful attention to poetry, still less being influenced by it to go round knifing people, seems utterly implausible.

Yet it does seem to be possible, even now — perhaps especially now — to make a profound impact through writing verse. One way of doing so is to master monorhyme, where every line has the same rhyme, perhaps for scores of lines. It’s not so easy to do in English, so your best bet will be to try a language whose phonology does lend itself to the practice. Arabic, say. And since you’ve chosen Arabic, you may as well try mastering the sixteen classical metres. And for maximum impact go for writing verse that lionises the jihadis of the Islamic caliphate, maybe even actually using the word ‘lions’:

Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the
     lions–
           how their fierce struggle brought
                   liberation.



The land of glory has shed its humiliation
       and defeat
                 and put on the raiment of splendor.

Ok, it isn’t stirring  my eyes to tears and my soul to rage at the calumnies of the infidel, but as Glyn Maxwell pointed out in *On Poetry*, “an English translator has to make an English poet of his foreign friend”, and I’m guessing the translator here is no friend of the ‘court poet’ of Isis, Ahlam al-Nasr, whose verses are, it would seem, a central plank of a rich cultural life, centred on poetry, that reinforces and perpetuates the ideology of the caliphate among its adherents, and adorns recruitment videos, in verse forms that are, apparently, skilful, intricate, and beautiful. If I were to try and teach such verse to a GCSE class, though, I imagine the reaction would be swifter, and have more profound consequences than letting *Education for Leisure* into the classroom.

So: verse, if any use of language is to have limits, must have limits. Language that counts as ‘hate speech’ does so not because its sentiments are ugly, but because its effect is violent. It violates. The problem is not that it is *about* violence and violation, but that it *effects* violence and violation, and dressing it in beautiful poetic form violates that form as well as its target. I would contend that there are no limits to what verse can be *about*, but — as with all human conduct — we must surely assert limits on what it *does*.
I find myself making a distinction between ‘verse’ (which is to do with form) and ‘poetry’. Carol Ann Duffy does what the jihadi ‘poets’ do not do, because despite their fancy prosody, their meaning is one dimensional. She uses the particular, to grasp a universal. She nails what the lone-wolf gunman, the jihadi fighter, and the frustrated kid with a bread knife have in common:


 I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world
.

It’s that ‘today’ that rumbles it. Most of us, despite our protestations of humility and our recognition that there are others even cleverer than we are, like to think we are geniuses of some sort. Given the right circumstances, or different genes, we probably all reckon in our most self-generous moments that we could be (or at least, could have been) anything at all. But only the psychopath thinks they are going to change the world *today* and therefore anyone (the religious fanatic, the ‘build a wall’ president, the kid flushing goldfish down the bog then heading out with a bread knife) who thinks they are going to change the world *today* is a psychopath. And a psychopath can write verse, but I could not call it ‘poetry’.    

Much more could be — and of course has been — said about the distinctive nature of poetry, and how it relates to the limits we put on free speech legally, what acceptable socially, and how the discursive practices of different modes of language use interact with thos social and personal dimensions. The jihadi poetry seems to express singular meaning in forms that are fundamentally communal, the prosody being designed for oral transmission and communal recitation. The forms are not distinctive to militant Islamism but have been appropriated by it precisely because they have traditionally been used to promote solidarity and social cohesion. This is something that western poetry has largely moved away from. The very freedom from traditional formal constraints that characterises much contemporary English poetry reflects its divorce from the communal. Perhaps it is at least in part that there seem to be virtually no limits on the *form* of poetry that its distinctive public voice has retreated into the closed pages of slim volumes that reach tiny audiences.   

Poetry is language highly concentrated. Immensely complex. Potentially more potent to the individual than any other literary art form, I believe. Yet its effect at the social level in the west is homeopathic: which is to say, it *has* no discernible effect, so diluted is it. This may be because modern poetry seems to me to have concentrated on what Glyn Maxwell calls the ‘lunar’ and ‘visual’ dimensions of meaning at the expense of the ‘solar’ and ‘musical.’ When teaching students to approach poetry (which they invariably did with varying degrees of disdain, trepidation and blank incomprehension) I would first insist that they forget that it ‘looks weird’ and remember that it is just a sequence of words in English that, on the whole, they already know. Yet too often even that approach wasn’t much help as so much verse refuses to yield a clear daylight meaning for the ‘lunar’ meanings to resonate within. Instead, they require, in Maxwell’s words, to have “vast trapezoids of critical scaffold … constructed around them to clank in the wind”, and I might add, in the darkness, for we all know the moon’s only light is reflected from the sun.If poetry strays too far from one or more of Maxwell’s dimensions it will either be ineffective, or its effect will be such that it is in a sense no longer ‘poetry’. Propaganda, is not poetry, however skilled it may be in verse form. Or at least it is not poetry until it is read ‘poetically’: context is critical.    

In January 2010 a young man, faced with the prospect of bad weather preventing him travelling to visit his girlfriend, tweeted: *Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!* He was arrested, tried and convicted of *sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character*, only having his conviction quashed after proceedings reached a third appeal at the High Court. During this final appeal, the defence barrister argued that if the tweet was ‘menacing’, then so is Betjeman’s *Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!* It is obvious that the tweet was a joke. It is obvious that Betjeman’s words are poetry. If a joke actually enacts or incites violence, though, it is merely *posing* as a joke, even if some people laugh. Jokes depend on meanings that subvert the literal. 
 

And poetry is a grand, serious joke. 

Good jokes, often explore taboos and the limits of taste, making us feel a little of the discomfort of those who are victimised by unequal power. ‘Jokes’ that reinforce those inequlities are really taunts. The first defence of the bully is invariably, *I was only joking*, and we never accept that excuse. Poetry is a joke that demands to be taken seriously, but not literally. Because of that ‘lunar’ dimension, it can deal with subject matter that might be more difficult to approach, or even practically impossible, in forms that lend themselves less to ‘resonance’.   

If Larkin had omitted the word ‘up’ from the first line of *This Be The Verse* it would have disrupted more than just the quatrameter, and the rest of the poem could not be anything like the one Larkin actuall wrote, because the resonance set up by omitting that one word are so profoundly different. But I wouldn’t want it to be the first line of a poem that *couldn’t* be written, however tough it may be to read.

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