BBC2’s ‘Why Poetry Matters’: my (not altogether nice) thoughts.
I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s Why Poetry Matters show on BBC iPlayer, part of their Poetry Season — you too can watch it until Wednesday, here. However, I have to say in all honesty, I wouldn’t bother.
I was turned off this ‘Poetry Season’ idea from the word go: i.e., seeing the trailer, which featured the gruesome Lauren Laverne giving a bad reading of a poem in a multi-storey carpark. I also read the Radio Times (my mum buys it, OK?) piece on the season which only made me shudder all the more. However, I knew I couldn’t not watch this show, so I steeled myself, and went for it.
It doesn’t start well… Griff Rhys-Jones (who don’t get me wrong, I quite like) leaping around like a loon in a field of daffodils, reciting… well, guess which poem? Why is it that that is the poem the media always choose to use (remember that hideous –and it’s for real! — Visit Cumbria ad?)? The poem every single person in the country knows off by heart whether they like it or not (and generally they don’t) — one that’s been used to torture schoolchildren for generations? Needless to say, this opening did not have me jumping for joy… and actually, I am tempted to re-watch and count the number of times the name “Wordsworth” is spoken. Too many, anyway.
In fact, there was far too much emphasis placed on the old, dead, white, male, well-known schoolroom poets. I made notes: Marvel, Tennyson, Hopkins, Milton, Keats, a bit from King Lear, and of course, dear old Wordsworth. The only contemporary poet who got a look-in was Aidan Henri, and even then, only for about three seconds. Mostly, the poems were ill-chosen and read stuffily (or raced through, like Simon Armitage’s very perfunctory reading of the Keats) — the exceptions being Robert Frost’s ‘A Dust of Snow,’ and Johnson’s famous piece to his dead son, both read excellently by Rhys-Jones (if only he hadn’t started analysing the Johnson piece when he was finished!). Larkin and Betjeman — poets far more fitting for a programme intended to explain to the uninitiated “why poetry matters” — were mentioned, but their work was not quoted. Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ got a look-in, but in the form of an ancient filmreel with a reading by someone who may or may not have been Richard Burton putting on his plummiest accent. At times it felt a bit ‘here are all the poems we learned at Eaton, let’s have a jolly good old nostalgia trip about it, shall we?’ — at one point, Rhys-Jones even said “real poetry… the poetry I learned at school.” The visit to the rich, white, middle-class, middle-aged poetry group in Southend was about the final straw for me (although actually… that might have been Andrew Motion’s classic soundbite: “people need to get used to the idea that poetry is difficult — get over it!” Yet again, new fans won all across the land. Well done, you freaking moron).
The show was a mish-mash of weird and random… stuff, too. At one point, Rhys-Jones wandered into a church and tried to vaguely tie poetry and the Bible together as twin emotional liferafts. He went to Faber & Faber and talked for about two minutes about publishing… but only about publishing with them (and again, it smacked of the Old Boy’s Club just a bit). The Secretary of State for Culture got a few seconds, and he used them to show that he doesn’t know much about poetry but does a great line in bullshitting. There was a bizarre segment with Valerie Laws and some beachballs with words written on them (this would have been far more effective if they’d got kids to do the activity, I think), and Simon Armitage’s “poetry operation” with a Keats poem and some Scrabble tiles didn’t seem to be doing anything. Worst — and this really was horrific — Rhys-Jones went to see the ‘Poetry Doctor’, an insipid woman in a nurse’s uniform who “prescribed” poems to him according to his “emotional needs”. Like I say, I was taking notes… they got quite scribbly and profane around this point in the show.
I know, I know… thanks to the stingy BBC they only had an hour to explain what poetry is and why it gets written and why it matters. And yes, some of it was alright — good, even. The segment early on in the show about how we experience poetry as children was, overall, pretty OK. We got to hear a snippet of ‘Jabberwocky’ and Rhys-Jones discussed the integral role poetry plays in young children’s linguistic and social development (although he was quick to contradict Les Murray’s observation that “kids are immunized against poetry at school”; something which is very true and needs dealing with, not glossing over). The most sensible words in the whole thing were spoken by performance poet Charlie Dark (token black poet, which I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t horribly obvious). He talked about how important it is for children to read and write poems about things that matter to them, things they understand; he spoke passionately about how poetry can empower young people, and there were clips of him doing some cool spoken-word exercises with a group of primary school kids.
Rhys-Jones also spoke to the brilliant Ian McMillan, who I love, and who also spoke a lot of sense about the need for poets-in-residence, the accessibility of poetry and the need for all writers to read (”if you bred budgies, you’d read budgie breeding magazines, wouldn’t you?”). More of this type of stuff, and less of the jolly old Boy’s Club, would have been lovely…
At the end, Rhys-Jones went to a slam in London. I got a bit excited at this point, because I spotted an acquaintance of mine (and a great poet, by the way), Catherine Brogan, in the audience. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to hear any of her poetry — instead you got to hear some quite average ‘it’s a hard-knock life’-type slam poetry done by a white girl with a pseudo-hiphop reading voice and a terrible tattoo (just sayin’). And then, of course, Rhys-Jones did the whole WOW PERFORMANCE POETRY IS THE FUTURE THE PAGE IS DEAD THIS SHIT IS WHERE IT’S AT speech — which sounded really sincere coming from a guy who’d spent the last hour praising Wordsworth and friends to the skies…
Yes, OK, I am a huge cynic and this is a pretty evil write-up of what was just supposed to be an hour of light-but-intellectual midweek entertainment. But see where I am coming from: I am a woman (were any female poets represented? Apart from Valerie Laws’ beachballs, not one), I am a contemporary poet (literally five seconds of Aidan Henri and a couple of minutes at a slam. Nothing else post-1970), I am painfully aware of class (Ian McMillan — otherwise, upper-middle all the way), and if not race, then certainly origin (one black poet — everyone else was white. And English). Considering the huge question posed by this show — “why does poetry matter?” — it all seemed rather narrow and inward-looking. Faber&Faber are the only publisher in the world, England is the only country, there are no poets writing right now about stuff that matters right now. Or at least, if that isn’t the case, the BBC doesn’t want to know. The show was not representative — in fact, it bordered on narrow minded, even prejudicial. It was haphazard, and overall it was just safe. I came away still not knowing why BBC2 thought poetry mattered — just thanking God that (I think) I already know.
You can watch Why Poetry Matters on BBC iPlayer from now until Wednesday 27th May.