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.

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14 Responses to “BBC2’s ‘Why Poetry Matters’: my (not altogether nice) thoughts.”

  1. William Soule Says:

    Eep! That’s all I have to say right now. I may give this a watch and see all this for myself! No female poets? I’m disappointed already. (Did I ever tell you that I find I’m drawn more to female poets than male? Don’t know why.)

  2. H. Says:

    This sounds like it was lame on epic proportions. But then, when has television really come through for poetry. I wish the US would attempt something like this (not just like, the spoken word Def Poetry Jam, but page-poetry too.) Though the US would probably fail too. I have no faith in those old white upper class assholes who can’t write to save their lives and who I presume have tiny dicks and that is why they act in this way. The end.


  3. swiss Says:

    i too watched this and, although i fell asleep, and felt much the same way i think i’m going to have to defend it. true, it should have had a post script - why poetry matters - to griff rhys jones, but that’s to overlook the fact it’s a bbc1 programme about poetry. if we were awash with such things then fine but as we’re not…

    also, it’s bbc1. i don’t watch much tv but if i’m watching the bbc terrestrial channels i’m not expecting anything to reach any sort of high water mark. and this didn’t fail. yes, there was a massive lack of diversity but to class shakespeare as an idiot with a tiny penis as a result seems churlish (would similar criticism be levelled at recent chinua achebe and derek walcott efforts? i think not) . the english, and let’s face it, it was about them, have a massive poetry heritage. what’re they supposed to do? ignore it?

    so, in short i’d rather have bad poetry programmes than no poetry programmes. doubtless had any one of us made a programme like this others would’ve moaned about content, tone, importance etc etc etc. because that’s what poets do, isn’t it? moan

    which is precisely what i did when i switched off why poetry matters and came across off by heart on bbc2. immediately i thought i was in some x factor style poetry reading hell with paxman in the cowell role. and probably i was. but there was housewive’s favourite benjamin zephaniah and i just can’t and won’t take against him. and then there was the kids. call me a sentimentalist (i am) and sure i missed all but the end of this, but it’d bring a tear to a glass eye. and mine.

  4. Rachel Fox Says:

    I wonder if they are planning to do this poetry season on the BBC every year? (Have they done it before…I don’t think so). If so they can learn from it as they go on…maybe you should send them an idea for a programme for next year..?

    I recorded the programme you’ve reviewed here but probably won’t watch it (so much else to watch/read/do). One of the newspaper reviews said it very well…if you’re the kind of person who knows that poetry matters then this programme probably won’t have much to tell you…and if you’re not…then you won’t watch it anyway. It’s just a ‘famous person-led’ programme to try and get a bigger audience for the series, I suppose. And GRJ has history in this field…the Bookmark programme, the Nation’s Favourites book series. I like him but he is that friendly Oxbridge BBC man through and through - national treasure material. I loved him in ‘Not the 9 o’clock News’ (bit before your time, Claire!) but what do old Oxbridge comedians do when they get old..? Present TV shows for Middle England my dear (Michael Palin, Bill Oddie…).

    I’ve been in quite enough debates about the Poet’s Guide to Britain series (which seems to get better week by week…and did you hear Owen Sheers started out in Boyzone - JOKE!) but one last thing…I liked the Lauren Laverne Keats-in-a-carpark trailer film. For me, it’s been the best bit of this season so far. More poems - less wittering on and nonsense about poems! And yes, probably less Wordsworth (for my taste).

    Lots of love
    the Zephaniah-loving-housewife that is

  5. Rachel Fox Says:

    p.s. but I haven’t watched the By Heart thing yet.

  6. Rob Says:

    I missed the programme and it doesn’t sound like I missed much. I wish they’d had a few more contemporary poets on these poetry season shows generally. The Motion quote on poetry being difficult, ‘Get over it’, is unfortunate. I’d prefer to present it more positively - that poems reward careful readers, that they have more to offer than easily-won answers. I guess most people understand that the more time you take with a poem, the more you’re liable to get out of it. That, I guess, goes for anything in life.

    I’ve heard poets read as diverse as August Kleinzahler, Billy Collins, Paul Muldoon and Edwin Morgan - different levels of perceived ‘difficulty,’ but what they had in common was their ability to hold an audience rapt with attention.

    I’d like to defend poor old Wordsworth. I’m totally with you on ‘Daffodils’, a poem I can’t stand, but I’m a fan of other stuff he wrote - the ‘Prelude’, for example, and ‘Tintern Abbey’ - worth making the effort for, I think.

  7. Claire Says:

    Ah, there’s nothing like a rant to bring comments out of the woodwork!

    William — that’s an interesting thing. I’m always more drawn to female poets too, but I assumed that’s because I’m female. Something to talk about in your GD journal maybe? Or a poll? Could be interesting…

    H — You’re right, TV will never be the medium for poetry, and yes, I do feel like I ought to cut it some slack because at least they tried. But they really did fail in quite epic style, for me anyway.

    swiss — I’m staying out of the Shakespeare’s penis debate (!), but no — I’m not suggesting they should have ignored the British poetry heritage. However, the overall question the show seemed to be asking was ‘why does poetry matter right now? Why should we read it right now?’ It seemed obtuse when they said “you need to read about stuff that matters to you… so here’s Marvel reading about love.” And you think… that’s never going to entice non-poetry-readers to think about why poetry matters… they’re going to go ‘I didn’t understand half of that,’ and turn off the TV. My point is, the whole hour was devoted to the Grand Old English Poetry Heritage. My point is, they had Simon Armitage and Andrew Motion and Ian McMillan (all men, but hey) RIGHT THERE, and they didn’t get them to read any of their stuff. My point is, they should have spent less time having GRJ going to ‘the poetry doctor’ and playing with Scrabble tiles, and had some contemporary poetry in there, too. They had time.
    As for ‘bad poetry shows = better than no poetry shows’… I know what you mean, and I know I’m being obtuse but I am tempted to say this show may have done more harm than good — confirming for a lot of people what they always thought about poetry, that it’s difficult and for snobs. It alienated me, and I’m white and middle class! I’m just thankful for the fact that not too many people will have watched it anyway, and most will have switched channels (like you!) halfway through, probably…
    Really need to check out By Heart next, though, thanks for the rec.

    Rachel — “if you’re the kind of person who knows that poetry matters then this programme probably won’t have much to tell you…and if you’re not…then you won’t watch it anyway.” I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Rachel — I just wish the BBC had tried harder. They’ve obviously chucked a fair bit of money at this poetry season and so far no one’s being very complimentary about it (in the poetry world anyway… oh, apart from Kevin Higgins who apparently loved this show). I do like Griff though… I thought he did the best of a bad job. They made him do some weird stuff!

    Rob — I know, I was really disappointed in Motion. It was the one moment in the show when they really concentrated on the here-and-now fully, why people ought to find some poetry if they’ve never really read any before… and Motion comes out with that. You’re right, it was just poor wording, but it was alienating.
    Hehe, I don’t totally hate Wordsworth, don’t get me wrong — some of his stuff is great. I just think he was given far too much of the spotlight for a programme that was supposedly asking ‘why does poetry matter in the here-and-now?’

  8. Jason Says:

    “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.”

    Hehe - I had exactly the same experience. Gruesome is precisely the word. I didn’t watch the show for exactly the reasons you’ve given. Sounds like the poems were chosen by someone who knows nothing about poetry and simply picked up their old school book and selected the most obvious pieces imaginable. There is such a huge middle ground between Wordsworth and current poetry - it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Surely it’s possible to select some work that is still traditional but also more original and appealing to modern audiences?

  9. swiss Says:

    like i say i’m very much in agreement. hten again tho, i like the marvell poem! but does poetry matter? does football? does anything else. picking out poetry with such a stupid title seems self defeating.
    as for andrew motion i’ve seen him twice recently, once wittering on about mick imlah (badly) and then this. i’m sure he’d be a fine bloke to have a blether to but on tv i just have an urge to dowse him in petrol!
    re off by heart. maybe the first bit of it is really mawkish and maybe really i’m just a sucker for kids so be warned! i am going to watch it again tho at the end there’s a bit with a dad at the end having a blub that’ll do the same for me!
    the only other thing i’ve seen the whole of was the thing they did about making poetry please. white, middle class it may have been but it was also very lovely and english. like zephaniah you can’t be against roger mcgough. it’s just not right. well worth a view if it’s still on iplayer

  10. Rachel Fox Says:

    That bit where I hit the nail on the head…as I said that was out of one of the reviews (Independent newspaper probably).Don’t want to be taking credit for other people’s nail-hitting…

    I may have to try and watch the Poetry Please show now. I love that Swiss puts lovely and English in the same place. We’re not all bad…


  11. Claire Says:

    I know, Rachel, I know! I have a foot in both camps and hate anti-English sentiment as much as the next person :) :)

  12. H. Says:

    I never meant that ‘Shakespeare had a small dick’ or something. I was referring to the hosts of the show, who (did not see it, but am solely going on the review up top) seem to want to steam their panties all night in “old poetry” rather than going beyond to see some young talented writers out there.

    I’m an American, and this was all just sounding a lot like American politics (or, dare I say, Napoleon Complexes). We have the ‘old white guys’ who for the longest time had their fist in everything (wild generalization, but bear with me) and once the young guys came out with their new and progressive ideas, it was shocking and all the old guys could say was “yes, but in MY day, things were much better. See -”

    I fully realize there are many progressive older people, but on the whole (generalization again, woo!) like to always assume the “old ways are best” and are frightened to try out that new computer/technology(i.e. new or younger writers).

    Again, wild generalization made on a show I haven’t actually seen, so I suppose you can take my opinion with a grain of salt anyway, har har.


  13. Rachel Fox Says:

    Hey - you weren’t alone in not liking this show! I just watched the Newsnight Review poetry special thing and they had a few words to say about it too. Simon Armitage said something like ‘I felt patronised by it and I was on it!’ (probably not exact quote).
    Worth a watch - on the i-player what’s it.

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