"I am the world's last bona fide poet
I am proper and serious, original, true:
I can express myself much better than you!
but when I get on the bar to speak to you
An esteemed figure
I often find myself on the wrong side of popular, often mean-spirited myths, unable to appreciate the humour of a barb because it's err... wrong. Caligula never made his horse into a senator, for instance. There is no erection in The Little Mermaid - that's the priest's knee. People don't slit their wrists to Leonard Cohen. And on a more general level, comic book readers aren't all reclusive single men. Most of the ones I know are married.
Then there's poetry, with its supposed deliberate impenetrability and distance from real life. Poetry readers, you see, are all poets, and they're only poets because they want to express themselves or play intellectual games, and that's why no one likes them, you see, because they're all so self-absorbed. Ironically, in its occasional coverage of the resurgence of poetry, the media does what it can to reinforce that myth. So do (see above quote) some poets. The line goes like this: "Poetry was boring and was inpenetrable, but now there's this young fella who, if you squint hard, is more like a white rapper or a comedian. You like rappers and comedians, don't you? So that means now you can like poetry. Just, you know, try to forget it's poetry."
And to be fair, there are people like me who back them up (see my last long post) by saying, "Yeah, you're right - it's not poetry."
And then there are another group who've got it all the other way round: "Poetry actually used to be accessible and meaningful. But then they dropped rhyming or invented modernism or started rapping, or something like that, and now it's all posturing."
There are various iterations in between too, all of which make the same mistake in assuming that something unfamiliar and misunderstood must be that way by design, and it has nothing to do with, say, your own lack of exposure and consequent distrust, or the absence of an instruction manual.
Poetry (or contemporary poetry)'s bad reputation is, in fact, a self-sustaining myth, viewed under any objective criteria. I say this with some certainty because I used to be in the gang that mocked it and know the mistakes I was making then. My generation were taught very little contemporary poetry up until the age of 16, so when I went on to study Bloodaxe's The New Poetry at A Level, I thought most of it was tedious. I mean, for a start, hardly any of it was written in regular meter, which I had been led to believe was the point. It was only when I read Glyn Maxwell's 'Love Made Yeah' that I found something I just, well, liked. I didn't know why. I just thought it was cool.
After that, I did start trying to write poems myself. But I was already writing fiction and songs, and taking A Level art, so it's not as if I'd just happened on this easy way of expressing myself. And I didn't start writing poetry with serious intent until I'd read a lot more and had come to realise that it's probably the most versatile, pure, open-to-anyone artform that exists today. My conversion to 'serious poet' away from all other ambitions makes absolutely no sense except on this basis - adulation came easy when I came up with half-baked songs or barely-competent drawings, and most of my creative writing degree was geared towards prose, while my improvement as a poet has gone virtually unnoticed by anyone outside of the poetry world.
What was wrong with me in the first place then? Why didn't I always like poetry? Well, partly because unlike fiction, film, pop and visual art, I wasn't surrounded by it as I was growing up. We acquire the skill to interpret all these (sometimes difficult) media at a young age, and take for granted that we know how to approach them when we're adults (when in fact, the idea of sitting for three hours in a dark room trying to follow the ring-couriering activities of hairy children from a non-existent world is theoretically torturous).
I had to be given ample chances to find something that rang true with me before I found my way into poetry. It only happened because I took A Level English. I'm not at all surprised that so many people still view it the way I did before then.
But there's another reason why poetry is miscast as an elite and decrepit villain, and that is really, I think, to do with its inherent virtues. I described it above as an 'open-to-anyone' artform, and by that I mean that it serves as the communication line between all that is weird, dark, secretive, different in humanity as well as the stuff it's 'OK' to talk about. There's no real demographic, no clearly defined sub-genres and that means that its readers find it hard to avoid being confronted with other people's thoughts - or rather, other people's ways of thinking - and the inherent challenges therein. Since it's not an obviously public art that operates according to etiquette, poetry is a world where individualistic tendencies thrive, rather than social ones. And I think the truth is that a lot of people find that quite threatening. Moreover, the forces in our lives that tell us what is popular are deterred from putting poetry in the 'hot' column because of its subsequent resistance to broad generalisations
It's interesting to read reviews - or to generally stay alive to people's views - and truly get a picture of how little consistency there is in what is thought to be too esoteric or obscure. There are areas of commonality in our culture, of course, but these are, by their nature, riddled with banality, all the more for being cynically exploited by anyone aiming for an immediate connection with people (think advertising). Outside of these shallow pools is where 99% of everything lies, but poetry is the only art that, for me, regularly admits that.
In a sense, this is why, to use Tim Clare's expression, I argued in favour of 'ring-fencing' the term 'poetry' so that populist poetry comes under a different heading. Populism shores up a person's private sense of stability by reinforcing what they already think they know, putting them in a room with a bunch of other people who think they know the same thing. My own experience of poetry - the poetry I turned to in favour of fiction, art and song-writing - is that it does the opposite. I mean, I see it essentially as an anti-tyrannical force, which is why, when I 'get on the bar to speak to you/nobody listens' - because certain kinds of tyranny are comforting, and certain kinds of freedom are 'difficult'.
All of this, of course, is not seeking to ignore the fact that there are plenty of poets whose work is accessible, or rhyming, or centered around 'normal' life, and who go down well with crowds, in themselves puncturing the myth of impenetrability. They just happen to come within a huge range of approaches, or 'ways of thinking' which only in its entirety reflects the breadth of human feeling.