Speaking about poetry that has “connived at its own irrelevance”, Jeremy Paxman recently called for an inquisition, in which poets would have to explain their use of language to the public. “That’d be fun,” he said. I can’t think of a poet who would decline the challenge (well, maybe a couple). But it would be fun to imagine Paxman facing Shakespeare on the old subject of poetry never telling the truth. Will might invoke his character Touchstone from As You Like It and assert that “the truest poetry is the most feigning”. Jeremy might then get to say: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me.”
But I also can’t think of a poet who doesn’t dutifully give exactly the sort of explanation Paxman asks for before reading their poems to eager audiences across the country. Most poets do this to a fault – explaining allusions, reasons behind rhyme schemes, little autobiographical snippets – so you might wonder, why bother reading the poem after all that preamble?
These audiences may or may not be made up of “ordinary people” (like Jeremy himself, perhaps?). But most poets are pretty ordinary, living most of their lives in an ordinary world. Yeats did say that the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence who sits down to breakfast”. Few artists at work are. But there can be plenty of the accident and incoherence of ordinary life in contemporary poetry – as there might be in novels or films.
Paxman says that poetry “encapsulates the most precise description … in an intense form of words”. As a satiric inquisitor of the British bodypolitic, Paxman’s idea remembers the 18th-century satirist Alexander Pope on poetry saying it right: “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest.
Pope went on to say:
But true Expression, like th'unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the Dress of Thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable;
And there is a challenge there, of poets leading the way, gilding all objects, saying things that might not appear to be what they were in the first place.
If poetry "has really rather connived at its own irrelevance”, one person’s relevance may be another’s obviousness. What might appear to be irrelevance might also be the fact that the audience hasn’t quite caught up. Reading poetry can be quite a hard thing, and an inquisition might never get it. Galileo, after his run in with the inquisition, couldn’t quite recant to himself on his discovery that the earth moves round the sun.
Perhaps Seamus Heaney, a popular poet if ever there was one, might be allowed to have a word on this hunger for explanation before Paxman’s panel of the people. Speaking in 2001, he insisted:
It is not only a poem’s political concerns and paraphraseable content that need attending to. A précis of the content … takes no account of the literary echoes and allusions which can be fundamental to its poetic energy.
So, poetry works in other ways, it has what he calls “under-ear activities”. And, as he continued, it is this element of poetry that:
May well constitute the most important business which the poem is up to and are more a matter of the erotics of language than the politics and polemics of the moment. Which is to say that poetry moves things forward once the poet and the poem get ahead of themselves and find themselves out on their own.
If not quite Jeremy Paxman, Heaney had much to say about the politics and polemics of the moment. But he also tells us that when the poet and the poem are out on their own, the pleasure is in the chase, in the catching up. Poetry can improve what it shines on, getting ahead of the moment, and an inquisition is not really going to get us that far down that road.