Luther aimed for a biblical translation that would speak to and be spoken by "the man in the market-place and the child in the alley". The issue addressed in Sheenagh Pugh's G.S Fraser memorial lecture, given on April 14, is the feasibility of such an ambition for a contemporary poet. Is poetry doomed to remain the taste of a small minority? Are the few poems that achieve wide popularity, if not second-rate to begin with, drained of richness by one-dimensional reading?
The wide currency of Auden's "Stop all the Clocks" after it featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral seems to contradict the pessimists, but students she has discussed it with haven't seen in it the ironic ambivalence that is for her its saving grace. "I never thought it possible to take such exaggerated, self-pitying grief seriously until I discovered all my students did, and then I had to wonder if I had done too much reviewing and simply got into the habit of seeing irony in everything."
Another example is "Sometimes", the poem of her own that has achieved the widest circulation, although she herself doesn't have a high opinion of it. It has been a source of comfort to the clinically depressed, has been quoted by politicians and "keeps being read at conferences of workers in the social and mental health fields – a fairly dire fate for any poem".
Although the poetry world seems to be split between performers who have no time for aesthetic footling and academics who regard popularity is incompatible with serious achievement, she believes that behind their sour-grapes protestations both sides yearn to have it both ways. The division between these extremes, she says, is less marked in other countries, as well as in earlier cultures.
Her main examples of poetry that is both popular and good, and about whose quality she herself doesn't have reservations, are from ancient China and mediaeval Scandinavia. Such poetry she says, is about the big issues of common experience and combines strong direct feeling with rhyme or a clear formal pattern. That which achieves popularity today has similar qualities. Irony is widely disliked because it makes people feel stupid.
As a middlebrow poetic dilettante, I share her ambition to write what can be widely enjoyed without being despised by serious poets, but my experience as a teacher and examiner tends to confirm her observation on "Stop all the Clocks". Whatever may have been the case in earlier times when taste was less professionally manipulated and sensory gratification less easy to come by, poems that are successfully digested by today's popular culture have commonly been masticated down to kitsch.
Despite this, the challenge won't go away. I wasn't familiar with Sheenagh's work before coming to the lecture, and took the opportunity of purchasing Beware Falling Tortoises (Poetry Wales Press) for a very reasonable £3.95. This is the volume that contains "Sometimes". The fact that I have since read the collection through to the end instead of putting it away after reading one or two poems isn't wholly to be explained by the fact that I was in the process of writing this review. "Sometimes" is a workmanlike piece of verse. Most of the poems are enjoyable and some improve on re-reading. "Closing Up", about how a man's memory is gradually obliterated after his death, is haunting and comes back to life every time I return to it.
© Brian Fewster,
The Stanza, 2000
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