Why Read Poetry? Paxman, The Public & Fear of Uncertainty

Poetry came into the spotlight recently when Jeremy Paxman, chair and judge of the Forward Prize 2014 – one of the most prestigious poetry awards in the UK – suggested that poets be subjected to a public inquisition to explain what their poems mean. Paxman is a journalist, writer and television presenter, well known for his hard-nosed, interrogative political interviews and, in truth, the comments said more about Paxman than Poetry.

He criticised poets as writing for each other, rather than for public consumption, prompting much public and on-line debate about the relevance of poetry. Some of the furore arose from the fact that he issued two statements – the first in his official capacity as judge and the second, an interview in a national newspaper where he gave the inflammatory ‘inquisition’ quote. To my mind, the official Forward Prize judge’s statement is the more revealing.

Here, he talked of the process of reading the selected poems, the search for surprise, abandoning his own personal preferences as he worked together with the other judges – all poets – and began to see the work through new eyes. Encountering the poems through the filter of their knowledge and experience allowed him to create more meaningful connections with poems he had previously dismissed and he concluded there was no poem on the short-list he didn’t feel better for having read. I wonder if the ‘inquisition’ comment was really about wanting everyone to experience poetry in the same privileged way he had: with poet guides to pluck and probe, leading the way into the heart of the poem.

But Paxman’s comments startled the horses and, in doing so, tapped into an old and much flogged perception of poetry as a ‘difficult’ form of writing. Much of this goes back to how we encounter poetry for the first time – school, the classics, antiquated language, under duress, the threat of examination and failure.

It is not a promising start: this is not how we fall in love.

Imagine you have never tasted fruit, any fruit, and your first experience is being force-fed… a grapefruit: all sour tartness, sharp on the tongue, shooting acid needles, your taste buds reel and pucker. You could well be forgiven for swearing off the world of fruit for good.

Only, then you would never know the sweetness of a strawberry, the clean, crunch of an apple, the comforting mush of a banana.

No-one is required to like all poetry just as no-one is required to like all fruit; it’s OK to pick and choose. If your experience of poetry is of the grapefruit kind, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy poetry only that you haven’t found poems to whet your appetite.

Paxman also reinforced the idea that poetry cannot be appreciated unless its meaning is first understood. He implied ‘meaning’ in poetry is fixed and finite, like the product in a mathematical equation.

His comments reflect the world we live in, one that values the rational over the intuitive, the concrete over the ephemeral: 1 + 1 = 2; a² + b² = c²; A = πr². But meaning is the consequence of imagination, experience and discovery, not the root. Einstein first had to imagine the universe before he could say with certainty E=mc².

Life is a constant unknown, so we try to lock things down, put labels on them and call it knowledge. Yet the uncertainty remains and the more we learn, the more we realise how much is still beyond our grasp. The desire for certainty has its limits; at some point we must let go and accept what is. Not everything we experience has a logical purpose and this makes us deeply uncomfortable. The irrational world reminds us that every day is a leap into the void, an act of trust.

It’s August now. When the sun comes over a rooftop and shines full in my face, a warm breeze cooling my skin and lifting my hair, I don’t ask what it means, I close my eyes and soak it in, the warmth in my bones, and feel good.

I believe the resistance to poetry, the idea of it being difficult comes back to the notion of certainty v. uncertainty. Poems are too much like life: they mirror our experiences exactly as they are, without explanation. We must experience and feel before we can assign meaning, if indeed there is meaning. And that’s OK. Poems bring to life the intensity of our experiences, rather than their meaning.

Paxman placed responsibility for engagement squarely on the shoulders of the poets, to spoon-feed solutions to the equation of poetry into the mouths of an ignored populace but it’s a two-way street. Why would anyone want to read poetry? Why look in that mirror when there are so many distractions at hand to divert us from the uncertainty of our lives and the things we do not want to see?

And yet…

…there isn’t a man, woman or child alive today who doesn’t hold something inside they don’t know how to say out loud – a joy, a hope, a fear; a poet listens to the silence and finds those words.

When John Hannah read W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ in the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, it resonated with anyone who had ever lost someone they loved; the poem said all the unsaid things. People who might never have read poetry otherwise were suddenly aware of its power to give voice to their own thoughts and feelings. A related edition of Auden’s poetry sold over 275,000 copies on the strength of that recognition.

Why read poetry?

To me, it’s very simple. Poems tell us, in the relentless uncertainty of our lives, that we are not alone.


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