poetteacherperformerscientistecologistwarpoet - home

poetry in crisis?

Published by the British Council in "Literature Matters" issue 31 [2002] [(c) Mario Petrucci]

Is poetry thriving, or in the doldrums? It's a difficult question to answer. There's no doubt that it can rise to the surface at times of social crisis or personal stress. It is, after all, perhaps the most compressed form of rhetoric. Poetry is concise. (There are notable exceptions.) It can be intense, immediate, quick, democratic. 'Democratic' because anyone can pick up a pencil and jot a couple of lines to express how they feel. With little more than a simple rhyme, you gain entry into convention and can make an acceptable offering. That's true of very few written forms. The poem (and especially poems such as the Nation's favourite, Kipling's 'If') reminds us of the schoolroom, the schoolyard, of nursery rhymes and special moments of ritual and togetherness, from the recited rhyming prayer to the love song and the Christmas card. At its worst, the poem is the clangour of consensus and cliché; at its best, it rings of universality and human community.

Consensus finally went out of the window with the First World War. And it was poetry that helped to fuel conflict and dissent. In many ways, it was a natural form for the duckboards. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon wrote letters and poems in the Trenches, but the survivors constructed novels and plays. The poem is still the convenient receptacle for the snatched observation, the critical moment, the impromptu declaration. If you're suffering bombardment, if you've just heard Princess Diana has died, if you watch a tower with people still in it collapse, or hear that war has just been declared, you don't reach for your British Library card. You lift your camera, camcorder or notepad.

This is especially true of the lyrical poem: a great lyric poem is, somehow, instantly recognisable. It strikes you as a lucid confirmation of something you already knew but had never quite got round to thinking. It can give you a sense of the ecstasy ridden right through, or of the terror finally outstared. The words become greater than - or more graspable than - the raw experience. And yet it retains its democratic quality: a great poem embodies the desire to express without duress. But current attention spans might miss this altogether. We're caught between wanting the instant McPoem and longing for poetry with depth that will heal and reassure us. We hail Poems on the Underground almost as a spiritual revolution. This paradox is beautifully and ironically represented in the fact that the ancient and contemplative short Japanese form of 'Haiku' has become extremely popular in the fast-moving West.

The West is in an age of materialism, and in materialism one thing leads to another. Much of the best poetry stands against that tendency, against the obvious. Poetry therefore offers the alternative view when people need it - the intense moment intensely rendered - but consequently it can never become entirely mainstream. Poetry-for-everyone is rarely poetry at all - it is more often a reversion to doggerel, prose or bad journalism. And the web offers little salvation in this. There is something vulnerable, impassioned and almost sacred about ascribing your thoughts to a sheet (and sometimes a scrap) of paper. That's what happened in the Trenches, and what tends to occur wherever experience presses us and compresses the means and the moment. Poetry, materially speaking, needs nothing more than a burnt matchstick and a prison wall. Or some chalk and a garden path. The web tends to promote compulsive gardeners afflicted with an obsessive inability to weed.

I believe poetry is at a fork in the road. Perhaps never before have there been so many capable and accomplished poets. And perhaps never before have so few of them been read or appreciated by the general population. We still sing Blake's Jerusalem, and Rumi enjoys near-celebrity status in the States. Yet most people on a British street would struggle to name a living poet other than Seamus Heaney or (maybe) Benjamin Zephaniah. Poetry is just not fashionable - thank goodness. It is a colossal form able to straddle everything from popular feeling to subversive samizdat. It is all hues, from the deep magenta of Jerusalem to the blushed pink of the private dedication to Princess Di read tearfully on national radio.

Meanwhile, we abound and pullulate in visual images. An image for every occasion, every product. And lately, those harrowing images of immense power, on TV. Crumbling towers. Bodies falling from a hundred storeys up. Screened again and again, until they burned a despairing loop in our brains. How can poetry meet something like that? Whatever can the scrawled rhyme say, by comparison? And yet, for me, it is those simple messages phoned through from plane and tower, those compressed urgent clichés of stark sincerity, that have embedded themselves as tenaciously in my mind as anything presented on a screen.



(after Bertolt Brecht, 'Spring 1938')

There'd been dew. Maybe a light rain.
And a blot drew my eye to that plot of light
through my kitchen window. Closer. I saw

the pincer legs measure out each wire. That
pause of the abdomen before it dipped
to spot-weld each link. I took a chair outside

to stand on. Craned. I wanted to live.
It let me brush a fingertip across the brown
velvet of its back, against the nap, and again

until it froze mid-air, eight legs outstretched
still as a child roused from a trance of play.
There - the same creature I'd raise a slipper to,

flay across carpet to end in a smudge.
I wouldn't have it in my hand. In my hair.
Yet it - she - went to all that length to snare

mosquito and bluebottle, those who'd ruin
a soup, or blood. Hours. For once, I took time -
saw the target complete, her radii strung

high between window and washing line.
I thought of the twist of cells that can work
such wonder. I thought of poets whose words

don't reach. Spider just does. Reads angles -
but not this freak thunder, its blown-up tongues
of birds. Everywhere. Birds swooping for spiders.

I feared something might skim, unknowing,
through that hard-earned web. A swift perhaps,
impossibly late. I saw spider prey. Hung there

in her patch of unsafe sky.


To access an audio version of this poem on the BBC website, click here


copyright mario petrucci 2001