Today’s blog will be shorter than usual because the CopyCats are very busy at the moment with various things including some temporary work on newspaper archiving for the PoezieCentrum in Ghent. It was here that I overheard one of the workers saying that sales of poetry books accounted for something like 0.06% of the overall book sales in Flanders, Belgium. And Belgium is a country that is proud of its poetry and one that celebrates its poets and puts their work in very public places.
Now, I don’t have access to the statistics for the UK but I would guess they might not be dramatically higher than this. My issue with these nugatory figures is certainly not a capitalist one – no poet could ever kid themselves they were in it for the money (or can they? Read on…). No, what I want to talk about today is this strange phenomenon whereby nobody seems to read or buy much poetry at all but everyone wants to make claims for things that are ‘poetic’ or even label themselves or others as poets. While I was reading lots of newspapers, I came across a promising football player who was being described as a ‘poet of the ball’ and I’ve heard talented chefs, barbers and tattoo artists described as ‘poets’. Justice is even ‘poetic’…
Take a look at this fascinating, rather bristly, interview with the Beat poet Gregory Corso, listen to the first minute and what he says about musicians being called, or calling themselves, ‘poets’:
You might think Corso is just being a reactionary snob, purist or elitist, but he has a point. At the PoezieCentrum they are unsure about whether or not to consider Dutch ‘kleinkunst’ music as poetry, and rap presents a similar problem (and we all remember what Seamus Heaney had to say about rap).
Why do people not want to support poetry but still want to be associated with it? Corso’s explanation is a bit superstitious and mystical and I’m not sure I believe him. There is something to do with poetry’s presumed closeness to ‘truth’ – that even if it is fictional and based on artifice, it is supposed to get close to some form of emotional or existential truth. Is that the reason? It seems that if you do something creative very well, then you run the risk of being dubbed a poet. This reminds me of Norman MacCaig saying that a good chair-maker was as much of a poet as he, because they both made something that wasn’t there before.
So, there seems to be a link between talent and describing something or someone as ‘poetic’ or a ‘poet’. Does that mean a particularly successful thief could be called a poet? Bad example, considering the poetry plagiarism scandals…
Is it that we live in an interdisciplinary age? That academic departments are all being merged and encouraged to straddle different disciplines – is that why a footballer can be called a poet? No, I don’t think it’s that.
I went to see the film Manchester by the Sea recently and loved it. I heard people describe it as ‘poetic’. The film is filled with death, drama, suffering, some redemption and an ambiguously unresolved ending – is that what most poems are all about as well? I suppose they are… but that’s still not it.
I’m afraid my explanation is a rather dull one. I think the reason why poet/poetry/poetic have become hot property in the language is based on marketing and economics. Using ‘poetic’ as an adjective to apply to something other than poetry is a lazy, shorthand way of describing something (that is perhaps difficult to describe). I think it’s a word much exploited by marketing people to sell a product. Poetry generally cannot by bought at any price – it is above money, even though most poets are skint – but that does not prevent cynical people from misappropriating the word in order to package a product in a tempting or attractive way. Take for instance the word ‘epic’ – incidentally originally a word used to describe a long poem with fighting / war in it – what does that word mean nowadays? And how many times have you heard a new film described as ‘epic’ or an experience that you have to pay for (such as a holiday)?
The counter argument would be that people might use these words privately to describe private things and private experiences (where no selling or money is involved), but I’d maintain that they heard these words first in a marketing context and then they slipped into general, colloquial (automatic – how many times do you use ‘literally’ in speech without thinking?) language and usage. One grey area is when poetry is used explicitly to sell something – such as a poem for a bank advertising campaign. This certainly blurs things, but like many poems written (under duress? on sufferance? for money?) for an occasion, the poem does not quite ring true and strays far from that idea of emotive truth within the artifice of poetry. I might listen to such a poem and not think of the word ‘poetic’ but ‘economic’ first.
It seems to me like a chicken and egg question – why does everyone want to call things ‘poetic’ while not supporting poetry itself? It’s like the ending to Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’:
Ah, solving that question
brings the priest and the doctor
in their long coats
running over the fields.