‘Poetry’ ?

I have three references for you, which I won’t present academically here, but, in the nature of my blog, quite spontaneously and shaped by memory as much as by any rigorous approach to academic research and writing.

What I want to write, briefly, about, is the subject of poetry – yes, a huge subject for a little Sunday Blog (and a little Sunday Blogger).

Poetry is on my mind this week, partly because I made a new musical discovery in the work of the singer and songwriter Richard Dawson. He is a British artist with a big following but someone I only encountered in the past few weeks.

Dawson writes what I might call unflinching realism, in songs that depict the grim realities of 21st century life in Tory-ruled austerity Britain. Hence, we find songs about employees at benefit centers who hate their jobs and decide to give them up, or songs about people changing jobs, taking ‘Beta Blockers’ and starting to jog as ways of defeating anxiety (see, for example, his songs ‘Jogging’ and ‘Two Halves’ here on YouTube).

There is so much more that I could share here by way of example, but simply recommend checking out Dawson’s latest album ‘2020’ or snippets, clips and reviews online, to get some idea of what interests me.

I was also referred, by someone who has been a fan of Dawson’s for years, back to an amazing song (The Vile Stuff) and its video that seems to depict Halloween on a Tyneside High Street. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQVlNt6DAxY)

But it’s not just the content of Dawson’s ‘poetry’ that interests me, it’s the way that he achieves what I would call ‘poetry’ precisely by aiming for what we might think of as the least ‘poetic’ of subjects, and, furthermore, then addressing them – in terms of rhyme, rhythm, and delivery – in the most unpoetic of ways.

i.e. Dawson’s voice is unmusical (Bob Dylan, Robert Wyatt,  Leonard Cohen and other greats have ben accused of similar), somewhat tuneless, and not only does he avoid the comforts of rhyme, he delivers his lines in the most flat-footed manner possible, so that you are not sure where or when they are going to end. They sound more like statements someone might make when waiting for a skeletally privatised bus service than anything inspired by a comelier muse.

And yet this is precisely how Dawson seems to me to achieve the poetry of 21st century Britain, in a way that, once you ‘get it’, seems unequivocal and ineradicable. To me, it is an amazing artistic achievement.

Now, without wanting to exhaust your patience or abuse your time I would also recommend extending this theme by checking out the two further references I mentioned at the start (above). One is the (2010) film ‘Poetry’ by director Lee Chang Dong (trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtxZOpu_YNk).

Here, a woman of retirement age, doing cleaning and caring work for a living, embarks on a part-time poetry course out of curiosity and a sense of self-affirmation. The film gently lampoons her teacher, who, while keen to appear modern and thus to avoid Romantic cliché, nevertheless teaches the students his own brand of orthodoxy, whch involves a profound appreciation of the beauty to be gleaned from everyday events and ordinary things.

However, all the while, a political subplot to the film is unfolding, which turns out to be a feminist parable about a patriarchal, bullying and corrupt modern society. Ultimately our heroine discovers that true ‘poetry’ is found, not so much in beauty and inspiration but in responding to the great and dirty difficulties of life and society, and her poem only appears at the very end of the film, read in the ghostly voice of a bullied teenage girl who was driven to take her own life.

The result is a fantastically sophisticated and artful lesson in aesthetics and politics, and their crucial fusion in any significant work of art. The film itself ultimately becomes an example of the very ‘poetry’ it espouses, ‘moving’ us in ways that are as ethical as they are aesthetic-al.

Finally (and again I apologise for making demands on your valuable time and capacity for attention), this theme brought back to mind the famous, or notorious ‘Preface’ to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry collection ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (1798 – 1802). These poems are often said to inaugurate the modern Romantic movement in poetry, and, while today we might associate all of these names and terms with a lofty, inspired, rural vision it is surprising to find, both in the collection and the Preface and another appendix titled Poetic Diction, allusions to poverty, mental illness, disability, a homeless woman etc.

Furthermore, the Preface itself (not an essential aspect of every poetry collection) was, reputedly, included by the authors to give readers a ‘way in’ to appreciating the poems that followed, precisely because they were almost unrecognisable as poetry to their contemporary audience. (The Preface can now be seen retrospectively as a –  or perhaps the first-  modern manifesto, a text which self-legitimises a radically innovative and modernised art form and art movement).

The Preface was necessitated by the fact that ‘Lyrical Ballads’ were not only full of ‘modern’, poor, discomforting, ungainly subjects, but they were also written a far more ‘down to earth’ style of English that might have shocked readers by approximating everyday speech.

Hopefully you can see how this arcs back to the work of Richard Dawson, who might therefore be described as a latter-day Wordsworth. But the argument could also apply to Punk, to Rap, and to other forms of an expanded notion of modern poetry in which the criteria for validity is an insistence on a certain contemporaneity that most of all must keeps the ear of the ear of the listener or eye of the reader ever alert, as one is in an engaged conversation, while alays unable to predict (by means of any dogma, orthodoxy, habit, or cliché of poery) how any line is going to end, what we might find there, or how it is going to relate, both formally, or in terms of content, to that which preceded it or which follows it.





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