Andrew O’Hagan

  • Poems to Last a Lifetime edited by Daisy Goodwin
    HarperCollins, 308 pp, £18.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 00 717707 0
  • All the Poems You Need to Say I Do edited by Peter Forbes
    Picador, 197 pp, £10.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 330 43388 1

People have been asking for books to help them since the invention of printing. Before printing, actually, in the days of scrolls and tablets: what is the Bible if not a self-help manual? William Caxton got in on the act early enough with The Game and Play of Chess Moralised (1474), a book which aimed to make people better than they used to be, not by bringing their souls nearer to God, but by bringing their pawns closer to the king, which many readers accepted would do for the time being. In what my headmaster used to call the interim period, self-help books have taken over the world, which is fast becoming a place where no one is safe from the threat of their own improvement. Nineteenth-century must-haves – How to Be Happy though Married (1887) and How to Be Pretty though Plain (1899) – have recently been, well, improved on, with the publication of such instant classics as How to Become a Schizophrenic by John Modrow (1992) and How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer (1989).[1]

There are people who will only read Westerns or Crime and others who prefer not to read any book unless, like the works of Maya Angelou, it manages somehow to have a self-help tinge. (‘Self-Improvement’ is now, quite often, a section in your local library.) The self-help preference has the ear of Oprah Winfrey, who publishes one of the most successful magazines in America, and there is a separate bestseller chart for books whose titles love a colon, books that will settle for nothing less than improvement for their readers. Currently riding high are Why Your Life Sucks: And What You Can Do about It by Alan Cohen, When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses by John James and Russell Friedman, and Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves: A Practical Guide for Women by the punctuation-crazed Rita Freedman. Publishing houses in New York, busy, as usual, looking for the hot new writing talent, will expect to find it in the medical journals and at psychoanalytic conferences, such is the demand for quasi-medical books which tell you how to deal with life’s crapness. In the same way, editors are often to be found with their favourite children’s authors, trying, over a glass of herbal tea, to persuade them to write something simple but heart-warming that might prove to have ‘crossover appeal’ in the adult market.

Britain didn’t grow Elvis or Coca-Cola, but it grew Billy Fury and Irn Bru, and the great new self-help ethos has had little trouble finding local imitators. It may be an indirect part of Princess Diana’s legacy to the British nation, the success of The Little Book of Calm, but self-help has had its main British impact on television. Trinny and Susannah have just come back with a new series of What Not to Wear, a show which aims, like all self-help, to make people smile by first making them cry. Celebrity Fit Club is not a million miles away, together with DIY shows and cookery programmes that provoke people into thinking their life’s troubles can be vanished away with an apt deployment of cushions and fresh coriander. Nobody doubts it; everybody’s buying.[2]

This thinking has now been applied to the tired world of British poetry, which has long been in need of a specialist makeover, what with all those lisping ladies in tweed suits and National Health spectacles. The self-help treatment wouldn’t have worked in poetry, though, if it hadn’t been able to pass the Nigella Test – you need somebody foxy and energetic to head up the whole operation, or it’s dead before it starts. Thankfully, there’s Daisy Goodwin, who has lovely dark hair and perfect teeth: just the person to encourage the use of poetry as a kind of mental flossing. The message is slick and pretty as an ad for Colgate: regular reading of poetry keeps you sparkling, even if it sometimes seems a bit of an effort. Keep it up and you will learn to enjoy the experience. It will help you in ways you never imagined. You will see the benefits into old age and beyond.

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[1] A list of these appears in The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace (Canongate, 467 pp., £12.99, October, 1 84195 553 1).

[2] It’s traditional for this exchange to go into reverse. America gave us rhythm and blues, we gave them the Beatles. They give us Jerry Springer, we give them How Clean Is Your House?, a programme in which two nightmares in Marigolds tell people how to scrub their johns. The two cleaners have become household names for their household tips.

[3] Ruth Padel wrote a poetry column in the Independent on Sunday that favoured a robust discussion of poetry’s formal properties, as well as its themes. It didn’t patronise its readers and it proved to be one of the paper’s most popular slots. Those columns were recently collected in 52 Ways to Look at a Poem (Vintage, 272 pp.,£6.99, February, 0 09 942915 2).

[4] A few years ago, submissions for the National Poetry Competition outnumbered the sales of any single new volume of poetry in Britain. That fact on its own would indicate that there are more people writing poetry in this country than are reading it, if ‘reading poetry’ can be understood (as it used to be) as buying the work of published poets.