Flossing

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.

This has less to do with poetry, of course, than it does with marketing, and indeed it was T.S. Eliot – that toothsome Tom, so ready to lighten your load and share your pain – who gave us fair warning about the price to be paid for messing with popularity. ‘We persist,’ he wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’,

in believing that a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity. Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum. What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

Well: so much for that. The ‘extinction of personality’, in the sense that Eliot meant it, has long since become extinct, and the rest – knowledge, self-sacrifice, the development of a consciousness – are less interesting, in the minds of most of the new-style poetry-tasters, than the idea that poetry has a duty to give people a leg-up from one part of the day to another. Poets are now often low-paid providers of half-memorable speech, moral hygienists, caption writers, or purveyors of beauty and truth to a community of readers seeking quickly to heighten their emotions or beef up their wedding speeches. People reach out to poetry when they’re feeling drowsy or needy or depressed; it’s as if the Romantic dream of commonality has created a populist monster that can only tolerate the language of reassurance, as if Chatterton had indeed become the symbol of poetry: not of poets, as traditionally understood, but of poetry’s battalion of soft readers, dreaming of a sensitive exit and a pretty corpse. Those who want a gust of emotion will usually go to a Richard Curtis film, or read one of Goodwin’s suggested poems for people feeling out-of-sorts. And if they rent Four Weddings and a Funeral they can have both at once, without having to leave their own heads, however briefly. ‘Accessibility’ is the watchword; ‘making poetry available to people who would never ordinarily read a poem’. Naturally, one can see the point of this noble effort, and I hereby propose three cheers for the non-elitists.

Goodwin’s new book, Poems to Last a Lifetime, has chapter headings like ‘Journey of Life’, ‘Missing You’, ‘Commitment Problems’, ‘Getting Older’ and ‘Memories’, each of which offers a group of soothing and instructive lines, accompanied by the editor’s friendly remarks, which not only show an interest in content over form, but, very largely, in emotional content over any other sort of content. In the section called ‘Infidelity’ there are six poems, starting with ‘Story of a Hotel Room’ by Rosemary Tonks. ‘This poem should be read,’ the editor writes underneath, ‘by anyone about to embark on an affair thinking that it’s just a fling. It is much harder than you know to separate sex from love.’ Very often, an interest in what the poem ‘says’ will be accompanied by biographical information about the author. Underneath Robert Graves’s ‘Symptoms of Love’, for instance, we learn this: ‘Scientists have recently classified love as a form of psychosis. Robert Graves knew all about this. The poet once threw himself out of a third-floor window after his mistress Laura Riding. Miraculously, they both survived.’

In Goodwin’s world, every poem is a caution, every stanza a warning, every line a piece of advice, and every word a note to self. ‘The Compassionate Fool’ by Norman Cameron is therefore not a poem in which the scheme of rhyme and half-rhyme, the sound of the words and the weight of the stanzas, is the better part of the message; only an elitist would say that the shape of the poem somehow carries the sense of ambush and psychological game-playing the speaker is describing. And if it does, who cares? Who has the time to work with that? Cameron’s poem, for Goodwin’s readers, is more immediately accessible, though we might ask ourselves what exactly is being accessed. ‘This brilliantly subtle poem,’ Goodwin writes, ‘was recommended to me by a friend when she heard I had been promoted at work. She said it was a reminder that because I was now a boss, I was fair game. "No one,” she said, "will hesitate to stab you in the back."’

Goodwin’s poetry column in the Mail on Sunday has more than three million readers, and her fans argue she is the best thing that ever happened to British poetry: she is making people aware of modern poets they’d never heard of and informing ‘the average reader’ of poetry’s relevance to their lives. Goodwinisation means that poetry has a chance to survive, though it might also mean that difficult writing does not. Defenders argue that scansion doesn’t matter and difficulty can cry Rapunzel-like from its ivory tower: so long as people are ‘getting something’ out of poetry, improving their outlook, then nothing else matters. Like the positive, hi-energy mantra that accompanies most self-help, this is almost exquisitely patronising. It’s as if Goodwin were being lined up against William Empson, only to emerge as the people’s champion, spurning Mount Parnassus’ windy summits for the moonlit shores of ordinary feeling and good sense.[3] Nothing I could muster in my attempts to patronise Goodwin could match her own sweet skill in patronising her readers, her assumption that people will settle for tinctures of elderflower cordial.

These are tough times for elitists. Display will always win out over privacy, as if seriousness was boring, as if contemplation was excluding, as if understatement was underhand, and as if difficulty represented a kind of dishonesty. In this climate, the ‘democratisation’ of poetry is just another phoney enterprise, like Open Government, a sop to that element in the national atmosphere which says inclusion is everything. Poetry is often difficult, and its difficulty is part of the richness of what we have; it is a crime to make the unobvious obvious, an act of vandalism to render it trite, like turning Mozart into ringtones while calling attention to its improving qualities. Some people, of course, will call that democracy, but what does it leave you with? An increased audience for Mozart? A bigger sale for new volumes of poetry? No, I’m afraid not. Poetry sales haven’t budged in the UK for years, though ‘old favourites’ are taking up more and more space in the bookshops, at the expense of new poets.[4] But Daisy’s picks are selling – Daisy’s happiness-seeking audience is happy.

Self-help is often enough a flowering of self-pity, and those who propagate it are always ready to see the road to wisdom as one which must traverse the palace of excess emotion. And though its forms and its centrality in the culture are new, the tendency is old. Writers have often wished to brutalise the notion that poetry is not for everybody. Here’s Cecil Day Lewis in 1947, trying to get them young:

‘Poetry won’t help you to get ahead in life.’ This is the sort of thing superior persons say, or men who think the main object in life is to make money. Poetry, they imply, is all very well for highbrows and people with plenty of time to waste, but it’s no use to the man-in-the-street. Now that’s a very new-fangled idea. The man-in-the-street in ancient Greece would never have said it: he flocked in crowds to watch poetic drama; and so did the Elizabethan man-in-the-street, to see the poetic plays of Shakespeare and other dramatists of the time. Then think of the medieval minstrels and ballad-singers, who drew great audiences in village or castle to hear them recite poems. Think of the peasants in Russia, in Ireland, in Spain, in many other countries, still making up their own poems.

In his ‘Lecture on the Uses of Poetry’, William Cullen Bryant, the great American editor and poet, argued, a hundred years before Day Lewis, that poetry might exist as a pattern of thought and invention which works best when resisting the lure of a person’s immediate concerns. ‘One of the great recommendations of poetry,’ he wrote,

is that it withdraws us from the despotism of many of those circumstances which mislead the moral judgment. It is dangerous to be absorbed continuously in our own immediate concerns. Self-interest is the most ingenious and persuasive of all the agents that deceive our consciences, while by means of it our unhappy and stubborn prejudices operate in their greatest force. But poetry lifts us to a sphere where self-interest cannot exist, and where the prejudices that perplex our everyday life can hardly enter. It restores us to our unperverted feelings, and leaves us at liberty to compare the issues of life with our unsophisticated notions of good and evil. We are taught to look at them as they are in themselves, and not as they may affect our present convenience, and then we are sent back to the world with our moral perceptions cleared and invigorated.

The old ‘Treasuries’ were collections of poems presented for their own qualities as opposed to a series of specified emotional utilities. Volumes called 101 Poems to Get You Through the Day (and Night) or 101 Poems to Keep You Sane are more cynical objects, dreamed up by people who understand advertising and know how to make hay out of the culture’s deficiencies. One would feel able to admire their ingenuity were they not now becoming set texts, defining, in a brand new way, the function of poetry in British and American life. That is what plucks the comedy from this dark drama: it is a story that shows dumbing-down in freefall.

Peter Forbes edited Poetry Review between 1986 and 2002, so you’d be right to label him a friend to modern poetry. His magazine never shifted many copies but it always exhibited high standards: make way, then, with sniffles and genuflections, for All the Poems You Need to Say I Do, a scrofulous little collection targeted at people who think poetry comes into its own at funerals, or, in this case, weddings. Maybe Forbes has been Goodwinised; at any rate, he has obviously been persuaded of the self-helping role poetry has taken up. Last year, he edited something called We Have Come Through: 100 Poems Celebrating Courage in Overcoming Depression and Trauma, a title not only suitably long but pertinently broken-backed by that shameless colon. ‘If you’re in the first throes of a new excitement,’ Forbes writes here, ‘or need to put a new relationship to the test, or put a failure behind you, or have reached the point of the great affirmation, you’ll find a poem here for the occasion.’

As with Goodwin’s new book, there’s hardly a bad poem in Forbes’s anthology – that’s not the point. These books are full of excellent poems which suffer only by being corralled together under a nauseating rubric. Forbes has exercised taste and judgment in the matter of his choices (no one could argue with Patricia Beer’s ‘The Faithful Wife’ or Norman MacCaig’s ‘True Ways of Knowing’), but what cultural moment, or commercial hunger, is being serviced by the publication of such sky-blue and touchy-feely anthologies of variously thoughtful poetry with their invariably thoughtless introductions?

We’re only a step away from the felicities of Patience Strong and Helen Steiner Rice, from verses on greetings cards, words intended for the heart-sore and the nostalgic, words to soothe and lull and never question. And that’s the rub with all this pukey anthologising: a certain kind of poem self-selects, a form of address that offers a clear reflection of what the lovelorn, the sinning, the abandoned, the bereaved already know. The self-help poetry anthology likes Auden and Yeats, but nothing too early and strange in Auden and nothing of Yeats and his gyres. It likes Wendy Cope and Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and Thomas Hardy and the lullabies of Housman. It prefers poets whose speakers say how they feel, and feel what they say, while never running out of rhythm and never speaking in tongues. It likes Philip Larkin, the unlikely patron saint of self-help, though it’s amusing to consider how untouched he would be to find his effusions on hopeless love, coming death and boredom deployed in a continuing effort to floss the minds of the readers of the Mail on Sunday.

I have now read a great many of these anthologies. There is no T.S. Eliot to be found in them. No Ezra Pound. No Wallace Stevens. Everything floats down to a gentle paradox, and here is ours: anthologists who sell emotional progress to their readers hate poetry that constitutes progress in itself.

It’s tough news. I know it’s tough.

Let me protect you.

Like the hard shells on Morecambe beach.

There, there.

We always get through stuff.

Together. Don’t we?

[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.