6.01.2009

Relevant, accessible and coming to a television station near you.

Maybe we’ve been taking the wrong tone in our discussions. The inimitable A.A. Gill commented in yesterday’s Times on the Oxford poetry scandal – don’t you love the idea of being able to work up enough interest in poetry to create a scandal? For those of you who missed it I offer the following excerpt from ‘ Poetry’s turn for the verse.’ It introduced a discussion of the BBC’s verse off to find the best poet in the land ever (Contenders are Donne, Milton and the author of Beowolf), and the question of whether poetry belongs on television. The answer is no, at least according to Gill, but it’s his contribution to the problem of accessibility I wanted to draw to your attention.
“ It has been rhyme-and-reason week. You go 100 years without ever thinking about a poet, then all of a sudden they are everywhere. The scandal at Oxford managed briefly to elbow venal MPs off the news. There was something hopelessly, Wodehouseianly English about these stories. The greatest crisis in democracy since the Reform Act brought about by duck houses, tampons and moat cleaning, and then Oxford dons reaching for the smelling salts with one hand and a stiletto with the other, all over predatory libidos, and bluestocking innuendo. You wonder, would they ever have managed to elect Byron? Precocious, strong on classics, popular verse, shags everything in a corset, including his sister. Or Dylan Thomas? Or Catullus? The poet Michael Horowitz was on the Today programme with a voice that sounded like a wax cylinder tiptoeing out of a brass speaking tube. He explained that poetry had caught an infection from the rest of the ghastly, pustular, commercial world. Poets, he readily said, should be solitary, distanced, and possibly consumptive and sexually ambivalent. The BBC has been doing its best to bring poets and poetry kicking and screaming, or perhaps mincing and weeping, into the nation’s green room; to turn them into the culture’s footballers. Which means poetry has to be played out under the arc lights of the Tristams’ favourite culture words, which are – all together now – “relevant” and “accessible”. What rhymes with relevant and accessible? Patronising and explanatory and simplified and unenthusiastic? Can you all go away now and make a poem out of those wonderful words? Use your coloured crayons. Relevant and accessible actually means mediated by a friendly, classless autodidact who can josh and cajole you through the tricky business of pentameter and sonnet form and make sure you don’t feel culturally embarrassed or aesthetically humiliated. . . I’ve always vouched that there was no human activity that was above, below, or beside the box, but after this week I’m beginning to think maybe poetry is the exception. Television is a show and tell medium, and so, in a completely different sense, is poetry. The BBC has been confronted with the quandary of what you actually show when the poetry is showing itself. The visons collide, and what you get is the equivalent of old masters printed on T shirts. Bad art and bad fashion. Poetry won’t be filleted into sound bites. The words remain, but the poetry evaporates. Poetry is hard. It exists at the ceiling of comprehension and feeling, and when when you come down with the sense of it, it’s miraculous as anything man has conceived. Having it delivered like pizza by Fiona Shaw isn’t quite the same thing. It’s not television’s job to tease and trick reluctant folk to open poetry books, just as it isn’t poetry’s business to make people watch television. We get to poetry by our own circuitous routes, and the enjoyment and awe are greater for it. Finally though, poetry doesn’t belong on television because it isn’t a mass medium.”

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