Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poetry and ordinary people

The term "ordinary people" has come up in Paxman-inspired poetry discussion lately. I confess that I don't meet many ordinary people. Over 50% of Cambridge people have at least a degree (the 3rd highest percentage in the country), so it's not an ordinary place. The local paper sometimes has a poem on the letters page. Here's part of "Pylons" from the latest issue we have

When the weather is clear, no mist or rain
I can see pylons stomping across the plain
Arms out stretched they stride the land
Or with hands on hips in cornfields stand,


They step over motorways with ease
And straddle roads and lanes where ere they please

I don't know how typical this is of the newspaper's poetry, but I imagine the editors know what goes down well. It's interesting to see how the formal features are dealt with. The rhyme is tight, the rhythm less so - there are 4 beats a line with a variable number of unstressed syllables. There seems little pressure to regularise the rhythm except for the use of "ere" (I presume "e'er" was intended).

The language has rather a "retro" feel - inversions aren't avoided, and compression isn't a priority.

Using pylons in this way as subject matter (rather than writing "Pylon poetry") is tempting - I've done it (though with much less anthropomorphising), and so, I imagine, have many other people. Often the pylons hold skipping ropes. Here they're mostly on the move. The ending's not so different to one of mine in sentiment.

Strung together for ever more until they reach some distant shore

I imagine that ordinary people read little contemporary poetry written by "poets". In a way, poems like "Pythons" take advantage of its readers' ordinariness. For that reason (and others) I'd feel rather awkward writing such poetry; exploitative. I wouldn't be writing for my peers.

And yet, I think I do sometimes write for non-poetry readers. Whether they'd be called ordinary is another matter. I have in mind people who have to read or write prose carefully, people prepared to challenge and question. But they won't know about the aims of some modern movements - Flarf, LangPo, etc - and they won't have much patience re Oulipo, minimalism, or anything that looks too much like the literary prose they usually read. So the poetry needs to allude to familiar material, and the aesthetics need to be familiar. Alternatively (and I've tried this too) it can be explained.

I went with my wife to see Luke Wright. His allusions to events and TV programs in his childhood were beyond her. He, John Cooper Clarke, rap artists, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres and Roger McGough are amongst those who at least sometimes write poetry that ordinary people will pay attention to, though not the same "ordinary people" in each case. And John Cooper Clarke fans probably won't go for "Pylons".


  1. I’m not saying I’ve never known anyone with a degree but most of the “normal” people I’ve known and worked with haven’t had one and those who had certainly didn’t make a big deal about it. Degree or no degree no one read any poetry voluntarily. Depending on age a few might’ve heard of John Cooper Clarke or Pam Ayres but they wouldn’t know who Roger McGough was. Folk singer? Right? Most never read anything that wasn’t a periodical. One Xmas they did a secret Santa thing and my boss got me. He knew I was a reader so he bought me a Flashman. Says it all. I still have the book but I’ve never even peeked inside.

    It was such a strange feeling when I first came online and got talking to other poets. Here were people who regarded what I did as normal. I’d never been “normal” before. It felt strange. Still does a wee bit if I’m being honest.

  2. Second thoughts, maybe Roger McGough's only known to Radio 4 listeners of Poetry Please. I think some people do read the poetry that's in local newspapers. They might read song lyrics or hear comedy ditties. The stuff people read at school sometimes becomes more than a chore. Along with Birthday cards I guess that's about all the visible poetry there is.
    The Bloodaxe anthologies (and other themed anthologies) might have tempted a few borderline people, though I suspect most of the books were presents that never got read.
    One sometimes hears that 50% of people write poetry sometime in their lives. Maybe a similar percentage sing in the bath, but they never perform at La Scala.
    So I agree that "ordinary" people don't read "poetry". I might even be prepared to remove some of those quotemarks.