TUMBY BAY - Long holiday breaks like those we have been experiencing over Christmas and New Year bring a kind of stasis to most media and it is necessary to seek intellectual stimulation elsewhere.
To that end I’ve been re-reading some of George Orwell’s essays, particularly those written during World War II.
One of his essays, Poetry and the Microphone, refers to his work at the BBC, broadcasting half-hour-long literary programs to India in the format of an imaginary monthly literary magazine. Written in 1943, it was not published until 1945 in the New Saxon Pamphlet.
This is an extract from that essay which readers, especially poets, might find interesting:
THERE can be no doubt that in our civilisation poetry is by far the most discredited of the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to discern any value.
Arnold Bennett [a prolific British author] was hardly exaggerating when he said that in the English-speaking countries the word “poetry” would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire-hose.
And as I have pointed out, a breach of this kind tends to widen simply because of its existence, the common man becoming more and more anti-poetry, the poet more and more arrogant and unintelligible, until the divorce between poetry and popular culture is accepted as a sort of law of nature, although in fact it belongs only to our own time and to a comparatively small area of the earth.
We live in an age in which the average human being in the highly civilised countries is aesthetically inferior to the lowest savage.
This state of affairs is generally looked upon as being incurable by any conscious act, and on the other hand is expected to right itself of its own accord as soon as society takes a comelier shape.
With slight variations the Marxist, the Anarchist and the religious believer will all tell you this, and in broad terms it is undoubtedly true. The ugliness amid which we live has spiritual and economic causes and is not to be explained by the mere going-astray of tradition at some point or other.
But it does not follow that no improvement is possible within our present framework, nor that an aesthetic improvement is not a necessary part of the general redemption of society.
It is worth stopping to wonder, therefore, whether it would not be possible even now to rescue poetry from its special position as the most hated of the arts and win for it at least the same degree of toleration as exists for music.
But one has to start by asking, in what way and to what extent is poetry unpopular? On the face of it, the unpopularity of poetry is as complete as it could be.
But on second thoughts, this has to be qualified in a rather peculiar way. To begin with, there is still an appreciable amount of folk poetry (nursery rhymes etc.) which is universally known and quoted and forms part of the background of everyone’s mind. There is also a handful of ancient songs and ballads which have never gone out of favour.
In addition there is the popularity, or at least the toleration, of “good bad” poetry, generally of a patriotic or sentimental kind. This might seem beside the point if it were not that “good bad” poetry has all the characteristics which, ostensibly, make the average man dislike true poetry.
It is in verse, it rhymes, it deals in lofty sentiments and unusual language—all this to a very marked degree, for it is almost axiomatic that bad poetry is more ‘poetical’ than good poetry.
Yet if not actively liked it is at least tolerated. For example, just before writing this I have been listening to a couple of BBC comedians doing their usual turn before the 9 o’clock news.
In the last three minutes one of the two comedians suddenly announces that he “wants to be serious for a moment” and proceeds to recite a piece of patriotic balderdash entitled A Fine Old English Gentleman, in praise of His Majesty the King.
Now, what is the reaction of the audience to this sudden lapse into the worst sort of rhyming heroics? It cannot be very violently negative, or there would be a sufficient volume of indignant letters to stop the BBC doing this kind of thing.
One must conclude that though the big public is hostile to poetry, it is not strongly hostile to verse. After all, if rhyme and metre were disliked for their own sakes, neither songs nor dirty limericks could be popular.
Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday. Its name creates in advance the same sort of bad impression as the word ‘God’, or a parson’s dog-collar.
To a certain extent, popularising poetry is a question of breaking down an acquired inhibition. It is a question of getting people to listen instead of uttering a mechanical raspberry.
If true poetry could be introduced to the big public in such a way as to make it seem normal, as that piece of rubbish I have just listened to presumably seemed normal, then part of the prejudice against it might be overcome.