In December 1962, Kingsley Amis and his then wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, were separately approached by The Observer newspaper and asked to name their favourite novel of the last ten years.
Their response raised a few eyebrows in London’s literary community, since both chose a moderately successful paperback, now long forgotten, by the novelist Elizabeth Taylor which was called Angel. Dealing with an unremarkable Buckinghamshire stock-broker’s wife who imagines how different her existence might have been had she made other choices, the Amises chose the novel because, as Amis remarked to Karl Miller in a letter, “it is written in a style that perfectly matches its subject”.
Amis went on to ask Miller why the literati had found his choice so strange. It was as if, Amis speculated, the literary community supposed that a novel about a Buckinghamshire housewife (written, incidentally, by a Buckinghamshire housewife) couldn’t be any good, by virtue of its author not being a “writerly” type and its subject matter being prima facie dull and uninteresting. Far from it, said Amis – and he was right. Good writing can come from anywhere and be about anything, and it can be written by anyone with talent and application.
I mention this nugget of literary history because a similar beast has been born, gasping and flailing its claws, in the London swamp this week. The redoubtable Giles Coren, who sounds like he’s on a one-man crusade to revive the sales figures of respectable broadsheet newspapers by filling their columns with sub-tabloid rants, has made the bold claim that no-one cares about or likes poetry because, in reality, most poetry is so terrible.
I’m not sure what’s worse – Coren’s stimulant-fuelled paranoia or the fact that most of those writing on-line comments agreed with him. The only circumstance in which I could agree with Coren is if he were to add the stipulation, “most poetry that gets put in front of a wide public is terrible”.
For instance, the undoubtedly photogenic and articulate Owen Sheers may be many things, including a good presenter, but a remarkable poet he is not. Still, having made a good fist of presenting BBC 4’s recent series, “A Poet’s Britain”, we shall no doubt discover that his books are selling well and that people who “don’t often read that much poetry really, you know” are filling up his readings. In similar vein, the redoubtable Private Eye pointed out this week that Ruth Padel’s recent reading at Hay-on-Wye had sold a whopping seven tickets before the Mail on Sunday ran its double-page spread on the Oxford Professor of Poetry scandal, after which the reading sold out in a flash.
Far away from all this hoopla, real poets go on writing and publishing excellent verse, too much of which will go unseen and unread by anyone outside a tiny circle of readers. HappenStance Press (www.happenstancepress.co.uk) published The Small Hours by Tom Duddy in 2006, which is easily the best pamphlet of poems I’ve read in five or ten years – and yet most of the print run is still languishing with the publisher because of Mr Duddy’s modest reticence to promote his work. Another writer of similar quality, Leceister’s Matt Merritt, had a book of poems, Troy Town, published by Arrowhead Press (www.arrowheadpress.co.uk) last year, and his book has gone similarly unremarked by the national newspapers and commentariat. But enough of my words – if you want to know how good modern poems can be, read these few lines by Matt Merritt:
Nothing good is going to come of this,
but the past is a faithful friend
and a surprisingly sensitive lover:
at least, it doesn’t roll over and sleep
the moment it’s had its way;
just whispers nothings, sweet in your ear
and better by far than the future,
which will wait for your darkest night to fall
then promise the world, but never call.