Tom Hodgkinson on the surprising survival of poetry
For an art scorned as useless by government ministers, business leaders and Dominic Cummings, poetry has had a surprisingly long life. And under lockdown, people have been getting their pens out and attempting to recollect some interesting thoughts in tranquility.
Most of these poems are doubtless of dubious quality. Mine,I predict, will never be published. But some, like this beautiful reflection on coronavirus, by my friend James Parker are brilliant.
For our part, we run a poem or poems in each issue of the Idler. They’re chosen by poet Clare Pollard, whose latest book is Incarnation.
Clare also runs our online course, “How to Write A Poem”.
In the ancient argument about the sort of life most conducive to happiness – the active life versus the contemplative life – the contemplative life has taken a back seat over the last five hundred years. The Reformation got rid of the monks and nuns and a new Puritan work ethic emerged. Then came the rise of utilitarianism, clock-time and ruthless efficiency in the factories. Today business, more than ever, is obsessed by data and various types of analytics.
In all the bustle, the more important side of life, the romantic stuff, the useless arts if you like, get lost. A while back I defended poetry on Radio 4 to a hard-headed businessman wearing a gold watch who shouted me down saying: “You can’t eat poetry”, thereby summing up the crudely utility-based approach to life that most of us have been brought up with. It’s not a new problem.
Here is Nietzsche making a similar complaint in 1882:
“Even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s lunch whilst reading the latest news of the stock market.”
Under lockdown, for all its horrors, contemplation is making a comeback. So let’s hear it for poetry and prolonged reflection.