The Importance of Poetry

6 Jul|Tom Hodgkinson

'Girl Reading', Charles Edward Perugini, ca. 1870

Tom Hodgkinson applauds poetry becoming more mainstream

Today I am catching a train from Euston to Ledbury for the annual Ledbury Poetry Festival, where I’m going to interview the soldier, scholar and statesman Paddy Ashdown about his seven favourite poems. It is a genuinely literary festival, a brilliant idea, brilliantly realised, which gathers poets from all over the world. And it seems that poetry really is coming out of the shadows. Last week poet Clare Pollard delighted audiences at our Idler Dinner with a sharp, savage and witty portrait of the trials of a young mother from her latest book, Incarnation. I asked her to become Poetry Editor of the Idler and she rapidly agreed, meaning that we’ll have one of the country’s top poets making our selections. Clare also runs our online course, “How to Write A Poem”. Interviewed in the current issue of the magazine is Simon Armitage, and of course you will all be aware of the superb rhyming of Murray Lachlan Young, who has a regular spot on BBC Radio 6, pops up at the big festivals and whose new book was recently featured on the BBC’s breakfast show – mainstream or what?

This is all encouraging news. 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.”

So let’s hear it for poetry and prolonged reflection.