Hello. Welcome to the first in our series of daily weekly features – that is to say, there will be features daily, each recurring weekly. Yes?
This one is fairly self-explanatory: I go through the websites of the previous week’s papers (see list at the bottom of the post), and try to find poetry. The methodology is straightforward: I enter the terms “poetry” and “poem” into each site’s internal search function and, once I’ve winnowed out all the results featuring phrases like “Peter Crouch’s close control is poetry in motion,” or, “There’s pure poetry in a grilled cheese sandwich” (a real headline last week – thank you, The Independent), I report back on what’s left.
There are a few issues with this methodology – mainly that it relies on newspaper websites having good internal search functions (or having one at all – oddly, Britain’s most popular newspaper does not seem to have this function on its website: it’s almost as if The Sun doesn’t really think its readers view it as a viable research tool). It also means that in the case of The Times, which uses a paywall, I can only report back on the headline and first paragraph of any article I find there, as I’m not getting expenses for this and I’m certainly not giving Rupert Murdoch any of my own money.
There are also questions which could be asked about the endeavour on a wider scale. Aren’t we constantly being told that people get all their news from their Twitters and their Facebooks and their Friends Reuniteds these days? Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to quantify how much poetry ends up in people’s social media newsfeeds. More importantly, the method also ignores online-only news sources – Buzzfeed, Vice, etc. These are fair criticisms, but if the recent election has taught us anything, it is that ‘old’ media still has a pretty big influence over how a substantial portion of the British public thinks, and that looking at what makes the papers is still a pretty good way of measuring a subject’s profile.
A further point would be that, if one wants to find in-depth discussion of poetry in the semi-mainstream media, one can go to the TLS or LRB or NYRB or another of those journals which are so literary that even their titles are tl; dr. Well, although these organs certainly have a wider readership than poetry magazines, they are still pretty bloody niche, and what I want to do here is find out what people who are not regular patrons of Snipcock & Tweed are reading. (Also, the chances are these journals will feature in Friday’s feature.)
Finally, a couple of things I won’t talk too much about in this feature after today: readers’ competitions and reprints of old poems. The Guardian has a monthly Poster Poems feature (meaning poems posted to the site by readers, not poems on posters or something like that – am I the only one who finds this confusing?); the FT has an honestly baffling Workplace Haiku competition in which bored office workers who are too good to doodle instead send in a 5-7-5 haiku on a different work-based theme each week. (“Murray, give me the / stapler. Give me the stapler. / Murray, give me the –”. You can have that one for free.)
The FT also prints a monthly-ish poem: here is the most recent one. The Guardian has two separate weekly poetry features, one, on Saturdays, usually printing something from a new collection (last week from Marine by Alan Jenkins and John Kinsella) and one, on Mondays, sometimes old, sometimes new, with a commentary by Carol Rumens. Last week’s was a fairly superficial discussion of a fairly shallow poem, in my opinion. The poem is by no means bad, but doesn’t seem to have very much under its surface, and Rumens doesn’t find a great deal to say about it.
The Herald publishes a poem daily (although often no longer in the physical edition). Usually these are older poems, although the last two weeks have included poems from pamphlets entered for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award, like this.
The Morning Star is the only national paper that regularly prints new, unpublished work, in its weekly Well Versed feature. The poems are usually, like this one, on a political theme. Last week saw an extra poem. Over the last couple of weeks, the Guardian has been printing a series of newly commissioned poems themed around climate change – Jo Bell’s was probably the best of last week’s.
The exercise has been “curated” by Carol Ann Duffy – whatever that means. The poems were specially commissioned, which is not the same thing as curation (and it’s unclear who did the commissioning in the first place – the paper, obviously, as far as cash is concerned – but on Duffy’s recommendation, I presume: the point is that curating is not the same as commissioning/recommending artists to produce new work) – this is a small point, but if poets don’t care about the use of words, who will?
The “curated” poets are mostly the usual roster of documentarians – well-known names often found propping up The Verb. Comparing the poets who generally turn up in these things (The Guardian usually produces one or two of these sorts of commissions a year) with the poets who turn up in Well Versed is rather interesting. One is a who’s who of prize-winning Big 5-published poets; the other is a pretty good guide to exciting and often – though not necessarily – new, small press and spoken word poets.
Why this should be is maybe a question to come back to another day. This post is already too long, and I haven’t even got to the meat of this feature: a round-up of reviews of, and articles on, poetry.
So: reviews. One, in The Times, of a biography of Edward Thomas. One, in the Guardian, of Clive James’s new last collection. And that’s it. One actual review of an actual poetry collection in the whole of last week’s press. Clive James is a… good poet. Occasionally he’s better than that. (Occasionally, he’s much worse – the less said about his bizarre royalist mini-epics of the 70s and 80s the better.) But this is not why his work is now being reviewed. Nor is it because of his health problems – a reappraisal as reward for a life in poetry. It’s because – I hope this isn’t too shocking an insight – he used to be on telly.
Another poet off the telly is children’s writer Joseph Coelho, who reads a poem on video for The Telegraph from Hay. The Mail is similarly impressed with England flanker Maro Itoje, a young rugby player who writes poetry. Bloody awful poetry, but as the piece seems to be more about the astonishing idea of a sportsperson having any kind of intellectual life that hardly matters.
Being famous in another walk of life is not the fault of James, Coelho or Itoje of course, but I could wish that poetry made the news more often on its own merits, rather than because of its association with other media. There are a number of pieces on musicians interpreting poetry. In the FT, Algerian singer Souad Massi discusses setting poems from the Arabic canon as a political act, with relation to the Arab Spring. In the Scotsman, composer Rory Boyle, who is collaborating with Dilys Rose, talks a little about the morality of interpretation: “Isn’t it funny? […] We take somebody else’s words, which exist on their own level, and do our own thing with them; which is, when you think about it, a bit arrogant.” In the Independent, Kathryn Williams makes a similar point when she argues against viewing Sylvia Plath’s poetry through her life – many musicians being keen to emphasise Plath’s suicide when responding to her work. Williams makes this point by writing music drawing on The Bell Jar, which seems an odd way of going about it, but it’s a good point nonetheless.
The Indy has the best poetry articles this week (as well as reporting on the “Shakespeare portrait” nonsense). Ian McMillan’s bit on ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a mixed bag – “I think a train journey is like a poem; it begins, it ends, it travels somewhere.” The refreshments are too expensive, the plumbing is often dodgy. Choo choo! However, Arifa Akbar’s piece on Pakistan’s “national poet”, Allama Iqbal, and the question of ‘translatability’ is good, as far as it goes.
Last, and coincidentally, least, The Sunday Times reports on the Oxford Poetry Professorship. Maybe I’ll have mustered the energy to care by this time next week, when the various controversies will no doubt still be rumbling away like so much partially-digested pheasant.
List of newspaper websites consulted (including results for sister papers). If a paper in this list isn’t mentioned above, it is because it contained no recognisable poetry content:
The Morning Star
Let me know if I missed anyone.