Jeremy Paxman, the longtime presenter of the BBC program “Newsnight,” is like the Brian Williams of England, though unlike Williams he is known for his aggressive interviews with evasive politicians. This year, Paxman was one of the judges for the Forward Prize, one of the U.K.'s most prestigious poetry awards. Over here, literary prizes tend to be judged strictly by writers—a good thing, on the whole—but in England they often make a grab for relevance, or at least publicity, by inviting celebrities to take part. (See Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel Lost for Words for a scathing roman à clef about the Booker Prize contest, recently judged by a certain “Downton Abbey” actor.)
In Paxman’s case, the invitation paid off. The Forward Prize made headlines a few days ago when Paxman was quoted as saying that he wished poetry "would raise its game a little bit, raise its sights,” and "aim to engage with ordinary people much more.” He loved poetry, he maintained, and the Forward shortlist was good, but in general the art has "connived at its own irrelevance.” So far, Paxman wasn’t saying more than many poets themselves have said for a long time—at least since Dana Gioia asked “Can Poetry Matter?” What really got some poets angry was when Paxman called for an "inquisition" in which poets would be "called to account for their poetry."
The language of “inquisitions” and being “called to account” has ugly resonances—that is why the provocative Paxman used it—and it has led some poets to denounce Paxman: George Szirtes saw it as an allusion to McCarthy and Stalinism. But if we take the element of compulsion out of it, there is nothing wrong with Paxman’s suggestion. Indeed, not only is there nothing wrong with it, it’s already, as Shakespeare once said in a different context, lawful as eating. Poetry magazine publishes issues in which poets are interviewed about their poems; anthologies feature poets explaining their work; poets clamor to get the chance to talk on panels, to read their work aloud and discuss it; and the whole creative-writing industry is premised on the idea that poets learn by explaining and defending what they’ve written. If a reader came up to a poet and asked her to explain one of her poems, in nine cases out of ten she’d be glad to clear the afternoon.
The real problem with Paxman’s comments lies in their incoherence: He is complaining about two different things as if they were the same thing. On the one hand, he urges poets to open up, to write for the general public, to be more accessible; on the other hand, he wants poetry to be better, to be more interesting and captivating. Both are understandable demands, but it’s important to recognize that they contradict one another. The best poetry is not always accessible, and the most accessible poetry is usually not good. Emily Dickinson didn’t write for a large public, and T.S. Eliot didn’t care at all about being clear, yet if you want to read good poetry, you turn to Dickinson and Eliot. Edgar Guest or Rod McKuen, on the other hand, were bestsellers, but who reads them now?
Reading a lot of contemporary poetry at once, the way a judge for a poetry prize does, is inevitably going to be a depressing experience, for the simple reason that most new poetry—like most new work in any art—is mediocre. The past comes to us pre-selected: only what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” makes it into the Norton anthology, while a hundred thousand poems are obliterated for each one that survives. If you had to read every book of poetry published in, say, 1723, you would get equally sick of all those rhymed couplets. To say that more good poetry should be written is like saying there should be more genius in the world: a fine demand, but hard to put into effect.
Nor is it easy to make the case that poetry is more unpopular today than it has been in most of history. There have been periods when poetry was genuinely popular—a significant number of people in nineteenth-century England bought Tennyson’s books—but such ages are the exception. In absolute terms, far more people are professionally involved with poetry today—as writers or MFA students or English majors—than in the golden age of Wyatt and Surrey, when manuscripts were passed hand to hand among a small circle of courtiers. Indeed, the problem today might be that poetry has too many stakeholders—that it has lost the agility and ruthlessness that it possessed when it truly was a coterie art. A coterie at least has the advantage of definite taste and genuine intimacy. When Ezra Pound helped to make modernism, it was because he convinced 20 other poets to follow his lead.
Maybe the watchword of the future, then, should not be more accessibility and more popularity—the average book of poetry is, in fact, paralyzingly accessible, wearing its heart and its language on its sleeve—but rather, back to the coterie. Let the best poets find each other, read each other, and promote each other, as the best poets have always done. Let them ignore both the demands of the public and the demands of the poetry world, and write as they feel compelled to write. That is the only way to produce work that, in a hundred years, the Paxmans of the future will consider classic, and use to shame the poor poets of their time.