Oh, Joanna

It seems Joanna Lumley has been making an ass of herself. The full story can be found here. The fuss is over comments she wrote in the introduction of Liz Cowley’s forthcoming book, A Red Dress. Essentially it’s the same old thing – “Oh, modern poetry is too difficult” with a side order of “the rest of it is just pandering to the masses”. (A bob each way?)

I’m prepared to go with some of her statement – that some modern poetry is so abstruse that it risks disappearing up its own backside. Billy Collins, writing in the introduction to Best American Poetry 2006, came through with this descriptive gem:

personal to the point of narcissism, self involved to the point of autism

(in a different context – I know, but as a phrase it’s just too damn good to leave alone). Poetry that is too clever, that has no desire to communicate with anyone outside it’s own little clique of approved readers, has done a huge amount of damage to poetry’s reputation. Not helped by the other extreme, who hold gibberish and doggerel up as the real poetry. The fact that there are plenty of fine poets inhabiting the wilderness between these two poles gets completely ignored, and the poor sods who might otherwise quite like to give poetry a chance, have no idea of their (our) existence.

Joanna’s comments included the following:

‘It is a rare modern poem that achieves the balance between being challenging and accessible.’

(Umm, no, not really. Have you looked lately? Anywhere reputable? I can send you a recommended reading list if you like.)

‘Liz would never dream of describing herself as a “poet”. She even dislikes the very word “poetry” because she feels there is a divisive ring to it, as if the genre were up there on a rarefied pedestal.’

At this point I was feeling a little tetchy with Joanna. And more than a little bemused about Liz Cowley. Ok, I can understand the desire to not be seen to be elitist. But to actually shun the word “poetry” … that sets off a few alarm bells. I mean, yes, the modernists were a bit tough to read when they first came out. But most people who are capable of following modern television (and certainly something like Absolutely Fabulous) have got more than enough practice at dealing with modernist techniques to be able to understand even “complex” poems. (Just don’t get me started on PostModernists …) A lot of things have changed since then. The whole Neo-Formalist movement, for example. (I’m assuming she is able to discern the difference between dear old Pam Ayres and someone like Don Paterson.)

Reading a bit further, I came to a comment from the poet (sorry, “writer”) herself that clarified the situation for me:

‘Poetry is so obscure and inward-looking that it loses people – Carol Ann Duffy, for example, is almost impossible for anyone who has not been well-educated to understand …’

Sorry? Difficult? Carol Ann Duffy is difficult? Dear God! Don’t tell the general public – they love her. They buy her books in huge numbers and seem to think that she makes sense. And then there are the thousands of school kids … 

Dear Joanna – please try to read a few poems by real poets. Ones who aren’t afraid of using the word to describe themselves. Don’t be afraid, Joanna. Come into the light. Even Patsy could do better than this.

3 Replies to “Oh, Joanna”

  1. Carol Ann Duffy is fairly obscure – the general public in the UK would be lucky to identify her name as a poet, let alone read one of her poems or “love her” !!

    Lumley is entitled to her opinion, regardless of whether people agree with it or not. Stephen Fry expressed a similar opinion not long ago.

  2. I don’t know how to respond to that, without degenerating into a series of “no she isn’t/oh yes she is”.

    I think you are being too hard on the average Brit – during the three years I lived in the UK, she was the person that the non-poetry people I spoke to would almost always bring up in conversation when I told them what I did. I can honestly say I’ve never spoken to anyone who said that they couldn’t understand her, and a lot of people who would say “I don’t like much poetry, but she’s different”.

    Does it come down to a definition of what “obscure” means? The sense that it was being used in the article (and the sense I’ve used it in) is meaning “hard to understand”. What’s hard to understand about a poem like “Warming Her Pearls”? Or “Mrs Icarus”?

    There’s a difference between a poem (or movie, or painting) being obscure and a poem (or ditto) not giving up every possible meaning on first viewing. That’s one of the definitions of “art”. Even something like “The Simpsons” has new shades of meaning when you watch it again.

    Yes, you are absolutely right about Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry being entitled to voice their opinions. As are you. And as am I. The difference is that people like Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry have a big public presence, and are perceived as being well educated and intelligent. So it would be nice if they kept their influence in mind when making pronouncements about things that they seem to know very little about.

    (Stephen and Joanna, feel free to reply to this. List five modern poets who you have read work by. Anything published in the last ten years will do. And tell me what you think is bad about them.)

  3. Carol Ann Duffy’s work is part of the GCSE curriculum in England (compulsory for all under-16s), so she’s certainly not obscure in the sense of little known. And, as – believe me – plenty of those young readers have no problems understanding exactly what “Diving for Pearls” is all about, she’s hardly obscure in the sense of difficult to understand, either.

    Stephen Fry’s case is quite different to that of Joanna Lumley. His strong opinions – whether we agree with them or not – are at least well-informed. He clearly knows contemporary poetry pretty well, and in fact he’s on record as being an admirer of Carol Ann Duffy’s work.

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