How Relevant Is Poetry?

Two weeks ago, the English broadcaster Jeremy Paxman ignited a furor by arguing that contemporary verse “connives at its own irrelevance” and needs to “raise its game a little bit, raise its sights.” One word in particular rankled poets:

Paxman suggest[ed] (not, it would appear, entirely ironically) setting up “inquisition” panels before which poets would be forced to justify their decisions, including “why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it.” This, Paxman claims, would be “a really illuminating experience for everybody.”

On Twitter, Paxman’s comments were fodder for some choice responses from poets, including Canada’s own David McGimpsey, who wrote, “Asking poets to appeal more to the common person is like asking Colonel Sanders to appeal more to chickens.” And Q&Q’s April cover subjectSina Queyras, responded, “Jeremy Paxman can kiss my obscurity.”

Adam Kirsh defends Paxman – to an extent:

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. …

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.