Who: Various Ac-tors, and John Smith of the National Poetry Society
What: Patterns of Poetry Sampler
Where: Music and Video Exchange, Camden High Street, London
Cost: One pound
I've seen the cliche "Poetry can be fun!" more times in my life than I would honestly like now, and I've always felt it smacks of defeat. As soon as anyone starts talking about how things "can" be fun with the use of exclamation marks, underlines and italics, my hackles rise - such desperate over-enthusiasm usually involves genuine unpleasantness, either of the cabbage or "Shakespeare History Play" varieties. As soon as anyone's voice becomes hysterically happy, adopting the same gushing tones they reserve to distract the family dog before they stick a thermometer up its arse, you can't blame people for getting wary. I mean, look at the dog's face in such situations. Even he knows something's up.
The letter above is worryingly aggressive and evangelical in its tone. Yes, of course - the only way to convince young people poetry is fun is to throttle them and scream: "Don't you understand!? This is FUN! What you're hearing and witnessing is called PLEASURE! Get that into your thick skull you pathetic, snot-nosed, disinterested little philistine!" That'll do it. Their entire perception of the cultural world will change then. One read of the above letter is enough to explain poetry's rapid descent into the cultural margins. It wasn't taught well for many years and it wasn't promoted well. A slow recovery is presently blooming, but I fear that the image poetry has with most members of the public is still akin to the promotional fluff surrounding this disc.
There again, there is some bizarre pleasure to be had from this record, introduced by John Smith (hear him desperately trying to suppress his pride as he introduces himself). If the condescending tones of the promotional letter weren't enough to thrill you, there's the hammy phrasing of the hired actors who read the poetry on the record. It's quite clear that many of them have little, if any, experience of reading poetry in public, and make each piece sound like a scripted monologue for a Radio Four play. Instead of bouncing along with the rhythms or injecting emotion into the words, they delicately trip their lips over the work as cautiously as one would handle a fragile antique vase. The end effect is often baffling, with the "unorthodox reading" John Smith refers to being one of the more pleasing efforts. How far we've come. And thank God for that.
Of course, the practice of getting actors to read out poems to promote the form still hasn't really gone away, and still doesn't make a great deal of sense. Poets are usually used to reading their material aloud in public, and should instinctively know how it should or shouldn't be handled - they tend to "give of themselves" where actors would frequently rather hide behind theatrical devices and characters. To my ears, the work on this little sampler is sometimes unintentionally comical, and very often drab and mediocre. If people turned their backs and started listening to Bob Dylan albums instead, the National Poetry Society and HMV only had themselves to blame.
My copy of this came with a pristine order form for the full album - I mention that in case anyone wants to grab it off me, post it off to EMI, and send the admin staff there into a confused (or perhaps amused) fit. Although if anyone filled in such a thing and the box set did indeed arrive, with an extortionate bill attached, the joke may very well be on them...