Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Moron Writes

Now, I have had occasion to take Mr Peter Rhodes to task before (and here). He is, you'll remember, the thin-skinned local columnist whose work reads like something Jeremy Clarkson would produce if he'd sustained massive brain injuries in a particularly horrendous car crash. Reactionary, deluded, ill-informed and lazy.

Yesterday, Mr Rhodes turned his attention to the cultural sphere, not his natural stamping ground. In particular, he decided to mark the passing of Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney in his own inimitable way.

Kipling was a great poet. So were Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth and Yeats. People queued to buy their latest works and learned to recite them by heart.
 But when Seamus Heaney, who died last week, is hailed as a great poet, it assumes that poetry is still a significant force in society.
 It is not. Poetry is no longer great.
 The days are gone when a poet like Yeats could declare of the 1916 Easter Rising “a terrible beauty is born” and shake the foundations of the Empire.
 Most of us can recite a few lines from the great poets but how many of us know a single couplet by Heaney?”
This of course bears all the hallmarks of the big fish in a small pool. Mr Rhodes cannot recite 'a single couplet by Heaney'. Therefore Heaney can't be a good or important poem. Case closed. OR, Mr Rhodes is a cultural vacuum. OR, to be more charitable, the general public has many competing demands on its attention and doesn't have the same relationship with poetry that it did before. It's certainly true that schoolchildren aren't forced to memorise huge screeds of poetry these days (though Mr Gove intends to change that).

I recently spoke to someone who did learn massive chunks of 'great' poets' work in school. He can still reel it out, but as he said, all they did was memorise: they never learned why these poems were meant to be great, how they worked and what they meant. It was just empty data.

This, I suspect, is where Mr Rhodes' thesis falls apart. He can't define 'great' because he can't get beyond memory. I suspect that he merely means 'famous', i.e. what he learned in school. Those other poets he cites are Georgians and Victorians whose gentler work infested the anthologies without close examination: if Rhodes was around in their day he'd be screaming blue murder about their political and sexual subversion, particularly Byron. His casual list simply betrays his superficial understanding of their work. Even Kipling, supposedly a Pillar of Imperialism, actually questions and undermines the racial and social underpinnings of that Empire.

Did Yeats' poem 'shake the foundations of Empire'? I doubt it: though about 1916, it wasn't published until 1921, and expresses terrible doubts about the consequences of this specific Rising, which he generally supported. What shook the foundations of Empire was the Rising, not the poem. By 1921, Ireland's exit loomed (Civil War and Independence arrived in 1922, and neither the UK Government nor Michael Collins ascribed it to poetry's effects). 

How many people know a single couplet by Heaney? In Ireland, several million. In the UK, many, many more than poor Peter knows.

(PS: he's not even original. The Telegraph already ran a piece by a man who won the Bad Sex in Literature Award claiming that Heaney is 'no good', mostly because he wasn't a right-wing British imperialist).

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