Inspiring Older Readers
The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry by Adrian Mitchell
Poetry collections don’t sell in anything like the numbers fiction achieves but it wasn’t always so. In terms of literary history, the novel is the flighty new kid on the block compared to poetry and the fact that poetry has been considered the supreme manifestation of the written art-form for so long means that it has a history and a heritage that can be difficult to get your head around. Understanding how poets influenced each coming generation of new writers, how different schools of poetry emerged and how social and philosophical ideas found their way into the subject matter of poetry can be a complex and complicated series of connections to make.
Few of us have the time or dedication required to read systematically and thoroughly enough to master any topic or genre in sufficient detail to call ourselves experts. As a result, publishers have capitalised on the desire of people to have aspects of the world chronologically ordered for them and there is a long tradition of filling this market gap by providing anthologies. You can pretty much get an anthology – a curated selection of excerpts or complete poems – that in some way ‘represents’ the best and most influential work that has been published and which, taken together, offer a historical developmental narrative.
However, the truth is that poetry anthologies, however august their curator, are nothing more than the history of important or influential poems as interpreted by an individual or small editorial team. They are nothing more than someone else’s favourite poems as selected by people we’re meant to trust or be impressed by – and that's not a criticism, I’ve really got no beef about that. What very few of these anthologies offer however, is a running commentary on the highlights and lowlights of the selection. If you want that, you have to turn to the art of literary criticism – and that’s something else again.
But most us really want this stuff in a stimulating but easy to access form – we like to know but we aren’t keen on putting in the effort to find out. And that’s where Adrian Mitchell’s absolutely brilliant poem – The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry - can come to your aid:
THE OXFORD HYSTERIA OF ENGLISH POETRY
Back in the caveman days business was fair.
Used to turn up at Wookey Hole,
Plenty of action down the Hole
Nights when it wasn't raided.
They'd see my bear-gut harp
And the mess at the back of my eyes
And 'Right', they'd say, 'make poetry'.
So I'd slam away at the three basic chords
And go into the act ---
A story about sabre-toothed tigers with a comic hero;
A sexy one with an anti-wife-clubbing twist ---
Good progressive stuff mainly,
Get ready for the Bronze Age, all that,
And soon it would be 'Bring out the woad!'
Yeah, woad. We used to get high on woad.
The Vikings only wanted sagas
Full of gigantic deadheads cutting off each other's vitals
Or Beowulf Versus the Bog People.
The Romans weren't much better,
Under all that armour you could tell they were soft
With their central heating
And poets with names like Horace.
Under the Normans the language began to clear,
Became a pleasure to write in,
Yes, write in, by now everyone was starting
To write down poems.
Well, it saved memorizing and improvizing
And the peasants couldn't get hold of it.
Soon there were hundreds of us,
Most of us writing under the name
Of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Then suddenly we were knee-deep in sonnets.
Holinshed ran a headline:
BONANZA FOR BARDS.
It got fantastic ---
Looning around from the bear-pit te tho Globe,
All those freak-outs down the Mermaid,
Kit Marlowe coming on like Richard the Two,
A virgin queen in a ginger wig
And English poetry is full whatsit ---
Bloody fantastic, but I never found any time
To do any writing till Willy finally flipped ---
Smoking too much of the special stuff
Sir Walter Raleigh was pushing.
Cromwell's time I spent on cultural committees.
Then Charles the Second swung down from the trees
And it was sexual medley time
And the only verses they wanted
Were epigrams an Chloe's breasts
But I only got published on the back of her left knee-cap.
Next came Pope and Dryden
So I went underground.
Don't mess with the Mafia.
Then suddenly --- WOOMF ---
It was the Ro-man-tic Re-viv-al
And it didn't matter how you wrote,
All the public wanted was a hairy great image.
Before they'd even print you
You had to smoke opium, die of consumption,
Fall in love with your sister
Or drown in the Mediterranean (not at Brighton).
My publisher said: 'I'll have to remainder you
Unless you go and live in a lake or something
Like this bloke Wordsworth'.
After that there were about
A thousand years of Tennyson
Who got so bored with himself
That he changed his name
To Kipling at half-time.
Strange that Tennyson should be
Remembered for his poems really,
We always thought of him
As a golfer.
There hasn't been much time
For poetry since the 'twenties
What with leaving the Communist Church
To join the Catholic Party
And explaining why in the C.I.A. Monthly.
Finally I was given the Chair of Comparative Ambiguity
At Armpit University, Java.
It didn't keep me busy,
But it kept me quiet.
It seemed like poetry had been safely tucked up for the night.
The knock-about style of the poetry might make you think that this is a slight, comic piece but you’d be making a significant mistake if you dismissed it so pre-emptively because this is a work of real substance. By taking on the persona of ‘the spirit of poetry through the ages’ he slides through the years in a chronological tour of standout poets and poetic movements, passing informed judgements and assessments in the voice of everyman.
Fellow poet, George MacBeth put his finger right on the genius of the poem:
'The humour is indebted to the headlong monologue style of some North Country comedians rather than any traditional literary models. Most of the jokes would work with a group of workers in a factory, or a crowd at a bar, but still pinpoint the essence of most of the literary movements they touch on. Mitchell has been very ingenious in satirising what he doesn't like, and the persona of the bard working through history has been adjusted to fit neatly over his own features.'
It would be easy to underestimate the level of knowledge and understanding of poetry’s heritage Mitchell needs to have to pull this off. Just how great is the chilling single line, 'Cromwell's time I spent on cultural committees'?
This is a poem by a man who not only loves poetry but believes in the power of poetry to be transformative and dangerous. Mitchell has the ability to cut through the blather and talk to his reader directly in a voice and with a lexicon that can understood by everyone. Mitchell was a people’s poet and this is the people’s history of poetry.