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This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Against 'Contemporary Poetry' Tim Kendall

(This essay is based on a lecture commissioned by the Poetry School and delivered in Exeter in March 2007.)

When the composer Harrison Birtwistle collected an Ivor Novello award before the serried ranks of pop celebrities in May 2006, gratitude did not feature prominently in his acceptance speech. He had just been obliged to sit through half an hour of live pop performances, a feat of endurance which had adversely affected his mood. 'Why is your music so effing loud?' he asked, and delivered his parting shot without staying for answer. 'You must all be brain-dead. Maybe you are. I didn't know so many clichés existed until the last half-hour.'

What does this episode have to tell us about contemporary poetry? On the face of it, not much. The terms 'pop' or - to give it full and telling expression - 'popular' and 'classical' music carry a host of cultural and aesthetic assumptions which help to guide potential audiences. Each label covers a multitude of genres, and yet listeners rarely struggle to decide which is which. Claude Debussy played the piano, and so does Elton John - and that is where the similarities end.

Poetry, on the face of it, is a much more inclusive word and world. She's a mere versifier; he writes doggerel; they are poetasters - there is something quaintly archaic about these insults, now that the poetry industry has worked to confirm us all as poets. The situation is ...


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