Poetry Matters

How London writers featured on our literary walking tours valued poetry

We love to relate how, in 1944, Edith Sitwell gave a public reading of her poem about the Blitz, “Still Falls the Rain”, in a theatre in London. As she stood up to read, the air-raid siren wailed and doodlebugs dropped from the sky. Nevertheless, the audience stayed in their seats throughout Sitwell’s recital. An act of courage and defiance, certainly, but to risk one’s neck to listen to a poem?! It’s an extraordinary poem, but still…

In 1933, during the Great Depression, Aldous Huxley published an anthology of poetry entitled Texts and Pretexts. In his introduction he defended the work:

“An anthology compiled in mid-slump? Fiddling, you protest indignantly, while Rome burns. But perhaps Rome would not now be burning if the Romans had taken a more intelligent interest in their fiddlers.”

It’s a bold claim, idealistic and easy to sneer at: “Yeh, yeh, if we all read poetry the world would be a better place.” But, actually, maybe it would. Huxley thought so; he believed that the quality of a society is commensurate with the quality of literature circulating through its cultural veins. When art degenerates, or we allow ourselves to dumb down, then our common humanity, our personal and collective wellbeing, and democracy itself is under threat.

High among Huxley’s pet hates was car manufacturer, Henry Ford, a self-proclaimed philistine and proud of it: “I don’t like to read books. They mess up my head.” Ford actually said that. And he claimed that workers doing monotonous tasks in his factories day in day out had no desire for anything edifying or creative. As we explain on our St James’s Jaunt, Huxley roundly mocked “Fordism” writ large in his dystopian satire, Brave New World.

Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop

Poetry always needs its champions, and Huxley wasn’t alone in his views. On our Bloomsbury Blast, guests are introduced to Harold Monro who believed that poetry, embodying beauty and truth, has an inherent good. When it opened in 1913, Monro’s Poetry Bookshop became a place of pilgrimage for poetry lovers, with a space for public readings darkened by curtains and lit with candles, and an altar-like reader’s table. Those who congregated there, big-name writers and members of the general public alike, found in poetry a way to transcend everyday life, everyday ways of speaking, everyday ideas – a great solace throughout the horror of a World War 1 and its aftermath.

And Monro was a publisher too, believing that poetry should be “sold anywhere and everywhere, carried in the pocket, read at any spare moment, left in the train, or committed to memory and passed on”. He was big into memorising poetry. And there’s a moment on the tour when we describe how Alida Klementaski, his brilliant assistant at the bookshop, recited the whole of “The Farmer’s Bride”, a longish poem by Charlotte Mew, to Monro from memory.

Also in Bloomsbury, there’s Lucy Harrison, the head of Gower Street School for Girls, teaching her pupils – among them Charlotte Mew – to appreciate and value poetry. As a former pupil said:

“She had the power not only of imparting knowledge but of communicating atmosphere and beauty, with the result that she made many good lovers of poetry, eager to read and glad to learn by heart. One learnt how profoundly poetry counts, or should count, in life.”

What an inspirational teacher she sounds!

Poems to Remember

These advocates knew that if poetry matters then it follows that it should be memorised. Poems hold out the offer that you can have within you sublime ways of saying something — these incredible words are there on the tip of your tongue to articulate ideas and feelings in exciting ways that elevate human experience; not only does the poem matter, but the poem tells us that our thoughts and emotions matter too. In poetry is a wisdom to be “carried” and “passed on”, keeping it pumping through our culture.

We may fear that nowadays people see less value not just in poetry but in the learning of it. We think our time is just too precious to spend that way, and anyway we have Google in our pockets. But perhaps we’ve forgotten what a pleasure it can be to know a great, inspiring poem by heart.

We’ve loved learning poetry to perform on our tours. From the raw and tender verse of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen seeking catharsis in their depictions of war – making beauty out of barbarism – to the frivolity of Edith Sitwell’s Façade masking seething sexual tension, to the elegiac meditations of Charlotte Mew, and much more, we delight in being “carriers” of poetry.

In Bloomsbury, I recite some verses by Rabindranath Tagore. Recently we had a guest – an older Indian man, now living in California — who had learned one of these poems decades ago in school. I looked up to see him mouthing the words with me and invited him to say it out loud. After all these years, he could still remember the poem, and it gave him great joy to say it once again.

It’s a poem about education and nationhood, containing the aspirational line: “Where words come out from the depth of truth.”

Poets Tell the Truth

At the end of World War 1, Osbert Sitwell (a frequenter, like his friend Huxley, of Monro’s bookshop) wrote in a poem an admirable statement of intent:

“But we are poets,
And we shall tell the truth.”

A century later, and ninety years after Huxley wrote his introduction to Texts and Pretexts, we are, we are told, in a ‘post-truth’ world, in a country whose citizens are again at the sharp end of financial crisis. It is a culture where jargon, political rhetoric, and the hyperbole of advertising suck the meaning out of language. A counter to this malaise, poetry sensitises us to language, bids us to pay close attention to ideas, to consider how meaning is communicated. And if we read it, hear it, write it even, then, as Huxley implied, we might just be better fortified against the lies and the dark arts of manipulation that would lead us to catastrophe.

Perhaps we’re naïve and idealistic, but Cindy and I still believe, like Aldous, Harold, Alida, Lucy and Osbert did, that poetry – good poetry – can do that. In these present conditions, we need poets more than ever — and we need them to tell the truth.

 

Our St James’s Jaunt features poetry by Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edith Sitwell, Nancy Cunard and Robert Graves.

Our Bloomsbury Blast features poetry by Charlotte Mew, Harold Monro, W B Yeats, Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle (aka H.D.) and T S Eliot.

Posted by Mike