Why aren’t poets cool any more?

From Ancient Greece to post-War America via 18th Century England, lyrical masters have led intoxicating lives and exuded hip factor from every pore. What happened?

What image does the phrase “modern poet” conjure up in the imagination of the reader? Call me a slave to lazy stereotypes, but for me, none of the character types that glide into view are encumbered by their own charisma. There’s the scruff-pot scholar, all ill-fitting, elbow-patched tweed and non-ironic horn-rims – possibly joined between the lenses by a sticking plaster – who pens Keats-lite odes to nature and death on damp park benches. There’s the pale, bedsit-dwelling pseudo-bard – a far younger species, but with hungrily acquired existential baggage to spare and piles of notepads full of tortured verse documenting unrequited love (“No one was laid”, to borrow from The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby).

Then there’s the festival-hopping crusty with their confected controversialism (“Woman saying c*nt – that’ll ruffle ‘em”), the would-be mystics who claim to be “just a conduit for” their cod-spiritual otter-shit and the indulgent minimalists who think writing verse in moronbic twonkameter makes them avant-garde. Christ, at least three contemporary odists I’ve heard of only took up verse to badger their exes with plaintive sonnets on social media.

"There’s the pale, bedsit-dwelling pseudo-bard – a far younger species, but with hungrily acquired existential baggage to spare."

Now let’s contrast the above with some of the past masters, in reverse chronological order. They didn’t all look the part - t-shirts bearing Allen Ginsberg’s image are never going to be sold in Camden Market - but the troubadours and beat poets who filled up Greenwich Village’s smoky late-night basement dives in the 1960s exuded countercultural cool. Dylan Thomas – who once quipped “An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do” – produced his stunning cannon of work so inebriated, he possibly spent much of his writing time with one eye looking at his verse, the other looking for it. So did Charles Bukowski – a man whose oblivion-to-cult-status story is so compelling, websites are now devoted to him all over the planet. Can you imagine any establishment-propped poet laureate achieving such ubiquitous cult status?

Walt Whitman – who balanced giving birth to American bohemia with weaving a body of work which makes him a University syllabus staple to this day - is rightly described as “a proto-hippie and sensualist who celebrated the dignity of work, a gay man who wrote lyrically of the male body” by literary scholar Joel Dinerstein in his excellent 2014 tome American Cool: a description that becomes all the more surprising when one considers that Whitman’s most famous work, Leaves of Grass, was published in 1855. Robert Burns had 12 children by four women, is Bob Dylan’s greatest influence and had more nicknames than the average rapper ("Rabbie Burns", "The Ploughman Poet", "The Bard of Ayrshire").


September 2016


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