FREEZEFRAME: Poetry & Poets / Oxford 2007

by Paul Abbott

Poetry in Oxford is like horseshit on a bridleway: you can’t go anywhere without putting your foot in it. The creative tailback of teenage angst, the nursed ambitions of wannabe aesthetes, a plethora of backbiting Colossi to whom we do or don't look up (McDonald, O’Donoghue, Paulin, Raine, McNeillie, etc) – all these conspire to make Oxford brim with the stuff. It may not be published, yet, or any good, but a lot of people write it: from the secrecy of a laptop to the open mic nights’ risky exhibitionism; from High Verse to the hiphop lyric – and everything in between. In the 21st century, when prose is King, what’s the point of it all? What’s going on?

The diehard poetry scene in Oxford, like those of crack cocaine or tiddlywinks, suffers and enjoys its own cast of stereotypes. There’s always, for example, a green lynchmob of Freshers who’ve studied Keats at A Level, slightly plagued with archaic diction (‘Fain would I tell thee so…’). There’s the loafish colloquialist, ever threatening to drop out, whose oeuvre’s little but a sordid catalogue of trivial sins (‘I sell bunking schoolkids weed…’). There’s the formal straightlacer, who frowns at anything which doesn’t rhyme (‘I love you, like a Necrophiliac / Loves graveyards, with a spade and Hessian sack’). And with those at least a dozen others: Dr Tryhard McLacktalent; weird foreign bloke; Miss Boohoo-the-sea’s-grey, etc – really too many to list. In the Darwinian struggle to be distinctive, Oxonians reincarnate the same dramatis personae yet and yet again.

However, despite their differences, these piebald allsorts compete for the same goals. The first of these is the Newdigate prize, a big university poetry prize worth several hundred pounds. Alas, whatever prestige it once possessed was at last obliterated in 2006, when a doggerel sequence titled Bee-poems scooped the rollover £700. Since that travesty, Oxonians have focused on different ambitions: securing the editorship of Oxford Poetry, the major yearly antholgy, or the presidency of OUPS, or gunning for the termly Isis Prize. This isn’t a great deal to compete for. But, while the opportunities are rare, so is the talent. Poetry’s a niche pursuit; the smallest of small worlds; cliquey and incestuous. In Oxford, doubly so.

Oxford's famous as being a pressure-cooker for aspirant writers: the list of Names is long as Motion’s memoir; it doesn’t need rehearsing. Suffice it to say, very few Oxonian poets write about Oxford – spires, dreaming or squat, tend to leave notebooks virgin. After all, what does one say about them? They’re just there, that’s it. Like carbon monoxide and the War on Terror. Oxford’s grandiose physical architecture becomes another kind of background noise, which gets tuned out of the creative process. Poems, then, tend to be about people.

Out of such a shambles, however, a few unifying threads can be plucked. What follows is a plot-spoiler. So: anyone who doesn’t want to know the future of poetry, Look away now. The three main unifiers will be: One – journalistic or colloquial diction, a kind of slangy trashtalk which uses ye olde metrics to perform modern speech. Two – exotic characterisation, with revival of the dramatic monologue. Three – miniature plotting, using a poem to narrate a very short story or situation. In other words, it will attempt to be populist and relevant, and to entertain, without losing its integrity as an artform. It is, of course, too early to tell whether this attempt will enjoy even partial success, or simply fizzle off. However, if it does prove junk for history’s scrapheap, for the moment at least, Oxford poetry has a direction in which it wants to go; it has an agenda. This is something it’s lacked for a long time.

[Originally published by The Oxford Student, 22 February 2007]


  1. In the 20s and 30s Eliot called the definitive problem of modern poetry "the relation of verse to the spoken idiom of one's time" and the question's about more than how much slang you can wedge into a pentameter. What is the language of poetry? Since at least the time of Eliot it's been impossible to take for granted the notion that verse has its own, privileged idiom. And yet in the intervening period poetry's become more abstruse, less comprehensible to the average reader. Writers since Eliot have fucked with the hierarchy of ordinary/poetic language, but the resolution he envisaged hasn't been discovered. As a result poetry's undergoing its death-pangs as a language that can accommodate contemporary reality, and it'll continue to be produced and read by an ever-shrinking audience of enthusiastic over-educated amateurs. Contemporary poetry knows this, which is why it's almost uniformly written with a rueful, elegaic tone, on themes of transience and nostalgia - and that's not just the student poetry. The world and its language are one thing, poetry is another, and the twain only meet in work like Hill's "Speech! Speech!" which angrily rails at the cleft. In fact the prevailing elegaic tone of contemporary poetry can be understood as poetry's long elegy for its neglected self -

    (I have made
    an elegy for myself it
    is true)

  2. That's more augury than argument. You're like a bloodshot soothsayer crying Apocalypse! Esp here:

    'As a result poetry's undergoing its death-pangs as a language that can accommodate contemporary reality, and it'll continue to be produced and read by an ever-shrinking audience of enthusiastic over-educated amateurs.'

    You're talking about a particular stylistic strain, perhaps well represented by Prynne, which does indeed appeal to those already steeped in difficult poetry's opaque mud. BUT - think Nagra (who makes nonsense of yr 'poetry's undergoing its death-pangs as a language that can accommodate contemporary reality'), think Birthday Letters, think Heaney, Armitage & Duffy-Clanchy. Talent wins out. Even Prynne sells well in the States. (Eliot still does everywhere, haha.) The problem is poetry has to be good to gain an audience; novels don't. You don't get airport verse. So few write real poetry the market subsists on about 10 names (who may or may not write about 'contemporary reality', who may or may not write 'comprehensibly'), & won't start looking less elitist till we bring back the ballad.

    (Another one interesting to look at in light of yr comments is Harrison's 'v.', which I read last night.)

    'almost uniformly' is bollocks.

    & btw the Hill quote's an absurd context mismatch, & offensive to its intended spirit.


  3. Again, the prevailing elegaic mood of contemporary poetry is, if you like, the transference of poetry's intuition of its own death onto whatever subject it can find. So the process is largely unconscious, and my point is precisely that the "intended spirit" of the phenomenon isn't the point.

    Altho Hill's lines are an admission that an elegy purportedly about a distant, external object may in fact be about something closer to home. In that sense my quote is apt.

    Talent wins out? How many poets make a living from their work?

  4. Poetry's not dying, Matt. The impulse to poetry has to evolve out of us first.

    Where do you get 'prevailing elegiac mood' from? I concede sadness moves poets to poetry more frequently than joy, but in what sense is early 21st century verse more strongly characterised by its elegies than other modes? Something's wrong there.

    I always read Hill's 'I' as the voice of the deported subject. Hard to prove either way. To me they lose power if they're exlcusively him, so I like to think it's ambiguous. What topic, by the way, is more fit for elegy than the Holocaust? Don't historically-minded poets of our age have quite a lot to weep about?

    "Talent wins out? How many poets make a living from their work?"
    Exactly. Swift says it better than I could:

    All Human Race wou'd fain be Wits.
    And Millions miss, for one that hits [...]
    Say Britain, cou'd you ever boast
    Three Poets in an Age at most?
    Our chilling Climate hardly bears
    A Sprig of Bays in Fifty Years;
    While ev'ry Fool his Claim alledges,
    As if it grew in common Hedges.

  5. You both have a crippling lack of information. And rehearse the old radio 4 cant - textbook cliches, off the point, seemingly to no purpose - without ever getting to the matter. Tell me about Oxford! About now! About specific people!

    Of course, I suspect you can't. So instead wrote waffle.

    MATT: You have fallen for the self-defining propaganda that barnacles Hill's texts. Confusing poetry and verse, for instance, is a careless error.

    BEN: There is no 'evolved impulse' to poetry. Just nonsense. Jog on, sir, jog on.


  6. You misquote, sir.

    I said the impulse has to evolve out of us. Which it does, given it's there (how many people write poetry as catharsis / whatever & stuff it away in drawers, never to be read?), & given it's there in many cultures across millennia, & given I think the theory of evolution best accounts for pancultural human traits. What's the alternative? All these people across time & space happen to share a certain psychological peculiarity?

    My argument is only that: because the phenotype 'impulse to poetry' (I admit broadly defined, but we know what you think about definition) has manifested itself under a range of social conditions, a change in social conditions would not eradicate it. Even without paper people would be writing on walls. The way modern science tells me I should explain this is by evolution: poetry is either an evolved impulse or the byproduct of another evolved or set of evolved characteristics.

    Why am I even bothering to reply to yr little flail? You probably think God sends us poems in glowing FedEx packages carried by angels.

    Don't see either where yr 'crippling lack of information' is from. I cite a number of specific people - deliberately -not- Oxonians. Now that would have been beside the point.