Monday, 15 November 2010

A secret and subversive pleasure

Straight after university I was down at the Writers Centre to talk to poets engaged in school work. I had been asked to present something around the Martin Bell lines to the effect that "Poetry should not be taught in schools: it should be a secret and subversive pleasure. This is how the presentation begins:


It was the poet Martin Bell who suggested that to me in 1971 or so. He might have been drunk at the time – Martin often was – or he was just feeling mischievous. He had, on the other hand, taught English in secondary schools after the war – that is after his time as a soldier in the Italian campaign – his experiences of which can be read in his Collected Poems (see ‘The Enormous Comics’ and ‘Fiesta Mask’ and ‘Headmaster: Modern Style’), so he could be presumed to know some of what he was talking about it.

He was enormously well-read and knew great chunks of poetry by heart. He was my first real poet: an outsider who had exiled himself from London to Leeds (he did regard it as exile) and who, even at 53, was a rebel like those he admired: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Auden, and Groucho Marx. As he wrote in his ‘Ode to Groucho’:

Great Anarch! Totem of the lot,
All the shining rebels

(Prometheus, of course, and that old pauper
Refusing cake from Marie Antoinette,
And Baudelaire’s fanatical toilette,
And Rimbaud striding off to Africa,
And Auden scowling at a cigarette…)

Prometheus, the thief of fire; Arthur Rimbaud, the emperor of adolescent visionaries; Baudelaire, a doomed fastidious hedonist; Auden, a Marxist in the Thirties (Martin’s own youth), and Groucho Marx, whose speciality was épater le bourgeois in burlesque comic mode are the shining rebels here. Bell was also, like a number of his poet contemporaries, an adherent of the other Marx, Karl. He was an ex-member of the Communist Party of Great Britain - a Marxist-Freudian to give him one of the labels he sometimes gave himself.

But what did he mean, ‘poetry should not be taught in schools’? After all, he himself had taught it in schools for fifteen years or more, years about which I knew little. Was it just post-adolescent guff about ‘a secret and subversive pleasure’? Or was it failure talking?


I thought Martin was wonderful, everything I needed as a young poet, a 'splendid and disreputable father' as he wrote about Groucho Marx. But was it failure talking? To be continued.

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