Saturday, 31 August 2013

We don't need Romantic heroes any more

News arriving on my social graph that Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died gives me pause because poetry is such a neglected artform, and people talking today about Heaney with such poignancy surely ignore the ones who have come after him and who write the poetry that he will never see. One person even posted an item about the poet many talk about when talking about Heaney, W.B. Yeats, which chronicles a public spat between the poet (who died in 1939) and conservative social stalwarts of the time (1913) who opposed establishing a public art gallery showing Impressionist works. The visionary versus the penny-pinching philistine.

As if poetry had a specific, utilitarian function, like a sewerage works or a piece of wetlands or a packet of dental floss.

It reminds me of a scrapbook my Communist grandfather kept filled with poetry he clipped from newspapers of the Left throughout his life, and which my mother gave to me. Useful poetry dedicated to the great cause.

But poetry is usually something entirely invisible, like sunshine at a picnic: you don't even notice it but if it wasn't there you would complain. The irony is that those who regret the passing of Heaney couldn't name the next rank of aspiring big names of poetry if you used hot iron on them. Where are these people? Because, surely, someone out there is still writing poetry. They want to be published and read. They want to make you cry and weep. They are ignored studiously by a cultural nexus fascinated by the minutiae of movie stars and singers of popular music. They practice an almost-dead artform in societies where capital dominates cultural production just as it dominates the provision of services (insurance, telecommunications) or the production of manufactured goods (cars, washing machines).

The thing that struck me reading the article about the Yeats disagreement was how little necessary Romantic figures are in today's world. Romantic figures are always associated with struggle, bloodshed, war and cataclysm. But where poetry figures today is in the quiet rooms of comfortable houses - the houses of the children of the capitalists Yeats lambasts (don't forget the children) - that are situated in quiet, comfortable suburbs on peaceful, silent streets. I'm reminded of the opening scenes of the new film about Steve Jobs where we see Apple Computer housed in the garage of an ordinary-looking suburban bungalow somewhere in California.

We don't need Romantic heroes anymore. In countries full of strife they have plenty of them and what have they actually got? Economies run down to the nub because civil strife chases away the vital overseas investment needed to build the industries that can - eventually - lead to the establishment of quiet, comfortable suburbs where the children of the capitalists can go about their business in peace, and build something new on the back of the old, dead things.

In one of those houses perhaps there is a young poet writing her verses and hoping to get published so that she can make everyone cry hot tears of desire and longing, the most beautiful words ever to be written down in any language. After all, Shakespeare's father made gloves for a living. Gotta hand it to him.

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