Observations on poets
W B Yeats wrote, when asked for a war poem in 1914: "I think it better that in times like these/A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth/We have no gift to set a statesman right." He was obviously not in touch with the Guardian, which has published verse statements from Tom Paulin and Andrew Motion to the effect that we should think twice before invading Iraq.
Anyone with a shred of credibility lending their voice to the "stop and think" movement should be seen as a good thing. After all, artists such as Damon Albarn and Ms Dynamite have used their high profiles to mobilise opposition to great effect. What is jarring is the way the Guardian placed Paulin's poem "On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card" in the Comment & Analysis section. Analysis? We look to George Monbiot, to Jeremy Vine, even to Andrew Neil for analysis. Surely a poet's got enough on his plate with rhythms and trochees not to be expected to offer an analysis as well?
As for the Poet Laureate, since when has Andrew Motion's reading of American foreign policy been worthy of front-page news? He last made newspaper headlines with a confession to his addiction to Lemsip. Now he belatedly realises that he wants to write about something other than the death of minor royalty and we're expected to be enthralled. He is guilty, now, of joining what David Hare decried, in the New Statesman, as "a lot of writers with no tradition of political analysis [who] are suddenly being asked for their opinion".
Motion has said that poetry should not be "ghettoised" from society. And it is true that often the greatest poets are those who have engaged with the issues of their day. Louis MacNeice's 26-canto portrait of Europe as it drifted towards the Second World War, "Autumn Journal", remains the highwater mark of what might be called "poetic journalism". Even dreamy old Yeats came round in the end and wrote the ultimate "Troubles" poem, "Easter 1916", about the Dublin uprising and vicious British reprisals ("A terrible beauty is born").
But this, like MacNeice's work, was a lament, a tribute, a reflection, interweaving the individual and the collective experience. Its analysis is philosophical, not political.
There's much to be said for keeping the op-ed (and front) pages prosaic. Otherwise, you risk stringing together any old half-baked thoughts and trying desperately to make them look coherent with a meter.