Milton and Morrisons

The Guardian has a timely leader today reminding England that one of its greatest poets, Milton, is about to have a 400th "birthday" this December - and is in danger of becoming unread, untaught, and underappreciated.

At first, this might seem an improbable complaint, yet, reading the latest issue of The London Magazine (celebrating 276 years), I came across the following from poet-novelist Tobias Hill on the subject of poetic diction: "Ian MacMillan has a good line on this: don't put any word into a poem you wouldn't use in Morrisons [a store]; to do otherwise is as odd as popping out to the corner shop in a Shakespearean ruff".

Eyewear likes a bit of ruff. All of British poetry's current problems can be traced to such an attitude (one even more crudely anti-modernist, and anti-Renaissance, than anything Larkin ever came up with). MacMillan's offhand poetics of normalcy contains so many blandly buried assumptions it is startling: because, depending on what language one speaks, what gender, or race, or class, or nation, one speaks from, or belief system, one is likely to want to use different words in a corner shop. For MacMillan, an "ordinary bloke", poetry is about the down-to-earth, local, and unnassuming language of commerce. This is as far from the rhetorically rich, deeply-informed, and resonant, language of Milton as possible.

England's poets, today, often as not, are afraid to use the "mandarin tone" - favouring instead a laddish "democractic voice" - terms from Armitage and Crawford - the voice, it must be said, of the less-literate, and the less-thoughful, many. Milton was, clearly, a religious, deep-thinking, highly-engaged human being, perhaps a little elitist, who loved the full resources of language - sort of like Robert Lowell, or Geoffrey Hill. In the UK today, current poetic taste has drifted from Lowell (except insofar as he was Heaney's friend), and is mainly indifferent to Hill (seen as difficult and OTT).

So long as "poetic diction" is constrained by nonliterary social demands - the need to be normal, and like everyone else (not "odd") - then poetry resists being strange, eccentric, flamboyant, and deeply exciting in new and unimagined ways. To be embarassed to try on a little of Shakespeare's clothing, from time to time, is to be less than a full poet.

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