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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Wuthering Bites

The dumbing down of Britain and America continues, with ITV's broadcast, over the last two nights, of a new version of Wuthering Heights, destined to be aired in America, too, and then let loose on the world in the form of a DVD. That this latest heap of rubbish was masterminded by the creator of Desperate Romantics - a bodice-ripping series that lays waste to the Pre-Raphealites - should surprise no one. The media has discovered - again - that high culture and emotionality and poetry can sell - if commodified and repackaged to be all about sex and violence - which, as Frankie said a while back, were "the new gods". Though Tom Hardy is rather good at being handsome and menacing as Heathcliff, everything else about this adaptation is beyond poor. I don't want to flog a dead horse, but le me briefly explain.

The novel, on which this TV two-parter was based, is, as we know, one of the greatest books in the English language. Its passionate exploration of the psychology of intense, obsessive and transgressive love is exemplary, and comparable in darkness and power to the works of Dostoyevsky, and, in terms of insight, Freud. Nothing about this new version expresses this inner power. Instead, by divorcing the teleplay too often from the actual original text (not in terms of plot incident, but in terms of language) and displaying the fevers and bad behaviour too literally, almost all consequence and symbolic power is lost. Instead, one wishes to call the police and get Heathcliff slapped with an Asbo. He is just a moody good-looking stalker guy now, isn't he? Cathy is just someone who's "perfect guy is torn".

I understand the impulse to make this masterwork of romantic extremism relevant to "kids today" - but in the process, the love and depths have gone. I suppose the problem is, in Britain today, everyone is Heathcliff on a Saturday night, and everyone wakes with a Swinburne-sized headache on Monday mornings. The UK - secular, sexed-up and sentimentalised - is now about as Romantic as Byron could have hoped for - without much of the saving subtlety, pathos and vision of Keats. It will be fascinating to see what Bright Star is like when it opens this autumn. It will hopefully dumb up.

Meanwhile, the just-closed BBC poll to find out "the nation's favourite poet" left me cold. The longlist seemed rigged (no Elizabeth Barret Browning?!) from the start, with a certain slant of lightness. Five women, out of 30 poets? That seems barely acceptable, doesn't it, after the long struggle that feminism has endured in the 20th century.

Or: What does it matter what the masses think about poetry? Look around us, citizens: is this a landscape inwardly-shaped by a deep relationship with poetry and poets? No. Nor is it likely to get better soon. Figures in the arts like Carol Ann Duffy have begun to support the latest in what seems a never-ending series of initiatives to stop global warming - 10:10. It demands one cuts 10% of one's emissions during 2010. A good idea. Let's hope it works.

However, will the 10s of this century not, in some ways, mitigate against the sort of mindset that embraces poetry for the pleasures it instills, and the depths it helps trace and plumb? Myself an activist in the past, I have seen the dangers of letting good-willed people converge on poetry for their own purposes.

Poetry, maybe, should never be second fiddle to any cause, though it can join the party as it wishes, to help urge along a dance or march. Poetry is either blessedly above the fray, capable of swooping down like an angel or eagle, as it wishes, or it is nothing. If the world turns very committed and serious and austere, it may be hard to justify the luxury (of time, of learning, even of attitude) that poetry often requires. An odd irony is emerging - even as the popular image in capitalism of the poet-as-lover becomes founded ever more solidly - the swing against capitalism will require a different kind of poet - more radical, and less poetic. What percentage of themselves can poets trim off before they cease to be poets, and are civil servants, or campaigners?
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