Skip to main content


Yesterday most of the world grieved on learning about the death of David Bowie - the extraordinary level of mourning marking a sense a figure as pivotal as Picasso had left the mortal planet.

Cue BBC Radio 4, and Front Row, on just after The Archers in the evening, which decided, rightly, to focus its programming on Bowie. Among the guests invited to discuss his life and work was Lavinia Greenlaw, a well-known and talented Faber poet, novelist, and professor of creative writing.

From the start, it was an odd affair - no one really discussed Bowie's work in film, for instance - and it felt a bit rushed, which, given the surprise announcement of his death, makes sense.

In retrospect, asking Greenlaw to speak about Bowie from a poet's perspective seems an error, but she was introduced as a "long-time fan" of his music.

At the very start of the Greenlaw segment, something dreadful happened - something so English in the worst sense of the word, I shudder at it. Not the Englishness of Bowie - daring, creative, strange and alert - but the Englishness of hierarchical thinking and decorum.

Greenlaw was asked to discuss Bowie's songwriting, and specifically what she thought of his words as poetry.

She immediately paused (as if this was not clearly what she had been asked to discuss) and then - and here I became physically ill with panic listening at home, because I knew what was coming (I have heard it before too many times from others) - she calmly and rather professorially explained that Bowie was not a poet, these were not poems, but that he was a lyricist, these were lyrics, and of course very good ones.  She talked then (admiringly it must be said) about how he used simple words at times, and discussed his song lyrics with some interest and enthusiasm.

The issue for me, however, and the wider world, is that this was not an abstract debate or lecture, but the first official BBC cultural discussion of the impact of one of England's greatest creative geniuses of the past 150 years, whose family may have been listening, on the day of his death's announcement.

Words have meaning, and impact.

This was meant to be a eulogy, not a cold and surgical summing up.

We wanted celebration, not academic discrimination.

In short, we didn't care what Ms Greenlaw thinks a poem is, and isn't.

To the world, David Bowie is a poet, an artist, of the first rank.

I know the general academic position in the UK is that song lyrics are not poems, because poems carry their own music within them. Morrissey, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, are not considered poets by most establishment poetry figures in the UK. For many, Ginsberg and Hart Crane are barely poets, let alone Whitman. Ashbery has no music to many, too. The English poetic ear too often connects to the heart through the Oxbridge mind.

I am not angry at Ms Greenlaw - she is perfectly entitled to her opinion, which she very calmly and professionally explained to an audience of millions on the BBC. But neither should she be surprised or cross that I, and many others, may take exception to the timing and expression of such sentiments.

As I have stated elsewhere, if David Bowie is not a poet, in the size of his vision, conceptual achievements, and compositions, then how dare I and others claim such a label? Poetry, seeking relevance in this age, needs heroes and outliers like Bowie to keep new audiences keen and curious.

We who profess poetry and practice it professionally need to take care to be inclusive, modest, and imaginative in how we lay down our poetic laws.  A canon without Bowie is a poorer place.


Popular posts from this blog

Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived,…


Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
too buoyant to sinktoo waterlogged for land
I becamea dot of sand


With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.