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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

LAYING DOWN THE LAW

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.


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