7 November, 2016
Three cheers for Lesley Duncan, who is celebrating 20 years as the Herald’s poetry editor. Apart from Sundays and a few short spells where her choice was restricted to a poem a week, Duncan has brought the paper’s readers a daily poem for two decades. She reckons she has chosen some 6,000 poems in that time. We should spare a cheer too for the Herald because of its commitment to finding room for a poem when it could have turned the space over to something more modish. ‘I see it,’ she says, ‘as a small oasis for reflection, insight, and sometimes sheer entertainment, amid the often sombre contents of the surrounding news pages.’
Poetry and the news have a not entirely happy relationship. The headlines often feed poets ideas, with results that can vary greatly. A case in point is the recent Poems for Jeremy (Shoestring Press), a collection of poems inspired by Corbynism. The Telegraph reported: ‘One poem, by a contributor named Helen Kidd, was entitled TELL ME LIES ABOUT THE AUSTERITY PLAN, and appeared to be inspired partly by the Hokey Cokey. “You put your ballot paper in,” concluded the final stanza grimly. “You take your new membership right out / You take an honest leader, and try to shake him all about”.’
Poetry and the news work on different timescales, and poets usually go wrong when they try to match the speed with which journalists get their stories into the papers. When a poet fails to take the time to digest whatever has caused his or her antenna to vibrate it often leads to results that can only be called bathetic and unintentionally funny.
A new anthology that has managed to avoid such criticism is New Boots and Pantisocracies, edited by W.N Herbert and Andy Jackson (Smokestack). Dismayed by the results of the last General Election, the poets published a poem a day for the first 100 days of the new Conservative government, soliciting contributions from their peers, which then appeared on a NB&P website. The book has bumped up the original poem count and now features contributors such as Sean O Brien, Daljit Nagra, Michael Rosen, Ian McMillan, and George Szirtes.
Ezra Pound probably wouldn’t be a fan of NB&P, but he did comment once that ‘great literature is news that remains news’. Future historians, as well as current readers, may enjoy Herbert’s and Jackson’s collection not just for its poetry but for providing the sort of insights into the present that are too idiosyncratic for a news story or which take longer to crystallise than a journalist has the time to mull over before his or her deadline. I expect Duncan is choosing a NB&P poem for the Herald if she hasn’t already picked one.