Strange how poetry, of all things, has turned into an austerely functional pursuit, one designed to get results. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to find anyone who would dissent from the aesthetic proposition that poetry basically made nothing happen, anywhere. The idea that a poem might be used, like a garlic press, for some particular purpose would have seemed absurd. Poetry was basically useless; that was really its justification.
Of course, that was an exaggeration, and poetry has been used for all sorts of purposes over the centuries, from Andrew Marvell persuading his girlfriend to go to bed with him to Philip Larkin denouncing Wilson in ripe terms. But very rarely since the 17th century can the general view of poetry be as drably functional as it is now. Ever since Alain de Botton started popularising an idea of literature as a self-help manual, the tendency has been on the rise.
A lady called Daisy Goodwin on the telly is forever recommending one poem or another to match various personal circumstances. For bereavement, take 30 stanzas of In Memoriam. For sexual frustration, one reading of Donne's The Flea. In case of French Revolution, break the glass and apply The Prelude.
This view of poetry as providing a service for every occasion goes well beyond the classics, and indeed of published poetry. A very weird recent phenomenon has seen people break out into 'verse' of some sort whenever the light of public attention falls on them. Why, only last week, a lady filmed on ITV's Airport reality show, saying goodbye to some promoted colleague, hoiked a piece of paper out of her pocket and, in tears, read a poem in heroic couplets on the subject.
Poetry, now, has a function, and if you're too ignorant to know about, or too idle to find something which might perform that function, you write your own. That's even better. You bet your life that when Calum Best was announced as down to read 'a poem' at his father's funeral, it wasn't going to be Lycidas but some confection deriving from an eager fan.
Odd as all these new uses of poetry appear, a still odder piece of functional poetry came to light yesterday. In Pakistan, a school manual of literary excerpts in English, aimed at English language learners, was published. It included a poem in English called The Leader.
On the surface, it looked exactly like the kind of sycophantic, harmless kitsch encouraged in the court poets of Hoxha's Albania or Kim Jong-Il's Korea; a poem, a very long way after Kipling, presenting some sort of harmless sucking-up to the nearest autocratic leader, under the guise of stating high moral principles. Very suitable for schoolchildren, in whatever part of the world.
Hilariously, on examination, the poem turned out to be an acrostic, in its initial letters spelling out PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH. …