The Passions - and the Pains - of Poetry
Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)
THE WEEK IN BOOKS
In terms of electors per column centimetre in the British media, how many Indian voters equal one Oxford MA? This newspaper, I'm happy to report, gave ample coverage to India's general elections. Elsewhere, the ballots cast in person by 426 - yes, 426 - Oxford graduates in the contest to become Professor of Poetry easily outweighed the planet's greatest epic of democracy.
For several UK media outlets, you would need to load around one million souls on the Indian end of the seesaw to balance a single poetry-fancying Oxonian. If only this yawning gulf in attention stemmed from a national passion for poetry. It comes, as we all know, from a ravenous appetite for rehashed gossip about the sex lives -or alleged sex lives - of strangers whose work most pundits will never have read.
Curiously, an Indian runner in the Oxford race proved one bright spot in a murky affair. Starting as a rank outsider, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra polled 30 per cent of the votes cast. As his backers Amit Chaudhuri and Peter McDonald comment, Mehrotra proved to be "an exemplary nominee... whose dignity and merit augmented the possibilities of a difficult election".
At the moment it seems far easier in Britain to find a copy of the History of Indian Literature in English that Mehrotra edited than to access his poetry. That should change now. His poem "Mirza Ghalib in Old Age" looks back at the famously impecunious life of the great Urdu bard and dwells, aptly enough, on the way that poetic lustre never pays the bills: "In every post came/ Friends' verses to correct,/ But his rosary-chain/ Was a string of debts." As Yeats put it in "The Choice", "In luck or out the toil has left its mark:/ That old perplexity an empty purse,/ Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse."
The Oxford scrap exposed plenty of vanity, and perhaps left some remorse. Prurient snowstorms of innuendo have struck the reputations of those who dare to commit verse in Britain - this curtain- twitching land of suburban Salems - ever since the country seethed with fake indignation over what wicked Lord Byron did to his poor wife. These things always pass, and poetry slinks back to the seldom- visited "valley of its making" - as Auden ruefully said.
Andrew Motion, the now-former Poet Laureate, had his own share of ragging in the red-tops back in the day. Who cares now? Who cared then? We - and he - should mind that the whoops of glee that greeted Carol Ann Duffy's selection as his successor meant that some commentators have been happy to swallow rival poets' dismissal of Motion as some cosy pastoral throwback. …