Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Andrew Motion's tenure as Poet Laureate is about to end, and the search for a successor has begun. It is accompanied with the usual tidal wave of claptrap about this not being 'the sort of job which any real poet would want' and the importance of not involving public opinion in the choice.

What is it about modern poets that they feel so threatened by the idea of public opinion? Ancient Greeks would have thought them barking. When in Homer's Odyssey the pigman Eumaeus reported to Penelope the effect that the (disguised) Odysseus's stories had on him, he says, 'Sitting in my hut, he held me spellbound. It was like fixing my eyes on a minstrel who has been taught by the gods to sing words that bring delight to mortals, and everyone longs to hear him when he sings.' The point is that poetry was special language: stylised, tonal, rhythmical, elevated, and with a peculiar power to charm. Since time immemorial poetic utterance (often accompanied by dance and music) had been the way to celebrate special occasions, private and public, from entertainment at symposia, invoking the gods and shaping magic spells to proclaiming the heroic deeds of winners at Olympia and celebrating festivals of the gods, especially at the great spectacles of tragic and comic drama held in honour of the god Dionysus. …

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