June 3, 2014

Jeremy Paxman thinks poets should face an “inquisition” for being poets, basically


Jeremy Paxman is picking a fight with poets because he's smarmy and condescending.

Jeremy Paxman.

Jeremy Paxman, has turned away from politicians—at least momentarily—to fight the good fight against those who are truly self-interested, slimy and hypocritical: poets.

Paxman recently chaired the judging panel of the 2014 Forward Prizes, the most prestigious awards for poetry in Britain and Ireland.  While he does seem like a great fit—we’re speaking, after all, of the longest-serving current quizmaster on British TVThe Guardian reports that the journalist didn’t enjoy himself:

Paxman called for an “inquisition” in which “poets [would be] called to account for their poetry”, appearing before a panel of the public where they would have to “explain why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it, because it would be a really illuminating experience for everybody.

Paxman claims that “poetry has… connived at its own irrelevance,” letting poets off the hook and sticking it straight to The Muse herself.  He goes on to say that poetry––which apparently has agency––should “raise its game a little bit” and “aim to engage with ordinary people.”

One has to question Paxman’s self-awareness about his role in this whole thing.  When the people in charge of the Forward Prizes chose a broadcaster and a singer-songwriter to join poets Dannie Abse, Helen Mort, and Vahni Capildeo on this year’s panel, their goal—I’m willing to bet—was to subvert Paxman’s charge that poets talk only to other poets. What they’ve gotten instead are headlines which essentially say: “Poetry’s irrelevant; it makes no attempt to engage with ordinary people, so don’t bother reading it.” By potentially scaring more people away, Paxman’s witch-hunt only serves to make matters worse.

People have, of course, come to poetry’s defense.  The form can’t be that inaccessible, says Jeremy Noel-Tod, editor of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry—Don Draper reads from Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency on Mad Men!

Some other recent headlines leave me optimistic.  There’s been a redesign over at poetryarchive.org––a fantastic repository of recorded poetry––and, in a recent article in The Guradian, founder (and poet) Andrew Motion has this to say:

We now have well over 200,000 unique visitors a month, and every month they listen to something like a million-and-a-half pages of poetry. And our audience, like our holdings, is continually expanding. So the next time you read an article complaining that “no one reads poetry any more”, think again: they may not buy collections of poetry in large numbers, but the primitive appetite to hear it is alive and well.

And, for more proof that the urge to hear poetry remains strong today, one need only look to the United Arab Emirates, where the reality show Million’s Poet—which is set up something like American Idol—just awarded $1.3 million to winner Al Mansouri, while an audience of 70 million watched.

Hopefully, an English-language adaptation of Million’s Poet is on the way soon.  As for a host, Paxman––who has some game show experience––would naturally be my first pick.


Ben Sandman is a Melville House intern