Joanna Lumley and the Obscure Poem

According to the Observer last Sunday, Joanna Lumley ‘attacked contemporary poetry, dismissing “so much” of it as maddeningly obscure and, at worst, self-indulgent. At the other extreme, she argued that less demanding poetry risked becoming humdrum and commonplace.’

For her ‘It is a rare modern poem that achieves the balance between being challenging and accessible.’

One Ian McMillan, who could be Britain’s next next Poet Laureate, took umbrage: ‘You shouldn't be able to get poems on the first reading. Part of the delight is the time you take with them to understand them. But what's wrong with humdrum and commonplace, anyway? Frank O'Hara called his poems "lunch poems" because he wrote them in his lunch hour. By the act of writing down his humdrum, it became delightful.'

I agree with Lumley – and also with McMillan.

She is right in dismissing most of today’s poetry as ‘obscure’ and ‘self-indulgent’; and of those you can get straightaway as ‘humdrum and commonplace’.

A lot of us cannot grasp most poems immediately. So, I agree with McMillan that you’d enjoy taking the time trying to get at a poem’s meaning. Most readers take ‘obscure’ and ‘self-indulgent’ poems at face value, taking the meanings behind the lines literally. I’d often read an ‘obscure’ poem a couple of times. Each time I’d try to uncover hidden meanings, secrets, codes, until, like Archimedes, you finally get it.

As for the act of writing down something 'humdrum' being delightful, I can see his point of view. Recently I wrote a poem in front of my telly, on my mobile phone. The lines seemed obscure for most people reading the piece. I later gave someone a run-through over the mechanics by which I wrote them, and we found the poem wasn’t so obscure after all.


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