‘The concept of Schools of Poetry serves only academic interests’, the opposition claim. Boo Hiss. Terrible. Down with this sort of thing. And in proposing this motion, undoubtedly they will point to the parasitic – nay( and I should say, I agreed to this debate mainly for the opportunity of saying ‘nay’) – spurious concept of ‘schools of poetry’. As poets are invariably too egotistical or odd to band together out of instinct, various ‘schools’ of poetry, as we know, exist only to be prefixed, endlessly, with the words ‘so-called’. Thus we have the so-called New-York School, the so-called Imagists, the so-called Movement and the so-called confessional poets. What, the opposition will ask, do members of these schools really have in common? What connects the poets of the (so-called) New York School other than the living in and writing about New York? being fond of abstract expressionist art and French literature? tending not to make a whole lot of sense, and being gay? (you see, I would argue that those are pretty specific things)? What common Cause had the confessional poets of the 1960s other than a predilection for expensive mental hospitals and, tragically, suicide. Closer to home, the so-called Belfast group, organized by Philip Hobsbaum was, it has been suggested recently, less a disciplined and coherent group nurturing the talents of Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney, than a convenient foundation myth for the future Nobel laureate. And for that matter what unites the disparate poetics of The Contemporary Belfast poets? Stylistics asides, some of them, indeed, are not even from Belfast… No, the opposition will argue: no such unity can be found. Rather, these groupings are created, artificially, between the covers of anthologies: the endless New Lines and New Poets which carve poets into ‘schools’ and regions – and are then pushed on unsuspecting undergraduates or used to fill the totalizing modules of sinister ‘academic interests’.
To this I say nonsense. ‘Schools of Poetry’, serving academic interests, are not only necessary – but part of the mechanism whereby great poets, as they famously do, create the taste by which they are appreciated. To take first this maligned concept of the ‘school’ of poetry. Would the opposition, I wonder, take issue with the concept if it were re-branded as a ‘Trades Union’? Such a collective, after all, represents the interests of its members. It allows the dominant characteristics of individuals, whether Romantic or Language poets, to be more easily accessed by readers, who might otherwise struggle for a point of entry to the work. (Poetry, after all, is difficult. It helps to simplify, to have a way of thinking about it. Readers naturally seek clarity, to impose order, to compare like with like). Moreover, don’t such ‘schools’, like Trades Unions, offer protection to their more vulnerable members? Take the example of women poets: throughout history, they have tended to hover on the edge of movements or paradigm shifts in poetry – (fearing to make a common cause with each other over something as prosaic as a uterus in common). But where they have survived for posterity, it seems that women poets were members, or viewed as being members, of groups and schools. Would we really read Hilda Doolittle today, for instance, if she had not changed her name to one containing a subtle prompt about her afflilations: H.D: Imagiste. Elizabeth Jennings is rarely mentioned outside the context of The Movement, and Sylvia Plath, of course, graduated posthumously not only from the confessional School, but to fame. This Myth-making, like the formation of coteries themselves, is simply part of how poetry is disseminated. To take, then, the second point: the bogey of ‘academic interests’. I am skeptical that anyone here is sufficiently without sin to cast the first stone at academia. Are we to agree with the opposition that academics are soul-less classifiers? Cynical creators of specialities in order that they might specialize in them? Of course not. What are English literature academics really but poetry-lovers on a salary? They are moreover, professionals – experts who in having made a scholarly study of poetic tradition are best placed to analyse the works’ various forms. And, while we might be carried away by the opportunities offered by various reality TV shows to vote for a winner, do we really want a world in which there are no experts on poetry? Is the opposition suggesting that the general public should form and determine opinion on poetry – unclassified, unanalyzed, un-contextualised – on the basis of what it likes. Let’s be clear: this is impossible. There are only about 700 people in the U.K. who regularly buy and read new poetry – of whom about 350 are poets themselves. The rest are probably all connected to Universities anyway. There is no real popular readership for poetry, and without the training the so-called ‘academic interests’ bring to poetry, of which the instincts to place and group are part, we will have only a shallow understanding of poems. This may be an unfashionable judgement, but it is true. As T.S Eliot famously wrote, in the process, conveniently, of creating his own poetry movement: ‘No poet, no artist of any kind, has his complete meaning alone’. And as Frank O’Hara (of so-called the New York school) less famously wrote of poetry’s reception: ‘Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them…’ But there are those who do need poetry. Don’t like it, or find it pretty and nice, but need it. And in our society, for one reason or another, they tend to be involved in academia. And it is in poets’ interests to allow themselves to be nurtured and understood by them. In conclusion, then, I ask you to reject the motion that schools of poetry serve academic interests – and moreover, to do it promptly. Not merely because to accept it would contribute to the cynicism which regards academics as cold, clinical practitioners, and thus allows them to become so. Not even because the building in which you are sitting is, in a way, the result of bringing together a ‘school’ of writers. I ask you to reject the motion because I – I am proud to say – have, at 2 o’clock, to go and teach poetry, at a University.