By David Constantine
In Cornish towns and villages you may find a street or a district called Plain-an-Gwarry. The name (in the old tongue plân-an-guare), means ‘a playing place’, and it commemorates the former existence of a round, or small amphitheatre, in which entertainments of one sort and another – including the miracle plays – were staged and public meetings held. And lately, thinking about poetry, and especially about its vital importance in public life, I’ve been remembering the recreation ground we used to go to as children, the Rec, the public space set aside for fun and games, for exercise, a place you went to, it cost you nothing and being there did you good.
Poetry is the Rec, the playing place, in which the mind and the imagination are free to exercise and enjoy themselves. This healthful zone is not a memory of the good old days nor a hoped-for amenity in Never-Never Land, it survives still in the here and now as a dedicated public space, bang in the middle of ordinary civic life. And it is ours inalienably, it can’t be sold off, developed, privatised.
In October 2011 Occupy London had intended to picket the London Stock Exchange and the big banks in Paternoster Square, but they were prevented from doing so by the square’s owners (Mitsubishi Estate Co.) who took out an injunction against them which the police enforced and prevented them from entering that unpublic space. Instead they camped nearby outside St Paul’s, a public monument it costs you £16 per adult head admission.
Poetry starts in the experiences and in the abilities of one individual, who is, however, a member of the human race and the citizen of a particular country under one political dispensation or another. Poetry, most often written and read in solitude, is a thoroughly social activity. Insisting, as I do in my volume of The Literary Agenda, that poetry matters, I mean that in manifold and important ways it matters not just for the individual writer and reader but also, and even more necessarily, for the society in which those readers and writers live. Poetry addresses the condition of being human in a particular time and place. But even composed many centuries ago, in circumstances quite unlike our own, still it touches us in our humanity now; and doing so it will very often, perhaps always, address the social condition in which we thrive or suffer. Poetry addresses the state we are in – unsettlingly, exciting in us the desire and the demand for a life we should be glad to call our own.
The plân-an-guare was a place for both instruction and entertainment. So is poetry. Many great poets and thinkers about poetry have rooted its chief value and effect in pleasure. Coleridge, for one. Poetry, he says, gives a “pleasurable excitement”; it brings the mind into “pleasurable activity”. And it is in that pleasure, more than in any overt instruction, that the chief good, the usefulness, of poetry resides. The excitement and activity Coleridge speaks of are beneficial. The pleasure we feel is that of a quickening through the imagination into ways of being human which are freer, more connected, more humane, than those we mostly have to make do with in the state we are in. This excitement and enlargement, pleasurable and good in itself, has, of course, a social dimension and important social implications. Poetry helps us to imagine and to participate sympathetically in other lives. It is a force against atomisation, against any reduction of the citizen to statistic and commodity.
In the sixth form we were told by our English teacher that the purpose of teaching English was to increase sales resistance. Dwelled on, developed, variously applied, that dictum will do nicely. He helped me into the love and enjoyment of literature, and of poetry in particular. In the playing place of poetry, exercising there, getting better at the game, reading and meeting other readers and writers, enjoying ourselves, learning for the fun of it, we can be helped into a critical alertness, and ask more, demand more of our politics and politicians. A quickened electorate will elect better representatives, out of its own better educated, livelier and more demanding mass.
Poetry nowadays has become what by its very nature it always aspires to be: a lively democracy. Look at the lists of the best publishers of poetry in the United Kingdom: men and women equally represented; all manner of vernaculars given their say; the Queen’s English now the dialect of perhaps only Her Majesty; RP sent to Rest in Peace; much translation. Poetry in Britain today springs from and speaks for the real mix of our nation. And it is freely – or cheaply – available. Hurry to our surviving public libraries; assemble your own canon from Oxfam; add new works to it from your friendly local independent bookshop. It’s all there, all yours. And from this safeguarded public playing place, sallying forth, sharing the pleasure and the profit of it, who knows what other zones of life you might reclaim for your own and for the public good.
David Constantine is a poet, novelist, and short-story writer who taught German language and literature at Durham and then Queen’s College, Oxford. He is the author of Poetry, which is part of a new series The Literary Agenda. He has translated Goethe’s Elective Affinities for Oxford World’s Classics. In 2010 he won the BBC National Short Story Award, and in 2013 he won the Frank O’Connor Award for short fiction.