Poetry must get its hands dirty

It is amazing to look at just how much poetry and literature have changed throughout the years. For instance, during the romantic era, why did poets such as Byron sell so well? Of course, the confines of society were very different; socially the public were unable to explore many of the things which are allowed to do freely today. Our present media has hardly any restrictions and so some of what the romantics used to leave to the imagination and undoubtedly some of what used to appeal to a public starved of the social freedom to explore themselves and each other without strict confines is now gone. Once upon a time, the description of a lady’s bloomers was considered risque enough to inspire thousands of sales and hundreds of critics. Now, that explanation in a children’s book would not turn a hair. So how are the authors of today to recapture the public imagination? When everything that is shown on the television and in magazines is considered, how does an author looking for credibility find something gritty enough to write about that will inspire the minds of thousands of people into buying it and reading it? It is a tough task to recapture the public imagination once it has been lost, however, the 1990’s did indeed do just that, launching a new and exciting kind of literature, one which overthrew the increasing public opinion amongst the young in particular that poetry and books were boring. The author of the 1990s was born into a fast-paced, fast-changing society that demanded cutting edge fiction and imagination to hold its attention, and just how was this done?

No-one tackled the issue with more vigour, and arguably more success than Irvine Welsh with his novel, Trainspotting. Since it’s publication in 1993, the book has sold nearly a million copies and has been translated into thirty languages. Irvine successfully managed the near-impossible task of recapturing the minds of a generation of young who were intent on merely living out the fantasy of ‘rebel’ – this is a fantasy which involved piercing, tattoos and drugs, but certainly not reading. How did Welsh overcome this? He cleverly created a novel about all the above things. Trainspotting is essentially about four young lads who get wasted on drink and drugs, have sex, get tattoos and piercing and rebel against society’s constraints. It worked; it gained such high praise as to be called ‘the best book ever written by man or woman..deserves to sell more copies than the bible.’ Never a better way to capture the attention of ‘the rebel’ than to write a book that inspires comparison with the bible. This really is a novel for the new age, rather than trying to recapture something that has passed, a time which has finished when things were written for a different audience, Welsh has really looked long and hard at his present audience and considered how best to write something which they feel neither threatened by, nor judged by, but which they can identify with, and not feel silly for reading. Welsh has made sure that his novel fits in nicely to the 1990’s ‘gritty’ scene, the novel ‘gets its hands dirty’ both metaphorically and literally;

‘Ah started tae feel a crippling nausea and the room began tae spin. Ah fell oot ay the chair n puked tomatay soup aw ower the fireside rug. Ah, don’t remember getting pit tae bed.’

Amazingly, a novel so essentially about getting wasted enjoyed the success that it did – after all, this is what most of the children of the ’90s were doing. But perhaps therein lays the beauty of the novel, its abject realism means that it appealed to the ‘drug’ generation. It was truly a novel they could identify with.

Considering the dirty context of the book you could be forgiven for thinking that it is irresponsible for someone to publicly promote a novel of this type, however, Welsh is not that irresponsible. The novel does not simply start and end with getting wasted and what happens when you do, look a little deeper and the message appears that in fact, living this kind of life can lead to nothing but destruction. When Renton tries to make a new life for himself in London, his two friends hold him back, unhappy about being left behind in the drug-induced state whilst Renton moved forward and pushed out of the sphere;

‘Sharon was right. It’s hard tae change people.’

The following chapter after this quote is named ‘Exile’, in itself, a powerful word that echoes the struggles we then have to witness of a junkie trying to kick his habit. The book is full of ‘Junk Dilemmas’, which are little snippets into how the mind of a junkie works, with some real gems of information such as;

‘Thir’s nivir any real dilemmas wi junk. They only come when ye run oot.’

Welsh, with great skill, has managed to capture the attention of an audience he knew were fascinated by this kind of lifestyle, and then incorporate into the story just how much getting involved in this circle of people can ruin your life. The desolation and isolation of trying to stop a habit when the only people you know are people who indulge in the same thing, and how they will always try to drag you back down with them.

Let us turn for a moment to the selection of poetry which we find in The New Poetry. This anthology consists of poets and poems which fit in perfectly with the sense that modern poetry ‘gets its hands dirty.’ Here we have many examples of authors who have tackled modern-day issues, political, religious, race, every poem being unafraid of speaking out about radical points of discussion.

To illustrate this point, let’s begin with a poem by Ian McMillan, M1 Seascape near Hoyland;

‘For the interview, the gaffer is proud; ‘We only have six more miles of motorway to roll up and dump in the sea.’ He quips.’

This may be short but it gets straight to the point. This is just one of many poems in the anthology that illustrates the fickleness of the media when it comes to promoting something which is in their best interests. The real issues – in this case, pollution, in many other cases, religious abuse, racism, political argument, pretty much anything that is up for argument gets faced head-on by the modern-day poet. This is not the way in which we are used to seeing poetry of old, imagining Keats writing a political piece on the situation of the government at the time is hard to do.


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