If you’re one of those strange people who don’t follow the poetry world closely, you may not have been aware of the recent Paxman Controversy.
As the chair of this year’s Forward Prize jury, he made some characterisically brisk comments about the need for poets to engage with the outside world, even calling for an ‘inquisition’ where the more obscure poets could come and explain themselves (a suggestion that I don’t think was meant to be taken entirely seriously). Nevertheless, it caused understandable consternation among poets, not least because the ‘poetry world’ is arguably more accessible and politically engaged than it has ever been, but also because popularity isn’t necessarily the best measure of poetry’s worth in the world.
Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about how a Paxman-esque inquisition might work, which led to me writing and publishing this poem (it originally appeared here):
Mr Paxman interrogates the poets
Who set fire to the tyger?
Will you apologise to the people of Slough?
So you’re admitting you ate the plums?
Twas not, in any sense, “brillig” was it?
“Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song” –
You stole that, didn’t you?
Nothing depends on a wheelbarrow, does it?
Are you saying you set fire to the tyger?
In what possible sense is anything “dapple-dawn-drawn”?
Was there really a man from Nantucket?
These people you call the best minds of your generation –
presumably not smart enough to avoid being destroyed?
You write about shepherds and daffodils,
but I believe you were grammar school educated?
Why did this imbecile kill the albatross?
Shall I compare thee? I’ll ask the questions.
Did you threaten to set fire to the tyger?
As these things sometimes do, it did the rounds on Twitter and eventually got noticed by the people at the Forward Arts Foundation. Before I knew it, an email landed in my inbox:
In some ways, my poem bears out Paxman’s criticism in that it’s full of smart-arse allusions that probably exclude as many people as they entertain. But fortunately he saw the funny side (I think...)