poet files #7

Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Next time you’re casting about for a poetry scandal, try the local authority trade journal. The pot bubbleth over this week at Municipal Journal, which has published a piece of – ahem – poetry by one Nathan Elvery. Poor fellow. He’s caught in a cleft stick, as the saying might go, or “torn between two lovers,  feeling like a fool”. (He likes song quotations.) Because the £155K-a-year-earning  director of finance and resources at Croydon Council has specifically written a poem [again, sic] about the evils of money and debt. It’s gone down rather badly with some of the locals, as you can imagine. They probably do have quite a bit of debt, some of them possibly earning even less than the national average of about £23,000.

This is a perennial problem that afflicts artists. People read their work and expect to be able to take it literally. They think it’ll, like, mean the same thing as what it says. The cretins, what do they know. There is such a thing as artistic license. As Mr Elvery himself says of his poem, “It’s not designed to be misinterpreted.” He says the poem is “simply an attempt to make a boring subject* more interesting.” And that “most of the people reading the Municipal Journal will be in local government or the public sector. They will understand the context.”

So Mr E has just butted himself up against another perennial problem for the artist, which is: to what extent do you let your creative self impinge on your professional one? The great American modernist Wallace Stevens said not at all. He was renowned in the world of insurance, and famously chastised a hapless publishers’ assistant who once rang him up at the office to ask some question. “I told you never to call me here!” he told the poor girl. TS Eliot, on the other hand, was so famous, and also published by his employer, that he could not avoid people in the canteen at least knowing he was a poet. But that was the private sector. In a modern local authority, what is the protocol? Mr Elvery has just tested it, and found, one assumes, that he’d best have left well enough alone.

The real problem he faces, though, is that no dedicated poetry journal would have been likely to take it. The poet seems to have been infected with the same line-borrowing worm that afflicts Russell Crowe – and the editors don’t like it.

EVERY night before I rest my head, see those dollar bills go swirling round my bed

You load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt

I’ve seen the future, I cant afford it. Tell me the truth sir, someone just bought it.

Money, get away. Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay. Money, it’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

“I know they’re stolen but don’t feel bad. I take that money, buy you things you never had. But outside of that, I’ve no use for dough.

“It’s the root of all evil, of strife and upheaval.

I’m not sure if this is the whole thing; surprisingly, we don’t take the MJ here in Baroque Mansions. But you can clearly see at work the strong influence of Crowe, whose method is to borrow from as disparate a variety of popular sources as possible – in this case, an old American union organising song, Pink Floyd, and a generation of randomised hip hop.

But, strangely, despite all, it is poetry, of a kind; and a manager, albeit a highly paid one, decided to write in it response to his observation of the world. Is it art in the highest sense? No. And here again, the municipal world is on hand to cast its aspersions. Matthew Elliot, the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance,** says: “This is a ridiculous poem in itself, but coming from a man with such a massive salary it is utterly laughable.” Mr Elliot here betrays a bias of years steeped in corporate approval-seeking: that the more you earn, the better poem it is incumbent on you to write! No, Mr Elliot, it does not work that way. Rather the inverse, I’d say. And this is the danger of exposing one’s art in the workplace.

But let’s get real. After all that, if poetry is an art, it is also an ingrained human impulse, and people do the best they can to make it given whatever crude tools they possess: it’s like fire that way. I have a lot more time for this (misguided) attempt to use it than I had for Mr Crowe strong-arming his way into the media spotlight with someone else’s work.

I’m just still not sure what any of it means.

* the government spending cuts, once again [sic].

** Does this include all taxpayers? Did you know we were in an alliance?

We constantly hear in the poetry world that no one likes poetry, that poetry is ‘dead’. Poppycock. Poetry is in fact everywhere: wherever you go, if you scratch the surface you find a poet. Poet Files is an exclusive series in which Baroque in Hackney scrutinises the unlikely, and finds the secret poetry lurking there. Look for it every Saturday morning.

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