Jeremy Paxman’s Three Elements of Style

A fresh hell in the seemingly endless (and regular as iambic pentameter) series of controversies involving the state of contemporary poetry has opened its maw to all and sundry: Jeremy Paxman, celebrity judge for this year’s Forward Prizes, thinks poets need to write for common folk more and not so much for each other.

But this summary of one of his ancillary comments is a gem:

Paxman delineates the elements of this surprise, the criteria, in as sensible and widely applicable a way as any I’ve seen:

1. (sometimes) choice of subject
2. (always) quality of perception
3. (above all) language

Okay, so what are we looking at?

1. ‘Choice of subject’: we hear a lot about this whenever a competition judge is asked for tips. They all seem to say the same things about holiday poems, ekphrastic poems especially involving Icarus, poems about your grandmother or your divorce or your cat. There ARE subjects that are just really, really common and get written about a lot. This can get – not surprisingly – a tiny wee bit samey. The reason Paxo [sic] wisely says ‘sometimes’ is because of the one time in a million when someone will write about the most boring subject in the world and momentarily elevate it into something the reader never thought even possible. The Christopher Smart moment (and yes, Christopher Smart ruined it for all our cats).

2. ‘Quality of perception’ is going to have to be subjective – after all, it also depends on the quality of perception of the reader. This is where, as we all know, literature is a reciprocal art. A finely calibrated emotional/spiritual/intellectual response to a subject – your holiday, your cat, how insecure you were at thirteen – can be lost on one reader, where an obvious or even crass response might feel surprising to another. This is the bit that can’t be taught – though I do feel that reading reading READING will stimulate one’s responses to grow deeper, and will also show you what’s already been said on a given subject.

3. ‘Language’. Well, yes. Enough with the fine-sounding phrase that sounds poetic because you’ve heard it so many times before! Enough with the abstract nouns because you couldn’t be bothered to think of a specific example! And the weird non-present present tense constructed of gerunds. The comma splices. The uncompressed, un-urgent, unsurprising sentence spread over four whole lines. Someone once asked Auden how, in a class of students all writing crap poems, he could spot the ones with talent. He replied that it was the ones who were in love with language.

Katy Evans Bush, Paxman, Poets, and the “Pellety Nest.”

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