Confessions of a Poetry Bully

Edd McCracken

Staff Writer

Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, dislikes book spine breakers and loves when small words harmonise to make big ideas. Follow him on Twitter:  @EddMcCracken

Of all the literary forms, poetry is the most picked upon. It is the small wheezy kid selected last in games. Shamefully, I should know.

In my previous guise as a journalist, at least once a year, I was tasked with calling serious poets and asking that most patronising of questions: what is poetry for? I was the big clunking fist of journalism giving poetry a noogie.

This annual ritualised bout of bullying usually tied in with the announcement of the short-list for the TS Eliot Prize for poetry. The latest nominees were unveiled this week.

Shortly after I would find myself speaking to some of the greatest writers in the land asking them to justify their art form. It is to the eternal credit of the likes of Don Paterson and Carol Ann Duffy that they didn’t ask why the same question is never asked of comic books or celebrity biographies, let along serious fiction. Or arts journalism.

Instead they sighed deeply, humoured my imbecilic brief, gave good-natured quotes, and probably penned a zesty haiku cursing me once they put down the phone.

Forget war. Poetry, what is it good for? To my news desk (and maybe a few other redoubts) it merely existed to adorn buildings, make girls weak at the knee, and provide some gravitas at weddings.

Yet this same bullied kid of an art form has fired civil wars and revolutions (Yeats, Neruda, Byron), articulated 20th century ennui more succinctly than a million Mad Men or Sopranos (Larkin), and brought together fractious corners of the globe (Tagore, Burns).

I live in one of these nooks. In Scotland, the population turns to poetry when it wants to unite. The closest thing it has to a national day is Burns Night, where people gather, eat haggis, and drink whisky, all in the glow of Robert Burns’ poetry.

In contemporary public life too, poets are afforded a respect other western nations might find strange. The opening of the country’s first parliament building in 300 years was marked not by a show of military strength of bullish wealth, but in verse. The late Edwin Morgan’s words will be used to hold our politicians to account for centuries.

This love of poetry, that it is in the very weft and weave of everyday life, is one of the things I love most about Scotland. Then I remember how it was once my job to unpick it. And go stand in the corner in shame. I should have known. When it comes to works of literature, unlike in sport, the wheezy kid always beats the bully in the end.