Saturday, 18 November 2017

Poet as TV Sleb

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Ovid Banished from Rome by JMW Turner
   There's been a welcome spate of poetry programmes on the BBC this autumn, with documentaries on Auden, Charles Causley and the Liverpool poets all grabbing my attention. From the first, amid lovely old footage of interviews with WH, I learnt that one of our most eminent English bards and an Oxford Professor of Poetry was something of a closet druggy, writing for most of his adult life on a morning dose of benzedrine (Kerouac famously typed the scroll of On the Road while speeding on the same upper) which he would counteract in the evening with heavy use of alcohol and barbiturates. No wonder he was so prolific - I wonder also if the manner in which the tremendous linguistic energy and mobility of Auden's early to mid period poetry gave way to the tired, flabby prolixity of the later work speak of a talent which burned itself out in the daily rollercoaster of this chemically-assisted cycle.
    One of the archive clips shows Auden smoking and drawling his way through The Parkinson Show in the 1970s, probably at 7.30 in the evening not sure if he was up or down. It's startling to realise that a poet of Auden's calibre could have attained the celebrity to appear on a prime-time chat-show. What would be a contemporary equivalent? Les Murray on Graham Norton? The poetry world feels in a way more democratised now, we don't elevate mandarin figures so much anymore, and this can only be a good thing. It's actually easier to imagine slightly younger poets like Simon Armitage (who featured as a talking head on a couple of these BBC documentaries) on TV, or equally poet-performers like Kate Tempest.
   I caught another excellent programme on BBC4 the other night, this time about the Roman poet Ovid. The way Michael Wood's historical explanations and excursions to pertinent locations were woven around Ovid's own words, read sonorously by Simon Russell Beale, brought vibrantly to life what could have been a potentially heavyweight subject. Despite his classical stature, Ovid's story seems strangely contemporary in fact: he too acquired a kind of celebrity within Augustan Rome for the erotic sophistication of his early poetry but then fell foul of the Emperor, either for something he wrote or for a personal indiscretion. He was exiled from the republic and spent the rest of his life at Tomis on the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Roman Empire, in what is present-day Romania. 

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