Some actress I’ve never heard of wrote an intro for a book of poetry that attacked both the obscure and the “humdrum”. And the story has gotten everybody’s knickers twisted (because let’s face it, we all know the Brits are still wearing knickers) and has made the society pages. God, I wish I lived there. (Or at least that I could have the Guardian teleported here daily. It’s the only paper I can imagine myself paying money to buy and read, even with the big fuck-you to the environment.) Can you imagine the life of a story like this here, if say Gordon Pinsent got snippy about Christian Bok in a preface? I’m telling you, my 3-month-old has longer legs.
Lumley praises Cowley for preferring to call herself a writer than a poet: ‘Liz would never dream of describing herself as a “poet”. She even dislikes the very word “poetry” because she feels there is a divisive ring to it, as if the genre were up there on a rarefied pedestal.’
But her comments have drawn the wrath of many of Britain’s leading poets. Ian McMillan, presenter of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, poet in residence at Barnsley football club and a contender for the next Poet Laureate, accused Lumley of being ill-informed. ‘I suspect that she hasn’t read very widely because she’s ignoring the fact that poetry in the 21st century is a broad church,’ he said. ‘It’s sad and frustrating that people can still come up with generalisations like this. You shouldn’t be able to get poems on the first reading. Part of the delight is the time you take with them to understand them. But what’s wrong with humdrum and commonplace, anyway? Frank O’Hara called his poems “lunch poems” because he wrote them in his lunch hour. By the act of writing down his humdrum, it became delightful.’
Wendy Cope, whose 2001 collection If I Don’t Know was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry award, also questioned Lumley’s authority. ‘Joanna Lumley might be widely read, but sometimes people who make comments like this don’t know very much about poetry,’ she said. ‘People make very good poetry out of the humdrum and commonplace. There are lots of poets writing good poetry that is obscure, and the answer is to educate the public to help them understand that.’