Where is the ‘now’?
By THEA LENARDUZZI
“Where are we now?” is a phrase that has been on many lips, and on virtually every radio station, since David Bowie released a song of that title earlier this year. But last night the question was posed by Grey Gowrie, a man whose credentials – he is a self-declared neo-classicist, “neither Romantic nor progressive”, and former Culture Minister under Margaret Thatcher – suggest little in common with Bowie apart from the near-rhyme of their surnames – and even this depends on your (mis)pronunciation of the song writer's name (for the record, it rhymes with “doughy”, as said of a bad pizza base, not TOWIE, the acronymic title of the reality television show The Only Way is Essex).
Last night – in neither Berlin nor Brentwood, but Mayfair – Gowrie delivered the first in a series of four lectures on the theme “The Promise of Freedom”, part of a salon hosted by the Legatum think tank to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Gowrie set out to consider the relationship between British and American culture, from 1953 to the present, with a particular focus on poetry. He is to be followed by Sandy Nairne on Portraiture, Sir John Taverner on Music and, finally, on May 23, Dame Harriet Walter on Theatre.
Having reiterated the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” prerequisite to all discussion on the role of the arts in a free and prosperous society, Gowrie – whose own poems have appeared in the TLS – discussed how poetry has, in its way, promoted the ideal of “freedom in service” that is a central tenet of the Queen’s reign. To illustrate his belief in the power of poets to “move a lot of weight”, he provided us each with a booklet – its own weight and design similar to that of an Order of Service – from which he read some of his “favourite” poems and bits of verse. We heard work from both sides of the Atlantic, from W. H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome” (in which “Agents of the Fisc pursue / Absconding tax-defaulters through / The sewers of provincial towns”) and Alan Dugan; to Robert Frost (“Earth’s the right place for love. / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”) and Wallace Stevens (whom Gowrie described as having a voice that, were it ascribed a price, would be “very expensive indeed”).
Few of us in the room needed to be converted to the belief that “collectively poets can be quite predictive”, that they can “advise and warn”, and each riff on the theme was well-chosen and appreciated – I think, particularly, of one from Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, which goes: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” “I would happily do this all night”, Gowrie admitted.
But where does the “now” of the lecture’s title come into it? A pertinent question came from an audience member who wondered whether poets were “now” socially, and intellectually, more marginal and whether, if this was the case, it was because of the prosperity that had made poetry (more) possible – in short had prosperity killed the poet?
Indeed, it is odd that while discussing prosperity – social, cultural, financial – the internet should have gone unmentioned. Following on from Gowrie’s claim that “people who are free to shop, are free to think”, uncensored access to the internet has increased the political role played by the arts in bringing it to the attention of a global audience – internet shoppers, if you will. We are now aware of the political context motivating artists in all corners of the world – Ai Wei Wei in China, for example, and the Russian punk-rock group (I stop short of calling them poets) Pussy Riot – in a way that we could not have been before. They are, to quote a line by R. S. Thomas, read out by Gowrie, “at the switchboard / of the exchanges of the people.”
Referring to the “pained conservatism” of Auden and Eliot’s remorseful poetry, Gowrie reprised the dictum that “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”. Yet, last night's discussion suggests that though all may not be as prosperous as we'd like – again, socially, culturally, financially –the walls of the British and American establishments aren't exactly trembling with the cries of new voices.
“Where are we now?” takes on a far more narrow, British significance, for as Hywel Williams, chairing the salon, pointed out in his introduction: in 1953 “there was a Conservative government in place and Britain was bust”; James Bond was big news, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was proving surprisingly popular with theatre-goers, and Britten was making waves with his Gloriana, which premiered as part of the coronation celebrations. Sixty years on, Bond is big news, Beckett is in the theatres, and we are celebrating the centenary of Britten’s birth with a roster of new books (to be reviewed in the TLS soon…) and performances of his back catalogue.
Gowrie’s question should, perhaps, be understood rhetorically, or, if limited to Britain, easily answered with “exactly where we were” and with, in Gowrie’s words, “nothing new at all” to say: the Greats are still great. But what if we rephrase the question slightly? “Where is the ‘now’?”