OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few weeks ago I heard Clive James on Radio 4, talking about poetry. Among other things, he was bewailing the proliferation of Creative Writing Courses, which he said were leading to the creation of much poetry that was not quite good enough. We should leave it, he was more than suggesting, to thoise who do it (as judged by?) best.

I’ve been a fan of Clive James for years, though I haven’t read any of his poetry, and the fragment he read on air was, well, too fragmentary to sell it, but I can’t agree with his opinion on CW courses, though he might well be right about the poetry they produce. The fact is, what I don’t buy is the idea that the creation of the superlative is the only reason to write, anything. It might be so for the individual. Probably it must be so, but we never all agree on what that superlative is in my experience, and there’s no reason why we should. The act(ivity) of writing, and more specifically, of creating in language, is part of being human, and the more people that do it, the better.

Moreover, I don’t think he would have taken the same tack about almost any other human activity. In my childhood kids played football and cricket in the street, and played it badly, as well as not quite well enough. It was out of this rag-tag rag-bag assortment of amateurs (amo, amas, amat, and all that) that the ‘greats’ of those sports emerged – and emerged at least as well as the graduated of our present day exclusive academies I suspect. More importantly, the audience for those players, was in a sense, their peers; and more importantly still, it remained those amateurs who were the owners of the games.

Telling stories, whether in poetry or prose, or in an illuminating hybrid of the two is a fundamental human activity, and so is listening to them. Writing them down comes later, and it’s this sophistication that has enabled the idea to creep in that less done better is better than more done enjoyably. The need to learn to read and write has created the class of mediators with their arcane knowledge, and the gate-guards of taste and excellence. But we may not need them as much as they need us.

I was at a country wedding a few years ago, and in one of the speeches were some lines of what would have to be called doggerel, written by the speaker. They were excruciatingly bad, but they were his words, spoken to us, at an important turning point in his life and in those of his family and close friends. They reminded me that poetry belongs to us all, good, bad, and indifferent, and we should never, ever try to take it (or short stories) away from anyone, and we should resist with all our might when people try to take it away from us.