At the last meeting of the poetry reading group, somebody absent that evening was reported as having complained that the group had become too precious, the poetry too high-brow, too difficult. My manners are sadly lacking, so I jumped in, instantly, with both feet. I will allow high-brow and difficult, but I will not allow precious.
Precious in this context is a derogatory term, almost an insult.
It was a fascinating evening; an exploration of Seamus Heaney’s lyrical translation of ‘Beowulf’, a heroic narrative written some time between the seventh and tenth centuries, in the language which is now called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. We soon got off the poem itself and into all sorts of literary, historical, religious and even scientific avenues. Several people there knew their stuff, the background to pre-mediaeval, Anglo-Saxon tradition; I love the sort of discussion where the mention of one thing inevitably leads to another, a kind of intellectual ramble; I had a great time.
As a non-native, even after decades of living here, I still have to be careful what I say, or, at least, how I say it. Impulsiveness usually gets me into trouble; so I try to choose my words carefully.
Something is ‘precious’ when it is seen as affectedly refined, a little camp. Anyone who enjoys poetry rather than simple, popular, verse, is definitely suspect. (Perhaps that’s another reason I like blogging: I have never come across so many people who openly admit a liking for poetry, even write it themselves! as in blogland).
There was a Tory MP several years ago, who, when discussing funding of art institutes in this country, brought up ballet and opera. Of ballet, in particular, he said,
“What is that but a lot of poofters prancing around in tights”.
He and many others maintain that no sane person could actually care for opera, ‘a load of screeching and dramatics’, costing a lot of money and really only of interest to a small elite.
Fair enough, they don’t like it. I can accept that.
There is an atmosphere in this country, which ridicules people who openly admit a liking for a high-brow art form. Elitism. being elitist, have come to be pejorative terms too. Mention going to the theatre and it is assumed that you saw a show, a musical, a lightweight piece where all the performers are known by their TV appearances. At best, you are permitted to go to an open-air production of say, a Shakespeare play, or a concert in the park, where the picnic before the show and during the interval is the main event.
I am very happy to watch a whodunit on TV, a populist documentary or a costume drama. I might not go for the reality or talent show formula – my arthritic toe can’t stay curled for long - but I really don’t mind if watching people being publicly humiliated and tortured is your favourite evening’s entertainment.
Of course, the lady who complained about the kind of poetry being read and discussed at the meetings has a point; every member should feel comfortable with what’s on offer. We’ll have to ask her to be more specific about her objections.
Perhaps a compromise is in order.
As for me? I’ll stay an unreconstructed cultural elitist, occasionally happily slipping into the elasticated waistband of popular culture.