Orwell Finally Comments on Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English, all of it, I should say, subsequent to 1790. Examples of good bad poems – I am deliberately choosing diverse ones – are “The Bridge of Sighs”, “When all the World is Young, Lad”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, Bret Harte’s “Dickens in Camp”, “The Burial of Sir John Moore”, “Jenny Kissed Me”, “Keith of Ravelston”, “Casabianca”. All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet – not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting. It is no use pretending that in an age like our own, “good” poetry can have any genuine popularity. It is, and must be, the cult of a very few people, the least tolerated of the arts. Perhaps that statement needs a certain amount of qualification. True poetry can sometimes be acceptable to the mass of the people when it disguises itself as something else. One can see an example of this in the folk-poetry that England still possesses, certain nursery rhymes and mnemonic rhymes, for instance, and the songs that soldiers make up, including the words that go to some of the bugle-calls. But in general ours is a civilisation in which the very word “poetry” evokes a hostile snigger or, at best, the sort of frozen disgust that most people hear when they hear the word “God”. If you are good at playing the concertina you could probably go into the nearest public bar and get yourself an appreciative audience within five minutes. But what would be the attitude of the same audience if you suggested reading them Shakespeare’s sonnets, for instance? Good bad poetry, however, can get across to the most unpromising audiences if the right atmosphere has been worked up beforehand. Some months back Churchill produced a great effect by quoting Clough’s “Endeavour” in one of his broadcast speeches. I listened to the speech among people who could certainly not be accused of caring for poetry, and I am convinced that the lapse into verse impressed them and did not embarrass them. But not even Churchill could have got away with it if he had quoted anything much better than this.

–George Orwell, from “Rudyard Kipling,” an essay originally published in 1942. Republished in 2008 in All Art Is Propaganda. (Thanks to Jeannine for digging it out.)