Poets on Television / WH Auden to Philip Larkin
Nowadays, you’d never see a poet such as Auden on a chatshow. So what’s changed in the culture of television?
The poet WH Auden (1907-73) once said: “A poet – pardon me, a citizen – has one political duty, which is to try, and by one’s own example, to protect the purity of the language. I’m a passionate formalist on hedonistic grounds.” Were these words spoken in The Paris Review or the TLS? No, on Parkinson on BBC1 in 1972: they are recorded in Parky’s People, a just-published collection of annotated transcripts.
Michael Parkinson often comments – has just done so again in the Radio Times – on the decline of televisual conversation and this encounter is compelling evidence: Auden on a mainstream talk-show! Can we imagine Seamus Heaney appearing with Graham Norton, or Carol Ann Duffy chatting to Paul O’Grady? And, even on late-night BBC2 or BBC4, that sentence about the hedonism behind his formalism would, to borrow the words of Philip Larkin, bring the men in their long coats running across the fields.
Perhaps this was a peculiarity of Auden who, as a frontline English verse writer, has always had an unusual overlap with popular culture: working on the earliest version of the musical Cabaret; achieving an international hit poem through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and appearing as a character in Alan Bennett’s latest play, The Habit of Art. But many other literary figures, such as Anthony Burgess, Laurie Lee and Ben Travers, also appeared on Parkinson. Burgess even made half a dozen appearances at 7pm on BBC1 with Wogan.
So something has changed in the culture of television. The most popular explanation will be a drop in standards: that commissioners have become hedonistic in a formalistic way. The kinder reading is that British TV has become more generically complex: talk-shows are less highbrow, but news and current affairs more so: an Auden could now expect to appear on Newsnight or The Andrew Marr Show.
Even so, it’s hard not to envy the schedules of the past: stop all the clocks, switch off the television, as Auden almost wrote.
For more details on Philip Larkin, visit www.larkin25.co.uk