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George Orwell > Poetry and the Microphone > Essay

Poetry and the Microphone


About a year ago I and a number of others were engaged in broadcasting
literary programmes to India, and among other things we broadcast a good
deal of verse by contemporary and near-contemporary English writers--for
example, Eliot, Herbert Read, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas, Henry
Treece, Alex Comfort, Robert Bridges, Edmund Blunden, D.H. Lawrence.
Whenever it was possible we had poems broadcast by the people who wrote
them. Just why these particular programmes (a small and remote
out-flanking movement in the radio war) were instituted there is no need
to explain here, but I should add that the fact that we were
broadcasting to an Indian audience dictated our technique to some
extent. The essential point was that our literary broadcasts were aimed
at the Indian university students, a small and hostile audience,
unapproachable by anything that could be described as British
propaganda. It was known in advance that we could not hope for more than
a few thousand listeners at the most, and this gave us an excuse to be
more "highbrow" than is generally possible on the air.

If you are broadcasting poetry to people who know your language but
don't share your cultural background, a certain amount of comment and
explanation is unavoidable, and the formula we usually followed was to
broadcast what purported to be a monthly literary magazine. The
editorial staff were supposedly sitting in their office, discussing what
to put into the next number. Somebody suggested one poem, someone else
suggested another, there was a short discussion and then came the poem
itself, read in a different voice, preferably the author's own. This
poem naturally called up another, and so the programme continued,
usually with at least half a minute of discussion between any two items.
For a half-hour programme, six voices seemed to be the best number. A
programme of this sort was necessarily somewhat shapeless, but it could
be given a certain appearance of unity by making it revolve round a
single central theme. For example, one number of our imaginary magazine
was devoted to the subject of war. It included two poems by Edmund
Blunden, Auden's "September 1941 ", extracts from a long poem by G.S.
Fraser ("A Letter to Anne Ridler"), Byron's "Isles of Greece" and an
extract from T.E. Lawrence's REVOLT IN THE DESERT. These half-dozen
items, with the arguments that preceded and followed them, covered
reasonably well the possible attitudes towards war. The poems and the
prose extract took about twenty minutes to broadcast, the arguments
about eight minutes.

This formula may seem slightly ridiculous and also rather patronising,
but its advantage is that the element of mere instruction, the textbook
motif, which is quite unavoidable if one is going to broadcast serious
and sometimes "difficult" verse, becomes a lot less forbidding when it
appears as an informal discussion. The various speakers can ostensibly
say to one another what they are in reality saying to the audience.
Also, by such an approach you at least give a poem a context, which is
just what poetry lacks from the average man's point of view. But of
course there are other methods. One which we frequently used was to set
a poem in music. It is announced that in a few minutes' time such and
such a poem will be broadcast; then the music plays for perhaps a
minute, then fades out into the poem, which follows without any title or
announcement, then the music is faded again and plays up for another
minute or two--the whole thing taking perhaps five minutes. It is
necessary to choose appropriate music, but needless to say, the real
purpose of the music is to insulate the poem from the rest of the
programme. By this method you can have, say, a Shakespeare sonnet within
three minutes of a news bulletin without, at any rate to my ear, any
gross incongruity.

These programmes that I have been speaking of were of no great value in
themselves, but I have mentioned them because of the ideas they aroused
in myself and some others about the possibilities of the radio as a
means of popularising poetry. I was early struck by the fact that the
broadcasting of a poem by the person who wrote it does not merely
produce an effect upon the audience, if any, but also on the poet
himself. One must remember that extremely little in the way of
broadcasting poetry has been done in England, and that many people who
write verse have never even considered the idea of reading it aloud. By
being set down at a microphone, especially if this happens at all
regularly, the poet is brought into a new relationship with his work,
not otherwise attainable in our time and country. It is a commonplace
that in modern times--the last two hundred years, say--poetry has come to
have less and less connection either with music or with the spoken word.
It needs print in order to exist at all, and it is no more expected that
a poet, as such, will know how to sing or even to declaim than it is
expected that an architect will know how to plaster a ceiling. Lyrical
and rhetorical poetry have almost ceased to be written, and a hostility
towards poetry on the part of the common man has come to be taken for
granted in any country where everyone can read. And where such a breach
exists it is always inclined to widen, because the concept of poetry as
primarily something printed, and something intelligible only to a
minority, encourages obscurity and "cleverness". How many people do not
feel quasi-instinctively that there must be something wrong with any poem
whose meaning can be taken in at a single glance? It seems unlikely that
these tendencies will be checked unless it again becomes normal to read
verse aloud, and it is difficult to see how this can be brought about
except by using the radio as a medium. But the special advantage of the
radio, its power to select the right audience, and to do away with
stage-fright and embarrassment, ought here to be noticed.

In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of
ONE. Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a
member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling
that you are speaking to him individually. More than this, it is
reasonable to assume that your audience is sympathetic, or at least
interested, for anyone who is bored can promptly switch you off by
turning a knob. But though presumably sympathetic, the audience HAS NO
POWER OVER YOU. It is just here that a broadcast differs from a speech
or a lecture. On the platform, as anyone used to public speaking knows,
it is almost impossible not to take your tone from the audience. It is
always obvious within a few minutes what they will respond to and what
they will not, and in practice you are almost compelled to speak for the
benefit of what you estimate as the stupidest person present, and also
to ingratiate yourself by means of the ballyhoo known as "personality".
If you don't do so, the result is always an atmosphere of frigid
embarrassment. That grisly thing, a "poetry reading", is what it is
because there will always be some among the audience who are bored or
all but frankly hostile and who can't remove themselves by the simple
act of turning a knob. And it is at bottom the same difficulty--the fact
that a theatre audience is not a selected one--that makes it impossible
to get a decent performance of Shakespeare in England. On the air these
conditions do not exist. The poet FEELS that he is addressing people to
whom poetry means something, and it is a fact that poets who are used to
broadcasting can read into the microphone with a virtuosity they would
not equal if they had a visible audience in front of them. The element
of make-believe that enters here does not greatly matter. The point is
that in the only way now possible the poet has been brought into a
situation in which reading verse aloud seems a natural unembarrassing
thing, a normal exchange between man and man: also he has been led to
think of his work as SOUND rather than as a pattern on paper. By that
much the reconciliation between poetry and the common man is nearer. It
already exists at the poet's end of the aether-waves, whatever may be
happening at the other end.

However, what is happening at the other end cannot be disregarded. It
will be seen that I have been speaking as though the whole subject of
poetry were embarrassing, almost indecent, as though popularising poetry
were essentially a strategic manoeuvre, like getting a dose of medicine
down a child's throat or establishing tolerance for a persecuted sect.
But unfortunately that or something like it is the case. There can be no
doubt that in our civilisation poetry is by far the most discredited of
the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to
discern any value. Arnold Bennett was hardly exaggerating when he said
that in the English-speaking countries the word "poetry" would disperse
a crowd quicker than a fire-hose. And as I have pointed out, a breach of
this kind tends to widen simply because of its existence, the common man
becoming more and more anti-poetry, the poet more and more arrogant and
unintelligible, until the divorce between poetry and popular culture is
accepted as a sort of law of nature, although in fact it belongs only to
our own time and to a comparatively small area of the earth. We live in
an age in which the average human being in the highly civilised
countries is aesthetically inferior to the lowest savage. This state of
affairs is generally looked upon as being incurable by any CONSCIOUS
act, and on the other hand is expected to right itself of its own accord
as soon as society takes a comelier shape. With slight variations the
Marxist, the Anarchist and the religious believer will all tell you
this, and in broad terms it is undoubtedly true. The ugliness amid which
we live has spiritual and economic causes and is not to be explained by
the mere going-astray of tradition at some point or other. But it does
not follow that no improvement is possible within our present framework,
nor that an aesthetic improvement is not a necessary part of the general
redemption of society. It is worth stopping to wonder, therefore,
whether it would not be possible even now to rescue poetry from its
special position as the most hated of the arts and win for it at least
the same degree of toleration as exists for music. But one has to start
by asking, in what way and to what extent is poetry unpopular?

On the face of it, the unpopularity of poetry is as complete as it could
be. But on second thoughts, this has to be qualified in a rather
peculiar way. To begin with, there is still an appreciable amount of
folk poetry (nursery rhymes etc) which is universally known and quoted
and forms part of the background of everyone's mind. There is also a
handful of ancient songs and ballads which have never gone out of
favour. In addition there is the popularity, or at least the toleration,
of "good bad" poetry, generally of a patriotic or sentimental kind. This
might seem beside the point if it were not that "good bad" poetry has
all the characteristics which, ostensibly, make the average man dislike
true poetry. It is in verse, it rhymes, it deals in lofty sentiments and
unusual language--all this to a very marked degree, for it is almost
axiomatic that bad poetry is more "poetical" than good poetry. Yet if
not actively liked it is at least tolerated. For example, just before
writing this I have been listening to a couple of BBC comedians doing
their usual turn before the 9 o'clock news. In the last three minutes
one of the two comedians suddenly announces that he "wants to be serious
for a moment" and proceeds to recite a piece of patriotic balderdash
entitled "A Fine Old English Gentleman", in praise of His Majesty the
King. Now, what is the reaction of the audience to this sudden lapse
into the worst sort of rhyming heroics? It cannot be very violently
negative, or there would be a sufficient volume of indignant letters to
stop the BBC doing this kind of thing. One must conclude that though the
big public is hostile to POETRY, it is not strongly hostile to VERSE.
After all, if rhyme and metre were disliked for their own sakes, neither
songs nor dirty limericks could be popular. Poetry is disliked because
it is associated with untelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and
a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday. Its name creates in advance
the same sort of bad impression as the word "God", or a parson's
dog-collar. To a certain extent, popularising poetry is a question of
breaking down an acquired inhibition. It is a question of getting people
to listen instead of uttering a mechanical raspberry. If true poetry
could be introduced to the big public in such a way as to make it seem
NORMAL, as that piece of rubbish I have just listened to presumably
seemed normal, then part of the prejudice against it might be overcome.

It is difficult to believe that poetry can ever be popularised again
without some deliberate effort at the education of public taste,
involving strategy and perhaps even subterfuge. T.S. Eliot once
suggested that poetry, particularly dramatic poetry, might be brought
back into the consciousness of ordinary people through the medium of the
music hall; he might have added the pantomime, whose vast possibilities
do not seem ever to have been completely explored. "Sweeney Agonistes"
was perhaps written with some such idea in mind, and it would in fact be
conceivable as a music-hall turn, or at least as a scene in a revue. I
have suggested the radio as a more hopeful medium, and I have pointed
out its technical advantages, particularly from the point of view of the
poet. The reason why such a suggestion sounds hopeless at first hearing
is that few people are able to imagine the radio being used for the
dissemination of anything except tripe. People listen to the stuff that
does actually dribble from the loud-speakers of the world, and conclude
that it is for that and nothing else that the wireless exists. Indeed
the very word "wireless" calls up a picture either of roaring dictators
or of genteel throaty voices announcing that three of our aircraft have
failed to return. Poetry on the air sounds like the Muses in striped
trousers. Nevertheless one ought not to confuse the capabilities of an
instrument with the use it is actually put to. Broadcasting is what it
is, not because there is something inherently vulgar, silly and
dishonest about the whole apparatus of microphone and transmitter, but
because all the broadcasting that now happens all over the world is
under the control of governments or great monopoly companies which are
actively interested in maintaining the STATUS QUO and therefore in
preventing the common man from becoming too intelligent. Something of
the same kind has happened to the cinema, which, like the radio, made
its appearance during the monopoly stage of capitalism and is
fantastically expensive to operate. In all the arts the tendency is
similar. More and more the channels of production are under the control
of bureaucrats, whose aim is to destroy the artist or at least to
castrate him. This would be a bleak outlook if it were not that the
totalitarianisation which is now going on, and must undoubtedly continue
to go on, in every country of the world, is mitigated by another process
which it was not easy to foresee even as short a time as five years ago.

This is, that the huge bureaucratic machines of which we are all part
are beginning to work creakily because of their mere size and their
constant growth. The tendency of the modern state is to wipe out the
freedom of the intellect, and yet at the same time every state,
especially under the pressure of war, finds itself more and more in need
of an intelligentsia to do its publicity for it. The modern state needs,
for example, pamphlet-writers, poster artists, illustrators,
broadcasters, lecturers, film producers, actors, song composers, even
painters and sculptors, not to mention psychologists, sociologists,
bio-chemists, mathematicians and what not. The British Government
started the present war with the more or less openly declared intention
of keeping the literary intelligentsia out of it; yet after three years
of war almost every writer, however undesirable his political history or
opinions, has been sucked into the various Ministries or the BBC and
even those who enter the armed forces tend to find themselves after a
while in Public Relations or some other essentially literary job. The
Government has absorbed these people, unwillingly enough, because it
found itself unable to get on without them. The ideal, from the official
point of view, would have been to put all publicity into the hands of
"safe" people like A.P. Herbert or Ian Hay: but since not enough of
these were available, the existing intelligentsia had to be utilised,
and the tone and even to some extent the content of official propaganda
have been modified accordingly. No one acquainted with the Government
pamphlets, ABCA (The Army Bureau of Current Affairs.) lectures,
documentary films and broadcasts to occupied countries which have been
issued during the past two years imagines that our rulers would sponsor
this kind of thing if they could help it. Only, the bigger the machine
of government becomes, the more loose ends and forgotten corners there
are in it. This is perhaps a small consolation, but it is not a
despicable one. It means that in countries where there is already
a strong liberal tradition, bureaucratic tyranny can perhaps never
be complete. The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as
they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia
will have a certain amount of autonomy. If the Government needs,
for example, documentary films, it must employ people specially
interested in the technique of the film, and it must allow them the
necessary minimum of freedom; consequently, films that are all wrong
from the bureaucratic point of view will always have a tendency to
appear. So also with painting, photography, scriptwriting, reportage,
lecturing and all the other arts and half-arts of which a complex modern
state has need.

The application of this to the radio is obvious. At present the
loudspeaker is the enemy of the creative writer, but this may not
necessarily remain true when the volume and scope of broadcasting
increase. As things are, although the BBC does keep up a feeble show of
interest in contemporary literature, it is harder to capture five
minutes on the air in which to broadcast a poem than twelve hours in
which to disseminate lying propaganda, tinned music, stale jokes, faked
"discussions" or what-have-you. But that state of affairs may alter in
the way I have indicated, and when that time comes serious experiment in
the broadcasting of verse, with complete disregard for the various
hostile influences which prevent any such thing at present, would become
possible. I don't claim it as certain that such an experiment would have
very great results. The radio was bureaucratised so early in its career
that the relationship between broadcasting and literature has never been
thought out. It is not certain that the microphone is the instrument by
which poetry could be brought back to the common people and it is not
even certain that poetry would gain by being more of a spoken and less
of a written thing. But I do urge that these possibilities exist, and
that those who care for literature might turn their minds more often to
this much-despised medium, whose powers for good have perhaps been
obscured by the voices of Professor Joad and Doctor Goebbels.

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