Lessons from the poets

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On National Poetry Day, a poet appeared on BBC Radio 4 this morning to criticise what he called the daily abuse of language by politicians. Michael Horovitz said every politician should learn a poem and say it back before making any public pronouncement.

That should keep quite a lot of people quiet, but we might extend this rather startling advice to all of us who write as part of our job.

It is echoed in a lecture given some years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Joseph Brodsky. In Brodsky’s words, “Poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation – especially one on paper. The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity.”

It reminds me of Matthew Arnold, another poet who came up with a wonderfully pithy comment on writing style. “People think that I can teach them style,” he said. “What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”

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