Who Should Write Poetry? (How Vaughan Williams Might Have Responded)

The English classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a great supporter of English folk music, systematically transcribing its pieces so that they would be preserved for the enrichment of future generations. Although part of the musical elite, he was far from being a musical elitist and believed that everybody should make their own music, no matter how simple, as long it were truly their own.

I think I feel the same way about poetry. There is absolutely no need to leave this to the professionals (although I do aspire to join that group), no need to wait deferentially for their elegantly expressed, finely constructed words to be delivered to us. No, it’s within all of us to express our thoughts, feelings and observations in verse, whether that’s a sonnet, haiku or plain blank. If you don’t capture the experience of your local life and history, then who will? Just as there is a great tradition in folk music, so should there be in poetry.

That being said, it shouldn’t be taken as a license to write lazily or sloppily, nor as an excuse to put forth insufficient effort. Just because the poem might be “simple”, doesn’t mean that it need be bad. I can’t know for sure that Vaughan Williams would agree with this application of his words to poetry, but I am hopeful.

For those regrettably unfamiliar with his music, might I suggest one of my favourites of his as a starter – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The piece is in one part, but split across two videos here.

Like a YouTube mash-up before the internet age, this piece is genius reworking genius. Thomas Tallis is the master Renaissance composer, who wrote the 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Truly a staggering musical achievement, this piece is particularly sensational live, so you should immediately snap-up any opportunity that comes your way to see this in concert.

One of Tallis’ many other compositions is the theme Why Fum’th in Fight. Vaughan Williams took this haunting melody and transmuted already-glittering material into a precious object.

Now that you’ve heard these gems, it’s time to create your own works of beauty, and to do so true to yourself. Why not begin by writing your own fantasia, but in this case, based on a favourite line of verse.