The Guardian has today published an edited version of my letter, sent in reply to Catherine Gander's recent column.
Please find the full text below.
October 7, 2005
To The Editor of The Guardian,
Catherine Gander's article "We need a poetry idol" of Friday October 7, 2005 was ill-informed, unhelpful, and ultimately silly. The choice of The Guardian to publish it reflects a sad truth: while poetry flourishes, at hundreds of festivals, public readings, and in journals and blogs across Britain and, indeed, the world, the media fails to report this correctly, therefore compounding the myth which Gander perpetuates: that poetry is unpopular, and needs to be saved by some outside hand.
Instead, poetry has never been a more popular, democratic, or accessible art form, and continues to reach more people than ever before. I was at the Cambridge poetry reading which Seamus Heaney recently gave on October 5, the 10th anniversary of his Nobel win. The auditorium was filled to capacity with awestruck and attentive students and people from the area, and I was told 500 more had signed up on the waiting list. The night before, I attended a Manchester Poetry Festival poetry cabaret with over 250 people in the venue. My own Oxfam events are routinely packed, and the poetry e-book I edited, which was against the Iraq war, has been downloaded (as The Guardian reported at the time) over a quarter of a million times. Anecdotal evidence, perhaps, but compelling.
Gander claims that poets require a celebrity to endorse them in order to achieve name brand-recognition, much as she suggests Bob Dylan was championed by Martin Scorsese. This is ludicrous. Firstly, Bob Dylan's genius, work or person needs no introduction - not since he was 20. 20th century poets such as Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin - and even, indeed, the serious and difficult T.S. Eliot - are widely read, and beloved figures. In our own time, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, and Benjamin Zephaniah are equally known and popular. It is hard to imagine how or why one would want an Ant and Dec, or Bono-type figure to step forward to endorse poets who, in fact, mostly reach the readers they want, already.
Poetry is not a Barnum and Bailey world - it is a quieter, more private, and more long-lasting practice - and as such, is exempt, mostly, from the cheaper aspects of a commodity culture. Attempts to market poetry generations and create instant superstars in the poetry community usually fail, because poets and poetry readers know the real thing when they hear and see it. True poetry is that which cannot be sold - it can only be given, and received. Poetry, after all, offers uniquely rich rewards to those in the know, and they are simply not in "university seminar rooms" - but in all places and walks of life.
Gander states that "publishing houses and poetry societies need to strive towards fashion". This is an astonishing thing for someone apparently "researching a doctorate on modern poetry" to write. Surely she, of all people, should know that poetry has always either been far ahead of fashion, or blessedly disinterested in it. As Ezra Pound pointed out, good poetry is always "news that stays news" - while fashion is that which quickly reverts to being unfashionable. Implicit in her comment is an underlying, and I fear simplistic, belief that somehow, not enough is being done, by either poets or their publishers, to make poetry a sort of "popular" past-time, like Sudoku. However, contemporary poets already write truthfully, entertainingly, and with great skill, about the central issues of our times - love, desire, fear, and fun - just as novelists do, and cannot be said to be out of touch with the times. Nor do they, for the most part, write with more complexity of style and diction than many literary, popular novelists. And their books, when published, are done so attractively.
Gander is right about one thing, when she writes: "poetry is unforgivably poorly advertised". Well, whose fault is that? Most newspapers and magazines rarely list poetry events with the same effort they would film, music or theatre shows; and almost never review them, though often they are no less ephemeral than a one-night rock concert. This is an editorial choice, and the The Guardian, it can be said, rarely pays the same attention to progressive poetry as it does similar movements in other arts, and in politics itself. It seems to have halved the Berliner-size of its poetry review space on Saturday (although adding a few smaller secondary reviews) - and also has failed to mention many significant poets, publications and events, despite its apparently liberal stance (for instance the major Oxfam poetry series in London of the last two years). For example, its article the other day, featuring photos of prominent poets, signally failed to properly represent the many fine Black and Asian poets now writing, and was also imbalanced in terms of region, gender, poetics, and class. Nonetheless, poetry survives, as Auden said - "a way of happening - a mouth".
Poetry is the art and craft of using words to express emotion and thought, and is a perennial aspect of human existence, literally as old as the first fires around which people sat, and talked. Its value is not, unlike newspapers, under threat from multimedia - since it flourishes on the Internet. Instead, poetry continues to obtain in all cultures and languages, despite the cynical lack of interest from the media. It is newspapers which need more poetry, not poetry which needs more newspapers, you could say.
Gander is right to imply that poetry rarely "throws a hero up the pop charts" as music or film or football does - but has nothing to say on why poetry needs an "outside influence" to "get people reading" poetry. It sounds as if she wants a sort of Saatchi figure, to create another bloated and exaggerated movement - a sort of Blairite spin-machine for poetry - a CoolPoetry movement. But people in their tens of thousands already read, and write, and listen to, and most vitally, love poetry, in the UK. The poet laureate, Andrew Motion, does much to assist this, and Gander's comment that he is "a man in a largely wasted position to promote poetry" is ungenerous and inaccurate.
Gander needs to get out to more street-level poetry events. She might find the budding poetry idols of the future where one might have expected them all along - on stage, reading their own work to us, if we would only listen. The true force that drives the fuse of new poetry is always the presence of a great poet and the words they use to move us, needing no other.
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