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Tradition and the Individual iPod

PN Review 174 (just out) has an editorial that all those concerned with poetry, in the UK and beyond, should read carefully.

The Arts Council is in the process of "restructuring". Some of this is good news, but the shift in emphasis is also leading to unexpected casualties: first, universally-respected (among poets and poetry publishers that is) Literature Director Gary McKeone was given his walking papers; next, "traditional" small magazines like The London Magazine have had their funding cut, completely. This signals a transition to support for new media outfits, performance poetry, and poetry that excites youth, and gets them involved.

Salt Publishing, for instance, has been awarded a "large grant" to develop its print-on-demand and online operation. David Lammy, the Culture Minister in the Blair government, and a big supporter of the Iraq war, is ironically overseeing the transformation of the publisher of 100 Poets Against The War - but then again, Salt's direction has (arguably) changed radically since 2003, as it now publishes a far wider spectrum of poets.

The editorial ends with the line "the triumph of performance poetry is clearly at hand".

I have long foreseen such a shift (see the introductions to my anthologies Poetry Nation, 1998, and Short Fuse, 2002) - and tried to ease (and influence) the transition by arguing that spoken word and performance /multimedia poetry should ground itself in a strong sense of the (literary) tradition of written (and published) poetry. As the digital age, and the celebrity age (different but connected because of capitalist tendencies) is relatively unstoppable in the short term, "youth" will begin to access - and share - their poetry (if and when they even do) in terms of what can be delivered via these new media. This will mean poems performed and recorded like files of songs, and, more and more, poems experienced via electronic devices.

The tragedy is not that new machines are entering our lives (telephones and planes did not stop Eliot or Auden from writing well) but that the funding agencies are mistaking the media for the message. The foundation of poetry in the UK has been, and must continue to be, small magazines and dedicated editors and publishers who know, and love, poetry, top to bottom. Ceasing to fund a legendary journal like The London Magazine and thereby terminating the legacy of Alan Ross, is equivalent to bulldozing listed buildings. In short, a spirit of conservation, if not conservatism, is paradoxically called for, at just this moment of radical change.

I have long been misread in the UK (in some circles) as the minstrel of new media mayhem. Far from it. I know the need to share poems with new generations of readers, to keep its spirit alive. But I also know that the spirit is non-negotiable. Poetry isn't for dumbing down. That's entertainment, and it's a different remit, a culture without gods.

The Arts Council - which supported my Oxfam series and does much good work to be sure - should continue to fund the great traditional paper little magazines, even as they support new forms of delivering poetry.

As for "youth" - Mr. Lammy should be careful as his hand doles out cash like sugar cubes. Empowered rappers, spoken word artists and poetry readers may continue to question the illegality of the war his government has prosecuted. Poetry is not merely efficacious and edifying - it can bite. That's a government of the teeth behind the tongue.
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