A report on poetry in 2007

I write this as someone who has spent over 20 years writing, editing, publishing, and promoting poetry, in both North America and Europe.
There is no mass interest in poetry, in the United Kingdom, in 2007.

Last year, I edited a poetry anthology CD for Oxfam that has since sold over 10,000 copies, in less than a year. It is, as such, the best-selling British poetry CD of all time. As far as I can tell, this fact – hardly remote from social or aesthetic concern – has received no mention in any mainstream media in the UK.

Television. Film. Music. These do not need state sponsored support to generate interest, even desire, on the part of mass audiences. It is true that government support may (this is debatable) improve these forms of entertainment / art – but it hardly need advertise them. Marketed, admittedly, by commercial interests, the demand is still high, and continuous, for new movies, TV shows, and songs by popular performers. Novels, too, are relatively popular.

Poetry is not a form of entertainment or the arts that can rely on such a relationship with the British public. Firstly, as an art form, or literary genre, it is widely perceived as either elitist, difficult, or remote from most person’s lives – and the several anthologies (for funerals, weddings, and the like) which try to testify to the contrary – while often selling well – do so despite this general suspicion that poetry is a challenge. Secondly, few of its living practitioners are household names. No living poet is known to the mass general public in the way that Tom Cruise or Madonna is. Thirdly, there are few or no contemporary poems that play a part in most people’s imaginary world, in the way that a favourite song or movie does. Ask any person to list their favourite films, or music, or novels – and most will be able to present a list of 100s of selections. Only a close follower of poetry could do the same for a list of poems.

Who is the current audience for poetry in the UK, then? Poets, poetry editors (often the same), students, and, generally, a slightly older, better-educated person – and, perhaps, a few bohemians (such as a rock star here, a painter there). I would estimate the interested, engaged, audience at between five and fifteen thousand persons. As most poetry collections sell a few hundred (or no) copies, it can be concluded that, except in instances when a great deal of marketing has been done, or the poet in question is known (perhaps for having won a major prize), the actual audience for most British poets is, optimistically, between zero and five hundred readers (not including close family members, and friends).

What is to be made of this state of affairs?

I believe two conclusions can be drawn from this:

One. The attempt to try to market, even spin, poetry, by certain presses, organizations, and arts bodies, as some kind of feel-good art form for the masses has failed – for two reasons, to be discussed below;

Two. Poetry is a specialist art form created by experts for a small coterie audience, whose particular traditions and values are little known or understood by the general population.

The two reasons why the marketing has failed, are these: a) since poetry is in fact a specialist art form, and poets themselves know this, even their own best efforts to popularise poetry cut against the grain of their own artistic practice, which tends to complexity, thoughtfulness, and an artfulness that cannot be widely sold. In short, there is a limit to how dumbed-down a good poem can be, before it ceases to be a poem and becomes instead an advertising slogan;

b) the poetry "establishment" (the so-called gate keepers) of Great Britain is more conservative with regards to the distinctions between high and popular culture than in America, and, notwithstanding the remarks of point a., above, have generally resisted attempts by practitioners within their own ranks to integrate an appreciation of poetry into the wider culture at large – hence, “performance poets” and more “urban” slam poets have tended to be marginalised, as have major political engagements with poetry (the anti-war poetry events, for instance), and electronic, or digital forms of poetry, which do appeal, somewhat more, to younger readers, and writers.

This is the core contradiction at the heart of the current poetry world in the UK: it tries (perhaps half-heartedly) to be more “popular” without, in fact, embracing most or any of the current popular cultural trends – including the diction and subject matter of interest to most people. This leads to a schism such as can be seen in that other faltering, great, traditional institution, the Anglican church, which has its wars between modernisers and evangelicals.

My conclusion from all this is that the poetry communities in Great Britain need to have more dialogue between themselves, to clarify their goals, and open their books, as it were, to greater scrutiny. – or, perhaps, not. Too much energy is taken up with promoting and marketing and selling poetry – and attendant polemical hustling and bustling - and not enough with writing, and reading it.

Poetry, basically removed from the capitalist market agenda, is only a frustrating profession for any practitioner hoping for celebrity, money, or wide public support. Left alone with the poems and poets of the past, the poet herself must always return to the endless resources and challenges of language, form, style, and subject, and in that way, find a way out of the seeming impasse, into the pleasures and rewards of “pure” creativity itself.

What will the language do to us next?

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