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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Because The Truth About Poetry Is Not Being Told, The Truth Of Poetry Is Not Being Appreciated

The media in the UK - and elsewhere - often reports on the claim that "poetry is dead". And, it is true that poetry is not widely read or appreciated by most people in the West - not, in brief, a part of their daily lives.

It doesn't have to be this way - though I myself am not in a position to effect a system-change on my own, of course.

Poetry is not currently well served, in Britain, and beyond, by a number of developments that, over the years, have managed to quell the actual thriving potential of poetry, its dissemination, and its appreciation.

Bluntly, poetry, rather than being seen as a process and a procedure, like "science", that has thousands of practitioners engaged in ongoing mutually-related work (a communal, progressive, and even Utopian model), is defined as an exclusive, minority exercise. This limits the sense of discovery and excitement actually connected to the art form that is poetry, and also minimises its daily relevance to most people.

For instance, as an Internet poetry editor (for http://www.nthposition.com/) I know that there are, as a modest estimate, maybe over 1,000 good or interesting poets now writing in the English language, scattered across the globe. I am not saying most or all (or any) of these poets are geniuses, or "major" figures. But they are genuinely involved in writing poetry. If one adds the students in creative writing courses, and graduates of said courses, also distributed across the world, one could say that, at least, another 10,000 people are interested in writing poetry in English in 2007. I would imagine this figure is more like 50,000.

In Britain, alone, I could offer a list of between 150-250 poets, some young, some old, worthy of being read seriously. Another few thousand are sincerely engaged in bettering their writing, and are studying the form. Too few of these writers are able to find a publisher.

This dynamic, busy and engaged pursuit, by thousands of serious poets is not the truth about poetry that is told, by many publishers, societies, contests, and critics - because, for marketing reasons (and marketing is foreign to poetry, just as it should be to science and its procedures), a different, indeed, opposite story is told: that poets are rare, extraordinary beings, and that the collection one holds in one's hands will "transform" the daily into something "magical". Rather than emphasising the interest in poems, by various poets, the procedure is to render (like the Hollywood star system) the art form into something both personalised and mystical. In this way, most publishers of poetry present their few new poets each decade. Some notable exceptions - Carcanet and Seren, to name but two, continue to be very open to a variety of approaches. Poetry Review and The Wolf, as magazines, champion an intelligent eclecticism.

Still, in the UK, there is a strong and striking division between various forms of poetic practice - performance, Internet, "experimental" and "traditional" - lines that are sometimes crossed, but rarely. The British class system, still present in many ways, supports hierarchical structures, cliques, and so on - as does the educational system - and this leads to a poetry publishing world often led by "schools" and establishment interests. It is noteworthy, for example, how few American, Canadian and Indian poets are published, or known, in England; and how few British readers of poetry are encouraged to look beyond a very narrow and prizes-approved band of poetry books.

And, some in Britain are not able to move beyond their own biases, to sample, even enjoy, poetries that may not live up to - may even move beyond - their own opinions of what poetry is, or can be. Too often, poetry is read as confirming voice, region, status, opinion, identity, rather than questioning all of this. Poetry whose diction, syntax, themes and forms are wilder, more open, more deviant, and less governed by decorum, are shied away from, as being too "American", too "modern", or simply "not mainstream". In the film, music and art worlds, in Britain, there is a healthy, thriving celebration of the "indie" scenes that feed and support the community - but the indie poetry scene (net-based, performative, young, often global) is marginalised here - and its energies soon siphoned into, indeed, film, art or music, instead, where an interest in post-modern ideas and popular culture is welcomed, not viewed as somehow rebarbitive.

I have found this closed-shop attitude frustrating. As the editor of many anthologies that explore and celebrate the plenitude of contemporary, international poetry (and poetics), I know poetry is like a river. It can be harnessed with a dam, to provide the stream that one prefers, to power the machines that one approves of - but the full force and natural depth of the source further downstream is far more impressive, and greater, than that.
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