Reports of Poetry's Health Are Greatly Exaggerated

Truth lies between.

Between extremes, that is. Poetry is not dead - and when the media says it is, they are turning over sod on an old grave. However, irrational exuberance does no one any good, in the marketplace (even of ideas), either. There's a consensus building among some quarters in British poetry that Poetry Is Truly Popular! The argument then goes something like this: if We Only Knew How To Connect With Poetry's Hungry, Tech-Literate Masses, We Could Sell Oodles Of Poetry Items.

As my grandfather Ian Hume used to say - come off the roof! The truth is, there is a groundswell of optimism, and a sense of new possibilities, as a new generation of younger poets takes hold of the various means of production and distribution that the new media afford them - much as the photocopying and lithograph moment of the 60s and 70s allowed for the British Poetry Revival (duly crushed by the big publishers and mainstream critics, so the story goes). However, this undeniably thrilling rise of several hundred younger poets, and performers, and Internet impresarios and editors, does not a revolution - or a mass audience - make. Having worked with American slam and spoken word artists in the 90s, when that was a truly popular American art form, I can attest to how seeming popularity and interest rarely translates into the cash register's ching-ching.

In fact, take a look at Facebook. I admin a Poetry group, and it has over 2,400 members. This all sounds promising. But groups with names like "When I Get A Million Members I Will Punch An Astronaut" have 180,000 members, and soaring. Facebook is the viral method of the moment - and a useful barometer. Even in its wildly contagious, and viral form, Poetry and Poets tend to get a smaller percentage of members, than almost any other topic, theme or subject, under the sun.

Poetry is an art, with elements it takes time to truly appreciate, even understand; it has complexity, and formal style, and does not merely appeal to the heart, or the funnybone - it also appeals to the mind or soul - it requires that people who engage with it, work at it. Maybe not puzzling out work - but a work of attention, and seriousness, none the less. Poetry that is any good cannot merely be entertainment, whereas great movies and songs can be, because that is partly their genre's remit. Poetry asks of us, and yields as much as we give it.

Poetry rarely connects directly with the audience of its day - and the poetry that does, tends to be rubbish later on. Kipling diminishes in our estimation; Walter de la Mare more so. Poets barely read while alive (poor Whitman, who published his own books) and Hopkins prove this. The Georgian Moment had its tub-thumping publishers, like Marsh, and Monro, who managed to sell anthologies to tens of thousands of people (as I have done with Oxfam, as Bloodaxe does, as Salt does). However, novels sold far more widely - and still do.

Poetry is a minority interest, like chess, or mathematics, or philosophy. It is a noble, vital, and necessary part of human life - but it can no longer claim a central role. It appeals, generally, to the young, and the older - those filled either with enthusiasm and energy, or those with time on their hands, to reflect on timeless emotions and thoughts. Those in their middle years - busy parents, engineers, pilots, ad executives, accountants, violinists, etc. - less so. Time is priceless, and people prefer to spend their time, more and more, on other things - downloading films, music, or what have you. There may be harm and sadness in this - the idea that Poetry saves lives, and heals all is lovely, but unfounded (most poets do not enjoy much fruit from the Poetry Tree). However, it seems truer than claiming Poetry, like Destry, Rides Again!

I am glad publishers want to promote, and publish, good young poets. Salt, for instance, has published ten or twelve poets, recently, who should have had books out years ago, and in a less restricted and old-fashioned environment, would have had. Small dynamic UK presses can make an impact now, in the next few years, because there has been an extraordinary logjam. Publishing younger poets, though, before they have fully formed their own poetic, or sense of poetry, does no one any good, in the long run. If everyone gets published, no one does, because publication becomes virtually meaningless. Wearing shoes is no longer a noteworthy event in London, because it is so commonplace.

The idea that everyone will be a poet on their blog, or Facebook group, in the future, renders poetry banal, trivial, easy, and ultimately boring. Poetry is not a new dance craze, or the latest pop song. It is not a fashion - though poets and poetic styles go in and out of fashion. Poetry is an age old, ever-reviving, art of great beauty, power, and worth. It needs a thoughtful husbandry, unless it is to become wanton. Salesmen may claim poetry is more alive than ever, but they may be more likely singing of the death of Aesop's goose. Golden eggs of the sun, silver eggs of the moon.
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