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Thursday, 2 April 2009

Poetry vs. Literature

Poetry is, of course, a part of literature. But, increasingly, over the 20th century, it has become marginalised - and, famously, has less of an audience than "before". I think that, when one considers the sort of criticism levelled against Seamus Heaney and "mainstream poetry", by poet-critics like Jeffrey Side, one ought to see the wider context for poetry in the "Anglo-Saxon" world. This phrase was used by one of the UK's leading literary cultural figures, in a private conversation recently, when they spoke eloquently about the supremacy of "Anglo-Saxon novels" and their impressive command of narrative.

My heart sank as I listened, for what became clear to me, in a flash, is that nothing has changed since Victorian England (for some in the literary establishment). Britain (now allied to America) and the English language with its marvellous fiction machine, still rule the waves. I personally find this an uncomfortable position - but when one reads that Bloomsbury's profits are down massively due to the absence of a new "Potter" - one has to face facts. There is a publishing industry in Britain. It is a commercial enterprise, endorsed by government bodies, and cultural organisations and affiliated media sponsors, and festivals. Together, it constitutes an "establishment". On the whole, this system favours the novel, and narrative, over poetry of any kind, and surely, poetry with disrupted syntax. Why is this?

It has nothing to do with poetics, and everything to do with profits. "Most" people who buy books want a "good read" - they want "a story". Novels with stories can be made into TV shows, and films. Money can be made. I have often said this at this blog, but poets are now second-class citizens. I often meet literary figures who barely know any poetry, except that published by a few large presses. For most "writers" and those involved with culture, "literature" in Britain is novelists, life writers, screenwriters, and a few poets.

This is not troubling, to most people. For, the definition of an establishment, surely, is that it is an order of things that represents what appears, on the face of it, reasonable, and natural. This is why it is so easy to marginalise bloggers and poet-critics who demand a different way of considering writing and publishing - because they appear as mad and violent as some of the G20 protesters - they seem like people who just want to smash some glass and spoil the fun. I have spent over 24 years organising poetry events, supporting fellow poets, editing, reading, performing, writing, studying, and teaching, poetry.

Most days I feel that I have "wasted my life". The impact that poetry writing and poetry promotion has, on the general public, the popular culture, and for the average person, in the UK, is close to nil. Despite the hundreds of superb British poets - who do touch some lives, of course - poetry has been marginalised, by precisely the sort of Anglo-Saxon narrative triumphalism that does so much for fiction. In fact, one of the mistakes that lyric poets have increasingly made, I feel, in the 20th century, is to try to make compromises with science, business, government, and also prose and its handmaidens plot, suspense, narrative, and lucid structure (admittedly all part of Epic Poetry). Lyric modern poets have tried to downplay what is most poetic about poetry (its artificial language) and emphasise its pleasures, and how it is part of the same world as "novels" - or have they become what is known as "experimental".

The truth is, poets buy in, far too much, to the idea that fiction has won, and that its delights and world (of fame and celebrity and film deals) is one they might approximate. The flourishing in the UK over the last 20 years of all these prizes for poetry and all the marketing, has been a sometimes desperate attempt to package and sell poetry as "a good read" - as work that, like a "good novel" - satisfies the reader. Poetry is more radical than that. Poetry makes demands on the reader - of time, and of thought - that sometimes lead to demands for action. One's life may have to be changed.

Novels can also do such a thing (George Eliot, for instance, has such an effect). Yet too often, novels are, more or less, "entertainments". How many arts organisers, and festival directors, really want to see the world shaken to its foundations, or the way that life and language is perceived profoundly altered? Not many, I'd imagine. Instead, there is a desire for more comfortable "books" and more sheeplike readers, who are meant to "buy" the "latest" "read". Literature, sometimes, is as sad as money.
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