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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Poetry Renaissance?

The Renaissance will be facebooked - or rather, media-led, anyway.  Ho-hum.  When newspapers are not proclaiming the death of poetry, they are constantly rediscovering it.  Since poets know poetry is always there, like the sun or the nose on one's face, this hokum from both sides is a little tiresome.  Poetry is that which simply endures.  It isn't like herpes, a flare-up from time to time.  So it is the latest article in Saturday's Guardian celebrates the renaissance of poetry - without, this time, the sombre face of Don Paterson glowering out at us.

The best thing about this article is that it mentions the small presses that have done so much to help younger poets find a footing.  The fact that a prize has gone to poets two years in a row is a coincidence, not a sign of the times.  The truth is, poetry in the UK is embedded, too-much, in prize culture, and marketing.  Too often, a simple truth is obscured: poetry is beyond publication or acclaim - it persists despite that.  A good poem is a good poem wherever it appears, online or between the pages of a flimsy pamphlet.  For many UK readers, a poet only comes into their own if published by a big press like Picador or Faber - is "made" then, like a starlet signing with a studio.  Otherwise, poets are like "actors out on loan" - sort of lost, dogs without a bone.  I know this first-hand.

Without a large publisher in the UK, I rarely get invited to read at festivals (or anywhere) and am mostly off the map here, where I live; I am not alone - hundreds of very good poets published by smaller presses without a prize or nomination, float in a sort of limbo of mild disregard, or mild regard.  Indeed, most Canadian, American, New Zealand, Australian, Indian and South African poetry, in English, is off the radar of the British reader, poetry scene, and media - the full global good news ignored.

The TS Eliot Prize celebrates the best British-published books, and so includes some international poets, but leaves out many more.  This is not meant to be a rant.  I am relatively happy here.  The British love poetry in ways that North Americans don't.  I like that.  But please - this island is too parochial still, too self-describing, to fully embrace the differences and aspects from abroad that are also part of the larger 21st century poetry renaissance - one that started not this year, when The Guardian chose to notice it, but really around the time of the rise of Facebook, or earlier, perhaps in 2003.

As it happens, I believe this generation of younger British poets is the best in over half a century.  They will become better still if they redefine the structures that currently reward and judge them, and open out publishing options further.  The top three books of the British year, in terms of accolades and critical praise, by Heaney, Walcott, and Shapcott - all superb collections - were published by the major press for poetry.  One needs to start asking - what else is out there?
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