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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Cap In Hand

Should poets in Britain go cap in hand to the government? A.S. Byatt, interviewed on the BBC yesterday, didn't think the Poetry Book Society, described by Carol Ann Duffy as the sacred core of British poetry life, was doing the job the Arts Council wanted - to bring poetry to young and different audiences, using new media.  So - a clash of requirements.  That's a smaller debate, for me, than the wider issue that has arisen, as British poets rise up in anger at having money withdrawn from (some) of their societies and publishers.  The wider issue is one of poetry's moral compass.  Where is it going, and for what?

Now, I think that poems need to be about verbal music first, and message second; and political poetry only works if it is written firstly as art (as Yeats or Auden did).  I am not talking about poets having to write poems about global warming.  But I do think they need to become radically less self-directed at this stage in our history as a species on the brink of destroying Gaia.  Bluntly, poets tend to exaggerate their wider significance.  Very few poems are good enough to justify the ego explosions that occur when poets meet in large groups.  I am a poet.  I know that insecurity, sensitivity, and confidence mix strangely and necessarily for most poets; and it is a very challenging role, because society is moving from an interest in the poem to computer games.  The gaming industry is worth £19 billion a year in America alone; it doesn't require government spending, because people want it.

This to me is the crux of hypocrisy that mainstream UK poetry needs to extricate itself from - it cannot continue to play it both ways, by claiming poetry is now more popular and relevant than ever but also prone to collapse without government subsidies.  The truth is that the only poets who sell are those marketed by larger presses, and studied at school, where their poems are on exams; also, a few poets get on radio and the telly.  The rest of the hundreds of published UK poets sell only a few hundred copies to family, friends, and a small coterie of like-minded poets.  There are only a few thousand active poetry readers in the UK.  Poets sell books mostly at poetry readings.

There is no huge demand for what we do.  But, rather than this humbling poets into assuming modesty, it seems to be galvanising poets to try and assert ever-more-unlikely claims about their importance.  It is true that poems of genius are what I love most of all, and they equal the greatest music, painting, and film. But this cannot justify the money that poets now want showered on them in a time of austerity.  Poets, finally, need to look outward to their larger societies, not inwards to their own needs and interests.  The world is poised, literally, on the brink of environmental destruction.  The West is facing years of financial decline.  Millions of young people are unemployed.  The old are treated like rubbish in care homes.  One in five children cannot read in London.  A billion people go to sleep hungry every night.

In such a world, I cannot expect money from any government for my personal decision to practice an elite art form - the tennis or yachting of the literary world - and if it does come, I am grateful for it.  To demand more is to lose sight of the world beyond our words.
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