NWR Issue 72

The Problem with Poetry

For an art form that - so we are told - has been in a terminal condition for almost two decades, poetry can, at the very least, take some comfort from the ardent concern this would seem to occasion. Every few months or so, an article will appear in one of the major broadsheets, with grave pronouncements that nudge the bathetic. Daisy Goodwin, glamorous doyenne of poetry-as-lifestyle, recently admonished her critics with the assertion that this most mysterious and vital of arts would soon become as quaint as Morris dancing unless more were done to integrate it into the modern market. Poetry, it would seem, languishes in its hospital bed, only heaving itself up on pillows at the odd interval to scrawl a missive to the outside world: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

But poetry's prognosis negative would seem wildly at odds with the sheer volume of those actually composing verse, of the prolificacy with which the Creative Writing MA is flourishing in higher education institutions across the land, with the numbers who regularly enter the major competitions such as The National, The Bridport and the Academi's Cardiff International and with the indefatigable and optimistic spirit of the short-lived small magazine full to bursting with both undeniable quality and the execrable. Poetry - and indeed something very often unlike it - continues to be written with promise and self-delusion in bed sitters, studies and 1 in every 3 Starbucks daily. More crucially, however, poetry can now boast a greater diversity in its major and upcoming talents than ever before. Gone are the days of the Oxford-educated single white male hegemony. Poets today straddle the divide of class and ethnicity. More women are writing, and to greater acclaim, than ever before. So what's all this talk about the terminal?

Creativity thrives, doubtless, but the matter of economics for both poetry and its practitioners is quite another matter. For while there may be a not insignificant proportion of the public who see themselves (or wish to be seen) as poets, how many of them wish to be poetry buyers is, in the grand scheme of modern publishing and bookselling, negligible. A new collection of verse is considered an unquestionable 'success' if it hits 500 sales or more. But to contextualise poetry's place in the wider market: only 1% of the population bought a volume of verse last year in Britain. This figure would still be approaching acceptable to the ambitious new poet, until he or she considers that this statistic encompasses all volumes of poetry currently in print. That's pretty much everything since Chaucer. In short, anything good - and quite a bit that's bad - that has ever been written. Royalties for poets on their books can be as meagre as 4% or as generous as 7%. Poetry, contrary to certain expectations, will only in the rarest circumstance bring fame. It will categorically never bring fortune.

But, as Peter Finch points out in his consideration of James F English's The Economy of Prestige, this will prove no barrier to the ample enthusiasm and hope of many a poetaster entering national and international poetry competitions. If it seems like a lottery, that's probably because, in the main, that's exactly what it is. But such pursuits - aside from very occasionally turning up a major new voice - are an innocent diversion. For the more established, critically-acclaimed poet, often living hand to mouth, prizes mean much, not merely in status, but in the meat and potatoes matter of getting by financially. The two major prizes in the UK for original collections, the Forward Awards and the T. S. Eliot Prize, are modest purses in comparison with the glut of fiction awards (and indeed the sub-genres of awards within these), garnering their respective winners a modest £10,000 for what, on average, will be about 3 to 4 years' worth of work. The Wales Book of the Year rarely garlands a poet.

No, the poet can't count on prizes and even if he or she thinks they can, they will have to find other ways to make a living. Most of the time, this will involve almost anything except writing poetry. The days of patronage in the university fellowship - once the haven for the poet seeking dedicated time for their art - are long gone. As poet-critic Sean O'Brien wittily sketches in his essay 'From the Journals of the Curmudgeon', poets now have to work for their money. This will mean teaching. But the poet may not be - and indeed often is not - academically qualified to do so. Poetry is an art he or she learned by the hard apprenticeship of reading, thinking, imitating, writing, re-writing and then throwing it all away and starting again. Institutionalised, the poet feels like a fish out of water and suffers crippling frustration. Then again, there may be no place for the poet at all. While creative writing courses do the admirable in according poetry the status of, say, music in recognising that it can be tutored with some success to the genuinely talented, could they also sometimes be doing the unthinkable, filtering out indefinable genius for academic careerists? And creating more of the same?

There is no one reason why poetry has suffered a decline in popularity. Pop music, the quick and convenient society, the fall of the independent bookseller, misguided pedagogical attempts to enforce the edict of literal meaning over philosophy and feeling… All have their part to play. And there's also a generous helping of plain bad luck in the mix. But, in a century obsessed with the shorthanding of human experience, which all too often confuses fact with truth, dogma with integrity, poetry somehow endures, in spite of and perhaps in part because of its lack of audience. Every age gets the art it deserves - but sometimes, too, an art it needs.


previous editorial: Wales Through The Looking Glass
next editorial: Words and Pictures


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