The current state of poetry: a non-poetry-reader’s view
What is the current state of poetry? Opinion is apparently pretty polarised. Ask one person and they’ll say “poetry’s irrelevant, no one reads that stuff anymore.” Ask the next person you meet and they’ll say “poetry will never die.” I’ve also heard answers like “only school and university courses are keeping poetry alive,” “rap is the poetry of today,” and “poetry isn’t relevant which is why no one reads it any more.”
Last year there was a lot of kerfuffle happening over poetry audiences — Newsweek reported that readers were turning away from poetry in droves, which led to a lot of “is this the end?” kind of stuff. This whole is-poetry-dead thing is nothing new — Martin talk-first-think-later Amis read poetry’s obituary at the 2007 Hay Festival, for example. And hey, as a poet, this stuff is quite disconcerting — particularly when you have jerks writing articles titled “Poetry is Dead. Does anyone really care?”, and claiming that in order to understand a poem, you have to “read [it] 20 times before the sound and sense of it takes hold.” There’s a lot of doom-mongering and mass generalisation out there, folks. But what about the flip side? What’s the optimist’s view?
Let’s talk about my mother (don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Freudian on you). My mother is your average modern careerwoman — house, car, cat, two kids at Uni, seriously high-pressure public sector job with a lot of responsibility, aging relatives to worry about, bills to pay, etc etc. Unsurprisingly, she does not read poetry. Like many people, she doesn’t really read anything, except for the odd novel when she’s on holiday or has a long train journey to endure. I am pretty sure my mother would not pick up a poetry book of her own volition (I just bully her into it sometimes), regardless of the pretty cover or delights promised in the blurb. HOWEVER, my mother firmly believes that right now, we are all living through poetry’s Golden Age.
When she first said this to me I have to admit, I scoffed. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘if only you knew,’ and carried on moaning about the state of literature and how Martin Amis is probably right (ouch) and blah blah blah. However, over the past few months, she’s worked on me. And I have to say, her argument is kind of interesting…
I won’t say how long my mother’s been on this planet, but it’s long enough to Know About Stuff. And as she points out, people not buying poetry books is really NOT A NEW THING. She points out that at school and growing up, she never knew anyone who had (or at least, admitted to) an interest in poetry — in fact, no one really knew anything about it, apart from what they were taught in class. As for the generation above her… well, my gran would never have had the time to read a book of any kind, and would have thought reading was a lazy waste of good cooking/cleaning/gardening/knitting time anyway. Poetry was for academics, students and schoolteachers. She wouldn’t, she says, even have really known how to go about accessing poetry if she’d wanted to. Did it come in books? At the time, all she really knew was that poetry got chalked up on the blackboard at school, and she had to memorise it. As for poets, they were people like Wordsworth and Colderidge — they’d died a long time ago and now had their pictures put on Kendal mint cake packets, and Americans occasionally came into my grandpa’s paper shop looking for souvenirs to do with them. No one my mother knew ever claimed to be a poet, or even to know one. There were no poetry readings, no writer’s workshops, no creative writing MAs, and no small presses. You think poetry’s bad now? she says. It’s only recently that it started to exist!
Her favourite argument is this: if poetry’s so dead, why the hell does everyone suddenly want to use it to sell things? She makes the point that poetry has never really been used in adverts until very recently. OK sure, advertising has always used rhyme and catchphrase, but that stuff’s written by copy-editors. It’s pretty new to have Actual Poets being commissioned to write Actual Poems, or for an advertiser to use an Actual Poem by a Famous Dead Poet to sell their stuff. She will then proceed to rattle off a list of current adverts using poems. Check it out:
This poetry-is-on-TV-all-the-time-and-that-has-to-be-a-good-thing argument was seriously fuelled by the BBC’s recent season of shows on poetry, in which people like Benjamin Zephaniah and Owen Sheers presented entire programmes dedicated to the stuff. My mother saw this as a real Told You So opportunity. Would this have happened ten years ago? Maybe, “but no one would have watched it”, she says. People care about “this culture stuff” now… enough to watch it on TV. Enough for it TO BE ON TV. Yeah OK, you told me so…
My mother also makes the point that measuring readership and success through book sales is kind of stupid in this day and age. Just because no one is buying poetry books does not mean they are not reading poetry — after all, people aren’t buying newspapers half as much as they used to, but they still read the news. In this sense, I agree and have always agreed with my mother — OK, so people aren’t buying poetry books, and that sucks because eventually, it’ll probably get to the point where we can no longer keep going down that road with poetry. HOWEVER, thanks to the internet — Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the other usual suspects — we now have access to an audience so huge that it’s mind-blowing. We can now spread the word about poetry to people we’d never previously have been able to access through book-publishing alone. We now have the use of podcasts, videos, blogs and all sorts of other weird and wonderful stuff, not only to put poetry out there but to revolutionise the way we make it. 140-character poems? Heck, people are even making poems out of those anti-spam verification codes you sometimes have to type into websites. The internet has fundamentally changed poetry and its audiences… the people who are still whining about book sales really need to get up to speed!
But I think the most important point my mother makes is this: poets have partly done this to themselves. Sure, she doesn’t read poetry and she doesn’t get involved with the poetry community at all, but she’s my go-to person when I need to moan and mope about things, and I often need to moan and mope about bad behaviour, snobbery, elitism and narrow-mindedness I’ve encountered in the poetry community. As a result, my mother has kind of caught onto the fact that poets are — not exclusively, but they can be — snobby, cliquey, negative and afraid of change. Why, she says, would you want to read the output of people like that? How, she asks, do poets expect their audiences to grow when they violently defend their apparent ‘right’ to be “difficult,” “obtuse” or “elitist”, and readers can just “deal with it” (Andrew Motion, I’m looking at YOU). Why is it, she asks, that the poetry community all too often value the elitism, snobbery and deliberate pushing-away of readers while vilifying those who strive to make poetry more accessible — Carol Ann Duffy, Billy Collins, etc? How can they really turn round and whinge about reading figures when they’re the ones causing the problem? My mother has money that could potentially be spent in bookshops, but as she points out, she doesn’t want to buy a book by someone who’s publicly announced that people who find poetry difficult are basically stupid and shouldn’t be reading it anyway. And when that person is the former Poet Laureate of this country — ie, one of the most visible poets and one of the few that your average non-poetry reader might have heard of — that’s going to put off a lot of people… not just people like my Mum who get to hear the gripes of their poetry-obsessed daughter. We need more people like Billy Collins, who says ‘anyone can read poetry, and poetry should be happy about that,’ and less… well, just less Andrew Motion would be a good start.
So what do you think? Is my mother a naive and misguided fool or does she have a point? Maybe poetry needs to move with the times a bit still, but in this light, it does look pretty good. However, the poetry community does need to get its house — and its attitudes — in order.
Have I just borrowed my mother’s rose-tinted spectacles?
Tags: advice for young writers, andrew motion is an idiot, non poetry reader's view, poetry adverts, poetry audiences, poetry in advertising, poetry on tv, publishing, resources for young writers, the current state of poetry, young poets