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?

(Photo by travel sized)

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19 Responses to “The current state of poetry: a non-poetry-reader’s view”

  1. Kate Says:

    Hurrah for your Mum!
    Lots to agree with there.
    That “seepage” of poetry through contemporary culture is great and positive.
    It seems more still in Universities and schools (and certain sections of the aformentioned change-fearing “Poetry establishment”) that an expansion is less obvious.
    I said to a journalist recently that we couldn’t really say there was a great popularity of poetry til it was on “Britain’s Got Talent”. Then I thought it was a stupid thing to say and that I was a twit. But I’m going to re agree with myself again now, and thank you for the rose tinted glasses. They’re much easier to wear if you’re trying to making a living as a poet than the black socks of doom.

  2. H. Says:

    I agree (and have been obsessed with the Levi’s ads for awhile now hehe).

    However, the “elitism,” (for me anyway) is just writers of poetry who get pissed off when people do not act like poetry is an ART. It is NOT a journal entry or a card you bought at the store. It is something you work at, you research, you read about and emulate.

    When this is not being done (sigh …god I love dA, but it can kind of kill any real art with the amount of “faves” pushing forward the “bad” writing) yeah, I do get a little pissy, but I don’t think it’s “elitist,” it is just that I LOVE poetry and it is a difficult and beautiful art and I do not like when it is dragged through the mud.

    I guess I could now get into an “elitist” rant about what the internet does BADLY for writing (it has done so much good! But also … oh God … bad), but that is for another day … I am rambling!

    Much love to your mama, though. I do agree with her (and Billy Collins’ sentiment). Sometimes I wonder if schools just promoted modern (living) poets a little more (which tend to be a little more confessional so a little more relatable for kids), people would love and respect poetry more?



  3. Regina Says:

    I think it’s a vicious circle, really- and there’s plenty of blame to go around… and yes, I do agree with your mum, the elitism…
    I think that’s why we see so many poets starting up their own small presses and on-line literary journals- they want to get their work out and others that they enjoy reading as well- like you, Claire!
    And that’s a really good thing…

  4. Claire Says:

    Thanks Kate! I like the rose-tinted glasses of optimism vs the black socks of doom analogy! :D

    H — I think what you’re talking about is quality control, not elitism. I have absolutely no problem with quality control and agree that people who claim their emo whinings are ‘like, poetry, man!’ are sadly deluded. I can also see why people get annoyed about that behaviour However, that’s not really what I’m talking about here.

    When I talk about elitism I mean more the idea that some poets perpetuate, that certain people are “allowed” to read poetry and comment on it and participate in it (other poets, critics, academics, etc), whereas others (basically your average man on the street, people who don’t read a lot) aren’t. Also the fact that only Certain Types of Poet may send work to X Big Journal, only Certain Types of Poet can read at X event, and all that crap. I’ve started to realise from reading American poetry journals etc that America is NOWHERE NEAR as bad for this kind of thing. I’m basically talking about behaviour among poets that perpetuates clique-mentality and puts readers off — particularly when they do it flagrantly or publicly. Emo kids on dA are annoying, but like I say, that’s just a quality control issue (there will always be bad wannabe poets, bad wannabe artists, bad wannabe musicians — but I like to believe that even non-poetry-readers know that that emo journal stuff is just pure crap). But when poets are saying IF YOU DON’T HAVE A DEGREE YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND MY VISION, PEASANTS, that’s seriously damaging to the poetry readership!

    I totally agree re: contemporary poetry. Yeah Wordsworth and Whitman are national treasures but kids are way more likely to pick up poetry by themselves if they can just understand/relate to it on first read, right?!

    Regina — You’re right that the clique-factor can have positive effects, like people breaking away from the herd and trying new stuff. You’re also an eternal optimist I think! Good for you :)

  5. James Says:

    I really liked this post. I don’t think poetry is dead, but I think it would be good for more people to realize that there is a lot of good accessible poetry out there. Too many readers have been scared away and your mom is right about not wanting to read work by people who hold their audiences in such ill regard. I’m reminded of certain avant-grade jazz musicians who expect their audiences to have the musical training to get what they’re doing. Come to to think of it, Jazz (which I love) has had its share of obituaruies written for many of the same reasons as poetry.

    As a teacher, I work hard to help my kids understand that poetry is (or at least can be) for everyone, not just an elite few.

    Thanks again for this post.

  6. swiss Says:

    i have read and responded. your mother is a wise and sage woman

  7. David Says:

    This post was great! I really like poetry at the moment, its all very exciting! xx

  8. Rachel Fox Says:

    Mothers often know more than we would like to admit!

    I think she’s right in many ways too. There will always be some people who hate/reject any kind of creative activities (art/poetry and so on) but on the whole at the moment it seems to me that many people (in the UK - that’s all I know right now) are very open to artwork of all kinds. It is important to remember that what we see in the media is not necessarily representative of public opinion, for example, and so if we do read lots of ‘poetry is dead’ articles then that really doesn’t necessarily mean anything (apart from that some journalists can be very bitter…and they like to provoke…and poets react…).

    I am regularly amazed by the great reactions I get to poems…often from people who don’t read poetry regularly or think of themselves as poetry fans. That always makes me think that it is not a dead end (writing poems) - it’s very much alive and well. Doesn’t mean it’s easy! Or all good days…


  9. Rachel Fox Says:

    Having once worked in advertising I never watch ads (fastforward and mute the only way!) so I have missed this ‘poems on ads’ trend. I imagine they’re using poems (new and old) because after all these years of being exposed to ‘clever’ copywriting we are now (on the whole) wise to it being total crap and so they’re having to use poems to try and lull us into a false sense of security (’a ha, it’s not a sleazy ad writer that’s written this to con us out of our money but a nice, proper writer who doesn’t want to sell me anything…’). No, they still just want your money.
    On the whole the ads you’ve posted made me cringe (and the Levis one particularly so). The Golf one was very seductive (as it’s meant to be of course) and the Irn Bru made me smile (but then I’m English…). It all begs the question though…what would you do if McDonalds wanted to use one of your poems for an ad? Or Irn Bru? When would you be tempted and when not?

  10. Claire Says:

    Rachel — Your final question is a very interesting one, and a very relevant one right now I think. I am going to do a post on it very soon I hope. I have a lot of thoughts on it.

    Mainly, I think this: if poetry’s done in a ‘populist’ way, but it’s done well, it can be an incredibly good thing — the best example for me is John Hannah reading Auden in Four Weddings and a Funeral… not a dry eye in the house, and everyone rushed out to buy Auden’s Collected. The poem was presented beautifully and hey, people bought poetry books because of it! I also, I admit, like the way Levis have done Whitman’s poem — I’m not a huge fan of the visuals but I like the fact that they’ve used a recording of HIM reading it and not covered it over with mad orchestral music or anything (although I’d still never buy Levis…). And the Golf one presents Thomas very well too… Richard Burton’s classic recording (I have the whole thing on LP and it’s just breathtaking in its entirety) is irresistible. These are all examples of poems presented in a populist way but done well, done tastefully. The McDonalds one, however, and in particularly that Magners one, make me wish the earth would open up and swallow me whenever they come on TV…

    As for whether I’d do a poem to sell a product — the truth is I am working on such a commission right now, although I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement so I can’t really say much. Basically, I thought about it a lot, and did it on the basis that a) it’s an ethical company (I don’t think I’d EVER do it for someone like McDonalds or Nestle etc) that I use and love, b) I’ve had a LOT of creative control over the process and c) I’m happy to endorse The Product (I promise you’ll all know more once I’m allowed to tell you!). I’m also getting poetry ‘out there’ in a new and unusual context, and putting it in front of people who might never have read a poem before, which is always A Good Thing. But I’ll admit, it is tricky. And I think there is a feeling in the poetry community that you’re a sell-out if you do this sort of thing…

  11. Rachel Fox Says:

    I think there is a difference between being in a film (even one as horrible as 4 weddings) and an ad…even if for me the Auden poem is the only bearable bit of that film (but I’m aware I’m not exactly swimming with the tide on that one…ever read my Richard Curtis poem?).
    Then of course there is a difference between being in an ad for something you want to endorse and something you can’t stand.
    And then people need to make a living…if you’re really skint (and I mean really) and someone offers you money to use a poem in an ad for RBS..?
    All in all it’s an interesting set of questions and it beats keeping poetry (and poets) locked away in university libraries!

  12. Alasdair Says:

    I also agree with your mum.

    Someone who’s really interesting on the problem of people being told (and starting to believe) that poetry isn’t for them is Tom Leonard. He talks mainly about the school and university systems (but not actual teachers, necessarily, since of course there are tons who are brilliant advocates for poetry reading) as a huge obstacle to people striking up direct personal relationships with poetry. Or, what comes to the same, as a system for the brainwashing of people into believing, ‘I’m qualified to talk about poems and this person’s not’ (Motion?) or ‘I’m not qualified to read/talk about poems but other people are.’

    His introduction to ‘Radical Renfrew’ is really good, if anyone’s interested!

  13. Lija (writer's pet) Says:

    Love this post. I’m more of a fiction girl myself and probably of the group of people who don’t really “get” poetry. However, I like the IDEA of poetry, and it makes me smile to think that poetry is still finding its way to us (whether we realize it or not) through things like TV adverts.

  14. Mairi Says:

    I LOVE you Mum. Mums are great.

    I argued in a blog post a while back that a poet should not measure his/her success by book sales. But should use a system similar to Bhutan’s way of measuring their ecconomy. In Buthan, instead of using Gross Domestic Product, they use Gross Domestic Happieness.

    I aruge that if you have really touched someone with a poem, that perhapse is worth more than a book sale.

    Contact me about that again though when I have had a book published.


  15. Rachel Fox Says:

    I quite like the idea of poetry being gay (in all its meanings). Gay, gay, gayer than gay!

  16. Doing it for ourselves? « A lump in the throat Says:

    [...] The decline of poetry Last week at One Night Stanzas poet Claire Askew posted a blog about the current state of poetry.

  17. Jenny Lindsay Says:

    Great post Claire! I agree with yer ma - though my newest poem is a response to that mobile phone ‘poem’ on ‘Freedom of Speech’… (As a whinging leftie, a poet taking one of the central tenets of social democracy and using it to sell a frickin phone makes my blood boil!) I dont have an issue with poetry being commissioned for adverts per se - so long as it remains poetry and not just copy or sales propaganda. A subtle difference that’s probably hard to navigate if you have a commission though!

    As well as poetry being proclaimed dead every year or so, every year brings another article or report on a ‘new and exciting approach to poetry - performance poetry!’ which always makes me laugh. Tis old as the hills. And by all accounts hills are pretty old. Anyway - I would agree about the elitist aspect - I encounter that all the time as a performance poet. (”Not a proper poet”). Some poets seem to think they’ll be corrupted and/or damaged in some way by appearing at my events in front of a (Shock! Horror!!) audience thats not made up of fellow poets and folks with literary degrees and credentials…One poet recently said his work with a proper poetry organisation wouldn’t sit well with attending Sunday’s packed out poetry slam… So I dont think poets help themselves sometimes. You shouldn’t need a degree in the subject to ‘understand’ or enjoy poetry. That’s the view of an improper poet anyway :)

  18. Clive Birnie Says:

    Some excellent points raised here. A few comments:

    1. On the US Readership figures I suspect the research is flawed. In my professional life I have had experience of larger consumer panels (e.g. 25-30,000 respondents) in the UK dramatically under reporting household penetration of niche consumer goods. Even on volume products these panels have at best a 75% accuracy on niche products this can drop to 20%. The panel may have been balanced to generally match the demographic profile of the USA but within this the groups that say have the greatest propensity to read Poetry will be small enough to become statistically unreliable or for a sizeable audience for a particular form of Poetry to be missed completely.

    2. Poetry in advertising is like the Cadbury Gorilla ads. There is a theory / movement within the advertising / marketing industry that says stop selling and entertain. Create “content” that engages and people will talk about your ad, talk about you and create empathy with your brand. I am lead to believe the results are impressive.

    3. I agree with your point regarding Mr Motion although I do find his Poetry a useful cure for insomnia.

    4. When I commented on Twitter that I try and write Poetry that you don’t need a PhD to understand I lost a good % of followers and the average readership of a poem posted on my blog dropped by about 25%.

    5. I have never knowingly heard an emu whine. What does it sound like?

  19. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #63 Says:

    [...] and wrote some of his own // my jewels appeared at Chainsaws & Jelly! // Swiss responded to this post by writing a poem! // Mairi also responded! // Howie Good’s new book has the best blurb ever! [...]