(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 81 of NAWG LINK)
Readers of literary websites and Writing Magazine’s letters page may have noticed that the poetry “establishment” in Britain has come in for a fair bit of criticism over the last couple of years. The gist of the argument is that critics, poetry competitions and writers’ workshops all promote one style of poem as a sort of cultural acme. The favoured style, according to complainants, is a type of free verse that’s rich in intellectual allusions but short on points of connection with the average reader. More traditionally popular, or at least populist, verse forms get turned away by the top literary magazines and generally sneered at by the self-appointed arbiters of taste.
This state of affairs, so the correspondents claim, has been directly responsible for the marginalisation of poetry as an art form. It has been driven into a ghetto inhabited mainly by upper-class intellectuals, and no longer has anything to say to the public at large. What’s more, this ghettoisation has become a self-propagating cycle. Those who run the workshops, edit the journals and judge the poetry competitions come from within the clique, and only encourage writers who produce the sort of material they like.
I too have been “named and shamed” on one website which alleges a conspiracy of the artistic elite. The website seemed to be claiming that it was inappropriate for people who have won poetry competitions (as I have, occasionally) to judge other poetry competitions. But I’m not unduly worried at having been “outed” in this way. After all, it’s the first time I have been mentioned in the same breath as Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy!
What worries me more than the conspiracy theories is that I can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that the original complainants have a point, of sorts. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe – arguably the UK’s most important independent publishers of poetry – appears to agree with me. In the 2008 Poetry Writers’ Yearbook he wrote of a “huge gulf” existing between many of the poetry publishers and those who actually read the stuff. “Too often”, wrote Neil, “poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the sole arbiters of taste, only publishing writers whom they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry that many people would find more rewarding.” The result, as he sees it, is a bias towards “male-dominated, white, Anglo-centric” viewpoints – despite the fact that over two-thirds of poetry buyers are female.
My own experience of poetry in England sometimes seems to tally quite worryingly with Neil Astley’s. There are times when I look through poetry journals and can’t seem to find a single poem that has any connection with my own life. Sometimes I suspect the contributors of being more interested in proving their intellectual credentials than in connecting with an audience. I’ve been to poetry readings where there hasn’t been a single non-white face, or non-Oxbridge accent, in the room. And I’ve come away really quite worried for the future of my art.
But – and it’s a really important but – I’m equally certain that this phenomenon isn’t universal. There are so many poetry journals now that even if a few read like the collected works of gobbledigook, it doesn’t take too much effort to find several that publish the sort of poetry which really speaks to me. Dee Rimbaud’s excellent AA Independent Press Guide (available online at www.rimbaud.org.uk/aaipg.html) lists some 200 UK-based periodicals, to say nothing of e-zines, catering for a broad spectrum of tastes as well as the many niche markets that exist. The very small presses have a devoted, even cult-like, following. My own favourite, Monkey Kettle (http://www.monkeykettle.co.uk/), publishes left-field poetry from writers with day jobs as cleaners, care workers, students, and so on – worlds far removed from the supposed poetic elite.
Then there’s the resurgence in live performance poetry. By this I don’t mean the cloistered world of the poetry “reading” (I have more to say about this in a future article), but the much more democratic arena of the open mic, the “Poems and Pints” night, and the poetry slam. Events of this sort are taking off in towns all over the UK, and you’re more likely to find them in a pub than an arts centre. They are attracting new audiences – not necessarily the poetry journal-reading classes.
Cross-over art is thriving, with many poets collaborating with musicians, film-makers and visual artists. The result can be a wonderful fusion of the traditional and the avant-garde – just listen to Benjamin Zephaniah’s extraordinary re-working of the Ballad of Tam Lin which features on The Imagined Village album, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
An interesting point to note is that many of the best performance poets around today are non-white. Many are from distinctly non-academic backgrounds. A lot of these performers are making an admirable effort to take poetry to new places, particularly into Britain’s schools – which can only encourage future generations to take up the poet’s mantle too.
So there are signs of hope for poetry. A minority art it may be, but it is a resurgent one. The challenge for today’s poetic “establishment”, so-called, is to nurture these seeds of hope, not crush them.
We could make a start by ditching the snobbery which still lingers around white, upper-class poetry. Cressida Connolly, writing for the Telegraph magazine (and online at http://tinyurl.com/3blk2k), noted a distinct snootiness in some literary circles. One poet she interviewed dismissed the entire arena of performance poetry as “anything that doesn’t work as a poem on the page”. Such snobs have clearly forgotten that poetry, classical and British, wasn’t originally intended for the page at all. Today’s performance poets and storytellers are the heirs of a bardic tradition which carried poetry, like news and scandal, from place to place by word of mouth. Keeping this tradition alive should be celebrated, not sniffed at!
A tendency for poetry to cater only for the rich doesn’t help the cause, either. Competitions with spiralling entry fees (and increasingly ludicrous prize pots) do nothing for the democratisation of poetry. Nor do “writers’ holidays” in the Himalayas or the Greek islands. We need to see these activities available in the inner cities instead – why not in youth clubs, churches and mosques, workers’ education establishments, in shopping malls for goodness’ sake?
Wherever the people are, there is where poetry will be. The challenge for us poets is to get out there and show this to be true.