Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Too many poets?

"Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs," declared Edwyn Collins in the 90s. Sometimes, when I'm around other poets, I get the feeling I know what he meant.

Poets are all over the place. Just when you think it's safe, we'll leap out at you, thrust our verse into your defenceless cranium, and then expect you to buy the book. And long may it be so. This summer I had the privilege of taking part in the second Wirral Poetry Prom – a day-long festival of verse in which around 100 poets descended on the unsuspecting little coastal town of Hoylake, and wreaked what I can only describe as genteel verbal havoc.

It was the sort of day poets do best. At times gloriously shambolic, at times wondrous in the sheer concentration of talent in one tiny place. At times it moved me to tears or elevated me to the sort of highs that you can normally only get by risking a criminal record. At other times it made me sigh, groan or cringe. I began to understand what Goldsmith meant when he described poetry as the "source of all my bliss, and all my woe"!

I got to wondering about the collective noun for poets. Crows, after all, have splendid group names – a "parliament" of rooks, a "conspiracy" of ravens. Surely poets deserve the same? "Gaggle" springs immediately to mind, with its suggestions of disorder, noise and ruffled feathers. An "affectation" of poets has a certain something to it. A "transcendence" of poets? If only! An "anguish" of poets might be more apt – or a "delusion"? The list could go on.

In one sense, you can never have too many poets. Any human heart is capable of reaching those heights and depths of emotion that poetry is best suited to capturing. The more of us who try to preserve the memory of those moments, the better for the human race. But are there too many pedlars of poetry out there, and not enough who are interested in the wares that we're offering?

It's certainly a possibility. Literary journals are forever telling us that they get by on a shoestring budget, with a mere handful of subscribers – yet they all seem to be deluged with manuscripts from aspiring poets yearning for publication. The difficulty of getting any poem placed in the more respected journals is testimony to the volume of poetic matter that's being generated. A vast amount of good poetry is going to waste: never finding an outlet, denied the chance of reaching a wider audience. And that's a crying shame for our art.

The answer must surely be for poets to stop being so self-obsessed. We need to be more interested in each other's poetry, and less absorbed in our own. We need Poetry Proms, slams, open mic nights – the chance to get out into the world and discover that there are lots of poets out there and that some of them are Actually Pretty Good. We need to put our money where our mouths are – buy the journals and actually READ them – critique them if necessary – but above all enjoy them.

This is our art. Let's celebrate it in all its mad variety.

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