Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Poetry Society: do we really need it?

I want to tell you about one of my new year resolutions for 2013. I'm going to join the Poetry Society.

I have to admit to being rather cynical about the Poetry Society. Don't get me wrong – I like the idea of the Poetry Society. Goodness knows, poetry gets precious little promotion in the UK and it needs somebody fighting its corner. But does what the Society offers really justify a full membership fee, at current rates, of £42 a year?

Currently on offer in the membership package are: 4 issues of the society's broadsheet Poetry News (and the chance to submit your own poetry to be published in it); 4 issues of the premium poetry journal Poetry Review; discounts on critiques and appraisals from professional poets; 2-for-1 entry to the National Poetry Competition, which the Society administers; access to the Society website to promote your events and publications; and discounts on Poetry Society events, including products and masterclasses at the Poetry Café in London.

In many respects the Society does pretty good work. Their website (and especially the "Poetry Landmarks" section which lists places of interest to poets region-by-region, including regular performance venues) is a little treasure trove. The network of regional groups, or "Stanzas" (a name which is either poetically brilliant, or just plain pretentious, I can't quite decide which) provides a means for poets to meet, obtain constructive critique and develop and hone their work. The opportunity to promote yourself alongside the great and the good of the poetry world is one that no self-respecting self-publicist would want to pass up. And did I mention that the awesome Roger McGough is currently their president?

So what’s not to like?

Well, the poetry itself, for one thing. Some of the poetry that the Society promotes has what I can only describe as an image problem. To put it bluntly, a lot of people see it as unbearably pretentious. The poems that appear in Poetry Review and a lot of the pieces that win the National each year can be so sophisticated as to be pretty much inaccessible without a higher degree in literature. Many poets I know won't submit work to the Poetry Society for exactly that reason.

I have ambitions to be a serious poet, whose work is taken seriously. That's why I have finally decided to give the Society a try. But I'm still at the point where submitting my work to the National Poetry Competition feels like a waste of money. I simply don't write poetry of the intellectual intensity that seems to be required to make the shortlist. And even in my most serious, pretendy-strokey-beardy moments, I'm not altogether sure that that's the way I want my poetry to be.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Northerner, I have concerns about the London-centric nature of the Society. Sure, the Poetry Café is a brilliant thing. But it's in London. In fact, most of the Society's activities, and 90% of the stuff it promotes, is in London. The rest of the UK may well have the "Stanzas". But when I read the Society's literature, and look at its website, I still get the feeling that the provinces are just subsidising what goes on in London; and if I'm rarely in London, I'm unlikely to have the advantage of it.

I have a more fundamental reservation than these, though. My socialistic instincts don't sit easily with the fact that membership of the Society is solely by virtue of being able to pay for it. This is very different to, for instance, the Society of Authors where you're only admitted to membership once you have a bona fide publishing contract for your work.

I'm not advocating that the Poetry Society should have the same selection policy. Contracts to publish poetry are like gold dust (though not nearly so lucrative!), and any restriction of membership to poets who already have a published collection would raise a massive problem of elitism. But most learned societies require applicants to present some evidence of achievement in the field, and commitment to their continuing professional development. At the moment, all that Poetry Society membership signifies is that you're rich enough to pay the subscription. And as I'm forever arguing, the notion of poetry as a rich person's pursuit is probably the single biggest problem that our art has.

I've ummed and aahed for years about joining the Poetry Society. Now it's time to try it out. After all, the concept of a Poetry Society is one I have no problem with supporting. I don't oppose the Poetry Café, the National Poetry Competition or Poetry News either; I'm just not convinced that they are value for money for a struggling Northern poet who's still without a collection to his name.

I intend to find out if the Poetry Society is really worth the money. A year's membership should be long enough for me to form a reasoned opinion on the matter.

You can be sure I'll blog about it all the way.

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