Poets are touched by the gods, but not by the publishers. Old joke from creative writing courses in American universities, but how much of it is actually true? We know the market for poetry books is small (and shrinking daily) compared to brawling, sabre-rattling march of prose. Literature festivals around the world are geared to highlighting prose writers, and literary magazines sourced out of London or New York seem to cough politely and veer off when poesy is mentioned. Maybe the fault lies with the art itself, as Donald Davie once noted, “for poetry is, like all the arts, necessarily élitist.” Or are potential readers in this day and age simply put off by its abstract form? And do spare a thought for the aspiring poet, struggling with form, with questions of metre and rhyme and free verse? How to say something new? Something fresh?
And what does the market, the famed free market, everybody’s darling these days, say about poets and poetry and books of poems?
I looked up last year’s Nielsen BookScan for the 100 best-selling books in the UK. While Sir Fergie’s autobiography blew everybody else away, not a single poetry title made the list. But this should come as no surprise. Larger publishing houses are slashing their poetry titles and new names committed to the form are bowing out. So is the whole poetic enterprise tanking?
But then on closer inspection, the picture may not be as bleak. New poetry titles are coming out every month, weekly readings and slams are de rigueur in cafes, art galleries, pubs and of course on the Southbank. There are annual prizes, most notably the Forward Prize for Poetry, which coincides with the National Poetry Day, a phenomenon started by William Sieghart in 1994. One man’s vision becomes a national phenomenon.
So I went out on a limb and bought Dear World & Everyone In It, an anthology of new poetry in the UK, published by Bloodaxe Books. Bloodaxe has continued to buck the trend by bringing out poetry titles every year since its humble beginnings in the late 1970s. Nathan Hamilton, who is described in the book as “a leading young UK poetry editor, poet and publisher,” lives up to the billing by doing a remarkable job of putting a collection together that is at once brave, diverse and non-elitist. Featured in the book are 74 young poets (the guideline says should be under age 35), judiciously chosen by Hamilton. In spite of the age criteria for qualification, in his introduction, Hamilton makes it clear “this is NOT an anthology of the best young poets in the UK”, that rather it is “an anthology of good poetry” written by a group of poets, including some “as old as 37”. In true internationalist fashion, he dismisses the description of the anthology as a selection of work from “young poets in the UK.” He calls that parochial because the anthology includes “work from poets born, or stationed, overseas.” This gives the book a certain edge, a colour that is true to the larger Britain of the Commonwealth.
In the collection the poets who rang my bell were SJ Fowler, Rachael Allen, Sandeep Parmar, Sam Riviere and Joe Crot. From Fowler’s Recipes, we get lines that take you far from gastronomy, such as (from a recipe for Caeser Salad):
a weak wrist, nobel peace prize for two Liberian women
a suckling fx, cutting it out of the stomach to determine its gender
a limp salad
Food for thought?
Here’s more from Parmar’s Amaneunsis at the Chromatic Gate:
The Gate hangs clean against the undeciduous shore.
The earth refuses to modernise.
The vision erodes under the hand that built it.
And here is Allen’s depiction of a girly night-out in Rapidshares:
“…and girls that strutted and gathered like pigeons patted my back and we puffed out our flat chests for the rest of the evening skittering on our low heels playing at adulthood and anger and all around me was ooh ahh and de de da da da…”
In short, the poets continue to write in the best tradition of poetry: direct, humane and moving. Crot’s extract, from Poetsplain, reminded me of Beat poetry in its flow; he voices his anti-capitalist/anti-classist beliefs (“we want a ten year embargo on CEOs & elected public officials educated at Harrow, Eton, Oxford or Cambridge”), coupled with his rage against the Hollow State – something Bangladeshis shouldn’t be too unfamiliar with, though we tend to unpoetically call it ‘bad governance’. Add to that, shocking imagery that he sketches in your head:
all forgetting hemp day, you must hocus-pocus with fenugreek
all holding all butt holes open with your hand, fuck doggy for you all
got to get fucked in curry…
As I said, folks, there is rage!
I asked SJ Fowler about the current trend in poetry in the Britain. He thinks there is no clear and definitive trend – literary publishers publish poetry, avant-garde tramp the same road, and performance poetry seems to be doing very well. He doesn’t think that poets get short-changed, literally. “Perhaps it’s overestimated how much prose writers earn through their writing, in my experience. The other means of income, be it teaching, grants and commissions are as equally open to poets add to prose writers, if not often more so. So there is an often occluded parity.”
And what did Sandeep Parmar make of my pessimism re poetry at festivals and whether prizes are, to paraphrase Crot, worth a shit. “Prizes and festivals and the whole dirty machinery behind publishing make poets too cautious, too sensitive about being liked and rewarded with false praise,” commented Parmar. She thinks it would be better for all to see “a proliferation of small-scale, good quality presses with high critical standards that are supported by communities of readers who expect poetry to make them think and writers who want to extend the art form, not just regurgitate it for the safe and polite poetry-buying classes.”
No disagreement there!
And the anthology’s editor, what does he have to say on the topic?
“Has there been a time when poetry was potentially more important? And, yet, perhaps not coincidentally, has there been a time when the disjunction between the public image of it, and its actual uses and practices, has been so marked?” In other words, though the news seems bad, we need poems more than ever.
Amen, I conclude, reaching for a drink at my favourite pub. Cheers to poets everywhere!