Literature: Worse for Verse as Young Poets Get the Chop ; Both Publishers and Booksellers Are Becoming Ever More Reluctant to Take Financial Risks with Untried Talent

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Fewer young poets are being published than ever before, according to new figures from the Poetry Society. The survey comes as separate research reveals that sales of verse have plummeted by a fifth in the past five years - and now make up just 1 per cent of the overall book market.

According to the Poetry Society's findings, just 28 of the poets published by the UK's eight major imprints are under 40. More evidence of this stark "generation gap" is reflected in an Arts Council snapshot of the book trade which reveals that 96 per cent of poetry bought by the British public is by dead writers.

There is little consolation to be had in official sales statistics. Last year about 700,000 poetry volumes were bought, to the tune of pounds 5m - equivalent to barely 1 per cent of the value of overall book purchases.

The new findings paint a picture of an art form in steep decline, and have provoked a frenzy of hand-wringing and discord in what is normally viewed as one of the more rarefied literary realms. So alarmed are major publishers such as Faber and the leading independent house, Bloodaxe, that next year they plan to launch a costly new promotional drive modelled on the Granta list of up-and- coming novelists to drum up publicity for aspiring young poets.

Of the younger poets, the numbers which have made significant sales can be counted on one hand. The "best sellers" include award winners Owen Sheers, Sophie Hannah and Simon Armitage, whose debut collection, Zoom!, sold 12,000 copies - yet even he is nearly 40.

Esther Morgan is one of Bloodaxe's most acclaimed recent "finds"; her first collection, Beyond Calling Distance, was published in 2001 and has so far sold a modest if, for poetry, respectable 700 copies. She says penetrating the "hermetically sealed" poetry world can be tough for new writers. In an effort to give others an easier time getting established than she had, the 32-year-old has set up her own periodical, Reaction, as a vessel for unpublished young poets.

The dearth of young published poets is widely blamed on a reluctance among publishers to take risks with untried talent because of commercial pressures they face in persuading booksellers to stock their work. But some believe that it is symptomatic of wider problems with the "culture" of the poetry world.

Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe, will use the preface of a new anthology to launch a furious attack on an "elitist" group of male reviewers he dubs "poetry's new academic spin-doctors". He argues that by reserving their praise for "intellectual" poets and "trashing" anything they consider too populist, such critics are turning the public off poetry altogether.

In his preface to the 25th anniversary Bloodaxe Poems of the Year volume, Mr Astley says the increasingly introverted attitude of reviewers is helping to perpetuate a widely held view among booksellers that poetry should be treated as a minority interest.

He writes: "With many poetry editors paying more heed to peer approval than reader response, and poetry's sly spin-doctors trying to foist their academically distorted version of contemporary poetry on baffled readers, it's not surprising that bookshops see poetry as a minority interest. …