Aman in a cagoule stands up and makes his way through a thin smattering of chairs to a school assembly lectern, strangely out of place in this north London pub.
In a thick Northern accent, over ruffled, rain-flecked sheets, he begins to read his best poem. The small audience smiles encouragingly. One man closes his eyes and begins to sway his head as though at a concert.
"They feel so right
Left and right,
Dog eared but familiar
Puppies for the feet."
The poem is about his trainers. Bemused wonder suffuses the crowd, but no one moves or pelts the idiot with old veg as would have been quite proper. We sit tight, polite and British till at last the footwear epic is finished.
Welcome to the gassy no-man's land of contemporary poetry - the open mike session. The thing that strikes you when entering any poetry evening is how thick the air is with motives. Other than the shepherd's crook of intense loneliness, there is only one reason these mooncalves have turned up. This collection of bohos, snobs, students and other outsiders have come to unfurl their brilliance. Sooner or later every wannabe versifier will turn up at an open poetry night to vomit spiritually over the other would-be poets in the crowd. And be under no illusion, the entire audience is sitting on a sonnet; there would be no one there otherwise.
I had chosen this particular evening as the start of a journey into the world of contemporary poetry. Many years after a university love affair with the medium, I decided it was time to get back in touch. I longed for the passion of Plath, the dark brilliance of Keith Douglas. But as I sat among the Calibans of the open mike wilderness, I wondered what I had let myself in for.
After the sock of amateur poetry, I decided to get on to the hard stuff as quickly as possible: published poetry. Two days came and went mooching around the impressively well-stocked poetry section at Foyles bookshop. But to my dismay the amount of anonymous dross on offer was remarkable. I nearly gave up until at last something spoke to me. A poem of hypochondria and love, nihilism and wonder that ended with the lines:
"My mortal love
What fucking fools we are."
It was the bravest thing I had read in two days. I bought the collection and the others that had touched me (a mere five volumes) and slunk away from my second disappointment with contemporary poetry.
Of the five books selected, four were published by one press, Bloodaxe. I later discovered Bloodaxe are universally regarded as a Good Thing, and on this evidence it was easy to see why. After a pleasant and enthusiastic chat with their press representative, I was put in contact with Clare Pollard, the author of Bedtime - the collection that contained those startling lines.
Pollard, only 25, bothered to engage with the modern world in her writing. And she stood out, the voice was lively and had a passion so conspicuous by its absence in my two-day trawl.
Over a coffee in the crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields, I poured my woes out to the young poet. What has happened to poetry? Her eyes glowed and after devouring a scone, she began to set me straight.
Open mike was immediately dismissed as "an hour of shite about homeless people". But that really wasn't the problem. The problem lurked in a demystification of poetry and poets. The art had lost its passion. Worse still, she told me, a certain money- consciousness had crept into poetry. She called it "the rise of the career poet".
After days of talking to poets, good and bad, publishers and even government representatives, it seems to me that Pollard could not be more right. The quixotic, heroic awfulness of amateur poetry is only a symptom. The real pathology lies not in the amateur ranks but with the small army of published poets on the state-funded pay roll. …