Arts: What Words Are Worth Apparently, Poetry Is Enjoying a Boom. Yet It Doesn't Sell and Nobody Reads It. So Who Needs Poets?

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W hat are poets for? Shelley had no doubts at all how to answer that question. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he said with a brash cockiness. In our own century, that rambunctious American, Ezra Pound, had similarly lofty views. Poets are the antennae of the race, he declared. Emily Dickinson said poets rinsed the language. Matthew Arnold, writing in the era of Tennyson and Browning, thought poets were a quasi-priestly caste, able to fulfil the role vacated by organised religion - somewhat similar to an older view that the bard is a repository of tribal memory, a guarantor of historical verities.

If this, or any part of it, is true, why is it that so many publishers in recent years have stopped publishing the stuff? Oxford University Press was merely the most recent of many. In 1995 Sinclair-Stevenson made a large group of distinguished and not so distinguished poets redundant. Hutchinson has closed its poetry list, as did Secker and Warburg in the Eighties. Penguin, aside from its Modern Poets series, scarcely has a poetry list at all, outside its anthologies and various historical compilations. The masses of poetry books published these days pour out, in the main, from enthusiastic small presses and subsidised larger ones such as Anvil, Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Peterloo.

According to the massed voices of outrage raised when OUP made its announcement, the problem is one of philistinism and shortsightedness. "Even the great academic presses... have been brushed by the evil wing of Mammon," thunders PN Review this week, a journal edited by Michael Schmidt of the Carcanet Press. But perhaps this is not quite true. Perhaps the real reason for publishers abandoning poetry is only an indirect consequence of the fact that they cannot make enough money out of it to justify the investment. Why should that be, though? Because there is not enough of a market for the stuff. But why? Perhaps the real problem may lie not so much with those boorish publishers as with the idea of modern poetry and modern poets in general. Perhaps the reading public is genuinely confused about what poetry is and what poets are for. Are they priests of some kind, sent down amongst us to do us some good, whether it be educational or spiritual, or are they "mere" entertainers? A bit of one, a bit of the other, it seems, depending upon who you are listening to. Unfortunately, those who entertain most beguilingly are seldom worth rereading. The best entertainers are seldom book makers. First of all, let's scotch various bits of nonsense trotted out by a sycophantic media. The idea of a poetry boom, for example. There is none. Ask the publishers of Carcanet Press, Peterloo, Enitharmon, Anvil, and they will all patiently explain that it has never been more difficult to sell poetry into and out of the bookshops. Far too many poetry books are being published, and the reading public, though interested in the idea of various categories of verse (often those half-remembered from schooldays), are extremely reluctant to buy books of poems by modern poets whose names may be little known to them. A poetry book tends to look expensive beside a novel in paperback, but more disturbing is the question of content. There exists a fear that the book may be too difficult, too abstruse, too intellectually compacted by half to really appeal. Poetry in our century has made a virtue of ambiguity, intellectual strenuousness and a kind of proud, reader-repellent costiveness: it is reaping the miserable rewards now. …