By Hanks, Robert | The Independent (London, England), October 6, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Hanks, Robert, The Independent (London, England)

Today is, as you can't have failed to notice, National Poetry Day. The nation is positively throbbing with anapaests and trochees, rondeaus and villanelles. Poets will be reading at the National Theatre and going into schools, community centres and bookshops around the country. Poetry will be blasted over the PA system at Waterloo; pupils of Ashlyns School, Berkhamsted, will be handing out their own poems to commuters on the Berkhamsted-Euston line. There have been features in the press and on radio; Melvyn Bragg devoted last week's South Bank Show to the 20 "New Generation" poets launched earlier this year; Radio 3 will be broadcasting poetry all day.

All this is, without doubt, finely calculated to bump up public awareness of poetry (especially the readings on Radio 3). And it's part of a trend, not just a one-off: there are Poems on the Underground, a thriving poetry performance circuit, poetry prizes (the Forward Prize will be televised, Booker-fashion, by BBC 2 this evening); W H Auden is in the best- seller lists, courtesy of Hugh Grant.

But it's hard not to feel that an awful lot of this poetic activity is preaching to the converted, the people who already read the books pages in their Sunday papers - it's a pretty small section of the public that gets excited about the election to the Oxford Chair of Poetry. Whether poetry is really going beyond the books pages to a wider public is open to question.

Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, admits that there is a long way to go: "There's a gap between somebody looking at something and saying, `That's nice, couldn't have put that better myself,' or `That's intriguing', and gathering the courage to go into a shop and start flipping through poetry books." The sales reflect that. Poetry now famously sells more than novels (hardback novels, at any rate), but that's not hard. And while John Hegley may sell 10,000 in hardback, the average Bloodaxe volume only does 1,000.

It's possible for an individual poet to buck the market, up to a point. The poet Michael Donaghy (two collections published by OUP) points out the traditional shortcut to celebrity: "My editor keeps encouraging me to commit suicide." After all, it worked for Thomas Chatterton and Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton, and possibly for Weldon Kees, who disappeared without trace in 1955, his car abandoned by the Golden Gate Bridge (it's the ambiguity that's the important point in his case). And there are plenty of less extreme solutions (Donaghy: "I would be prepared to fake my own suicide").

But if poetry as a whole is going to stop enlarging its ghetto and break out of it altogether, then it has to do something about its image. Everybody has their own theory as to where the image has gone wrong. Julian May, who has produced a large number of programmes on poetry for BBC Radio, including the Poetry Day Kaleidoscope on Radio 4, suggests that what is wrong is the introspection of the English lyric, in contrast to the public function that poetry still has in other cultures (Hausa poets, products of a strong didactic tradition, were sent out by the Nigerian government in the 1950s to educate farmers in the use of chemical fertilisers). Chris Meade thinks that people are intimidated and disappointed, because they think that poetry ought to be meaningful: "There is this expectation that every poem should be the essence of something."

These are surely problems; but they're small problems, identified by people who are themselves passionate about poetry. If poetry is ever to have true mass appeal, it needs the dispassionate analysis of people with no personal commitment to it - hard-hitting, professional PR men.

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