Just a Smack at Fenton: Poetry's Fashionability Shows How Confused We Are about What It Is Really For

Article excerpt

"May I speak to the poetry editor of the Daily Express?" I asked the man on reception, having got wind of this quite unexpected development from the affable director of the Poetry Society.

"Yes, I,m the poetry editor," replied the young woman in features.

"Good, I heard about your appointment from the Poetry Society," I said.

"In which case, I'm not the poetry editor," she said. "There isn't a poetry editor, though there may be one being appointed towards the end of the month. Why don't you speak to Comment?"

Even if you are not a regular reader of the Daily Express you may this week have registered the faint tremors of a poetry boomlet and wondered: was it for real -- or merely an illusion?

The staging of events up and down the country suggests reality: National Poetry Day happened, for the third year in succession. Holywell Church of England School marked it by requiring pupils to speak in rhyme all day -- or else.

And the annual Forward Prize was awarded. Barring some miracle of perversity, the 10,000[pounds] prize will by now have gone unnoticed into the bank account of Seamus Heaney for Spirit Level, which has within four months sold 50,000 copies in paperback and an additional 7,500 in hardback.

But Heaney is not representative of poetry and his publishers, Faber and Faber, are not typical publishers. Faber sold nearly half a million poetry books in the last year (a rise of 15 per cent) -- which is almost a quarter of all poetry books sold in the UK. The top three publishers account for about half of all poetry books, though poetry itself represents only 2 per cent of book sales. Then come the small publishers, very small publishers, and the fanatically enthusiastic small presses.

Faber, a unique brand name in 20th-century poetry, is a big publisher. It has its own rep force, and it can sell its specialist lists -- poetry, film scripts, drama texts -- into bookshops with relative ease. Smaller publishers have no such luck. They are represented by freelance reps or by Password (a team of three salespeople with an interest in poetry), and since the death of the Net Book Agreement they have never had it so bad. Shops, especially the big conglomerates, are much less willing to take on slower-selling titles, and unsold books are returned at lightning speed.

So there are two stories, and both are true: according to Faber poetry is on the up (though not booming) and according to the smaller presses the situation is dire.

But we also need to ask ourselves whether we would ever want poetry to be fashionable, for this is an art whose essence resists the idea of hype and fashion. Poetry requires work on the part of its readers -- and we live in an age which wants its information in soundbite form.

Consequently, the kinds of poetry that get most attention and are so often cited in support of the belief that poetry is popular are some of the crudest manifestations of verbal art imaginable. The dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, for example, is exciting to watch but an agony to read. Johnson is a likeable man -- but he is a canny operator too, and that is one of the reasons for his success. …