Poetry Live! has become a major cultural event as well as a major educational event. From November 2008 to March 2009 nearly 100,000 GCSE pupils will spend a day seeing and hearing six of the poets they are studying for their GCSEs. When I was fifteen I hadn't seen or heard any poet, let alone six. I wish I had. Then I might have seen poetry as something interesting and relevant to me, rather than a complex intellectual paper exercise, somewhere between a crossword puzzle and an IQ test.
As the person who started Poetry Live!, I've been asked to write something about its development and its educational and cultural impact. The fact that it has grown into such a big thing is entirely because of you English teachers. Every year thousands of you phone through your bookings in June after the mailshot lands on your desk and through a series of miracles you arrive at a concert hall, theatre or town hall with coach loads of pupils. Between 10.45 and 3.00 your pupils sit there, listening to poems they know, and many they don't, by the poets who've written them: John Agard, Moniza Alvi, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra and Grace Nichols. Most of you come back year after year. I don't think you would do this if it weren't worthwhile. Why does it 'work'?
Poetry beyond the page
Within poetry a big change has taken place. Up until the 1960s, poetry's place was on the page. Okay, there were occasional radio broadcasts but it wasn't until Michael Horovitz put together The Poetry Olympics that the penny dropped. He managed to fill the Albert Hall with 7000 people to see an amazing collection of British and American poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The message was clear: poems needed to be heard as well as read. As Michael Glover pointed out in a recent New Statesman review of In Person: Thirty Poets (for your twelve pounds you get a gorgeous anthology drawn from Bloodaxe's impressively catholic poetry lists and--this is the big thing--you get a DVD with the poems being read by the poets):
People began to realize that poetry was not a single
puzzling thing. It was a chorus of many voices. Poets came
out of their shells and began to show their poetry to be as
full of humanity as any other kind of art form. Reading out
loud was born anew--and has survived into our own day.
In fact live readings are one of the great keys to the present
survival of poetry, because when audiences hear poets, they
buy their books too.
In this spirit Poetry Live!--and your efforts to bring your pupils--makes a significant contribution to the cultural life of the nation. 100,000 people a year means that a hefty percentage of the population get to see and hear good quality live poetry. All the 'Poetry Live! poets' have noticed that when they do general poetry readings around the country, an increasing proportion of the audience is young people who have first seen them at a Poetry Live! event. I asked Gillian Clarke to quantify this and as an example she said that a recent reading at a bookshop, half the audience had first seen her at Poetry Live!
Poetry Live! and the anthology
First of all, how did Poetry Live! come about? It has its origins in A Level days I used to organize in the early 1990s when I was running Updates Conferences (it's now Philip Allan Updates, part of the Hodder group). I used to have academics giving talks about poets and poetry--and very good they were too. Some of you may remember Andrew Motion's brilliant lectures on Larkin and Keats. But things really took off when poets like Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott started to give readings. Ted Hughes was particularly keen and he would try to do two a year, one in London, one in Manchester (at the Free Trade Hall). He used to be bombarded with requests to read at schools, invitations he could never fulfil, so he felt that if he was available at a big event that everyone could attend, it was 'an efficient way of doing things'. …