Give Poetry Back to People: It Reminds Us Who We Are, Argues Neil Astley-But Only If We Shake off Academic Elitism and Celebrate Voices from Our Communities and around the World
Astley, Neil, Aspden, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Poets, and readers, have been grumbling about the decline of poetry ever since Aristophanes told the Athenians that Euripides just wasn't as good as Aeschylus. Centuries later, the crisis seems worse than ever. But, as Neil Astley, editor of the bestselling anthology Staying Alive, argues, at the grass-roots level it has never been more vibrant. Poet-translator Don Paterson describes working with language, the performance poet Luke Wright recalls on-stage thrills, and William Wootten rounds up the best of the latest collections. With new and unpublished poetry from around the world and choices from poetry lovers including Hilary Mantel, Trevor McDonald and Boris Johnson, this NS poetry special reveals why the form still matters so much. Let us know what you think--vote online for your own favourites at www.newstatesman.com/yourpoems. By Rachel Aspden
Poetry in Britain is both thriving and struggling: it is flourishing at grass-roots level while poetry publishing is floundering. Bookshops have drastically reduced their ranges of poetry. Publishers have scrapped or shortened their poetry lists and are taking on very few new authors. Small presses have folded. Yet, paradoxically, public interest in poetry has never been higher.
More people write poetry than go to football matches, and poetry is popular in schools, at festivals and at the hundreds of readings staged every week in pubs, theatres, arts centres and even people's homes. Poetry has reached a wider audience through films, radio, television and the internet, as well as through initiatives such as London's Poems on the Underground, which has been imitated around the world. More people than ever believe, as Jackie Kay wrote in her National Poetry Day blog, that "poetry makes us think about who we are".
And this is not just a British phenomenon. Big names in world poetry read to full houses at Scotland's poetry festival, StAnza in St Andrews, every March, and at Ledbury in July. This month, hundreds of poetry enthusiasts will flock to the biennial Poetry International at the South Bank Centre in London (24-29 October), where the international line-up includes Elizabeth Alexander, Martin Espada and Jane Hirshfield (US), Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon (Ireland), Tua Forsstrom (Finland), Tomas Transtromer (Sweden), Arundhathi Subramaniam (India) and Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa). The following weekend (3-5 November), Aldeburgh Poetry Festival will fill the town's Jubilee Hall with readings by writers from Kurdistan and Catalonia to the US.
Despite this obvious diversity and vitality, all the talk in poetry publishing is of crisis. The bookshops are blamed for declining sales--but this is not the whole story. The major chains have vigorously promoted poetry books aimed at a broader readership, with books such as my anthology Staying Alive selected for displays and offers. Yet broader-based initiatives are not working either. While in the US National Poetry Month helps sell thousands of poetry books, our annual National Poetry Day is far less successful in bookselling terms.
Poetry is both flourishing and floundering in Britain because it has a split identity. If bookshops ignore their customers, they go out of business. When poetry publishers and reviewers ignore their readership, this is called "maintaining critical standards". And they still expect the public to defer to their judgement and accept their offerings, because they know best. The producers of poetry aren't in tune with the lovers of poetry. Many poets and publishers are actually hostile to the promotion of poetry--as the poet Michael Hofmann put it in the Times: "promotion violates the innocence and defence-lessness of poetry". They see marketing as a dirty word instead of simply the means by which their books are made available to more readers.
This reluctance to engage with readers comes at a heavy price. As bookshops stock less and less poetry, concentrating on safe bets such as anthologies and selected poems by big-name authors, publishers reduce their output of new titles. …