Poetry On Top

Peter Finch

Taken from The Writer's Handbook 2006

For the new millennium the poetry wars are taking a different shape. For decades it has been the avant garde in conflict with the centre, the innovators vs. the traditionalists, men suppressing women, and a white metropolitan middle class putting down anyone who came from anywhere else. But, barring a few residual skirmishes, those battles now seem to be over. Diversity rules. Innovative verse is as common in university literature departments as Hardy's traditional line. Women dominate the reading platforms. Years of government arts subsidy directed at broadening culture's base, improving access and letting anyone with a pencil have a go have borne fruit. Poetry has permeated all levels of our society. It is available in quantities like never before. A good thing? Not everyone is sure.

Advances in digital publishing have led to a rapid fall in the price of printing. Good quality Faber-clones are now within the financial reach of most operators. The number of writers self-publishing has shot up. Small Poetry presses have at last found themselves able to take on the big boys, at least in the shape and look of their books. Production has increased enormously. Some of our small presses are now managing thirty new titles annually. Ten years ago they would have been lucky to afford seven. Decent, spine-bound, well designed slim volumes with glossy covers have become ubiquitous. It's so easy. Poets everywhere. But mostly ones you've never heard of. As a consequence sales have suffered. Overpowered by poor-selling diversity the bookshops have de-stocked giving over their valuable space to faster moving three-for-the-price-of-twos and similar promotions. Andy Warhol's fifteen seconds of fame may well be enjoyed by increasing numbers but the actual value of having an individual book of your poetry published appears to have gone down.

Instead, the new battle arena is the anthology. In 2002 Bloodaxe's Staying Alive: Real Poems For Unreal Times developed the market pioneered by the BBC's anthologies of the Nation's Favourite Poems by selling 76,000 copies of fresh and worthy verse to those who'd previously never considered reading it. The commercial market realised that, after all these years, there was a way to make money from verse. Dozens of similar anthologies appeared. Daisy Goodwin's 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, Get You Through The Day, Keep You Sane, Help You Fall In Love, Help You Fix Your Bike flooded the WH Smith bookshelves. Penguin published the Julia Watson edited Poems For Weddings and Poems For Funerals. The bastion of new gen verse, Picador, responded with All The Poems You Need To Say Goodbye, All The Poems You Need To Say Hello and All The Poems You Need To Say I Do, all edited by respectable literateurs: Peter Forbes, Kate Clanchy, Don Paterson. Elsewhere there were anthologies of poetry for parties, for Christmas, for disasters, for love, for death, for washing machine repair, for political transcendation. Everyone was getting on board, the answer to declining slim volume sales had been found, but it was not a panacea.

In an issue of Britain's longest-lived poetry magazine, Poetry Review, editors David Herd and Robert Potts suggest that "nothing about these books encourages the general reader to a further engagement with poetry". The new anthologies' content is all surface, gloss and sound bite. Poetry reduced to simple lyric statements of everyday life. Cheap as chips. Use it, then throw it away. True or not, what is certain is that the glut of accessible verse flooding the marketplace does not offer much chance for the newcomer. Most of these anthologies use work from the dead - out of copyright, free. And if it's from a living bard then it's more likely to be Roger McGough or Simon Armitage or Wendy Cope than a new young poet from Newcastle or a late-starter from Belfast. If that's you then should you give up? No. Despite what's been said the poetry world still booms. Forget the commercial market place and the occasional flash of verse you encounter on radio or TV. On the internet, in the e-mags and the small mags and on the continually expanding circuit of poetry readings, workshops, discussions, hootenannies, performances, meetings, classes, slams and gatherings poetry stays top dog.

Poets Laureate are appearing everywhere. Andrew Motion has been joined by Edwin Morgan in Scotland and Stewart Conn in Edinburgh. There's a national Children's Poet in Wales, a town poet at Newport, a poet laureate of the internet, one for Birmingham and one for Cardiff. Official recognition at last. Attempts to stem the slide in sales of single volumes have seen a revival of 1994's New Generation Poets promotion with the selection of twenty new bards to be pushed as the Next Generation. Among them are Amanda Dalton, Nick Drake and Jacob Polley. Not household names. Not yet. Felix Dennis, the millionaire publisher and former Oz proprietor, took to composing rhyming couplets, self-published and toured the UK giving free readings accompanied by free wine. He flew by helicopter and sold thousands of books. If you have the money then anything is possible. But if, like most of us, you haven't then worry not. Chances in poetry are still out there, available and waiting, by the thousand.

What Should You Read?

The way in is first to discover what poetry actually is. To do this means putting some time in. Be as open and catholic as you can in your selection. Ensure you check out the whole scene - the past, the present, mainstream English literature along with work in translation, the obvious poets you find you like as well as those you find difficult. Appreciation will not come without effort. Stay the course.

Start with a recent anthology of contemporary verse. You'll be spoilt for choice here, the new Millennium has rushed a whole crop of century definers into print. To get a broad view of what's going on, not only should you read Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford's Penguin British and Irish Poetry Since The War; Michael Schmidt's The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry In English (Harvill); Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell's Red Sky at Night - Socialist Poetry (Five Leaves); the latest annual Forward Book of Poetry (Faber), and Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain's Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Wesleyan); but also Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry (OUP); Rod Mengham and John Kinsella's Vanish Point - New Modernist Poems (Salt); Neil Astley's Staying Alive and Being Alive (Bloodaxe), Jeni Couzyn's The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets; Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris' two volume Poems For The Millennium (California) and Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry (Norton). This last title might be harder to find but will be worth the effort. Fill in with a standard overview of poetry in English since Chaucer. John Gallas's The Song Atlas: A Book of World Poetry (Carcanet) is a good scattergun.

Progress to the literary magazine. Read the on-line journals. The Poetry Library offer a good list of e-magazines at http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk. For traditional print write off to a number of the magazine addresses listed in the Writer's Handbook and ask the price of sample copies. It is important that poets read not only to familiarise themselves with what is currently fashionable and to increase their own facility for self-criticism, but to help support the activity in which they wish to participate. Buy -- this is vital for little mags, it is the only way in which they are going to survive.

Peter Finch


Where to learn more:

This essay is an adaptation of the much longer guide to poetry and the poetry business in 2006 contained in Macmillan's excellent Writer's Handbook. 'This is the book no writer should be without' said The Times. Edited by Barry Turner The Writer's Handbook, the complete guide for all writers, journalists, publishers, editors, agents, screenwriters, poets and broadcasters (ISBN 1 4050 4154 4) is available from all good bookstores at £14.99.


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