ONCE POETRY GAVE up being rumpty-tum pseudo-religious sentimentality whose nostrums could be extracted in quotable chunks it began to die as a public art form. When it abandoned its formality, its adherence to traditional metric and diction, it was doomed. The rising popularity of the novel in the nineteenth century concussed it with a few good kicks to the head. Why bother with The Idylls of the King in verse if the story could be found in a more amenable form – one which passed your time pleasurably without asking you to think too much? Along came the novel’s little brother the short story to join in the kicking. Why bother with brief poetic narratives when you could read short stories?
So poetry staggered into the twentieth century and by the end found itself in what was to become the tiniest ghetto of minority tastes and obsolescent arts, outclassed even by jazz, opera and classical ballet. The arrival of new technologies that gave rise to film and recorded music pushed it even further into the margins.
I know there are acolytes of the idea that poetry is alive and well because performance poetry is thriving. The problem is that performance poetry is, was and always will be exactly that – performance. In other words, a melange of stand-up comedy and politically-correct civics, sometimes with a bit of music. Take away the performance and you’re definitely not left with poetry.
Over the past four decades, I’ve witnessed a number of “revivals” and “booms” in the poetry business and even took part in one in the 1980s. Poetry must be the only area where “boom” actually means “bust”: in the 1990s the boom was so successful that a number of long-standing poetry publishers, such as Oxford University Press, scrapped their poetry lists completely.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that there is no market for poetry. There is a surfeit of supply and hardly any demand. Everyone wants to be a poet but no one wants to buy the stuff. That’s why so much poetry publishing survives on public bailouts in the form of Arts Council grants and other subsidies.
No one is to blame for this. It’s not the fault of bookshops or libraries for not stocking poetry books, it’s not the fault of schools for not teaching poetry or just teaching old (and therefore supposedly “irrelevant”) stuff. It’s not even the fault of the bourgeois elitists of the poetry establishment keeping it out of the reach of the public.
It’s a result of economic, technological and social forces that we can’t fathom and cannot resist. Consequently, no amount of publicity campaigns, big prizes, reading tours, tv appearances and articles in fashionable magazines is going to make one iota of difference. When the PR circus has passed on, the poets find themselves back in their metaphorical bedsits, alone with their books, as if nothing had happened.
SO IS THERE any light in this darkness? Perhaps there is, but maybe it requires us to dump the traditional model of poetry that we’re trying to save and find instead a different way of doing business. Perhaps we need to forget about print publication, book sales, readings and reviews and the pursuit of some general public and think about other kinds of audience. And the first thing we must abandon is the idea of the traditional market and the thought of making money from this most economically valueless of commodities.
Clearly the internet and associated technologies are already playing a part here. For the past three years I have been putting some of my work online, where it can be freely viewed. To date that site has received over 13,000 hits. Some titles have been viewed a thousand times or more. Those hits won’t all have turned into prolonged reads, but some of them must have. The numbers themselves indicate interest of some sort – certainly more interest than has ever been evidenced in book sales or attendances at readings. Other material online – podcasts and videos – also attract numerous visits.
Of course, I may be suffering the same illusion as everyone else in the poetry ghetto, that there’s a way out, that we’re not just muttering to ourselves. I’m not bothered any more if that is the case but I still like the idea that someone, somewhere is taking a look at the poems and enjoying what they see. If the only way to make that happen is to use the latest technology and expect no payment, then why not? As Rimbaud said more than a century ago, “Il faut être absolument moderne”, so let us be absolutely modern.