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Poetry Parnassus 2012: a further note.

EVENTS LIKE POETRY PARNASSUS are bound to be something of a shock, sometimes a dismaying one, for a lot of practising poets and their readers. You spend a lifetime working away at something which obviously very few people want to know about and suddenly it seems it’s immensely popular all over the world.  But there’s really no reason to be threatened by it. One thing it probably reveals is that poetry is much more of a public thing in most countries, especially those far away from here. Anyway, there have been such things before, called “Poetry Olympics”, etc., which similarly generate immense excitement, or are claimed to. They come, the thousands turn up and cheer, or stay at home and watch TV, they go away. Afterwards it is as if nothing has happened.

This one might do better than that, with its near-global internationalism, and its mixing of just about every performable writing under the rather forced heading of poetry (“spoken word artists”?). Simon Armitage’s interview in The Observer explicitly distinguishes this non-competitive enterprise from the ritual nationalisms of the Olympic Games, and presents a perfectly reasonable case for this parade of liberality. There must be real opportunities of discovery, even for the most experienced reader, among all these (200? 150? counts differ) poets, for those who have the stamina to sit through it all. The most likely revelations might be from Latin America, about whose culture we remain ill-informed.

Of course the language of full-scale poetry hype is out in force – it had to be. “The world’s most exciting poets” (in poetry hype “exciting” is the word you use when you don’t feel justified in using the word “best”);  “the biggest poetry event ever” (one three-line Japanese poem could be a bigger event than a hundred of these mass spectacles); “it will make history” (no it won’t, because this is not where history is made; the only history this will make will be an entry in the Guinness Book of Records); and so on. Seamus Heaney is “the world’s greatest poet”. Some people might consider it one of poetry’s jobs to armour people against the seductions of this kind of language, whether it’s about poetry or toothpaste or fast cars or the National Health Service.

Some 10,000 poems on slips of card have been rained over London by helicopter. This enterprise was the work of Chileans, who last did it to celebrate the imprisonment of Pinochet. I could have thought of a number of politicians and newspaper moguls whose imprisonment could have been celebrated in this way but unfortunately they haven’t yet been caught.

But we don’t grumble. It is a real celebration, if only of itself.

– Peter Riley.

Peter Riley is Poetry Editor of The Fortnightly Review. His column is Poetry Notes.

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