Popularising poetry in the UK

"The phenomenal growth of interest in poetry of all kinds since [1992] has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Forward Prizes", wrote William Sieghart in 2008. How can poetry be made more popular? Before this can be answered it's worth asking why we should try to popularise it, and whether reading or writing should be prioritized. Possible responses include

I'll look first at readership trends, then writing trends, then at various initiatives.

More readers

How big an audience should poetry hope for? In "Staying Alive", Neil Astley wrote "the wider public, whose understanding of poets is two hundred years out of date and whose awareness of poetry is either a hundred years behind the times or else still stuck in the 1960s". There have always been poetry books that have sold fairly well (Pam Ayres in the UK for example) but haven't attracted critical acclaim. More rarely, respected books are given a PR push (in the UK Betjamin, Hughes etc).

I've heard it said that poetry used to be more popular and central in society than it is now. It's true that Byron sold in a big way. However I have my doubts about Golden Ages when poetry books sold by the cartload. Whatever the social factors that were present then, markets and social pressures are different now - middle-class pretension no longer controls the media, and people no longer have to pretend to like poetry or display poetry books on their shelves. And I think that some kinds of good poets will only ever have a small audience.

The statistics relating to sales of serious poetry books currently aren't encouraging

Perhaps this only to be expected. The market for serious poetry may always have been vanishingly small, and text has more competition nowadays.

More writers

There are more visible writers than ever. According to the Higher (Aug 6th, 2004, p.22) there are 40 creative writing post-graduate degrees in the UK (the US have about 300), and over 11,000 adult education courses. It's been suggested (by Gioia et al) that in the US the loss of poetry book sales to the public has been partially compensated for by the increase in the number of set books that creative writing students buy. Writers buy each other's books. Ron Silliman in his Blog points out that "The rise from 30 post-avant poets to 3,000 has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of readers of poetry, but not, however, in the number of readers per book". Perhaps this too can be taken as evidence that poetry-reading has reached its natural level, increasing only as the number of poetry-studiers do.

Perhaps too much poetry is being published

Elitist? My (perhaps overly generous) take on what they mean is that given the parlous state of "serious" poetry it's even more important that the bad doesn't drive out the the good. Performance poetry - Slams and otherwise - is on the up in the UK. So is online poetry and the use of poetry in literacy courses and therapy schemes. But just as Modern Opera goers won't be consoled by the success of Beyonce, so I doubt whether those quoted above are pleased by poetry's popularity.

Initiatives

Let's for now take for granted that extra poetic activity is a good thing. How can it be achieved? There's no shortage of material describing how cults, political parties, charities, etc can increase their activities. Groups can make current members do more evangelising to attract new members. In these isles, several efforts have been made to widen poetry's appeal. Targets have been identified and poets have been funded to help expand poetry into these markets. Targets include

More generally we have poetry in subway trains, National Poetry Day, and active US-style laureates.

Arts Council England has produced Thrive! poetry project: strategic development report. Here are a few extracts

Genres

What type of poetry will attract the masses? Does it have to be dumbed down or is it just a matter of selecting just the more accessible work of the greats?

I suspect that poetry has of late become more polarised. Nowadays much of the poetry that people read doesn't get counted in the official statistics as poetry. In the UK John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke appear with non-poets. And Performance poetry is more popular than it used to be. I suspect that Forms still have a special (though perhaps no longer privileged) place in the hearts of the common reader.

Genres may adapt to suit new media. People wanting a taster in poetry are quite likely nowadays to start on the WWW. It's been suggested that there could be poetry download sites (like music downloads)

Retention

Once a new poetry reader is on board they need to be given things to do. Too often people drawn into poetry by Residencies, best-sellers etc lose interest. My feeling is that non-anthology UK poetry bestsellers don't lead readers into the poetry world. Ted Hughes' book of poems about Plath leads to biography. And it's not clear where Heaney leads anyone - his claggy surfaces are rich enough for many to look no deeper. Follow-ups can be disappointing to the prospective poet who has too little experience to see beyond well-publicised Vanity Press organisations, and have too little experience of studying poetry to cope with many poetry books.

I don't think poetry has anything comparable to Eco's bestseller "The Name of the Rose". "it was not expected to be anything close to a best-seller... Eco himself has admitted that the first hundred pages were deliberately opaque, a sort of semi-permeable membrane that allowed passage to only the most dedicated reader. ... The novel has since taken its place as a contemporary classic, a work that for many readers has become a stepping stone from popular fiction into the world of modern literature."

One way to lock new poetry readers into a lifestyle commitment is to turn them into writers. My introduction to the poetry world was via library books of dead poets. I presume modern poetry books were there too, but I didn't recognise any of the poet's names so I didn't borrow their books. By chance one public library was the evening venue for a writers group. This led to my discovery of poetry magazines (available only by post). It was a slow journey. The web has changed all this - subcultures are no longer hidden. There are sites that let one slide from reader to writer, and anyone can edit their own magazine. This activity is hard to compare statistically with that of previous generations. My impression is that the web is helping to increase the membership of writers groups (and reading groups) and may be helping to delay the reduction in booksales.

I think that the poetry book market is in recession and institutional publishers are retreating to their heartland - the stuff that only poetry can do. Comedy? Leave that to stand-ups - they do it better. Narrative? Flash writers do it better. You may not like "pure poetry", "specialist poetry" (call it what you will) but I can understand why funds concentrate on it. It's meant that the gap between "high" and "low" poetry has been emptied, so that there's less flow and intermixing between the extremes (to the detriment of both, perhaps).

My suggestions are that

Arts Council England has produced Thrive! poetry project: strategic development report. Here are a few extracts

I think that the poetry book market is in recession and institutional publishers are retreating to their heartland - the stuff that only poetry can do. Comedy? Leave that to stand-ups - they do it better. Narrative? Flash writers do it better. You may not like "pure poetry", "specialist poetry" (call it what you will) but I can understand why funds concentrate on it. It's meant that the gap between "high" and "low" poetry has been emptied, so that there's less flow and intermixing between the extremes (to the detriment of both, perhaps).


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Updated March 2005, July 2010
Tim Love