Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Give Poetry back to the people!

New Statesman article by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books.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

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 Forsström (Finland), Tomas Tranströmer (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 defencelessness 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. Cover prices rise as print runs fall, which further affects sales. Major bookshops derive 94 per cent of their income from 25 per cent of their stock. In accountancy terms, three-quarters of their stock is a waste of capital, taking up valuable shelf space - and that includes all the poetry.

Given the large potential market, poetry publishers could stake a claim to some of that space - but only if they are publishing a range of books and authors that people actually want to read. Continuing to package their books to appeal only to an intellectual elite has severely disadvantaged them. If readers find a book visually unappealing, they won't pick it up. And if the back-cover blurb is a piece of turgid literary criticism, new readers will be scared off.

Readers don't have access to the diverse range of work being produced, not just in Britain, but from around the world, because much of the poetry establishment is narrowly based, male- dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests. Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the arbiters of taste, selecting only writers they think people ought to read. They are unresponsive to much poetry by women (who comprise more than two-thirds of poetry's readership) as well as to writing from Britain's rapidly growing ethnic minorities. Ignoring the readership would be commercial suicide in any other field, but this malpractice in poetry publishing and reviewing has survived into the 21st century thanks to "academic protectionism". This is something that has also tainted poetry reviewing: the few reviews that do appear are mostly of books by the same small group of mostly male, white British poets who also judge the main poetry prizes and are often either poetry editors or academics in university departments of English or creative writing.

Editors' "personal taste" is too often an excuse or disguise for elitism and arrogance. In my view, my responsibility as an editor is to be responsive to writers and readers, and to give readers access to a wide range of world poetry. Publishers and writers who address a broader readership (as Bloodaxe has done with Staying Alive and other anthologies) are attacked by elitist critics for "dumbing down" - but receive overwhelming support from readers as well as from intelligent poets. Contemporary poetry has never been more varied, but what the public gets to hear about are the new post-Larkin "mainstream" and the "postmodern avant-gardists" (with their academic strongholds in Oxford and Cambridge respectively). More broad-based poetry expressing spiritual wisdom, emotional truth or social and political engagement is of little interest to either camp. Exciting new work by major American, European and Caribbean writers, from Martin Carter, Galway Kinnell and Yusef Komunyakaa to Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver and Adam Zagajewski, has been almost totally ignored by national-press poetry reviewers.

But where print editors or their reviewers lag behind, radio producers, who have to be responsive to their audience, are much more in touch with the full range of what's current. Black and Asian poets with large grass-roots followings are frequently heard on national radio programmes. Radio has realised that modern English-language poetry is in fact a set of multiple interconnected traditions, including the oral-based and literary traditions of African-American, black British, Caribbean and south Asian poetry. The same changes in our idea of the novel have transformed fiction publishing - the recent success of Monica Ali, Zadie Smith and Kiran Desai would have been unthinkable a generation ago - and it is time for those changes to extend to poetry.

The establishment must be responsive not to literary and academic cliques, but to readers, especially at a time when public interest in poetry is growing so rapidly. Poetry's dinosaurs have to realise that our country, culture and economic climate have changed, and so have their res ponsibilities. Their wake-up call needs to come before poetry publishing self-destructs. Internet sites are not enough. We need books.

Neil Astley is editor of Bloodaxe Books, which he founded in 1978. His books include the bestselling poetry anthologies "Staying Alive" and "Being Alive"

Poetry International is at the South Bank Centre, London SE1, from 24 to 29 October.
For tickets and further details log on to http://www.rfh.org.uk/poetryinternational

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, from 3 to 5 November.
For tickets and further details log on to http://www.aldeburghpoetryfestival.org

Read more articles from our poetry special issue at http://www.newstatesman.com/200610230055

Tell us your favourite poems at http://www.newstatesman.com/yourpoems

1 comment:

Rachel Fox said...

I hadn't read this whole article before though I saw bits of it elsewhere.
Very interesting and some lovely observations about the upholding of 'critical standards' etc. Poetry snobs make music snobs look like absolute beginners!