What is poetry for? Who is it for? And can it really be on the ascendant? Stephen Moss (who has, sadly, not become the next Oxford professor of poetry) reports from the front line. Poetry's future via Culture | guardian.co.uk by Stephen Moss on 6/18/10
The answers were varied, but many embraced emotion: "to draw emotion and deepen insight"; "to enlighten in both senses of the word"; "to turn a rush of emotion into a form of music"; "to engage with emotional reality"; "to make language work as hard as possible"; "for singing out loud"; "to encourage social awakening"; "to delight so that it may inform"; "to illuminate the world"; "to clarify and express feeling". People see poetry as the means of expressing powerful emotions, but often that will rein in the imagination, and produce a one-dimensional statement rather than a representation of the world in words.
The winner of the election to decide the Oxford professor of poetry will be announced today, with the victor almost certain to be Geoffrey Hill. In a drunken moment, I foolishly joined this race and am very likely to come last, an excellent demonstration of hubris quickly leading to nemesis. In an effort to salvage something from the wreckage, I recently attended a poetry "slam" in Oxford with four of the other 10 candidates for the professorship – this odd election has attracted a curious collection of poets, performance artists and desperate self-publicists. I went to read a few of my own poems, but also to ask the audience a question: what is poetry for? I also crowdsourced a poem about frogs, but will spare you the results of that exercise.
I remember during the 1991 Gulf war, when the midnight bombing raids were being carried live on TV, we used to receive numerous poems at the Guardian from people expressing their horror at the grisliness of war. In times of stress – look in the bereavements column of your local paper – people turn to poetry. But it is almost invariably bad poetry: all emotion, no tranquillity.
The simplest and best answer I got at the event in Oxford was "for paying attention". Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, echoes that phrase. "One of the things poetry gives all of us is a way of developing an attentiveness to life, a way of observing the world, of noticing things and seeing them differently," she says. A good poem looks closely at the world; does that Martian thing of trying to see it for the first time. Everything else – the emotional charge, the lyrical delight, the intellectual pleasure – is secondary.
The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, who teaches poetry at the University of East Anglia, says poems try to capture a reality that is deeper than language. "You're trying to say: I know what this thing is called," he says. "It's called a chair, and that thing is a table. I've got this word 'chair' and I've got this word 'table', but there's something peculiar about this chair and table which using the words chair and table will not actually convey." Readers, he says, may race through novels because they want to know what happens, but they should look to inhabit poems. "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it."
I ask Szirtes whether he thinks "What is poetry for?" is a valid question. To my surprise – because plenty of poets think it's an absurd question and that no art form should worry about its function – he believes it is far from academic. "It's a question that does preoccupy you the longer you do it," he says. "When you first do it, you never ask that question. But as time goes on, you begin to be conscious of it. My sense now is that when people begin to speak, when language develops, there are two essential instincts: one of the instincts says, 'What is this?'; the other one says, 'So what happens?' So what happens is the beginning of syntax, of storytelling. The other feeling, where you are confronted by some aspect of reality for which language is always inadequate, is the instinct that goes into poetry." Poetry, he suggests, "begins with a cry" – of anguish, fear or frustration. Szirtes quotes Emily Dickinson's maxim that "a poem is a house that tries to be haunted". A poem should not deliver all its secrets at once, if ever; it is not there to be solved.
Ian McMillan, the poet, lyricist and presenter of Radio 3's The Verb, would agree. "A poem is not a Rubik's Cube. 'I think I know what it's about, it's about moles,'" he says. "In the end, it's about itself."
'Poetry has not been taught well in schools for a long time'The Poetry Society's Palmer says the open-ended nature of poetry worries many readers, and the effect can be most insidious with teachers. "Poetry has not been taught well in schools for a long time," she says. "Because of the national curriculum, teachers have not been allowed to try things out freely. So instead of looking at a poem and saying 'Don't you like these words?', or 'Doesn't it make you think interesting thoughts?', they are saying to students 'Where is the adjective and the adverb here?' Knowledge of poets is shockingly low among primary school teachers, and because people are now teaching who were themselves taught under the national curriculum, they are scared of poetry. They look at a poem and ask, 'Is this right?', as if it's a puzzle you can unravel, but poetry is ambiguous and multi-layered. Poems will mean different things to us at different times in our lives."
"There are two ways to take the question 'What is poetry for?'," says Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador as well as an award-winning poet. "You can ask it neutrally, in which case there's a good answer. But you can also ask it as a challenge – what use is it? But you don't need to answer that one. Poetry shouldn't be on the defensive, because poetry doesn't have a case to answer."
It's a combative beginning – Paterson is a sharp Scot who quickly latches on to my limited reading of contemporary poetry – and it seems sensible to concentrate on the neutral question. "If you burned every poem on the planet and you wiped every poem from every human mind, you would have poetry again by tomorrow afternoon," he says. "It's not something you do to language, so much as language does to itself under specific conditions – mainly shortness of time and emotional urgency. Any time that comes up, its grain and structure suddenly become apparent, all its music, rhythm and capacity for invention."
Paterson says poetry in the UK has rarely been more buoyant. But aren't poetry sales declining? No, he says firmly. "It sells perfectly well – it sells far better than many novels and outsells an awful lot of first novels." Palmer tells me poetry sales are difficult to quantify, because so many collections are published by small presses and sold at readings or poetry festivals, but says her sense is that sales are holding up well. She also points to a curious phenomenon, perhaps unique to poetry. Social media is revolutionising the way it is distributed, with poets and publishers using Facebook and other sites to attract readers, yet at the same time there is an upsurge in the number of presses printing beautifully crafted books of poetry in limited editions. "We are seeing a return to the analogue, hand-made nature of book consumption on the one hand," she says, "alongside increasing digital pamphleteering on the other."
Holly Hopkins, a young poet who works as an education assistant at the Poetry Society, believes the poetry collection as artefact remains important, but agrees social media is transforming poetry. "It's now possible to build a readership for your work very cheaply," she says. Whereas Hopkins argues that the sifting role of editors and publishers remains important online, performance poet Francesca Beard believes they can now be bypassed. She sees the internet breaking down barriers, making it possible for anyone to publish and for everyone to be readers and critics. "The model's completely changed," she says. "It's complete bullshit, this old model of one person disseminating culture to the masses, and then a small circle around them being the critical approvers or gatekeepers. Now everyone has the potential to be creative. It's not feudal any more."
'Poetry has not crumpled because of the recession'The energy of the current poetry scene is evident everywhere you look. Entries for the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition are up 46% year on year; new poetry magazines are springing up; slams, in which poets compete against each other, are increasingly popular; there are numerous poetry festivals; music festivals such as Glastonbury and Latitude feature well-attended poetry events; and rap has become a sort of street poetry. "Poetry has not crumpled under the financial pressure of the recession," says Palmer. "A year or so ago when I said poetry was in good shape, I felt a bit like David Steel telling the Liberals to go back and prepare for government. Now the Lib Dems are in power and poetry really is in rude health." Poets still struggle to make a living – few get by on sales of their work alone and many rely on teaching – but Palmer reckons that if it comes to a choice between being fed or being read they will usually choose the latter.
Paterson says poetry only feels marginalised beyond the festival circuit because the mainstream media give it less prominence than novels and non-fiction, which is undeniable. When did you last see a poetry collection leading a review section? Perhaps Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters in 1998, and then only because of the book's supra-poetic aspects. I tell Paterson that at Blackwells in Oxford, an otherwise wonderful bookshop, poetry is tucked away in a part of the store called "Poet's corner", a twee marginalisation all too typical of the way we treat poetry, because it is difficult and requires close reading.
He argues that its demanding nature should be one of poetry's strengths – by reading well, readers can take possession of a poem. "If the poem's any good they probably have to work at it," he says, "but working at a poem is half-authorship. You're making it your own. That's the whole point of poetry. That's the poetic contract. That's what you're trying to do – establish that weird, close relationship with the reader that I don't think you can with any other verbal medium."
Al Alvarez, the poet and critic who was crucial in changing the tone of British poetry in the late 1950s and winning attention for the work of his close friend Sylvia Plath, strikes a cautionary note. He worries that we are losing the ability to read closely. "People don't know how to read any more," he says. "You can't read poetry diagonally the way you read a newspaper." For Alvarez, a poem represents the search for perfection. "It's like one of those bank locks with God knows how many numbers," he says. "The point is that until every single word is in the right place, it's not finished and you know it's not finished. But when you've finally got it, a door swings open and you think, wow, that was wonderful, and you send it out to be published or you don't. You don't get that ever with prose. You can get near to it, but you don't actually get it. It's about getting something perfect."
That may be what Kingsley Amis meant when he used to chide his son Martin, as the latter told me recently, with the line, "I don't seem to see your first book of poems. I look, but it isn't there; it's very puzzling," usually employed when he felt his precocious son – with two bestselling novels under his belt by his mid-20s – was getting a little bit too cocky. Kingsley, poet as well as novelist and lifelong friend of the fastidious Philip Larkin, had a special reverence for poetry, its purity and precision.
'It's really about the audience'Perhaps the most dramatic development in poetry is the growing influence of performance. Traditionally, the poem on the page has been accorded more reverence than the poem on the stage, but that's changing. "In the last 10 years there's been more of an acceptance that the poet standing up and performing isn't a second-class citizen," says McMillan. "In the past it was always seen as a lesser art." Beard tells me she began writing for the page, but in the mid-90s discovered the buzz of performing. Now the performance aspect has taken over, and she treats her readings as theatrical events; as jazz sessions, too, editing her poems as she reads them in response to the moment and the audience. It is the antithesis of the poem as perfect, polished artefact. "I do really admire form," she says, "but personally, right now, I couldn't give a fuck about it. It doesn't mean anything to me. And subject matter, while it has to be good and you have to be able to justify everything, is just a vehicle for communication. It's really about the audience." This may be an extreme reading of Paterson's poetic contract.
Can poetry change the world? Is that its purpose – to call its readers to arms? Carol Ann Duffy, who became poet laureate last year and is proving an electrifying presence, seems to believe it can. Her response to her new public role has been very different from that of most of her predecessors, prompting poems not on happy royal occasions but on war, the expenses scandal, the banking crisis, climate change. She recently argued that poetry was "in the ascendant" among young people, and that as they rejected materialism they would channel their thoughts and ideas, especially on green issues, into poetry.
McMillan, too, believes some poets hope to influence society, but says they shouldn't be judged – or judge themselves – on whether they succeed. "Not every poet wants to talk to society, but poetry can and it should. But it shouldn't worry if, when it tries to talk to society, society completely ignores it or gets the wrong end of the stick or has a go at writing back."