Poetry and the Public by Paul Gittins

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The prestigious T.S. Eliot Award in January that kicked off the poetry establishment’s crowded calendar of poetry competitions served to highlight the ever widening gap between the poetry featured in the competitions and the poetry reading public.  Any doubt on this matter can be dispelled by figures from The Bookseller.  They show that the small publishers who specialize in publishing  the experimental poetry that is so prevalent in the competitions actually make up a comparatively small part of poetry sales and that it is the traditional titles that drive the market.

The reasons for this estrangement are obvious.  With so many competitions throughout the year – the Aldeburgh First Collection Award, Costa Poetry Award, T.S.Eliot Award, Faber New Poets, Forward Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Dylan Thomas Prize, to name just a few of them – it is no wonder that the pressure mounts on the judges to find yet another ‘breathtaking, bracing, boundary-bending, genre-defying debut’ and not surprising if the entrants reciprocate in kind.  This attitude, one might say requirement, was well illustrated last year by the chair of the Forward Poetry Prizes, Malika Booker, who declared that the shortlist displayed ‘a breaking down of barriers within and around poetry.’  Her comment was echoed by Ruth Padel, chair of the recent T.S.Eliot Award, who stated that the small publishers are ‘radically altering the landscape of contemporary poetry.’

It is not too imaginative at this point to make a sporting analogy.  If the goal-posts in football are being constantly moved or removed altogether, it begs the question as to how the game is to be judged or even refereed and would certainly encourage indiscriminate commentary.  The same is  true of poetry.  As a result of the open playing field for composition encouraged by the judges, a whole profession of journalistic interpreters is deemed necessary to explain the meaning of much of the poetry in the written poetry competitions.  But having to rely on someone to explain the meaning of a piece does not necessarily make anything clearer.  An article in The Guardian last year on the poem ‘Too Solid Flesh’ in Vahni Capildeo’s winning entry (‘Measures of Expatriation’) in the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, explained the appearance of the skeletal ghost of an Arawak woman as ‘contextualized within an interrogation of corporeality.’ Sometimes, the compositions selected for prizes would challenge even the ingenuity of an interpreter, as in the opening lines of Tiphanie Yanique’s  ‘Last Yanique Nation’ from her Collection ‘Wife’  (winner of the same Forward Prize for Best First Collection): ‘The pit in my womb where the doctor lover/ says is my self, is not a nation/ My soul is called Che, as in Guevara,/ but my body has not died for the nation/ I told my enemy I loved her, as/ I love my nation Guevara,/ was no coward which means he tended towards/ fool I want to be a fool in love and thus/ a fool for this nation ….’

This interpretive requirement for so much of the baffling poetry put forward for competitions is also actively encouraged by many of the poets themselves.  Amongst the poets on the T.S. Eliot Award shortlist, Ian Duhig makes no bones about the abstruseness of much of his poetry, asserting in an interview on Writers Aloud in March 2016 that if anyone is having a problem understanding his work or references, they should make the effort to look them up for themselves. Rachel Boast adds her own version of complexity when seeing poetry ‘as a way of training ourselves to be able to access what we don’t know we know, through language.’ While Bernard O’Donaghue is even more dogmatic, stating that ‘Poetry has to be the product of thought and stand up to cross-examination.’ But should poetry be like a crossword puzzle, requiring the services of lexicon and interpreter?

It is perhaps not surprising that many people, especially younger people, are more attracted to poetry festivals, where rap and performance poetry are seen as more entertaining.  But entertainment and popularity are not necessarily yardsticks of quality in spite of Simon Armitage’s recommendation of the performance artist, Kate Tempest, in his first lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in October 2015.  In a bizarre comment to justify his opinion, he cited one of her poems ‘On Clapham Pond at Dawn’ in which the word ‘you’ is used as a line ending nine times in just twenty-four lines, together with similar sounding line endings such as ‘new, true, through, view, do.’  Anticipating the obvious criticism that this does not exactly give credit to her rhyming skills, he went on to say that ‘the visual printed manifestations of the work fail to convey that winning combination of verbal dynamism and disarming innocence.’  But poetry should surely stand up in its own right on the page.

In contrast to the high profile nature of the written poetry competitions and the razzmatazz of the performance poetry productions, a less publicized but arguably more influential project in the long term is now in its fifth year.  The Poetry Archive’s  Poetry by Heart contests  involved nearly four hundred secondary schools last year across the country in a series of poetry recitation contests. No interpreters are needed here as it is the  pupils who choose from a prescribed list of one poem pre-1914 and one post-1914.  There are no pecuniary awards.  Prizes are trophies and book presents.  So successful has the project been that it is now branching out to include primary schools.  In this way, pupils are taught a far more balanced approach to the appreciation of poetry that encourages a love and respect for five hundred years of literary tradition as well as an interest in contemporary poetry.  One has to contrast this approach with the frenzied encouragement of experimentation that is so characteristic of the written poetry competitions and which only serves to alienate the reading public.  No doubt, the organizers have their sponsors in mind (especially the Arts Council England) and want to appear innovative and exciting.  But at what cost to poetry?


By Paul Gittins