Arts: What words are worth

Apparently, poetry is enjoying a boom. Yet it doesn't sell and nobody reads it. So who needs poets?

W hat are poets for? Shelley had no doubts at all how to answer that question. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he said with a brash cockiness. In our own century, that rambunctious American, Ezra Pound, had similarly lofty views. Poets are the antennae of the race, he declared. Emily Dickinson said poets rinsed the language. Matthew Arnold, writing in the era of Tennyson and Browning, thought poets were a quasi-priestly caste, able to fulfil the role vacated by organised religion - somewhat similar to an older view that the bard is a repository of tribal memory, a guarantor of historical verities.

If this, or any part of it, is true, why is it that so many publishers in recent years have stopped publishing the stuff? Oxford University Press was merely the most recent of many. In 1995 Sinclair-Stevenson made a large group of distinguished and not so distinguished poets redundant. Hutchinson has closed its poetry list, as did Secker and Warburg in the Eighties. Penguin, aside from its Modern Poets series, scarcely has a poetry list at all, outside its anthologies and various historical compilations. The masses of poetry books published these days pour out, in the main, from enthusiastic small presses and subsidised larger ones such as Anvil, Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Peterloo.

According to the massed voices of outrage raised when OUP made its announcement, the problem is one of philistinism and shortsightedness. "Even the great academic presses... have been brushed by the evil wing of Mammon," thunders PN Review this week, a journal edited by Michael Schmidt of the Carcanet Press.

But perhaps this is not quite true. Perhaps the real reason for publishers abandoning poetry is only an indirect consequence of the fact that they cannot make enough money out of it to justify the investment. Why should that be, though? Because there is not enough of a market for the stuff. But why? Perhaps the real problem may lie not so much with those boorish publishers as with the idea of modern poetry and modern poets in general. Perhaps the reading public is genuinely confused about what poetry is and what poets are for. Are they priests of some kind, sent down amongst us to do us some good, whether it be educational or spiritual, or are they "mere" entertainers? A bit of one, a bit of the other, it seems, depending upon who you are listening to. Unfortunately, those who entertain most beguilingly are seldom worth rereading. The best entertainers are seldom book makers.

First of all, let's scotch various bits of nonsense trotted out by a sycophantic media. The idea of a poetry boom, for example. There is none. Ask the publishers of Carcanet Press, Peterloo, Enitharmon, Anvil, and they will all patiently explain that it has never been more difficult to sell poetry into and out of the bookshops. Far too many poetry books are being published, and the reading public, though interested in the idea of various categories of verse (often those half-remembered from schooldays), are extremely reluctant to buy books of poems by modern poets whose names may be little known to them. A poetry book tends to look expensive beside a novel in paperback, but more disturbing is the question of content. There exists a fear that the book may be too difficult, too abstruse, too intellectually compacted by half to really appeal. Poetry in our century has made a virtue of ambiguity, intellectual strenuousness and a kind of proud, reader-repellent costiveness: it is reaping the miserable rewards now. Anyone who doubts that might reread The Waste Land, our century's sacred text. But is it not, in part, the role of the priest to speak from behind a veil? What is profound is never easy...

However, there is another difficulty facing that casual browser, hovering self-consciously as he half-decides to buy a book of poems. It is often hard to know without reading it quite what the book may contain or in what manner it may be written. Those who buy novels can scan jacket blurbs, and decide whether the theme is to their taste. Not so the reader of contemporary poetry, who is likely to find a description of the poet's disparate "concerns" - memory, loss, displacement, and that heart-sinking sequence about the loss of the Mauretania in which spectral voices play off against each other.

So much for the poetry. What of the poets themselves? Poets tend to be accorded by the press a kind of awestruck respect that a mere novelist such as Martin Amis can only dream about. When Amis's agent negotiated that bank-breaking advance for The Information, the papers couldn't get enough of every aspect of the story - amazement, guffaws, ridicule, the full, sordid, human panoply. When Hughes's Birthday Letters were serialised in The Times, there was hardly a whisper of filthy lucre changing hands. Only The Economist mentioned the huge payment Hughes was rumoured to have received.

Hughes was very reluctant to be interviewed, and even told one interviewer that he needed to draw a circle around himself in order to work at maximum concentration. That right was largely respected in his lifetime - but if he'd been a novelist?

So the public thinks poetry is a good, though rather fearful thing, and it deserves the encouragement of large-scale public subsidy, which it receives handsomely via the Poetry Society, the regional arts boards and the many subsidised poetry presses. Poets couldn't agree more, of course - and, as reviewers of each other's work, they are generally careful not only to be soft on each other, but always to avoid questioning the value of poetry itself. When poets and the idea of poetry are done down (as they were at the end of last year), the public is encouraged to pity them for their helplessness and, indirectly, for the fact that what they represent - whether it be some vague notion of a civilising influence, language well honed, or some residual notion that what they get up to might be spiritually beneficial - is being harmed.

But there is not a great deal of interest among the general public in reading what they write as it might demand strenuous exegesis, and the nature of what they in fact write about is made all the more obscure. At the same time as other sections of the press are giving more and more space to poets as good-looking people, literary editors are giving less and less space to the reviewing of poetry books themselves as people are not so interested in reading them.

"What do your poems do?" I once asked the American poet, John Ashbery, having first reminded him of Emily Dickinson's words about poetry rinsing the language. "I guess mine give a kind of blue rinse," he replied.

All this sounds like the recipe for a richly rewarding comedy of 20th- century cultural manners.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit