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.