BOOK REVIEW / Getting verse all day: beware low-flying souls: Next Thursday, 6 October, is designated National Poetry Day. William Scammell considers the idea of a poetfest: a good way of promoting sales, or just a blizzard of hype in a talent-vacuum?

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The Independent Culture
IT USED to be said that the quickest way to clear a room is not to shout 'Fire]' but 'Poetry reading'. This lowering view of those stricken by the muse has always been with us. Coleridge found his contemporaries 'a compost of nullity and dullity'. Randall Jarrell thought most of the stuff that came his way read as though it had been written by a typewriter on a typewriter. Myles nGopaleen's only solution to inadvertent contact with a versifier was to run screaming into the streets and tear off his face.

But all that was long ago, in a time when Geoffrey Grigson could say 'As a rule . . . a good poet mumbles and can't be heard. If you can hear him he is a performer, his poems are . . . worthless' and not be lynched. He quotes John Clare approvingly: 'I wrote because it pleased me in sorrow, and when happy it makes me happier,' and even has some sympathy with the American poet E A Robinson, who said: 'I just sit down and grind it out and use a trifle more tobacco than is good for me.' But poetry as something popular, accessible, to be said aloud in a public place? Humbug]

Grigson - 'a very hotbed of culture, you could grow mushrooms on him' - belonged to the bad old days when poetry was owned by the few and wielded on behalf of initiates. Now it's in bed with money and PR, it's Punk Modernism, the new rock'n'roll. Out of the attic and into camera one, the pub, the workplace, the hospice, the telephone, the tube, the 'sewer of pop' on Radio 1, the well-appointed maisonettes on 3 and 4. And to prove it, next Thursday is National Poetry Day, when you'll have to be in Tonga or Trondheim if you want to dodge the outbreak of low-flying souls.

It is the brainchild of William Sieghart, founder of the Forward Prize for poetry, a demi- semi Booker worth pounds 10,000 (plus pounds 5,000 for a best first collection and pounds 1,000 for best single poem) all to be announced on 6 October and shown on BBC 2. It was quickly followed by the setting up of the T S Eliot prize, run by the Poetry Book Society, worth pounds 5,000. Sieghart says it will be a day in the life of poetry in the nation. You can turn over in bed and mutter 'shall I compare thee . . . ? ' to your significant other, fax a poem to a friend, attend a reading, look up at one of the 20,000 posters around the country or grab one of the 350,000 poem cards that will be available in Oddbins (Marks & Spencer in Scotland). You can even ring a Hotline at the Poetry Library on the South Bank - 071-921 0942 - and plug in to expert advice, a celebrity reading, or a fact-finding service which will track down that favourite but elusive quotation.

Sieghart says that what got him started was the evident bewilderment and anxiety of so many would-be readers of poetry. Where should they begin? How to get to grips with this esoteric verbal game? Hence the Forward Book of Poetry 1995 (Forward pounds 6.95), which prints both prizewinners and a selection of the best poems (in the opinion of one of those ubiquitous panels) that have appeared in the previous year.

Sieghart's line is echoed by Neil Astley, managing director of Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle. He wanted to export poetry beyond the old-fashioned cognoscenti who gave poetry a 'negative image', as did those teachers hampered by boring old syllabuses. He was sure that at least part of the big audience for film, theatre and television could also be captured for poetry, which was now relevant in a way it used not to be, and he set out to separate the message from the aura of the pulpit.

As his ideal of what new-wave poetry should be, he quotes Peter Reading on Simon Armitage: 'A muscular but elegant language (created) out of the slangy, youthful, up- to-the-minute jargon and vernacular of his native northern England. He combines this with an easily worn erudition, plenty of nous, and the benefit of unblinkered experience.' Astley is also proud of the fact that half the poets on his list are women. He gets up to 100 new manuscripts through his letterbox a week; Faber and OUP are similarly besieged, so there's no doubt that people are writing the stuff. But are they listening and reading too? David Hayden, assistant manager at Camden Waterstone's, says they are: especially if it's European and/or modern, poetry turns over as well as fiction. The downside is that the classics tend to sit tight: Akhamatova goes like a bomb but Keats stays put, and you can't shift Wordsworth for love or money.

This will confirm the fears of those who regard the current hype as only slightly less loopy than the dress sense of Barbara Cartland. There is an alternative explanation to the philistine one - that these customers' shelves are already well- stocked with the canon - but it's not one that Anne Stevenson is likely to buy. Her 'instinctual' response to National Poetry Day and its satellite events was 'negative'. The whole idea is a mistake and she doesn't want any part of it. 'I hate poetry promotions.'

She did put in a plug for John Press's revised edition of Palgrave's Golden Treasury, however, which has an 'excellent' selection of 90 new poets, and allowed that some useful poetry had got itself written up to about Thatcher. After that it got either postmodern and sick (too much masturbation and penetration) or low-brow, political and trendy. The current poetfest is a pseudo- event, not a real one, likely to promote the bad at the expense of the good.

It is a view largely shared by Nicholas Tredell, critic and contributing editor of PN Review, who worries about the kind of poetry - instant, public, 'exciting' - that always wants to leap on a bandwagon. We have marketing instead of a Yeats or an Eliot, competitions instead of a lifetime's graft and dedication. 'All marketing of poetry drives me daft,' agreed PJ Kavanagh, The Spectator's poetry editor. 'I don't want to trash everything that's going on, and anything that helps sell books is good. I wrote a piece on this New Generation lot recently, quite a kindly one I thought. They're lively all right, but so jumpy, one thing to another. Must be all those videos, word processors, comic strips.'

Alistair Niven chipped in pounds 16,000 of the Arts Council's literature budget to National Poetry Day, and warmly approves the initiative. 'It doesn't preclude or take anything away from the Geoffrey Hills, but it does get poetry out of the hot house and into people's heads, where it belongs. Everyone remembers the flowers at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, but not that people came and posted poems on the gates. When things matter, it matters.'

'We never had a 'generation',' says U A Fanthorpe, ruefully, when asked about all this hoopla. 'Only what money is lashed out on is thought to be important - opera, rock concerts, etc. It's not true. Too many people were frightened of poetry by the learned. Once they find a way in, they like it. And they need it.' Andrew Motion agreed, 'provided the get-it-in-one-take brigade don't muscle out the real thing. Every day is national poetry day for us. It's our life.'

Simon Armitage said: 'It'll be like No Smoking Day - everyone'll go off and do the opposite.' He was in at least two minds. 'If it's a matter of ringing the bookies and checking out world rankings it's a waste of time. On the other hand people need something they can believe in, something that comes from the heart, rather than all this crap they get from politicians and television. Down with megalomania, up with the private voice.'

He's just back from a trip to Iceland with Glyn Maxwell, treading in Auden and Isherwood's footsteps - which you might construe as a decadent marketing ploy or an imaginative update of a cultural landmark. Maxwell said his impulse on hearing of the Day was to lock the doors, draw the curtains and take the phone off the hook. 'But wotthehell Archie, if it sells books . . .' And is this a golden age for poetry? 'Some heavy metal, but I don't know which. It's not an inert gas, anyway.'

'I hate talking about this,' Craig Raine admitted. 'It all comes out as cliches . . . Dare I say that poetry is the Cinderella of the arts? I suppose all these readings try to take her to the ball. The audience can see you're one of them, not some superior being. Their problem is gallery-fright, the worry that they won't understand a damned word. Our problem is that you wear out 10 or 15 poems by 'performing' them and they become meaningless. But if you agree to do it, you should do it as well as you can.'

Novelists are sitting up and taking notice too. Always have, perhaps. I remember Angela Carter telling me long before she was famous that Tony Harrison's 'Bookends' made her cry because it nailed her own life to the church door. Candia McWilliam, one of the judges for this year's

T S Eliot prize, said she'd just had kilos of the stuff through the door, and was enormously impressed by what she'd read so far. 'It's not at all nebulous, as some people fear it will be, it's concise and vivid. Muriel Spark's prose was kindled by the border ballads. If you love words you're never on holiday from them. I think it's a case of inter-inanimation all round, prose and poetry feeding off each other.'

Back in the teens of the century, Pound despaired of a botched civilisation gone in the teeth which had no place, and certainly no money, for the likes of himself and Eliot, only for Arnold Bennett and his yacht. Would he have been impressed by a National Poetry Day, a South Bank Show devoted to up-and-coming poets, the forthcoming Poetry International at the South Bank Centre (28 October-6 November), the excited buzz from regions and centre alike as poetry is bandied about like e-mail? I expect he would have said: 'Hrrrrrmph.' And leapt round to Television Centre. What Cinderella really wants, perhaps, is not the glass slipper of media glamour but a decent rate for the job and a proper hearing among the voices in the air.

For details of events nationwide, ring the Poetry Society, 071-240 4810.

For free ticket offer for readers, see page 38, opposite

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