Wanted: Live young poets to show that the art form isn't dead

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Andrew Motion has done his best as Poet Laureate to bring poetry to life, but the figures show that the great British book-buying public prefers its poets dead.

About 96 per cent of poetry bought in the UK is by dead writers, fewer than 30 of the poets published by the eight major publishers are under 40 years old, and the value of sales has fallen by 15 per cent in the past five years.

But now poets are to be given their chance to break out of the back of the bookstores in a £43,000 initiative from the Arts Council and the Poetry Book Society to find the most exciting new poets to emerge in the past decade - and promote them.

When the exercise was first tried 10 years ago, 20 bright young hopes were introduced to the public as the New Generation Poets. Many of them, including Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Lavinia Greenlaw, Michael Donaghy and Don Paterson, have gone on to significant success.

Now the Next Generation Poets promotion aims to give the latest crop of wordsmiths a similar boost - just as the literary magazine Granta achieved a buzz when its lists of best young novelists included Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie in 1993 and Monica Ali a decade later.

A judging panel including Motion, Simon Armitage, the writer AL Kennedy, who was on Granta's 1993 list, and Colin Greenwood, of the band Radiohead, is perusing dozens of volumes submitted by publishers. Anyone whose first volume of poetry was published between 1994 and this year is eligible.

After the final list of 20 names is unveiled on 1 June libraries will be stocked with booklets highlighting the work of the chosen writers and bookshops will be encouraged to promote the writers in-store.

Armitage, who writes fiction and advertising but regards his poetry as his "heart and soul", said they hoped the Next Generation Poets would prove to be a "celebration of contemporary poetry". "There's terrific writing around and it's always a shame to me that it doesn't find its way to enough people," he said.

The situation for poetry was difficult, although he thought that might be inevitable. "If every person in the country was buying poetry and it was available on every street corner and when you turned on BBC1 on Saturday night, poetry probably wouldn't be doing its job."

Yet poetry was more important than ever amid the "noise" of other art forms. "By and large we're surrounded by crap. When you find a poem that works, it becomes very valuable."

Kennedy said the problem was not with the poetry but with bookshops who failed to stock the best of what was available.

"When you go into a bookshop, you're not confronted with poetry. You have to have lists like these because then these books end up in the bins at the front where people can find them."

The decline in the number of major publishers producing poetry had also created a problem in that too few writers now benefited from the services of a good poetry editor, she added.

Although sales have fallen, the number of poetry volumes being published has tripled in the past decade as small presses step in to fill the breach.

"There are some great small presses, but if you don't know what you're looking for and you're swimming through a big bath of poetry, some of it will be really awful," she said.

Like Armitage, Kennedy is unclear quite how her career benefited from being on a list. But they agree that in the days of modern marketing, anything that raises the profile of poetry is to be supported.

Jules Mann, director of the Poetry Society, said they believed the Next Generation promotion would show there were good poets to be found. "There's a pretty talented crop of people out there."

New generation poets

Simon Armitage

Born near Huddersfield in 1963, Armitage studied geography and psychology before starting work as a probation officer. He is one of Britain's most in-demand and best-selling poets.

John Burnside

Born in Scotland, 1955, he was a computer engineer until he became a freelance writer in 1996. He has won the Whitbread for poetry and been shortlisted for the Forward and TS Eliot prizes.

David Dabydeen

Though in the poetry list, he is better known for his fiction. Born in 1955 in Guyana, he came to England in 1969 and read English at Cambridge. He is a professor at the University of Warwick.

Michael Donaghy

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1954, Donaghy has been based in Britain since 1985. His 1988 collection, Shibboleth, won the Whitbread for poetry while Conjure took the Forward prize in 2000.

Lavinia Greenlaw

Greenlaw was born in London in 1962 where she still lives. She was a book editor until 1994. The title poem of her 1997 collection A World Where News Travelled Slowly won the Forward prize.

WN Herbert

Born in Scotland, in 1961, he studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, and has literary residencies at Newcastle and Durham universities. His poetry has been shortlisted for all the major prizes.

Michael Hofmann

Born in West Germany in 1957, Hofmann grew up in England and now lives in London with his wife, poet Lavinia Greenlaw. He writes his own poetry, and has translated work by Brecht and Kafka.

Glyn Maxwell

Born in Welwyn Garden City in 1962, he read English at Oxford and then studied under Derek Walcott in Boston. He won a Somerset Maugham Award for Out of the Rain (1992) and also writes plays.

Don Paterson

Musician and poet Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963 and lives in Kirriemuir with his partner and children. Has also written a great deal of journalism and is currently poetry editor at Picador.