Comment: Poets win lots of prizes. But it isn't enough

When Ted Hughes died, there was a flurry of interest in his likely successor as poet laureate. Newspapers published lists of runners and riders; bookmakers quoted odds (Derek Walcott 4-1, Wendy Cope 5-2, Carol Ann Duffy 7-2, Andrew Motion 6-1); diarists recorded the reactions of the candidates. Since then, well, no one could say that we are awaiting the appointment with bated breath. The whole idea of official poetry seems anachronistic; modern verse seems like a private matter.

If the laureateship made poets rich, perhaps it would generate some interest: a jetsetting troubadour would be fun. Martin Amis once satirised the conventions of literary economics in a story that swapped the worlds of poetry and screenwriting. The screenwriter sent forlorn manuscripts off to a little screenplay magazine, while the poet flew to Los Angeles on Concorde to discuss his latest sonnet ("We think it's going to be a big summer poem"). In real life, however, laureates are presented with nothing more bracing than the ceremonial barrel of Malmsey wine. (Hughes had his bottled up as Christmas presents for his friends.) Otherwise, it offers only the chance to write embarrassing tributes ("toad's odes", is Tony Harrison's acidic phrase) on state occasions, the first of which will be the marriage between Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones - by any standards tough words to find a rhyme for.

There is an odd contradiction at the heart of modern poetry. In theory, we value it; but in practice, we show a clear disinclination actually to read the stuff. When Derek Walcott won the WH Smith Award in 1992, his long mock-epic poem Omeros was praised in the speeches as being exactly the kind of literature a bookseller such as WH Smith should be proud to associate itself with. It then emerged, in whispers, that when Omeros was published, Smiths had ordered just two copies for its nationwide chain. Walcott went on to win the Nobel Prize, and just as well: book sales alone would not have paid the rent.

Elsewhere, the news seems equally grim for poetry. The slim volumes put out by small publishers rarely sell more than a few hundred copies. News that Oxford University Press had decided to junk its poetry list was greeted, on the whole, with an understanding shrug. And yet ... And yet ... When The Independent began its "Daily Poem" some years ago, it was swamped with eager submissions. And the three winners of the 1998 National Poetry Competition emerged from a field of more than 5,000 contestants. Intriguingly, all these wannabe poets entered their work at a cost of pounds 5 per poem - roughly the price of the poetry books no one buys.

It is not necessarily bad news that more people write poems than read them: it suggests that the urge to create is itchier than the urge to consume. But it does tell us something about the role poetry plays in modern life. When Walcott wrote Omeros he was seeking in part to reclaim some of the territory poetry had ceded to the novel: character, action, drama. The trouble with most modern poetry, he said, was that it amounted to no more than "Someone hit me!" - private lyric statements of feeling; whingeing in verse. The great poets of the past - Milton, Pope, Dryden, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Eliot - imagined poetry as a grand public enterprise, not merely as sentimental diary entries.

This spirit is not dead. Apart from Walcott, poets like Tony Harrison (quick to pooh-pooh any idea that he might like to be laureate himself) continue to hold a torch for poetry as a grand dramatic form. His work is idiomatic, vulgar in the best sense. In v., he reproduced the four- letter words scrawled as graffiti on the tombstones in a Leeds cemetery. But he is also obedient to the older habits of rhyme and metre. In his tribute to a neglected German poet he pointed out: "The average Frankfurt- am-Mainer doesn't give a shit for Heine."

But Harrison is an exception. On the whole, poetry has become more a form of therapy than a form of literature. This idea of self-help in verse is what has driven the boom in writing workshops and poetry groups all over the country. There is nothing remotely dishonourable about this, but do we have to hand out prizes for it? We live at a time when self-expression is held sacred. But perhaps what we really need is an award not for people who write poetry, but for those few brave souls who buy and read it. It could be - why not? - a live television event. Noel Edmonds or Mrs Merton could leap out at unsuspecting shoppers and offer small lottery windfalls for anyone who could name, say, 20 living poets, with cash bonuses for anyone who could actually recite a poem. Would it be too much of a mouthful to call it Chthonic Relief? Any takers? (Please include sae.)

Ruth Padel on the National Poetry Competition: page 12.

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