POETRY / A verse to publicity: It's National Poetry Day; poets are everywhere - television, radio, even trains. But will they ever achieve star status - will their love lives ever grace the tabloids? Robert Hanks calls for a radical change of image

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The Independent Culture
Today is, as you can't have failed to notice, National Poetry Day. The nation is positively throbbing with anapaests and trochees, rondeaus and villanelles. Poets will be reading at the National Theatre and going into schools, community centres and bookshops around the country. Poetry will be blasted over the PA system at Waterloo; pupils of Ashlyns School, Berkhamsted, will be handing out their own poems to commuters on the Berkhamsted-Euston line. There have been features in the press and on radio; Melvyn Bragg devoted last week's South Bank Show to the 20 'New Generation' poets launched earlier this year; Radio 3 will be broadcasting poetry all day.

All this is, without doubt, finely calculated to bump up public awareness of poetry (especially the readings on Radio 3). And it's part of a trend, not just a one-off: there are Poems on the Underground, a thriving poetry performance circuit, poetry prizes (the Forward Prize will be televised, Booker-fashion, by BBC 2 this evening); W H Auden is in the best- seller lists, courtesy of Hugh Grant.

But it's hard not to feel that an awful lot of this poetic activity is preaching to the converted, the people who already read the books pages in their Sunday papers - it's a pretty small section of the public that gets excited about the election to the Oxford Chair of Poetry. Whether poetry is really going beyond the books pages to a wider public is open to question.

Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, admits that there is a long way to go: 'There's a gap between somebody looking at something and saying, 'That's nice, couldn't have put that better myself,' or 'That's intriguing', and gathering the courage to go into a shop and start flipping through poetry books.' The sales reflect that. Poetry now famously sells more than novels (hardback novels, at any rate), but that's not hard. And while John Hegley may sell 10,000 in hardback, the average Bloodaxe volume only does 1,000.

It's possible for an individual poet to buck the market, up to a point. The poet Michael Donaghy (two collections published by OUP) points out the traditional shortcut to celebrity: 'My editor keeps encouraging me to commit suicide.' After all, it worked for Thomas Chatterton and Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton, and possibly for Weldon Kees, who disappeared without trace in 1955, his car abandoned by the Golden Gate Bridge (it's the ambiguity that's the important point in his case). And there are plenty of less extreme solutions (Donaghy: 'I would be prepared to fake my own suicide').

But if poetry as a whole is going to stop enlarging its ghetto and break out of it altogether, then it has to do something about its image. Everybody has their own theory as to where the image has gone wrong. Julian May, who has produced a large number of programmes on poetry for BBC Radio, including the Poetry Day Kaleidoscope on Radio 4, suggests that what is wrong is the introspection of the English lyric, in contrast to the public function that poetry still has in other cultures (Hausa poets, products of a strong didactic tradition, were sent out by the Nigerian government in the 1950s to educate farmers in the use of chemical fertilisers). Chris Meade thinks that people are intimidated and disappointed, because they think that poetry ought to be meaningful: 'There is this expectation that every poem should be the essence of something.'

These are surely problems; but they're small problems, identified by people who are themselves passionate about poetry. If poetry is ever to have true mass appeal, it needs the dispassionate analysis of people with no personal commitment to it - hard-hitting, professional PR men. The publicist Max Clifford, taking time out from interviews about Jamie Hewitt, doesn't take long to come up with a far more scathing critique of modern poetry: 'Most men, if you're talking about the masses, think you'd have to be either gay or extremely effeminate to write poetry. So you've got to get over these misconceptions and give people a popular hero they can associate with.'

Given the chance to work on the poetry account - unlikely unless the Poetry Society or some other philanthropic body can come up with what he describes as his 'enormous fee' - Mr Clifford's strategy would be, essentially, to find a macho role model who will admit to writing poetry. It isn't even necessary that they should be a genuine poet ('I'd make up the whole thing. There'd be no problems there, providing they'd be able to carry it off. A lot of people couldn't: so many stars can hardly read or write'); but he must be a star ('Because there's always room in the mass media for stars').

Once you have another two or three stars up your sleeve, adding their weight to the campaign, the next phase, Clifford predicts, would be 'stars revealing - because they all fall on the bandwagon - that they write poetry . . . So that in the space of a few weeks the whole country is buzzing.'

Radical; but perhaps even this doesn't go deep enough. Perhaps the problem is not with poetry's image, but with poetry itself. William Sieghart, the publisher behind the Forward Prize and National Poetry Day, has suggested that poetry is suited to the modern world because it is, by and large, short - when you're in a hurry you can gulp down a swift sonnet. Poetry is the microwave oven of the arts; but it could be faster, more exciting still. If darts and football can change their rules to become more television friendly, why not poetry? In the case of poetry, though, the populist move would be to tighten up the rules: with compulsory rhyming and strict metrical regularity (none of this sprung rhythm nonsense), plus the new, even shorter sonnet, poetry could really start to go places.

The big question is whether the poets will go along with all this. There is, plainly, a stubborn streak in some of them that keeps them in the garret (witness Carol Ann Duffy's refusal to appear on last Sunday's South Bank Show). Chris Meade believes there is a widespread fear that pandering to the media will somehow prove a distraction from the serious business of writing (referring to the early days of steam, he says, 'I think it's a bit like the fear that people would fall apart if they went faster than 40 miles an hour'). Michael Donaghy sees this reluctance less in terms of fear of marketing's effects, as suspicion of its point: 'We hear a lot from socially self-conscious poets and very right-on, PC poets, who talk about bringing poetry to the people as if it was some sacred mission, like converting the natives to Christianity. But most of us don't give a toss.'

Still, if poets really don't want to get involved in the publicity merry-go- round (and there are plenty who do); and if the stars are, as Max Clifford says, available, there is one move that would satisfy everybody. It would also add some lustre to a national institution that's sorely in need of it, destroying a white, male, middle-class stranglehold at a stroke. So, Naomi Campbell for Poet Laureate, anyone?

(Photograph omitted)

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