POETRY ESSAY / The art of memory: Poetry enjoys a rising profile, but the poet Clive Wilmer wonders if standards are rising to match -and if aggressive marketing promotes immediacy at the expense of subtlety

A few years ago a friend of mine married a Frenchwoman. Announcing her engagement at work, the lady in question was asked about her future husband's attainments. 'He's a poet,' came the reply. 'Oh?' queried a young receptionist: 'They still exist?'

In Britain, until recently, I'd have feared a worse response. 'What's that?'

is the sort of thing I have in mind. But not nowadays. Nowadays, poetry has a High Profile and its most prominent practitioners have Street Credibility.

You can't get away from it. Next week, for instance, the Poetry International hits the South Bank. There have been Poems for Bosnia and poems to save the planet. There are Poems on the Underground and a Daily Poem in this paper, poets on Radio 1 and in the ICA. A couple of weeks ago, we had National Poetry Day - as if poetry were some worthy disability.

The trouble is that poets do not need these things. All they need is pen, paper and the freedom to imagine. Lunches and events are good for the marketing folk and may also be good, for a while, for the authors' pockets.

But the fact that books are sold does not mean that books are read. More especially, it does not mean that they are re-read, loved and remembered.

For that is what poetry is really about. I don't want to take an unbendingly elitist line, but it is unrealistic to imagine that poetry will ever sell in vast numbers. If we are to market poetry, the aim should be to be taken seriously, not simply to attract attention.

Worse, what this posturing achieves is a blurring of the line between good and bad. Surely even those who would look upon this as a very good thing could not be glad to note - as I have done - a shift from the good vs bad distinction to famous vs ignored. It is not that you can't be good and famous as well. Seamus Heaney is both, Thom Gunn is both, Lord Byron was both. It is that once you are famous, no one notices whether you deserve to be.

It means, moreover, that for lack of street cred and a pushy publisher many of the best poets are ignored. Think, for example, of Jeremy Hooker, whose Their Silence a Language combined his prose and poems with etchings by the sculptor Lee Grandjean, exploring the history of the New Forest. It's a fine, unusual, experimental book, and I don't think it had a single review.

Or take John Peck - for my money the best poet of my generation. He has published four books over the past 20 years, the two most recent enormously ambitious, but no one I speak to seems to know who he is. Part of the trouble may be that he is American but is published only in Britain. But there's more to it than that.

We need some evidence: He who called blood builder is now memory, sound.

Dear, if we called blood wrecker we'd not lie, but how thinly we should hear time's curved cutwater, and never the full song of the falling pine, that swish the nets make running through swells gone starry.

That is from Peck's latest book, Argura (Carcanet Press pounds 9.95). Once I had noticed it - and it didn't grab me immediately - it would not leave me alone. Why? How? Well, first of all, it is spine- tinglingly beautiful - the music, the play of images, the hauntingly authoritative tone, the unsettling angle it takes on its subject, the presence of the unnamed interlocutor, the slight deviations from the metrical norm. I could go on, but surely the sheer sound of it is enough.

It would appear not, for to my knowledge the book has hardly sold at all - partly because it, too, has hardly been reviewed - the Poetry Boom has coincided with the disappearance from most of the national press of serious poetry criticism. The columns that do survive confine themselves, by and large, to books that are already thought important.

But I would guess that there is another reason: Peck's verse is difficult.

Now difficulty, in spite of the fame of T S Eliot, is something the marketers have not prepared us for. The circuit of poetry readings and writing workshops, which transmits the poetry boom to its wider public, depends on two unspoken assumptions: 'If you don't get it the first time, don't bother with it,' and 'Anyone can do it: it's only words.'

John Peck, poor devil, has skill, born of hard labour and dedicated reading.

To write a good poem, you cannot afford to economise on time. Sometimes, blessedly, a poem comes all at once. At other times, you spend weeks on a single line.

In quoting a single stanza I have not been quite fair. It emerges subsequently that the 'He' of that first line is Aeneas, the founder of Rome and 'the Latin race' (as Virgil says). So 'blood' is partly race and partly the slaughter that the triumphs of race depend on. The memory and sound, then, are the presence of Aeneas in the long history of European poetry.

'Ah]' comes the response of the Street Cred Gang. 'This is passe, and a clear case of hegemony. Hence the power-game of difficulty that calls for a priesthood of exegetes.' Yet the poem, in attending to the myth, explores by means of it the evils of modern war. Those who call for new poems for Bosnia from poets who've seen it on telly would do well to notice that here they already have the poem they seek.

Nor does Peck write only for the exegetes. He is as indifferent to academic fashions as he is to those of the poetry market. A psychotherapist by profession, he lives a quiet life in rural Vermont, unnoticed by the big wide world. If his poetry is 'literary', that is because he knows that language has a history, that poetry has always been richer and more resonant when it has drawn on its past. Without the historical echo-chamber, you might argue, there can be no poetry at all.

Good poetry has always been written in this way. In 1797, for instance, the young William Wordsworth settled in the Somerset countryside to recover his equanimity after the Reign of Terror in France which so shocked British observers. In utter seclusion, he set about composing some of the greatest poems in our language - from the casual lyricism of 'We are Seven' to the grandeur of 'Tintern Abbey'. He wrote about memory. What he wrote about it, once read, is unforgettable. He wrote with such intensity that the quiet of his words resounds with his whole experience. The Terror is there in the quiet.

Clive Wilmer's 'Poet's Talking' ( pounds 12.95) and 'Of Earthly Paradise' ( pounds 6.95) are published by Carcanet (Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?