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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little