Remember to check the metre

Versifiers will rejoice on National Poetry Day. But Bill Saunders thinks it's time for a few silent stanzas
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The Independent Culture
Officially, poetry is a neglected art, a guttering flame which would die without the nurturing breath of public subsidy. The truth is that many thousands of people are secretly at it, and the flame is in danger of suffocating beneath a heap of unpublished manuscripts. Most of them land on small magazines. Tom Clyde, editor of the Honest Ulsterman, sees perhaps 2,000 unsolicited poems a year. Up in Jarrow, Mike Shields, editor of Orbis, receives between half a dozen and a dozen envelopes a day, each with at least five poems. In nearly 20 years of editing, he must have seen half a million poems.

Theatres would not survive if they were only supported by actors and newspapers would fold if they were only bought by journalists. But the subscribers to poetry magazines are all poets. This, says Shields, is why they fail. Yet, for different reasons, Orbis and the Honest Ulsterman have each survived for 30 years.

Orbis, which has no grant aid, persists largely through the energy of Shields. A man of catholic interests, he is a former shipyard apprentice, trained opera singer, and a professional translator. If he had put the time he has spent on Orbis into translation, he estimates he would be pounds 100,000 richer.

The Honest Ulsterman continues because it is the product of its community. "It has the trick of regeneration," says Clyde. The magazine has had six or seven editorial teams over the years. While outsiders imagine Belfast as a vast cityscape of murals, riots and gunfire, it is really a very small town. It is difficult for people with an interest in poetry not to encounter each other. It has also helped that the community has included, at one time or another, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, old Uncle Tom Paulin et al. The Honest Ulsterman accepts poetry from all over these islands, but to have so much local talent "makes life easier," says Mr Clyde. If poetic talent was a notifiable disease the doctors would certainly be examining Belfast's water supply.

Despite the immense amount of activity, poetry remains marginal. Perhaps the reason is that it is an intensely private occupation. One of the differences Clyde has noticed between Northern Ireland and the mainland is that British poets are secretive. He knows of British writers who would never mention to colleagues or friends what they do in their spare time. "Here [in Belfast] it is a legitimate occupation and less of an embarrassment."

But embarrassment and poetry do go together. Both Shields and Clyde agree that the poems that are the most strongly felt are the most dismal failures. For the past six weeks Clyde has been swamped with poems about the Omagh bombing, all from outside the Six Counties, and all "uniformly dreadful". He quotes Wilde: "Bad writing is always sincere." And, one might add in this instance, insensitive. Presumably if the authors had been invited to comment on Northern Ireland on Newsnight, they would have declined.

Poetry, according, to Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, the organisers of National Poetry Day, is like prayer. And as in prayer people seek the familiar. This dogs people's writing and their reading. Part of the aim of the Day is to get the army of poets to pay attention to the writers who are saying something new, though not necessarily radical, outre or avant garde. "Modern poets are obsessed with form," says Meade.

Shields and Clyde would both agree. "Great art shows great control," says Shields. Feelings must be allowed to gestate and bed down, says Clyde. And what better condition for this process than silence? With due respect to the kind and thoughtful people I have spoken to this week, might I suggest that a National No Poetry Day might be a desirable addition to the calendar?

'The Honest Ulsterman': 49 Main Street, Greyabbey, County Down BT 22 2NF. 'Orbis': 27 Valley View, Primrose, Jarrow, Tyne & Wear NE32 5QT. Please do not send poetry to Bill Saunders. He has no influence with editors, and no further advice to offer.