Worse for verse as young poets get the chop

Both publishers and booksellers are becoming ever more reluctant to take financial risks with untried talent
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The Independent Online

Fewer young poets are being published than ever before, according to new figures from the Poetry Society. The survey comes as separate research reveals that sales of verse have plummeted by a fifth in the past five years - and now make up just 1 per cent of the overall book market.

According to the Poetry Society's findings, just 28 of the poets published by the UK's eight major imprints are under 40. More evidence of this stark "generation gap" is reflected in an Arts Council snapshot of the book trade revealing that 96 per cent of poetry bought by the British public is by dead writers.

There is little consolation to be had in official sales statistics. Last year about 700,000 poetry volumes were bought, to the tune of £5m - equivalent to barely 1 per cent of the value of overall book purchases.

These findings paint a picture of an art form in decline, and have provoked a frenzy of hand-wringing and discord in what is normally viewed as one of the more rarefied literary realms. So alarmed are major publishers such as Faber and the leading independent house, Bloodaxe, that next year they plan to launch a costly promotional drive, modelled on the Granta list of up-and-coming novelists, to drum up publicity for aspiring young poets.

Of the younger poets, the numbers that have made significant sales can be counted on one hand. The "best sellers" include award winners Owen Sheers, Sophie Hannah and Simon Armitage, whose debut collection, Zoom!, sold 12,000 copies - yet even he is nearly 40.

Esther Morgan is one of Bloodaxe's most acclaimed recent "finds"; her first collection, Beyond Calling Distance, was published in 2001 and has sold a modest if, for poetry, respectable 700 copies. She says penetrating the "hermetically sealed" poetry world can be tough for new writers. To give others an easier time getting established than she had, the 32-year-old has set up her own periodical, Reaction, as a vessel for unpublished young poets.

The dearth of young published poets is widely blamed on publisher's reluctance to take risks with untried talent because of commercial pressures they face in persuading booksellers to stock their work. But some believe that it is symptomatic of wider problems with the "culture" of the poetry world.

Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe, will use the preface of a new anthology to launch a furious attack on an "elitist" group of male reviewers he dubs "poetry's new academic spin-doctors". He argues that by reserving their praise for "intellectual" poets and "trashing" anything they consider too populist, such critics are turning the public off poetry altogether.

In his preface to the 25th anniversary Bloodaxe Poems of the Year volume, Mr Astley writes: "With many poetry editors paying more heed to peer approval than reader response, and poetry's sly spin-doctors trying to foist their academically distorted version of contemporary poetry on baffled readers, it's not surprising that bookshops see poetry as a minority interest."

His greatest ire is aimed at those who condemned Staying Alive, his eclectic anthology of poems by up-and-coming poets that became last year's biggest UK poetry title, selling more than 300,000. "Every review of this popular anthology by non-poets was genuinely appreciative," he writes, "but all the negative reviews - and there were many scathing ones - were by disdainful male poets (whose own poetry would be incomprehensible to anyone not versed in postmodernism)."

His views find some support from the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who agrees that a snobbish attitude is often shown towards poets who try to make their work accessible to a wide audience. He said: "I think that's absolutely right and very much to be regretted."

Oh for the dreams of Keats and Shelley

It was all very different when Young Turks such as Byron, Keats and Shelley were at the height of their celebrity, writes our Literary Editor, Suzi Feay

Poets have always been young men in a hurry, desperately seeking to establish a poetic reputation before being prematurely swept away by death in the form of bizarre boating accidents, duels, battlefield mishaps, bottles of arsenic or one of the traditional picturesque illnesses such as consumption or syphilis.

Even for longer-lived practitioners, precocity is a given. A great poet usually announces himself (or, these days, herself) in their teens or early 20s, with interesting, if not yet wholly distinctive work. John Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" was a pretty impressive calling card for a 21-year-old. But at that age, Rimbaud had more or less given up on poetry, and went on to be a gun-runner and trader in Ethiopia. Even the French boy wonder's precocity is beaten by Chatterton - dead at 17, stretched out stark and stiff in a Holborn garret, surrounded by scraps of brilliant, unwanted verse.

As Chatterton discovered, youthful achievement rarely brings rapid acclaim. The young Keats was on the receiving end of some of the most vicious criticism ever written. Even less rarely does it bring significant sales. Yet even as despairing bards clutched their bottles of prussic acid, or coughed out their life-blood on the pillow, they were sustained by the dream of fame in the afterlife.

This is a very unfashionable sort of fame today. What use is celebrity that comes only after your demise? You can't use it to blag an upgrade into First Class then, can you? Poetic celebrity has declined since the days when Byron (pictured below) was the cynosure of all Europe and poetry critics dissected the latest incendiary offering from Shelley with all the rigour of Paul Morley analysing a New Order lyric.

These days to succeed in poetry, you have to be an indefatigable trooper like Ian McMillan - gigging gamely, doing radio and popping up as poet in residence in the most unlikely places. Poets today are running writing courses, editing, reviewing, judging poetry competitions, working in arts administration. All that may pay the rent, but it doesn't please the muse.

Somewhere, out there, the good stuff will continue to be written, and we won't notice, and we won't particularly care.

"The blood jet is poetry, / there is no stopping it," said Sylvia Plath (dead at 30). So when I hear that "only" 28 poets under 40 have publishing deals, a part of me says: "So many?"

Acclaimed recent finds

Owen Sheers (b 1974)

The poet: Oxford graduate with cosmo-politan heritage (born in Fiji, brought up in Abergavenny). His debut volume was short-listed for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. One of The Independent on Sunday's top 30 young British writers.

What the critics say: "The poems exhibit a subtle facility for observation and insight."

Simon Armitage (b 1963)

The poet: Used to work with young offenders. Collections Zoom!, Kid and CloudCuckoo Land made him Britain's biggest-selling young poet. He was poet in residence at the Millennium Dome.

What the critics say: "His poems are amusing, charming - effortlessly winning over an audience - yet essentially serious."

Sophie Hannah (b 1971)

The poet: Since winning the prestigious Eric Gregory Award in 1995 she has published several acclaimed collections and three novels.

What the critics say: "Sophie Hannah is already among the best at comprehending in rhyming verse the indignity of having a body and the nobility of having a heart."

Esther Morgan (b 1970)

The poet: A graduate of Andrew Motion's creative writing MA course at University of East Anglia, she edits an annual anthology for young poets, Reaction. Her first collection was published in 2001.

What the critics say: "Themes of erasure, absence and isolation are explored in a voice so ingenuous, its language and syntax so plain, that it takes a while to notice quite how disturbing the poetry is."