National Poetry Day: for better or verse?

William Sieghart says his brainchild has succeeded in making poems fun; But poet Ken Smith thinks the event has failed by being too safe and too familiar
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The Independent Online
One of the oddest things about trying to start a National Poetry Day some 18 months ago was that most of the people I spoke to thought that there already was one. And, coupled with that oddness, came the excitement that almost everyone was willing to help.

What began as an idea in the bath quickly became a bandwagon that swept through Britain and Ireland, supported by what can only be described as a group of "poetry commandos" sandbagging broadcasters, publishers and publicists to back this fanciful scheme. Any doubts as to the potential pitfalls were set aside as venues were booked, poemcards and posters printed and powerful organisations like the BBC and the Arts Council offered enthusiastic support.

Why do it? Because it's fun. We set out to break down the barriers and embarrassment associated with reading poetry aloud. If you can break through our traditional Anglo-Saxon reticence and allow more of the Celtic into our lives we would all admit to liking a little poetry from somewhere. Poetry is a magnificent companion in this busy modern world, often giving us a vocabulary for emotions we cannot express.

The public response to National Poetry Day shows that we have succeeded in our aim - poetry is alive, well and kicking. It was and is a call to arms for everyone who loves poetry to join in the fun. I hope the work of the Forward Poetry Trust, with organisations like The Poetry Society, help to dispel any remaining prejudice people have about the role of poetry in their lives. Here's to next year.

William Sieghart is Director of Forward Publishing and Chairman of the Forward Poetry Trust which administers National Poetry Day.

National Poetry Day is here again, the second of its ilk. And yes, I have to say that anything that promotes poetry has to be useful.

And apt. In the last two decades writing poetry became one of the few growth industries in this ailing isle. As the dole queues lengthened it seemed more and more people turned to writing. Groups and centres and courses sprang up - contemporary poetry and creative writing entered the national curriculum, poets entered schools and pubs and prisons. For the young and upcoming there are more and more glittering prizes, and in recent years young poets have been going off like bombs. They now talk about their "careers".

Even so, a recent Arts Council inquiry into who knows what in poetry was a triumph for the familiar and the banal. And anyway, what's it all for, when the market share is shrinking?

The collapse of the Net Book Agreement means less poetry will get published, with fewer bookshops in which to find it. Recent major casualties in the poetry publishing trade represent decisions made not by poetry lovers or promoters but by accountants. Result: more poets chasing fewer publishers. Less volumes, slim or otherwise.

Anyway, and here's the rub: last year on this day there was a lot of poetic activity by poets. This year, it seems to be readings of favourite poems by celebrities, the safe familiar verse declaimed by the safe and familiar faces.

And what will I be doing on National Poetry Day?

Bugger All. Bah humbug.

Ken Smith's publications include "The Poet Reclining", "Terra", "Wormwood", "The Heart of the Border", "Tender to the Queen of Spain" and "Inside Time".