Poets' image: gloomy, elitist and irrelevant

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The Independent Online
DAVID LISTER

Poetry suffers from an image problem, according to the first major survey of the state of poetry by the Arts Council.

Awareness of contemporary poetry is particularly low. When asked to name poets most people said Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Women poets were seldom named, even by those who enjoyed contemporary poetry.

Most people also have a narrow definition of poetry. When told that poetry can include rap, football chants and verses in greeting cards, they become more supportive of the medium.

There is support, though, for "unobtrusive poetry": initiatives such as Poems on the Underground, and poetry in settings such as transport and advertising hoardings, on the Internet, and during television and radio programme intermissions.

The qualitative research involving members of the public, poets, teachers and publishers, found that poetry book titles account for 2 per cent of the total UK book market. Almost 1,800 poetry titles were published in 1994, a 26 per cent rise on 1993, and a 154 per cent increase over 1975. There was a 154 per cent increase in the publication of poetry titles over the past 20 years, now worth over pounds 15m a year.

But poetry continues to suffer from an image problem which tends to be caused by the uninspired treatment of poetry at school, which often consists of learning by rote. Most of those who had an interest in poetry said they had experienced enthusiastic teaching.

Commenting on the image of poetry, the Arts Council report says: "The public has a problem with the image of poetry. It was often perceived as out-of-touch, gloomy, irrelevant, effeminate, high-brow and elitist.

"The poetry constituency's image of poetry is at odds with that of the public. The poetry world concentrates primarily, although not exclusively, on contemporary poetry and attributes the increase in poetry book sales, attendance at readings and interest in the art form, to this. In contrast, those without an interest in poetry perceived it as consisting of old fashioned, pre-20th century work.

"Amongst the general public, contemporary poetry had an even more negative image. On first reflection it was commonly perceived as inaccessible, complex and lacking rhyme and rhythm."

The report expresses considerable concern about the treatment of poetry in schools, and the way the national curriculum treats poetry. It says: "Teaching poetry as an academic subject rather than as a means of personal expression or as an art form to be appreciated and enjoyed throughout life contributes to its negative and inaccurate image.

"There were major concerns throughout the poetry world and from teachers about the national curriculum's emphasis on pre-20th century poetry. This focus served to compound the image of poetry as something of the past rather than a living, vibrant art form. Concern was also expressed by English teachers about the training they received in poetry."

Poets, meanwhile, are becoming concerned about having to act as media figures and give public readings for marketing purposes. The report notes: "They felt that some poetry was not suited to public readings and that some poets had neither the inclination nor the presentational qualities necessary to undertake such public performances. Poetry promoters, however, were keen."

The report notes that the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines poetry as "the expression of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination, or feeling, in appropriate language, such language containing a rhythmical element and having usually a metrical form."

The report adds: "As we move towards the end of this millennium, song lyrics, rap, greeting card verses, limericks and several other linguistic variation lay claim to the genre."

t A Poetry Survey for the Arts Council of England; 14 Great Peter Street, London, SW1.

How movies help sales

A popular movie can sell a lot of poems. The reading of a WH Auden poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral has boosted sales of Auden's works. Auden's "Tell me the Truth About Love" sells as many as 100,000 units a year. Equally the success of the musical Cats has boosted TS Eliot's sales.

Most publishers report sales of 2,000-20,000 copies of poetry texts a year. Present day poets selling well include: Fleur Adcock, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Michael Rosen and Elizabeth Jennings.

Humorous poetry and performance poetry are selling particularly well at present.

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