another view:Poetry's enter-prize culture

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Big money awards for poetry competitions have proliferated in recent years. So has the hard-selling of poetry books and of spurious "new generations" by means of megahype banalities such as "poetry is the new rock'n'roll". The brash lies of moneyspeak, like the careerist incentives of the (so-called) enterprise (so-called) culturejingle against the grain of the sullen art.

Today is National Poetry Day, and tonight the winners of one of the biggest set of money awards, the Forward Poetry Prizes, will be announced. Meanwhile,carefully nurtured poetry lists are axed overnight: profit-fixated marketing rules.

Most competitions print the amounts of their money prizes in much bigger and bolder type than anything else, to entice large numbers of fortune-hunters, as opposed to the smaller numbers likely to be trying to write honest-to-goodness poetry for its own sake.

Poetry is not the new rock'n'roll. Poetry preceded and infused the blues, gospel and folk music,and still infuses the best rock, punk and rap. Exactly 30 years ago, before pop concerts hit bingo, a co-operative of 16 beat, jazz and sound poets headed by Allen Ginsberg filled London's Albert Hall to overflowing. Without this continuum of poetic voices and visions, Ginsberg's disciple Bob Dylan would never have reclaimed folksong from the shadows or shouted lines like: "While money doesn't talk, it swears/obscenity who really cares/ propaganda all is phoney."

Money prizes are directed at the big-time and the headlines, whereas art and literature are news that stays news because of the intrinsic richness of their forms and content. The danger is that national poetry prizes and days will reinforce empty monetarism and narrow little Englandism. As official literary administrations seem ever more careerist, materialistic and insular, the Royal Albert Hall is being restored as a Temple of the Muses. Next Monday sees the "Return of the Reforgotten" (Ginsberg, Zephaniah, Sorley MacLean, Brendan Kennelly, Anne Waldman et al). And on 7 July next year we'll celebrate the "First International Poetry Day".

Keats thought poems should grow "as naturally as the leaves to a tree", not as credits to a CV. In 1990 Sir Geoffrey Howe said: "Every time you sing 'Jerusalem', with its dark satanic mills clouding the green and pleasant land, you are reinforcing an anti-manufacturing prejudice". Not a prejudice - just a commitment to the planet and to the integrity of inner directions that's every true poet's birthright.

The beautiful truths of Keats and Blake long outlive the corruptions and destructions manufactured by the likes of Thatcher and Howe. Let's put the overblown dreams and fabrications of Loadsamoney aside and look again to the harder incentives of Jerusalem-building - to fulfil human and imaginative potential, worldwide: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

The writer is author of 'Wordsounds & Sightlines: New & Selected Poems', Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 6.99.