Too educated, too busy and too hip for poetry

National Poetry week
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The Independent Online
There are two people I really want this Thursday's National Poetry Day to get to - and it won't. One is Bridget Jones. In a recent radio interview, her creator was asked what Bridget read. "Self-help books" was the answer. "But she did literature at university, and leaves unread classics lying around her flat to impress people."

I wish this iconic jeune femme de nos jours would suddenly find just one poem mattering to her. But she won't, unless poetry reading becomes a new vice in her chardonnay world.

The other person is my friend Malcolm, another proud possessor of an arts degree. Malcolm did classics and law at university and makes pounds 700,000 a year with little time for anything but law. I remember when he was a star of student cabaret, jokily at home with Greek and English poetry. National Poetry Day ought to get him buying audiotapes of living poets - not for his kids doing A-level, nor for his wife (who likes things "like that" sometimes); for himself, zapping his BMW into the law courts.

On Saturday, I did a reading for Liskeard Poetry Group: a dedicated outfit, funding guest poets from an "Arts 4 Everyone" National Lottery Award. Their audience comes from Falmouth to Plymouth, sometimes three hours' drive away. They are lovely, but not unique. All over the country groups are writing poetry, reading new work critically, inviting poets to read out of funds from their local arts board. But you won't find either Bridget or Malcolm in their ranks.

Why not? Maybe both expect modern poetry to be "difficult". "Hard work". Amazing, how university-educated people tend to say that. This week, Poetry Week, schoolchildren are reading poems in public all round the country with understanding and pleasure. I spent one National Poetry Day teaching poetry in a primary school. No difficulty there.

What Bridget and Malcom may find difficult about contemporary poetry is not to do with words, but value. Like, why bother? My next book of poems is a year's work. (That's idiotically quick. Most collections take two or three years.) My publisher, whom I respect and trust, will give me pounds 500 for it. Malcolm, getting pounds 700,000 for his year's work, may find it hard to believe that mine can be worth much, while Bridget might boggle at spending time alone on your own words and thoughts. Poets seem to represent something - about being sure of value, about what's worth doing - which Malcolm and Bridget apparently don't share.

But maybe they do, underneath. Both enjoy a culture that uses "poetry" as drop-of-a-hat-praise. Gossamer-sheer Lycra, low-calorie chocolate mousse, a soccer goal, power-steering: all get called "pure poetry", so the thing itself must be valued at some level, even if society is so oddly arranged that it's not much read.

Media helps: but media values comes with strings attached. Media focuses on prizes, on hierarchy. But what's really surprising just now is how many and how varied is the whole range of brilliant poets in Britain.

God knows why. Maybe, as in Renaissance Italy, wicked politics made good art. A strong poetry movement took shape in the Thatcher years; poetry publishing grew with the Body Shop. There are now about 400 published poets in Britain. (I got this from someone administering five bursaries of pounds 15,000 - more than most poets make a year. The shortlist is announced on Wednesday. Every published poet has applied.)

But who reads them? "I check the Tube every day," says Chris Reid, Faber's poetry editor. "Never once have I seen anyone reading poems on it." Books of poems sell; but not, apparently, to people with jobs they get to by Tube.

The weirdest thing of all is how separate poetry is from universities. In America, universities are where you mainly read. Not in Britain. Pubs; yes. Church halls where dog-agility classes meet on Mondays: yes, de rigueur. But not universities. Most academics I know don't ready poetry unless it is their speciality. If dragged to a reading, they enjoy it. But it is as if they don't feel properly introduced. They don't know where to start, and haven't time to browse.

There is something odd here. If children buy and read Carol Anne Duffy and Jo Shapcott, why not people with university degrees? Most people you chat to at literary parties don't buy poems from one year's end to the next.

I'm a poet: of course I want Bridget and Malcolm to read poetry. But what do I think it would do for them? What are they missing out on that schoolchildren, Liskeard Poetry Group, and 30,000 Internet readers are the happy possessors of?

Poetry by living poets is mostly not difficult. It wants to address, in contemporary language, the world of the newspaper and street, with a precision and music that gets you to see things new. It wants to share - intensity, a joke , a story - by making a smallish thing with focused care, and craft that has been fought for. It wants to make ceremony and intimacy meet, like a ring given in love; to make something precious, therefore vulnerable, but strong.

Four hundred professionals are out there, anticipating low wages for a lifetime's work because they trust something in the way these objects get shared. A poem may start with something as intimate and complicated as haemorrhoids, but by the time you have finished it has got to say something new, straight and important to someone else. Anything that just shows off won't work. It has got to be truthful and generous; come from examined feeling; and be open, so people who open themselves to it find value in it too.

Maybe National Poetry Day should finance a poetry leaflet for the over- educated, and slip it in free with books that successful alumni of our universities are sure to buy. It's not the universities' fault that their graduates no longer read poetry. Universities came under pressure too in the Thatcher years and everyone from staff to students is more stressed than anyone at university ever was before. There is just not time (or money) in the cloisters now. So the books we should slip our poetry leaflets into on Poetry Day are thrillers and cookbooks, with recipes and plots far harder than a well-made poem. Or, best of all, a self-help book.

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