Death of the reader

So why are the literate classes blind to modern poetry?
January 20, 2002

British poetry is currently in a rich, interesting state. The one thing wrong with it is that it is not being read. Or not by the people you would think are its natural audience: the culture-minded middle classes. Most people who "did English" at college, or go to plays and Vermeer exhibitions, do not open a book of modern poems from one year to the next. You would think that enjoying contemporary poetry is part of a full cultural life. Increasingly, since the 1960s, it hasn't been. The media, who use "poetry" as a metaphor for anything from Tiger Woods' swing to a retro sofa-leg, tend to assume it is difficult, elitist, or "irrelevant." Books editors do not need to know anything much about it except big names, and no one thinks this odd or wrong.

There are people enjoying poetry. But these are the ones who stayed in touch. Getting in touch from scratch is hard. Poetry reviews are thin on the ground. Books pages are being squeezed by editors higher up the paper who are mostly not poetry fans, even if their literary editors are, and do not want to see unsexy minority interest books crowding the pages.

However, Sunday 20th January is a chance to discover the state of British poetry viva voce. This is its one big annual public outing unattached to any festival-a reading at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, by the ten shortlisted poets of the TS Eliot Prize, the night before the poet's widow presents the winner's £10,000 prize.

This event is a window into the way poetry operates in Britain today. The prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Poetry Book Society (PBS), which Eliot himself founded. The PBS is our largest single-unit retailer of poetry, selling £150,000 worth of books a year, and appoints two poets to pick four "best" books and 12 "recommendations." When Oxford University Press scrapped their superb poetry list, the PBS offered the cancelled titles at £1 each and sold 8,000 books.

Britain's three poetry book prizes make an enormous difference to sales (last year's winners head the PBS's sales figures) and, as Andrew Motion said the year he was a judge, the Eliot is "the prize most poets would most like to win." Why? It is judged only by poets. Judges for the Whitbread and Forward poetry prizes include journalists and celebrities. They represent readers and critics, conduits by which poetry reaches readers. But in the Eliot Prize you are judged by your peers. And the name TS Eliot spotlights English poetry's whole modern being.

Modernism in England (it had different line-ups in America, Scotland and Ireland) means basically three figures, and the best-known is TS Eliot: The Waste Land is our talismanic modernist work. Eliot's fellow American Ezra Pound encouraged Eliot, edited The Waste Land and was Yeats' secretary (galvanising him into the modernism of his late poems). His work is still an important influence on British poets today. So is the work of a Northumberland Quaker. Basil Bunting, born in 1900, racketed round the world (sailor, journalist, British vice consul in Istanbul in 1945) writing radically original poems which Pound published. Back in Northumberland, in 1966, Bunting wrote his masterpiece Briggflats. Retrospectively, he has become emblematic of post-war English poetry, which looks increasingly to the north. Poetry publishers Carcanet and Bloodaxe operate from Manchester and Newcastle; Yorkshire has supplied key poets in three generations over the last 50 years – Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage.

Eliot and Pound reforged English poetry, juxtaposing esoteric allusion and myth with "street" talk and perceptions. But the pair of them affected it very differently. Eliot is Mr Establishment. As Faber's poetry editor, he built up Britain's most important poetry list (and posthumously sustains it with royalties from Cats). Rhythmically, he reworked English poetry's essential unit, the iambic pentameter, setting it coursing like a pent-up whippet into blank verse, spiritual reflection, dramatic dialogue, pub talk. He also wrote authoritative criticism that we still use today. The fact that he was basically gay and his first wife died in an asylum was all smoothed over in a social process uncannily similar to the aural smoothing of his verse. Pound also mixed demotic voices invigoratingly with literary references and foreign languages, smashing open poetic form. But he went further, was more violent and ended up a traitor, in a mental asylum.

Modernist poetry was dangerous, it upset people and apple-carts. Eliot had that wildness in his nature, life and work. The recent biography of his first wife argues that, appalling as the 17-year marriage was, it provided the impetus for his best work. But in public life (surface-respectably, in London's literary heart) and in his poems, he somehow earthed that electricity, made it decent. Pound was modernism's erudite rough trade: difficult to handle, the raw snaky cable itself.

If you put the books shortlisted for the 2001 Eliot prize into teams, you would find more on the Eliot side (with Bunting as back-up) than the Pound side. You might describe the Eliot group as rationally comprehensible, politically-underpinned lyric, focusing on landscape and society.

First, four English landscapes. From the south, Burning Babylon by Michael Symmons Roberts (born 1963), who grew up next door to Greenham Common and recently watched the base being returned to common land. His book, in which the dismantled base becomes a derelict satanic city, gives voice to the local community's fear of being a nuclear target. A brilliant, now uncomfortable poem, "Ground Zero," clothes these imaginings in demonic beauty. Meanwhile, The Age of Cardboard and String by Charles Boyle (born 1951), is all elegant, throwaway wit and English reticence, full of unreliable narrators prowling past the sparkling windscreens of London car parks. From the north comes Downriver by Sean O'Brien, this year's Forward Prize winner: funny, angry, teeming with ballads, sports references, prose poems. O'Brien, from Newcastle, is famous for his urban pastoral, humour, and political bite. Lintel by Gillian Allnutt, from county Durham, is set in tatteredly modern Christian wildnernesses from Lake Baikal to Haworth, from the Holy Land to Newcastle lunatic asylum.

Then, two out-of-Britain landscapes. Seamus Heaney's eleventh collection, Electric Light, elides Greece with 1940s Derry, linking "the first house where I saw electric light" to classical Greek ruins and the Delphic fountain of poetic inspiration. And James Lasdun's Landscape with Chainsaw, set in the Catskill Mountains, discovers that an English–born poet with European roots can feel elatedly at home in the alienation of a harsh, rattlesnakes-in-the-outhouse, new world.

Poets on the Pound team are more rebarbative, more "difficult." They do not explain their leaps of thought; they tend to operate by image rather than sustained reflection. They seem to be more sequential too, often narrative. And they wear their emotion, more upsettingly, on their sleeve.

Speech! Speech! is the ninth collection by Geoffrey Hill (born 1932), a tilt against today's ways of public speaking, in 120 poems (numbered for the days of Sodom). The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson, a Canadian classics professor of deadpan lyric wit, with a gift for relating bizarrely different worlds. Her daring, poignant, book takes mad risks of form and voice, intersplicing poetry and prose, with long lines patchworking in all kinds of different writing genres, from classics commentaries to Keats' letters. It tells the story of a crumbled marriage in 29 "tangoes." Finally, two magic realists. The Zoo Father by Pascale Petit (born 1953) is about a dying father whose legacy was abuse and abandonment, using Amazonian landscape as an image-bank for trauma. Horrific bedside encounters are illuminated through shamanic and jungle imagery: shrunken heads, jaguars, penis-invading fish. Bunny is the seventh collection by Selima Hill (born 1945, no relation to Geoffrey), telling in imagistic episodes the tale of a 1950s teenager seduced by the family lodger and sectioned in a mental hospital. In his critical book on contemporary poetry, The Deregulated Muse, Sean O'Brien analyses the disorientating effect Selima Hill's work has on some male critics who read the images as "uncontrolled metaphorical spillage." Rather, she uses them, as Petit does, to control in language something not controllable in life-our shifting mental states.

This shortlist shows something else too about how British poetry operates today: it still belongs mainly to the boys. No woman has yet won the Eliot prize, and a ratio of six to four is far better than some years. Even so, one of the strengths of British poetry published now is its variety. For three years, I wrote a column in the Independent on Sunday, analysing poems by living poets. The column survived two editors (a third disliked "all that writing under the poem"), and stopped at the 113th poet. I had in mind at least 50 others whose work I thought important.

My column's demise illustrates in a small way how the mainstream media fails to satisfy a real appetite for poetry around the country. Readers' letters poured in every week, asking for more poems, grateful for being introduced, asking for missed back numbers. And "Poems on the Underground," copied from Dublin to Latvia, has just celebrated ten popular years.

I want to know why poetry is not being read even by people whose education must have stressed it. I have some tentative answers. The language in which the media expresses its indifference to poetry is often defensively competitive, implying poets need taking down a peg. Then there's the pressure of time on professionals, the volume of print everyone has to read. We respond by speed-reading; and you cannot speed-read a poem. The whole point is going back, enjoying thinking about it. Finally, there is the possibility that once you stop following an art, you get left behind as it develops. Imagine someone who stopped watching film about the time the cultured world stopped reading poetry: say, 1950. How would they cope with today's films?

But still, when someone dies or falls in love, suddenly people turn to poetry. People do need poetry: poems written for them, in their own world, as well as the familiar poems of the past.

Taking a guess, you might take most Prospect readers as representative of people who are not reading modern poetry and should be: not for poetry's sake (it will always, as Auden said, survive), but for their own. Because this is the oldest, most concentrated verbal art form in the world, whose point is to address fundamental human truths through the fresh language and concrete details of the day. And they–you–are missing out on it. I'd love to know why.