So why are the literate classes blind to modern poetry?by Ruth Padel / January 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
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…