Poetry is everywhere, from the outpouring of doggerel verse for Princess Diana to pop song lyrics. Yet most people think it is not for them. William Sieghart wants to change thatby William Sieghart / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Earlier this year, EMI signed up the young poet Murray Lachlan Young for around ?1m to record a series of albums of his poetry. At the same time, royal divorce solicitors Mishcon de Reya announced that they would be appointing a poet in residence for the more realistic sum of ?10,000 per year. The Arts Council, too, is investing in poetry. It has begun a ?450,000 lottery-funded scheme to place poets in residence in many of the new “millennium parks”-and even at London Zoo.
There was a time when the only mention of poetry in the press was yet another esoteric dust-up at the Poetry Society. The Poetry Society now rivals New Labour for its rate of membership growth. Splendidly led by Chris Meade, the man behind the successful lottery bid, it is an organisation under a different kind of pressure these days, coping with incessant enquiries from schools, poets and broadcasters.
And because poetry is in vogue, style as well as review pages are full of poets. Glossy magazines publish articles about poetry, wrapped around with photographs of girl poets, dangerous poets, good-looking poets and young poets dressed elegantly but improbably in the latest fashions.
Has poetry made a comeback in the past few years, or has it just become more visible? We do have some particularly bright poetic talent around at present, but actually we always have had. In the last 30 years-since Allen Ginsberg filled the Albert Hall-poetry has never really gone away, even if its freshest voices have seemed to come from other countries-Ireland, Australia, India, the Caribbean and Africa. It just got subsumed into the subculture of popular music and had to compete with the rapid development in personal entertainment technology. Many 1960s children maintain that the great poetic voices of the time wrote songs: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon. Certainly millions knew their lyrics word for word. Indeed, in some areas of popular music, poetry is the whole point. For the past 20 years since the Genius of Rap album in the late 1970s, rap music has been the most influential form of music on both sides of the Atlantic. Rapping is today’s street poetry.
Most people still think of poetry as a dusty, back-of-the-bookshop, slim-volumed, minority sport. Many of the literary pages of the broadsheets and intelligent weeklies sustain that impression and reinforce the image by publishing often impenetrable reviews of poetry. Yet poetry-serious and less serious is everywhere. It is in our music, it is on our tea towels, our greeting cards, our advertisements-it is also chanted on football terraces. A recent survey suggested that over half the adult population had written a poem during their adult lives-more than had painted a painting or written a story.
For five years or so, a group of “poetry commandos” has been trying to make the media more aware of this. The main focus has been to try to change people’s perception of poetry to make us a little more like our Celtic brethren in our appreciation of it and a little less Anglo-Saxon in our reticence. Hence National Poetry Day on 9th October. Now in its fourth year, one of the themes for 1997 is “By Heart,” designed to encourage individuals to commit a poem to memory. During the day, supermarkets will hand out millions of poem cards; BBC television and radio will broadcast poems between their programmes; and throughout the country, hundreds of poetic events will take place in schools, libraries, shops and workplaces.
Why? Because many people find they love poetry when they are exposed to it. Poetry feeds the soul. It provides a channel for emotions-look at the outpouring of verse from ordinary people over the death of Princess Diana. Many people turn to poetry when they are broken-hearted, grieving or lonely. It can also give a moving, sometimes shocking, picture of contemporary life. (See, for example, The Forward Book of Poetry, an anthology I publish of the best work published in the past year that has been entered for the Forward prizes.) Those who find reading a novel at bedtime merely soporific should try a poem-they might be surprised by it.