Sunday, 16 March 2008

Poetry Enigmas

Writing poetry is simple enough. All one needs is a notebook, a pen, and preferable a place where one likes to be, say a busy cafe or a lonely countryside, although it can come out of anywhere ... the trenches of the First World War (Wilfred Owen) or on a forced march without even a notebook or pen (Mandelstahm).

When it is a matter of anyone taking notice, it is all enigmas. Apparently no-one cares for the art, and one should be as content as Van Gogh to pursue artistic activity for its own sake. The Poetry Society has estimated that an average sale for a new book of poems is seventy copies. One the other hand, since around the time that Martin Amis signalled a change by satirising the contemporary poet indulging first-class transatlantic travel (with Seamus Heaney in mind, possibly?) a new - financial - glamour has been attached. Or a Byronic one revived. Perhaps it began with Ted Hughes's million pound plus estate ... as far as I know, the first poor boy to become a millionaire solely from the proceeds of poetry.

Small-scale publishers ever lament their difficulties, and with good reason. Yet, recently I read in Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas that, when exasperated by his major publisher (Macmillan's) edition of a mere 500 copies for hs latest book, his Selected Poems was offered to the small - and, note, provincial - publisher, Bloodaxe, who sold "an astonishing 20,000 copies" ... who then brought out five more collections, which sold "an average 9,000 copies".

And, while I have almost (though not quite) resigned myself to being a natural poet of the garret,
in the last few weeks I have not been able to stir in the newsagents' or the supermarket without poetry booklets screaming at me from above the headline news; by its positioning seeming more important than child abductions, global warming, or the peace-giving missions of the President of the World. The Guardian and The Independent (any other broadsheets that I don't know of?) have at the same moment discovered that poetry is a good way to increase circulation and give their newspapers distinction! The Indy is offering 14 of the Classics, and the Guardian, 7 of the Moderns. Isn't that truly amazing? This popular uplift, at almost no cost to themselves.

Yet not so many years ago these newspapers could not be persuaded to include a few lines of verse anywhere .... the assumption being perhaps that if they did, their readers would flee in droves. In the days when I was welcomed in Farringdon Road because I had been awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize, I tried to persuade the then literary editor to include verse, to no avail. I recall his smile of condescension.

Then it began. First of all - if I remember rightly - with a modesty akin to its quaint Country Diary column that has lingered since that paper was the Manchester Guardian. Then came a full-page shocker by publishing Tony Harrison, and now with a fanfare of booklets.

What a delight if there is a stampede of broadsheets competing to produce ever- more tasty poetry collections! A commercial 5th-column for poets!


Anonymous said...

any relation to ted, glyn?

Anonymous said...

no relation, no. See wharra mean?