I have received an interesting e-mail (from my website) suggesting that my comments about the unpopularity of watercolours (most recent post) could equally well be applied to poetry, another minority interest. To which I am tempted to answer: “No, no, no, no, yes.” They are, it is true, both minority interests, but when we speak of watercolour painting having few followers we are surely speaking of it having few practitioners, whereas in the case of poetry it is readers who are in short supply. The writing of poetry (in this country at least) is in good shape. Indeed, it seems at times that there are more people writing poetry than reading it. Perhaps we would do well to devote some thought to the reasons why this might be so.
Ruth Rendell has made the point that “there are people enjoying poetry, but they are the ones who stayed in touch. Getting in touch from scratch is hard. "Death of the Reader" But why should that be so? Why should it be so much harder to get in touch with poetry than, say, with film, novels, plays, music or painting?
There are two obvious suspects to consider when looking for the culprits responsible: on the one hand we have the poets themselves, and on the other those convenient fall guys, the reviewers and critics. I will begin with the latter: their first offense is to be too few. They simply are too thin on the ground, the reason being that newspapers simply do not give wall-to-wall coverage of what is going on in the arts in general, never mind in the Cinderella art of poetry in particular, but worse than that, many would say, and Neil Astley is one of them, that reviewers very often write as though they are writing, not for their readers, but for their doctorate dissertation. At best they write as though for a specialist poetry magazine. What should be their primary function, to help their readers decide whether or not this latest volume is for them, and to help them over any intrinsic difficulties with the verses, seems secondary.
But that there are likely to be difficulties must surely be the major reason for poetry's unpopularity. Most people, I think would put post-moderns, in the dock for that state of affairs. It has, they would say, put poetry beyond the grasp of the ordinary reader, and by “ordinary reader” they would mean the non-academic, non-specialist, non-research reader. Post-modernism has made poetry impenetrably obscure and at the same time has robbed it of the sensuality, the lyricism and all that would have made the effort worthwhile. Recondite references, compacted syntax and the like, together with a lack of help from those who should provide it, make such works seem elitist and remove them from the general orbit.
Yet there is a potential audience out there. W.H.Auden was one who was often credited with being elitist, yet when “Four Weddings and a Funeral” hit the screens his “Stop All the Clocks” received enthusiastic acclaim from a broad spectrum of the (usually) non-poetry-loving public.
More often when a poem or a poet's body of work receives such acclaim it is as much for the poet as a person as for the work. John Betjeman is one who springs readily to mind. The public took to its heart a lovable old English eccentric and accepted, even got to love, the poetry along with the poet. In one sense this is no doubt but another example of the current cult of personality, and as such it is worrying, but it at least suggests to the general public a more positive image of the poet than the traditional individual: half tramp, half nutter and lost to the world.
Meanwhile, back in the ivory tower, there has, over recent years, been a huge increase in the number of poetry readings and competitions. Poetry has become a more vital part in the many Literature festivals. There has been a significant increase in the number of poet-in-residence posts and in the amount of poetry published, both in hard copy and on the net. And if much of it is of a deplorable quality, the same could no doubt be said for all the other arts, both now and at any time in the past.
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