Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Right To Reply #4: Part Two

(For Part One, scroll down to the post below.)

The subject: Poetry - present and future

The participants:
Martin - a professional poet from Nottingham and author of Exultations & Difficulties
Joe - an amateur performance poet
Pete - a voracious reader and the man behind The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Olav - a fellow bookworm
Ben - your host

With the apparent popularity of poetry readings and poetry evenings, is poetry returning to the oral tradition?

Joe: It looks like there is a move from the page to the stage – great! Once you go to a poetry performance, you realise how much is gained by hearing the poem read, especially if rhythmic. If I read the same poem later, it falls flat - I would just scan the words on the page. It's a good excuse for a social occasion – participants reading their own work is certainly an icebreaker.

Martin: The oral tradition is fine, but if you’ve been to an open mic poetry event recently you’ll know it’s in pretty lousy shape and in truth we’re a long way away from it. And forgive this sweeping generalisation but I don’t think most of those open mic people read poetry, otherwise they’d have more than one metre in their head, and not crave applause so much. What they do (in general) has nothing to do with anything I’m interested in, to be frank. I didn’t know poetry readings were popular. I’ve been involved in them, both as a reader and as a promoter, for some twenty years, and if thirty people turn up to a gig it’s figured a success. If that’s popular then OK.

Joe: I've seen live poetry for the last two Tuesdays. It's good to see there the kind of interest that warrants regular events around London, even though you tend to see the same old people!

Olav: I don't see any change in the popularity of such events.

Has there been a change in the way poetry is consumed?

Pete: I hardly ever buy poetry (Hegley excepted) and when I do it will be from a second hand book stall in Abergavenny market. I get most of my fixes from the web.

Martin: I suspect, in fact I know, poetry is now reaching lots of people via the internet. A couple of years ago I’d not have said this, because even that recently the notion of sitting down at the computer and finding an online poetry magazine was kind of strange – but now, I almost live by it, and even run my own website. It’s not replacing books – as I write this, my desk is literally awash with review copies of poetry books that have arrived in the mail this week. But the internet is immediate and accessible, and I’m sure it’s opened things up.

Ben: On the internet, poetry is everywhere. The stereotypical image of the blogger is someone who chronicles what they had for breakfast whilst also posting photos of their cat and reams of cringingly turgid doggerel verse – and, as with most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth in there. The web has given people a licence to foist their amateurish poetic skills and efforts onto others. At least this indicates that the urge for self-expression, of which writing poetry is a significant manifestation, is alive and well. Of course, there are also numerous decent and reputable sites devoted to poetry, and it’s these that offer real hope and promise.

Martin: If a poetry novice stumbled across my site and followed all the links, for example, they discover loads of poets and publishers and books that quite simply would have stayed hidden from them…. it’s an explorer’s heaven. I think that’s really exciting.

Pete: The web might just be the future of poetry. Most poets complain that they cannot make a living at it anyway and most poetry is published by small publishers. The web really opens up the potential readership, though it might not do the same for sales – although I have noticed that some of the contributors to Football Poets advertise their readings on there, so you never know.

Do you feel poetry is (rightly or wrongly) squeezed out of the school
syllabus by prose and drama? How much of an influence does education play in shaping attitudes towards poetry?

Martin: Of course it’s squeezed out, but I don’t know if it’s by prose and drama. More likely it’s by something else. League tables, vocational courses, and similar things. I don’t know.

Olav: I think it has some parity with prose and drama. It doesn't seem to be squeezed, at least from what I can remember.

Joe: I don't know about the poetry : prose ratio in the syllabus, as long as both are explored. If a variety of poetry is demonstrated, hopefully pupils will be inspired to give it a try.

Martin: Did you enjoy poetry at school? Did you even read any? I don’t know.

Olav: Education is our only contact. I think my first contact was with Roger McGough who I still read and whose work really does appeal across the ages (see his stuff about having kids when he's so old). Apart from such wondrous experiences, we are told to tease apart the classics from a very straight point of view in a very unexciting way, all of course allied to the syllabus. I liked Keats for a bit, then it was rammed so far down my throat that even now I have an adverse reaction to it.

Ben: The classroom environment shouldn’t be allowed to stifle any pleasure that a child might derive from a particular poem (or novel or play, for that matter). The key, I think, is to allow room for the discussion and exploration of personal responses to something. If children are encouraged and made to feel comfortable discussing their own thoughts, then they are more likely to enjoy a poem than if they are simply told from ‘on high’ what they should be feeling about it.

Joe: [There’s the] performance aspect. Reading poems can help lead into drama by developing the confidence to perform.

Olav: If they actually brought modern poets into schools and tried to breath some life into the subject at hand then there could be some hope for the future, but they can't be arsed. I'm sure, as well, that they could do with the money. It's a win win situation.

Ben: There has, I think, been a general shift in the way poetry, amongst other things, is taught in schools since I was a kid – it’s now more hands-on, and literature, including poetry, is experienced not only as something lying flat on a page but also as something brought to life.

Martin: I’ve worked a lot in schools as a visiting writer and my experience has varied. I guess I wouldn’t be in the school if there wasn’t an enthusiasm there in the first place, and when I was at school I thought all poets were dead. If poetry is alive in a school, then living poets are nearby to support it.

Ben: Perhaps contact with poetry is not enough to inspire enthusiasm, interest and passion amongst children any more – maybe it’s this level of personal contact that’s needed if poetry is to remain vital. Moreover, Olav argues that a school education gives most people their only real contact with poetry – well, it shouldn’t. It’s also the responsibility of parents to introduce their children to books and to poetry at home, and help foster an appreciation from an early age. A lack of enthusiasm for language and literature can be hereditary – and so can a passion for it.

Pete: One of the best books I have ever bought is a children's anthology featuring the likes of Zephaniah, Spike Milligan, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and others. It has some great stuff in, some serious, some funny, some wacky. Each of my kids love it. I don't know if it will give them a love of poetry, but I hope it will give them a love of words, instil in them the notion that language is important and that you can have fun just playing around with it.

How do you see the future of poetry? Is it healthy? Or in terminal decline?

Martin: I don’t think about things like this. Do carpenters worry about the future of carpentry, even though there’s an IKEA down the road? Poetry is art, and art is always there. Always has been, always will be. It’s a basic human activity. As long as people have imaginations, poetry and music and painting and all of that will be there.

Olav: Poetry will go on. It's just one of those things.

Martin: As a poet and publisher and promoter I’ve been busy to the point of exhaustion for nearly half my life thinking about how to find one more reader, how to get a few more people along to a poetry reading, how to find some more money to support a project…. Now I don’t give a damn, because I realise that for me poetry is as natural as breathing and if I treat it the same way as I do breathing – that is, as something natural and right and a part of the day – then I’m doing as much as I ever did by attending networking meetings with arts administrators, or writing letters to newspapers, or making plans to change the way the world regards poets and poetry. Poetry won’t die. It may never have a mass audience within our culture, but so what? I’d rather spend the next half hour writing a good poem than worrying about how many people are going to read it. Mind you, having said that, I’m aware I’m in a kind of privileged position because I know that most of what I write and deem good enough to send outside the house gets to be read by an audience out there somewhere in the world. But since I’ve worked hard for a long time to get to this point, I’m not sure ‘privilege’ is the right word.

Pete: I don't think poetry has much to worry about, it will develop and change as necessary. We will always have the classics, the highbrow will always communicate with the highbrow in their strange lingo, an elite will always talk to one another. Then we have the fantastic children's poets, of whom there seems to be a never-ending supply and mavericks like Cooper Clarke are always likely to spring up. We have slam poets and we have hip hop, a never-ending source of innovation, a never-ending supply of witty and wise wordsmiths. A worldwide coterie of people who can do nothing but use their language to find ways of expressing themselves and sharing it with the rest of us. Rather than poets being in crisis, I think the question should be: how the hell do we shut them up?

Ben: We live in an age when attention deficit disorder is rife amongst adults and children alike and brevity is a prized quality. In such conditions it’s hard to see how poetry can fail to flourish. The Guardian’s text message poem competition is a measure of how developments in technology can give rise to new forms of poetry. Like sonnets and haikus, text poems have to obey formal constraints – namely, they must be less than 160 characters.

Joe: What's with the doom and gloom? I think it's on the up. Concise writing is the way forwards. News stories will soon be presented as haikus. The future is poetry.

Thanks to Martin, Joe, Pete and Olav for their contributions.

A final thought, taken from Martin’s website:

"If poems can't slug it out with kids and mayhem and shopping life, overdrafts and broken cars and jobs, they're not worth shit."

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