Sunday, 6 February 2011

Popularising poetry in the UK

"The phenomenal growth of interest in poetry of all kinds since [1992] has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Forward Prizes", wrote William Sieghart in 2008. But despite the hype, poetry sales are low. Though sales aren't the only metric of success, they indicate something about the nature of the "interest" that poetry attracts. It seems that neither the public or other poets rush to read the latest work of established experts. In a recent Telegraph article, Philip Hensher points out that Sean O'Brien's "The Drowned Book" has (according to Nielsen BookScan) sold 2,715 copies in Britain to date. How can this type of poetry be made more popular? Before this can be answered it's worth asking why we should try to popularise it, and whether reading or writing should be prioritized. Possible responses include

  • Greater booksales and more workshops will lead to poets becoming richer. Workshops and university courses are far more profitable than writing books.
  • If the base of the pyramid of writers is widened, the height will be increased - we'll get better poetry.
  • It's a "good thing" for culture that poetry become more popular, and good for the individuals too.

I'll look first at readership trends, then writing trends, then at various initiatives.

More readers

How big an audience should poetry hope for? In "Staying Alive", Neil Astley wrote "the wider public, whose understanding of poets is two hundred years out of date and whose awareness of poetry is either a hundred years behind the times or else still stuck in the 1960s". There have always been poetry books that have sold fairly well (Pam Ayres in the UK for example) but haven't attracted critical acclaim. More rarely, respected books are given a PR push (in the UK Betjamin, Hughes etc).

I've heard it said that poetry used to be more popular and central in society than it is now. It's true that Byron sold in a big way. However I have my doubts about Golden Ages when poetry books sold by the cartload. Whatever the social factors that were present then, markets and social pressures are different now - middle-class pretension no longer controls the media, and people no longer have to pretend to like poetry or display poetry books on their shelves. And I think that some kinds of good poets will only ever have a small audience.

The statistics relating to sales of serious poetry books currently aren't encouraging

  • "In the US there are 900 regular buyers of hardback poetry books and 2500 regular buyers of paperback poetry books" ("Everybody wants to be a poet", The NYT, Aug 29th, 1979, p.C17, M. Kakutoni).
  • "A recent Arts Council study notes that only four per cent of the total sales of the best-selling 1000 poetry books in 1998-1999 were of contemporary poetry. The Arts Council study identifies Faber as responsible for 90 per cent of the sales ... and notes that collections by Seamus Heaney account for 67 per cent of these sales" (staple 54)
  • "The survey found that the gender gap was most pronounced among poetry readers, with women outnumbering men by nearly three to one. This finding was confirmed by research commissioned by the Arts Council of England for National Poetry Day which discovered that the majority of poetry books are bought by women over the age of 45" (MsLexia, 2001)

Perhaps this only to be expected. The market for serious poetry may always have been vanishingly small, and text has more competition nowadays.

More writers

There are more visible writers than ever. According to the Higher (Aug 6th, 2004, p.22) there are 40 creative writing post-graduate degrees in the UK (the US have about 300), and over 11,000 adult education courses. It's been suggested (by Gioia et al) that in the US the loss of poetry book sales to the public has been partially compensated for by the increase in the number of set books that creative writing students buy. Writers buy each other's books. Ron Silliman in his Blog points out that "The rise from 30 post-avant poets to 3,000 has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of readers of poetry, but not, however, in the number of readers per book". Perhaps this too can be taken as evidence that poetry-reading has reached its natural level, increasing only as the number of poetry-studiers do.

Perhaps too much poetry is being published

  • Hugo Williams, judging the 147 entries for the Forward Prize, wrote in the Guardian (July 2010) that "an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out."
  • "There's too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool." - Robin Robertson (Jonathan Cape editor)
  • There are only 30 poetry books worth publishing each year - Don Paterson (Picador editor)

Elitist? My (perhaps overly generous) take on what they mean is that given the parlous state of "serious" poetry it's even more important that the bad doesn't drive out the the good. Performance poetry - Slams and otherwise - is on the up in the UK. So is online poetry and the use of poetry in literacy courses and therapy schemes. But just as Modern Opera goers won't be consoled by the success of Beyonce, so I doubt whether those quoted above are pleased by poetry's popularity.


Let's for now take for granted that extra poetic activity is a good thing. How can it be achieved? There's no shortage of material describing how cults, political parties, charities, etc can increase their activities. Groups can make current members do more evangelising to attract new members. In these isles, several efforts have been made to widen poetry's appeal. Targets have been identified and poets have been funded to help expand poetry into these markets. Targets include

  • Radio 3 and 4 listeners
  • Newspaper supplement readers - There may not be many poetry reviews in UK newpapers, but some of them are trying to widen poetry's appeal without dumbing down much.
    • For 3 years the Independent on Sunday had a column where a modern poem (sometimes just a year or so old) was "explained" by Ruth Padel. She made a book out of these columns ("52 Ways of Looking at a Poem" - extracts are online).
    • The Guardian ran monthly online workshops.
  • Women over 45
  • The professions - Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists, etc - Poets in Residence have made inroads
  • The mentally ill
  • Music lovers - especially Dylan and rap fans. We even had a member from Radiohead on the Next Generation Poetry panel.
  • Book readers - in particular library-goers
  • Celebrity groupies
  • Teachers of literature
  • Anyone who's interested in anything! - people who like sport or religion, for example. I read that Poetry (Chicago) are thinking of providing a service to help poets place work in non-poetry mags. If you have a poem that mentions yachts they'd tell you which Yachting mags might take it.

More generally we have poetry in subway trains, National Poetry Day, and active US-style laureates.

Arts Council England has produced Thrive! poetry project: strategic development report. Here are a few extracts

  • Fragmentation and points of connection - Changes within the poetry sector are such that many question the traditional primacy of publishing and the significance attached to becoming a 'published' poet and the critical and popular success of ensuing publications. At present, a poet's significance might be judged by one or more of: publication in collections, publication of individual books or CDs, invitations to perform, size of live audiences, and prizes received. Linkages across and between the different strands and niches of the sector are poorly understood and documented.
  • The established order - Many believe that at present there is an 'establishment' comprising a small number of poets and organisations with close personal connections to each other, which tends to dominate funding, publishing, media coverage and prizes.
  • Reaching out to audiences - The sector is quick to point out that poetry, for all its potentially wide appeal, is a relatively 'difficult' art form that rewards sustained engagement. As a consequence the sector is keen that new audiences are exposed to poetry and encouraged to build their relationship with it, in an appropriate manner. Most feel that an appropriate manner means not denying or diluting poetry's complexity, and yet not giving the impression that poetry is only suitable for highly educated and dedicated enthusiasts.


What type of poetry will attract the masses? Does it have to be dumbed down or is it just a matter of selecting just the more accessible work of the greats?

I suspect that poetry has of late become more polarised. Nowadays much of the poetry that people read doesn't get counted in the official statistics as poetry. In the UK John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke appear with non-poets. And Performance poetry is more popular than it used to be. I suspect that Forms still have a special (though perhaps no longer privileged) place in the hearts of the common reader.

Genres may adapt to suit new media. People wanting a taster in poetry are quite likely nowadays to start on the WWW. It's been suggested that there could be poetry download sites (like music downloads)


Once a new poetry reader is on board they need to be given things to do. Too often people drawn into poetry by Residencies, best-sellers etc lose interest. My feeling is that non-anthology UK poetry bestsellers don't lead readers into the poetry world. Ted Hughes' book of poems about Plath leads to biography. And it's not clear where Heaney leads anyone - his claggy surfaces are rich enough for many to look no deeper. Follow-ups can be disappointing to the prospective poet who has too little experience to see beyond well-publicised Vanity Press organisations, and have too little experience of studying poetry to cope with many poetry books.

I don't think poetry has anything comparable to Eco's bestseller "The Name of the Rose". "it was not expected to be anything close to a best-seller... Eco himself has admitted that the first hundred pages were deliberately opaque, a sort of semi-permeable membrane that allowed passage to only the most dedicated reader. ... The novel has since taken its place as a contemporary classic, a work that for many readers has become a stepping stone from popular fiction into the world of modern literature."

One way to lock new poetry readers into a lifestyle commitment is to turn them into writers. My introduction to the poetry world was via library books of dead poets. I presume modern poetry books were there too, but I didn't recognise any of the poet's names so I didn't borrow their books. By chance one public library was the evening venue for a writers group. This led to my discovery of poetry magazines (available only by post). It was a slow journey. The web has changed all this - subcultures are no longer hidden. There are sites that let one slide from reader to writer, and anyone can edit their own magazine. This activity is hard to compare statistically with that of previous generations. My impression is that the web is helping to increase the membership of writers groups (and reading groups) and may be helping to delay the reduction in booksales.

I think that the poetry book market is in recession and institutional publishers are retreating to their heartland - the stuff that only poetry can do. Comedy? Leave that to stand-ups - they do it better. Narrative? Flash writers do it better. You may not like "pure poetry", "specialist poetry" (call it what you will) but I can understand why funds concentrate on it. It's meant that the gap between "high" and "low" poetry has been emptied, so that there's less flow and intermixing between the extremes (to the detriment of both, perhaps).

My suggestions are that

  • Poetry reading and writing can be mutually re-enforcing. Contacts between to 2 activities should be kept open.
  • More attention should be paid to keeping people interested in poetry after their initial trial. The sort of poetry that people first meet when they enter the poetry world may not be the poetry that sustains their interest. They need to be led beyond tempting though fruitless competitions and vanity press. If they liked Cope, what should they read next?

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I know I'm writing this a decade after you wrote it so you may never see this, but...
    I just wanted to say it's a great read, very clear, insightful and constructive.
    Many thanks and best wishes.