Poetry and expression of feelings

Tom Chivers’ vision of “many more poets, writing in ever more diverse ways” is attractive, but it hides several problems. The first is that mainstream publishers are losing interest in publishing new poetry. In 1990 Faber published 27 collections of new poetry; in 2015, four excluding the Faber New Poets pamphlets which are subsidised by the Arts Council. Cape and Chatto show a similar decline. Oxford University Press discontinued publishing new poetry in 1998 with its list transferring to Carcanet and the immensely energetic Salt Publishing, which began with poetry, now publishes fiction almost only. Mainstream publishers aren’t interested in “an ever smaller slice of the cake” as Chivers puts it and now mostly limit themselves to printing popular anthologies and reprinting established poets for the library and education markets.

Newspapers show a similar loss of interest. Until the 1990s the broadsheets had separate poetry editors, most famously the Observer’s A Alvarez whose introduction to The New Poetry (1962) set poetic taste in Britain for a generation. They ran free poetry competitions with prizes, won by Dylan Thomas and Will Self in their time. No newspaper has a separate poetry editor now, reviews of poetry collections have dwindled almost to nil and poetry competitions are all pay-to-enter. As a further small indication of declining interest, the Events listing in the Guardian Saturday Review used to include poetry events. For at least three years it has listed prose events almost solely.

Poetry publishing now relies on specialist poetry publishers such as Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Seren which are heavily subsidised by the Arts Council and on small presses run and funded by their founders’ energy and commitment, mostly producing pamphlets of new verse in very small runs. The risk of this situation is that the Arts Council allocates most of its funding to art forms with high national prestige – theatre, opera, classical music, ballet, art galleries and museums. Literature already receives little funding and, if poetry is no longer seen as prestigious, its funding will be cut further. The UK will then be the same position as the USA where almost all new poetry is published in small circulation magazines, tiny print runs and increasingly online.

Would this matter? Wouldn’t it be sufficient for new poems to be posted online or, at best, in very small-scale paper publications? I think it would matter because poets need the possibility of large-scale paper publication if they are to undertake the labour of learning to write well. Publication on paper means a publisher has decided the poems are good enough to be worth spending money on and books can last for hundreds of years, giving the distinctive continuing pleasure of reading text on paper rather than on a screen. Publication online costs nothing and can be deleted in a nanosecond. Unless poets have the possibility of large-scale publication, they will devote their energies to forms that still have this possibility – fiction, plays, filmscripts, songs.

Each generation therefore needs poets that achieve large-scale publication with poems that are widely considered memorable as examples and inspirations. Without these, poetry will decline into little more than samizdat – manuscripts circulated among friends. I think people attend poetry readings and festivals not just to see and hear ‘names’ but with a thirst to hear poems that are potentially memorable, potentially able to be loved. Without this, attendance at poetry festivals will gradually decline (Aldeburgh’s retrenchment may be a sign of things to come); fewer people will spend their money on entry fees for competitions or poetry writing courses; and reading and writing poetry will become a minor, slightly eccentric habit like embroidery or dog breeding. Poetry will still be taught in schools as part of our cultural heritage, but ever more remote from students’ lives – rather like, in early 20th century China, trainee mandarins having to pass a test in archery, just because they always had.