What’s wrong with poetry?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody makes money out of poetry. One excellent, established poet I know tells me she makes £3,000-£4,000 per year from her books and readings.  All her other income comes from teaching poetry and judging competitions.  Publishers can’t make a profit from poetry books.  Sometimes they subsidise their poetry list from their literary fiction; sometimes they themselves are subsidised by the Arts Council.  The excellent poet Sean O’Brien helped me understand why this is, when he suggested that the audience for poetry in this country is between 5,000 and 10,000 readers – and most of them also write it.  Why is that?  What’s wrong with poetry that it should be so unpopular?  In this soundbyte generation, something short, pithy and memorable ought to be the art form of the day, but it is so not the case.

It’s actually worse than that.  I studied life sciences at University, not English Literature, and spent 25 years of my life among scientists, medics, marketeers, accountants, managers.  During that time I never heard a single one of them talk about a poem.  They went to the theatre, they read literary fiction, they raved about movies, they took in the big art shows at the major galleries, but never ever had anything to do with poetry. I once asked a few friends which contemporary poets they might know of, hoping for names like Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy or even Roger McGough, most of them drew a blank.  One or two ventured; “Pam Ayres?”.

When I said that after taking redundancy I was going to study poetry, it closed down the conversation immediately.  Nobody ever asked me if they could see my poems; on the other hand if I mentioned my (still half-baked) novel it was all “Can I see it?  Am I in it? What’s it about?”  One friend of mine, who was an English Literature graduate, offered the view that going to study poetry was “What you do when you are having a nervous breakdown”.  I countered that with assuring her that studying poetry was going to save me from having that nervous breakdown.

So what has gone wrong?  Why is poetry such a minority sport?  Is there something wrong with the way poetry is taught in schools that turns people off?  Is it about the way it is marketed and sold?  Or is it such an acquired taste that it simply does not speak to anyone who hasn’t studied it in depth?

Is there something wrong with the poetry?

‘Some Bright Elegance’

The cover of Kayo Chingonyi’s new pamphlet depicts a wall daubed with graffiti and blood, which complements the contents perfectly; poems with a distinctly urban vibe.  It leads us into a world of city streets and hospital beds, nightclubs, mixtapes and video games, a ‘citadel of alleyways and corners’ where each scene Chingonyi offers us, also asks us questions.

In ‘Andrew’s Corner’ which was anthologised in Salt’s The Best British Poetry 2011, Chingonyi gives us a vivid close-up of a London street scene ‘where flowers moulder in memory of Tash, / fifteen, her twenty-something boyfriend / too drunk to swerve and miss the tree’ and ‘alleys wake to condom wrappers, / kebab meat, a ballet pump’. Two poems are based on a Tate Modern exhibition by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles; ‘Red Shift’ is largely a descriptive poem in which the narrator fills his apartments with red furnishings – there may be a political subtext to the poem although Meireles denied it in his art – and ‘How to Build Cathedrals’ explores the encounter between indigenous populations and colonial powers.  One of my favourites is ‘Guide to proper Mixtape Assembly’ which reflects with nostalgia on the dying art of creating the perfect audio cassette only to lose it ‘so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name’.  Chingonyi, who is also a club MC, implies that the instant and perfect accessibility of the mp3 has trivialised and devalued our relationship with music.

The title of the pamphlet is taken from the controversial black American poet Amiri Baraka, and a thread of black consciousness weaves through the work, most strongly in the title poem, which celebrates black dancers, starting with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and notes that the dancers take ‘the swagger in your step from the ochre dust of an African Village’. The final stanza describes small but hurtful experiences of racism, but ends on an upbeat note with dancers who ‘move as if it is only them and the drums talking’.

It is only towards the end of this pamphlet that Chingoyi’s Zambian family step into the spotlight. An affectionate portrait of his mwaice wandi – kid brother – and an ambivalent elegy for his father ‘known in the shebeens, as long John’  are followed by a harrowing depiction of his dying mother, the timeline of her illness and death measured by the size of her growing son’s shoes.

When Chingonyi speaks his poems; he has them all by heart, a relatively rare skill which allows the poet to connect more completely with his audience.  The same vibrant personality comes through on the page with language full of internal rhyme and complex rhythms. But it is the subject matter that most enthrals; I’ve heard several poetry grandees bewail the reluctance of British poets to tackle the ‘big issues’, but these poems do exactly that; issues of life, death, race, faith, family and authenticity are raised and meditated on here, in a thoughtful collection.

Some Bright Elegance is published by Salt, a poetry imprint which is coming into its own as a publisher of literary fiction, Alison Moore having gained a place on this year’s Booker longlist with her novel The Lighthouse.  Salt says that it plans to use its prose success to support its efforts in poetry, which is a laudable strategy if it continues to allow poets like Chingonyi to reflect back to us what it means to be human.

Mabel’s Domestic Cherry

Last Friday night when all of you were watching Danny Boyle’s amazing opening ceremony for the Olympic Games, we ventured to Swindon for a no less astonishing event; the launch of the second edition of that superb poetry magazine, Domestic Cherry edited by Mabel Watson and Ursula Pitt.

Below, life is a whole hamper of cherries.Domestic Cherry allegedly began because some lady poets thought that we girls were under-represented in the poetry mag world (a quick count in the latest Poetry Review shows the scoreline there to be Boys 28: Girls 29, so well done with that, George Szirtes).  Whatever – there were some great contributors in Domestic Cherry.  Several of them read at the launch event; sadly neither Sharon Olds nor Chase Twichell could make it, but their poems are in there.  Several of my favourite Reading girlie poets were there and there are a few boys in the mag too.

Between ourselves, Mabel Watson looks a lot like the Bard of Swindon, Hilda Sheehan, taking on a new authorial voice. Consider Roland Barthes and the death of the author; not so much the death in this case as a kind of temporary possession.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of Hilda’s buddy, Barry, whose hi-vis jacket played hell with the flash on my camera.  But you can find out more about them both here, where there is also a picture of the splendid camel won in the raffle by Wendy Klein.  I’m not  jealous, even though I got the Marmite-flavoured chocolate.

Friday’s reading was very friendly and relaxed.  I got to read a couple of my poems and had a nice chat with Barry about psychogeography.  Their next event is October 6th, I believe, and I have already put it in my diary.

PS and there was tea, in proper teapots, and Tunnock’s tea cakes!