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?

56 thoughts on “What’s wrong with poetry?

  1. I would start by suggesting that it’s not so much unpopular as unknown. The process of finding good poetry is like mining from very poor ore. The mines used to be productive but now the amount of rubble that has to be processed to find a few grams of poetry is so huge that most have been abandoned. All that’s left is a few merry panhandlers down by the streams that flow from the old workings. There was a site with a catchy name, I think it was poetry dotcom – not sure now, which had, when I looked a long time ago, four million members. If each had uploaded say 10 poems, that would be forty million poems. If you read them at the rate of 100 per day, which quickly might prove fatal, it would take 400,000 days to read them all, i.e. over 1,000 years. Now that I think about it, the fact that there are so few publications is something of a miracle, and a very welcome miracle. That there are so few readers is something of a reflection on the four million and by projection, hundreds of millions of those who write poetry. Then again, I tack again and think that can’t be right, there must be more readers than buy books and magazines. There is so much good poetry online, classics and modern as well, one might almost say that nearly everything is online. Making a living is a problem for all writers, poets, short story writers and novelists alike.


  2. Perhaps somebody should be sifting all that stuff for us. In fact, editors of anthologies are doing some of that. There is some great contemporary poetry out there, I am really just wondering why normal, educated people, who like art galleries, cinema, theatre, and literary fiction, would never pick up a book of poems. The Man Booker Prize gets them all excited, but the Forward Prize or the TS Eliot – what are they? Why is poetry a fringe activity? What turns people off?


  3. I am a writer and performer of poetry. I co-present a programme on community local radio called ‘Themes for Dreamers’ which is largely about poetry. I also happen to be a secularist. I could not live a civilised life without poetry. I have had to officiate at the funerals of 3 lifelong atheists. They were 89, 60 and 84 when they died and all lived jam-packed-full lives. There was no other way to do justice to their memory in 30 minutes than through the use of distilled, concentrated language which included phonic and rhythmic techniques and repetition to produce a more vivid impression on the listener – in other words: poetry.

    When I was studying creative writing with the Open University, I was appalled by how many students, including some who harboured definite ambitions to write full-time, said they did not “do” poetry. Writing poetry requires having control of language. If you can’t control language then, in my opinion, you are not qualified to be a writer. Some of the best prose writers I know of (David Peace is an example) do not publish their poetry, but they do write it, and lend some of its techniques to their prose.

    On a recent reading tour to promote an anthology called ‘A Complicated Way of Being Ignored’ (one definition of poetry) I noticed how poor the material was in the “read-round” (impromptu contributions from the audience after the main reading). The outstanding exception was at the Otley Poets, but at all the other locations, it was dire. The commonest failings were being too pretentious and abstract, or being too puerile and silly. I think it is in everybody’s interest for good poets to be impatient and vocal with bad poets. Poetry should inspire the imagination and move the emotions: it absolutely should not bore or alienate.


  4. I would say that for me, it’s fear of not understanding – like Opera or Gilbert and Sullivan. I don’t go to the opera because I have a fear that I won’t understand it and will will be the only person sat there wanting the wikipedia synopsis of it.

    My knowledge of poetry extends to yes, Pam Ayres, John Masefield’s Cargoes – which I had to learn and write from memory for school, and the poems of Robert Frost; which I did for O Level English Lit and loved – even if they are all about death in some way. I have a book of Robert Frost’s poems and I have an anthology that my husband bought me one Christmas, but I don’t know anything about poetry and I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid that I’ll say things such as ‘I like that because I see the picture of the glorious scenery in my head’ only to be stared at and laughed at by intelliegent people and discover it’s actually about early twentieth century Soviet Gulags and that I’ve missed the point entirely.

    I don’t think I’m clever enough to read poetry. It’s in the same class as a broadsheet crossword, that’s ‘above’ me too.


    • Pam Ayres is not poetry. Before we can make any other progress, we need to explain to people, plainly and calmly, that Pam Ayres is not poetry. Calling Pam Ayres poetry is equivalent to calling a painting by numbers version of the Mona Lisa, “The Mona Lisa”.

      What Pam Ayres writes is “verse”, i.e. it rhymes and has rhythm (just the painting by numbers has colours and brush strokes) but it is too narrow and incomplete to call it poetry. In verse, what you say, what words you choose, is often decided by requirements such as a rhyme scheme or verse form. Doing this very rigidly produces a comic effect, which Pam Ayres exploits. Poets do this more subtly, and nearly always try to avoid the comic effect.

      If you want an example of something well-known and accessible which is out-and-out poetry, the one I would recommend is ‘The Jumblies’, by Edward Lear. That is a nursery-rhyme, but it is also an expertly-written and profound poem. My opinion of it is that it is a poem about risk-taking and teenage angst.

      Poetry does not have to rhyme. John Milton, the author of ‘Paradise Lost’, believed that the tendency in his day for more and more poetry to rhyme was a bad thing, and too limiting.


      • I think Pam Ayres’s poetry IS poetry. Whether it is GOOD poetry is another question. But it’s the accessible end of the genre, and from there only a small step to Wendy Cope, John Hegley, Sophie Hannah, Ian McMillan, and from there… further and deeper into poetry. You’ve got to start somewhere, the trick is not to stop there.


      • I think Pam Ayres is too liable to send people in the wrong direction. An analogy might be starting to teach people about astronomy by talking about astrology. Edward Lear, Michael Rosen, Spike Milligan, Ian McMillan, Hilaire Belloc, and even T. S. Eliot all wrote/write at least some poetry which any average 8 year old could understand. They knock the spots off Pam Ayres.

        I agree that, given a choice between Pam Ayres and nothing, I would choose Pam Ayres.


      • ” Pam Ayres is not poetry. Before we can make any other progress, we need to explain to people, plainly and calmly, that Pam Ayres is not poetry.”

        And right there you’ve explained to me why I don’t read poetry, because people like you come along and insult what little knowledge I have in engaging with the subject. Perhaps it may have been less insulting to start your reply by ignoring my stupidity and saying, “You liked Pam Ayres, great! Well as she writes verse you might like to try other people who write verse, such as….. Just a thought there…


      • Rach I would agree. To make a prose analogy: Before you get to James Joyce you have to start with Agatha Christie! Or 50 Shades…


    • Fear of not understanding is something that I feel is a problem as well. And I think that it’s not helped by some modern poets. I did English Literature to degree level, but still sometimes feel like I haven’t read enough, don’t get enough.

      But I love going to the opera, and I’m never scared that I won’t understand it, because even though it’s in another language, at our local theatre, there is a digital screen above the stage with surtitles, and you can buy a programme for £5 which gives you the synopsis and a couple of essays on how the work was made and what it’s all about. From there, it’s easy to follow the gist of what is happening and pick up on a lot of the deeper themes and ideas.

      Likewise, if you ever want to read Shakespeare, get the Cambridge schools edition, on one page you get the full text, on the other you get a running synopsis, a mini glossary of the old words and suggestions for activities to think about the play. You get the full experience of the text, but you’re not on your own.

      I never want poetry to dumb down, but if you’re going to fight for poetry not dumbing down, then you have to make sure that you give everyone possible a leg up so that they can access the poems, and too many poets don’t get close to this. Which is odd, when even TS Eliot provided a notes section to help at the back of The Waste Land.


  5. Nothing’s wrong with poetry. These are great and wonderful days for poetry. The only thing that’s wrong is trying to measure everything by bourgeois values. It’s actually great that poetry is among the few things capitalism can’t turn into more capital.


    • Is it bourgeois to expect poetry presses to keep on publishing books when they might only sell 200 copies and make a loss? Is it bourgeois to want to introduce a wider audience to poetry, or is it only for a self-appointed elite? If we love poetry so much, shouldn’t we nurture it, or is there a La Boheme tragic beauty ethos going on?


      • No, itis not and, even if it were, I would not care. My colleagues and I go to a lot of trouble to get funding for projects. We can see from audience reactions that are efforts produce a great deal of enjoyment. Any-one, like the previous commenter, who suggests that a thing’s not breaking even is somehow good is talking nonsense.


  6. I think half the problem is that people are put off poetry for life at early age. Even at primary level we ask students to pick apart and discuss poems, they are rarely allowed to read them purely for enjoyment, the way they are encouraged to read other literature.

    Also a lot modern poetry is too “clever” for ordinary folks, the images are not easily understood and there seems to be a number of modern poets who appear to just be clever for cleverness sake, a case of look how intelligent/literate I am, and writing for the approval of other poets/literary folks.

    I love poetry and both read and write it (though yet to be published). I like poems that speak to me on either an emotional level or tell a good story. I don’t want to be consulting a dictionary for every second word.

    I have a poetry app (can’t remember which one) on my iPod touch and when I have to wait somewhere, e.g. doctors or when a friend is late for coffee, I like to read one or two poems. There is a lot of poetry available online, but for good modern poetry I think you do need to be prepared to buy either magazines or books. I try to buy as much as I can afford.

    That said, I do also borrow what I can from libraries but find that the is a dearth of poetry books in my local libraries and what there is I usually have to wait for as they will only have one copy of each book between about six libraries. I am not sure if this reflects what people want to read or if people aren’t reading it because it is not available.


  7. I think I would have to say that the SEEMINGLY elitist nature turns people off. Or put it another way, it turns me off…..like Ballet, Classical Music, Modern Art…..oops Im not very sophisticated. I think the sheer compulsory nature at school was a turn off……from hosts of golden daffodils when I was about 8 years old.
    Poetry can be a bit emotional I remember the class of 55 boys laughing at me as I was 8 years old and read a poem about a rabbit caught in a snare and when I was about 12 another set of 35 boys laughed at me for blubbing my way thru “The Old Woman of the Roads” (Paraic Colm sp)
    Certainly those compare and contrast essays……”this poem is 16 lines of iambic pentameter” were a killjoy…..although for O Level there were poems I actually “got”…..”An Irish Airman Forsees His Death” (Yeats), “When I Have Fears (JOhn Keats)……and I do “get” the one about Ozymandious (sp) that all things pass and “Dulce et Decorum Est”……and an odd one which began “Today we have naming of parts” (a semi comical war poem.)

    The thing is maybe that the best poems (in my view) are ones we “get”. It seems like a word puzzle. They set out to be obscure and we are ot actually meant to get it. To over-simplify Prose is about making meanings clear….precise. A total over-simplification but could Treasure island be written as a poem.
    Could we ask 12 year old to explain a poem called Treasure Island. “Well I thought it was about a ship and an island”. “Oh I thought it was a commentary on……feminism”….because when we interpret a poem just about any answer is acceptable.
    But in prose…only one meaning is clear.
    I suppose Language is about Communication. I just want to shout at poets…..”for Gods sake….tell me what you mean……dont make me read 16 lines of iambic pentameter 25 times before I dare suggest it might be about……whatever.
    I guess I am just not sophisticated enough…and poets (too often) enjoy the high ground of sophistication.
    You mention Pam Ayres who for many teaching poetry at the better (allegedly) universities ….cheapened the art form. Maybe it was Jealousy…..but “I wish Id looked after me teeth” actually has meaning.
    The only poetry book I actually own is by Seamus Heaney. Largely because he is “one of us” ..not just Irish but a northern Catholic/nationalist like myself. And probably I “get” him because he “gets” us.


    • If you like Heaney, you’ll probably like Michael Longley, Colette Bryce, Derek Mahon, Sinead Morrisey, maybe Paul Muldoon. All fabulous Irish writers. There is an accessible end of poetry and there is an experimental free verse style that people tell me is good but you can’t approach it as a starting point, you have to get to it gradually. A few years ago I thought TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ was far too clever clever and unfathomable. Now I can see it, but I don’t always want to work that hard and Google every other line to understand it. I do prefer poetry to have some clarity. A lot of contemporary poetry is surprisingly accessible.


  8. I just got this comment from Sarah McEvoy, via Facebook , which I am posting for completeness.

    I *love* poetry. I write it. I even translate it (you give me a sonnet by Petrarch, I’ll give you a sonnet in English – it’s not a real translation if you don’t capture the rhyme and metre as well as the sense of the words).

    But I do not get free verse, no matter how hard I try. I realise there must be some kind of rules behind it, or it would just be prose, but I don’t understand for the life of me what the rules are. So, because it is too hard for me, I leave it strictly alone.


  9. I think that poetry is, unfortunately, regarded as elitist or only for literary people. Like Maths it is something be loved or loathed, you either get it or you don’t and for most people it is something they feel is too difficult to engage with.

    This is very sad in my view, we start children off with nursery ryhmes and many can recite them before they can read them, yet we somehow manage to switch them off poetry when they get to school.

    There is a wealth of accessible poetry out there that everyone of whatever ability could enjoy. Maybe it is our job as writers/poets to bring the poetry to the people, to make it fun, engaging and enjoyable.


  10. I just don’t ‘get’ it, I’m afraid, in the same way that I don’t ‘get’ most of modern art. Sometimes I can look at a modern painting and think, there’s something I like about that bit there: the shape or the colour or the texture. In the same way I will rarely encounter a poem in which a certain line or phrase grabs me – something about the rhythm or the alliteration perhaps. But almost never will I find a poem that enchants me as a whole.
    I think I’m more about pictures than words. Even in terms of art, I need to be able to see what it ‘is’, to have it generate a story for me. Poetry for me is often just splashes of multi-coloured words. It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything to me. I’m more likely to be taken with the lyrics of a song, perhaps because songs are more often situational and directly emotional. I also admire comic poets like Les Barker, who can surprise you with a rhyme that you didn’t see coming.
    I hated studing poetry at school (but then I hated studying English Literature full stop). It strikes me as something you can perhaps learn to enjoy, but it’s easier for me to find beauty in portraiture or sculpture or music (yes, including opera) or even algebra and calculus. I’m just not good with words, and don’t read novels either as a rule.
    I evidently have no soul.


    • Which poems have you tried reading, Sally? Because I know you like Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”. The best poetry is full of what they call “sonics” – beautiful sounds – so if you can get song lyrics, then there are some poems that should come right for you.


  11. Another way of saying that, no matter how contradictory it may sound, is that poetry needs the chance to be read out loud. One of the most basic mistakes made by people who are just starting to write poetry is that they don’t read out loud as they are composing and editing.


    • Agree. When I’m writing I read my stuff aloud, rather than count the feet, and sometimes I read aloud into my mobile phone’s record thingy and play it back. It’s the best way to feel the rhythm, and to scrub out the tongue-twisters. Do you think if more people heard it read, rather than tried to pick it up off the page, they might engage with poetry more easily?


  12. Great debate!
    I love reading: but my choice of books is quite specific… I prefer certain authors and am not expected to like all authors.

    When it comes to poetry I love some of it, but I certainly don’t love all of it… yet it seems all ‘poetry’ is usually lumped together –

    I agree that we ask children too young to dissect and analyse poetry – and in the early stages opening children’s eyes and ears to poetry is the most important thing. I clearly remember TS Eliot’s Railway Cat

    being read in my second year at school… so I was about 6, and so enjoyed the sounds, the rhythms and the story. This was read aloud at story time by one inspired student teacher: she also read lots of AA Milne, story and poems.

    Between that time and my ‘O’ levels I don’t remember any poetry exposure through school. How sad is that?

    I believe that there should be more programmes such as ‘Poetry Please’ on the radio to help the listening public have a little more exposure to poetry. Maybe a daily poem at the end of the news every day?
    The more familiar it becomes the more people will develop a liking. A little demystification would go along way.


    • I always think that a good poetry reading would make wonderful and cheap as chips TV. “Poetry Please” has a couple of problems, as far as I can see – 1) it is requested by a Radio 4 audience, whose average age is 56, and 2) it relies on them asking to hear poems they already know. How do we get the rest of the UK’s demographic to hear poetry that is new to them?


      • I read an article by Libby Purves about 10 years ago which commented on some poetry readings that had been shown by the BBC. One of the narrators was Leo McKern, who, she observed, had spurned auto-cue and learnt the poems by heart. She thought it was very engaging television and, like you, she noted that it was very cheap to make in comparison with most other productions.

        Possibly the best living exponent of this kind of thing is Ian McMillan. He recently crossed the boundary between music and poetry with the Ian McMillan Orchestra (which split up a few days ago after some very successful performances). They used to do some poetry, some music, some work that was a combination of the two, and Ian McMillan’s signature extemporisation based on two or three themes from the audience. Ian also mingles with the audience during the interval. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid him. My 12 year-old son, who is definitely of the video game rather than book generation, found it fascinating and easy to interact with. Even the poems in which the vocabularly was too advanced for him to grasp all the meaning, he found the patterns of the words entertaining.


      • There are some very influential people who think poetry should never be read by actors, only by the poets themselves. All I can say is, in that case, some poets should take a few acting classes. I love McMillan’s work, it is hilarious. He was the visiting poet at an Arvon course I went on, and I had the privilege of making a cup of coffee for Ian McMillan.


  13. The problem is a lot about poetry being lumped together as an all or nothing proposition. Some arts present themselves like this, contemporary art is another form which does the same, but this isn’t really how we access art.

    I don’t like classical music, I like bach, hildegard von bingen, sibelius. I’ve changed my mind about Mozart. Stravinsky and boulez leave me cold.

    I don’t like pop music. I like records on the asthmatic kitty and bella union labels. I like the beatles but not the stones.

    I don’t like movies. I like werner herzog and sylvain chomet. I thought the avengers movie was more fun than this years batman.

    I don’t like novels. I like anne tyler, john lecarre, ali smith. I read 200 pages of martin amis aged 19 and was put off him for life.

    I don’t like poetry. I like wendell berry. I just found out about kay ryan. I like george herbert and ee cummings. Theed a great selection of contemporary poetry in our local library, but most of it leaves me cold.

    Nobody likes all poetry. which means that if poetry is presented as an all or nothing proposition, the logical answer has to be nothing, because who can like it all? And who would want to?


    • You are right, Simon, but a lot of people say “I don’t like poetry” as if it were all the same thing. Nobody would say “I don’t like music” or “I don’t like fiction”, would they?


      • Perhaps the reason that people lump all poetry together is that one thing poetry lacks is an impulse to be fashionable.

        In my personal experience of life and other people, music, fiction, film, are easily transported into a conversation of what consistutes a fashionable lifestyle. That conversation operates on a number of levels, what is fashionable within ‘pop’ culture, what has a ‘cult’ following, what is fashionable if you listen to Radio 2… etc.

        Poetry does not seem to exist within that wider cultural vocabulary of fashion. I’m not an expert on the world of poetry and I’m sure writers go in and out of style within the sub-culture, but I don’t think there is a poet that you can read and associate with contemporary fashion and thinking in the same way as Rhianna, Christopher Nolan, 50 shades etc.

        If ‘poetry’ wanted to get into that conversation, then the simplistic answer is youth. Not just young readers, but a stronger culture of younger, rawer, more fashion conscious poets would need to be promoted and published. Even if that meant they got prioritised over other writers who had greater craft, deeper insight and better philosophy. There are not many media in which popularity and artistic achievement go hand in hand.

        Perhaps a youth writing movement would be able to avoid the pressures of the canon too. Rule number 1 for any budding TS Eliots, don’t write like TS Eliot.

        But it is not clear that either a) that is possible, or b) that is desirable. Perhaps poetry’s place is outside of fashion, providing a prophetic voice for those who will listen. Perhaps poetry’s place is to maintain purer standards of writing and thought that may trickledown into the cultural arena. But if it is, then that is a choice that needs to be embraced and lived and accepted that most people in western culture will therefore ignore poetry.

        Then poets and readers live with the consolation of Ezekiel in the Bible ‘And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them.’


  14. There are young poets on the scene. The Foyle Young Poets competition is for school age poets. There is also the Salt Younger Poets anthology available from Salt Publishing. Also the slam and spoken word scene is buzzing. Check out Apples and Snakes, and Kayo Chingonyi and Kate Tempest on You Tube. But I think of poetry as less like pop music and more like literary fiction; Hilary Mantel and Will Self might no longer be spring chickens, but people await their new literary effusions with interest, even excitement.

    I have no thoughts of poetic purity and it being above other forms of writing.


    • Hi again. Had the time to check out apples and snakes last night. Seems good, but at the same time, their promotional stuff had Michael Rosen front and centre. I like Michael Rosen, and my 5 year old adores Little Rabbit Foo Foo and Going on a Bear Hunt, but youth… he once was. =)

      It’s the joy of poetry that it can be thought of as closer to pop music or literary fiction. Poetry can extend an idea, or go deeper with an idea than pop. But at the same time, pop and alternative music has a lot to teach poets if poets are serious about reaching an audience wider and more diverse than the ‘professional reading’ poetry audience.

      Tried Will Self but haven’t read Hilary Mantel. But I would say they fit into that wider cultural discourse of fashion. Will Self has done things like Shooting Stars on TV. Wolf Hall will be on BBC 2 in late 2013.

      What I was trying to say with the ‘poetry purity’ point is not that poetry is, or should be, more pure than other literary forms. It’s that if poetry wants to be reaching a wider readership than a ‘professional poetry’ readership, then it can achieve that, by entering a wider social discourse in which the value of ‘being fashionable’ is highly prized.

      However, it is unclear that is a good direction for individual poets or poetry as a whole. It will be a choice which authors and publishers will need to make. Because there is lot of fashionable stuff and thinking that needs holding up and saying ‘really?’ Poetry has fulfilled that role in the past. It can do it again. But it needs to be recognised as a choice to be made to reject fashionability.


  15. The reason why poetry is unpopular, is because poetry has been killed by the modernists. Since then, poetry has to be unrhymed, hermetic, not understandable. If you write poetry which rhymes (which is in fact more difficult than writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme) and makes sense, you are critisized by the self-proclaimed “modern” artists who think they are a genius because they write stuff that nobody understands. The truth is, contemporay poetry is as dead as contemporary art. Poets can no longer rhyme, painters can no longer paint, yet still they manage to convince some critics that this is “high art”. In the end, it’s all a great hoax and no sane person really buys it.
    (Sorry for my bad English, I am not a native speaker.)


  16. Thanks, Daffodil. I agree with you that I like to see some craft and beauty in a poem, but I don’t agree that it always has to rhyme. When Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” in 1674, he bemoaned the modern tyranny of rhyme, and explained why he, like classical Latin poets, was not going to rhyme his work.


    The language we use should be beautiful and powerful, but it has not always been the fashion to have end rhymes, and there’s no need to always do it now. In fact it often has an unintended comic effect unless it is very subtle.


  17. I’m glad you made the point about Milton. I don’t agree that poetry has been killed by modernism. Modernism is not something you can dispense with. We had an industrial revolution. We have had WW1, WW2 and countless others. People have to react to that. One of the easiest ways to write bad poetry is to write rhyming couplets about birds on trees.

    I recommend ‘Afternoons’ by Philip Larkin. You can find it on the internet if you search for it. It doesn’t rhyme. It is about contemporary subject matter. It needs some thinking about, but it is easily understandable and powerful.


  18. I think this is far more complex an issue:
    1). The general society is against intellectualism unless it directly produces money or power and poetry is considered an intellectual pursuit that does neither. Therefore, the society, in general, rejects it.
    2). Poetry is a form of edutainment, meaning it really is supposed to not only educate, but be entertaining as well. In that, poetry is competing with a lot of entertainment that is far more “easy fun”.
    3). Poetry is difficult to understand partly because the educated public is far less educated in the classical way. However, more to the point, poetry’s chief power is in metaphor and not only is metaphor not taught well anymore, but I believe the vast majority of the population is incapable of thinking metaphorically.


    • Everything you said is true under certain circumstances, but I think you have over-generalised. Not all poetry is difficult to understand. Contemporary poetry certainly does not require a “classical” education (in fact, having a classical education can make contemporary poetry more difficult to understand). Poetry deals – or should deal – with universal themes: birth, death, love, hate, possession, loss, and so forth. People expect to get their commentary on these things for nothing. The best analogy I can think of is that people think of poetry in the same way they think of oxygen: it should be free, and they don’t give a damn how or where or why it is produced, as long as it goes on forever.


  19. I’d like to know which contemporary poetry people think is hard to understand. There’s such a lot that is very accessible – and relatively little obscure stuff. Anyone starting with Sean O’Brien’s “The Firebox” or any of the Bloodaxe anthologies would probably get on fine.


    • It depends how you define “contemporary”. If it means, simply, “written recently”, then there is any amount of contemporary poetry that nobody understands – not even the person who wrote it. The worst offenders (***generalisation klaxon***) tend to be the vocabulary freaks, who have to get words like “tourmaline” or “opalescent” into every stanza. Poetry, in my opinion, is a form of communication, and communication is mostly about meaning. What something sounds like, while still important, is, in my opinion, secondary to its meaning.


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