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?