The Enlightenment Has Gone Too Far


In a blog post I wrote here a couple of months ago I wondered what was to become of poetry, in a soliloquy triggered by Salt’s move away from publishing poetry collections. Since then I’ve been musing on why the future of poetry even matters. If my ‘hobby’ were brass rubbing or model railways, it would be enough to just get on with it, with no need to evangelise the world. But I believe that poetry is more fundamental to humanity than that, and it shouldn’t be the minority sport it currently seems to be. In some ways, this is an essay I wrote in my head while studying for my MA at Royal Holloway, but I never wrote it all down until now.

The German poet and academic, Durs Grünbein, wrote a terrific little book of essays called The Bars of Atlantis. In one of those essays he reminds us that Plato, in his utopian book Republic, wanted to ban all poets from his ideal state and replace them with philosophers. The reason for this is that poets are inspired by the gods – they don’t really know what they are saying. Their work appeals to the emotions and the irrational part of our nature. Philosophers, on the other hand, use logic and reasoning to deal with human issues. Plato finds that preferable.

You might say that this was the beginning of that great human project: ‘The Enlightenment’. If humanity is to progress, thought Plato, it must turn away from the emotional and irrational, and value only tangible objects and hard facts. Some other German literary theorists, Thomas Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing in the early 1940s, when you might have thought they had more pressing preoccupations, stated that; ‘Enlightenment’s Programme was the disenchantment of the world’ meaning, literally, the removal of enchantment, superstition, woo. A switch, if you like, away from feeling and towards knowing. They went further, asserting:

Anything which cannot be resolved into numbers… is illusion; modern positivism consigns it to poetry.’

How much truer that is now than it was in 1944. In our society, poetry barely touches anyone once they are beyond school age, surfacing only at the occasional wedding or funeral. Instead, in the developed world at least, a grasping materialism has won out over every other philosophy ever espoused. And where has that got us?

I think we need poetry more than ever, post World Wars, post 9/11, post credit crunch. And we need it because it connects us to a side of human nature that has been increasingly suppressed since Plato. The arts are the last refuge of our emotional natures – a place where truths can be expressed in feelings rather than numbers – which may allow those truths to penetrate more deeply into our consciousness. I don’t see this as an opposition to rationality, I see it as a complement to it.

Various thinkers have expressed the idea that humankind is a language animal. Not to say that no other species is able to communicate, but for humans, it’s the fundamental ability that sets us apart from others and has made us able to understand, collaborate, record, learn and, hopefully, progress as a species and a civilisation. Because of language we can express complex abstract thoughts – like the ones you are reading now – and understand the mind of another human being. And poetry, being made of language, is one of the chief ways we can meet another mind. Because poetry uses not only the meaning of words but also their sound, rhythm, and cultural resonances, it’s more powerful than other forms of language, and has the ability to transmit not only ideas, but emotions, experiences, memories.

T. S. Eliot invented the concept of the ‘Objective Correlative’.  He said that:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

So far, so dry and dusty. But Eliot is actually saying that it is possible to invent a series of words, with all their associated rhythms, sounds and meanings, which can evoke a specific and particular state of mind in the reader. A poem is a recipe for an emotion. It’s very nearly a magic spell. Eliot, like a number of other poets through the ages, sensed the shamanistic properties of poetry, and poets’ flagrant use of language to alter the states of consciousness of their readers. This can also happen with music, or a movie, but I think poetry is the most concentrated form. Little quantum packets of life heading straight for your brain.

One of my favourite contemporary poets is Alice Oswald. In a piece she wrote for The Guardian on Ted Hughes (a poetic Shaman if ever there was one), she describes the first time she read Hughes’ poem ‘The Horses’:

What struck me straightaway was the real, breathing presence of those horses. They hadn’t been described. They hadn’t been defined or suggested or analysed or in any way poeticised, but summoned up alive, brought back into being in the medium of language, still “steaming and glistening”.

Oswald acknowledges Hughes’ power to ‘summon’ the horses into her mind’s eye. She saw them as Hughes saw them; he shared that moment of his life with someone he didn’t know, and she understood it. Poetry can be powerful.

Maria Miller, our current Culture Secretary, recently said that arts executives need to “hammer home the value of culture to our economy”. She obviously sees the arts she is responsible for as simply commodity entertainment. I think she’s totally missed the point. Culture – the arts – is of value to our whole society and our collective sanity. We live in a world where more than ever we need to understand each other, see the world with another person’s eyes. Only by doing that can we develop empathy and only with empathy can we forge a decent society. Reading, listening to and writing poetry should be a big part of that. That’s why we need to find ways of stretching the appreciation of poetry to a much, much wider audience. That’s why somebody has to keep printing poetry, and putting on poetry events. That’s why the future of poetry still matters.

The photo here is Foucault’s Pendulum, in the Pantheon in Paris. The building was planned as the church of St Genevieve, but part way though building it, the Revolution happened and it is now a “secular mausoleum”. Marie and Pierre Curie are buried there, among many other French dignitaries. I thought it was a nice parable of the triumph of the rational over the emotional.

Poetry 101 – Building the Brand

046It’s a supply and demand problem. We’ve got some amazing new poetry in the UK at the moment, but nobody wants it. Ever since Salt Publishing announced (well, sort of, there wasn’t exactly a Press Release) that it would no longer publish any new poetry, apart from anthologies, there’s been a round of agonised hand-wringing in the poetry world. Poets want to know why it is so hard to publish poetry books, and why, when they are published, they barely sell more than a couple of hundred copies. Poets who have their first collection out want to know why they are permanently classed as ‘emerging’ rather than ‘established’ poets. There has been talk of the End of Poetry.

At the root of the problem is this; poetry in this country is a subculture (or maybe a cult). It’s generally only the people who write poetry who also read poetry, because they are the only people who really understand it and have their ears and brains attuned to it. Even some of the people who write the stuff don’t know how cringingly bad their work is, because they don’t read enough of it to have an appreciation of what good poetry looks and sounds like.

I earned my MBA from London Business School. I could (and I might) spend time drawing up a Porter’s Five Forces diagram for poetry, or doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. There are poets who would shudder at the idea that poetry might even be amenable to such commercial dissection, and I will address some of the less ‘monetisable’ aspects of it in a later post. In brief, though, poetry needs to make a profit, or at least break even, before it can be published. Some people may subsidise the magazines they run, but for most of us that’s not viable and I maintain it shouldn’t be necessary. So, there are four ways we can consider making a positive difference to the margin:

1. Charge more for the product.

This probably isn’t going to work. It generally only works if people are clamouring to buy the product in the first place, and scarcity (c.f. designer handbags) adds value to the proposition. Although, I will say that one bookshop I know sells a lot of American poetry books, and the shop owner believes this is because they are beautiful objects in their own right; smooth paper, attractive typefaces, good typesetting with plenty of white space, luxury endpaper, gorgeous covers. The poetry gift market, maybe. Certainly books to treasure.

There’s also something to be said for ensuring that the quality of the actual poetry between those covers is high. Every poem needs to earn its place in a collection, there’s no room for fillers and makeweights. The skilled editor is key in this endeavour. Maybe there are too few of them around. Maybe those who are around, are unappreciated.

2. Charge less for the product.

This only makes sense if it helps you shift more stock, which is unlikely. Maybe there is a market for poetry downloads for Kindle, or poetry apps. One thing we shouldn’t do is make actual printed books look any cheaper or tackier. There’s such a thing as a ‘value signal’. I’m fond of the Stella Artois approach; reassuringly expensive. I don’t think there is much call for discount poetry.

As for low quality poetry; well, Pam Ayres, Helen Steiner Rice and Patience Strong have always sold well. Hallmark Cards are still in business. There is a lowest common denominator approach that hinges on giving the people what they think they want, rather than giving them something wonderful. Reality TV works on that premise. I’m assuming that most poets don’t want to go there. I certainly don’t.

3. Upgrade the Product.

This is a bit radical, but examples of it working are already available. If printed single-poet collections don’t sell (unless you are Seamus Heaney or Carol-Ann Duffy, or indeed, Pam Ayres), then sell your poetry in other formats. Spoken Word events are thriving, and poets who mostly perform their work seem to be appreciated by a growing ‘youth’ audience. Crossover with rap music is helpful, as poets like Kate Tempest (recently endorsed on twitter by Stan Collymore) have found. Poets who have been genre-busting for decades, like John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke, have found their audiences by getting out into comedy and music, respectively. It hasn’t done their careers any harm. It certainly helps to be accessible, but it may not be the place for every earnest experimental poet. It’s also a tough, gigging lifestyle, like being a stand-up comic. Not everyone is well-placed to do that.

Anthologies sell well. Bloodaxe have produced ‘Being Human’, ‘Staying Human’ and ‘Identity Parade’; the first two of these, at least, have stretched out beyond the usual poetry audience. Salt are cannily hanging on to the annual ‘Best British Poetry’ anthologies and have recently showcased new talent in ‘Salt Younger Poets’. But having read one or two excellent poems in those books, how many general readers then go on to look for more work by the poets they enjoyed? It doesn’t translate into sales.

Themed ‘Poetry Projects’ are fashionable at the moment. ‘Binders Full of Women’, ‘Poems for Pussy Riot’ and ‘Penning Perfumes’ address particular topics and cause a buzz in the poetry world. Publications are sometimes secondary to performance, and kudos to anybody who runs any of those performances outside London.  (It seems the ‘poetry set’ really believe that putting on a gig in a pub in Clerkenwell is central to national culture – to which I would say, it is necessary but not sufficient, because these gigs rarely engage anyone who isn’t already in the poetry world. Where are they advertised? – mostly to a bunch of known poets who haunt the right pages of Facebook.)

4. Expand the Market

I’ve been told that the market for poetry in this country is between 5,000 and 10,000 people, most of whom also write poetry. In a country of over sixty million, it isn’t hard to deduce that we could do better.

The market segment we should be aiming at, in the first instance, are those who are educated, and enjoy other aspects of the arts, but never, ever, pick up a book of poems unless they are choosing something to read at a wedding or a funeral. If I were a marketing manager working for UK Poetry plc, I’d call this market segment the ‘Nearly Theres’.  They buy music, by CD or download; they will appreciate the lyrics of a singer / songwriter and might go to gigs or festivals. They love literary fiction and clamour for the new Booker Prize shortlist. They might venture to the theatre to see some fairly serious plays. They watch BBC 4 history documentaries, and read the arts review pages in the weekend newspapers. They would love poetry, but they don’t know they need it.


When I’ve asked friends of mine who don’t read poetry, why they don’t read poetry, they put forward two major complaints:

A)     It is all about clouds and butterflies and full of ‘doth’ and ‘hath’ and is generally soppy, impenetrable and does not engage them with its subject matter. They are a bit worried about having to listen to a lot of embarrassing soul-bearing.This view is caused largely by lack of exposure to contemporary poetry. You may say that things are better at school now, with anthologies that stretch to Duffy, Armitage and Zephaniah, but in order to access the sixty million, we do also need to reach people who were at school a while ago.

B)      It is frightening and intimidating. They fear they won’t understand it because they are not clever enough. They think poetry is a pastime for the elite. One friend of mine said this:

“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 intelligent people and discover it’s actually about early twentieth century Soviet Gulags and that I’ve missed the point entirely.”

I think this is also partly caused by the way poetry has been taught. Students are taught to dissect poetry, looking for alliteration, synechdoche and so on, but are never asked how the poem made them feel, what they like about the sound and rhythm of it, what the poem conjures up for them, how it makes them think differently about the world. It’s like telling a mechanic to strip and rebuild a car engine, then asking her what it feels like to drive the Nurburgring. We’ve failed to transmit the enthusiasm, or indeed the purpose, of the poem.

I do not think it is a hopeless task to engage vastly more people in poetry. I know it can be done, because it happened to me. And here’s my evangelical conversion story: I read, and wrote, a little poetry at school as an adolescent. Doesn’t everybody? I went into my twenties with a handful of poetry books to my name; a Golden Treasury of Poetry, The Faber Book of 20th Century Verse, a collected Betjeman, and Penguin Modern Poets – The Mersey Sound. That was it. I studied Life Sciences, got a job in the pharmaceutical industry, and became a Nearly There. What made the difference to my poetic journey? Three things:

  • A friend bought me Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis as a birthday present. Light, accessible, but also engaging, well-crafted, and funny.
  • I heard an interview with Alice Oswald on Radio 4’s Front Row, listened to her read some excerpts, and immediately ordered a copy of Dart from Amazon.
  • An on-line friend showed me some poems he had written. I realised that Normal People both read and write poetry. I started noodling around with writing poetry myself. I began reading again with the accessible end of the list. I needed a little exposition to move on to something more chewy. I’m still not completely there with the elliptical and associative stuff, but I’m open to learning.


So, in short, I don’t believe it is hopeless, but I think the key to saving poetry is to push it out to a much, much wider audience. It will take some radical re-thinking of how poetry works. I don’t know whether contemporary poets have the appetite for this, or whether they quite like being part of an initiated elite, indulging in something that is not a commercial proposition, but only a kind of mystical one.

I realise I haven’t got down to the big questions; how to engage more people with contemporary poetry, and indeed, why. I’ll save both of those ideas for later.



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?