Good to see poetry in the headlines again: Derek Walcott was awarded this year’s T S Eliot Prize and for the second year running the overall Costa Book Award went to poetry, this year to Jo Shapcott’s “Of Mutability” and last year to Christopher Reid. Whilst Derek Walcott is recognised in his native St Lucia in street names and the national Nobel Day in recognition of his being awarded the Nobel Prize, both Jo Shapcott and Christopher Reid can walk British streets without the fear of being recognised.
Despite poetry’s apparent popularity, it doesn’t sell. Even a prize-winning poetry collection will still sell in the region of 1% of the sales of a comparable, literary novel.
Poets have to do the performance circuit, take up teaching poetry or become writers in residence if they want to earn money from poetry. Poets won’t make money from selling books.
Why has poetry become so devalued?
Poetry in School
Most people are introduced to poetry in school, where generally a poem is presented as an esoteric piece of work. A poem becomes seen as something to be worked out often interpreted by pupils as something only the academically inclined can do so poetry becomes too hard to read and thus irrelevant. Poetry then is boring and difficult. It’s rare a teacher will simply read a poem out loud so pupils can appreciate the rhythm and sound patterns and so understand that you don’t have to work out a poem to like it.
Poetry is something read at weddings and funerals or turned to at times of strong emotions whether that be love or distress. It’s not read daily like a novel or newspaper.
Whilst initiatives such as Poems in the Underground go some way to countering this, they tend to be in specific localities or done as part of a literature festival. So overall poetry is seen as something for special occasions.
Unlike a novel or an article, poetry is harder to define. It’s like being in love, you know when you are, but trying to define love or how you know is very difficult. Poetry is more than “not prose”, it incorporates rhythm, sound patterns, stress patterns, may (or may not) rhyme. If prose is walking, poetry is dance. Poetry takes its definition from what it is not rather than what it is. The lack of clear, independent definition hinders attempts to describe it or share what it is that makes poetry special.
“It has to Rhyme”
It doesn’t. Alongside a solid library of rhyming poetry sit Shakespeare’s blank verse and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. But it’s easier to say “poetry rhymes, prose doesn’t” than explain that each poem has its own internal structure that may be based around sense, rhythm, syllabics, internal rhyme, para- or part-rhyme or take a traditional form such as a sonnet or sestina.
Poetry can knock people out of their comfort zones. It can also look like chopped up prose. But if a singer sang an instruction manual or a musician composed a piece that involved playing household items, no one would say “that’s not a song” or “that’s not music” so why is poetry not poetry?
Poetry is a Vocation
Like being a parent: utterly thankless, incredibly intense yet very rewarding, unless you actually want to get paid for it. However, I chose to be a parent. I didn’t choose to be a poet and surely the world’s moved on from expecting artists to starve in a garret?
It’s true that a prize-winning poetry collection only selling a fraction of the sales a literary novel can command doesn’t reflect on the artistic value of the poetry collection, but it also means the poet isn’t earning to pay bills or put food on the table.
Wannabe Poets Do Not Read Poetry
Real poets read poetry because they know that’s the main way of learning how to write it.
Wannabe poets thrust their work at anyone they think will read it. They show no interest in actually reading poetry because they are only interested in promoting their own work. Ironically they are harming their own work. Poetry publishers need readers to buy their publications and poetry magazines need subscribers. By not buying poetry books and not subscribing to poetry magazines, wannabe poets are killing the markets for their work.
Reversing the trend won’t be easy and joining the teach, perform and do residencies circuit won’t be for every poet. But as long as the status quo continues, poets will continue to struggle to earn anything from writing.