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Friday 17 May 2013

Why is poetry not popular?

posted by the Judge

Salt are dead! No, not really – they’ve just decided to stop publishing collections by individual new poets. I don’t really know the reasons why, though I’ve just read a discussion in which people said it was a matter of money. Poetry doesn’t sell, and we all need to eat – there’s no shame in that.

But one of the points that was raised was the question of why poetry doesn’t sell. Here’s one of our own critics, Judi Sutherland, scratching her head on the subject:

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?

In this article, I am of course going to settle the argument once and for all.

(I should take a moment to say how grateful I am at times for the existence of blogs – without them, certain discussions might really draw on forever).

There is an obvious literary dichotomy between poetry and prose, and it’s common knowledge that prose sells much more (and much more easily) than poetry. The novel, then, is a good point of comparison: why don’t poetry books sell as much as novels?

Naturally, poetry and prose offer different experiences. One may then be led to wonder what it is, in the experience of the prose story, that appeals to an audience so much greater than the poetry book’s. In my opinion, one important thing to bear in mind is the way that the ‘experience’ offered by these two art-forms overlaps with that which is offered by other media. Place together a poem, a music video, a novel, and a film. Which one of these works has the most in common with which other? Technically, the poem and the novel are both forms of literature, while the music video and the film are both cases of visual media. At the same time, poetry has powerful, unbreakable ties to song (the two were born together) – and a music video is more of a scaffolding to a song than the other way round. From this point of view, furthermore, a novel is closer to a film, in that they are both essentially about telling a story (and stories do frequently cross over from book to film).

I believe that one of the reasons poetry sells so little is its failure to ‘cross over’ in the same way that novels do. Novels respond to a basic human need – a need to hear stories, which flicks many important switches in our psyche. Movies do exactly the same, though their ‘response’ to this need is given by different means and techniques. Therefore they do not compete with but complement each other, providing material that enriches both media. Poetry and the music industry, by contrast, do not communicate at all, except when some poet deplores pop culture in one way or another.

I think that poetry also responds to basic human needs; in particular it stages certain cathartic effects that we usually refer to as lyric or epic. One mistaken assumption that the poetry reader – unlike the prose reader – may be tempted to make, is that his / hers is the only medium that stages these effects. Songs, even the simplest pop songs, have a very similar function, and other media can reproduce those effects too. In fact, any form of representation that makes use of language – including prose! – can potentially be lyric or epic in parts. Unfortunately, poetry seems to deliberately cast itself in competition with other media that share in its function. It insists that it is doing something ‘different’ or ‘more’ – and admittedly it does: contemporary poetry couches its lyric parables in sophisticated performative arguments that touch on an enormous variety of subjects (though some, like identity and language, are particularly common). Songs generally make use of a much simpler language (expressed in what we know as lyrics), in part because they can share the burden of their emotive effect with the music.

As we mentioned, poetry and song were born together – at least in Western culture. In Classical Greece, verse was always performed with a musical complement, and early medieval poetry is rooted in the performances of musical troubadours. Metre is a quality that denotes poetry’s affinity with song, and its decline in popularity over the last century reflects the increasing distance that the art form has taken from what may be called its original or more popular function.

The original poet
One understands, then, why poetry is so hard to popularise by comparison with prose. The novel, in its many forms, is still essentially true to its original function, sharing it in equal means with the newer media. Poetry instead has opted to go ‘beyond’, and left that original task to other arts; pop songs are in many ways closer to ancient poetry than modern verse is. Indeed, poems that attempt to be ‘just’ lyrical (e.g. certain types of love poems, or a poem that speaks about, say, the sunset) are understood to be intellectually shallow, because they are doing nothing that we can’t already find in songs.

I should say at this point that I do not deplore the directions in which modern poetry has gone. I don’t think that poetry has lost its way, in part because it didn’t really ‘choose’ to go anywhere as much as it evolved, responding to how the world itself has changed, and in part because the new things it does are just as important. I would even go so far as to say that, in lyrical terms, poetry is a poorer art form than song, with less means of expression, and it is therefore natural that it should not (try to) compete with the bigger dog in the yard. Rather, poetry has a more openly critical rather than just lyrical role – one which awakens from rather than lulls into sleep.

The critical role, however, is neither as basic nor as immediately necessary as that of pure lyricism. We need lyric transport, the same way that we need to be told stories, simply to function as human beings. It’s as important to our psyches as eating and breathing are to our bodies. We do not ‘need’ to be critical, or at least not nearly as much. And even if we do, we must also bear in mind that poetry is not the only form of critical engagement with the world that there is (though it is certainly the one more closely engaged with language). Reading history and philosophy, for example, can be just as educational as reading poetry. This is not to say that history and philosophy can do the same things as poetry, of course, only that they share some of its functions, particularly the more intellectual ones.

Poetry is not popular, and in its current form, it can’t be. While the novel performs every aspect of its story-telling function, from reading in the airport to studying it at university, poetry has become a marginalised aspect of its original purpose; reading poetry is always also an intellectual engagement, one which transcends the pure lyrical enjoyment of a song you may hear on the radio as you drive to work. (This may not be the most charming example, but one thing that makes this argument empirically true for me is that I am unable to read poetry while sitting on the toilet, while I can happily leaf through a comic or a novel in the same condition. I am also unable to read poetry continuously for very long stretches of time, more than one or two hours; by contrast there are some novels I can take on a train journey and read non-stop for eight hours or more).

For what my own feelings are worth, the fact that poetry is not popular does not disturb me. Saying that we need more people reading poetry, or a better education on the art form, is a truism – we will always need more people in any art and better education on any subject, though we are probably in a preferable (or at least more democratic) condition now than we have been in hundreds of years, if ever. And I’m not particularly frustrated by the lack of attention that poetry is getting – if I’d wanted attention, I’d be doing something different in the first place. If anything, I am much more concerned by the lack of cultural variety within the community – too many poets seem to be coming from the same background or doing the same things. This may in itself be a deterrent to new readers – there is less range for people to identify themselves with poets, and I understand why a young man at school might find a more relatable model in a rapper from the suburbs than in a poet from a university. In any case, I don’t really see the benefits of having many more readers in poetry if they are not also quality readers. Other media have enormous consumer-bases, but they are plagued with stupidity and ignorance; it’s the price of their own popularity.

The argument that poetry should be put out to more people, or made more popular, starts from the assumption that poetry as we know it now can be expanded. This misses the point that expanding poetry changes it. There are few people reading poetry now because poetry is a really smart engagement with language and there aren’t so many people who are quite that smart or who are interested in language. This isn’t an elitist argument, it’s just a reflection on the normal way that people distribute their interests – and it would be vain and self-centred of us to think that poetry should be privileged over other potentially rewarding interests that are available in life. If you really want to bring your poetry to those who don’t usually read this stuff, then good luck. Just be careful you don’t do that by making your poetry more stupid.


  1. Maybe schools and vague memories of what poetry used to be generate a pre-conceived and inaccurate idea of what poetry actually is now, currently, in people’s minds. When I told friends I’d contributed to an anthology of poetry about computer games, for instance, they seemed so surprised. They probably weren’t aware poets could write about fun and interesting things, and things found in popular culture. I was the same when I first started writing poetry - I was under the impression there was a stock set of subjects you had to stick to. So I can see that the teaching of poetry is a factor.

    But really I think the answer to the question of poetry’s lack of popularity is the same answer to the question: why do scores of people read 50 Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code? I believe it’s because poetry has not become sufficiently shit enough to draw in droves of readers. It still has integrity and heart and intelligence and warmth and creativity. It’s not a cynical exercise in how rubbish you can be as a writer and still be successful.

    We don’t have atrociously bad poetry being written. There’s plenty of dull and unimaginative poetry around, but nothing to my mind that’s insultingly awful. There isn’t a poetic equivalent of EL James or Dan Brown. With novels, it seems that you can write the biggest pile of wank known to man, but if it’s marketed properly, at the right time, thousands of people will devour it.

    One of the virtues of poetry is that it is not tied in with money. Poets make next to nothing, and mostly nothing, so it speaks for itself that poetry is written for the joy of it. This is why I’d be wary of an explosion of interest in poetry. Once money is attached to something, it inevitably becomes a means of generating more money, rather than being about a genuine love for the medium.

    It happened with computer games. When they were a small activity snubbed by the majority, they were creative and experimental and often beautiful. Now they have gained mass appeal, the bulk of them have become formulaic, uninspired money-spinners, and few games makers are willing to take a chance on something original because it’s not about originality now, it’s about sales.

  2. Not read it on the toilet? If I didn't read poetry on the toilet I'd never get through the magazines I subscribe to.

  3. Interesting and mostly persuasive. I, on the other hand, am quite capable of reading poetry on the loo - in fact I usually do. The place I can't read it (though I spent a lot of time there and it would be of great benefit to me if I could) is on the train.

  4. Ok, is there any way we can start a survey about this? How many people actually read poetry while they're taking (oh never mind)


  5. I believe we have to make poetry at least a little more commercial or all the poetry presses will die. Where is the law that says poets shouldn't make any money but novelists should? There's a lot of drivel spouted about the purity of the art form, which therefore HAS to be uncommercial. I don't agree.

    Friends of mine who don't read poetry say they are afraid they wouldn't understand it, so I think the major issue is accessibility. Not all poetry has to be accessible but we have to provide people with a way in to the form. Maybe it is better now than when I was at school but Keats, Pope and Walter de la Mare might not provide the connection with modern life that people need to set off on a journey into poetry. It was Alice Oswald's "Dart" and the Mersey Beat poets that got me started. Maybe I've got a thing about rivers.

  6. I agree with Judi's last point. As an English-focused kid with a love of poetry encouraged from infant class, I definitely tuned out of older, Keats-era verse in secondary school, but got stuck into the modern section of the GCSE anthology we were given (Liz Lochhead, Chinua Achebe etc.). Not because I'd fallen in love with the poems inside, say (I REALLY struggled with the Heaney) but because it was written in language I recognised, and immediately felt like it was trying to speak to me, not at me.

    In my own time, I did find older poems I liked, but not having them thrust down my throat helped avoid a lifelong aversion.

    I wish I had the power to stop schools teaching bloody Shakespeare to show what poetry (and for that matter, plays) should aspire to. Nothing is more likely to bore and alienate kids. Anyone care to contradict me, and say that them there shakey sonnets were the reason they got into poetry?

    1. Yes Kirsten, me! Not the sonnets but the plays... at school, nothing bored or alienated me less. I'm always surprised that so few writers of poetry name Shakespeare when reeling off lists of non-contemporary poets-they-love. It's as if the plays are in another category, and can't be counted.

      I suppose with Shakespeare, I feel everyone should have the chance at school to get him into their bloodstream, even if they heave him and his pentameters out later on. In parallel with 20th century and contemporary stuff, of course, so that they know the range that English can cover.

  7. I’ve been writing poetry for forty years and yet I read very little poetry and there’s a very simple reason for it: I don’t like much of what is presented to me in the name of poetry. I’m not saying that the poetry isn’t worthy, well-written, blah, blah, blah but the poets aren’t writing about the kind of things I like to read. I had this trainee at work a few years back who discovered that I was into poetry and he bought me a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets which was very nice of him but his assumption was that if I liked poetry then I must like all poetry. And that’s simply not the case. It’s like saying if you like Brahms you’ll like Schoenberg because it’s all classical music, isn’t it? At school the main poets we covered were English—I mention this because I’m Scottish—and that was fine: Owen and Larkin I took to, Hughes I did not. I really didn’t give a toss about pigs and pikes and to this day have very little patience for nature poetry most of which is clichéd at best; seriously, what new could anyone possibly have to say on the subject? Why was John Cooper Clarke so popular in his heyday? Because he was relevant. And because he didn’t speak down to his audience. There’s nothing an audience hates more than pretentiousness—unless that’s something they aspire to—which is why so many poets get away with what they do because their readers/listeners either doesn’t know any better or don’t want to be the one to go, “Er, excuse me,” and are willing to applaud the emperor’s new clothes. People used to know what poetry was—it was the stuff with a jagged right edge that rhymed—but now (and the same applies to art and music) people have been conned by the whole it’s-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is mentality. That has to change. Poetry has to rediscover form and technique if it’s every going to get the public’s vote. Music did it. Composers rejected the avant-garde, reinstated melody, harmony and rhythm and started selling records.

  8. Hi Jim - part of what you say rings true to me. Why should we assume all poetry fans have the same taste? What's the problem with only liking some poetry, or being very particular in our tastes?

    However, when it comes to you "That has to change" point, here's the problem: there are many, many poets who use 'form and technique' in exactly the way you describe, or push the boundaries even further. What you're asking for has already happened. In many ways, it never went away. But the public in general don't respond to this - it's not as if those poets who write in tightly configured form (Glyn Maxwell, Matthew Welton, Paul Muldoon, for example) massively outsell those who don't. In fact, some of the most popular poets at the moment (Sam Riviere, Heather Phillipson, Emily Berry) tend towards writing in far more loose forms. So what you say simply cannot be right.

    1. There were always composers who dug their heels in and wrote tonally when everyone else was obsessed with serialism—the likes of Hovhaness and Havergal Brian—but the damage was done. The public got a taste of the avant-garde and didn’t like it and tarred all classical music with the same brush. Only recently (really from the point Minimalism got its second wind) have the public started to realise that the term ‘classical music’ does not mean cacophony but I bet there still are a lot of people who say, “Classical music? Oh, I don’t like that.” And the same goes with poetry. Following the rise of groups of poets like the Language Poets (and even the Beats) poetry developed a reputation that it did not deserve because there were still poets out there writing the most accessible stuff (e.g. Brautigan and Bukowski). What has to change is the public’s perception of what poetry can be. This has happened with art—it too survived the Abstract Expressionists and the Minimalists—but it’s much easier to judge a painting or a sculpture; you can do it in five seconds. The poets you mentioned are not getting a chance not because they’re not doing what needs to be done but because people aren’t giving them a chance; they’re prejudged: “Oh, it’s poetry—I don’t understand poetry.” More than once in my life someone’s said to me something along the lines of, “I don’t normally like poetry but I like your stuff.” And they usually say with a genuinely surprised tone because people come to poetry with preconceptions, the main one being that a poem is a thing, a puzzle, that has to be solved and part of the problem there comes from how poetry is taught at school. My English teachers meant well and I owe them a debt of gratitude for opening my eyes but I was the exception, very much so.

      Another thing that poets have to take into consideration is how reading habits are changing and there’s no point moaning at the Internet because it’s here and we’re stuck with it. Look at the instructions you get for writing posts: short posts, short sentences, lots of white space. If poetry was hard work before it’s got its back against the wall at the moment. It has to do what the composers did: simplify. Philip Glass’s early pieces are very basic stuff but I bet those who got roped in by him in the seventies are still listening to him now and there’s a world of difference with his output; the same goes for Adams and Reich.

  9. Kirsten - I don't know about your comment. I really got into poetry thanks to the really archaic stuff - the Greeks at first, and eventually Dante and Shakespeare. I used to love the Romantics as well, and the poets of World War I.

    I can understand your frustration that not enough contemporary verse is taught, but I don't think the answer is to stop teaching the older stuff, among other things because it informs very much of our contemporary poetry.

    -- Judge.

  10. Dear Judge

    I think that the main reason why contemporary poetry doesn't sell well is probably because much of it is relatively expensive and extremely mediocre.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  11. 2015 Costa winner,rap "music",Banksy,Hirst,tracy emin is professor of drawing at the RA.All together now,The king is in the all together..

  12. Poetry nowadays sucks. I suppose it started with Ginsberg in 1956 and the advent of so-called free verse, which is not verse, as poetry before was. I taught it at high school level for ten years, and kids reject it even when you tell them nursery rhymes, song lyrics, etc. are poetry. Pre-ginsberg poetry was still alive, but now it is a dead dog, full of mawkish sentiments, but most importantly without the essential elements of poetry...ie rhyme and rhythm, however irregular. It is a sad comment on world society, especially the U.S. one, that aesthetics and intellectuality are fundamentally dead or on their last legs.


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