Saturday, October 10, 2009

Poetry's Long Fade Out

It's been an important week in poetry, with the announcement of the Forward Prize winners (Don Paterson, Emma Jones and Robin Robertson) to coincide with National Poetry Day. The latter seems to limp along a little these days, though the BBC dutifully covers it (this year: Dreadlock Alien, Daisy Goodwin and Alison Steadman were the talking heads on breakfast) and I'm sure there's a lot of decent education work goes on. I've always liked Paterson's poetry, and its a surprise he's not won the Forward before - though he won "best poem" last year. The last six Forward Prizes for best collection, and 9 out of the last 10, have been won by Faber and Picador, which hardly seems to represent the state of poetry publishing in Britain at the moment. Of all the poetry prizes, faced with a diverse shortlist, the Forward does seem to veer towards the bigger names. An observation, that's all.

Yet, if National Poetry Day seems less lustrous than it did when it started (partly, I think, because of its obsession with gimmicks and "accessibility" ahead of creating a genuine culture of poetic exploration), its not the only place where poetry seems to be continuing its long fade into darkness. You have to go back to 1996 to find a poet on the list, though this year's winner Herta Muller writes poetry and prose. American poet John Ashbery or Australian poet Les Murray would seem to be massive names that the Nobel has so far overlooked.

On the other hand, grass roots poetry writing, publishing and events continues in abundance. It was reassuring that when the Poetry Society asked who our favourite poet was, T.S. Eliot won. I watched the recent Arena documentary, and fascinating as it was, it always takes you back to the poetry. He remains our "brand poetry" - whether its the T.S. Eliot prize, or with the continued respect, that Faber's list receives. I'm wondering if they still read him in schools? He's allusive rather than difficult of course, and, perhaps uniquely, a writer of long poems that are still read, ahead of shorter lyrics. At the Other Room this week, Michael Haslam introduced one of his poems talking about the great "wrecks" of modernism such as Finnegan's Wake or the Cantos. I think it's a great way of talking about them - these colossal vessels that set sail, and finally ran aground. Eliot, a cautious sailor one imagines, pretty much avoided writing those great "wrecks", though his later verse dramas may be his equivalent, and it is interesting: the first truly modern poet, (with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"), saw that he had arrived at the point of the modern, and did not need to race ahead in a futile race to be ever more so. On BBC Breakfast a spurious connection was made between T.S. Eliot's "newness" and that of performance poetry, a brand that hasn't had a new idea for thirty years or more.

Eliot, himself a Nobel winner, is an impossible example for contemporary poetry - the world is so different - but at the same time, his seriousness, his commitment, and his promotion of both the best of the past, and through his work at Faber, the talent of the present is a touchstone. In the documentary, he says that the one thing that you can say about contemporary poetry, is that it is written by your contemporaries.

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