The Problem With Poetry

Sean O’Brien wrote this article in The Guardian nearly a decade ago. The Problem With Poetry is that ten years on and nothing has really changed. In 2008, I gave a speech in Manchester for Incwriters to a packed audience, many were ruffled by the fact that I told them if they didn’t read poetry why on hell should anyone read their poetry? Seems pedantic, seems a little simplistic but it is true. If you are not willing to support an industry, then why should it support you?

Regardless of what you think ALL writing is an industry, poetry is no exception. We all, as writers, set deadlines (and if you have a publisher you will have physical, real deadlines) and if you have ever submitted your work for publication, been published, been rejected, you are taking steps to be in that industry and to be read.

Now, isn’t it common courtesy to read others? Stop, stop, stop, please do not shuffle over to me and say, but Andrew, I don’t read other people because I do not want to be unduly influenced. Too late. You were born. You were influenced. Your parents did it to you. As Larkin pointed out in his famous poem on parenthood. Rather than fuck you up, they influenced you.

Unless you were born in a bubble, never spoke, walked or powered up your brain or body, you have been influenced. I would also never have the need to argue with you. 

So, what would a little more influence do for you? Well, your parents encouraged you to walk. I am encouraging you all to read, go to a library, a bookshop, second hand bookshop, a publishers website or even subscribe to a magazine. It is a great way to read contemporary literature in bite sized proportions. Here are a few of the magazines I subscribe to or have subscribed to over the years. They are great magazines. Interzone (great SF and industry news, my most favourite magazine), Ambit (great poetry, great fiction and they have published me!), Granta (the established face of Brit Lit), Magma (fresh and experimental), Rialto (high quality in each issue), The  North (great poets, good editing) and Trespass (new boys on the block, good mix, great editor).

Please, please and for God’s sake DO NOT be a writer of SF and not read it, or worst still not read at all or have no interest in the fantastical. DO NOT write archaic poetry thinking it is contemporary because that’s what you did at school. School poetry is not contemporary poetry, it is merely poetry that has become ingrained, abused and riveted into our skulls. The war poets have been greatly damaged by secondary school teachers. I was fortunate, mine was a great teacher. But I have seen more deliver Owen and Sassoon in dead, sad, monotone voices then I care to remember. All those emotions lost, all those experiences gone, broken on pubescent minds that cannot even begin to understand what these poets went through. Destroyed by a teacher who watches the clock, waiting for the final bell.

I think what I am trying to say, as O’Brien said in 2000, as I said in 2008, bloody read if you’re going to write or just go away and do something else.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Puppywolf says:

    I agree entirely. As a poetry publisher it’s become clear to me that something is very odd about the contemporary poetry scene, in that precious few people actually buy the books. Even people who consider themselves fans of contemporary poetry, in that they write it every minute of every day, rarely actually buy the stuff.

    However, a lot of contemporary poetry is performance in nature, and these people do attend gigs. Consumption of poetry happens in a different way. However, if we compare musicians to poets, then we see a different scene — people attend gigs but also buy new music.

  2. Frogfall says:

    Puppywolf makes a good point about performance poetry gigs. However, the comparison wit music gigs, and music sales, is not quite right. People don’t attend music gigs and also purchase the sheet music. People purchase music in recorded audio formats – so that they can enjoy them as they were meant to be performed. Perhaps instead of releasing poems in written form, performance poets should record their poems and sell them as MP3 downloads via sites like itunes. Or maybe people are already doing this?

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