Letter from the Director: Summer 2001

Christina Patterson

Was Byron a psychopath? The traditional view of this most stereotypically Romantic of all poets is that he was a tortured genius, struck down by regular bouts of depression. "Now," according to a recent article in The Telegraph, "a recent study of his behaviour has led to a less romantic diagnosis: that the poet exhibited so-called anti-social personality disorder - the technical term for a pyschopath". His behaviour, according to the research, included "habitual lying, a callous disregard for others, truanting and random acts of cruelty - including sticking pins into his mother as she prayed in chapel".

Sticking pins into one's relatives may not be standard poetic behaviour (or at least not literally), but depression and neurosis have long been associated with poetry. "I think I am too normal to be a 'real' poet," confessed the late Miroslav Holub once in Poetry Review, while Bernard O'Donoghue has expressed the view that "To be a published poet is not a sane person's aspiration".

 Wendy Cope built a reputation, career and enormous sales on poems wrung from loneliness, misery and despair. She famously spent years in Freudian analysis addressing the neurosis she felt to be her legacy. Her long-awaited new collection, however, If I Don't Know, reveals a softer, more lyrical voice, chronicling and exploring the joys of new-found contentment and domestic stability. It includes poems with titles like 'Idyll', describing the pleasure of eating pasta and drinking wine "in our garden on a summer evening" and 'Being Boring' in which the poet reaches the joyful conclusion: "Someone to stay home with was all my desire / And, now that I've found a safe mooring, / I've just one ambition in life: I aspire / To go on and on being boring." Cope has even edited an anthology, to be published in October, called Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. Surely something of a new departure in English poetry.

 Here at the Poetry Society we have a number of "reasons to be cheerful" as the late Ian Dury would have said. We've had some excellent readings in the Studio Poetry series, including stunning sell-out events with Don Paterson and John Stammers and with Mark Ford and Lavinia Greenlaw and a sparkling election night special from Alan Jenkins and Kate Clanchy. Their wry and pungent observations on relations between the sexes proved an energising antidote to electoral apathy and of course, like all good citizens, we made sure we voted before coming into work. All Studio Poetry readings are recorded and highlights will be available soon on this website.

 The Poetry Society / Poetry School collaboration, the 'Twentieth Century Poetry Lectures' at Somerset House, has also proved hugely successful. The whole series sold out in January and included sharp insights on the British poetry scene from Sean O'Brien, on postcolonial poetry from Shirley Chew and on the prospects for English poetry in the 21st century from Robert Potts. The collaboration continues next spring (2002) with a series of lectures on Poets' Poets (to include Elaine Feinstein on Ahkmatova, Cahal Dallat on Seamus Heaney and Peter Forbes on Louis MacNeice) and with a series of poetry masterclasses.

Our education projects continue to bring poetry to life in schools. Our education membership and consultancy service offers advice on using poetry in the classroom and helps teachers find the ideal poet for their school, while poetryclass, our national programme of INSET training for teachers, continues to get superb feedback. To find out more, look at our website's education pages.

 Meanwhile, preparations for this year's National Poetry Day are in full flood. This year's theme is "Journeys" and a booklet on the theme will be mailed to every school in the country in July.

 Finally, we're happy because the Arts Council has announced a 42% increase in our core funding from April 2002. This means that we can continue a significant proportion of the work we're currently doing to promote poets and poetry around the country. The public money allocated to poetry and literature in this country remains miniscule in relation to music, opera, theatre and the visual arts, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Poetry News, Summer 2001