Letter from the Director - Winter 2002-3

Christina Patterson

 

From time to time, I am invited to take part in debates with cheery titles like "Does poetry matter?", "The crisis in poetry publishing today" or "Poetry: flogging a dead horse?" The last one I just made up, actually, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see it cropping up at some festival or conference, with an earnest panel of publishers, arts funders and perhaps an academic, each presenting their eight-minute papers on the subject and then responding to questions from an audience whose main concern is getting their own poetry published.

 

My response is usually along the following lines: yes, poetry does matter, no there isn't a big crisis in poetry publishing (at least if you judge from the torrents of jiffy bags that pour into the office) and no, poetry is not a dead horse, or at least no more than it has ever been. This is not, of course, to say that nothing ever changes. There is clearly a big problem with bookshop chains at the moment, whose head offices are allowing fewer and fewer poetry books into their hallowed spaces. Perhaps this is countered by the selling and publishing opportunities offered by the internet, or perhaps it is too early to say. Prizes come and go, as do bursaries, endowments and residencies. All of these offer valuable opportunities for the recognition of an artform that is so often regarded as the poor relation and money for poets who otherwise struggle to make ends meet.

 

I believe that the Poetry Society, as the national organisation promoting poetry, has a vital role to play in "helping poets and poetry thrive in Britain today". Our work with children, teachers and teenagers from a wide range of social and academic backgrounds, our publications, competitions, projects and events, not to mention our lovely Café, all aim to ensure that poetry is not just for loveable eccentrics in cardigans or Eng lit students cramming for exams. I believe in the power of poetry to touch the human psyche at a profound level and I believe that this gift should be available to everyone.

 

But I do not believe in wild swings in fashion or in poetry as any kind of panacea for anything. Is poetry the new rock n' roll? No. Isn't poetry more popular than ever? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Not, certainly, if you measure it by sales of books, though clearly not everything in this life can be measured in commercial terms. Does poetry heal? It can certainly play a valuable therapeutic role, which is not necessarily the same thing. Does poetry improve communication skills? Make you more employable? Make you a better person? Not, I would have to say, on the evidence available, though I doubt that most poets would make those claims.

 

Poetry can be a valuable tool or catalyst for all kinds of things, but it does not exist to tackle social exclusion, mental illness, poverty, misery or the gaps in our education system. Poetry is not a pill, a sticking plaster, a management solution or a cognitive therapy. Poetry is art. Art is a response to the mystery of being human. It is about the yearning for what there is beyond the daily grind and it is about using language to make some kind of sense of it all. It addresses and raises questions, but it does not give answers. For those you need the easy fix of self-help books: the promises of Seven Steps to Success, Think Yourself Rich! or Happiness, Now! Try them and come back to poetry.

 

One last thought on what poetry is not and that's a career. Certainly, there are recognised steps on the way to accomplishment and, if you're lucky, excellence. These range from publication of your first poem in a little magazine stapled together and circulated to friends to the Nobel Prize. But it seems to me that to think of poetry as some kind of ladder to success is a sure-fire recipe for misery. If celebrity is what you seek, then you are better off elsewhere. "A real poet doesn't draw attention to the fact that he's a poet," said the late Yehuda Amichai. "The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet."

So, here's to those who write poems and to those who enable us to read them! Here's to the poets, publishers, administrators and booksellers who do love poetry and who work hard to share their passion. And here's to my wonderful colleagues at the Poetry Society, whose tireless energy and enthusiasm in this shared venture has made my time here the best working experience of my life. This is my last Poetry News. I'm moving on to a role in full-time journalism and I'd like my last official words as Director of the Society to be a big "thank you" to everyone who keeps the poetry flag flying.

 

 

Poetry News, Winter 2002-3