Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A young relative of mine is in her first year of a degree at a Russell Group university; her subject is Eng Lit and German, and this term she started the English poetry module. Her seminar group was asked to bring along their favourite poem. Most of the group took a poem by Carole Anne Duffy, some took a well-known poem by one of the Romantics. In discussion, all of the group confessed to not reading poetry (except when required for study). The tutor seemed to have been expecting this, as she told them that the purpose of this module was to get them to start reading poetry. It's clear to me, that the choice of Carole Anne Duffy was made simply because she is on the A-level syllabus, and that it was less a case of her being a favourite, and more that she was the only poet they'd read. Fifty years ago, perhaps thirty years ago even, such a situation would have been inconceivable. After all, these are English undergraduates! It brought home to me the fact that poetry really is crushingly unpopular, at least amongst the young. But why? Is it because we're now a visual culture, rather than oral or literary one? But people read novels, and memorize song lyrics - a form of poetry after all. Is it - as I tend to think - because what people are interested in is determined by marketing, and poetry isn't marketed, partly because it's doesn't lend itself to being marketed. TV adverts have introduced James Brown and Marvin Gaye to whole new generation, but you couldn't so easily use a poem to sell a product; what the poem is saying is too likely to conflict with the advertiser's message.

Re-reading the above, I'm not sure it's quite right to say poetry is 'unpopular'; it's more that it doesn't grab people's attention, it's not on their radar; which might support the idea that it's about marketing.


John B-R said...

Alan, an observation: there are too many young anglophones poets doing good work (and getting it out there) to count, so maybe the fact that poetry's not a top-10 popular consumer product's nothing particular to worry too much about. I think that poetry's always been a minority interest. Question: do more people read contemporary poetry or contemporary physics? Contemporary poetry or contemporary philosophy? I doubt the number of readers of each is relatively infinitesimal.

John B-R said...

Should have said I don't doubt ...

Ed Baker said...

early-on my dad said/advised

"POETRY? You want to write P O E T R Y? What the hell are you going to do with
THAT? What are you, crazy? Why don't youre be like your brother... an accountant? (etc)"

my first teaching job after Hopkins was a Creative Poetry Writing class at Mongomery Junior College. my suggested reading list got me fired!

(can't figure out how to "tip it in" here so will send you the jpg

momentarily. Just try to guess which books/authors got me fired...the head of the English department had only read WCW and Pound... and, nothing that I suggested..


remember... this was 1972...

seems to me that the Poetry Scene" is over-done now... maybe it is ok/good to keep the boredandboring out?


richard lopez said...

good point, john, which was what i was thinking as i was reading this post. there are many good younger poets publishing, reading and writing who are as influenced by bands as they are by poetry. and sometimes it goes in the other direction. i've been listening to a very good u.k. indie band lately, my sad captains. i can't get their tunes out of my head. and they got their name from the title of a thom gunn poem.

Alan Baker said...

I think you all make some good points; I was in danger of summoning up some golden age which never existed. I did fail to mention that poetry is only 'unpopular' if you discount the thousands of people who write it; it is, as I've said before, a participation sport. And, as you point out Richard, a lot of musicians engage with and are part of, contemporary poetry.

John, you're right - we shouldn't worry that poetry isn't a top-10 consumer product. We really wouldn't want that, would we?

What I do think has happened is that we've lost the middle-class culture which involved reading poetry, listening to classical music etc., and which saw those things as a badge of cultural superiority.

It wouldn't surprise me if those English undergrads had read nothing at all unless required to for an exam; which may say more about our education system than anything else.

Ed, I think you're list is remarkably non-inflammatory: I know it was 1972, but even so...