The poetic arts have never been healthier, declares the Cheltenham Festival’s Guest Director in charge of poetry
If you are involved in the world of poetry as a writer or a reader, you soon become familiar with two statements that periodically crop up in the media or in conversation. Poetry is either “dying” or enjoying a sudden “renaissance”. In my experience, neither have ever been true, mainly because these statements don’t actually address poetry, but rather the perception of poetry — the tidal wash of public awareness. From where I stand the poetry of Britain and Ireland has continued to flow uninterrupted with a remarkable strength, our contemporary poets consistently stepping up to the mark, writing poems that do everything poetry should: raiding the inarticulate; cutting new facets on worn phrases and ideas so they might catch the light again; investigating life with scalpel-sharp language; revealing, through the equation of less-can-be-more, us and our world to ourselves.
On this couple of small islands we’re not just blessed with a wealth of quality poets, but also with several languages — English, Welsh, Scots and Gaelic — in which they write and which cross-influence each other. Across all of these languages new audiences are being cultivated. The last ten years have seen more poets going into schools than ever before, and more contemporary poetry on the syllabus than ever before. Anyone who has been lucky enough to attend a “Poetry Live” reading, in which theatres of thousands of schoolchildren fall silent for the poet reading from the stage, will know that poetry today is very much a living art that speaks to and from those children’s lived experiences.
If there is a place in society where poetry, or at least the perception and understanding of it, is dying, then perhaps it is among the very people best placed to discover and glean its riches. How many friends do you know who engage in all aspects of cultural life, the latest novels, the latest plays, the latest films, and yet never bring contemporary poetry into their orbit? It genuinely excites me when I get the opportunity to introduce such a person to a poet’s voice which I hope will resonate with their own, which will provide them with precious moments in the fragmented day when, across the space of a page, the world slows and something fundamentally truthful, simultaneously simple and complex is connected with.
Of course, however consistent the flow of poetry, we need events on the public stage to raise awareness and bring about such personal moments between a reader and a writer. This past year has provided us with many of the right kind — the appointment of Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry has reinstated the position with the integrity and excellence it deserves. We have, in Carol Ann Duffy, an unflinching and brilliant Poet Laureate, well matched to the issues and currents of the day. Performance poetry has emerged as a craft in its own right, taking poetry out of libraries and into the clubs. At the height of their writing lives, our most established poets continue to push the boundaries of themselves and their art, while remaining demotic and rooted in the traditions from which they have sprung. At the other end of the poetic family tree there is a lively effervescence of younger poets testing their voices on the air, as evidenced by the Faber New Poets, two recent anthologies of new writing (Voice Recognition and Identity Parade) and the upsurge in the publication of debut pamphlets.
Poetry is alive and well; troublesome and calming, straightforward and difficult, full of questions and answers. We have the poets and the poems, now let’s give them the readers they deserve.