poetry scene: current difficulties

Poets have a poor public image, and make very little money. The problems are their self-centred attitudes, suspect reviewing, commercialization of the book trade, timidity in academia, the barbarism of literary theory, and their own ceaseless production of very indifferent work.

Such is the dark side of poetry. Consider these in reading the sections on the poetry renaissance in the UK poetry scene, and balance them with the advantages and potential of the art.

Supply Exceeds Demand

An astonishing number of people do write poetry. Setting aside the products of creative writing classes in schools, prisons, universities and adult education centres, and the unoriginal rhymes that no doubt everyone pens in adolescent love, some hundreds of thousands of poems are sent each year in Britain to the small poetry presses. It is difficult to know how many poets are represented: ten to fifty thousand perhaps. {1} Inevitably, much is unexciting — ill-constructed, cliché-ridden, trite, self-indulgent and trivial — but even the good poems have perhaps only a one in fifty chance of being accepted. The rest are sent to more tolerant poetry ezines, or periodically aired in poetry groups before being finally abandoned.

The reasons lie close to home. Poets are blinkered by narrow understandings and ambitions, and do not glory in each other's work. Most poetry collections are bought by family and friends of the poets concerned, by rival poets looking for slant, style and ideas, by would-be poets and by educationalists. {2} Poetry magazines are lucky to have circulations exceeding 1000, and many new ventures do not see the year out. Even the larger and long-established magazines are often displayed on bookshelves more for prestige than enthusiastic reading. Decent sales across the spectrum are essential for editors and contributors, as for the general health of poetry in the country, but contributors are often reluctant to subscribe unless subscription is clearly made a precondition of acceptance — which still doesn't ensure that the publications are actually read and enjoyed.

Why should this be? The arts are notoriously competitive, and supply of poetry ludicrously exceeds demand. But some artists do very much support each other — not in the performing arts, admittedly, but those in the less personality-based ones of painting, illustration, pottery, etc. Here the artists genuinely admire the work they purchase, and learn from the skills displayed. Is that the answer: poetry is not widely purchased by poets because they see nothing special in it, nothing they couldn't do themselves? In the absence of rules, standards or common assumptions, and without a public to woo, poets have made sincerity their raison d'être, and to simple feelings everyone has an equal entitlement.

Money Matters

Professional poets earn far more from reviewing, adjudicating competitions, giving talks, running workshops, and/or appearing on radio than from royalties on their publications. {3} But if poetry doesn't pay, nor very handsomely do other forms of literature. In Britain, around 70,000 new books are published every year, of which 6,000 are novels. Of these only some 20% have any claim to literary respectability. {4} Returns are generally poor, and often in inverse proportion to the time and effort expended. Of course there are big-earners, multimillionaires even, but in 1988 only some 300 full-time novelists made in excess of £8,000 p.a., with another 300 supplementing income from journalism, and another 900 supplementing income from some other literary activity. Figures from other countries are equally depressing (e.g. 1250, 750 and 1750 respectively for the States), {5} and will not have improved recently. Any large UK publisher will receive 2000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year, and publish 20. The average serious first novel receives half a dozen reviews and perhaps sells 1000 copies over two years. With royalties around 10% at best, writers must learn to mechanically turn out a commercial product or starve. Seventy-five percent of serious writers in the States earn no money at all from their work, ever.

Much more dismal are the proceeds from poetry publishing. A few specialist publishers (e.g. Anvil, Carcanet, Bloodaxe) do turn in respectable figures, but in general poetry is not handled at all (the great majority, e.g. Corgi, HarperCollins, Hodder and Stoughton), is subsidized by sales elsewhere (e.g. Faber and Faber, Peter Owen, OUP) or supported by regional grants (e.g. Peterloo). {6} On the whole, writers do not have outgoing personalities, and special efforts are needed to market them, Betjeman being a notable exception. Many poets, dodging between welfare and dead-end jobs, cultivate a hand-me-down appearance that establishes street cred but does nothing to inspire confidence in the larger world. Moreover, as poetry is the most severely literary of the arts, it does not translate readily to films, TV programmes or mini-series, so that even this last hope of the struggling writer is closed to poets. Amateur practitioners generally self-publish, laying out some £400-£1000 for 200-500 copies of their collection, and getting back perhaps some £200 after a great deal of effort.


One well-respected means of advancement is the poetry competition, which brings work to the attention of a wider public, most notably that of the larger publishers. Many reputations have begun this way, and submissions to competitions now run to tens if not hundreds of thousands annually in Britain. But the results are often perplexing. It is very difficult to see why certain entries were chosen, entries which are not so much incompetent as hardly poetry at all, and depressing if the winners are any measure of poetic standards.

Possibly the difficulties arise from the nature of the exercise. No one can really sit down and read hundreds of poems a day for weeks on end, and many adjudicators make no attempt to: submissions are filtered well before the big names make their selections. Poems which are conventional, unoriginal, cliché-ridden, marred by poeticisms, which do not address the subject or respect the form prescribed are automatically rejected. Sensibly, no doubt, but there appears to creep in a rather proselytizing view of what poetry should be. Anything remotely resembling the currently unfashionable is damned, so that this timidity may leave only some very odd submissions available for selection.

In literary festivals much depends on the intentions and the competence of the organizing committee, and these are not sufficiently spelt out. Literary ability is essential, of course, but critical skills are a different matter. Adjudicators must naturally have some professional standing, and it is then difficult to escape the small circle of publishers, critics and established poets — many of whom read from the same Modernist script, but not always with understanding.

There is also the financial aspect. Small magazines are always perilously short of funds, and the annual competition has become an ideal way of replenishing the kitty. A good deal of the £1-5 per submission goes into the prize money, of course, but the process may be purely circular: money is taken from many poets and given to an arbitrary few.


The New Aesthetic Barbarism

Publishing is now a cut-throat business where many work sweatshop hours. From an office stashed with manuscripts the executives go back to a home equally awash with other people's writings, suggestions and importunings. They read MSS on the train, in the evening and at weekends, so that there is never a moment free. Before attending meetings they will have discussed trends at book launches and fairs, skimmed through the latest reviews, puzzled over other publishers' lists, summarized market research reports, noted their own sales figures, etc.

There is no alternative. Editors and publishers cannot afford to coast along in a trade increasingly geared to short-term profits. Prestigious small publishers have been taken over by accountants and larger companies, the name retained but not the staff or publishing ethos. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement has sharpened competition, threatened smaller bookshops and promoted the creation of cheap, standardized products for a bulk-buying public. Popularity should not be scoffed at. Many bestsellers are skillfully written, and poets could learn from the deft characterization, economical writing and the techniques used to hold the reader's attention. But the objectives of popular and serious literature are widely different. The first aims to tell a story, hold the reader in suspense, understand the decisions and judgements of ordinary people, and to offer a keen experience of danger, anxiety, love, sorrow etc. without the real world intruding too much. Serious fiction aims to illuminate experience, enlarge perceptions, and investigate our notions of morality without overt moralizing. Where popular fictions deals with crude psychologies and stock responses, serious fiction attempts to be more subtle and intelligent — and is therefore more difficult to write and read. We read popular fiction once and with gusto, but go back repeatedly to serious fiction with delight and admiration, seeing a world more elusive and fascinating than before. {7}

But not all difficulties arise from crass market forces. Much of the publishing business is laughably amateur. Manuscripts are unacknowledged, lost or returned with inane comments in a manner unthinkable in other walks of life. Anyone who has had a manuscript read by the major publishing houses will know the hilarious range of response. And since all cannot be adequate assessments, the question arises as whether any are. To deepen suspicion, from time to time little jokes are played on the cognoscenti. The manuscript of a book that had been published with acclaim a decade or so earlier is sent round to the big publishers, only to be rejected — universally, with strictures on the style, content, commercial appeal. Does anyone really know what they're about?

Some difficulties derive from management. The first screening is vital, but is commonly left to junior staff. Some of these will have worked their way up from copy typist, which is very much to their credit, but not provided them with larger understanding. And even when readers possess a first degree in English Literature, which is generally the case, they have not always acquired useful skills, having spent their time repeating abstruse theory. Contrary to current wisdom, appreciation comes with time and wide experience of life, so it is the older hands who will be the better judges, but it is these staff who have been promoted away to finance and administration.

But there are deeper reasons. Much in the arts today is openly barbarous. {8} The Left in particular, disappointed of change in British society, has made literature its rallying point, and tends to look at imaginative writing as pamphleteering to achieve its purposes. But poetry in particular eludes ready formulation. It demands concentration, the trained ability to read and a willingness to entertain new forms and materials. {9} It also requires a respect for traditions and the sensibilities of the reader. But if amateur writers cheerfully ignore the first, many Postmodernist poets aggressively deny the second, so that the "if it's not hurting it's not working" cliché acquires a further meaning. Truth, meaning and social implications are all aspects important to literature, but to make reductive political programmes the criteria on which to judge poetry is to wildly misunderstand the arts.


Reviews and Reviewers

Poetry reviewers should be playing a key role, since no one individual can now read through the great mass of work being published, or even know where to find the more interesting material. But reviewers are not playing that role. To put the matter bluntly — with honourable exceptions, and some well-meaning work in the smaller presses — responsible reviewing is almost extinct. Academic criticism continues, but reviewing is a different animal. The academic article is the fruit of long reflection: not riveting reading, but sound and helpful. Reviewing as currently practised aims to entertain: the evaluation is perfunctory, but the writing is very skilled. More than that, the review aims to show the correct credentials. Whose stock is up or down is well known, or can be easily ascertained by phone calls and reading other reviews, so that the reviewer's task is one of giving "the treatment" to the work in question, as knowingly and entertainingly as possible. Statements to this effect attract abuse, but the evidence is overwhelming: hype of very moderate talents, unstinting praise for passages of obvious banality and incompetence in the work of leading names, contempt for sound argument, illustration and proper comparisons. {10}

Articles in the popular press (when they appear at all) are therefore amalgamations of very limited research: consultations with friends and establishment figures, with some personal anecdotes thrown in. Reviews in the small presses tell us more about the reviewer and magazine than the work itself. Interviews with leading poets are reverential for the same reason. And in the mainstream literary magazines? Some do aptly put their finger on a poet's excellences, but always the recommendations need to be careful assessed in the light of motives and associations of the reviewer. Academics in particular are not going to undermine careers by questioning an author they have made their particular study.

In general, reviews do not now select and introduce the better work to the general reading public because that public no longer cares for poetry. The interest has been killed off by contemporary poetry itself, and by the overprotective attitude of reviewers. Since poetry is an endangered species, and its practitioners earn so little from their efforts, it seems unpardonable brutality to lay in with the big stick. Reviewers are often poets themselves, moreover, needing favourable reviews in their turn, so that most will sensibly adopt the magazine's policies and say that the new book is perhaps not quite up to the standard of the previous and of course excellent collection. Why, given that proper reviewing is a delicate, demanding and hazardous occupation, should anyone take on the work at all? {11}

Because they have to. Poets subsist on such things. Even well-known novelists are not living the sybaritic lifestyles fondly imagined by their public, but depend very much on reviewing to make ends meet. Time allows only a cursory reading of the novel or novels placed each week on their desk, and more effort naturally goes into polishing up the review article that represents their shop-front on the world. Such articles may be little more than entertainment and literary chit-chat, but publicity means sales, and fellow novelists who like to bask in "another dazzling performance" and other such appraisals will return the favour.

But there is more to reviewing than mutual back-scratching. To review is to belong to a literary aristocracy, an exclusive club that looks after its own. Some candour is allowed in private, but image is vital to all parties, not least to the public who need their illusions. Reviewers can therefore suggest that a certain work does not quite come off, but they cannot usually be precise without unravelling a whole skein of unwarranted assumptions. Nor are they likely to. Club membership is attained only after such prolonged effort and cultivation of the right people that good breeding is assured. If accidents happen — someone crassly reports an actual conversation, or a journalist elicits an unguarded comment — the matter is denied or played down. Only poets of an earlier century with independent means could afford to speak their minds, and even they were mindful of the harsh laws of libel, which allow fair comment but not damage to careers or reputation.


Elitism of Academic Critics

Ever since inception as a university discipline, English Literature has had to define and defend itself. {12} Description, interpretation and evaluation of individual literary productions is the usual claim. And being an academic discipline there had to exist a body of knowledge to impart, and certain skills to teach — hence the literary canon, and academic literary criticism. And for a long time, at least on the surface, all went well. Students dutifully applied themselves before going out to earn a solid living with degrees that no one questioned. Equally unmolested by administrators and politicians, scholars pondered and slowly brought out their articles, monographs and books. To the working poet this material was useful, introducing new authors, and suggesting reasons for modifying or extending appreciation. Used honestly, the critical articles widened their taste and sharpened sensibilities.

All has now changed, for still-debated reasons: funding crises, philistine governments, market accountability, sixties permissiveness, radical ideology, and so on. {12} University life is increasingly competitive, and the pressure mounts to turn out quantity rather than quality, to adopt trendy attitudes, and to pull punches when dealing with contemporary idols. Little being produced now is of any practical value to poets, though some could be immensely helpful in getting them to understand what they might really be trying to do.

But criticism and poetry were always very different activities — in approach, finished product, in gifts required. No amount of clever talk on significance can supersede literary sensibility, for knowing instinctively that a particular line is botched, pretentious, too easily obtained. Poets acquire that sense by working at their own lines, and by attempting to emulate and improve on their predecessors. Academics have a style of their own — too cautious and involuted to interest professional writers — and they wisely concentrate on dead authors comfortably part of every university syllabus.

These separate worlds have now come together. With no wider public to speak of, and standing among fellow practitioners hardly to be counted on, inclusion in the academic canon is now the dream of many professional poets. If that cannot be attained by academic assessment — the matter is too uncertain and time-consuming — then tutors will place friends' work on reading lists for return support. Not very different from business and the professions, perhaps. But if academia has its own skills and forms of creativity, they are not generally those of novelists, poets and playwrights, and there are dangers in academics playing adjudicator. Nevertheless, inbred academia continues to create the unattractive attitudes of many graduates who go out to obtain influential jobs in publishing, newspapers and television. Most grow out of their arrogance and patronizing views, but there are still too many newspaper pundits who take on trust what they have learnt but not questioned twenty years before.


Subjugation to Theory

Though originating in academic literary criticism — or in the fusion of criticism with continental philosophy, left-wing politics, psychology and linguistics — literary theory has become its own creature. Literary theory is a philosophy of texts, i.e. of all communications, from the conversational aside to novels, academic treatises and philosophical works. The work is very technical, and its practitioners are almost exclusively academics with a first and often a second degree in some aspect of the subject. Although disseminated through being part of every English Literature student's course, the subject has not found acceptance outside the academic circle of the humanities: criticism, publishing and the art galleries. Nonetheless, since literary criticism tends to adopt its garb, and many poetry reputations are founded and maintained in academia, literary theory can have a stunting influence on the poetry scene.

It is important, indeed essential, that poets understand their purposes. There is, after all, no money or social standing to act as a court of wider approbation. But a danger comes from two directions: the partisan nature of literary theory, and the tendency to confine and legislate for literature.

Theory itself is now a hopeless muddle. Much of it resembles medieval theology, with authorities quoted but not read or understood in context. Many of its supposed authorities are not authorities at all, but figures marginal to or now superseded in their professions. Evidence, worked examples and close argument are thin on the ground, and theorists seem unaware of more plausible philosophical positions. Very often the disquisitions are too muddled and jejune for professional philosophers to want to waste time and reputations sorting out, so that literary theorists write for a small circle of admirers while the rest of the world does something else.

But a good deal of contemporary work is entwined about these speculative concepts. Poets are ranked as they conform to theoretical notions, and the notions themselves are illustrated by poetry: an entirely circular process, unsustainable in the everyday world and therefore defended vehemently. The radicals fought complacency and snobbery to get into academia, and have now retaliated by throwing out the yardsticks by which literature was once valued. On the advice of linguists and educationalists, whose work largely repeats unexamined dogma, many secondary schoolteachers no longer teach standard English, let alone the elements of grammar and versification.{13} Sensible precepts that have stood the test of time have not so much been attacked (which is healthy and productive) but derided and suppressed. References in course material — for university degrees, adult appreciation classes, practical workshops — are very selective, and many poets have little idea of what exists to help, sustain or inspire.


Classes, Workshops, and Literary Groups

Writing is often a lonely activity, and editors haven't the time to write critiques or even reasons for rejecting submissions. What could be more sensible than classes, workshops and writing groups where participants can learn from each other and gain some confidence and sense of solidarity? Many do indeed fulfill these roles, and are happy social gatherings, an evening away from the distractions of the office and home life.

And sometimes that is the trouble. Many attending are part-timers, writing only sufficient — in odd moments or coming up on the train — to maintain their membership. But that does not mean they will cede authority on that account. Far from it. Quality that they have not the time, inclination nor talent to produce themselves they tend to disparage in others, finding such kinship with better literary society an unacceptable affectation. Moreover, not having read widely in poetry or literary criticism, and so quite unable to distinguish the good from the indifferent among published contemporaries, they indulge in all that a conscientious writer should avoid, sensing abstentions as an attack on their own talents. Around them gather like-minded individuals, and better writers go elsewhere.

In general, moreover, established poets prefer the company of equals, and in their absence the newcomer may be met with a dogmatism that establishes pecking order in the group but is entirely useless as guidance or encouragement. Criticism needs to be sane, constructive, generous and tactful, but participants can lack the reading and social skills to achieve that, and many recipients will recall, decades later, some particularly wounding or asinine remark.

Much depends on the organizer. Some groups rotate the chair, which allows everyone to get into difficulties. Some have invited conveners, young and impoverished generally, who do their honest best but can offer no more than politeness to work of unfavoured style and content. Most groups have a resident chairperson, which provides continuity but also a predictability in responses and suggestions.

Something also seems inhibitory about workshops. Poems which are perfectly clear in retrospect, and which would have been discussed sensibly over a cup of coffee with a fellow poet, tend in group discussion to become the focus of amazingly obtuse and unhelpful observations. No one knows why this is so, but few cannot but have memories of their own transgressions. Even to have had the work circulated beforehand, so that contributors can assess and prepare their suggestions carefully, which is obligatory in many groups, seems not a sufficient precaution. Multiple discussion becomes theatre, and perhaps needs clear rules if the performance is work effectively. And poems, often the better poems, which communicate reader to reader, silently, with depth and subtle nuance, are disadvantaged by the whole approach.


1. To judge from the level of submissions. See: Peter Finch's The Poetry Business (1994).
2. Chapter 1 of Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter (1992).
3. Finch 1994.
4. D.J. Taylor's A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980's (1989).
5. George Greenfield's Scribblers for Bread (1989). An Independent (UK) newspaper article of 4th March 2006 quoted a 2005 Society of Authors study, which found 50% of UK authors earned less than the minimum wage, and 75% less then £20,000/year. Some 161,000 titles are published each year and 296 million copies sold (i.e. an average of 1840 copies sold per title). Happy endings for would-be novelists.http://money.independent.co.uk/personal_finance/invest_save/article349062.ece NNA.
6. Gordon Wells's The Book Writer's Handbook (1995).
7. Walter Nash's Language in Popular Fiction (1990).
8. Peter Abb's The Polemics of Imagination (1996).
9. Eric Mottram's The 1960-75 British Poetry Revival in New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible (1993).
10. Kieron Winn's New Generation: Same Old Story in Agenda 34/1 (1996) and Gioia 1992.
11. Gioia 1992.
12. Chapter 3 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990), Chapter 2 of Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990), and Chapters 1 and 9 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).
13. John Honey's Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies ( 1997).

Internet Resources

1. Small Presses, Poetry, and the Classroom. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/alexander/classroom. Promoting contemporary poetry and the small presses.
2. Joseph Harrington, "Why American Poetry is Not American Literature.," American Literary History 8, no. 3 (1996): 505. Q
Reflections on the status of poetry in the humanities.
3. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or the Utter Failure of American Poetical Criticism. Dan Schneider. Feb. 2001. http://www.cosmoetica.com/D3-DES3.htm. Attack on the poor state of poetic criticism and editing.
4. The Poetry Kit Interviews David Kennedy. Ted Slade. 1998. http://www.poetrykit.org/iv98/kennedy.htm. An insight into the UK poetry business.
5. The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing. Briggs Seekins. Apr. 2001. http://www.cosmoetica.com/D4-BS1.htm. Sobering view of the US poetry network.
6. Visionary Company. Marjorie Perloff. http://www.mrbauld.com/bloomper.html. Critical Review of Harold Bloom's anthology The Best of the Best.
7. Timothy Steele. Jun. 2000. http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/00/06/index.html. Interview in The Cortland Review commenting on poetry cliques.
8. Volta: Toward A Century Of Real Inventions. Esther Cameron. May 2001. http://www.cosmoetica.com/S9-EC2.htm. Status of poetry and what needs to be done.
9. Who hired Bill Moyers to destroy American poetry? Carlo Parcelli. http://www.flashpointmag.com/moypoets.htm. Reflection on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.
10. Against Lineage. Chris Stroffolino. 2000. http://home.jps.net/%7Enada/lineage.htm NNA. Overlooked importance of vision in poetry.
11. Second Aeon the literary magazine 1966 - 1975. Martin Booth. http://www.peterfinch.co.uk/2ndaeon.htm#B. Difficulties faced by UK poetry magazines.
12. So You Want To Start A Magazine. Kent Brewster. http://www.speculations.com/zines.htm. Wry experiences of being an editor.
13. My dealings with UK literary magazines. Tim Love. Apr. 2001. http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/texts/mymags.html. Generally favourable comments on many of the smaller presses. See also his Poetry and Society in the UK. Oct. 2004. http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/texts/cultureofpoetry.html for an excellent analysis of what drives poets and editors today.
14. Reviewing the Reviewers. Anne Burke. http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no4/
. Reviewing and literary culture in the USA.
15. Poetry in the Workshop. Stephanie Bolster. Dec. 2003. http://ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v08n02/poet/
. Difficulties and benefits of running a workshop.
16. The Poet Within: a Workshop Series. Julie Reinshagen. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2001/3/01.03.06.x.html. A detailed curriculum, with resources.
17. From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience In Mainstream American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing. Gabriel Gudding. http://www.flashpointmag.com/guddin~1.htm. Extended essay, with references.
18. Poetry After the Great Divide. Jan Baetens . http://www.altx.com/ebr/reviews/rev11/r11bae.htm. Review of Carrie Noland's Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology. (Princeton Univ. Press. 1999)
19. The Making of E-Poetries. Janez Strehovec. 2003. http://www.dichtung-digital.org/2003/issue/1/strehovec/. Review of Writing Electronic Poetry: Loss Pequeño Glazier's Digital Poetics.
20. Small Press Traffic. Regular reviews of small press offerings. http://www.smallpresstraffic.org.
21. Harry Potter and the stony broke authors. John Ezard. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1528065,00.html Thursday July 14, 2005 article in The Guardian depicting financial reality of UK childrens' book authors.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.