poetry renaissance

Despite all the current difficulties, poetry is flourishing. It may be somewhat ingrown, and perhaps marginal to the interests of the greater reading public, but poetry still exhibits a scope, vitality and originality not to be found elsewhere.

Self-publishing, with or without the Internet, has further expanded its reach.

Poetry as a Natural and Traditional Activity

Art belongs to the people. The new poetry is untrammelled expression, and every week sees thousands of schoolchildren distill their experiences into "my poem" on this, that or whatever. Writing frees the emotions, and creative writing courses for therapeutic purposes are increasingly offered in remedial centres, prisons and hospitals. Diffidently or otherwise, millions at one time or another have felt compelled to put their thoughts in verse, and serious poets in their tens of thousands clamour to be represented in magazines, workshops and poetry readings.

Surely this is natural. Poetry is the oldest and most honoured of literary forms. Only the smallest part of Greek and Latin writing has survived, {1} but in this residue poetry is well represented. The first classical works of India are anonymous, and little is known of Kalidasa, {2} but through these works and those of Valmiki, Mentha, Bhavabhuti and many others, Sanskrit poetry retains its formative influence on Indian life. The Chinese wrote a great deal from dynasty to dynasty, but the great bulk — and it is a very large bulk indeed {3} — of Tang and Sung writing is poetry. Shakespeare continues to be the most performed English dramatist, and the age of Milton is often given to the turbulent first half of the English seventeenth century. {4}

Poets have often been so honoured. Greek ethical education was founded on Homer. {5} With many more pressing matters on his mind in BC 29, Octavian listened to Virgil read his Georgics, and afterwards oversaw the production of the Aeneid. {6} Poetry was ardently discussed on the battlefield by the early Arabs. {7} The Timurid and Mughal rulers of Asia sought to attract poets to their courts by patronage and largesse. {8} Civil wars in England {9}, Russia {10}, and Spain {11} were preceded a great flowering of poetry which did something to mitigate the barbarities that followed. And so on: poetry has always held a preeminent position in the arts. {12}

The Waning of Modernism

For long periods of its life, poetry was a princely accomplishment, and work of the medieval kings of Europe {13}, the Mughuls {14}, and the Sung emperors {15} is still in print. Patronage was largely royal or aristocratic until the eleventh century in China, the eighteenth century in Europe, and the nineteenth century in India. Generally, the writers themselves came from the ranks of those with a good education but no independent means: the professional or merchant classes. Whatever the setting, education and leisure were the prerequisites, both for the composition of poetry and its appreciation.

Yet poetry has always been a somewhat minority art, and this aspect has no doubt been advanced for self-interest. Only a small percentage could read in Shakespeare's England, but the spread of education in late nineteenth century Europe eroded the special standing of the literati, and they naturally sought new ways of maintaining their priestly elevation. One response was to remove poetry altogether from the everyday and comprehensible, making it ethereal (Symbolism), iconoclastic (Modernism) and/or non-intuitive (Postmodernism). Very elaborate justifications and philosophical defences were devised, and it didn't matter if they were shown to be without foundation.

It was not all intellectual snobbery and self-advancement. Poetry is a very demanding and time-consuming occupation. 'Life so short and the craft so long to learn', lamented Chaucer, who had the task of making English equivalents to barely obtainable French and Italian originals. Matters are now vastly different. The best is readily available to everyone in the form of books, tapes and CD's, and time can always be found to read and write poetry, given only a genuine desire to do so. Naturally, there are many inhibiting factors in today's hard-pressed world — of bringing up families in the welter of conflicting advice, and the pressure of advertising to spend more time acquiring less satisfying goods — but the point remains: the opportunity is present in ways inconceivable before.

But the old attitudes persist. Poetry is today split into irreconcilable factions, each laying claim to sole truth. Attitudinizing, sneers, stock responses and self-aggrandizement are the weapons of a cold war in which examples are dispensed with, arguments simplified, {16} and programmes pushed to extremes. In fact the positions of all parties are untenable. The Traditionalists are often working in outworn conventions, the Modernists stand on shaky foundations, and many Postmodernists lack the craft to realize their conceptions. Of this, the public is more than ever aware, and does not buy any of the work. If only to survive, the groups must eventually come together.

The fragmentation also runs counter to an increasingly democratic view of skills in western society. Genuine expertise is respected, but has to be demonstrated. Politicians and legislators are called to account. Time clauses are written into construction contracts. Where cheaper alternatives exist to professional services, they are increasingly adopted — in conveyancing and divorce litigation, for example. Very notably the arts are continuing to resist the trend by seeking a monopolist position, arguing that the smallest addition of skills is authenticity, and so justifies a hundred-fold increase in standing. But despite the cozy circle of dealers, critics and curators, the game of emperor's new clothes is beginning to wear thin.

Poetry is slowly responding to the inevitable. Writing groups to reflect ethnic, political or regional differences are springing up around the country. They write about what concerns them, and if the results are not always skillful or convincing, they are certain vigorous. Few towns in England are without a literary circle, and here the writing of poetry is not always a soft option. Even academia, the haunt of Postmodernists, is occasionally obliged to justify itself, and its professionally-accredited poets find themselves running workshops, adjudicating, pushing out their work to magazines that do not specially cater for them.

Poetry Funding and Promotion

Until poetry recaptures its traditional public, it must rely on state support, but this is well-organized. As a registered charity, The Poetry Society advises, helps and promotes poetry at all levels of the UK's academic and cultural life. In plush surroundings on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, the National Poetry Library provides a working space, helpful staff and a vast collection of books and magazines — practically all the poetry books produced in English in the twentieth century. The larger publishing houses have their new titles, and publishers like Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Peterloo concentrate on poetry, much of it written by unfamiliar or foreign names. On radio and television every year appears the Annual Poetry Day, and each month there are poetry competitions, either as adjuncts to prestigious arts festivals, or run by the small presses. {17}

And whatever may be happening in the UK, there is a good deal more activity abroad. The United States sees funding from state, federal and local agencies, plus foundations, prizes, literary retreats, and tenure in universities as writers in residence. Tens of thousands of poetry readings are held each year, and more poets publish in books, magazines and websites than ever before. There are 200 odd graduate creative writing courses, and many more undergraduate courses, so that some 2000 university-accredited poets are turned out yearly. Twenty-five indeed of the US States have poet laureates. Poets appear as personalities in increasing numbers of biographies, and they feature widely in Nobel Prizes. {18}

Freedom of Style and Content

Poetry has little commercial appeal, and will stay impoverished until demonstrating a particular expertise that society needs. But with the financial invisibility comes a good deal of independence. Amateurs do not commonly understand how tied to content, style and deadline the professional writer remains. The women's magazine story, or the piece on ceramic bone implants, may seem something that any hack could turn out on a wet afternoon, but in fact these and all such pieces require a great deal of skill, application and contacts. Pay is not good, and has to include hours spent on research, much of which will not show. Editors want articles in on time, needing a minimum of alteration, and of a standard they have come to expect. Fail on one of these, and future assignments are in jeopardy. The customer pays the piper, and only well-known names can write to please themselves. Novelists who write in different genres generally adopt a nom de plume to avoid confusing their loyal public. Consistency pays, and that consistency in the end becomes a straitjacket.

These constraints poetry naturally escapes. Unless something is actually commissioned, or the publisher has sent proofs of the latest collection, time is not of great importance. Poems can be written and rewritten until they're satisfactory. Some lines take months or years to sort themselves out, and the poet has only to balance this polishing with the impulse to new creation. And if poems are rejected, as the great majority invariably are, the work is not spiked but remains for later reworking.

Serious poets write consistently. Certain matters obsess them, and they do not strike the emotional wellsprings by randomly casting about for new subjects. There are also matters of craft — vocabulary, verse-style, tone, etc. — which they have developed carefully, and feel comfortable with, and which they will not abandon lightly. But that said, the choices open to poets today are truly enormous.

Magazines and publishers exist for a wide diversity of styles. And at least at the beginning of the career, little harm is done in submitting work in all forms — haiku, sonnets, free-verse anecdotes, prose meditations, whatever: the possibilities are endless. Just as the cub reporter is moved round assignments for experience, so the beginning poet understands the possibilities and limitations by tackling various subjects and styles. Much will not be successful, and some may cause acute embarrassment in later life, but there is no need to preserve juvenilia.

Freedom to Experiment

The freedom to experiment is what gives poetry its advantages over other forms of writing. Novels take a long time to write, and longer still to market. Publishers are very concerned about the financial aspects, and usually insist on certain well-worn genres and themes. Then there is the honing of dialogue, sharpening of character, weaving of subplots, etc. A serious novel usually takes a year or two to write, and then is either accepted or is not accepted: rewriting is an immense task. The short story may seem the safer option, but in fact requires specialized skills, and is difficult to place, the market being perhaps only 5-10% of that existing for nonfiction and journalism. Experimentation is more acceptable in the short story, but is also more perilous. {19}

That leaves poetry as it always was: the workshop of language. And by this is meant rather more than stylistic experiments. Ultimately, writing requires acute social awareness, with and about words. A short hour in conversation at the pub or on the bus should demonstrate the sharp individuality of personal opinion, and such diversity is even more marked in the literature of other cultures. Behind the expression of such views — even in the ill-thought-out and fragmented of everyday conversations — lie very different universes of outlook. Some may be banal and mercenary; a few are refreshingly original; one or two even inspiring. But certainly they are distinctive and vibrant and worth reflecting on. Woven into them as well are very real philosophical matters — matters in the Greek sense of philosophy (how life should be lived) and in the technical (to what extent are we able to know the world and make our own decisions, etc.) Philosophy is not poetry, but this site should provide starting points from which to set out and explore less hackneyed responses to the world. Philosophy requires consistency and generality, while poetry seeks more to hold the attention and move the affections, but they are not adversaries. As written today, as an academic pursuit, philosophy is admittedly dry and technical, but it was not always so. The works of Homer, Du Fu, Rumi and Shakespeare have marvellously articulated philosophies, and it is the likes of these that contemporary poetry needs to find — in its own way, in its own context of expression — if it is also to be ultimately worth reading.

New Technology

Desk top publishing has greatly assisted the amateur poet. Poems can be prepared on screen, illustrations scanned in, and the laser or inkjet printer used to prepare camera-ready copy for the friendly local printer. But the process is still not cheap. Prices per copy do not come down to acceptable levels until print-runs exceed a hundred or two, and that generally leaves a good number of copies unsold in wardrobes or attics.

Websites and CD technologies change all that. Poems can be put up on a website at no cost beyond that of maintaining the site. Writable CD's can be obtained for modest sums if purchased in bulk, and provide an embarrassing amount of space: sufficient not only for many collections of poems, but novels and graphic art as well. Artists should get together.

But the real impact is now arriving in ebooks, which not only show text but provide graphics and sound as well. An enormous amount of technology is in the pipeline — paper-thin VDU screens, intelligent sound and movie-file compression, file transmission via satellite-disk or local ultra-sonics, and so on. {20} The companies pumping huge sums into these developments realize very well that their present monopolies will be threatened, but cannot afford to be left behind. Publishing is changing drastically, and artists of all descriptions find themselves collaborating directly rather than through the current shop-window of publisher-gallery-studio. Commercialism is still important, perhaps even more so, but many problems of poetry expression are being sidestepped.


1. John Boardman, Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray's The Roman World (1989).
2. Chandra Rajan's (Ed.) Kalidasa: The Loom of Time. A Selection of his Plays and Poems (1989), and Chapter 14 of A.L. Basham's (Ed.) A Cultural History of India (1975).
3. James Liu's The Art of Chinese Poetry (1962).
4. Christopher Hill's Milton and the English Revolution (1977).
5. p. 139 in J.M. Robert's History of the World (1992).
6. p. 237 in H.H. Scullard's From Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD68 (1982).
7. p. 239 in R.A.Nicholson's A Literary History of the Arabs (1930).
8. Chapter 33 of Basham 1975.
9. H.J.C. Grierson's The Metaphysical Poets in The Background of English Literature (1925).
10. Robert Lord's Russian and Soviet Literature: An Introduction(1972).
11. p 190 in Hugh Thomas's The Spanish Civil War (1986).
12. Alex Preminger's (Ed.) The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993)
13. p. 228 of Elizabeth Hallam's (Ed.) The Plantagenet Chronicles (1995).
14. Basham 1975.
15. Chapter 5 of Patricia Buckley Ebrey's China (1996).
16. For parallel absurdities in the study of history see: Frank Füredi's Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age (1992). Also Chapter 7 of John Kenyon's The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance (1993).
17. Peter Finch's The Poetry Business (1991).
18. Chapter 1 of Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992).
19. Consult a practical guide to writing, e.g. B. Turner's The Writer's Companion: The Essential Guide to Being Published (1996).
20. Any of the well-known computer magazines: Byte, Internet.works, Net, etc.

Internet Resources

1. Librarian's Index to the Internet: Poetry. http://lii.org. Over 170 sites listed, each with brief description.
2. The Poetry Machine. http://www.poetrymachine.com. Directory of poetry magazines in USA, Canada and beyond.
3. New Hope International Review. http://home.clara.net/nhi/online.htm. Reviews of poetry magazines and books: mostly UK and not ezines, but useful all the same.
4. Poetry Library of London. http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/. A Helpful library: some magazines online.
5. Links to Poets. http://www.pmpoetry.com/linkspb.shtml. Individual poet's sites.
6. Hypertexts. http://www.thehypertexts.com/. Featured poet and good listing of individual poet's sites.
7. League of Canadian Poets. http://www.poets.ca . Covers the Canadian scene well.
8. Poetry Society of America. http://www.poetrysociety.org. Excellent listings of US poetry events and magazines.
9. UK Poetry Society. http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/. Events with the Society.
10. Wordworx. http://www.wordworx.co.nz/. News and listings for the New Zealand scene.
11. Academy of American Poets. http://www.poets.org. Academy and non-Academy events in the USA.
12. Poetry News. http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/. UK Poetry Society's newsletter.
13. Online Poetry Workshops, Conferences and Boards. http://poetry.miningco.com/arts/poetrycs/
. Part of extensive poetry about.com site.
14. Poetry Slam Inc. http://www.poetryslam./com. Information on poetry slams in USA, Canada and Europe.
15. Wordworx. http://www.wordworx.co.nz/. News and listings for the New Zealand scene.
16. US State Poetry Societies. http://www.nfsps.com/links.htm. Lists those that have websites.
17. Poems that Go. http://www.poemsthatgo.com/ideas.htm. Listings of critical essays on poetry and the Internet.
18. Kaldron. http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/kaldron.htm. In depth treatment of visual poets.
19. Light and Dust Poets. http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/lighthom.htm. Extensive anthology: includes visual poems and poems with graphics.
20. Ubuweb. http://www.ubu.com. Visual, concrete and sound poetry. Now with good references.
21. World of Poetry. http://www.worldofpoetry.org. Ambitious, multimedia site. Promoting poetry as a living art in USA.
22. The Poetry Kit Interviews David Kennedy. Ted Slade. 1998. http://www.poetrykit.org/iv98/kennedy.htm. An insight into the UK poetry business.
23. Atlantic Online. http://www.theatlantic.com . Excellent reviews on the poetry pages.
24. Guardian Book Reviews. http://books.guardian.co.uk. Includes the occasional poetry collection.
25. Times Literary Supplement. http://www.the-tls.co.uk. 100 years of archives. Subscription $119 p.a.
26. Contemporary Poetry Review. http://www.cprw.com. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.
27. Poets and Writers Online. http://www.pw.org. Good roundup of publishing and literary news .
28. Marjorie Perloff. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/. Essays on contemporary poetry.
29. Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Dana Gioia. 2003. http://www.poems.com/essagioi.htm NNA. Article in The Hudson Review.
30. Planet Ebooks. http://www.planetebook.com Useful listing of programs and hardware for ebooks.
31. Electronic Literature Foundation. http://www.eliterature.org. Promotes publishing and use of e-literature.
32. On Demand Book Printers. http://www.bookmarket.com/ondemand.html. A long list, but no comparisons.
33. Print on Demand Publishers. http://dehanna.com/database.htm. Selection online; more in free e-book.
34. Electronic Book, e-Book, eBook, eJournals, and Electronic Journal Watch. http://www.trinity.edu/rjensen/ebooks.htm. Articles and a good listing.
35. Fiction Addiction. http://fictionaddiction.net/listings.html. Short list of print-on-demand publishers.
36. Internet Publishing. http://www.hipiers.com/publishing.html. Excellent listing of electronic publishers.

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.