Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Thursday 31 January 2019

Poetry in motion

Contemporary poetry is booming, or it is in a “rotten state”. Maybe it is just on the move

By Anthony Anaxagorou

The American academic and poet Ben Lerner argues in his book The Hatred of Poetry that poetry is a non-asset, meaning we as society are yet to establish a feasible way of valuing the work poets make. He may be right but if we consider Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur, who via her 3 million followers was responsible for £1m of the sales from 2018, Lerner’s assertion might need revision.

Book sales of poetry in the UK grew by nearly 12 per cent in 2018 to a total of £12.3m. What has caused this sudden resurgence, and why are we seeing it now?

Poetry is a broad church. Exhausted debates surrounding craft and aesthetic have for eons dominated academic discourse. What exactly constitutes a poem has lately become a hot topic for spoken-word/performance poets too, who find themselves drawn towards self-publishing, in an age when you no longer need an established publisher to do what a social media account can.

In a recent interview the poet Robin Robertson, whose book The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, said contemporary poetry divides into “light verse” at one extreme and “incomprehensible” verse at the other. This centrist position resulted in poets taking to their social media platforms to dispute Robertson’s claim.

There also exist more outmoded gatekeepers who hark back to the golden age of Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot and Geoffrey Hill – all white, all male and all deceased.

Other detractors call for a renaissance where identity politics isn’t at the fore, and poets can once again revert their attention to craft and technique, rather than whatever grievance they might have with the government, law enforcement or Britain’s colonial past.

In November 2018 novelist Rose Tremain told The Times Literary Supplement: “Let’s dare to say it out loud: contemporary poetry is in a rotten state. Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do. I’m fervently hoping for something better soon.”

Tremain was directing her comments at Instapoets – those eager millennials who are often regarded by the more traditional poetry-lover as being pedestrian, lacking technique and nuance while succumbing to sentimentality and surface puns, which end in logical conclusion.

There really is no definitive answer. I also don’t think this sudden resurgence is, as The Guardian suggested, due to millennials “being in search of clarity”. To put it plainly, nobody ever really goes to poetry for clarity. You could argue quite the opposite.

Technology has changed both consumer and reading culture, but then every poet during a certain time was making art in the midst of a technological revolution – from the printing press to the typewriter, to the computer and so on.

Tensions mount between the more accessible poetry versus the work other poets might gravitate towards. Part of this is due to the politics of language – who is able to access particular references and styles, and how much is a reader willing to work for the poem? The Instapoet characteristically brings the poem to their reader, whereas the lesser known page poet will ask the reader to meet the poem on its terms.

The computer age has altered the way we use language, yet succinct, pithy verse is not exclusive to these times – think Robert Frost, Langston Hughes or the famous Japanese haiku. Each day wonderful poems are being shared online by poets and readers alike. More people are not only discovering poetry, they are attending live nights too. Now we can take a photograph of a poem, upload it, and within seconds have it enjoyed by thousands of people. This is a virtue.

The shift has meant poetry is now far more democratic than it was, leaving past gatekeepers feeling disgruntled and less influential on who should be published and canonised. Prize culture is the last bastion of the establishment, as no Instapoet has yet to receive an award for their work, either here or in the US.

Anne Stevenson remarked: “The degradation of language seems to be the price the gods have exacted for our hubristic presumption.” If it’s not language the old guard seem to be irritated with, it’s subject matter, or craft.

The current milieu is exuberantly fecund, people are wanting to read and expand their palates, so why close the doors? Like any good host you invite them in, then once they’re comfortable, introduce them to the marvels of the grand hall.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an award-winning poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. He has published nine volumes of poetry, a spoken-word EP and a collection of short stories. He is a contributing editor at Tortoise.


So He Dies

A poem by Anthony Anaxagorou


Some of us are born like saints


Perfectly filled with favour, longevity

and crystal teeth:

Some of us are born to taste

the decades of flavours

in the wind’s wild breath

And to die when we please.

Some of us aren’t

Some of us just lay like the past

until we stay perpetually motionless

with ash in our blood,

filled with violins

made of bones and harps

plucked by the earth’s ailing fingers.

Songs that lament in a brutal indignation

whilst the rain drums against the coffin,

young and dead

is the body

young and dead is the wood

devoted to a bed of elastic soil

and poison

that hacked the step from the stride.

Some of us are just here for the last act

sifting through the pale glory

indigent and blind.

Then you my friend

who I have always known

with such life

closed your eyes

so unwillingly.