I was on a train recently reading a book of poems by Carol Rumens when the elderly man sitting across the table said, “Do people still read poetry?” He frowned as though rats had re-infested his basement: my chosen book was so preposterous he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Experiment when you’re next around people who have read Wolf Hall, people who would go to see a play by David Hare or an exhibition of contemporary art. Ask them how recently, if at all, they have read a poem published since the year 2000. They are very likely to agree that they never read contemporary poetry.
Last May, Jeremy Paxman said that poetry was now “conniving at its own irrelevance” because poets were only talking to each other. He was speaking as a judge of the Forward prize for poetry, and poets were outraged – on Facebook many of my poet friends foamed at the mouth. But even speaking to defend poets, Michael Simmons Roberts had to concede that the habit of buying books of poetry has been lost.
This is now such a settled state of affairs that it is hard to remember that it was ever different, that poetry used to occupy a central place in culture. In the 1920s, T S Eliot’s depiction of modern civilisation as a Waste Land influenced everyone with intellectual interests – and in the 1930s, W H Auden’s diagnosis of a sickness at the heart of capitalism came to the lips of many people when they wanted to describe their current cultural condition. Eliot and Auden wrote as the inheritors of a powerful tradition that had lasted for six centuries.
But then things quickly began to change. By the 1960s, poets such as Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath were still widely read and discussed, but poetry was beginning its migration to the cultural margins. The shift may have been encouraged by the growing prevalence of popular music: many people in this period kept saying that Bob Dylan was a more important poet than the usual ones who couldn’t play the guitar. And the rise of “pop” poets such as Roger McGough and Brian Patten drained all the challenge out of poetry in order to make it work in their performances. These were mildly entertaining, but they were never anything like as effective, or even as poetic, as the work of genuine performers of the period.
And so by the 1970s, poetry was facing intense competition – even in its own thematic territory – from popular culture, which claimed to offer the same satisfactions in a more accessible and charismatic form. But it was in the 1980s and 1990s that the really bad news for poetry started. Popular culture now formed powerful alliances with the new media. Something in the sensibility shaped by the combination of web surfing and channel hopping, of 24-hour news and big data, is profoundly unfriendly to poetry. The slow reading that poetry demands can seem to resemble waiting for the web to fire up on a decrepit laptop.
Slowness is now universally abhorred, but slowness is what poetry is about, in the sense that it insists on taking the time to observe and ponder, to dismantle the mundane and find meaning in it, to apply language to that dismantling, and simultaneously question that language. Impatience with such a painstaking process is inevitable when you’re used to googling for answers.
This crisis for poetry is a great pity because there are brilliant poems still being written. For Britain in particular the marginalising represents a major loss because the great artistic achievement of these islands has only been intermittently in painting and music, but continuous and formidable in poetry.
Universities should be at the forefront of renewing interest in poetry. Instead the opposite is happening, because universities are responding to financial constraints by giving students more and more of what they want. It’s increasingly possible to graduate with a degree that has English in its title, but which contains so much film or media studies or creative writing that you never have to sit down in a seminar and work out how a poem works.