Public Poetry


Robert Montgomery, installation at Bexhill-on-Sea, lit by recycled sunlight

When Oxford University Press decided, in 1998, to sell off its poetry backlist, begun in the 1960s, and to close its doors to new collections of contemporary poetry, a vigil outside the press’s offices was called by the Poetry Society and the MSF trade union branch. A louder and more direct response came from Alan Howarth, then junior minister in the department of culture, media, and sport. Howarth labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’. ‘Has OUP not noticed,’ Howarth asked, ‘that in this day and age we have moved on from the heresy that everything should be susceptible to market forces, that everything should be for sale?’ It is hard to imagine such a statement coming from a government minister today.

At the time, Caroline Pailing, OUP public affairs manager, said the decision was necessary because the poetry list had been, in her words, ‘losing money for years’. To argue that the press should continue to publish contemporary poetry was, she said, to ‘to invite it to subsidise creative writing, to behave as if it were an outlying department of the Arts Council.’ Howarth’s response was to argue that:

“Precisely because the quality of our public discourse is so commonly degraded by powerful people – the perpetrators of jargon, bureaucrats, advertisers, politicians, propagandists of all kinds – with an interest in the coarsening of language, it is vital that our poets should be supported and thrive.”

Whatever the different perspectives and positions animating this exchange, what is particularly interesting is the language through which their arguments are staged. For Pailing, it has to do with ‘subsidy’; for Howarth, it is about ‘support’. Both effectively argue that poetry is not economically viable. The difference is ideological and, also, simply one of degrees: of business versus creativity, of market forces versus national welfare. One sees poetry as little more than a private, or at least, non-commercial, art; the other views it as a public good.

Fifteen years later, a similar scenario unfurled when Salt decided to close its doors to new poetry titles in 2013. That decision followed five years of dwindling poetry sales and repeatedly unsuccessful applications for Arts Council funding. Dwindling, however, is perhaps the wrong term. Salt’s decline in sales was stark. In 13 years Salt published about 400 books of poetry. That is a lot of poetry; by contrast, in the 30 odd years of its existence, Oxford University Press’ list contained 42 names, including work by dead poets. Between 2009 and 2013, Salt’s poetry sales fell by 50%, with a 25% drop between 2012 and 2013.

But Salt’s change of direction is indicative of a much larger scale problem in poetry today. The size of the poetry book market is shrinking year on year. Although Salt’s dip in sales is certainly headline grabbing, its decline mirrors the downward spiral of poetry sales more generally, with an average drop of 15.9% in poetry sales in 2013. In 2007, Sean O’Brien won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award – remember Northern Rock? remember the queues round the block when it seemed suddenly everyone else but you and the people you knew had massive amounts of savings stashed away? – the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for his collection, The Drowned Book. According to Nielsen Bookdata, by 2011 The Drowned Book had sold 2,715 copies. It’s not many, perhaps, and, at the time, Philip Hensher said he knew novelists with more Facebook friends than that. But, in terms of poetry sales, 2,715 is actually something of a roaring success. Most successful poetry titles sell in the hundreds, not the thousands, and some even less.

In 2014, poetry accounted for 0.6% of the book market; that figure looks set to fall further. The biggest selling poets are dead – in 2014 7 of the top 10 bestselling poetry titles were all by dead poets; only Carol Ann Duffy, Pam Ayers, and Simon Armitage figure as living poets selling books.

These figures raise an important question about the role of poetry today. What’s it for? Poetry has a ceremonial place within state spectacles, the pseudo-national psyche, births, weddings, funerals, not to mention the education system; the poetry that sells belongs to the establishment, to tradition. And yet at the same time, it’s probably also fair to say that poetry has never really been more than a peripheral cultural pursuit. It happens, but not much necessarily depends on it.

On the other hand, though, the recent decline of poetry sales strikes a particularly peculiar note because, looked at from a different perspective, contemporary poetry would actually seem to be flourishing. There are, in fact, more and more publishers of poetry. One database currently lists around 400 UK poetry publishers, albeit of varying size and output. There are also more and more poetry competitions, many featuring a headline grabbing large cash prize. There are more and more poetry readings. There are numerous high-profile literary festivals, and everyone, from Chester Zoo to the Great North Run now carries a poet-in-residence. And as Howard Stains has noted, ‘commercial brands from Dove to Transport for London have employed poets to offer some kind of authenticity to their interactions with the public.’ Poetry has kudos and impact.

And on top of all this there is the growing number of online magazines, blogs, pamphlets, broadsheets, postcards and bookmarks, you-name-its, together with a sizeable number of resilient print magazines of considerable reputation. Based on figures gathered over the last four years, the Poetry Library in London reports a year-on-year rise of visitors, enquiries, memberships, website hits, eloans, and twitter followers. Poetry readings are everywhere, and increasingly popular. Creative Writing programmes, too, are growing, and will, it looks like, continue to do so. Not to mention the rise of the Instagram poet, posting minimalist aphorisms and fragments to several hundred thousand followers.

And so, to all intents and purposes, poetry would be appear to be in rude health. The argument is this: the world of poetry, so often in the past guarded by gate-keepers of the establishment, has been democratised, and now poetry – and all the associations of being a published poet – belong to the people, rather than to the few. Arts council and funding bodies encourage this sense of buoyant optimism: grow and expand is both their mantra and their measure for success, just as it is, frequently, mantra and measure for poets, too. The problem is, I don’t know that many people outside of poets who are interested enough in poetry to really read it and follow it and engage with it.

This is why it’s always been so important to the poetry world to establishing particular communities – in another language I’m talking about ‘poetry clubs’ and all the elitist affluence and gendered despair usually associated with such coteries- is also one of the reasons the poetic ‘voice’ or ‘signature’ of a generation needs to become homogenised, at least to an extent. There needs to be an identifiable generation, hence such categories as the Next Generation poets and its various other alternative spin-offs, groupings, and affiliations.

Of course no one wants to read the same poem repeated by different people, but nor do they want to read something wildly new each time they open a poetry magazine or collection. It is about knowing what people want and it’s about product placement. One wishes to be surprised, but only in a familiar way. This holds for both mainstream and experimental camps. Similarity is safe bet trading; if you like this, you will love this. The consequence, of course, is that, on this model, the horizons of poetic conformity become more and more narrow. Such uniformity also aims, deliberately or otherwise, to narrow the poetic marketplace. Suddenly everyone is wearing Converse and all the other trainer manufacturers selling similar looking trainers can’t get a look in and their already reduced margins are squeezed further until the business is no longer tenable.

This is one of the reasons why, rather than being a force for the good, the proliferation of poetry publishing has the potential to cause internal difficulties for the poetry world. It means more and more people are competing for sales in an already saturated market, and it also causes an anxiety among more established presses that the very value and quality of poetry is being diluted. It takes time to build a brand and in either scenario, market share needs protecting. This is the classic sense of the editor as gatekeeper. Poetry prizes and competition culture increasingly function on similar lines. Prizes propagate the myth of celebrity and equate success with cash.

There are other ways to think about poetry.

I’m increasingly convinced that there’s something inherently small-scale about poetry that I want to call the local and I want these narrow limits to be understood to be a good thing. Despite the global reach of the internet, for instance, poetry communities are small in number; their geography may be diffuse but they are, essentially, still local communities. Groups, factions, friendships, affiliations. We live our lives in relationships; we experience art in similar ways.

I suppose what I really want to say is that poetry, deep down, more and more – and maybe it was always this way – belongs to a group of friends and associates, at every level. The big prizes and publishing houses carry the greatest caché because, culturally, we measure success by cultural and financial capital. Like Andy Warhol we venerate celebrity but unlike Warhol we no longer seem to see its artificiality. National exposure equates to quality measure, and control.  But this needn’t be the case and to over emphasise the reach of the big prizes and publishers is to misconstrue the foundations upon which contemporary poetries, all of them, stand: local networks. This can lead to charges of factionalism, nepotism, elitism, vangardism, and even irrelevance, but it is, by and large, how things actually happen. And it is also, I think, where poetry can speak to the world more generally.

Small press publishing has no option but to confront this reality, but the small press experience is one, I think, that can serve as a useful model for the production and consumption of poetry more generally. Commercial publishing tends to be contractual whereas small press publishing is social. With high costs, time-intensive labour and limited sales, small press poetry publishing does not produce an economy of sustainable scale; it relies more and more on poets being consumers first, driving and sustaining their own marketplace of circulation and exchange. In economic terms, the business of poetry is not so much a trade related to profit-led consumerism as it is by the more informal and non-monetary custom of local communities, social networks and gift economies. Independent poetry publishing, distribution, subscriptions, mailing and sales depend upon a community of readers: friends, colleagues, organisations, institutions, patrons. It is made up of a network of connections, of like-minded people and people who would like to be like-minded. On this model, poetry is not a commodity but a counter of exchange that circulates via the context of non-monetary social networks, themselves organised by notions of kinship, mutual interest and status.

Yet even these points of affiliation strike me as increasingly at odds with the contemporary consumption of culture. In terms of the poet’s ‘career ladder’ (and this is the same, I think, no matter what camp the poet belongs to), the single-author collection is still the pinnacle of poetic success. But beyond personal renown and reputation, people just aren’t that interested in other poets. Not even poets. As Charles Boyle, publisher of CB Editions, notes, there’s a supply and demand problem. As Todd Swift comments ‘Poetry book non-buying is the great shame and taboo of British poetry – most poets I know don’t buy books, often,’ which is also why his press has started charging a reading fee for any submission, or the purchasing of 2 books. As Philip Hensher puts it, ‘The reason we don’t truly value poetry – the reason we don’t buy it and share it – is simply this. We’re not interested in the art form, only in the seriousness of what it happens to convey, like a magazine article, a newsflash, a tweet.’

One of the issues here, no doubt, is the way poetry has become a casualty of the digital age. In an internet culture, products are free, and are expected to be free, and are paid for by other revenue streams, most notably advertising. Poetry as traditionally conceived doesn’t have those other revenue streams. And it’s become harder and harder to shift stock. Besides, it might just be that one of poetry’s principal functions is to get us to remember that there are ways of life that are unconcerned with wealth, celebrity, or brand identity. On this model, poetry might be said to foster local communities in the atomisation of community in the digital age. Or perhaps poetry might be seen as a challenge to the reality of the free market by suggesting that not everything is there to be bought and sold. I don’t know.

Large print-runs are outdated. It needs more pocket books, chapbooks, pamphlets, and, really, it needs individual poems playlisted on a phone more than a collection (Comma Press’s McGuffin app is interesting on this); it needs to be t-shirts. The poetry world needs to narrow its focus and it needs to stop universalising. It needs to look local. And it needs to be cheap, or better still, free. It needs not simply to expect but to actively pursue a short shelf-live. It wants to stop looking to posterity and live in the now. It can still be beautiful, and important, and provocative, but it needs to redefine how it thinks of itself, and how it thinks of its relationship to culture more generally. I don’t mind admitting that one of the things I like about poems is that they are short.

The Scottish poet Robert Montgomery’s installations are, I think, a great example of how to locate poetry in the contemporary: large-scale, public works functioning as landscape, backdrop, provocation; works with an immediacy but long enough to give pause. It’s a kind of Situationism and to be situated is maybe what poetry needs more than anything else today.

Robert Montgomery, image courtesy of The Cob Gallery

“I think Guy Debord’s idea of society as a spectacle,” says Montgomery in an interview with, “he comes from a post-Marxists perspective, but he analyses the coalition of capitalism and the media and predicts, what he calls, a “Spectacular” life where humans will feel disconnected from the things we make. A society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia. I think we are now living in the Spectacular age. The Situationists’ contribution to the May 1968 uprising was to write poems on walls of the campus of the Sorbonne.  They saw poetry as an agent for political change, which I find fascinating.”

“I’m interested,” Montgomery says elsewhere, “in Roland Barthes’s idea that mythology is essentially a type of speech, and that speech defines a culture. Poetry can define the dominant languages we have in culture – and now those languages are advertising and the news media.”

Montgomery goes on: “So with my work I wanted to break that dominant type of language with a more interior and vulnerable voice, and do that on billboards where that dominant language normally lives. I wanted a kind of therapy against the dominant language, and I wanted to see what you could do if you bring a kind of speech that comes from poetry into that arena. I’m interested in poetry because, for me, it’s the most private type of speech, the most private and personal literary form.”

I suppose what I’m after, really, is a poetry without limits, just as, deep down and without irony, I’m after a world without limits. This is Montgomery again: “I think the limited discourse (or limited “type of speech”, as Roland Barthes would have called it) in contemporary life is massively oppressive. And the dominant types of speech that surround us are the locked and limited hegemonies of a certain political-type-of-speech and advertising-type-of-speech (in German they could both be compound nouns), and those two types of speech are psychologically oppressive. I think (those) two types of speech injure and hurt our basic childlike instincts towards kindness and magic.”

I’ve always loved the visual impact of text-art and conceptual art, a kind of art to gather the gaze and to stop you in your tracks. Books do that too, of course, but they tend to do it privately and in isolation and I’m so rarely alone these days and I want to stop and see or see and just carry on thinking about what I’ve seen a little off and on all day, and what I’m interested in, anyway, is the world and how we live in it and the importance of space and place and the importance of people.

Some things move me: to work with words as light in space, to take poetry to the streets and set it against the sky. Such things matter. As Dane Weatherman writes, “To encounter the work of Robert Montgomery is to make a tender encounter whose tenderness is enhanced by the public, communal quality of his work. To encounter his work is to have your body filled with a sad thunder and your head filled with a sad light. He is a complete artist and works in language, light, paper, space. He engages completely with the urban world with a translucent poetry. His work arrives at us through a kind of lucid social violence. No one has blended language, form and light in such a direct way.”

I need to think about this some more.