Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Neil Astley's Apologia for Populist Poetry

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 4 November 2006

Rupert Loydell of Stride Books alerted me to an article in New Statesman by Bloodaxe Books editor Neil Astley called (rather clumsily) ‘Give Poetry Back to People’. In it, Astley laments what he mistakenly sees as the lack of interest poetry publishers display in the sort of poetry he champions: namely that which is populist, descriptive and prose-like. He says, ‘When poetry publishers and reviewers ignore their readership, this is called “maintaining critical standards”’. He argues that this indifference is inappropriate given that ‘more people write poetry than go to football matches, and poetry is popular in schools, at festivals and at the hundreds of readings staged every week in pubs, theatres, arts centres and even people’s homes’.

Moreover, ‘Poetry has reached a wider audience through films, radio, television and the internet, as well as through initiatives such as London’s Poems on the Underground, which has been imitated around the world’. That is not all:

‘Big names in world poetry read to full houses at Scotland’s poetry festival, Stanza in St Andrews, every March, and at Ledbury in July. This month, hundreds of poetry enthusiasts will flock to the biennial Poetry International at the South Bank Centre in London (24-29 October), where the international line-up includes Elizabeth Alexander, Martin Espada and Jane Hirshfield (US), Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon (Ireland), Tua Forsström (Finland), Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), Arundhathi Subramaniam (India) and Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa). The following weekend (3-5 November), Aldeburgh Poetry Festival will fill the town’s Jubilee Hall with readings by writers from Kurdistan and Catalonia to the US’.

He adds that despite the extensive promotion by major bookshop chains of poetry that is ‘aimed at a broader readership’; nevertheless, ‘all the talk in poetry publishing is of crisis’. He says that,

‘The producers of poetry aren’t in tune with the lovers of poetry. Many poets and publishers are actually hostile to the promotion of poetry […]. They see marketing as a dirty word instead of simply the means by which their books are made available to more readers’.

Because of this state of affairs, ‘Bookshops stock less and less poetry, concentrating on safe bets such as anthologies and selected poems by big-name authors’. The solution to this problem is, he says, to publish ‘a range of books and authors that people actually want to read’. Furthermore, ‘Continuing to package their books to appeal only to an intellectual elite has severely disadvantaged’ poetry publishers. He says, rather patronisingly, that if ‘readers find a book visually unappealing, they won’t pick it up. And if the back-cover blurb is a piece of turgid literary criticism, new readers will be scared off’.

For Astley, ‘Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the arbiters of taste, selecting only writers they think people ought to read. […] Ignoring the readership would be commercial suicide in any other field, but this malpractice in poetry publishing and reviewing has survived into the 21st century thanks to “academic protectionism”.

He continues: ‘Editors’ “personal taste” is too often an excuse or disguise for elitism and arrogance. In my view, my responsibility as an editor is to be responsive to writers and readers, and to give readers access to a wide range of world poetry’. As long as it is populist, descriptive and prose-like, one presumes.

He says that ‘Contemporary poetry has never been more varied, but what the public gets to hear about are the new post-Larkin “mainstream” and the “postmodern avant-gardists” (with their academic strongholds in Oxford and Cambridge respectively)’. I would have thought Astley’s own poetic preferences have now replaced the post-Larkin “mainstream”. Moreover, as for the postmodern avant-gardists; surely they are somewhat marginalized.

He concludes with echoes of a liberal humanist aesthetic: ‘The establishment must be responsive not to literary and academic cliques, but to readers, especially at a time when public interest in poetry is growing so rapidly. Poetry’s dinosaurs have to realise that our country, culture and economic climate have changed, and so have their responsibilities’.

In his article, Astley seems to be in something of an unnecessary dilemma. On the one hand, he laments the failure of establishment poetry publishing houses to churn out even more populist, descriptive and prose-like poetry, while on the other hand he boasts about such poetry already being the dominant strain in contemporary British and international culture. Hasn’t he the slightest notion that poetry should be an art form and not a sort of social realism to be blindly marketed like reality TV?