MY BELATED THOUGHTS ON THE "POETRY BOOM"

21/6/09

Like many people that are really involved with poetry on a day to day basis, I was incredibly sceptical about all the press that poetry has been getting. Firstly we had the announcement of a brand new Laureate, then we had poetry featured on it’s own BBC season of programmes, and it all kicked off on the Oxford campus. However, while on a long awaited holiday to Sardinia with the missus I found myself in that awkward situation of telling people about my profession. The funny thing was that every time I mentioned that I was a poet I got the same answer: Oh… poetry’s going through a real boom at the moment isn’t it?

Now for anyone that’s “on the inside” it’s easy to get snooty about such statements. Poetry is doing the same business as it always has. But a flurry of mainstream coverage definitely comes across as a boom in the general public’s eyes. After I’d heard about this poetry boom from a few everyday folk I have to admit, I became a believer in the power of the current mainstream push. Of course, I’m still sceptical about whether this will turn into a sudden upsurge in sales of contemporary poetry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only way to bring someone over to the world of poetry is via some obscure volume picked up at the back of some backwater bookstore. Perhaps the biggest reason for my scepticism was the repeated mantra -It’s good for poetry. This line often gets my hackles up because it’s usually uttered by some big media organisation before they royally shaft me. Media visibility and bad journalism do not bring throngs of new people to poetry, though many people from the media do enjoy patting themselves on the back when they decide to highlight the art form, as if they have just saved an endangered species of butterfly from extinction.

I won’t wade into the murky waters of the Oxford professorship scandal, but I will share a few thoughts on the BBC season. I found there was plenty to like, especially when quite a few friends of mine got their moment to share their poems and opinions. The highlight for me was the Armando Iannucci documentary on the life and poetry of John Milton. This was great, oldschool BBC documentary making. No dodgy re-enactments, no long establishing sequences to set up the scene, just a presenter who knew what he was talking about addressing the audience. My favourite scene was one where Iannucci got stuck into an excerpt of Paradise Lost with a marker pen. Rather than turn to the camera and tell everybody that poetry is exciting, he worked his way through the text energetically, pouncing upon line breaks and phrases as if the poem was a banquet table. The excitement was genuine, informative and infectious. Poetry was presented as a challenge, but a challenge with immense rewards, a funchallenge! This, oh documentary makers and wannabe cultural conservationists, is the way forward.

Which brings me to Griff. Oh, how the knives are out for Griff. Every time Griff becomes the public face of UK poetry, poets around the country react like college students whose obscure favourite band has suddenly become popular all over the campus. Well, hear this my dear poetry elite, the Griff programme certainly wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, nor as bad as many are making it out to be. In fact, I thought there was plenty to like about the show. I thought that he actually painted quite an accurate picture of poetry across the country. Sir Andrew Motion came across very well as someone who really knew what he was talking about, there certainly seems to be a new lease of life about the man now that he no longer has the laureateship milstone around his neck. I also liked the scene where Griff interviewed a local poetry group in Brighton. This is one of the real public faces of poetry, sure it’s more watercolour group than Tate Modern, but I’m glad that they didn’t airbrush out that element of the UK poetry scene in an effort to make it look more hip and exciting. I enjoyed Charlie Dark’s moment too, involving some primary school children in an excercise that highlighted how delicious language can be. I have had the privilege of shadowing Charlie during one of his sessions and can tell you that he is one of the best poetry education workers in the country. I found the later Slam segment filmed at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm to be a tad contrived, though that may have been more down to the editing than the event itself. The only element I thought was missing from the show was the poetry open mic. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

copy & share:
niallosullivan.co.uk/boom