In a recent post on his always thought-provoking (and, crucially, given what I had to say the other day, short) blog ‘Rougue Strands’, Matthew Stewart asks whether poets are reading enough new poetry.
It is a fair question. Matthew suggests that well-reviewed books often only sell around two hundred copies. As I understand, debut novelists with established publishers will often only shift a few thousand, and the difference probably reflects the difference in ‘market share’ between fiction and poetry. The truth is, when I review, it is never with any expectation that it is going to sell books. They are responses to the poems.
For some time now, I have been trying to read more widely in twentieth-century poetry, whatever that means to you. Mostly it means coming across more poets I don’t feel I have enough time to read more of but want to. Someone, in person or print, will recommend them to me, or I will find them in an anthology.1 To take somerecent names at random: Edwin Morgan. Langston Hughes. Dannie Abse. Thom Gunn, who I had read but not really read.
But I also keep trying to go further back in time, to Wordsworth and John Clare, for instance, both of whom I had read but never properly digested. I am still half way through Paradise Lost (it is good). Each one of these poets is, by any reckoning, a major writer. It will take me years to really appreciate any one of them. And I have a lot of novels and TV to get through in the meantime.
Regardless of how much reading is really going on, all new poetry is competing, within a small readership, with every poem ever written. It is not simply that there is a lot of good new poetry out there: there is a lot of seriously good poetry out there from ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even four hundred years ago. Suddenly, selling 200 copies to real, living, breathing humans begins to look like very good going indeed!
The vast majority of poems I read are by dead people and probably always will be (dead men, if those examples are anything to go by). But that also helps explain why I take an interest in ‘contemporary’ poetry in the first place: it is as much about being social, about offering solidarity – about, ultimately, placing a bet on the future – as it is about the poems themselves.
1 I have the Bloodaxe The New Poetry anthology, from 1993, in the loo (I presume this is what the editors would have wanted). There are so many great poets from the 80s and 90s in there. None of them are very new any more.