On Poetry

Norman Geras poses the question: “Why don’t we value poetry?” This followed Philip Hensher’s  question in the Daily Telegraph: “Why don’t we truly value poetry?” These questions remind me of an article I read 17 1/2 years ago that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Britain is not a nation of poetry readers, but one of poetry writers. As the article noted, “Poetry Review, the biggest British journal, gets 30,000 submissions a year but has just 5,000 subscribers.”

I copy a lengthier extract from that article below.

Publishing Problem: More Britons Write Poetry Than Read It

Richard L. Hudson

Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition) June 11, 1993. p. A.1

In some countries, people play golf, go to karaoke bars or watch paint dry in their spare time. In [Britain,] this ostentatiously literary country, thousands of would-be Drydens and Popes… commit their spare evenings, pennies and hopes to writing verse and getting it, somehow, into print.

“There’s an enormous amount of poetry writing going on” in Britain, says Jane Feaver, an assistant to the poetry editor of Faber & Faber Ltd., a British publisher of which T.S. Eliot was a director. The firm gets 30 to 40 poetry manuscripts a week for consideration — some very good, in her opinion, but most awful. “A lot of people treat poetry as a therapy for working out their problems.”

What must that say about Britain? The number of new poetry books published here annually has nearly doubled in five years to 1,349 — far outdistancing U.S. output, estimated at no more than 830 by Publishers’ Weekly….

Some blame the recession and unemployment for inspiring all this poetry. Joblessness affords time to write poems. But the spurt notwithstanding, poetry has long been part of being British. The New York subway has lately taken a cue from the London Underground, which festoons its trains with posters of poems right alongside the antacid and dating-service ads. “It seems there is this groundswell need for expression that’s built into the culture,” says David Reeves.

Mr. Reeves, a self-styled “community artist” in England’s industrial heartland near Birmingham, has been spending his days expressing himself in chalk on sidewalks and city streets for a local arts festival. His masterpiece, though, is a collection of poems about illness that he invited patients in a big clinic to contribute to. The anthology, called “Prescribed Reading,” is now kept in the doctors’ waiting room and has sections on particular ailments. The common-cold chapter includes a “performance piece” written on a tissue, he says. Also in the waiting room, Mr. Reeves dangled a cardboard sign inscribed with verse. A sample:








But for all the poetic ferment in Britain just now, there is no guarantee that anybody is actually reading it except poets and you can’t be too sure about them. More and more poetry is being published, but sales are flat to uninspiring. Poetry Review, the biggest British journal, gets 30,000 submissions a year but has just 5,000 subscribers, says assistant editor Kevan Johnson.

“The economics of this don’t make sense. If everybody who wrote poetry bought the books, then it would be a thriving culture,” he laments. “A lot of people write poetry, but they don’t read.”