Poets tend to be a self-promoting bunch. Even in past times where the public’s thirst for verse was unquenchable, it was vital to be heard above the throng of doggerel, and in these modern prosaic times it is embarrassingly too easy to be unheard and unmissed. These days we seem to have very little social or literary mobility where a working-class wordsmith can break into the inner circle of Radio 4, where a self-taught provincial versifier can complete with the Oxbridge literature graduates. Despite the proliferation of small-press magazines that used to find shelf-space in the Poetry Library and these days have been replaced with their online cousins, there are only half-a-dozen or so magazines whose inclusion on a CV will open any doors. That means there are half-a-dozen editors who control who gets noticed by the publishing houses and who gets reviewed in the newspapers.
And yet, it has never been easier to open a YouTube channel and start declaiming. And it has never been easier to be ignored. It is no longer enough to be a first-rate writer, now one must be a glorious orator as well. Would we ever have heard of Craig Charles or John Cooper Clarke had they not been able to demonstrate the appropriate Northern voice they wrote in, or Benjamin Zephaniah had he not toned down the Brummie and cranked up the Caribbean side to his accent when reciting ?
But then, poetry was always a performance art. From the days of Homer to the rappers of today, it has always been crying out to be spoken, entreated, ranted, whispered, and above all shared. And where better to practice than at a workshop like ours ? We opened this week with a fine rendition by Doig Simmonds, recounting his recent moonlighting as a recording angel in heaven, and Christine Shirley had no need to shout for her paean to Mother Earth to be heard. Peter Francis brought his Scots ballad of an unsleeping child to life without the need of a dodgy accent, while Martin Choules has been revisiting the choices of his youth with the voice of experience. Meanwhile, rumour has it that Alan Chambers is so steeped in a lifetime of prosody that he even uses couplets when he talks in his sleep – certainly his pre-workshop afternoon nap provided plenty to crow about. Owen Gallagher, on the other hand, has given voice to the invisible but not silent hand of the market, and John Hurley has been expressing his doubts that the voice of the people will reach the ears of the politicians.
It is noteworthy that some of the most reclusive and coy poets such as Emily Dickinson, Gerald Hopkins and Wilfred Owen, all had to die and leave their works in the hands of their pushier relatives before they received any recognition. Meanwhile, the little-published but suitably boisterous Robert Frost popped over to Britain, dropped off a sheaf of verses at a London publisher, and a week later was the bard of Beaconsfield. It does make one wonder if we are in danger of only ever hearing the poetic utterings of the loud and obnoxious, or the delicate observations of the self-obsessed.
But of course there is nothing new here: perhaps the greatest innovation of the Romantics was to stop telling tales of ancient times in rhyming couplets and start telling thoughts and feelings from the first person. There is never any doubt that it is Wordsworth himself that wandered lonely as a cloud, nor that it was Shelley who met the traveller from the antique land, even though his presence is entirely superfluous. And even the old puritan Billy Blake got in on the act, insisting that he is the recipient of both sword and chariot. But poetry seems to have survived the last two hundred years of naval-gazing in pretty good shape, so the answer seems clear: by all means write for the love of it, but if we want to be read by strangers, we must play up and play the game.