Don't buy now, pay later...

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Poetry is in the doldrums - but you cannot admit this in front of the children. On the face of it, things could not appear more rosy. Reports about the latest odds-on contenders for Poet Laureate make front-page news - and you could be forgiven for thinking there is as much public interest in the matter as there is in the Grand National.

In a foreword to the schools' pack for the latest National Poetry Day in October, publisherWilliam Sieghart - who founded the annual literary jamboree - said he could hardly have imagined the impact the day would have.

Now the Prime Minister is said to have added his weight to the notion of a nation on fire with poetic fervour with the suggestion that he wants to make the choice for the Poet Laureate - you've guessed it - a "people's poet".

And yet in the same week that the papers carried stories about the betting for the top job in poetry, it was revealed that the Oxford University Press has decided to ditch its modern poetry list (although some poetry will continue to be published on its children's list. The OUP's director of music, trade paperback and Bibles, Andrew Potter, says it wasn't an easy decision, but that 90 per cent of the list sold under 200 copies the previous year.

Something does not add up. There supposedly has been a resurgence of interest in poetry, but in what sense can you say that there is a national enthusiasm for a product which no one is prepared to buy? If poetry is really so popular, why do we need to have a National Poetry Day? Nobody has suggested that we should have a national "let's watch some football on the television" day.

Imagine telling Christopher Marlowe, John Donne and William Shakespeare that one day of the year would be set aside as National Poetry Day. What would they have done on the other 364 days?

The quest for popularity is a dangerous one. Rudyard Kipling could have been described as a "people's poet" because he was read by the people. T S Eliot also could be classed as a "people's poet" when he was not being too inaccessible - and when he was unwittingly helping to write the lyrics for Cats.

But could you label Gerard Manley Hopkins a "people's poet" - and would it be any criticism of him if you could not?

Surely a true "people's poet" would need to be bought by the people and made a millionaire by the people and enjoy the kind of recognition that pop stars enjoy. In any case, the whole idea of a Poet Laureate - an officer of the Royal Household - seems faintly out of date in an age in which there is scant regard for the concept of a crown.

Meanwhile, as poetry - apparently loved by so many but bought by so few - continues to be locked in a conflict between glossy appearance and a more depressing reality, teachers are expected to keep its banner flying high.

They go on, in the words of William Sieghart, "holding poetry assemblies" and "inviting poets into the classroom" while quietly drawing a veil over the fact that the great British public is reluctant to pay for the poetry which it is alleged to be so excited about.

You cannot enthuse about poetry one moment - as you are asked to do - and then tell the children that a publishing house as distinguished as the OUP does not seem to want to know.

Peter King teaches English at Wisbech Grammar School, Cambs.

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