So maybe poetry isn’t about the language any more…

Yesterday evening I, along with at least a couple of hundred others, sat in on the Zoom launch of the Autumn 2020 edition of The Poetry Society’s quarterly tome, the Poetry Review.

For some time now there has been a consistent refrain among members of the poetry groups to which I belong that an unreasonable proportion of the content of these collections is, quite frankly, rubbish. “We can do better than that.” One of those phrases you’d like a pound for each time you’d heard it! Well, yes; maybe so.

In many respects my attendance last night was something of a recon mission: to listen to things being read, to discover if what I heard added in any way to what may – or may not – have leapt off the page.

Hmm. Well, there was far too much sycophantic messaging from the audience in the Zoom chat window during the session – “Wow!” seemed popular – with messages of “You’re amazing” popping up in the poet’s eye-line and putting them off as they were reading. Enthusiasm is good, but I wasn’t convinced – especially as some of it didn’t really sound like poetry. More like someone having a chat / rant / performing a play. I suspected some people were ‘clapping’ because they thought they were supposed to. Just because a piece is published doesn’t make it instantly good or unchallengeable.

So later I returned to the Review itself, to see how some of the read poems appeared on the page. Poetry seems to have evolved (if you can call it evolution) into a situation where you can write anything you like as long as you make it look interesting on the page. Voila – it’s poetry! Right-justified; printed in landscape; prose broken up in a jaunty way, even not-very-good-writing… Imagery, inventiveness, craft with words, all seem to have been relegated to the back of the class where it sits afraid to put its hand up, humiliated into submission because it’s not ‘hip’. Not enough “wow”s to count.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no big fan of tum-te-tum-te-tum poetry. I write very free verse, little punctuation, creative word- and line-spacing. Indeed some people might question whether what I write is poetry! So I’m not advocating all poetry should be like Spencer or Shakespeare; after all, where would we be without Pound or Eliot – or Auden, or Yeats, or Betjeman come to that? But it just seems as if we’ve gone too far, style over substance.

As if the only game in town is paying homage to the Emperor’s New Clothes…