EDITORIAL PENNILESS PRESS ISSUE 27
The laureateship, with its implication of laurels awarded by State and Crown, is an empty anachronism which, like all such forms, survives by claiming it can serve ends it isn’t intended for. So the appointment of a female laureate is, if you read The Guardian, good news for women. How can an award bestowed by a family whose wealth, power and privilege depend on the hereditary principle, assist gender equality? How can association with a government which accepted, to the final detail, the self-justifications and excuses of the so called “masters of the universe” as they went about enriching themselves at the cost of our economic security, serve any kind of equality? Most of the bankers who ruined us were men. Most women remain poorly paid and in lower level jobs. Feminism, which once recognised equality as the ground of its success, has taken on a free market form: so long as few women achieve success, status and wealth, the job is done. I would have thought a public renunciation of the post and of the royals and time-serving politicians who bestow it, could have done much more to advance the cause of equality in general and of women in particular.
Yet even more disappointing is this, from Carol Duffy’s Guardian acceptance article:
“….poetry……matters deeply to a huge and growing number of people in this country.”
Out of an adult population of thirty million, what could be thought of as huge ? Twenty million or so? If twenty million Britons bought contemporary poetry, it would be reasonable to expect the most popular collections to sell a hundred thousand. Even Duffy, a set text, will be lucky to command that. Most collections sell fewer than five hundred. Most poets are unheard of. Poetry matters to hardly anyone as a voluntary activity. Tens of thousands of pupils and students are forced to read the stuff, but, as everyone knows, often with the result they never look at it again once they’ve got the certificate. Editing a little magazine gives a clear sense of how many people take a real interest in living poetry: I’d say between three and five thousand. Not even 0.1 percent of the population. Poetry, as something taken an interest in outside the school or the academy is virtually dead. It matters to a very small group of enthusiasts. Nor does Adrian Mitchell’s old adage explain: people don’t ignore poetry because it ignores them but because it requires effort, is disturbing and clashes with the anti-imaginative narcissism of our culture. Later, Duffy descends simply to the level of an apparatchik:
“..poetry is vital to the imagining of what Britain has been, what it is and what it might yet become.”
The kind of statement to the House you might expect from a newly-appointed poetry czar.
Duffy is apparently going to donate the £6,000 she receives to the Poetry Society for the establishment of a new poetry prize. She would do better to give a thousand a piece to six little mags. Gongs, crowns and prizes are little to do with literary value: they are about commercialism and winning the culture war. The mass imagination isn’t formed by poetry, or any kind of serious literature, but by celebrity veneration and reality tv. If you went onto Oxford St today and stopped people at random, how many would have heard of John Skelton? How many could name a poem by him? Skelton lives and works in the imaginations of the few who take the trouble to read, who see value in the long-term, who have the courage to resist the present. This isn’t as it should be but it is as it is. Ours is a culture of manufactured stupidity, which is exactly what you need to turn people into mindless consumers. Poetry should be sceptical, cynical and oppositional in such a culture. Conversations with the wind aren’t quite what we need to win today’s cultural struggle. The forces of ignorance and reaction are winning. They will continue to win if we peddle illusions about huge numbers of people turning to poetry. If literature is to do its work in fighting the murder of imagination, we have to begin from where we are: beleaguered, struggling to survive, ignored by the majority. But no-one who says so will be poet laureate nor win prizes.
Posted by keith armstrong at 10:17 am