In a recent post on his always thought-provoking (and, crucially, given what I had to say the other day, short) blog ‘Rougue Strands’, Matthew Stewart asks whether poets are reading enough new poetry.
It is a fair question. Stewart suggests that well-reviewed books often only sell around 200 copies. As I understand, debut novels will often only shift a few thousand, and the difference probably reflects the difference in ‘market share’ between fiction and verse. The truth is, when I review, it is never with any expectation that it is going to sell books. They are responses to the poems.
For some time now, I have been trying to read more widely in twentieth-century poetry, whatever that means to you. Mostly it means coming across more poets I don’t feel I have enough time to read more of, but want to. Someone, in person or print, will recommend them to me, or I will find them in an anthology.* To take a few more recent names at random: Edwin Morgan. Langston Hughes. The Welsh-Jewish poet Dannie Abse. Thom Gunn, who I had read but not really read.
But I also keep trying to go further back in time, to Wordsworth and John Clare, for instance, both of whom I have read but never properly digested. I am still half way through Paradise Lost (it is good). Each one of these poets is, by any reckoning, a major figure. It will take me years to really appreciate any one of them. And I have a lot of novels and trash non-fiction to get through in the meantime.
Regardless of how much reading is really going on, all new poetry is competing, within a small readership, with every poem ever written. It is not simply that there is a lot of good new poetry out there: there is a lot of seriously good poetry out there from ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even 400 years ago. Suddenly, selling 200 copies to real, living, breathing humans begins to look like very good going indeed.
The vast majority of poems I read are by dead people (dead men, if those examples are anything to go by) and probably always will be. But that also helps explain why I take an interest in ‘contemporary’ poetry in the first place: it is as much about being social, about offering solidarity, about, ultimately, placing a bet on the future, as it is about the poems themselves.
*I have the Bloodaxe The New Poetry anthology, from 1993, in the loo (I presume this is what the editors would have wanted) and it is the source of a lot of discoveries, but also a lot of anxiety. There are so many great poets from the 80s and 90s in there. None of them are very new any more.