The decline of poetry has been much written and talked about. How do we get more people to read poetry? How do we get more children to turn onto poetry? However in reading some of the commentary about this so-called decline I did start to wonder if poetry really was in decline, or if what is really in decline is one certain type of poetry, and its sales.
One piece from last years Times Educational Suppliment by the head of The Literacy Trust got me thinking. He claimed that the decline in the children’s poetry market could be blamed on a lack of primary teachers who appreciate verse, and the projection of adults prejudices about poetry onto children.
Firstly I am a little reticent to lay all the blame at the poor primary teachers door, as far as I can make out they have to start putting children through exams from the moment the little one’s hang up their In The Night Garden raincoats. Secondly while I agree with much of what he says in the article, and wholeheartedly support the promotion of poetry through multiple means to both children and adults alike, I find one big problem with the whole base assumption.
Mainly the premise that decline can be measured wholly in book sales. Now for those who actually sell books, and for those who have had a collection published, this matters, of course it matters, I have no wish to see bookshops shut, or people stop buying volumes of poetry. But can sales really equate to appreciation and enjoyment?
There is a concept in modern economics of the GNH. Instead of measuring a countries wealth in GDP, Gross Domestic Product, it could be measured in Gross National Happiness. Imagine how different, politics, schools, banks, whole infrastructure of our lives would be if the main concern of our society was the “happiness” of all its members, rather than the accumulation of wealth for a few.
I would propose that we look not at the sales of poetry but how much poetry influences the individual reader and their society. I believe that if we chose to look at poetry in this way we will find it robust, vigorous and full of vim.
If the only poem a person ever reads is WH Audins Stop All The Clocks (and they discovered it through Four Weddings) many may considered that individual has an impoverished appreciation of verse. However if that one poem gave them great comfort at times of grief, if they passed that poem on to others in the hope that it would similarly help them and if that poem stayed with them until the very day it would be read at their own funeral, having inspired and comforted them their whole life – perhaps we should call that a success for poetry. Maybe we should be pleased one person could be so wholeheartedly touched by poem, rather than being concerned if they went on to buy the associated merchandise.
Poets are meant to be radicals. So perhaps those of us who don’t make a living by running a book shop should revise our standard of success. Not how much have I sold, but how has my work touched others, has one line comforted my reader, made her laugh, made her think, made her see the world in a new way? Did she read it out loud to others? Did they momentarily lift their heads away from the TV screen and listen and agree? Did it come to rest somewhere in side, was it gathered up and kept in their hearts for another day? Most importantly, is that enough? Is that a concept of success I can live and write with?
Post script: I absolutly hold the right to revise my opinion should I ever have a book published.