'"What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?” is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people’. So wrote Robert Graves, as far back as the 1940s.
The question is, in fact, an ancient one, and of course it still has currency—just as it did for Graves. I like to think that Graves was pointing out that the defence of poetry is only ‘silly’ if done ‘apologetically’.
National Poetry Day, which this year falls on 3rd October 2013, is a very public opportunity for poetry to stake its claim, as well as for readers and audiences to come to poetry.
We are living in curious times for the craft, when the popularity of poetry so evident at readings, festivals and performances does not appear to be translating into book sales.
According to Nielsen BookScan, 2012 saw a 15.9% drop in sales of single-authored poetry collections, leaving the total UK market for poetry books worth only £6.7m that year. No poet is in it for the money, but publishers—to some extent at least—have to be, and they are of course a vital link in the literary culture.
Moreover, a good poetry book deserves to be valued as much as a good novel, or good non-fiction. As Heminge and Condell put it, when presenting the Shakespeare First Folio to readers in 1623: ‘The fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses’. Even a ‘gift’ culture – sometimes held up as an alternative to the market economy of contemporary publishing—depends upon the acknowledgement of value. However we achieve that, National Poetry Day is one way of recognising the value of poetry collectively, socially, in celebratory fashion—and across the country, the keen pleasures that poetry brings will be self-evident.
The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, water, everywhere’: a line taken from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where it is followed by that withering realisation, ‘Nor any drop to drink’—capturing the terrible paradox of drought on board a ship at sea. Water is so essential to us, so ubiquitous in our habitat, that we might not notice it except through its absence—dehydration, thirst—and our visceral pleasure when that thirst is slaked. An absence of poetry may not kill you, quite—though this is debatable, given its fundamental relationship to articulate thought. An encounter with poetry, however, can certainly be as refreshing as and as vital as drinking the water that the body craves—the sense of being suddenly awash with life, as Coleridge’s Mariner felt, when the rain fell again: ‘Sure I had drunken in my dreams, / And still my body drank’.
What’s more—with poetry—you might not realise how thirsty you were, until you have taken the drink.
So—seek out poetry this National Poetry Day—and let poetry seek you out. Perhaps join the Poetry Book Society, too, and/or the Poetry Society.
I will be attending a reading by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Imtiaz Dharker, at Birmingham Literature Festival—an event sponsored by the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing. I am told that it sold out well in advance.
Dr Gregory Leadbetter is Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University.