Saving poetry from itself

Bear with me, what follows is a rough sketch of how those of use who “see the point” of poetry (to quote James Fenton when he was good) can help to change the frame in which poetry currently operates. This suggestion is largely atheoretical but I have stolen freely from Henri Lefebvre, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Chris Bayly in terms of thinking this through.
Let’s get class out of the way first, poetry is viewed as a middle class pursuit and serious poetry tends to be viewed as the domain of the academic cohort within the bourgeoisie. I’m not interested in whether this is actually the case, it’s the perception that concerns me and this is a problem for those of us who believe that poetry can and should transcend these affiliations.
Let’s now think of dissemination which takes two main forms, publication and the reading. In my experience the vast majority of people who attend readings are themselves aspiring poets. Poets, in the main, are published by outfits that survive on a shoestring because very few people buy contemporary work. Neither of these methods of dissemination can be said to be functioning effectively, preaching to the converted leads to mutual back-scratching, coteries and all the factional problems that get in the way of spreading the word.
I’m now going to borrow Bayly’s concept of the ‘information order’ in order to point to a way out of this dilemma. He applied this to the British presence in India but it will serve my purpose here, if we think about the way poetry presents itself as something rarefied and esoteric ( there are many poets who seem to go out of their way to ‘do’ esoteric) we can see that the current information order with its emphasis on brevity and the pithy phrase is not conducive to stuff that requires thought and reflection. I could go on for a long time about how this might be a Bad Thing but suffice it to say that poems don’t have a very high place in the current scheme of things.
This may seem like going off on a bit of a tangent but I want to give some consideration to the nature of public space. Where I live (small town by the sea) the dominant public spaces are the beach and the shops. Both of these present opportunities to sell stuff, the promenade is full of cafes and pubs, the town centre has a supermarket and several other retailers and people (me included) wander from one to the other to meet our needs.
For the most part, this is a drab and uninteresting experience punctuated only by the passing traffic and is entirely functional. We may meet people that we know but this is only on the way to the next purchase.
Now, consider what might happen if someone was standing in this space reading poetry out loud. The main response would be one of disdain but one or two people may stop and listen, the voice would have to compete with the traffic and words may be drowned out but this would nevertheless be an intervention in an otherwise ordered space.
Consider also what may happen if two or three readers were situated around this space and were reading out loud from the same work. This might be a bit more disturbing, people may become a bit more aware of what was being read and shopkeepers might start to complain.
This would seem to work on a number of levels. On one level it takes poetry away from the malfunctioning sphere referred to above and returns it to public space. I’m not suggesting that this will win instant converts but perhaps one in a hundred passers-by might give some thought to what they hear. Such an act would also be a positive intervention in public space and may (if done with sufficient regularity) change how that particular space functions- instead of been the junction with the traffic lights it might become the place where that odd man reads poetry every afternoon.
In Ventnor, being a resort town, things are very quiet from November through until the following spring. The spot that I have in mind is at a junction where three roads meet and the initial idea (before I attempt to recruit volunteers) is to stand on the least frequented pavement and try and project the words (I have a loud voice) across the traffic to the pedestrians on the other side. The sound of the poem would thus have to compete with the sound of the traffic. In order to give this event some further legitimacy, I’m toying with involving our local news blog (which is excellent) to give advance notice and report on the initial reading.
Thinking this through for the past ten days, I’ve checked myself for signs of many (it’s a fairly bipolar idea) but it still holds validity primarily because I think it’s more interesting to try and do something that just bemoan the poetry problem and (if taken up by others) it might go some way to changing the frame in an interesting way.
Having decided to do this I then have to decide what to read. I’d be endlessly amused by reading Prynne at his most austere or ‘The Triumph of Love’ or ‘Stress Position’ but that might be a bit much for my fellow citizens. I’d have problems with pronunciation with David Jones but I think I could manage selections from ‘Maximus’ or all of ‘Trigons’, any suggestions would be much appreciated.
I must stress that I don’t see this as a one-off stunt but as a regular event occurring in a specific place at a specific time- the intention is not to shock or startle but to embed this act as a feature of place.
Does any of this sound reasonable? I really do need some feedback.


2 responses to “Saving poetry from itself

  1. “In my experience the vast majority of people who attend readings are themselves aspiring poets.” Without meaning to be trite, it’s often the case that the people who attend readings might leave with that aspiration, even if they didn’t come through the door with it. Just like watching a band for the first time has made a vast constituency of teenage persons pick up a guitar. It’s ok! It’s a good thing, it’s part of the capability of poetry. Or maybe poets backs just itch harder.

    I like your idea of a series of public readings without a planned audience; you should do it! Look forward to reading your reports…

    • I can only speak from the readings that I have attended in two fairly provincial parts of the UK. In both these settings when it was a ‘pure’ poetry reading then the audience was invariably made up of aspiring poets, the only time this wasn’t the case was when poets alternated with musicians and the some people came along to listen to the music.
      The public reading site has now been staked out and I think my voice can audibly reach to the other side of the road, all I have to do now is decide on what to read…

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