‘A good poem articulates the fears and joys of life’

3 Oct 2013 @ 7.22 am
| Opinion
The theme of National Poetry Day this year is 'Water, water, everywhere'. This is an extract of a poster by film-maker Leo Crane
The theme of National Poetry Day this year is ‘Water, water, everywhere’. This is an extract of a poster by film-maker Leo Crane

This is a day that all who appreciate the power of lyricism should celebrate, says Miles Salter

Today – Thursday, October 3 – is National Poetry Day. All over the country, in schools, libraries, theatres and arts centres, poetry will be performed, read, celebrated and enjoyed. I have become increasingly excited about NPD over the last seven years, as I have appreciated poetry more and more.

It’s a good thing to celebrate. We are the nation, after all, of Shakespeare and Chaucer, of William Wordsworth and John Keats.

English’s unique linguistic melting pot (latin, French, anglo-saxon and norse) has given us a fantastically varied mother tongue. Our island contains multiple accents, dialects and idiosyncrasies of language. Poets revel in this variety. In figures such as Shakespeare and Chaucer we have world-renowned writers.

But poetry suffers from a PR problem. Most people don’t touch it with a barge pole, fearing it is too obscure, too difficult. It remains unpopular, dogged by associations with literature that is too far from the realities of life.

Douglas Adams famously lampooned poetry in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in 1979, with a scene where a Vogon reads an excruciating poem that makes the book’s heroes scream in agony.

This reluctance to investigate or enjoy the form is born out in sales. In the UK, we spend about £67 million each year on Pringle’s crisps, and only £6.5 million on poetry books. By publishing standards, it is a paltry amount: printed book sales equate to nearly £3 billion per year.

In 2013, Salt, one of the UK’s leading independent publishers, announced it was ceasing to publish poetry, focusing instead on the more financially lucrative area of fiction.

But poetry rumbles on. Independent presses sell enough (in most cases) to keep going, even if the publishers will admit it’s a labour of love.

In the North of England, Bloodaxe Books and Sheffield’s Smith / Doorstop fly the flag for good writing, with independent presses such as Smokestack Books (Middlesbrough), Northumberland’s Red Squirrel Press and Scarborough’s Valley Press also on the map. Their books are bought by a hardcore, committed following.

Poetry is sidelined in an age of rush and noise. We’re too busy, too frenetic, too distracted by emails and texts, our next train or appointment. We miss the stars in the sky, the colour of flowers, the laughter of a child.

Poetry invites us to slow down, to ponder, to reflect. For those who do spare the time to read a few pages of poetry, it offers consolation.

It is an artform that requires investment of time. It is not a cultural fast food. It takes a while to become a fluent reader of poetry, and even longer to become a good writer within the genre.

But for those who stay the course, it is hugely rewarding, a source of rich edification, a place of illumination.

We read, somebody once said, to know we’re not alone, and a good poem articulates the fears and joys of life brilliantly.

At times of great change, such as weddings and funerals, we reach for a poem as a source of consolation. It provides a voice to our deepest hopes and fears.

Within the pages of poetry books, we find celebrations of landscape and the animal kingdom, the horrors of war, the warm rush of love, and verses that are just plain funny.

This evening, I will be performing some poems alongside other York writers, including YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley, at York’s City Screen Basement Bar.

If you can’t make it, look up a poem via the Poetry Archive. You may be surprised by what you find.

  • Miles Salter hosts Poems By The Water, which will take place on Thursday, October 3 at City Screen Basement Bar. The event starts at 8pm and tickets are £4
  • Also reading will be: Carole Bromley, Abi Curtis, Oz Hardwick, Lizzi Linklater, Steve Nash, Dave Gough, Henry Raby, Helen Cadbury, Nick Toczek and Becky Cherriman
  • Miles Salter is a writer based in York. His new collection of poems, Animals, is available here. More on Miles’ website