Poetry In 2017? You’ll Have More Luck On Instagram Than You Will In Waterstones

Is our penchant for tweetable poetry simply a reflection of our dwindling attention spans and heightened narcissism? Quite possibly.

Poetry In 2017? You'll Have More Luck On Instagram Than You Will In Waterstones

by Clare Finney |
Published on

It has been described as the art for our times: the perfect medium for a world driven by soundbites and snapshots. It has also been described as eye-rollingly pretentious and overwhelmingly white, male and middle class. I’ve been attending a poetry course for the last two years or so, and have felt and encountered each one of these views at various points in that time. Yet with Instagram and Twitter jumping on board the bardwaggon, and spoken word events on a par with supper clubs for fan bases, the time seemed ripe to ask just what this new poetic scene, means.

Now, I’m no poet. And I do know it, because real poets don’t rhyme ‘poet’ with ‘know it’ in verse or anywhere else. But I do know some poets: ones who have actually been published, in real life books and magazines. One such poet is Isabel Galleymore, a 29-year-old lecturer in creative writing, who turned to poetry after moving to London for her arts foundation course and finding the experience 'terrifying and inhibiting'. 'For my final piece, I made a museum cabinet and filled it with small, strange sculptures I carved from soap and clay. Realising that the most satisfying part of the project was writing the poem-like captions for the small sculptures I’d made, I turned to reading and writing poetry almost daily,' she tells me – the idea of which I find peculiarly endearing.

She was accepted onto a mentoring scheme, held a prestigious Hawthornden Fellowship and completed an English literature degree and a PhD before landing her job at Birmingham Uni. When I asked her to take the pulse of poetry in 2017 she shied away initially – 'I don’t feel I’ve been on the earth long enough!' – but it turned out this humble versifier had a lot of valuable points to make. While there has been a 'huge growth' in poetry events and festivals and 'a better array of opportunities for emerging writers' in the form of mentorships, prizes and courses, 'it seems difficult to be too positive given the unhealthy dynamics that continue in terms of under-represented poets,' she tells me. I point to a book entitled 101 poems to learn by heart, in which just 16 out of the 80 poets were women and she echoes my frustration. 'There is a huge problem with regard poetry as to whose voices are heard.'

She points to research by reviewer and blogger David Coates that found 'not only do far fewer poets of colour receive poetry prizes, the work of poets of colour are reviewed less in newspapers and magazines than the work of white poets.' This is changing, thanks to some inspired initiatives like Ten: Poets of the New Generation, a series of anthologies which showcase the work of Black and Asian British poets – but 'there is still much work to be done in challenging cultural exclusion relating to sexual orientation, disability and class.'

Without the glamour of theatre, the sophistication of the novel or the budget of film, poetry has long been culture’s poor, tweed-and-corduroy-clad cousin. Even Byron, poetry’s coolest poster boy, is more famous for shagging all of the women (and a few men, to boot) than he is Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. 'When I introduce myself as a poet I often find myself qualifying what I’ve just said, or voicing the word "poet" with a question mark at the end. Other poets I know use scare quotes around the term as a matter of habit,' Isabel tells me. 'Without, hopefully, sounding too paranoid, I think I come across the judgement that poetry is irrelevant fairly often.' What’s interesting that this assumption invariably comes from the communities you’d expect to be supportive, she continues, while the people she’s come across on poetry residencies, who may never have picked up a poem before in their lives, 'are actually quite pleasantly surprised and intrigued.'

Poet residencies are very 2017, and that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d write. Isabel’s pen has taken her to the strangest places. 'Luke Kennard was appointed Canal Laureate on Birmingham’s canal boats in 2015 and I undertook a residency in the Amazon rainforest last year.' There are residencies in airports, churches, gardens and, in America, shopping malls, where poets like Brian Sonia-Wallace pen poems for shoppers. In Newcastle there’s a door-to-door poet, offering rhyme in place of blinds, or Jesus. 'I thought people would tell me to piss off,' he says of his ‘job’, which consists of knocking at strangers’ doors, asking what’s important to them, then going away and writing a poem about it. No one did. In fact, most people’s suspicion gives way to delight when he returns to perform their poem on their doorstep. Yet for me the real joy of poetry is in finding a poem written by someone you’ve never met, that may have lived hundreds of years ago on another continent, and yet which feels as if it was written for you.

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I ask Isabel if she believes there is a poem or a poet out there for everyone, and she smiles. 'Your question makes me think about whether there can be such a thing as a poem soulmate… a poem born for a particular reader. A funny idea. I think favourite poems and poets should change over time, just as their readers do. I often return to a book I adored and find it not nearly as captivating as I remembered it being. Likewise, I’ve found myself astonished by books that three years ago I put down in pure frustration,' she continues. Perhaps, years hence, I’ll feel differently about Instapoets, and more inclined to read the poetry of politics and the environment – the two growing concerns of poetry, according to Isabel – than I do today.

Of course, poetry can be irrelevant and obscure to the point of alienation. But at it’s best, it is piercingly, pit-of-your-stomach relevant – more relevant than anything you could ever find on film or in a novel, where context is everything. In the words of my all-time poetic bae, Emily Dickinson, 'if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.'

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Follow Clare on Twitter @finney_clare

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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