What the Forward Prize Doesn’t Recognize About Poets
An uproar over Britain’s unawarded Forward Prize minimizes the duty felt by the bards among us. But why should we feel obligated to speak for the masses?
There’s a considerable controversy in the British poetry world right now: One of the U.K.’s highest awards for a collection, the Forward Prize, wasn’t bestowed this year, and the judge—a popular television presenter named Jeremy Paxman—made public comments suggesting that the current generation of poets is failing the reading public. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets,” he said, “and that is not talking to people as a whole.”
Even though I’m being implicated in that statement—in fact, mine was one of the collections Paxman considered for this year’s prize—I applaud him for speaking his mind and largely agree with his sentiment: Most contemporary poems feel difficult for the non-poet to enter. But we’re dealing with a chicken-and-egg situation here: Did people as a whole stop reading poetry or did poetry stop speaking to people as a whole?
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what happened first: It’s a situation that the genre of poetry has found its way into, and that it will find its way out of, effortlessly and elegantly.
Poetry is an organism, and a dynamic one. It has existed, over its long history, in both expanded and contracted states in terms of its readership. There are moments in its history when it is cherished even by those who can’t read; other times it is perceived as such an elite form that no one without what he imagines to be the correct training so much as approaches it. This historical moment is a contracted one—few people read poetry who aren’t writing it themselves—but poetry is a tough and plucky organism: Expanded times will come again, perhaps very soon. I don’t worry about poetry a bit. It always survives. It expands when it is needed, and the right reader will always be able to find it. There will always be someone who needs what it contains. It will always be the suited salve for someone.
Its readership expands in times when more of us need its particular brand of salve.
And poetry is a salve. That's what separates it from other art forms: It isn’t just an expression, it’s also a solution. When we need it enough, we will—in larger numbers, perhaps more than ever before—seek it out, and all those books that never sold will sell.
And a strange thing has happened. Its contracted readership has not discouraged a larger group, maybe more than ever before, from writing it. It’s that kind of salve: It works when you write it and it works when you read it. The sort of relief it’s being used for now is the feeling one gets from writing it: that clean release. It’s good for that, very good. But one day it will be more read than written, when those aspects of its properties are required. It’s patient, as things are patient that have been around for ages, and live with the quiet confidence of having watched other kingdoms rise and fall, and endured.
Do poets have a responsibility to speak with a raised voice—the sort Paxman is likely thinking of, one for the ages? If this is a person’s project, he will know it. Each poet needs only learn to hear his own voice, and hone it, and present it. The thing that feels universal—that hits a popular chord—may be the sort of work that Paxman likely imagines it would be, the voice of a Yeats, ringing with music, one that feels solid and sure and wise—but perhaps for this generation, a generation of people whose lives are disjointed, often distracted, spent largely on screens, that voice will be something else: something broken, maybe, something quiet and disjointed. What is the poetry that will be so compelling that it will cause the audience to appear? We don’t know. A poet’s job is to find his voice and to speak his truth. It is not his job to judge the marketplace. His job is to block out everything and plug directly into the spring, the original thing, and to make work that is pure and of himself. The larger stage is efficient: It will deliver his product to its right audience. And with the incredible sweep of the Internet, this process is more streamlined now than ever.
Poets are drawn to timeless things: leaves, seasons, the seaside, the moon. That’s why Sappho’s metaphors are still fresh to us. It doesn’t matter when the readership comes: A poet’s job is only to do his work, and history will handle the details.
The bigger question is—or could have been—how do we keep morale up among those whose job it is to make something for a marketplace that seems not to exist? But that hasn’t proven to be a problem. Writing poetry is so necessary to some people—and I count myself among them—that they need perceive no water in the pool before diving in. You dive knowing the pool may never fill, or may, while you’re in the air.
Why are we, as poets, asked so frequently to speak at weddings and funerals—to give shape to the common feeling, to distill it and crystallize it, to commit it to a form: a few lines that can contain it, explain it, take all that vapor and make it, finally, ice?
Because in moments of great joy or great sorrow, we are aware, suddenly, it is vapor that we live in, and we reach for an organizing principle.
And poetry is an incredibly efficient one—perhaps the most efficient one we have.
And perhaps everything else we do as poets is really just preparation that helps us to be ready for these moments of service—these flashes, in our lives of basic training, of active duty.
But a soldier is a soldier even in the grocery store, even on his winter leave, and so is a poet a poet in all things, because there’s a lens he has built, and once built, that he sees through.
It is useful, as a society, to have, among its components, the perspective of a soldier, and to have his training to call upon. And so it is useful to have a poet, trained and ready. And as we invest in having the soldier, so should we invest in having the poet. Both get only a moment’s notice when they’re needed, and both are always, eventually, needed: and on those occasions, desperately.