A Disappointing Day for Contemporary Poets

I was going to begin this post by wishing you all a happy National Poetry Day, I was even thinking of throwing in a jaunty little haiku, but I’ve just visited the BBC’s poetry season website (I blogged about it a while back) and read the results of the Nation’s Favourite Poet vote and now I don’t feel all that happy or jaunty at all (luckily for you; you’ve been spared my terrible haiku.)

Do you know, only four of the top ten poets were born in the 20th century? I was going to work out the average year of birth but I realised that John Donne in second place, born in 1572, would skew the results somewhat. Thank goodness for third favourite Benjamin Zephaniah, born in 1958, the only one of the nation’s top ten poets who is happily Not Dead Yet.

I certainly don’t wish to undermine the brilliance of the poets who made it into the top ten, I merely wish to point out that National Poetry Day seems not to have reached its goal of “bringing poetry to the public eye” if most of the poets on the shortlist were firmly in the public eye, or at least somewhere in the back of the public’s minds, already. Who has not come across the Nation’s Favourite Poet T.S. Eliot before?  Have we not all had William Blake, W.B. Yeats and John Keats forced down our throats at school? Where are all the contemporary poets?

Before voting took place, thirty poets were pre-selected by a panel of judges (including the Director of the Poetry Society and the Director of the Arts Council). Each of the thirty names on the list is accompanied by a head shot and if you scroll through all the photos, you will see that only seven of them are in colour. That’s right. Most of the pre-selected poets lived before colour photography either existed or became popular. Some of them, judging by the oil paintings and pencil sketches, were around before photography existed. What were you thinking, panel of judges? You have done a great disservice to contemporary poetry. Looking at this list of thirty poets, one might think that poetry was a dying art.

On the contrary, poetry is alive and well and evolving with the times: in the last decade or so with the advent of mobile phones we’ve seen poems written in text speak and condensed into 140 characters; there have been poetry slamming events popping up around the country and videos of poets performing their work are all over youtube. The list of stale poets in the top ten (with the exception of Benjamin Zephaniah) makes no reflection on the dynamic nature of poetry. There are poets writing now about current affairs, about troops in Afghanistan and knife crime in London, issues that people today feel strongly about and can identify with. I have never studied English literature and I don’t read poems critically, but for enjoyment. I don’t feel that I can engage with the writings of TS Eliot, no matter how popular his poems were at the time he was writing with them. I do feel something, a kind of pang of recognition, when I read the poems written by women in the New Writing section of Mslexia. (Another disappointing fact: not one woman features in the nation’s top ten).

After this rant you’re probably expecting me to recommend some contemporary poets. I’m not an expert at all but recently I’ve come across and liked poems by Mark Thomson, Liz Niven and Meirion Jordan.  Here are links to youtube videos of Mark Thomson and Meirion Jordan reading their own poetry. Enjoy!

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6 thoughts on “A Disappointing Day for Contemporary Poets

  1. Thanks Hollie! I was worried I was going to get a string of angry comments from die-hard TS Eliot fans. I suppose that could still happen but it’s great to have your supportive comment at the top of pile. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve just taken a peek at Luke Wright’s website. It looks interesting.

  2. I didn’t even get Blake, Yeats and Keats at school. I don’t know if it’s a Scottish thing or just particular to the awful schools I attended, but my education in poetry was ridiculously parochial. Primary school was pretty much Robert Burns ’til it came out your ears, and then secondary was all about Norman MacCaig. Grrrrr.

    Thanks for the subliminal shout-out by the way; it made me smile. You need any T.S. Eliot fans beaten up, let me know!

  3. Ah yes, I got my fair share of Robert Burns in school too. Don’t recall Norman MacCaig; my memory of Standard Grade English is studying Liz Lochhead’s poems.
    Thanks for volunteering to sort out any disgruntled TS Eliot fans. They seem to have been remarkably quiet, though, so your services will probably not be required.

  4. Helen, by coincidence I’ve just blogged about The Nation’s Favourite Poems as chosen by listeners to The Bookworm Programme in 1995. Of the 100 most popular poems voted by BBC listeners 91 were from the dead poets society. Now you can get really depressed. I’m ok, we’ve got a meditation group coming round to help us drink our wine.
    Best bardic wishes anyway,
    Gwilym

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