You are viewing the StAnza Poetry Festival 2005-2014 archive
For the current festival site, go to



Neil Astley : The StAnza lecture, 2005

Photo credit: Moira Conway

Note: The views expressed in the text of this lecture are those of the
lecturer alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the StAnza
Trustees, Directors or Committee.

2005 StAnza Lecture
Bile, Guile and Dangerous to Poetry
The UK's leading anthologist speaks his mind on poetry today


Most poetry in Britain today is published for poets and academics, not for readers. Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley believes he has found a huge new audience for contemporary poetry at the same time as the poetry establishment has become narrow-minded, male-dominated and Anglocentric. Poetry publishing and reviewing is policed by a clique of academics who rail against 'populism', 'democratisation', 'marketing' and 'dumbing down' but (ab)use these terms to censor poetry they dislike - including much poetry by women and ethnic minority writers - in support of a damaging academic agenda. Astley argues that their attacks on anyone who addresses a broader readership or promotes emerging talents may threaten the survival of poetry. Incestuously fawning to their poet and academic peers instead of serving readers, the poetry police have become so out of touch with the grassroots readership that they should go.

The following is the text of the 2005 StAnza Lecture, given by Neil Astley at StAnza, Scotland's Poetry Festival, at Parliament Hall, St Andrews, on 18 March 2005.


The zoologist Steve Jones has told of how, in researching one of his popular science books, he often found himself in 'terra incognita, surrounded by unfamiliar beasts': 'I had wandered unthinking on to the territory of the Arts Faculty, a dangerous place for any scientist. In that generous land, opinion is sacred while facts are, if not free, then on a far longer leash than we are used to. Confident statements by one author are denied with equal certainty by another.' (Guardian, 30 August 2003)

In this paper I hope to demonstrate that many of the facts touted by certain poetry critics are outright lies, and that many of their confidently asserted opinions are wilful misrepresentations. Their cynical language of spin and sophistry, of bile and guile, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. There is a huge gulf between the men who review contemporary poetry in the newspapers and cultural journals in Britain, and the majority of the people who actually read it; between the poetry insiders who do so much damage to poetry and the readers at grassroots level who are passionately interested in many kinds of poetry which too many of the critics aren't capable of appreciating.

Readers don't have access to the diverse range of poetry being written, not just in Britain, but from around in the world, because much of the poetry establishment - including many publishers and reviewers - has become narrowly based, male-dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests. Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the only arbiters of taste, only publishing writers they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry which many people would find more rewarding. Publishers and writers who address a broader readership are attacked by elitist critics for 'dumbing down' but receive overwhelming support from readers as well as from the more intelligent poets.


Our self-regarding poetry establishment is completely out of touch with the readership of poetry at grassroots level, and if they aren't responsive to that audience, they will lose it completely. I don't often find myself agreeing with A.N. Wilson but he seems spot on with this remark: 'Today's English poets are huddled behind a stockade composed of the public's indifference and their own self-importance' (Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2005).

Nor is this a peculiarly English or British phenomenon: it seems to go with the nature of the all-too-familiar beast, Homo poeticus. This is Billy Collins, writing in the New York Times: 'One of the ridiculous aspects of being a poet is the huge gulf between how seriously we take ourselves and
how generally we are ignored by everybody else' (23 February 2003).

And this is Les Murray: 'Poetry has been captured by a class which prohibits the positive. They see themselves as in perpetual rebellion against society, and it's a rather sour, radical rebellion. I don't buy it, particularly as it practises heavy bullying and manipulation of fashion against people' (New
Zealand Herald
, 12 May 2003).

And as Peter Forbes noted in one of his last Poetry Review editorials: 'Poetry, ostensibly a liberal art, is actually one of the strongest remaining bastions of pre-literate tribalism. Gangs form as readily as in any deprived ghetto and the patterns of bonding rituals, territorial marking, hysterical crowd behaviour, collective log-rolling and hatchet-work, are worth the attention of the anthropologists' (90 no.4, Winter 2000/01). That takes us back into Steve Jones territory.

Because of all the mud-slinging and literary critical control freakery, the controlling factor in what bookshops now offer readers is not literary quality but market forces. But unlike our indignant poetry critics, I don't believe that marketing is an evil force to be resisted, but rather something
to be developed creatively in the interests of taking poetry to a broader readership.


When the organisers of StAnza invited me to address the subject of Britain's divided poetry culture, I was delighted by this indication that more and more people seem to share my concern at the state of much of Britain's poetry publishing and reviewing. And it seems especially appropriate that I
should give this address in St Andrews because the poetry festivals - especially StAnza, Aldeburgh and Ledbury - are far more interested in introducing readers in Britain to the fullest possible range of contemporary poetry than most of the national press reviewers. Their commitment is shared
by the many of the small presses and poetry magazines, but their readership is limited by their size and resources.

By contrast, much of the rest of the poetry world seems almost hell-bent on self-destruction, indulging not just all those self-important poets but emotionally challenged academic critics with blunt critical axes to grind instead of serving readers and writers. The poets themselves refer to these humourless critics as the poetry police. I called them poetry's new spin doctors in the preface to Bloodaxe's 25th birthday anthology, Poems of the Year (2003), and my intentionally provocative comments were picked up by press as well as by the poetry police themselves.

Their response was, on the cover of Poetry Review [93 No 3, Autumn 2003], a photograph of Blair's one-time spin doctor Alastair Campbell* appearing there without explanation because the poetry police like to show they are clever and this was them being ironic or Postmodern. But the members of the Poetry Society and other readers of Poetry Review not in on the "joke" must have thought that editors Robert Potts and David Herd had found themselves a new sharp-tongued, snappily dressed role model in Alastair Campbell. This little fracas also caught the attention of StAnza's director Brian Johnstone and the festival's illustrious management committee, who thought it might be fun to see some English fur flying in your Parliament Hall. I didn't name those English spin doctors in that earlier polemic, and StAnza wants them named and shamed. So here goes.

[*Photo of cover not reproduced here for copyright reasons. StAnza Webmaster]

The spin doctors I was attacking - or poetry police, call them what you like - are a small but influential group of male writers, mostly Oxbridge-educated poets based at various English universities or part of London's literary set, and these men have taken over much of the poetry review space in key papers and journals, including the Guardian, Michael Schmidt's PN Review, and Poetry Review under Robert Potts and David Herd. Some of them also work on the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] or write for the LRB [London Review of Books].

I'm not the only person who has criticised the behaviour of these chaps. When Sarah Wardle dared to suggest, in an Observer review (28 November 2004), that Potts and Herd had 'alienated many readers and writers at the expense of wooing a readership of theorists', Michael Schmidt rounded on her in a stern PN Review editorial (31 no.2, November-December 2004), delivering a second attack in two months on my anthology Being Alive as well as a defence of Poetry Review's two 'innovative editors', as he called them.


Several of poetry's spin doctors first flexed their critical muscles in poetry magazines such as Thumbscrew and Metre, but the rest of the specialist magazines are thankfully free of their pernicious influence. However, Robert Potts's most effective platform in national terms has not
been Poetry Review but his opinionated poetry reviews in the Guardian. The Guardian's Saturday Review, edited by Claire Armitstead, has been a wonderfully inclusive weekly books paper since its inception, publishing well-informed articles on writers and sizeable reviews of all kinds of books, especially contemporary fiction, but its poetry pages have not been so blessed, being edited by Giles Foden.

Where the rest of the Review, like the paper, has been inclusive and democratic, the poetry pages have read like an insidious attack on the Guardian's editorial principles and values, not just because Potts and other critics have been attacking any poetry book which has a chance of reaching a
wide readership outside the poetry elite, but because the review coverage of poetry books in the Guardian has been almost wilfully narrow, as if Giles Foden and his reviewers were intent on pretending that little poetry was being published in Britain which wasn't by white male poets. This in an otherwise excellent book review supplement whose editor has been willing to give Foden space for a full-page in-depth review of a new poetry book nearly every week.

Giles Foden is proud to be seen as elitist if that means upholding literary standards. Reviewing the London Review of Books in the Guardian (30 October 2004), he quoted with approval Andrew O'Hagan's attack on the "Goodwinisation" of poetry: 'These are tough times for elitists…In this
climate, the "democratisation" of poetry is just another phoney enterprise, like Open Government, a sop to that element in the national atmosphere which says inclusion is everything.' But it all depends upon whose standards you are upholding. If democratisation is phoney, he has my agreement, but who's calling it phoney?... The poetry police, because it challenges their critical authority, and opens up the readership for all kinds of poetry they disapprove of. They especially dislike any poetry expressing spiritual wisdom or emotional truth. That kind of elitist opposition to democratisation in publishing sits very oddly in a democratic newspaper like the Guardian.

I hadn't realised quite how narrow the Guardian's coverage had been until I went through a pile of over 70 Reviews collected over a two-year period from 2003 up to last weekend. Even I found the statistics shocking. After putting to one side side [I shall come back to them later: ss14, para 2] Robert Potts's annual round-ups of numerous poetry books machine-gunned in one page-long blast of venom, I turned to the rest of my sample pile where I counted full-length reviews of 66 other new poetry books, but only 10 of those were by women writers.

Those 66 books were reviewed by 38 different critics, but only four of those were women, and they reviewed only five books between them, including an anthology of modern Scottish women poets and two Russian titles covered by a specialist. Not a single one of the poetry books reviewed was by a non-white poet. Obscure avantgardists published by tiny presses had been covered, but nothing at all from Peepal Tree Press, Britain's leading publisher of Caribbean, Black British and South Asian writing, this in a period when Peepal Tree had produced Selected Poems editions by Faustin Charles and Cyril Dabydeen, hardly unknown names. Nothing from Canongate's Payback imprint either. Over the same period the poetry magazines were reviewing books by several leading non-white poets, including Yusef Komunyakaa's Scandalise my Name from Picador, Linton Kwesi Johnson in Penguin Classics, Rita Dove's latest collection from Norton and E.A. Markham's from Anvil, as well as Bloodaxe editions by Imtiaz Dharker, Choman Hardi and Jack Mapanje.

5. [This section removed for legal reasons]




The poetry police may not be a well organised constabulary, but they certainly seem capable of co-ordinating their attacks. In the same week last autumn I received the latest issues of Poetry Review (94 no.3, Autumn 2004) and PN Review (31 no.1, September- October 2004). In the first I was firmly told, along with Daisy Goodwin, that 'There is a difference between selling
poetry and selling it out.' This was the last line of an editorial by Robert Potts and David Herd. In the second, PN Review and Carcanet editor Michael Schmidt told me I was 'less an editor than a lightning rod or a wind-sock', and his telling-off ended with the terse warning: 'There are readerships and there are markets. There is selling poetry and selling poetry out.' Their phrasing is so close as to appear almost cosy, an impression strengthened when you look at Carcanet's latest acquisitions: David Herd, Peter McDonald and Tim Kendall. (David Herd's new Carcanet book is called Mandelson! Mandelson!) And they tell me there isn't a poetry mafia.

Being a wind-sock presumably means being listening to readers: being responsive to readers as well as to writers. If I pick up a growing interest amongst readers in a certain poet - Mary Oliver or Alden Nowlan for example - that's me being a wind-sock. If I then decide to publish a poet admired by readers, that's me not having any ideas of my own. I prefer to think it's yet another case of Bloodaxe giving the readers a say in what's published. In the poetry world, readers are almost always ignored, and I think it's important that they should have a voice. Their voices are certainly
reflected in how Bloodaxe responds to their interests, and I think the programming of StAnza and the main poetry festivals is also responsive in a similar way: if it wasn't, you wouldn't have filled the Parliament Hall today, nor would all those other events in St Andrews you've been attending have been so popular.

Both of those snooty editorials display confused and proprietorial notions about the nature of readership, a point I will develop later in this talk. Schmidt, Potts and Herd all believe that readers should respond to the critical consensus they are helping to foster, but that so-called consensus is a convenient fiction which serves their interests. As I see it, marketing can be a means to offer readers greater choice. I'm not selling poetry out, I'm serving readers. I'm not betraying poetry, I'm challenging the betrayers.


The nature of that fiction of consensus was exposed in the Poetry Book Society's recent report, Growing the Market for Poetry: A Review (February 2003), a paper which received scant attention in the cultural press because the poetry police - and others who want to keep things as they are - would not agree with its findings, which included: 'The "value" of much poetry published is measured against critical response and approbation by a peer group rather than on sales or the response of the general reader. The role of poets in creating "taste" and apportioning "value" creates a distorted picture of the importance of poetry and of the importance of particular poets, particularly for an uninformed general readership or the retail sector.'

In crude terms what this means is: 'We, the cognoscenti, the boys in the club, decide which poets and what kinds of poetry you lot should read, and since we do most of the reviewing and the publishing, we'll make sure that those poets and those books are the ones that get into the bookshops, and we'll ignore or castigate the rest.'

Hence over three-quarters of the poetry collections published in Britain are by men, despite the fact that the readership of contemporary poetry is over two-thirds female. Numerous women poets are either unpublished or their small press titles are unavailable in most bookshops. And unlike in America, a tiny fraction of the poetry books published are by non-white poets, and those books rarely receive any review coverage in the press, and none at all in the democratic Guardian.

Because of this mismatch between publication and readership, very few people want to read many of the few poetry collections which do get into the shops - especially the more esoteric kind reviewed enthusiastically by Robert Potts and like-minded critics - so the booksellers think no one's interested in contemporary poetry, and they make further cutbacks in the already diminishing range of contemporary poetry on their shelves.


Another barrier confronting readers is reviewers' plodding prose, and Potts and his clique aren't the only reviewers at fault here. In my opinion - and I emphasise the distinction between opinion and, for instance, statistical facts - too many poetry reviews in national newspapers are written by poets or critics who don't review the books for the reader of the newspaper but discuss their content in minute and acutely critical detail in terms which are only comprehensible or of interest to academics or other poets. They use the same critical language and terms of reference when reviewing for a newspaper as for a specialist poetry magazine, weaving strings of quotations broken up by slashes into a text-linked commentary which means nothing to anyone who hasn't already read the book. Many of these reviews read like potted academic essays. Even dedicated poetry readers find them difficult to follow. Positive reviews written in this inappropriate critical jargon don't encourage potential readers to seek out the books, they put them off.

There have been numerous examples of this in recent issues of the Guardian, including Robert Potts on Stuart Calton (27 November 2004), and Charles Bainbridge on John James (16 October 2004) and Adam Schwartzman (23 November 2004). An intelligent reader with some interest in poetry can read such pieces understanding the language used and following the syntax but finish them none the wiser as to what's been said. They don't fire up the reader's interest in the poetry because neither the reviewer's prose nor the quoted excerpts make much sense. Nothing about these reviews encourages the general reader to a further engagement with the poetry being discussed. Fine to publish such pieces in PN Review or Poetry Review where the academics can pore over them, but it seems perverse to discuss poetry in such a fashion in a newspaper read by hundreds of thousands of people. Newspaper readers are offered illuminating and lively reviews of new fiction, biography, non-fiction and all the other kinds of books, but with poetry they get this offputting, leaden critical prose, giving the false impression that contemporary poetry is just as dull and incomprehensible. That knowledgable reviewers can write about poetry books without any sense of addressing the readership of a newspaper is another example of how poetry insiders have become completely cut off from the grassroots poetry readership.

Another comment from that Poetry Book Society report: 'Despite an increasing number of one-off poetry books that achieve popularity (particularly anthologies) most poetry publishing fails to take any account of the motivation of the general reader, fails to accommodate the demands of booksellers, and fails to communicate the pleasure of the experience of reading good poetry, relying instead on notions of "value" and "importance" generated by a small group of poets, editors and critics.'


The reason why I feel I must 'speak my mind' on this subject - as the StAnza programme puts it - is that as a poetry editor with 30 years' experience in the field, and as a publisher with a close understanding of poetry publishing, distribution and readership, I see at first hand the damage being inflicted by the poetry police as well as by others in the poetry establishment. I travel the country talking to all kinds of readers at festivals and regular poetry venues. I have access to publishing and bookselling statistics. I know what bookshops are selling, what readers and buying and what kinds of poetry people want to read.

And I don't blame bookshops for not stocking those books which very few people actually want to read. When Robert Potts laments in the Guardian (6 December 2003) that 'sadly, major bookshops are not stocking poetry in adequate quantities', he seems to me to be blaming booksellers for a situation which he and his fellow elitists have helped bring about. What does 'adequate quantities' mean for the bookseller? Presumably filling the shelves with books recommended by Potts, many of which, in my opinion, most poetry readers won't want to buy (or won't be able to afford). The poets and their publishers have been outraged by the recent reductions made by the bookshops to their poetry stocks: their high art was being spurned by the philistines. But in effect the people doing the spurning were not the bookshops - they were just the middle men - it was the readers who had lost interest. The only way to reverse that process is to promote many different kinds of poetry to as wide a readership as possible.

What I try to do as an editor and publisher is to be responsive both to writers and to readers, and then work with my colleagues to try to help bookshops serve the poetry readership. Unlike the poetry police, I don't shoot my mouth off with a partial or non-existent knowledge of the facts; I don't distort the facts to fit my opinions; and I don't make statements which are outright lies.


What they call "dumbing down" I call reaching out. That was the concept behind my anthology Staying Alive, which didn't just reach a broader readership, it introduced thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. It also brought many readers back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because it hadn't held their interest. But for existing poetry readers, what Staying Alive and its sequel Being Alive also offer is a much wider and more international range of contemporary poems than will be found in most other anthologies, including work by poets even the keenest and most knowledgeable readers will - I hope - be surprised to discover. The two books are what I call "bridge" anthologies, designed to make their readers want to read more work by the poets they feature. The poetry police dispute that, because they either can't believe it, or don't want to. Disingenuously, they claim that it is disingenuous to assert that such anthologies bring new readers to poetry. In my view, they are wrong. These anthologies, along with other books they disapprove of, have been giving an enormous boost to the readership of poetry in Britain and Ireland. Not only do I know this from everyone I meet around the country, but I receive letters virtually every day from ordinary readers telling me that.

My own introduction to contemporary poetry happened in a similar way. I was reading Yeats, Eliot and Frost at school in the 60s, and then one day my English teacher came in with a copy of Penguin's Mersey Sound anthology and read us the work of the Liverpool Poets. That woke us up. The first poetry book I bought was The Mersey Sound, and then I sought out individual volumes by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Then I read George MacBeth's Longman anthology Poetry 1900-1965 (as it was then titled), which had pictures of the poets, short introductions to each and notes on the poems. That sent me off in search of books by Auden, R.S. Thomas and others. That's how good anthologies work.


When I first had the idea for Staying Alive, I had no thoughts then of a second anthology, a sequel, but I also had no idea that the book would be championed so enthusiastically that readers would want a companion anthology. Staying Alive, as I've said, attracted fan mail. Over two years after the book first appeared, I'm still receiving letters, postcards and e-mails expressing people's appreciation, messages of support and thanks, all saying how much Staying Alive had helped or stimulated them and fired up their interest in poetry, and also how it has led them to seek out books by many of the poets whose work they loved. And they want more books like it. The list of poets named by readers as new discoveries and favourites is not one which the poetry police would approve of, which perhaps accounts for their bullish refusal to believe facts, for it includes poets such as Billy Collins, Brendan Kennelly, Galway Kinnell, Alden Nowlan, Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver. The new readers also love the work of Milosz, Neruda and Szymborska, further deviations from the Anglocentric diet too often served up by Britain's poetry publishers.


Staying Alive and Being Alive aren't the only books to have had a vicious truncheoning from poetry's puritans. Any writer or book perceived as threatening their critical policing of contemporary poetry gets the same treatment. They don't like popular anthologies - especially Daisy Goodwin's - and they don't like poets whose work reaches a broad readership, who are usually scorned as 'sentimental'. Poets with a light touch receive a heavy-handed misreading, so Billy Collins is 'whimsical' but at the same time 'a very shrewd writer of popular poems', according to Jeremy Noel-Tod in the Guardian (12 April 2003), 'popular' being a term of abuse in their perverse critical vocabulary.

Collins also somehow manages to 'sugar the searching honesty' of other poets such as Frank O'Hara, according to Noel-Tod. It is unclear by what process this sugaring of O'Hara's honesty occurs in someone else's poetry, but O'Hara is something of a favourite aunt for his bitchy acolytes in the poetry police. They edit him, they publish him, they jealously guard his reputation, they even imitate his style in their own poetry. One wonders what the tonally acute New York poet would have made of his tone deaf Oxbridge admirers.

Another example of the tone deaf approach came in a high-handed mauling given to Michael Longley on Peter McDonald's Tower Poetry website (August 2004): 'Snow Water,' the anonymous Oxford reviewer declared, 'is all significance, sentimentality and self-concern... Longley is enjoying himself too much here although there is a comedy in place names - as Edwin Morgan, an altogether lesser poet, recognised long ago - which tells against the poem.' One poem is even written off as 'camp', but 'not all the poems in Snow Water are failures, and Longley half-knows he is being silly.'


With women writers the usual police tactic is apparently either to use offhand dismissal (so Anne Stevenson's poetry is 'bad writing'), or simply to ignore their publications - if the women writers don't get reviewed, the readers won't get to hear about them. Every one of the numerous attacks on popular poets and anthologies I've read in the press over the past five years has been by a male critic.

While they will deny it, you have to remember that all the anthologies the poetry police berate contain a high proportion of poetry by women. Attacking the poetry in these books en masse may cloak a covert assault on contemporary poetry by women.

'For years now' Britain's own Kate Clanchy, they claim, (anonymous review, Tower Poetry, July 2004) 'has demonstrated just how comfortably she resides within the established pigeonhole of pre-packaged "women's writing", setting up shop quite industriously and then playing her cards in the safest way possible.' Accused of 'a cheap flirtation with non-Eurocentric culture', she was 'someone who doesn't really care what she's actually saying'. Her poem 'Not Art' 'rescues itself from total vacuity through a statement of easy affirmation typical of self-help books (and Oprah's). Another poem was said to be 'worth citing if only for the encased moment of self-confession to the vanity and vacancy of Clanchy's entire poetic enterprise'. Her 'essentially careless poetry' is 'simply pretentious'.

The following paragraph bears comparison with some of Robert Potts's lofty pronouncements explaining how only educated readers can fully appreciate the finest poetry: 'All the flaws in Clanchy's "craft" multiply beneath her consistently patronising tone, and it is clear that "babbling like Falstaff when he died" is not designed to impress anyone with an atom of literary intelligence, but instead meant to fool people in the popular market who don't know any better - and this is condescension of the worst kind. And yet this a dubious ambition for the volume, as the patience of any sensible reader is tested throughout.'

The anonymous reviewer then tells us that Kate Clanchy's work is in decline: 'This downward trajectory between her first two volumes was noticed by Paul Groves in his review for Thumbscrew (15, Spring 2000), a journal Clanchy both wrote for and appeared in, so at least we know she was warned about the dangers of drivel before the genesis of Newborn... More must be said by honest critics. This is unlikely: Newborn is probably in for some very flattering reviews in high places that will fool no educated reader, but further facilitate the author's career.'

That comment I quoted earlier on Anne Stevenson - in Poetry Review (92 no.4, Winter 2002/03) was another stimulus for Being Alive. In that review Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote: 'Anne Stevenson's is the most venerable reputation on display, but on this showing it is not clear why. Hearing with My Fingers, from its title onwards, contains more bad writing than good... Another [poem] seems ready made for inclusion in the inevitable sequel to Bloodaxe's Staying Alive anthology... a maudlin monologue given to a woman with a wasting disease'. My sequel certainly wasn't inevitable when he made that comment in 2002; it was the reader response to Staying Alive which made the book inevitable, but it was also a positive response to the negativity of our poetry police.

Women poets appear to be marginalised by some publishers as well as by the reviewers. Michael Schmidt was quoted in Poetry London as saying this about Carcanet's publication of women poets: 'Although only 25-28% of our list consists of women writers, they probably account for about 60% of our contemporary poetry sales. Poets such as Elizabeth Jennings and Sophie Hannah have out-sold, apart from Les Murray and Edwin Morgan, almost all our other authors quite considerably.' So by his own admission, if Carcanet published more women writers, they would serve more readers.

I believe that the reason why this male bias - which is historical in its origins - has survived for as long as it has is because the poetry editors are somehow immune from criticism. Either they started and run their own poetry lists, as I did and Michael Schmidt did, or their poetry list exists for the prestige of a trade publisher. The poetry editor publishes just the work which he believes is seriously important and few people question the wider picture, what happens across publishing when that bias exists in each house.

Imagine a fiction editor or a record producer going to his boss and saying, here's my list of new titles for next season, all of which have been selected purely on merit, but I'm afraid only 15% of them are by women artists. And the boss responds: but two-thirds of our audience is female, why should we not give them more books/records by women. And the editor or producer answers (as I've heard one leading poetry editor respond): none of the other women are any good. In any other area, this kind of arrogance would not only be unacceptable but suicidal in business terms.

But because most poetry is published for an elite, the elitism involved in what is selected goes unchecked. No one is expecting these books to sell more than a few hundred copies. No one says: why don't we publish two-thirds women, or even fifty percent women, and see how the picture changes.


Robert Potts and other poetry police officers continually use - or misuse - the word "therapeutic" as a simplistic term of abuse directed at the kind of poetry found in books like Staying Alive and Being Alive, poetry which engages with people and what people do and think and feel and fear in their lives. A wilful misunderstanding, surely, amongst workers in metaphor. But this kind of poetry doesn't actually offer simple solace or poetic medication, it opens up the senses, it disturbs, questions and challenges. These poems make the reader less settled yet more whole, more alert to the world, more alive, more in touch with being human. Many of these poems offer people spiritual wisdom in a spiritually bankrupt age.

In 2003, Potts devoted a whole Guardian Christmas round-up ('Death by a thousand anthologies, 6 December 2003) to trashing virtually every poetry anthology published that year which had any chance of reaching a wide readership. Even Faber's anti-war anthology 101 Poems Against War - the response of two committed editors, Paul Keegan and Matthew Hollis, to everyone's anxieties in the run-up to the Iraq War - was said to be 'hurriedly' and 'some said, opportunistically' produced. Other 'very depressing' offerings included We Have Come Through, Peter Forbes's anthology for people suffering from depression and trauma published by Bloodaxe with Survivors' Poetry.

Potts believes that such books are 'damaging to the art of poetry' and has claimed in defence of his elitist position that 'a conservative aesthetic prevails in which white middle-class Britons are served up "accessible" and "relevant" poetry - i.e. recognisable representations of their own domestic vantage'. That's his objection to books which attempt to open up contemporary poetry to more readers. I prefer Paul Muldoon's analysis: 'The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away' (Princeton University Library Chronicle, Spring 1998).

Potts would no doubt agree with Muldoon's comment applied to books and poets he favours, but not to those he dislikes. I believe that Muldoon's description applies especially to Staying Alive and Being Alive, which include many breathtaking poems by all kinds of writers from many different countries, classes, cultural backgrounds and literary traditions. These take the reader by surprise because the voice, style, stance or angle of approach are often quite different from what's expected. But Potts dismisses poetry which engages with people's lives as 'therapeutic'. This is not just simplistic, it's rubbish.

His editing of Poetry Review with David Herd was based on this assertion: 'We think of poetry as an art, in a critical relation to society and capitalism; we don't see it as a hobby or a therapeutic device.' Another Potts review, this time covering bereavement anthologies, was headlined 'Concentration, not consolation' (24 April 2004). He and his cohorts either don't understand that everyone reads poetry in different ways for different reasons, or they don't believe that any kind of reading other than what they prescribe has any aesthetic or cultural value. This is Potts in that Guardian review: 'Where a market does exist, of course, is precisely in the popular rather than the cultivated taste: poetry for people who don't know much about poetry, and will inevitably be less discriminating... it gratifies them but does not challenge them. It looks good on the coffee table.'

If someone is drawn to reading poetry because of personal anxieties, or depression, or alienation, or bereavement what's wrong with that? Anyone can surely read poetry for emotional reasons as well as for intellectual stimulation, or they may want to broaden their minds or to experience the joys of an ancient cultural art form for its own sake. Once poems are written and published, they belong to the readers, not to Poetry High Command, and they can read them any way they like. Potts confuses aesthetics with ethics, his own reading being somehow morally superior to that of anyone who has not had his privileged education. Thus anyone who enjoys reading poetry without his level of intellectual discrimination is a 'casual reader' who lacks 'cultivated taste'. Even a love poems anthology is suspect in Potts's analysis: people in love aren't reading Shakespeare's sonnets for the right reason. He conveniently forgets why and how poetry is written. The original impulse of a poem involves an emotional response, whether to love or bereavement, anxiety or alienation... or whatever human experience is evoked.

Potts's notion of minorities is only understandable in the light of the Guardian's own coverage of poetry books. He writes in that same Guardian review: 'Identity-politics anthologies (women's writing or black writing, for instance), attempt to counter self-perpetuating canons in which minority voices have been excluded and continue to do so.' I've never thought of women as minority voices, but as I've already demonstrated, they are certainly treated as such by the Guardian's poetry reviewing fraternity, and nowhere is black writing more excluded than from the Guardian's poetry reviews.


Potts's comments on the poetry of J.H. Prynne are even more revealing. Prynne's poems - published, incidentally, by Bloodaxe - 'will not be to the taste (or benefit) of the casual reader, but represent a formidable contribution to the most ambitious and challenging literary traditions; a hazardous and absorbing investment for any reader hungering to be more serious' (Guardian, 1 January 2005). I don't disagree with Potts's characterisation of Prynne's work; where I part company is over his high-handed high-table reference to 'the casual reader' and his notion that anyone reads poetry 'to be more serious' as opposed to engaging with serious poetry for its own sake.

Potts, McDonald and others in the poetry police have caricatured what I have said about difficulty in poetry, failing to accept that my editorial strategy has always been to publish a wide range of poetry of high literary quality, but latterly also including some themed anthologies of less difficult work appealing especially to new readers, with the clear intention that those readers will go on to read more books not just by the writers featured in the anthologies but all kinds of other poets.

If I followed the instructions of the poetry police and filled these anthologies with the work of John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, et al, they would not reach that broader readership. David Kennedy branded Staying Alive as 'anti-modernist' because it excludes David Jones's 'complexly layered commentaries on imperialism' (PN Review), along with poems by other writers which readers not already well versed in poetry would find incomprehensible. It seems to have escaped police attention, but I did in fact include poems by Jorie Graham and Geoffrey Hill in Staying Alive, and other poets featured in the two anthologies include Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher, W.S. Graham, Ezra Pound, Peter Reading and Wallace Stevens.

Yet virtually every poetry police attack on these anthologies uses the expression 'dumbing down'. These books would only be examples of 'dumbing down' if one accepts that they contain a high proportion of poems of inferior literary quality. The poetry police believe that. I don't, and nor do most readers. The point about the selection of poems for these anthologies is that every poem is a powerful poem which stands alone and speaks to the reader as a human being. It is not there to be representative in literary historical terms, nor as an example of cleverness or style (though it may also be that) which speaks to the egos of the cognoscenti. But to judge from the phrasing of their reviews, they seem more aggrieved by the packaging and marketing of these books than they are by their content.


Robert Potts has continually asserted that anthologies are damaging to poetry. In the Guardian he claimed that 'Far from leading readers towards individual collections, the anthology market increasingly becomes sufficient in itself for booksellers and then for readers' (24 April 2004). No evidence is given for this and it is quite simply untrue.

In a Poetry Review editorial (94 no.3, Autumn 2004) attacking Daisy Goodwin's anthologies and mine, Potts and Herd assert: 'We are told that it is snobbish and elitist to criticise such books: we are told that anthologies create new readers. The argument is disingenuous. Nothing about these books encourages the general reader to a further engagement with poetry, as sales figures will reflect. And it is perfectly proper for critics to point out the editors' errors and lapses. (Neil Astley's angry response to a few bad reviews for Staying Alive never engaged with their actual criticism: that his prose was wretched, his manner anti-intellectual, and some of his selections terrible. He simply accused their authors of being a "bogus cult" intent on spoiling people's fun.'

'Nothing about these books encourages the general reader to a further engagement with poetry, as sales figures will reflect.'... Sales figures do not reflect that, certainly not in the case of individual collections by Bloodaxe authors featured in Staying Alive - which we have tracked using a variety of marketing techniques - nor in the case of all the other poets who've told me that people have come up to them at readings and said they first came across their poetry in Staying Alive. The Staying Alive postbag also contradicts their claim: all those letters I've received from ordinary readers saying how much the anthology had helped introduce them to a wide range of poets whose books they had gone on to buy.

This fallacious claim was also contradicted by all the people who wrote to Poetry Review in protest, none of whose letters were published in the following issue, which featured instead a valedictory note of self-congratulation in which Potts and Herd asserted their sense of the purpose of Poetry Review: 'as the national magazine, it should reflect and be hospitable to, the nation's poetry'. Amongst the correspondents whose letters weren't thought worthy of publication were two tireless workers who, in my opinion, have done far more than Potts and Herd to promote interest in poetry at grassroots level, Adrian Johnson from Birmingham and Cathy Grindrod from Nottingham, who documented the many ways in which these anthologies had indeed encouraged readers in their areas both to buy more poetry books and to borrow more poetry collections from libraries.

Adrian Johnson at Arts Council England has been the driving force behind a partnership between public librarians from the West Midlands with Faber, Picador and Bloodaxe, which helped inform the thinking that led to Bloodaxe's broad readership initiative. He wrote: 'Robert Potts and David Herd don't appear to get out much and seem to have no high regard for facts about poetry book sales. Put briefly poetry anthologies actually do attract new readers to stretching and difficult poetry - sometimes even "easy" poetry as well. Bloodaxe, Harper Collins and BBC Books have certainly discovered that readers like issue- and theme-based collections of poetry and that maybe they don't want to hunt out a book purely because it is writing in poetic form.'

Cathy Grindrod introduced herself to the Poetry Review editors as someone who has 'worked every day for the past five years in Literature Development, running projects, organising poetry festivals, teaching poetry workshops and courses to readers and writers of all levels and specialising in developing people's awareness of and engagement with poetry'. Having discussed the editorial with poetry students, readers and poets in her area, she itemised all the ways in which the Daisy Goodwin and Bloodaxe anthologies had led people to read more poetry books, so that 'the very opposite of what you claim is happening'.

According to Cathy Grindrod, as far as readers in Nottingham are concerned, 'the general consensus of opinion is that the introductions, pointers and notes in anthologies such as Staying Alive which you deem anti-intellectual are in fact helpful and all-inclusive, and encourage people to want to continue'. And the same sentiment has been expressed in numerous letters and messages I've received from readers. The commentaries I've included in these and other anthologies are pieces of literary journalism - certainly not LitCrit - merely summaries written in plain language in a straightforward style aimed at the general reader, but Potts and his cronies have used them as ammunition for attacks on the editor's 'critical prose' which they castigate not only as 'wretched' but also 'condescending' and 'patronising', with David Kennedy asking in PN Review 'how low Astley is aiming with this kind of commentary; or even if it is to be taking seriously'. To judge from our postbag, the readers themselves don't feel patronised. As I hope this lecture will show, it is the poetry police themselves who are patronising and misinforming the readers.


Another of their tactics is to attack attempts to popularise modern poetry as patronising. Not everyone is interested in poetry, they argue, so it is patronising to offer it to them. Let them read the great poets of the past and forget the rest, if that's their inclination. Thus Peter McDonald in Thumbscrew (20-21, 2002): 'Everyone has a perfect right not to read poetry... Certainly, any intelligent or enthusiastic reader who is determined to read no poetry at all is missing out on possible enjoyment; but to assert that he or she ought to head straight for contemporary poetry is transparently patronising, as well as mistaken.'

Who says it's patronising? Not the readers. Who says it's mistaken? Certainly not all those readers who have had their interest in poetry revived by reading contemporary poetry - because they could relate to it more easily - and who have then gone back to the classics, rediscovering a love of great poetry which bad teaching had killed off in their youth.

Robert Potts uses a similar cop-out argument: 'Of the poetry sold in this country, 96% is by dead authors, we were told this year, as if we should be alarmed... It's hard to worry that the excellent work of the past continues to be valued today; for which contemporary poetry would one exchange the collected poems of Yeats, for example?' This is a bogus argument. It is not a matter of exchanging Yeats for any contemporary poet, but rather of showing readers that the traditions of British and Irish poetry have been extended and developed by all the poets who have followed Yeats, and that the work of poets from their own lifetime might enlarge their appreciation of poetry as a whole.

And if only 4% of the poetry books read in this country are by living writers, isn't that other 96% of poetry readers a huge potential audience for today's poets to address and for publishers to serve? I don't believe it is patronising to offer choice to more readers. It would be complacent to ignore them. And if a poetry publisher receives public funding, as Bloodaxe does, it would be misuse of that funding only to produce books for the existing contemporary poetry readership and not to make concerted attempts to take poetry to a broader audience and to be responsive to the interests and diversity of that readership.

It's not only the poetry police who don't recognise the existence of a wider potential audience for modern poetry. I've spoken to many poets who believe that poetry will always be a minority interest, and they are only interested in writing for that small, dedicated readership because they believe that no one else wants or should need to read their poetry.

Bloodaxe's Simon Thirsk has said that poetry 'should be included in everyone's portfolio of cultural interests' along with theatre, novels, music, film and so on. If the poetry police don't wreck initiatives devised to attract more readers to poetry, then poetry could be, if not the new rock 'n' roll, then maybe the new Tate. Tate Poetry. Just think of how the bookshops would respond to a growing readership for poetry. Instead of cutting back on their poetry stocks, they'd be giving poetry much more space, not just for popular anthologies but for well-packaged individual collections.

One of the many bogus arguments presented by the poetry police relates to access and excellence. They even manage to cite Arts Minister Tessa Jowell's paper Government and the Value of Culture (DCMS, May 2004) in support of their elitist position. In a Poetry Review editorial, 'Government and the Value of Poetry' (94 no.2, Summer 2004), Potts and Herd claim that 'Jowell's essay has to do with arts funding, and it is good to think that, in future, funding for poetry initiatives will be linked to "access to excellence" not "accessibility".' Yet the Arts Council used the same criteria in supporting initiatives and projects Potts and Herd disapprove of, from Next Generation Poets to Bloodaxe's promotional campaigns for Staying Alive and Being Alive. As far as the Arts Council is concerned, both Bloodaxe and the Poetry Book Society are giving wider access to work of literary excellence, whereas Potts and Herd would use the cliché "dumbing down" to describe the same poetry initiatives.

They are equally selective in what they quote from Tessa Jowell's paper. She also wrote that 'One of the wonderful things about great art is that true lovers of it never want to keep it to themselves - they want all the world to know. There is nothing selfish or exclusive in their enthusiasm, nor does wider appreciation weaken the force of the art. The argument for public subsidy accordingly rests above all on the desire that all, not just a minority, should have access to the thrill of engagement with great art.'

By that argument, shouldn't Poetry Review lose its subsidy as a magazine reshaped by Potts and Herd to appeal not just to a minority but to a minority of poetry readers? Fortunately the clock has run out on them. Their three-year tenure of Poetry Review is about to expire, and readers can look forward to seeing a new inclusive Poetry Review edited from this summer by Fiona Sampson.


Britain's poetry world is clearly as perilous as Steve Jones's Arts Faculty terra incognita, fraught with similar dangers for unwary readers and writers. A fact is often no more than a strongly asserted or prominently published opinion. A lie is an opinion repeatedly so often that people begin to believe it, including, perhaps, the writer. So-called definitive anthologies are partial and sometimes distorted maps of the territory made by writers from one or other faction.

Critical consensus is a term given to opinions shared by a tiny minority of men who wield power in poetry publishing, academia or literary journalism, most of whom who are totally out of touch with the grassroots readership of poetry. In that respect they are quite like politicians, the various
factions being as different in character and in their support base as New Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists. And, of course, one man's critical consensus is another man's poison:

'If what seems to one person as new and trendy appears thirty years out of date and a weary rehash to another, there is a problem in communicating,' writes Andrew Duncan in his impassioned defence of post-war British avantgarde poetry, The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003). But that observation could just as easily have been made - rather more snappily no doubt - by one of mainstream poetry's rotweiler critics, such as Sean O'Brien or Don Paterson, who regard most avantgarde poetry as a rehash of Modernism gone off the boil, as out of date in their analysis as their own formally inventive poetry would be in Andrew Duncan's. As far as the Postmoderns are concerned, the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne is the presiding deity of modern British poetry, but for O'Brien and Paterson, Prynne is the avantgarde Anti-Christ.

In his 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, 'The Dark Art of Poetry', Don Paterson identifies the Postmodernists' fatal error as 'thinking that theory and practice form a continuum'. He voices the antagonism of many fellow poets when he berates most of the Postmoderns as a 'chorus of articulate but fundamentally talentless poet-commentators'. Where Duncan sees the mainstream as a spent force - banal and conservative - Paterson views the generation of poets included in his and Charles Simic's New British Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2004) - an introduction anthology for American readers - as 'part of a long evolution... engaged in an open, complex and ongoing dialogue with the whole of English lyric tradition'.

It takes an outsider to identify common ground: Sandra M. Gilbert, writing in Poetry (184 no.3, June/July 2004), questions what she sees as Paterson's positing of an English tradition separate from North American poetry: 'Isn't the tradition itself a set of multiple traditions?' she wrote. 'And aren't these traditions, together, traditions that share in and derive from the riches of the English language?'


But it is not only British, Irish and American poetry which flourish alongside one another. The whole of contemporary English-language poetry is a set of multiple interconnected traditions, embracing not just Modernism, Postmodernism and mainstream, but also the more culturally diverse oral-based and literary traditions of African American, Black British, Caribbean and South Asian poetry, with poetry in translation a parallel source of nourishment for poets and readers alike.

However, that diversity is not reflected in the books produced by Britain's poetry publishers. And as far as the broadsheet literary editors and reviewers are concerned, writers of colour might just as well be invisible, because when they do manage to get their poetry published, whether with specialist presses or mainstream imprints, they are almost without exception totally ignored. Little encouragement there for the more responsive poetry publishers.

Commenting in the Guardian Weekend magazine (5 June 2004) on the judging of last year's Next Generation Poets promotion, Simon Armitage had this to say: 'One conversation I don't mind leaking concerned the lack of black and Asian poets to choose from. At the beginning of the 21st century, how can this be the case? That question has to be put to the editors of the poetry lists, because I can't believe that such writers aren't submitting manuscripts to established poetry publishers. Editors need to recalibrate. They need to widen their aesthetic tastes. By the time it gets to our bit - the reading and judging of a shedload of books by predominantly white poets - it's too late.'

Yet what happens when such books are published, but readers don't hear about them because they aren't reviewed in the national press? It is not only the publishers who need to recalibrate, it's also the reviewers, but more importantly, it's up to the books editors responsible for poetry coverage in the press to make sure that books by Black and Asian poets are reviewed. And it's not as though there are a shortage of well-informed reviewers with specialist knowledge of the traditions these poets are writing out of. Stewart Brown, Debjani Chatterjee, David Dabydeen, Fred D'Aguiar, Sudeep Sen, Imtiaz Dharker, Tabish Khair, E.A. Markham, Sushella Nasta and Jerry Pinto, to name just a few, would offer a wide range of informed critical opinion.

One editor who seems to be in need of what Armitage calls 'recalibration' would appear to be Michael Schmidt, who has characterised Carcanet's publishing philosophy as follows: 'We do not tailor our selection or commissioning of books to perceived market demands or in response to demographics.' In other words, it doesn't matter what the readers want. What they will get is what the editor wants to give them, even if this means acting against his imprint's own commercial interests, as well as ignoring the cultural diversity of the country whose Arts Council subsidises his publishing.


The divided, oppositional nature of poetry politics was clearly demonstrated by the critical response to Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, published by Oxford University Press in New York for American consumption in 2001. Tuma's map of the territory is almost as fanciful as Mandeville's Travels, dotted with unfamiliar beasts in the form of obscure avantgardists most readers and poets in Britain and Ireland have never heard of, let alone read, which makes one question how such a book can be useful to its intended readership, American college students wanting a picture of British and Irish poetry since Yeats and Hardy.

Tuma's book is a wishful fiction - an academic's anthology of our poetry as he would like it to be rather than as it is - yet it wouldn't be so perverse an undertaking if he hadn't also managed to omit - from an anthology of 127 poets - some of the most significant figures in modern British and Irish poetry, such as Simon Armitage, David Constantine, Douglas Dunn, Paul Durcan, James Fenton, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley, Edwin Morgan, Tom Paulin, Peter Porter, Ken Smith, Anne Stevenson and R.S. Thomas, as well as - no surprise there - Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson. (Tuma's map is even more skewed than Michael Schmidt's Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, which omits not only Dunn, Durcan, Kennelly, Longley, O'Brien, Paterson, Paulin, Porter, Ken Smith and Anne Stevenson, but also Siegfried Sassoon.)

While Tuma's anthology is thankfully only available in the States, Poetry Review's editor Peter Forbes nevertheless commissioned an appropriate review (91 no.2, Summer 2001) from Sean O'Brien, who must have believed he'd sent the American academic packing with one of his rotweiler demolition jobs beginning with the assertion: 'Poetry is too important to be left to zealots.' Which begs the question: when does a critic become a zealot? Answer: when he plays for the other team. But bring in new management, in the shape of Robert Potts and David Herd, and the opposition can score an unlikely equaliser. One of their first moves as the new editors of Poetry Review was to commission a second review of Tuma's bizarre anthology, this time from Andrew Duncan (92 no.2, Summer 2002). No reference was made to the magazine's earlier, less commendatory review of the same book, as if O'Brien, like Trotsky, had been airbrushed from the picture.


Intolerance of other opinions, it seems to me, is one of the distinguishing features of current poetry journalism. Robert Potts's poetry police will weigh in with their critical truncheons to bash any writer or editor who fails to conform with their critical line, but unlike most other writers - who are used to taking the bad with the good - they have to take further corrective action against anyone who disagrees with them or to defend one of their own.

This may involve a counter-attack (using a Guardian review or Poetry Review editorial), a pincer movement (the London Review of Books will bring on a literary heavyweight like Andrew O'Hagan if Daisy Goodwin has been sighted with another anthology, and the Guardian will reprint that kind of thing), snipers (the TLS is good at that, especially James Campbell), repeated broadsides (Michael Schmidt and David Kennedy will savage the same book twice), or a must-have-the-last-word contribution to a letters column (Kathleen Jamie wasn't allowed to get away with criticising a Robert Potts review in the Guardian, with Jeremy Noel-Tod weighing in a week later with an embarrassingly silly letter which completely misrepresented her argument).

If you dare to express a contrary opinion on the radio, in print or in a letter to Poetry Review, you can expect your e-mail box to be jammed with tediously long messages from Robert Potts demanding that you justify and back up every point you've made with evidence, and saying why you are wrong or misguided, and he is right. And he will subject everything you say in response to minute critical analysis to draw attention to what he believes are the flaws in your argument as well as the infelicities of your prose.


Many poets can be fickle creatures. They want their work to reach a wider readership but their hackles are raised immediately they are confronted by the beast they know as Marketing. Not understanding this creature - which actually serves their interests - their hostility throws them into confusion.

Thus according to Steven Waling, Staying Alive 'was an anthology that could have been great if it wasn't being sold as a kind of lavender bath oil for the brain (i.e. this poetry does you good)', which is a bit like saying that Pride and Prejudice would have been a great novel if it hadn't been adapted for television. For Rupert Loydell, Staying Alive was 'a cynical exercise in marketing' and my introduction was 'bullshit', while Peter McDonald called it 'definitively dreadful' and 'a smart advertising pitch', and Tim Kendall berated Bloodaxe for 'promoting poetry as fashion statement'. Mark Ford reserved much of his vitriol for the fact that the book 'comes handsomely endorsed not only by the poet laureate but by a mindboggling selection of famous people... who testify to its "sustaining and life-affirming" powers as if it were some new age medicine or state-of-the-art therapy'.

In his attack on Kate Clanchy's Newborn, a collection of poems about motherhood, Peter McDonald or his Tower Poetry clone was incensed by Picador's packaging of a book whose content has a clear appeal to a broad readership: 'Newborn demonstrates that Clanchy is quite comfortable with her cul-de-sac. This motive is evident in the presentation of the text itself: the glossy image on the cover resembling a stylish cosmetics advertisement (and muting the baby's head in favour of the mother's hand), the nauseating back cover blurb from film star Emma Thompson, and the glamorously wistful photo of Kate herself all give the game away - it's not about the poetry, it's about the lifestyle.'




That last remark echoes the Potts/Herd description in Poetry Review (94 No.3, Autumn 2004) of Daisy Goodwin's latest anthology, Poems to Last a Lifetime, suggesting to me that Potts himself may be the anonymous Tower Poetry hatchet-man. 'From the promise of its title to the lifestyle-porn of its jacket design,' Potts writes, this time of Daisy's book, not Kate's: 'It is less a book than an accessory.'

How a bright and well-designed cover for a popular poetry anthology can be 'lifestyle-porn' is beyond my comprehension. Look inside the cover and what does the reader discover?... poems by Shakespeare, Wordworth, Blake, Keats, Yeats and all the greats alongside some fine contemporary poems, many by writers Potts clearly dislikes. But if the thinking of poetry's Witchfinder-General were applied to law, Daisy Goodwin would be tried for the crime of turning literature into 'lifestyle pornography'. The fact that hundreds of thousands of readers actually like her books - and wouldn't otherwise be reading poetry, let alone modern poetry - would of course be inadmissable as evidence in her defence. Daisy would be burnt at the stake outside the offices of the Times Literary Supplement.

Last autumn Picador published three books aimed at a popular readership, one of which was Peter Forbes's love poems anthology, All the Poems You Need to Say I Do. Writing in the London Review of Books (4 November 2004), Andrew O'Hagan called this 'a scrofulous little collection targeted at people who think poetry comes into its own at funerals, or, in this case, weddings... There's hardly a bad poem in Forbes' anthology - that's not the point. These books are full of excellent poems which suffer only by being corralled together under a nauseating rubric. Forbes has exercised taste and judgement in the matter of his choices, but what cultural movement, or commercial hunger, is being serviced by the publication of such sky-blue and touchy-feely anthologies of variously thoughtful poetry with their invariably thoughtless introductions?'

The answer to O'Hagan's question is that the movement concerned is a group of dedicated poetry publishers who believe that broadening the poetry readership in Britain is a cultural necessity without which even the specialist readership for poetry will disappear as poetry lists shrink and poetry presses collapse.

These books aren't aimed at the elitists who review them, they are aimed at the general reader who sees nothing wrong with poetry books being packaged like magazines or novels. And the readers not only like them as books, they are encouraged by them to read other books of contemporary poetry. O'Hagan even admits that there's nothing wrong with the poems included in such anthologies, it's the marketing which incenses him. But these books are not packaged to appeal to Andrew O'Hagan and other cognoscenti who write for the LRB and the TLS.


The bookshops derive 94% of their income from a quarter of their stock. In accountancy terms, three-quarters of their stock is a waste of capital taking up valuable shelf space. That includes all the poetry. Instead of railing against the massive reductions made by the bookshops in their stocking of poetry - the common cry of poets, publishers, reviewers and readers - a more appropriate response might be gratitude that they have seen fit to stock any poetry at all.

Poetry publishers have to work with what we've got. That means accepting that the bookshops will only stock poetry books if they sell enough copies, and it is up to the publishers to develop imaginative and creative ways of broadening the appeal of contemporary poetry, so that more people will want to buy and read books of poetry. And we use marketing to do that.

Without effective marketing responsive to the booktrade conditions of the 21st century, poetry will all but disappear from the bookshops. If publishers want the work they value to be available to readers in the future, they have to package and promote the books in a way that projects the appeal of that poetry to as wide a readership as possible.

Yet for many people in the poetry world, Marketing is a dirty word. As Michael Hofmann put it, 'Promotion violates the innocence and defencelessness of poetry' (Times, 4 October 1997). That misunderstanding expressed in numerous reviews and in opposition to initiatives designed to broaden the audience for poetry - continually undermines much of the work being done to safeguard and strengthen the place of poetry in our culture.

David Constantine put this in perspective in an article in Magma, in which he noted in reviews of recent anthologies 'a large dose of disgust that so much poetry was being "marketed" (that is, made available) to a general public. Surely the general public could not read it properly? Poetry, thus defended, looked to be the private property of a handful of clever young men who wrote such reviews.'

Marketing is not a 'betrayal of poetry', as more than one of these reviewers has called it, it is simply the means by which poetry is made available to readers. Novelists don't complain about having their books marketed, nor do biographers or popular science writers, or any other writers as far as I'm aware. It is only the poets who complain about the same commercial methods being used to sell their books to readers.

Left only to market forces, the poetry books which sell best will be those which have been packaged to appeal to a wide readership and whose content is relevant to that readership. If we don't like what we see in the bookshops - that is, we don¹t like the books which the readers are buying - it is up to
the poetry publishers and editors to commission and market other books which they believe should have a stronger appeal in more effective ways.

If they don't like the Daisy Goodwin approach, they need to develop their own creative marketing initiatives focused on the work they value, just as Bloodaxe, Faber and Picador have done in their different ways. But they also have to be responsive to readers. If a poetry editor believes that he knows better than the poetry readers, that kind of arrogance and complacency will bring about the demise of his poetry list, either through failing sales or through reduced funding in the case of arts-subsidised poetry presses.

John O'Donoghue attacks the marketing of poetry in the latest issue of PN Review (162, 31 no.4, March-April 2005): 'All these rather crass promotions lend poetry the status of a dying language, which its guardians have sought to revive via spin, marketing and publicity stunts - the very discourses which poetry should be resisting'. This must be a strange notion for non-poets: resisting the marketing of your books. Most poets want their work to reach a wider readership, but not, apparently, if that means that the publishers have to encourage the bookshops to stock them.

This kind of intellectual muddle-headedness about the marketing of poetry is particularly prevalent in the ranks of the poetry police. At a time when poetry is losing so much ground in the bookshops, it is clearly de rigueur (a favourite police expression) to trash any publisher who uses imaginative marketing to take contemporary poetry to a broader readership. But perhaps this is less a case of the poet shooting himself in the foot than trying to ensure that if his own poetry isn't being read, then neither should anyone else's.


The "celebrity endorsements" used by Bloodaxe on Staying Alive and Being Alive were scorned by the poetry police, but they were vital to the success of the two books. John Berger, Jane Campion, Mia Farrow, Van Morrison, Philip Pullman, Meryl Streep and all the others who wanted to help us are not just famous people, they are avid readers and passionate advocates of poetry. Their comments helped us reach thousands of people who are interested in fiction, film, theatre, music and other arts but until recently hadn't been sufficiently engaged by contemporary poetry. We
included their quotes with sample poems from the books in brochures sent in the case of Staying Alive to a quarter of a million people, using a variety of mailing lists, from Granta to Tate Modern. And because we had those endorsements, the bookshops were willing to put in big orders, and to stack up copies on the display tables with the latest paperback novels.

In his introduction to New British Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2004), Don Paterson makes a curious observation: 'But to have made, in the course of our numerous awareness-raising campaigns, no direct appeal to the serious-fiction-reading, theatre-going, art-movie-viewing public - i.e., one already receptive to some level of difficulty or complexity in the art they enjoyed - was surely a grievous error.' That is surely a description of the almost-textbook marketing initiative Bloodaxe carried out in conceiving, promoting and selling Staying Alive and Being Alive, and we have proved beyond doubt that the cultural constituency Paterson wishes to reach is responsive to modern poetry.

However, Paterson wants to have his cake and eat it: in his 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, he attacks those he calls 'the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum. They infantalise our art: chicken soup anthologies full of lousy poems.' This is presumably aimed at Daisy Goodwin and me, but not, for some reason, the editors of Picador's anthologies, including himself, because the poems we select can be 'lousy' but not those appearing under his imprimatur.

Paterson also believes that the way to achieve 'access' for readers is to 'remove all the mediators', 'those self-appointed popularisers' [presumably that's me and Daisy again] 'who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense' [dumb as in "dumbing down"] 'have alienated poetry's natural intelligent and literate constituency' [himself, O'Brien and the poetry police?] 'by infantalising our [my emphasis] art; and on the other, those exegetes' [this must be Potts, the poetry police again along with the avantgardists] 'in whose adolescent, retentive self-interest it is to keep poetry as mysterious as possible, that they might project nothing into it but their own wholly novel and ingenious interpretations.' In other words, get rid of the anthologies and the reviewers he disapproves of, and all will be hunky-dory. Or not.

Poets write poetry. Publishers sell it. Readers buy the books and read them. Poetry doesn't sell purely on merit, especially in the current commercial climate. It has to be marketed to reach its potential readership. While a poet may not write for other readers, it's the readership which justifies

And yes, publishing is a business, and marketing is its operating tool. Writing in this week's Bookseller (11 March 2005), Faber's chief executive Stephen Page describes a new marketing initiative Faber has set up with other independent trade publishers, ending with a comment on writers and readers: 'It is for them that the impulse to publish exists for these independent publishers. Some may think this is a sentimental line, but this is true. Sure, we have shareholders but they share our authentic desire to make a business out of publishing what we care about and finding the widest possible readership for it... It is work we relish, and at Faber it is a natural extension of our sense of purpose as a culturally oriented business.'

Unless publishers and editors actively promote a wide and fully representative range of contemporary poetry books, the readership of poetry in Britain will disintegrate. Robert Potts believes that critics have a duty to point out editors' errors and lapses - as he sees them of course.

I think it's time the critics, reviewers and poetry editors were subjected to a more intelligent kind of scrutiny, and if they are failing the readership, they should be sacked. Or their funding should be cut in the case of the subsidised presses. The readers deserve better, and so do the poets.


One of the really positive experiences I've had at StAnza has been listening to the younger poetry enthusiasts. Many of you feel excluded from the poetry world, because it is so narrowly based and doesn't reflect your own interests. This talk may have added further discouragement, but at least it should show that you aren't alone in how you feel. All readers and writers - not just you - are outsiders because the whole poetry readership is ignored or patronised.

I believe that there's room in our poetry culture for new initiatives from new readers and writers as well as from the excluded or marginalised voices - and not just room, but a need for new and progressive initiatives. New magazines, presses and websites can find an audience for work which is responsive to readers and to the cultural diversity of Britain.

Mslexia - 'the magazine for women who write' - has certainly shown that. So have poetry magazines which have reinvented themselves to reflect the variety and breadth of contemporary poetry, such as Poetry London and The Rialto. In what seems like a very short time - but actually ten years - Magma has become one of Britain's liveliest and most independently-minded poetry magazines. The next one to watch will be The Wolf, which has a young editorial team who aren't afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Alone amongst the specialist presses, Peepal Tree has been given substantially increased Arts Council funding, because its programme makes available the kind of work by Black British, Caribbean and South Asian writers which is ignored not just by mainstream publishers but by other arts-subsidised presses.

If the unresponsive dinosaurs in the poetry establishment don't change their ways, falling sales or subscriptions as well as reduced funding will precipitate or accelerate their demise. This process of disintegration is already happening. This is at a time when more imaginative people - editors, publishers, festival organisers, poetry promoters, literature development workers and others - have been responding to the growing interest in poetry at grassroots level. But as the dinosaurs collapse, there will be many new opportunities for new enterprises, and I'm convinced that because the current situation is so bad in many quarters, the Arts Councils and other funding bodies will want to support newcomers and new voices who want to promote poetry by all kinds of writers to all kinds of readers.

Copyright © Neil Astley 2005

Back to Top
Back to 2005 Highlights

You are viewing the StAnza Poetry Festival 2005-2014 archive
For the current festival site, go to