Why don't we value poetry?

Why don’t we truly value poetry?
Yet again, a major literary prize has been won by a book of verse, and the genre has rarely been more popular. So why does it feel as if poetry is losing its way, asks Philip Hensher.
For the second year running, the general Costa Book Award has been won by a poet. The awards choose individual winners from five categories – a novel, a first novel, a work of biography, a volume of poetry, and a children’s book. Subsequently, the winners are pitched against each other and an overall winner is awarded £35,000. Last year, the overall winner was the poet Christopher Reid; this year, Jo Shapcott’s volume of verse, Of Mutability, took the prize against hot competition from Edmund de Waal’s memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes.
Despite the general belief that poetry is undervalued as a genre in these comparative exercises, it has done better than biography (four wins) at this prize and very much better than children’s books, which have only won once in open competition. In 25 years in the awards’ current format, the overall prize has been awarded to a volume of poetry seven times.
No one could claim that poetry is lacking in publicity. The BBC regularly and dutifully covers poetry – a Nation’s Favourite Poet phone-in in 2009 discovered, surprisingly, that the British like T S Eliot best. The major prizes, the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize, are widely covered in most of the media.
But when this year’s T S Eliot winner, Derek Walcott, comes to Britain from his native St Lucia these days, he may feel like Virgil visiting the rudely unpoetic outer reaches of a civilised empire. In his tiny Caribbean nation, a poet is given his due: St Lucia has a national Nobel Day, marking his 1992 triumph at the grandest of all literary prizes, as well as naming streets and popular dishes after him. It is safe to say, on the other hand, that Jo Shapcott, despite her excellence, is walking the streets today quite unrecognised. Who was the last British poet to have a street or a cake named after him? Kipling?
Despite all the prizes and the publicity, there is a sense that poetry is losing its way; that it has not quite found the audience today that, surely, it deserves. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that poetry today never, or almost never, sells at all. Take a single example: Sean O’Brien. Professor O’Brien is about as well esteemed by his community of writers as a poet can be. Every one of his seven volumes has won prizes. The last, The Drowned Book, published in 2007, won the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T S Eliot Prize. That netted him £85,000 in prize money, which was just as well, because it sold sod-all.
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  1. Who wants rain? Who is it for? Should it not fall for the sake of clean cars and convenience? Poetry is not for the living but for those that want to live. Most of those people have yet to be born, died before their time, or are still growing into the over-sized need they had handed down to them.
    Would-be poets that want to be viral rock star quarterbacks can put together ironic NASCAR cat videos. Poets borrow breath of life from the readers that need the meaning instilled in the poem. It is personal, intimate, and sacred. Open the box to see where the gold comes from will only reveal an empty box, even though now it would appear on a 7680×4320 WHUXGA laser splash lightening screen. Big deal. Write for the fist pump, back-scratch, atta-boy and you get your reward for the effort. Write out of need to write.

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  3. “… we apparently find it easier to reward a poet when he can assure us that his wife has died tragically.”
    Yeah, I suppose. Poetry can be striking when it captures the usual moments of human drama in a particularly “poetic” fashion.
    I also enjoyed this line: “Not every poet has retreated into the rebarbative difficulties of modernism; some, like the wonderful Alice Oswald, have written nature poetry as clean and accessible as John Clare.” Isn’t that what so many like to complain about? How inaccessible poetry has become? Its lack of clarity? Its involvement with abstract concepts?
    Or is it just that people don’t enjoy reading challenging material anymore? or thinking. Nothing new in that phenomenon.

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