Saturday, July 02, 2011

A brawl of poets or one love?


One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying - one love

Hear the children crying - one heart

From One Love by Bob Marley

Poets used to gather in a grand old mansion in Earls Court. It was a short stagger from the tube, close to the legendary Troubadour cafe and large enough to cater for the crush of a book launch with free wine. This was the home of the Poetry Society when I began writing - it was quirky, it had character.

I was there for a few launches. Eddie Linden was usually present, Matthew Sweeney, Lavinia Greenlaw and John Hartley Williams were regulars. I remember John Heathcote Williams reading from Sacred Elephant sometime in 1989.

There was a rift in the 1970s. Peter Barry's written a book about it (Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, Cambridge, 2006). He writes: ‘An odd thing happened in British poetry in the 1970s, but the full story has never been told. A small group of “radical” or “experimental” poets took over the Poetry Society, one of the most conservative of British cultural institutions, and for a period of six years, from 1971 to 1977, its journal, Poetry Review, was the most startling magazine in the country.’

One of those radicals was Eric Mottram, another was performance poet Bob Cobbing. I saw Cobbing above a pub in Farringdon when the place was rough. He was performing with maverick saxophonist Lol Coxhill and I'll never forget it although I have totally forgotten the name of the pub and the year. Cobbing silenced a group of heckling lads by discussing sound poetry with them at the bar in the interval. They stayed for the second half and were silent.

I was a member of the Poetry Society for many years because to me it was as important to poetry as the Arvon Foundation where many of us learned our craft on a residential course or two and met lifelong friends.

There's a standing joke among poets, guaranteed to fill an awkward moment - what is the collective noun for a group of us? The Poet Laureate once threw 'a paranoia' into the ring. I think 'a whine' is always appropriate. Few are complimentary. With all that's been going on at the Poetry Society, the resignations and the rumours, it appears 'a brawl of poets' might fit....or is it more of 'a bicker', or 'a distraction of poets'? It's certainly not a celebration or an exaltation right now.

When the Poetry Society moved from Earls Court into the centre of Covent Garden, Betterton Street, there was uproar. The space for readings, launches, gatherings was squeezed to a cramped, uncomfortable and mean little basement - a through route to the toilets - and a corridor for a cafe. I saw the offices recently and I wouldn't work in them. It's an organisation squatting uncomfortably in the centre of London without the means to benefit from a location that used to be impossibly trendy but is now very tired.

Poetry Review, the society's magazine, has an impossible task - to apparently represent the Poetry Society and at the same time pursue whatever editorial line the editor of the time feels is right. Anyone who thinks editors won't be controversial isn't living in the world. It's an editor's job to shake things up, to stamp their personality on a magazine...if you don't like it, you don't buy it. I think the sticking point is the question of whether it should be subsidised. I don't think so. Should the Poetry Society have a flagship magazine? I don't think so either. If Poetry Review was freed from constraint, it could survive or fail on its merits and an editor would be free to take appropriate decisions.

But when I look at the Poetry Society's website - that of our national representative and Arts Council funded organisation - I feel ashamed. It's as uninspired and lacklustre as the basement. I'm not a member anymore. I stopped my membership a few years ago when the 'benefit' of Poetry Review stopped being one.

Look at the website of the Academy of American Poets - its breadth, its professionalism, its value as a database and its worth. This website is well-researched, a resource for the public. It celebrates the differences between poets, it presents us as people who write differently about a range of subjects. You can search for a poem by keyword, by title...you can find poems about teenagers, funerals etc etc. You can search for a poet and there's a biog and picture. There are classroom resources, there are historical and contemporary features on aspects of poetry.

What we have is a website that appears to be more interested in Twitter, Facebook and what the media (selectively) is writing about poetry, a featured poem that's not updated often enough and a cursory diary of what's going on in London. The Young Poets Network is a good initiative, but even that could be more ambitious. Separately, there's the Poetry Archive, a database of poets with astonishing omissions and inclusions and the British Council's contemporary writers database that apparently only features poets who've won prizes.

Where's the blockage? Has no-one seen the Academy of American Poets? Does no-one want to aspire to that level of professionalism and inclusivity? Nah....it appears people are content to fight over turf on a small island and have neglected the need to communicate the diverse range of work being done, the importance of looking
 for innovation. There was mention of high profile poets. They don't need help! Spend time on the new Cobbings, the experimenters, the radicals, the neglected and ask why they are marginalised....

But where was the Poetry Society's campaign for publishers like Arc, Enitharmon, Anvil and others who lost Arts Council funding? No, weirdly there was barely a single threat of resignation.....