Somewhere towards the end of last year, I stood up in front of 400 or so 17-year-olds to talk about poetry. The lecture was one I’d already given in various guises; a comparative reading of two poems: one canonical, the other contemporary. In the past, I’d compared WB Yeats with Sharon Olds, Helen Dunmore with Tishani Doshi, and John Donne with Tiphanie Yanique. That day, we were back with Donne again: “The Sun Rising”, one of the language’s greatest love poems, as fresh and exultant now as it was when it was written four centuries ago. But rather than scouring the work of Forward or Pulitzer prize winners to find something to read with it, this time I turned to YouTube. The poem I chose was Hollie McNish’s “Watching Miserable-Looking Couples in the Supermarket”.
A few months earlier, McNish had found herself at the centre of a whirlwind, when an argument that had been rumbling for some time behind the poetry world’s tightly closed doors abruptly burst forth in public. McNish – whose vivid, visceral poems have been watched by millions online – had won the Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry in 2016 for her debut collection, and subsequently secured a publishing deal for a new book, Plum, with Picador. Plum came out in 2017, was broadly well received, and rapidly became one of the year’s bestselling collections, part of a surge in poetry sales that was spearheaded by Instapoet Rupi Kaur, whose two collections had together sold in the hundreds of thousands. But it wasn’t until January 2018 that Plum made headlines. Rebecca Watts (a prize-shortlisted poet in her own right) was commissioned to review it for poetry journal PN Review, but submitted, instead, an essay in which she decried “the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”. She declined to review Plum on the grounds that “to do so … would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry”.
It’s a truism that there’s no row like a poetry row. “For some reason,” says Don Paterson, McNish’s editor at Picador, “poets saying ungenerous things about each other is considered news, which is pretty funny, given they fight all the time”. But the speed and fury with which this one exploded marked the point at which a formerly nebulous territorial dispute within a small community suddenly hardened, and everyone felt obliged to pick a side. “In every period you’ve had poets who write what’s seen as being more accessible poetry,” says Anthony Anaxagorou, award-winning slam poet and founder-director of live poetry night Out-Spoken, citing, among others, Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou and Emily Dickinson. “The difference now is that things are more democratic. Anyone is free to set up a social media account or website and publish their poems. Gatekeepers traditionally have been responsible for maintaining a sense of quality control, which many feel has diminished since the rise of social media. What you’re left with is a widening chasm. The establishment and the academy have buttressed their positions as ‘knowers’ of good poetry, resulting in serious readers and writers swaying over to one side, leaving the more casual reader to trundle through the badlands of social media poetry.”
At the heart of the dispute was this notion of “accessibility” – and the question of whether heightened accessibility necessarily involves a blunting of the fine edge that is poetry’s USP. Whatever your view, there’s no doubt that, historically, the number of people accessing poetry has been low. In audience terms, poetry has long been the literary world’s poor relation, at once revered as high art, the place where language works at its outer limits, and viewed as difficult and (that word again) inaccessible, only touching the lives of the wider public when it was wheeled out to mark births, deaths and marriages.
At Arts Council England, where I work as director of literature, our mission is “great art and culture for everyone”, but the plain fact is that, when it came to poetry, the sector’s success in reaching new audiences has been limited. While there have been moments when it broke through – via the wildly popular Poems on the Underground initiative, for example, and in the form of Bloodaxe Books’ series of bestselling contemporary anthologies, both Arts Council-supported – these were statistical outliers. As recently as 2012, poetry sales (as reported by industry bible Nielsen Bookscan) appeared to be on an alarming slide’ from a (relative) high of £8.4m in 2009 to a dismal low of £6.4m. Even for poetry - accustomed to existing on short rations - things were looking bleak.
And yet, beyond the bookshelves, the world was on the move. Smartphones went mainstream, and social media use erupted. Mobile devices apparently offered the perfect vehicle for sharing poems, while spoken word artists found, in YouTube, a means of connecting with new, physically dispersed audiences. Poetry popped up in people’s Facebook feeds, was served to them as they sat on their sofas, and casual readers of the sort Anaxagorou describes were born in abundance. The latest Nielsen figures for 2018 show poetry sales hitting an all-time high of £12.3m – nearly double what it was in 2012.
If this looks like a sudden and seismic shift – well, it is, and it isn’t. The Instapoetry popularised by Kaur, Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed and Nikita Gill, among others, is unquestionably a recent phenomenon; Kaur didn’t join Instagram until 2014. But spoken word has far deeper roots, as well as a history of attracting practitioners and audience members from more socially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Apples and Snakes, the UK’s leading spoken word promoter and a member of the Arts Council’s national portfolio of organisations, was founded in a room over a pub back in 1982. Its chief executive, Lisa Mead, points to “years of grassroots development”, which have led to a sector that has “successfully developed a broad range of poets – from Kate Tempest to Inua Ellams to Debris Stevenson – and created an appetite among young people to engage with poetry. Without all the graft that’s been put in we wouldn’t be where we are now; current poets have risen on the shoulders of those who went before.”
Anaxagorou agrees, describing a rich hybrid form that draws on “the dub poetry and live literature movements of the 80s and the slam movement of the 90s” alongside rap music and “American sermonising, which employs language, ideology, performance and intonation … Today it feels very much like a fusion of different traditions and approaches that all stem from the oral. A highly communicative, informed, visceral way of connecting with people while also keeping them entertained.”
The raw material has been here for some time; what the internet and social media have done is lift it out of geographical silos and allow anyone, anywhere access to it. But theoretically, haiku and villanelles are just as shareable as Kate Tempest videos. What is it about spoken word that’s captivated contemporary audiences in such numbers?
Joelle Taylor is one of slam poetry’s leading lights, and the founder of national youth slam championship SLAMbassadors. As well as acknowledging the form’s availability to her, as a working-class woman (“There were few opportunities in the area I grew up in to access the arts … Spoken word allowed me to bypass literary gatekeepers”), she also cites its ability to “reach across class and culture to create a community of free thinkers ... In these increasingly dystopian and hostile times, we need that sense of belonging, of thoughtful uprising.”
Mead also notes the urgency of “the current political climate” as an audience driver. “Poets have always been the social commentators of the moment, tuning in to the issues that are bubbling under the surface. Given what’s going on currently, people are looking for someone who’s saying aloud what they’re feeling.” Just as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon articulated the most urgent experiences of their generation in the poetry of the trenches (and were soundly rebuked at the time by Yeats, who declared, in terms that might ring bells for Instapoets, that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”), so today’s young poets are responding passionately to crises in government, finance and the environment.
In 2014, Jeremy Paxman, judging the Forward poetry prize, accused poetry of “conniving at its own irrelevance” and lamented its failure “to engage with ordinary people”. Whatever criticisms might be levelled at poetry in 2019, irrelevance is no longer one of them: quite apart from the rise in sales, the most prominent and profound responses to the Manchester terror attack and the Grenfell fire were delivered via poetry. “We’ll always need poetry, especially at thresholds, in times of difficult transition,” says Paterson. “If you think this is a boom, wait until you see poetry after a no-deal Brexit.”
But what about the fear that this broadening of the artform is diminishing its excellence? The poetry world’s prize givers appear to be taking, if anything, the opposite view. In 2018, Jay Bernard won the Ted Hughes prize with an hour-long performance, “Surge: Side A”, on the 1981 New Cross fire. The Forward prize, meanwhile, formerly won by the likes of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald, was awarded to Danez Smith, who started life as a performance poet. “The media may have focused on Smith’s youth, gender, race and background,” says Susannah Herbert, executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation, “but they didn’t win for any of these: their book was judged the best collection of the year because it expands the language and nourishes the imagination. This is skilful, closely worked and inspired poetry. It’s built to last.”
Linton Kwesi Johnson, regarded by many as the father of modern spoken word, was originally derided by the establishment; a Spectator profile claimed his poetry had “wreaked havoc in schools and helped to create a generation of rioters and illiterates”. In 2002, he became only the second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. “I like to think,” he says now, “that for the generation who came after me, some of them thought, ‘Bloody hell, if that geezer can do it so can I.’” As Paterson argues, “I think you’re obliged to make some account of what the culture regards as important – or at least learn to distinguish between not liking something and not understanding it. I used to think I didn’t like performance poetry. But if an activity is widespread and clearly involves a lot of intelligent people – you’re the problem.”
The world is changing; mediums are evolving; and the language and content of poetry is shifting, too, to accommodate this. So why the anxiety? Well, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future may be here, but it’s not evenly distributed. For all the talk of a poetry boom, this appears to be confined primarily to poetry’s new wave; the traditional market remains challenging. Although Paterson reports a rise in poetry sales across the board at Picador, he acknowledges “it hasn’t quite been the tide that’s lifted all boats”. At Carcanet, meanwhile, director Michael Schmidt believes “the ‘boom’ is based largely on poetry which originates in the social media, where would-be writers develop a substantial following”.
What’s more, while there’s a growing acknowledgement that spoken word poetry deserves its place at the table (Bloodaxe director Neil Astley, who championed many of the original dub poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Jean “Binta” Breeze, observes “a real and fluid crossover” between stage and page), the line often seems to be drawn at Instapoetry. “What troubles me as a reader and editor,” Schmidt says, “is the privileging of cliche inherent in the movement … the intolerance of subtlety.” Even Paterson says of Kaur that “she writes a kind of affirmative sloganeering for folk who don’t really read books – it clearly does some people a lot of good, so all power to her.” This is not real poetry, runs the theory, and it’s not delivering a crossover audience, either; in fact, according to Astley, “the more successful Instagram poets” are “overshadowing the valuable, edgy, thoughtful and beautifully written real poetry”.
It’s easy to see how those steeped in decades of writing and editing have come to this conclusion. Yet quite apart from the very real worry about dismissing a form of expression that is produced and consumed overwhelmingly by young women, there’s a danger in writing off any enterprise still in its infancy: if history teaches us anything, it’s that this always comes back to bite you. From modernism to the metaphysicals, there is no form of poetry yet that hasn’t produced great art; it’s hard to imagine Instapoetry won’t, too. In some senses it appears to be doing what YA literature did for the novel: bridging a gap between the already verdant fields of poetry for children and adults. Poetry Society director Judith Palmer points to the society’s 2018 survey of under-18s in which participants expressed their desire “to read poetry that feels like it was written by people like them; it’s no accident that the most successful Instapoets are young women of colour”, but also noted that those surveyed referenced Kaur and Leav in the same breath as Anne Carson, Ocean Vuong, Sylvia Plath and John Keats when asked to name their favourite poets. “Young people,” she says, “are discovering poetry through Instapoetry.” Whether this growth in audiences is sustainable only time will tell, but in the short term it may be worth bearing in mind that a lack of crossover audience works both ways: it’s unlikely readers of traditional poetry are forsaking it for Instagram. “If I’ve learned anything,” Paterson says, “it’s that I should stop paying lip service to this lazy rubbish about poetry being a broad church. It can be many churches, and we needn’t worship at them all.”
By taking McNish as the subject of my lecture, I was, in part, asking a question of myself: whether poetry that arose out of social media could hold up under intensive close reading. The answer, in short, was yes. I talked about McNish’s use of conjunctions and repetition; about her deployment of the passive tense; about the way she sets us up to expect one word, and then wrongfoots us with another. As time passes, and the new poets grow older, a critical discourse will develop, and we’ll begin to see a canon emerge. Until then, let’s give the last word to one of them. “Spoken word,” Joelle Taylor says, “is proper poetry. But poetry for the mouth has a different instinct than that for the pen; of equal value, but different. We must be judged on the terms of the chosen expression. Those who undermine the form often reveal an elitist, classist bias – as seen in their need to define and own poetry. You cannot own an art”.