Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Who reads poetry? by Philip Lyons

Who reads poetry? I guess you do or else why would you be looking at the Poetry Space website? Perhaps you write the stuff too and are keen to find somewhere that will publish your work. There are many of us in the same boat, expressing ourselves in verse and reaching out to an audience that doesn’t appear to be that interested. If so many people admit to turning their hand to writing poetry, especially when faced with an emotional crisis or a significant event in their lives, why aren’t more people reading it?

I occasionally run writing workshops and I remember one participant telling the group that she didn’t read anyone else’s poetry because she didn’t want it to influence her own. But it’s precisely through reading poetry by other people that we learn about the craft and about the range of possibilities that the form offers. I am proud of my influences – George Herbert, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Tony Harrison, to name just a few – even as they look over my shoulder while I’m writing and tut when I settle for a cliché or an easy rhyme.

Poetry exists because there is a tradition, and each time we sit down to write a new poem we are drawing on that tradition, whether we choose to emulate, challenge or disparage it. I only know what poetry is from reading it. I get as much pleasure from reading a good poem as I do from trying to write one, but how do I decide that it’s good? Not because the critics tell me it is, that’s for sure. I recently had a stab at reading a highly-acclaimed first collection by a rising star and felt both unmoved and frustrated, unmoved because a certain coldness seemed to permeate the language and frustrated because the poems were scattered with abstruse references that even the notes didn’t really illuminate.

If that collection could be said to represent the zenith of contemporary poetry, perhaps that’s why so few people are reading it. I don’t want to get into an argument about elitism versus inclusiveness, but in spite of being educated to a high level I struggle when I leaf through the slim volumes in the poetry section of a bookshop (the section itself getting ever slimmer) to find anything I want to read. At the risk of turning this into a manifesto for my own work, I write what might be described as middlebrow poetry, written to appeal to the same literate public that enjoys reading novels by Nick Hornby or Anne Tyler, say, and watching episodes of Frasier on television. If more of this kind of poetry was made available and promoted – and I know it’s being written by plenty of poets other than me – I am confident more people would read poetry, as something that gives pleasure or that speaks to the heart, and not something to turn to only when someone gets married or dies. 

Philip Lyons April 2012

Philip's first full collection Like It Is  is published by Poetry Space Ltd and available from