There’s much to love about poetry in the UK. It’s probably the most accessible of the higher art forms in terms of getting your work performed, out in the open, recognized. Not everyone is brilliant, but there’s always something new and exciting coming around the corner. We all have our pet hates, however, and here’s mine:
(1) The lack of criticism and critical thinking in poetry.
Performance poetry in the UK remains an immature art form. The presumption in the scene is that this would change if enough people were exposed to the “good stuff”. The truth is that the majority of performance poets are not good enough writers to capture the imagination of their audience, and no-one will ever tell them this, or suggest ways in which they can improve their work. The friendliness of the scene has retarded it, because no real dialogue or competition exists between individual artists, nor do artists see it as a possibility to challenge other art forms like music, or film, or theatre for their audiences. The best and most imaginative migrate into those art forms when they realise the limits of poetry. The same has sadly occurred in written poetry in the UK, where it is almost impossible to find a negative review of a modern poet and where a consensus has arrived as to what the natural subject matter and form of poetry should be. Published poetry has become an uninteresting, unreflective art form as a result.
(2) The difference between hatred and jealousy.
There is a common perception that disliking someone’s work, especially if that person is successful, must be jealousy. This idea is rife within poetry and is rubbish. Look at your favourite writers, painters, musicians. They are inevitably strong personalities. The way in which you improve your own work is taking on board criticism, constantly questioning what you create, and having a little humility. You learn just as much from what you hate as you do from what you love. Take nothing personally, even that which is intended personally, because you can learn from it.
(3) The political irrelevance of poetry.
Performance poetry has a terrible habit of slapping itself on the back for being liberal and attacking right wingers. This is nonsense. No-one of any importance in the establishment will ever hear your video on youtube about the riots or capitalism or gang culture, even less care about it. Actual liberals are similarly unmoved, as you are preaching to the converted. No real controversy exists within poetry, which is another sign of an unpopular / immature art form. Published poetry is even worse, avoiding modern events altogether or dealing with them in such oblique terms that they might as not have bothered.
(4) The “unspoken”
Much nonsense is aired from published poets about them elucidating the “unspoken”. They inevitably achieve only the “uninteresting” and the “irrelevant” [see 3]. The “unspoken” has become the biggest cliché within poetry in the last fifty years but product inevitably follows audience; mainstream published poetry exists primarily because of the demand from a mediocre middle class. There is no call for a Pope, or a Byron, or even a Ginsberg, to reshape public perception of what poetry can be. The word poetry has become synonymous [on the published side] with prosaic meditation and understatement and [on the performance side] twee relationship poems, comedy rhymes and wretched lower middle class mediocrities pretending to be “urban” or “street”. The talent drain to more relevant art forms is understandable.
(5) The traditional reading.
Most poetry nights where an audience simply sits down and listens to a group of poets and applauds at set times are outdated, tedious and charmless. Poetry needs to return back to its democratic roots, to being rowdy, relevant and exciting.
(6) The obligatory conversation about the difference between the page and the stage.
This does not actually exist, except in the minds of people who feel slighted by the possibility it exists. There are just as many good poets starting out in performance poetry today as there are within the frankly daft patronage scheme of studying a writing course, publishing in low circulation poetry magazines to build up a CV, creating ties of mutual dependence with minor poetry figures [myself included], all in order to get a pamphlet out. The majority of authors under Vintage Poison have sold well because they take their work to pubs, churches, clubs, comedy clubs, etc, rather than waiting for the world to fall back in love with poetry. Within mainstream publishing, the poor sales of poetry are an open secret and those numbers will remain the case as long as poetry remains a closed shop; small presses on the other hand are doing quite well. Do you want your work to be heard and read? Or just reviewed in the Guardian?
(7) The public funding of poetry.
The removal of public funding from poetry is a good thing. Artists who are paid by the state tend to take this argument personally because it’s difficult for them to see beyond the undoubted good work they and their peers have done in schools, outreach programs, etc, or in larger venues if they are attached to theatres or art centres. This is to confuse the good of the art form with their own limited personal experience. Anyone who takes state money is vividly aware [the paperwork spells it out in no uncertain terms] of the nature of the art it creates, its limitations, duties, its essentially benign and friendly and tolerant face. Representing poetry in these terms, a potentially revolutionary art form I happen to love and support, is a backward step in terms of promotion and almost wholly destructive in terms of the art it creates, very little of which will be remembered in a year’s time, let alone ten years, or a hundred.
Gareth Lewis is the editor of Vintage Poison Press, which he founded with fellow poets Lucy Leagrave and Kevin Reinhardt in 2007, and owner and editor of Tall Lighthouse Press. Under the pseudonym Jacob Lewis, he has published one book of poetry, “The Blues Collection”  and his second collection, “I would cut off both my hands if it meant you would love me more”, is due out in late 2012.