Where Have All The Poets Gone?
PublishedMay 18, 2011 CategoryArts Social Action

Where Have All The Poets Gone?

In ‘Poetry Matters’ I’m planning to provoke some dialogue on what’s actually going on in the fields of verse and poetry, and where it’s all going. What’s it for, these days? And where’s it kept, now that we’re ‘kindling’ our books and the poet elites seem to be on an endless circuit of ‘literary festivals’ and teaching ‘creative writing courses’? Unless, of course, they’re into ‘performance poetry’ battling it out nightly with the karaoke.


Whatever happened to Wordsworth’s ‘ emotion recollected in tranquility’ or ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’? When do poets laureate get to think and write something, except between airports, rail stations and seminar rooms, poor souls ?


I ask, because ‘Poetry Matters’ is an unabashed take from ‘Can Poetry Matter? –Essays on Poetry and American Culture’ ( Graywolf Press 1992) by my American friend and collaborator, Dana Gioia, a unique combination of pre-eminent poet and penetrating critic.

Poets in America, he thought, had been progressively converted from ‘artists’ into ‘educators’…..

“ Poetry today is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession – not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology, but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia”. So that now, he goes on…. “ The first question one poet asks another upon being introduced is ‘where do you teach ?’.

The problem is not that poets teach. The Campus is not a bad place to work. It’s just a bad place for All poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are made to conform to institutional ones”.

It was certainly thought a bit of an oddity when, back in the 1980s, I conceived the eccentric notion of an approach to people in business through verse, and found new audiences and writers alike in the supposedly alien readerships of the financial, business and management presses.

My celebratory 1994 international anthology could, by then, be called ‘ The Poetry of Business Life’ with no trace of irony; and seemed to prove the truer Wordsworth assertion (but quoting Coleridge) that all original writing “must itself create the taste by which it is to be relished”.

For ‘business poetry’ this required even more – legitimising the poet’s ‘ language of feeling and emotion’ within a two-century-old ghetto of mechanistic measurement and accounting. I’ll be saying more on the magic of this language anon.

As Professor Roy Doughty (Center for Ethics and Social Policy, Berkeley, USA) said in his appraisal of my anthology, “the language of poetry is the language of evocation… the language of business information says something about objects, but the language of evocation speaks about relationships… business people also need this language of evocation because the world of commerce, no less than the worlds of ecology and spirit, is a nest of inter-relatedness”.

Or, as I once put it in Bertie Ramsbottom’s “Death by Merger”…

A corporate entity, which starts
As just an aggregate of parts,
Evolves in time, within its whole
An idiosyncratic soul.

This personality defeats
Analysis by balance sheets,
The way your character eludes
The X-ray and the cathode tubes …

Above all, it’s the people presence
That permeates this corporate essence,
And catalyses, through the whole,
Its special chemistry and soul.

So synergies from mergers fail
Because the soul is not for sale:
Just as, when plants and factories close,
More dies than most of us suppose.

For the moment, I suggest we go into battle with the case for poetry eloquently stated by President JF Kennedy, less than one month before his assassination, when honouring the late poet Robert Frost:

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses …. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society…”

He has, as Frost said, ‘a lover’s quarrel with the world”.

That’s no bad place to start…