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Poetic elitism

By Peter Tapsell - posted Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I have read many letters and articles in many different publications where the difficulties of getting poetry published are discussed, the authors bemoaning the lack of interest from publishers. Poetry is no longer a wide-ranging commercial proposition and has now become the preserve of free Internet sites, along with small independent, and sometimes irregular, publications.

So, has poetry had its day? Is it time to relegate it to archives and remember it with a sad fondness?

I don’t think so. However, I do think that the approach to the art needs to change if it is to regain some of its vigour. It needs to become more accessible to the wider public rather than tying itself in evermore complex academic knots. There is no use people wringing their hands and wondering why few people show any long-term interest anymore. The answer is simple. Poetry is getting caught up in its own technical straightjacket.


It is developing an inflexibility in its attempt to evolve, with a few people judging what is acceptable, and often scraping around for ever-more obscure words and formats. Consequently, it is evolving through a narrowing audience.

I would suggest that few people know, or care, what catalectic trochees are, or how to write a double ionic, or where to place a spondee. However, this does not prevent them enjoying reading or writing poetry, and nor should it.

The result of this move towards technical and, what I would call, more obscure poetry, has alienated the majority of the public.

I have spent a great deal of time reading poetry of many different genres, as well as writing some, and I often struggle to understand how to read what is currently published. It doesn’t appear to flow, it is hard work to read, and its meaning is often difficult to discover. Why would I, or anyone else, subject myself to this sort of literary torture? Call me out of touch if you like (plenty of people do), but I’d rather read Byron, Benjamin Zephaniah, Phillip Larkin, Wendy Cope or Roger McGough.

Those involved in the academic pushing of boundaries have, in some cases, looked down upon the more traditional sounding verse when it is written today. It is seen as old and tired, lightweight, and lacking in any innovation.

This is a very shortsighted and self-destructive approach. It marginalises all those who are not interested in trying to produce “new” poetry; those who like the aesthetics and flow of what has come before. This can come out in the more conservative Internet forums, where the criticism is such that many aspiring poets are likely to feel extremely dispirited by the criticism of their work.


These sites can be counter-productive to the expansion of the poetry audience. For a group of people who write as apart of their profession, or even as a passionate hobby, this lack of communication skills rivals those of many scientists. Publishers know this, and this might be the reason that many (probably the vast majority of major commercial publishing companies) are not publishing much, if any, new poetry.

Sales of so-called “classic” poetry are still occurring; it is easy to find copies of Betjeman, Larkin, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Plath, Ted Hughes etc, however, the common complaint among poets of the current age is that it is becoming increasingly hard to find a publisher. Self-publishing is consequently becoming more popular. This is not surprising.

Much of the published new poetry is in literary journals, or through specialist publishers, where the boundaries of poetry are pushed and the art form evolves. This is what should happen. However, they are not attractive publications for the member of the public who likes to read more accessible styles of verse. They are the equivalent of scientific journals that discuss in great detail the latest advances in biotechnology, the latest results in the effort to improve solar panels, or the latest research in gene therapy.

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About the Author

Peter Tapsell has worked in universities, the mining industry, and government. He has also carried out some private consultancy work, mostly in areas related to the environment. He enjoys writing prose, verse and music and performing his creations. Peter blogs at I'd rather be at the Beach but ...

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