And it's not easy to avoid. I know that. Poetry is hard to talk about. That may be (I think it is) one of the main reasons why it's regarded as 'difficult'. What's missing isn't necessarily a person's ability to enjoy poetry, but rather to explain their enjoyment - or the lack of it - in terms that allow them to hone in on what they like and block out what they don't. Pop music is conveniently divided into genres. Imagine if, instead, no one could instantly articulate the difference between, say, Hallelujah and My Name Is. Think of the perennial (albeit diminishing) distance between the younger generation, who are tuned into the latest terminology surrounding music, and the older generation to whom all modern sounds blend into one uncomfortable mash.
Even if we ignore genrefication (or rather, write it off as ultimately undesirable, for different reasons) the fact is that a wide range of people are able to comfortably discuss the differing qualities of film, fiction, art, computer games, television and comics, both in the national media and in every corner of the internet. They can debate it. They can rage about it. This is the kind of engagement that gives these arts the feeling of being public, of being owned by everyone, rather than elitist and out of bounds.
Meanwhile, on the poetry front, discussion is too often limited to 'the state of things' or general feelings about form, the 'mainstream', publishing, performing, et cetera. While there are many who will put their back into writing reviews, those reviews rarely elicit so much as a passing comment from anyone else, and then it will be: "Good review." Kirsty and I recently received a polite email back from a book blog saying they didn't feel able to review our books because they had no one who was properly able to engage with poetry. In the age of the internet, when a 15-year old can set themselves up as a film reviewer, a literary blog doesn't feel able to talk about our books. I'm not admonishing them - this is simply how it is.
And then I look at recent articles by prize-winning, much respected poets in national newspapers and realise the problem goes all the way to the top. This is Don Paterson, explaining what it was that made the winner of the inaugural Picador prize - which has received a ton of press coverage, by poetry standards - stand out against the shortlist:
"But there was something in Richard Meier's turn of mind, the precision of his ear, the quiet strangeness of his imagery, the tenderness and clarity of his address ..."
This is his new star, the future of his list, and this clutch of incredibly vague and cliched assertions is the best he can do? What does Richard Meier write about? What's his 'thing'? What sorts of techniques does he employ? The best Paterson can give us is 'something'.
Next comes Jackie Kay, in the wake of Jo Shapcott's Costa Book Award victory, explaining how poetry is enjoying 'a beautiful renaissance'. What is it, then, about Shapcott's book that tells us the event us truly upon us?
"... a rare thing, an uplifting book about death and mortality ..."
Okay, fair enough - Kay isn't attempting to sell us the book. This is only part of the picture, the rest of which will be built up over the course of the article:
"Christopher Reid's heartbreaking tribute to his wife ... Derek Walcott's remarkable White Egrets won the prestigious TS Eliot prize .... Carol Ann Duffy ... has reinvigorated the poetry world... a buzz in the world of poetry, showing that poetry is a force to be reckoned with ... the age of generosity is spilling out of the world of poetry ... the poetry pamphlets handsomely produced by ... small presses ... are flourishing ... Faber has just produced some extraordinary poets ... This might have to do with the poet's uncanny ability to speak for us and for our time ... From the pamphlet and the small press to the lit fest, new things are happening in the poetry world ... a proliferation of authentic and original voices, chiming with the voices of the entire population ... These readings are unique events, in the sense that they are electrifying ... There is no doubt about it, whatever the convergence of reasons and coincidences: poetry rocks."
She quotes others, including the Poet Laureate, to the same effect:
"People are coming at the poetry world from all different perspectives. Just last week I met a neurologist who said he had a great poetry reading group at work ... Poetry is very confident now, and it does feel like it should be a guest at the table."
Amid her article, there are some salient points about the rise of women poets and black poets. Why this isn't the subject matter of the whole piece is slightly beyond me, since the rest reads like a full page advert aimed at investors, hyping the poetry industry as a new mover and shaker. Figures are cited that supposedly prove an upswing in attendance and enthusiasm. The Picador prize is mentioned again, for no discernible reason except, perhaps, to reinforce the fact that people think it's worth mentioning. What is absolutely glaring in its absence is any articulation of what the poetry in question is actually doing; what it's embracing, rejecting, brawling with, studying, deconstructing, destroying, reinforcing. All that matters, apparently, is that people are 'getting it', even though neither Kay nor the Guardian can explain to us what exactly 'it' is.
The problem here is this: all these blandishments and upbeat noises cover up real issues, debate and conflict within poetry that, were the separate strands to find their voice, would be far more enticing to the average Guardian reader (and others beyond), since they invite negotiation and navigation. The soft sell results in nothing but the reader noting, perhaps with a warm feeling, that poetry is doing all right for itself, before moving on. The idea that these sorts of articles are, as presented on their face, news items is laughable; everyone involved knows it's vital publicity, but it's publicity done badly. Covering up the struggles within British poetry and passing it off as a happily united front is the exact opposite of what its advocates should be doing.
So why do they do it? One could ungenerously conclude that, given Duffy's surprising assertion that "there's little competitiveness in the poetry world" and Paterson's unsubtle put-downs of nay-sayers, that this is the old guard reinforcing their ivory tower by denying the existence of alternative poetries - or rather (this is more my theory) are guided by their own vision of a coherent, all-encompassing texture of contemporary poetry that naturally ignores the many ill-fitting jigsaw pieces.
But the best explanation, to my mind, is that people just don't know how to talk about poetry. They don't know how to make it a proper subject for discussion. So they flail around for figures and bold statements, hype up contests and events and name-drop, name-drop, name-drop, in the hope that all this will provoke someone else to kick off the real talking for them.