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This article is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

on the Poetry Industry
Stripped Naked by the Flames
Andy Croft
‘I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property.’
John Berger

I HAVE NEVER SEEN so many people at a poetry festival, so many television cameras – or so many Kalashnikovs. Two years ago I was in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with my friend the poet Amarjit Chandan. We were guests of the Iraqi Writers Union for the thirteenth annual Al-Marbed International Poetry Festival.

Dedicated to the late Iraqi poet and communist Mehdi Mohammad Ali, the festival attracted almost a hundred poets, amateurs and professionals, from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, Assyria, Lebanon, Syria and the Iraqi diaspora scattered across the world.

During a week of readings and debates, poetry and music, we visited the birthplace of Basra’s most famous poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, as well as the Basra international football stadium. There was a showing of the film Samt al-Rai (The Silence of the Shepherd) introduced by its director Raad Mushatat. One of the festival readings took place on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, on board a river-boat built for Saddam Hussein.

But the festival was taking place in a deadly context. Iraqi forces were still fighting Daesh/ISIS in the north. The billboards by the side of the roads advertised, not consumer-goods, but the faces of young men from Basra who had died fighting Daesh. Each night we were woken by the sound of gunfire marking the repatriation of local boys killed fighting in Mosul.

With a heavily armed security presence at all the readings, it was hardly surprising that the festival was a serious-minded affair. Most of the poets recited long poems, often from memory and usually about the suffering and grief of the Iraqi people. One man read a poem about the death of his son, killed fighting in Fallujah. Another compared Iraqi children to a forest of young trees cut down before they are full grown. One poet observed that every Iraqi child has an older brother called Death. Another described the poor of the world as the fuel that keeps the endless fires of war burning. There was a long poem about a local teacher who was badly injured by a Daesh car-bomb; although she managed to crawl out of the car, she realised that her clothes were on fire and that her modesty before God was threatened, so she climbed back into the burning car to die.

In the circumstances, the banner in the Basra International Hotel declaring that ‘Poetry is the Present and Future of Basra’ was a defiant assertion of the enduring importance of poetry in Iraqi society, its relationship to shared ideas of nation, faith, language and history. Arabic poetry has a ‘yearning’ music, descending cadencies and distinct metrical patterns, each intended for a different emotional delivery, and designed to invite audience participation. At some of the evening readings there were over a thousand people, men and women, young and old, frequently interrupting the poets with shouts and gestures of appreciation and applause. A six year old boy recited, entirely from memory, a ten minute-long poem comparing Iraq to a grieving woman.

The idea of a publicly-owned, serious and shared poetic tradition clearly persists across all classes in Arab culture. Television shows like Million’s Poet and Prince of Poets regularly attract millions of viewers. Writers like Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Ahmed Shawki are known and their poetry enjoyed by audiences a long way beyond the world of literature, and beyond the limits of literacy.

According to ALESCO (the Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), twenty-seven percent of people in the Arab world cannot read or write. Six million Iraqis – twenty percent of the population – are illiterate. But poetry is older than literacy; its historical role is to say in memorable ways those things which society needs to hear and to remember. It is only in mass-literate societies that poetry becomes diminished in importance and seriousness.

In the UK – the world’s first mass-literate society – writing has long been professionalised. The result is the commodification of poetry, the privatisation of feeling and the high educational entry requirements of our cultural institutions. Large parts of the contemporary British poetry ‘industry’ are embarrassingly trivial and self-important, characterised by snobbery, narcissism, humourlessness and political indifference.

Despite the ritual assertions of poetry’s popularity – ‘Brits have rekindled their love of verse,’ ‘the Cinderella of literary forms is back,’ ‘Poetry sales soar as political millennials search for clarity,’ ‘A new generation of female writers has attracted millions of online followers and an increasingly diverse audience,’ ‘With soaring sales and a younger, broader audience, poetry is on a high,’ etc – sales of poetry books last year represented less than 0.7 percent of all book sales in the UK.

Every January the broadsheets announce the best books that are going to be published in the coming twelve months. Of course no-one has read all these books, since most of them have not yet been published (several do not even have titles). Nor, it is fair to assume, has anyone read all the tens of thousands of unpublished books that are not on these lists. The Guardian’s ‘Best Books of 2017’ included only eight poetry books – all but two of which were from Faber’s catalogue. The paper’s ‘literary calendar’ for 2018 managed to include just seven books of poetry (out of a recommended list of ninety-two titles); this year the Guardian could only find nine poetry books worth including on their list of the one hundred and fifty­-two books ‘you’ll be reading this year’.

But the gate-keeping institutions intent on discovering the next poetry revival seem to be rather less interested in poetry than they are in poets. The most notable aspect of the row following Rebecca Watts’ review of Hollie McNish’s Plum in these pages is that both the Guardian and Radio Four saw it as a news story about poets rather than an arts story about poetry and literary criticism (‘Poetry world split over polemic’).

While corporate publishers compete to establish a hierarchy of poets based on their own lists, angry mobs squabble on social-media over the ownership of poetry. The result is a kind of privatisation-grab and a closing down of debate and enquiry. This has been exacerbated by the recent and somewhat unlikely involvement of Higher Education institutions (during one of the recent plagiarism rows a friend told me that was forbidden from expressing an opinion on any of the issues involved by the legal department of the university where he teaches).   

National Poetry Day is less a celebration of poetry than of the PR machinery of corporate publishers. As Michael Schmidt has argued, ‘poetry prizes are now the vehicle of literary reception. Control the prizes and you control the culture of reception’. The apparatus of celebrity book-festivals, ‘controversial’ short-lists and prize-giving ceremonies is designed to guarantee access to the financial rewards of poetry (commissions, contracts, festivals, university teaching posts, more prizes, etc).

The news drama around these prizes usually follows the same creaking narrative of major names, newcomers, bookies’ favourites, outsiders and dark-horses. This has recently been enlivened by rows about identity (‘TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?’, ‘Ode to whiteness: British poetry scene fails diversity test’, ‘Forward prize, backward reading: who grumbles if white writers win awards?’, ‘Why the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo’, ‘Forward poetry prizes announce trailblazing shortlists,’ etc).

But of course, none of this has anything to do with poetry. British cultural life has always been distorted by vested interests, social class, geography and political quietism, dominated by social groups wholly unrepresentative of British society and untypical of most people who read and write poetry. Until recently cultural privilege defended its investments behind words like ‘tradition’, ‘standards’ and ‘taste’. In the absence of an agreed vocabulary for discussing poetry every prize-winning collection is now ‘bold,’ ‘dark,’ ‘sassy,’ ‘daring,’ ‘honest,’ ‘audacious,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘personal’ and ‘brave’. These days power has to dress up in democratic rags in order to get what it wants and to keep what it already possesses.

When a few years ago the Poetry Book Society announced the ‘Next Generation Poets’ it was with the usual fanfare of self-congratulation and wild applause. The poets involved in the promotion are the ‘most exciting new poets from the UK and Ireland’. Not only are they ‘doing something new,’ ‘tackling fresh subject matter,’ taking ‘emotional and literary risks’, and ‘reinvigorating the poetry scene’, these poets are ‘expected to dominate the poetry landscape of the coming decade’ and lead ‘our national cultural conversation for many years to come.’ People who make fatuous claims about ‘dominating the poetry landscape’ should remember Auden’s reminder that it is the responsibility of poets ‘to defend the language against corruption,’ otherwise ‘people lose faith in what they hear’.

British literary life would certainly be a little less dull if real cultural power (not just the composition of competition judging panels) were more widely diffused. Personally I would like to see more working-class poets in print, fewer critics who have been to university, more publishers based outside London, and fewer poets with Creative Writing MAs. But this is not, I think, what calls for greater diversity usually mean.

The Guardian recently brought us the exciting news that ‘a passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry.’ This followed on from the announcement in the paper a few months earlier that poetry is now ‘the coolest thing’ and that ‘young rebel poets’ from the ‘emerging underground’ are at last ‘breaking the mould of traditional, more elitist verse’. Of the three ‘young rebel poets’ from the ‘underground poetry scene’ acclaimed by the Guardian, one was a beneficiary of the Poetry Society’s Next Generation promotion and short-listed for the Costa Prize; one has been published by Penguin; the other is published by Simon and Schuster.

There are a great many poets writing today whose work might properly be described as rebellious or underground. But they are not very likely to be recognised by the gate-keepers at the Guardian or Poetry Review.

Smokestack Books was established in 2004 with the explicit intention of publishing oppositional, dissident, unfashionable and radical poets. Smokestack’s declared aim is to keep open a space for what is left of the socialist and communist poetic traditions in the twenty-first century, publishing books that otherwise would be unlikely to appear in print, and putting into English poets whose work is either unavailable or unknown in the UK.

To date Smokestack has published one hundred and sixty titles and sold over forty-four thousand books, including John Berger’s Collected Poems, Louis Aragon’s last book, Les Chambres, Mayakovsky’s epic Lenin, three collections for grown-ups by Michael Rosen, a translation by Tom Leonard of Brecht’s Mother Courage, the collected lyrics of Victor Jara, two book-length poems by Yiannis Ritsos, poets from Venezuela, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, Guyana, Australia, Syria, Bosnia and El Salvador, and anthologies from Palestine, Cuba, Hungary, Siberia, France, Algeria and the Soviet Union. Three Smokestack books have won PEN Translation awards. Two have been translated into Italian and one into Turkish. Smokestack was recently shortlisted for the Small Press of the Year award.

Smokestack titles are often intended as specific interventions, contributions to a conversation about a particular issue – for example, Dinos Siotis (ed) Crisis (the Greek economic and political crisis) and Martin Rowson’s Pastrami Faced Racist (Brexit). A percentage of the sales of Naomi Foyle (ed) A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry goes towards the legal fees of Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, Palestinian poets currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and Israel on charges relating to their poetry.

This is not, I think, a project entirely lacking in interest, distinction – or radicalism. But of course, no Smokestack title has ever been noticed by the Guardian. Only three have ever been reviewed in Poetry Review. Smokestack does not receive any public subsidy. This is not a complaint. And it is certainly not a surprise. British literary life has always been an unwelcoming, unfriendly and uncomradely place. There are many reasons why only three Smokestack titles have ever been reviewed in Poetry Review, but they have nothing to do with poetry. Anyway, Smokestack was set up in order to oppose the ideological values and cultural assumptions that ignore most poets, most poems and most people most of the time. There are many poetry worlds; the Poetry Society represents just one of them.

Poetry does not need a ‘revival’ any more than jumping does, or whistling or humming or giggling. Poetry is not cool; it is necessary. It is neither a talent-contest nor an industry. And it has nothing to do with the values of show-business or big-business, corporate PR or copyright law. The importance of poetry is not calculated in sales-figures, and its value is not measured by prizes. Poetry cannot be owned because it already belongs to anyone and everyone.

Among the writers at the al-Marbed festival in Basra was the Iraqi poet Chawki Abdelamir. Stripped of his citizenship in the 1970s, Chawki lived for many years in Algiers, Beirut and Paris (where he was the cultural attaché for the South Yemeni government). He is currently the Iraqi representative on UNESCO. Chawki has translated Guillevic into Arabic, Adonis into French, and published over thirty books, most recently Attenter à la mort, which Smokestack is publishing in English next year:

I live in the Baghdad National Library
a blind seer
between lines of ash
I touch the text’s carbon
like a child stroking the head
of his dying father

The office chair
is a skeleton with blackened limbs
scrumpling a still white
sheet of paper

From the window
stripped naked by the flames
a dishevelled palm tree stands
reciting hymns
from the index of lost titles
and great chapters of the history of fire
in the parchment of Baghdad

I went out
clutching my pen
like a match

This article is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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