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This item is taken from PN Review 109, Volume 22 Number 5, May - June 1996.

On 8 March the Bookseller carried statistics of 'Books Recorded for 1995' a total of 95,064 new titles and 'revised and new editions' published in the UK between January and December, an increase of 6,346 over 1994 (7.1%). This years 'Books Recorded'should break into six figures. Fiction fell slightly, but every other major category grew. 1,944 poetry titles were recorded, of which just over 10% were revised and new editions, 115 translations, and 16 limited editions. Prices remained stable, at just below the rate of inflation. It's no surprise that a (now retired) publisher recently suggested at an Arts Council seminar that subsidies should be given to publishers not to publish - like EC subsidies not to sow certain crops.

The new is not quite so spectacular as it may at first seem. Statistics are compiled from ISBN (International Standard Book Number) registrations; a pamphlet or vanity press book quite as much as a huge Collected Poems is published with an ISBN. And English-language titles from abroad bear a British ISBN if distributed here by a major agency.

And books of poetry are not all books of new poetry: classic texts and anthologies produced for the academic market are included. In the listing for 'Publication of the week' in the same issue of the Bookseller there are 15 new poetry titles including a Chaucer, an edition of Michelangelo's poems, Pope's Homer (a new Penguin Classic for a stout Cortez), and pamphlets. But no bookshop will be in a position to stock a range of significant 1995 new poetry, classics and translations and also carry a backlist. The task of sorting grain from chaff is more difficult than ever for bookseller, and buyer.

What counts now, according to booksellers with whom buying was discussed, are three factors: imprint, design, and the media exposure a poet receives. Established imprints have an advantage: Faber, Penguin and Oxford are welcome, while Cape, re-establishing its list, finds the going steeper, and all but a few smaller imprints find entry hard. The invisibility of significant avant gardes has to do with market - not readership - discipline: how the product looks, how and by whom it's marketed.

Most disheartening for new publishers and those with radical programmes is the consolidation of a culture of 'market leaders': approved authors, who command feature coverage or syllabus exposure, whose presence is journalistically verified, who perform well in public - a tiny portion of authors of the 1,944 poetry books of 1995. 'In a market reeling from the effects of escalating costs and thinner margins following the ending of the Net Book Agreement,' the Bookseller for 22 March declares of the trade at large, publishers 'need to tailor products to ever-changing buyer profiles'. That discipline affects poetry present and past, including 'rediscoveries' of authors whose presence might be a generative resource. This situation, to a lesser degree, has always existed. Christopher Ricks in Essays in Appreciation quotes Hallam Tennyson's Memoir about the attraction of biography: 'What business has the public to want to know all about Byron's wildnesses? He has given them fine work, and they ought to be satisfied. It is all for the sake of babble.' Even Don ]uan is lost to the life, or those aspects of the life which make for spicy babble: Byron's Greek Love, that sort of thing.

There is another market force at work: poetry that 'succeeds' in this country at present is 'accessible', makes limited demands. Poetry Review, 'the UK's most popular poetry magazine is relaunching this spring with a stylish new look', a press release headed 'Poetry Review Updates Its Image' informs us. It's also coming clean about its orientation. After ten years as editor, Peter Forbes opens the new-look PR 'with a hard-hitting theme "How the Century Lost its Poetry'''. With characteristic syntactical symmetries he tells us: 'The fragmentation of metre urged by Pound and the dislocation of imagery enjoined by Eliot were mutually reinforcing. Together they were a very effective pantomime horse indeed.' While wishing PR well in its relaunch, it is hard not to suspect that the locus of the century's loss is in such critical facility. If we are indeed safe now from the menace of Modernism, we are probably safe from poetry tout court.

Neil Belton, editorial director of the reconstituted Granta Books, writes in Index (issue 2, 1996) about the wider publishing environment in which attitudes such as Forbes's thrive: 'What is disturbing in the great publishing combines is the emergence of a defiant populism among the executives who run them, for whom "literary" is a dirty word… The polemic against "elitism" that accompanies this determination is strange: it is like watching city gents in pinstripe suits stripping to their Y-fronts and dressing up in paint and feathers. It's a deliberate barbarism, like Murdoch's: you can market tits and serial killers, which proves that that is what people want… Publishing should be driven by the desire to "make it strange", in a good old modernist phrase.'

Serious American, Irish, Indian -foreign - English-language readers looking at the poetry that's made headway here in recent years might be forgiven for finding the fare a bit thin, the wrong kind of democracy at work, in which coarsened public opinion misvalues the bracing pleasure of R.S. Thomas's poems, or John Peck's, in favour of the wry plangency of Ian Duhig or the plausibilities of Simon Armitage. An environment such as this can undermine the genuine talents of writers like Carol Ann Duffy and Tony Harrison. What is the fuss about, the foreign reader asks - and finds the heart of British poetry somewhere else: not in Spender but in Bunting and MacLean, not in Harrison but in Hill, not in Armitage but in Constantine. If there are prizes for poets, they are less the bursaries, public awards and feature articles than the non-negotiable rewards of a demanding readership. No doubt that readership is there, browsing among the 1,944 new books (assuming it can find them) and making choices, without regard to the imprint or the cover with its design and designs. In Index (2, 1996) Nadine Gordimer quotes Walter Benjamin's lucid proposition: 'One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.'

This item is taken from PN Review 109, Volume 22 Number 5, May - June 1996.

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