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This item is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

Stephen Gosson's famous attack on writers, The School of Abuse, Containing a Pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Commonwealth (1579), was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney. The young poet did not find the invective 'pleasant' and in reply composed his Defence of Poetry (around 1581, published in 1595). Sidney does not descend to the level of refuting Gosson. He is urbane, reasonable; he sets no store by originality but builds on an authority with its roots in ancient Greece.

For Sidney poetry is the first art, the light-bearer. Following an Aristotle much mediated through later interpreters, he defines it as imitation, mimesis: poetry is 'a speaking picture' whose end is 'to teach and delight'. The poet imitates the ideal, showing what may or should be rather than merely copying what is. This frees the will from the trammels of nature and the contingent world. The astronomer looks for stars and sees only stars, the geometer and arithmetician look for shapes and numbers and find shapes and numbers. Musicians, too, are constrained by discipline and inclination. The natural and the moral philosopher teach according to their subjects, the lawyer follows his books and precedents, the historian is bound by what men have done. Grammarians, rhetoricians, logicians and metaphysicians are similarly trammelled. Only the poet is free, 'disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention'. He 'doth grow in effect another nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclopes, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely, ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.'

Had Sidney been a man of the twenty-first century, he might have been called upon to write 'A Defense of Poetry against Spin Doctors'. A recent press release from the Poetry Society, promoting an issue of Poetry Review entitled Seven Years On: A New Generation Retrospective, declares, 'In 1994 The New Generation Poets promotion ushered in a new age of poetry' spin apparently achieving the effect it sets out to serve 'a new age of poetry in which poets had a profile like any one else in the brave new world of cultural production.' Is the allusion to Shakespeare's Miranda intentional? Was the world of poetry indeed so innocent, after Stein and Ginsberg and Lowell? After Beddoes and Marlowe? This new age had little to do with poetry but something indeterminate to do with poets. 'Now,' the press release continues, 'many of the poets, and quite a few more who escaped the New Generation net, are the dominant generation writing: middle youth, the thirty-forty something poets in full flood, winning all the prizes (and there are far more to win these days).'

The terms of this triumphalism might puzzle us. These poets win all the prizes because they judge all the prizes. Their age has little to do with middle youth or 'thirty-forty something': the average is probably a little over fifty, and middle age is a more accurate if less sexy demarcation. Seven years ago the New Gen commotion was contrived in part to clear the stage of the middle-aged. Now middle age itself is vanquished. Cope and Heaney and Fanthorpe and Motion and Nichols and Paulin and Hugo Williams are stirred into the original mix, which is nice for them but perhaps hard on the new generations of writers which have yet to find their publicists.

The poet's spin-doctors, the marketing arms of the institutions of poetry, have little to do with fact, 'disdaining to be tied to any such subjection'. They are like Sidney's poet when, against the evidence of the contingent world in which modern poets and readers actually live, they 'grow in effect another nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclopes, Chimeras, Furies, and such like' and refuse to be 'enclosed within the narrow warrant of [nature's] gifts, but freely, ranging only within the zodiac of [their] own wit'.

Wit. The author of the present press release declares: 'Much of the poetry included in this issue has an excited, celebratory character, with the world seen as a riot of sensation. Sometimes it is science that provides the hyper-real element, sometimes it is sex. The dominant generation of poets' with the repetition of 'dominant' the illiberal and hectoring tone shoves us into the zone of the new decorum 'has thrown off the rather dour cautious English empiricist mode in favour of a more Latin carnivalesque way of seeing the world.' Does this in any way relate to the writing of, among the poets featured, Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney, Gwyneth Lewis, Tom Paulin, Wendy Cope?

For the propagandist, la fête continue. In the world of cultural production, where poets and poems live, things are different. Poetry is no longer seen as 'the new rock 'n' roll'. It has been reminded of its pariah status and remaindered or returned in much of the book trade. The new head of Waterstone's was reported in the Bookseller to have a down on 'philosophy and poetry', and in the drive to get an annual stock turn of six on every centimeter of shelf-space it seemed that an institution which enabled the growth of a literary publishing culture was about to pull the rug as a matter of policy. Review attention to poetry in the media has continued its decline. There are bestsellers, to be sure, but no midlist any more. Underfunded libraries, with a few doughty exceptions, know that their users are less keen on verse than on other forms of output. Judging from the Booktrack figures and other pieces of statistical evidence, the bulk of sales of contemporary poetry in Britain, away from major imprints, is generated outside the book trade, by means of mailings, readings, events, e-commerce.

The Arts Council sponsored a qualitative analysis of the market for poetry. A quantitative analysis, beginning with the real educational and institutional market for poetry and moving out to the elusive 'general reader', might reveal how 'market leaders' are made, how narrowly based the creation of readership has become, how encouraging poetry writing may reduce the incidence of poetry reading. Poetry is now decidedly an activity rather than an art.

Sidney's sense of poetry's value emerges when he reflects on its purpose: 'This purifying of wit - this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit which commonly we call learning': 'the final end is to draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.' The poet is 'the least liar' among writers: 'He nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.' The poet's spin doctor, on the other hand, is the greatest liar, he affirmeth what is demonstrably untrue of the poet's environment and of the poetry itself. And he believes his fibs. If we acquire the new Poetry Review, we will be able to enjoy, he tells us, 'Peter Porter's quiet gloat on having been triumphantly' triumphantly! 'vindicated by the success of Sean O'Brien and his school'. Whom is the triumph over? Who is being put down? What kind of 'success' is this?

This item is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

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