6 Dec 2011

Ted Hughes memorial marks poetic evolution

As the former Poet laureate Ted Hughes is honoured with a new plaque in Westminster Abbey, Felicity Spector asks whether poetry is undergoing something of a renaissance.

Taking his place in history: a stone inscribed with some of Ted Hughes’ most evocative verse is being unveiled today in Westminster Abbey. Members of his family will be joined at the ceremony by fellow poets, including the Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion and Simon Armitage.

There is no doubt that Hughes was one of the most important British poets of the 20th century. But in the 21st century, is traditional poetry in danger of becoming a dying art, increasingly seen as stuffy or elitist?

Audience appeal

Not so. It seems poets and publishers are finding new and innovative ways of appealing to new audiences and discovering a broader appeal. London’s Southbank Centre is just one of the venues organising live poetry events throughout the year, ranging from large scale readings which attract thousands of people, to the far more intimate and smaller scale.

Next year they are putting on an ambitious programme of events called Poetry Parnassus festival, to coincide with the Olympics, inviting poets from over 200 countries taking part in the games to read from their work.

The centre’s literature and spoken word organiser, Anna Selby, said the worldwide response had been overwhelming. She said there was a real effort to open the programme up to as many people as possible, involving different languages and different genres – even moving outside.

An event featuring songwriters and rap artists, for example, might take place in the skate park, enabling people to stumble across a performance without having to directly seek it out.

It could be verse

Bloodaxe books, the country’s leading publisher of contemporary poetry, is planning to bring out an anthology of works by the poets who perform at the Parnassus. The company’s editor, Neil Astley, is confident of attracting a wide readership. He has published a series of anthologies since 2002 which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, reaching people outside the usual dedicated poetry readership.

“People even write in to say how much it means to them and connects to their lives”, he says – and by experiencing an emotional connection with the work, they are encouraged to pick up other books by the featured poets.

Live on stage

Despite a series of funding cutbacks, initiatives like Poetry Live have been able to offer thousands GCSE students in England and Wales the chance to hear the contemporary poets featured on the curriculum reading their works live on stage – with the chance to ask questions and get advice on writing poetry of their own.

It’s all evolving in very exciting ways. Anna Selby, Southbank Centre

“The problem is keeping their attention once they’ve left school”, says Astley – but there’s certainly plenty of enthusiasm for the more imaginative forms of the art. Judith Palmer from the Poetry Society, said entries for their National Poetry Competition have shot up 61 per cent over the last three years – while entries for the Foyle Young Poet of the Year contest rose even more.

Anecdotally, Judith Palmer says the number of poetry gigs and events around the country has also soared, with a hugely diverse range of offerings, from the very erudite to far more youthful and buoyant events.

Poetry, please

And from Anna Selby, a reminder that the likes of hip-hop and poetry slam nights are just modern reincarnations of something far more traditional. “If you look back”, she says, “there were bards and story tellers and ballads, and then the shamans and philosophical poets. It’s all evolving in very exciting ways, but it’s basically the same three categories that we’ve had for centuries”.

Not a dying art, then, but one that is constantly finding new ways to survive.