“The dilemma of the amateur poet”

By Paul Grainger

Poetry has had a diminished audience since the rise of the novel, and within the craft an explicit division between cultivated and popular taste has manifested itself – in particular with regard to the publishers of large-circulation magazines. The market for poetry is driven more by profit than by altruism, consequently the popular taste has gained the upper hand. This is because the product “popular poetry” is less discriminating. It is for people who don’t know much about poetry: people who are still attracted to the remembered pleasures of learning, reading and writing poetry at school: people who prefer to be entertained, rather than intellectually challenged, by poetry.

This finds the cultivated taste – considered by purists to be ‘real’ poetry – banished to the commercial sidelines, relying for its platform on independent literary magazine publishers (those who receive financial support) and the little presses (that operate, mostly, on a shoestring).

What, therefore, are the options for the amateur poet? Nurtured in the craft by way of self-study and/or attendance at writing classes, further progress would normally be measured by his gaining recognition of his talent by way of self-improvement and patient networking. But with publication as his prime objective, there are but three options for the time being, and two of these involve the poet ‘selling his soul’ to a certain extent.

The first is the easy way out – resorting to the vanity press (or its corollary, self-publishing) where ‘quality’ has little relevance as long as the poet is prepared to pay for the privilege of having his work published.

The second option is to pander to the popular taste or, in other words, give the market what it seems to want at present. And what does it seem to want? A glance through some magazines on a newsagent’s rack suggests the following: a short lyric poem of forty lines or less, with an autobiographical slant, written in prosaic language and offering hackneyed experiences and banal thought. All of these, like it or not, are considered to be safe common denominators by major publishers, who care more about making money than appropriately promoting the poetry canon.

The third is to try the independent publishers and the little presses. Sadly, though, both of these sectors are overwhelmed with submissions as well as being strapped for space, so acceptance can be very much a case of ‘pot luck’.

The foregoing paints a rather grim picture of opportunity, so is there any alternative for the poet with the cultivated taste who is dismayed by such a prospect? Indeed there is – if he is prepared to bide his time. It is to be found in the non-competitive, informal atmosphere of the literary café, the poetry-reading circle or the writers’ group. In such surroundings, one’s work will receive a sympathetic hearing that, coupled with encouragement and constructive criticism, grants the amateur poet a freedom of expression that would be denied him in the publishing rat race. Moreover, this approach would leave him ideally placed when the tide turns – which it surely will – and ‘real’ poetry assumes its rightful place as a marketable product.

Paul Grainger
Copyright 2004


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