National Poetry Day 2015

National Poetry Day

In 1994 William Sieghart, the British philanthropist and founder of the Forward Prizes for Poetry, organised the inaugural National Poetry Day as ‘a day of mass celebration of all things poetical’[1], an annual multi-organisational cross-institutional series of events and initiatives to illuminate the unrecognised and unheard poets of our time, who by implication spend the rest of the year scribbling in the dark. At the time of the inaugural National Poetry Day in October 1994, Nicolette Jones wrote in The Times that, ‘ambitious poetry promotions are not new. It all began in the 1980s with Faber’s “poetry train”, carrying bards to readings all over the country. That is now a commonplace publicity stunt, but then it was considered newsworthy enough to make the dailies.’[2] The Forward Foundation have continued to maintain a relationship with Transport for London, this year running free outdoor open mic at the London Transport Museum and featuring poems at stations on the London Underground. If this was tame in 1994 then it is even less likely to attract mainstream media attention today.

In their quest for column-inches The Forward Foundation have recently introduced celebrity panellists to judge their prizes, most notably Jeremy Paxman who found Guardian headlines last year with his blustery assertion that ‘poets now seem to be talking to other poets, and that is not talking to people as a whole.’[3] His criticism, however, says more about Paxman’s lack of engagement in contemporary poetry than contemporary poetry’s lack of engagement with people. Continuing his appraisal he says, ‘what has been lost is the habit of buying and reading books of poetry’ as though they were the same thing, before dragging us into the twenty-first century by suggesting we might disseminate verse digitally like the iPods kids are downloading now as though this doesn’t already happen.

The same article notes that Nielsen announced a 7.14% decrease in UK sales of poetry books between the years 2009-2014, though fails to address the fact that Nielsen stats for poetry sales are for the most part a record of high street book sales – itself a market becoming ‘risk-averse’ as it remains under threat from online publishing and, to a certain extent, piracy. It also appears to be wilfully ignorant of a dearth of independent publishing in this country – celebrated at the annual Poetry Book Fair organised by Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly which has enjoyed coverage in The Guardian’s pages – not recorded by these statistics. I could go on, and that’s the point.

Paxman is of course entirely disingenuous in his criticism of contemporary poetry, and this highlights the main function of National Poetry Day; it is not attention-seeking in order to make poetry relevant, but asserting its relevance by drawing others in to the questions we ask about poetry. His arguments betray a deep ignorance of what is really happening in poetry in this country and his starter for ten is designed to re-engage us in picking apart his carefully-off-hand remarks.

Library exhibition space

Here at Goldsmiths library we are celebrating National Poetry Day as an opportunity to remind everyone of the wealth of poetic activity ongoing in the Goldsmiths community. This week saw the start of the second season of Ashbery to Zukofsky : The Glen Baxter Poetry Reading Group which will convene on the second Tuesday of the month in Special Collections & Archives. We have lit up our exhibition space with poems and a wealth of information on the extent of poetry resources available both in the library and elsewhere (which we have also documented here) and invite you to submit your poems for consideration for display in the library by emailing Next week Lit Live, the literary series curated by Goldsmiths Writers Centre, returns to the Peckham Pelican with readings from current students and alumni alike as part of the Literary Kitchen Festival 2015; an ambitious and diverse finger-lickin’ literary mezze that would satisfy Lord Paxo himself.

by Angus Sinclair

[1] Retrieved 06/10/15

[2] Jones, N. 1994, Going metric for the day;Poetry, London (UK).

[3] Flood, A. 2014, Front: Today’s poets write mostly for each other, says Paxman, London (UK).

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