Poets should engage with ordinary people much more, says Forward prize chairman Paxman
The chairman of the Forward Prize judges, BBC TV presenter Jeremy Paxman, has warned that poets today have stopped talking to the public and are only addressing each other. He was speaking after the unveiling of this year’s Forward prize shortlists. Naming the contenders for the best collection prize – Colette Bryce, John Burnside, Louise Glück, Kei Miller and Hugo Williams – Paxman said there was a "whole pile of really good poems here", and "nothing on the shortlist that I don't feel better for having read". But he also said he wished poetry generally "would raise its game a little bit, raise its sights", and "aim to engage with ordinary people much more".
"I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn't happen, because it's the most delightful thing," said Paxman. "It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets, and that is not talking to people as a whole." You can hear more of Paxman's views and ideas about poetry here, including his throwaway remark at the end about a possible "inquisition" of poets.
According to an article in the Guardian, there has been a decline in poetry sales over the last five years. In 2009, sales of poetry stood at £8.4m. By 2013, they had fallen to £7.8m.
In an article in reply in the Guardian, George Szirtes, a former TS Eliot prize winner, said: "Let's call the criticism just and examine the charge. We wouldn't want this to descend into yet another tedious defence of the modern against the traditional. The first world war poets were (mostly) comprehensible, John Betjeman was comprehensible, Philip Larkin was comprehensible, Wendy Cope is certainly comprehensible, and they are all modern. This is not about modernity, it's about poetry."
He added: "We know at heart that poetry isn't just a pretty way of saying plain things ... Certainly some poetry is abstruse, as is some music and art. As is a great deal of political discourse. The difference is that abstruse political discourse is often bland. Poetry that is bland is not poetry.
"Eliot thought poetry in his time had to be difficult, and indeed he can be difficult if you try to read him as though he had written prose. Read him as voices echoing between speakers and events in time, and you enter a world as real as that in which we actually live. He was a major poet, as was WH Auden. Neither was necessarily easy listening for the People."
Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, said she hoped that Paxman's commens would "kickstart an overdue national debate about the power of well-chosen words, communication and the role of poetry in our collective lives".
Paxman was one of five judges on the Forward panel, alongside the musician Cerys Matthews and three poets: Dannie Abse, Helen Mort and Vahni Capildeo. The judges read 170 collections and 254 single poems before arriving at their shortlists, with the £10,000 best collection prize pitting Bryce's poetic account of growing up in Derry during the Troubles, The Whole & Rain-domed Universe, against Burnside's All One Breath – his first collection since his Forward and TS Eliot prize-winning Black Cat Bone. Glück, a former US poet laureate, is shortlisted for Faithful and Virtuous Night, in which she draws "on the worlds of fairytale, of dream and of waking life", according to her publisher; Jamaican poet Miller for The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion; and Williams for I Knew the Bride, which includes the poet's recording of his ongoing hospital treatment in the poem ‘From the Dialysis Ward’.
Alongside the five poets competing for the £10,000 best collection prize, six are in the running for the £5,000 best first collection award, including former machine gunner and Iraq veteran Kevin Powers, and five for the £1,000 Forward prize for best single poem.
“I hope to go into a poem sober and come out a little drunk," said Abse, who noted that many poets published for the first time this year were inspired by conflict, whether in Iraq, Sri Lanka or Ireland. Here are the shortlists in full
The prizes will be awarded at Southbank Centre on Tuesday 30 September. The 23rd annual Forward Book of Poetry, containing the judges’ choice of the year’s poems, will be launched on the same day. The event falls in the week of National Poetry Day – Thursday 2 October. Tickets for the event, introduced by Jeremy Paxman and Cerys Matthews, are on sale to Southbank Centre members on Tuesday 3 June and to everyone from Wednesday 4 June.