October 29, 2021

“You must be one of the best-selling poets in England,” wrote the editor Michael Schmidt in 1989. “Few writers can command the earned popularity you now enjoy.” He was writing to a poet whose name is no longer a household one; Elizabeth Jennings, who died 20 years ago this week, has faded almost into obscurity. Perhaps because “the British reading public,” as Ruth Padel wrote a year later, “has lost confidence dramatically in its own poetry.”

Jennings was, if not the poet of her age, certainly one of them. Her 1979 Selected Poems sold out in two weeks and went on to sell 50,000 copies. Her Collected Poems sold 35,000 copies. The 40 books she wrote and edited (including anthologies) sold about a quarter of a million copies. Schmidt wrote to Jennings, also in 1989, that she was “unrivalled”. This wasn’t strictly true — Wendy Cope and was also selling in great numbers in the late Eighties, and Larkin’s Collected Poems was published — but Schmidt was broadly right: few poets sell so well. Perhaps her work holds answers, then, to the question of why Brits have lost confidence in our poetry.

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And yes, there has been a decline. Although 2019 data showed a surge in poetry sales, the bestsellers were Rupi Kaur, Leonard Cohen, John Cooper Clarke, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Homer. We can count there one singer songwriter, one poet laureate, one performance poet, two dead poets, and an Insta poet. Traditional literary poetry is not well represented. Lyricists have adopted their cultural role. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016. Two years later, Faber published selected Kate Bush lyrics. Next month, Paul McCartney’s complete lyrics will go on sale, in two volumes.

And while there is lots of poetry these days — festivals, competitions, prizes, resident poets, commissions from public bodies, Poems on the Underground, and so on — there are few readers relative to other serious writing. Poetry’s audience is broadly an audience of people on creative writing courses — or who belong in some way part to the poetry scene. The common reader is looking elsewhere.

As Ruth Padel said, the fault begins with Modernism, which took poetry into “elitist” and “obscure” territory. And it is this force that Jennings was reacting against. She was a traditional poet; like Kingsley Amis, who gave her her start by publishing her in an anthology, she was part of The Movement, a literary grouping that felt that while poetry matters deeply, it is not what makes the world go round. They were trying to avoid being too literary, too pretentious, too poetic. They wanted to stay close to their audience, unlike Modernism, which erected a giant “No Through Way” sign, in Betjeman’s words. They disliked what Amis would later call — in a dismissive remark about his son Martin’s work — “buggering about with the reader.”

When obscurity was in vogue, Jennings’ poetry was about “big” topics — so much so that it often seems, deceptively, like anyone could say what she does. That’s a talent many Modernists simply didn’t want to have. No wonder readers left. Jennings had a large audience because she was not trying to write poetry that excluded. In accordance with her Catholic faith, she saw poetry as communion and communication. This is a world away from the recent Nobel Laureate Louise Glück, who once said she had no interest in widening her audience.

Perhaps this is defeatism. Nowadays, poetry has a lot to compete with. We have many other things to entertain us of an evening: television, movies, the internet. As Nicholson Baker wrote in his novel The Anthologist:

At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognise that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published.

Unlike much internet culture, most modern poetry does not leave you — as Elizabeth Jennings would say — “excited, charged and changed”. A pop song like I Will Survive has likely had more positive cultural impact than an entire generation of poets.

An obvious answer suggests itself. Make poetry better. This is certainly the view of Dana Gioia, the Poet Laureate of California, whose 1991 essay Can Poetry Matter? argued that poetry was (and is) in such a state because poetry has become a closed shop: it’s become a question of people with creative writing degrees and teaching jobs writing poems for each other. Gioia has helped revive the culture of poetry reading in America with the Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest, an old-fashioned way to make literary writing relevant to the common reader. It works. The programme has engaged 4 million students since 2005.

Unsurprisingly, Gioia has also written a moving apology of Jennings’ life and work. He notes that she is overlooked because she was traditional at a time when innovation was in vogue. “She was not.” Gioia says, “the average professor’s idea of a modern poet.”

Now, the common reader is drawn to writers that are, like Jennings, not the average critic’s idea of a poet. Instapoets have discovered popularity most literary poets couldn’t dream of: Rupi Kaur and Holly McNish have sold millions of copies. But this engagement from the common reader is not good enough for a sizeable chunk of the poetic establishment. Rebecca Watts’ view, from her 2018 polemic The Cult of the Nobel Amateur, is all too common: she complains of “the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ — buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.” Her conclusion? “Artless poetry sells.”

Watts is right, of course. Much of the poetry she discussed wasn’t very good. But it’s telling, perhaps, that her objections are not only with the finished poem, but with the process of its production: she criticises McNish for writing poetry without redrafting or revising. This was, however, precisely Jennings’ technique. In the second half of her life, she sent bagfuls of spiral bound notebooks to Schmidt, who had to go through and discover the poems contained in the mass of writing.

There is now, thankfully, a New Selected Poems of Jennings’ work — edited, ironically, by Rebecca Watts. One day, perhaps, Rupi Kaur might be a slightly forgotten poet with a new Selected Poems that hopes to make people remember her value. There are many excellent lines of poetry hidden among the mass of her work, waiting for a serious editor.

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After all, Kaur and her ilk speak in an internet idiom that many literary poets lack. The average Insta-scroller is not looking for transcendence; but they probably stand more chance of discovering it than someone who flicks through a literary magazine on a rainy afternoon. If high-brow poetry is going to retrieve its audience, it needs to take account of Jennings’ dictum, “Poetry’s got too far away from life — become too much a parlour game for dons and clever young men.” As Jeremy Paxman said in 2014 after judging the Forward Poetry Prize, “poetry has contrived at its own irrelevance.”

Jennings’ poetry never got too far away from life. The erratic, distressing conditions of her daily existence meant she couldn’t turn her work into a parlour game. Jennings was lonely. She worked as a librarian and an editor for Chatto and Windus, but was essentially unfitted for employment. She lived with her parents well into adulthood until they moved away, devastating her. She suffered a mid-life mental breakdown and endured mid-century treatment including electro-shock therapy. She drank too much. There were multiple suicide attempts. People said, when she accepted her CBE from the Queen, that she had an eccentric appearance, a euphemism for saying she looked poor. (The Times called her “The bag lady of the sonnets”, a remark that remains beneath that paper’s dignity.) She did look poor. She was poor. But the distress, disorder and romantic adventure of her life makes her work — unlike so much contemporary poetry — passionate. To use the “buzzwords” to which Watts so objects: this gives it “honesty” and “accessibility.”

Literary poetry’s real problem is that it is inaccessible. Not only is it locked away in obscure print magazines, it sounds like it is locked away in obscure print magazines. Many literati want to preserve this elite status. Their “concerns” about popular poetry becoming a form of “content” or — heaven forbid — “consumer driven” are of a piece with closed shops everywhere. It’s telling, I think, that Watts’ article made a comparison between popular poetry and Donald Trump. Bad taste aside, this shows us that the highbrows feel under threat.

If we are going to find new lyricists with the immediacy, potency, and inventiveness of Sappho, Herrick, and Frost, we most likely need to look online. Sure, a lot of internet poetry is trash. But so is most highbrow poetry. There’s only one test, over the long run: popularity. As Samuel Johnson said of Pilgrim’s Progress: “it has had the best evidence of its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind.” So steer clear of the literary reviews and start scrolling Insta. Chances are, the next Elizabeth Jennings is out there.