Paul Farley - 10 November 2006
I'm picking up a new thread from what Katy was talking about, because it's a subject area all of its own: why is there this discrepancy between readers and writers; and is simply reading the stuff the most important way of learning about poetry?
Is there a discrepancy? I've just picked this up as background noise, and it seems to be part of the weather now: more people are writing poetry than reading it. Though it's so easy to write something that doesn't go all the way to the right margin of a page: you could surmise that most people, at some point, have written a poem.
But it's depressing when it gets presented in the old 'nobody reads it any more' fashion. Though I'd say that means the poet isn't under so much pressure, so it works to his or her advantage. If I'm honest, I have to say I don't think about it very often.
I doubt things ever really change much. In the early 1820s, the poet John Clare was discovered, working in the fields of rural Northamptonshire, and published in London. There was a vogue for labouring, 'peasant' poets, and we could say that Clare was 'marketed'. Once the fashion changed - and the readership for poetry seemed to dwindle - Clare struggled to stay in print, and ended up mostly forgotten and shut away in an asylum.
There are these huge cycles of fashion and fortune that surround us all over time like great weather systems, and I just feel we have little control over them. Trying to second-guess what your audience might like to read is a mug's game. Surely, the best you can do is excite and engage yourself; hopefully, that sense of surprise and invention will transmit to somebody out there, the future reader. You may as well write the kind of things you want to write, because they thrill you in some way, rather than what somebody - yourself included - thinks you ought to write.
This is why reading poetry is so important. If you get all fired up, and find a poem that's mysterious and reapproachable, one that you're never sure you'll ever tire of re-reading, you've engaged with poetry and can ask all kinds of questions of yourself, and why you might want to write. Lots of students have come to me and said they don't read much poetry, because they don't want to be influenced, as if influence is a pollutant, a taint. It isn't. Your early efforts are bound to bear traces of your reading, and what's wrong with that?
All of the other stuff - workshops, readings, etc - can be important and enabling, but without reading widely and adventurously, you're going to struggle. It's at the core of it all. People shouldn't be forced to do it, of course. Everybody doesn't have to like poetry. But sometimes a poem makes a kind of connection, and when it does it can change your course entirely.