Saturday, 21 March 2009

A post which takes longer than expected to get to the point

About a month ago, I came up with a new New Year's Resolution. A bit late you may argue, so maybe I should just call it a March Resolution.

I was browsing on, as I do from time to time, when a blog article caught my eye, entitled 'Why we need a female poet laureate'. It all seemed eminently reasonable. And there are a nice selection of eminent women from whom to choose. But not as many as there are men. So naturally I started looking around, and I found that in general male poets are more likely to be celebrated. The Guardian's own 'great poets' series included only one woman: Sylvia Plath. Their critic Frances Leviston, who is also a poet herself, wrote to justify this.

Now, I'm definitely a proponent of people succeeding on the basis of merit, but I thought about the poets that I read, and specifically the poetry books that I own. A good half of them are dead, and of them all but Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop are men. I do better with established poets: Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope are three of my favourites, along with Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney (or 'Famous Seamus' as Mrs Greenwood would say in her broadest 'Norren Irish' accent), Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard etc etc. The list goes on. Unsurprisingly my collection shows a bias towards poets who have appeared in the AQA Anthology, although I'd like to plead that Armitage and Duffy were on my favourites list before that anthology existed, and that nothing on this earth would persuade me to buy a book by Gillian Clarke.

But when we get to emergent poets - people who you won't necessarily have heard of, or of whom I hadn't really heard, people just starting out, most of those kind of poets are men. Michael Symmons Roberts, for example, whom I heard reading jointly with Simon Armitage and loved. The books of poetry sent to me when I was a member of the Poetry Books Society were all by men. I do own a book by Lucy Newlyn, called Ginnel, which my mother bought me, because it's about a childhood spent in the same places we grew up, but I'm afraid although it's a first collection, Lucy Newlyn herself is an established academic, a good few years older than my imagination painted her on reading her poems.

The thing is, it's quite hard to get ahead in poetry. You need to have had plenty of poems published in journals and magazines, and ideally to have won a few competitions. There's only a few outlets for poetry publishing in this country, although Bloodaxe Books are doing a marvellous job (and in the North too!) and I urge you to support them. But without support, these young poets aren't going to get anywhere. They're going to give up and stick to the day job, or spend fifty years writing their first collection.

So this was my new New Year's Resolution. To buy and read one book of poetry per month written by a woman under forty. How to find books by women under forty turned out to be a whole new challenge. I had intended to use this post to review the first one, but it turned out that the introductory justification was much longer than I'd intended. So I'll leave you for now with the suggestion that you think about whether you want a world with poetry in it, and that if you do, you're going to need to support something which is not so much an industry, and more a service to the community.


G said...

V: glad Facebook pointed me towards your blog! Will look forward to reading more. Am eagerly awaiting Amazon delivery of Emma Jones, The Striped World, her debut collection (published by Faber, no less): look no further for a talented young female poet. We did our PhDs together and I'm naturally a v. biased, proud friend, but the number of prizes she wins makes me think that I might be right. Love, Geraldine

Victoria Elliott said...

Brill, thanks Geraldine. I'll make her my April poet then :)

It's soooo difficult to find out the age of most of them, and to a (wo)man the ones whose dates of birth are given are born in 1968, making them exactly 41 and beyond my cut off point!!