There are moments in a poet’s life - few and usually far between - that begin to take on a surreal quality, when a poem you wrote seems to grow legs independently of you and gallops off into the distance. That must be true for writers like Jenny Joseph and Sheenagh Pugh when poems they wrote became incredibly famous and popular – not necessarily their best poems, but poems that struck a chord not with traditional poetry readers but with the general public. It must be a weird feeling, especially when people don’t flock to buy everything else you’ve written – all the better stuff you’ve written! – the way they might do with a novelist. It seems that poems come as individuals.
I had a very minor taste of this over the weekend when a poem I wrote, a pantoum called ‘The Point’, was featured in the Guardian newspaper as its Saturday Poem. It’s a political satire, and isn’t ever going to have the same level of appeal as a poem about growing old and wearing purple, but (at the time of writing) it has been shared on Facebook 115 times (most of them not FB friends of mine) and retweeted 16 times. Not a lot really. I’m sure an article on Jessie J would get that many shares inside a few seconds but I am also sure that ‘The Point’ has now been read by more people than any poem I have ever written. It shows the power of The Guardian and the Saturday Poem brand. Just think how popular poetry could be and would be seen to be, if more high profile newspapers and media (TV, film, Amazon etc) published or presented poems in ways designed to extend their readership. The audience would grow rapidly, I'm sure of that.
Has the publication of ‘The Point’ sold a single copy of The Good News, the collection it comes from? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it hadn’t. People will read a single poem in a newspaper or newspaper website quite happily and may even really enjoy it, but only few people, most of them seasoned poetry readers, will read a poetry collection for fun. That’s not a problem unless you’re a poetry publisher trying to make a living or, indeed, unless you’re a poet who believes that collections are a good thing. I am one of these and would prefer a world in which more people read Dante than Dan Brown. That said, I did note that Clare Pollard’s ‘Ovid’s Heroines’ was the number 10 best seller last week at the Guardian bookshop (presumably the result of a favourable review in the Guardian not long before) in a list dominated by novels and popular non-fiction. It was good to see a poetry collection in there, a little chink of hope.