June 29, 2009KR Blog

Scaring The Cattle

What’s happening to poetry in the UK? Sales of poetry by T.S. Eliot have “rocketed” 222%, John Donne 300%, and the Orkney Island poet George Mackay Brown’s Collected Poems 844.4%. Oxford may not have a Professor of Poetry yet, but the British seem to have rediscovered the pleasures of poetry.

There’s a simple answer to this sudden interest in poetry: television. Over the last few months, the BBC has broadcast a series of shows devoted to the work of individual poets ??? Simon Schama on Donne, Armando Iannucci on Milton, Simon Armitage on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” as well as profiles of Eliot and Auden ??? and the poet Owen Sheers has hosted a wonderful series on the relationship between poetry and landscape, which included episodes on Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”, Sylvia Plath’s “Wuthering Heights,” George Mackay Brown’s “Hamnavoe” (which caused the dramatic rise in the sales of Brown’s Collected Poems), Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Lynette Roberts’ “Poem from Llanybri,” and Louis MacNeice’s “Woods.”

All this proves what small publishers have been arguing for years: there’s no shortage of readers with an interest in literature, just a deficit of attention. It’s a bit like the Oprah effect, without the couch. One well-produced television show can revive public interest in a poet like George Mackay Brown, or bring a poem like “Dover Beach” to life for modern readers, in the same way that a great teacher can awaken a love of literature in students. It turns out that poetry works on television: the shows on Eliot and Auden were built around dramatized biographies that gave a human context to the work and featured readings by famous actors. Sheers’ series on poetry and landscape did a great job of putting these poems back into their place and had all the scenic money shots one could wish for in a Travel Channel special on the beauty of England.

Could the same thing work in the U.S.? Sadly, we’re unlikely to see anything like this unless PBS picks up the BBC series as the latest imported cheese for their cultural mousehole. But even that might have a substantial effect in catching the attention of readers. While the BBC gives these shows prime-time slots on a major broadcast network, I suspect that they still draw a tiny audience by comparison to the latest reality show, CSI morgue-fest, or the 94th reshowing of the episode of Friends in which Ross loses his monkey. But you don’t really need to reach a mass audience with a series about poetry to have a major effect. (How many books, one wonders, does a publisher have to sell to raise George Mackay Brown’s sales figures by 844.4%?)

Readers are out there, grazing widely. Commercial publishers look for ways to scare the cattle, hoping to create a stampede. As a corporate strategy, that might make sense, but too often it creates nothing but dust clouds and dung. What the BBC poetry season has done is to point out where the brightest flowers grow. And it turns out that many readers are hungry for more than they’ve been able to find simply by following the herd. This effect may not last, and we’ll have to see how committed the BBC is to this kind of programming beyond a single “poetry season,” but for the moment it’s worth celebrating the fact that so many readers have rediscovered the pleasure to be found in the poetry of Donne, Eliot, and George Mackay Brown.

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