Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The British poetry graveyard

In 1996 the BBC published a poetry anthology containing 100 poems voted as the nation's favourites by listeners to the nation's favourite book programme, The Bookworm. The BBC book was imaginatively titled, you've guessed it, The Nation's Favourite Poems. One of the nation's favourite comedians, Griff Rhys Jones, composed the foreword. Jones said: the nation's preferred one hundred poems seem a reasonably balanced and representative selection of the best of English verse.

THE RESULT: We (and here I include myself as the proud author of one humble poetry book) the living poets, are in big trouble. Very big trouble. The dead outnumber us 52 to 9. Their poems outnumber ours 91 to 9. And significantly no living poet managed to get more than a single poem into the list.

The Nation's Favourite Poems turns out to be a bardic graveyard.
Here are the dates on the gravestones:

Matthew Arnold 1822-88
W H Auden 1907-73
John Betjeman 1906-84
William Blake 1757-1827
Rupert Brooke 1887-1915
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-61
Robert Browning 1812-89
Robert Burns 1759-96
Lord Byron 1788-1824
Lewis Carroll 1832-98
G K Chesterton 1874-1936
John Clare 1793-1864
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772-1834
W H Davies 1871-1940
Walter de la Mare 1873-1956
John Donne 1572-1631
T S Eliot 1885-1965
Robert Frost 1874-1963
Thomas Gray 1716-71
Thomas Hardy 1840-1928
F W Harvey 1840-1957
George Herbert 1593-1633
Thomas Hood 1799-1845
Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-89
A E Housman 1859-1936
Leigh Hunt 1784-1859
John Keats 1795-1821
Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936
Philip Larkin 1922-80
D H Lawrence 1885-1930
Edward Lear 1812-88
H W Longfellow 1807-82
John Gillespie Magee 1922-41
Louis MacNeice 1907-63
Christopher Marlowe 1564-93
Andrew Marvell 1621-78
John Masefield 1878-1967
Alfred Noyes 1880-1959
Wilfred Owen 1893-1918
Edgar Allan Poe 1809-49
Henry Reed 1914-86
Christina Rossetti 1830-94
Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967
William Shakespeare 1564-1616
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822
Stevie Smith 1903-71
Alfred Lord Tennyson 1809-92
Dylan Thomas 1914-53
Edward Thomas 1878-1917
Francis Thompson 1859-1907
Oscar Wilde 1854-1900
William Wordsworth 1770-1850
William Butler Yeats 1865-1939

For the record, here are the few, those who were living when the poll took place, and made it onto the list. And it is a few. A worrying few.

Allan Ahlberg
Wendy Cope
Carol Duffy
Seamus Heaney
Ted Hughes
Jenny Joseph
Roger McGough
Michael Rosen
Hugo Williams

So where do we go from here? That is the burning question. Never have there been so many poets writing. From all walks of life and from all corners of the globe poets are turning out poems in the thousands, nay the millions and yet...and yet, in Britain at least, according to the BBC's The Bookworm poll they appear to be, apart from a few, basically unknown, unloved, unread, and most tragically - unpopular.


  1. I think the same would happen if a poll were to be taken on the nation's faovurite classical music and the nation's favourite painting. There is always suspicion about living creative artists I think. One member of my writing group was astonished at one of my poems because a) it didn't rhyme and b) I hadn't started each line with a capital letter.
    Also, unless you are really interested, you tend to have grown up with the "old" stuff and for present day poets you have to go out and find the book.
    Doesn't excuse it I know. But I have a feeling that the favourite poem was Kipling's If. If that is so then I don't think much collectively of "the nation."

  2. Weaver,
    You are right about the choice of the nation's favourite poem in the BBC poll.
    I'm going to go on and on with this. Something is seriously wrong in the poetry world. I hadn't really realised how wrong, how bad, it was until fairly recently. Who in GB reads Jospeh Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Stevens etc.?


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