A poetry collection called ‘The Scattering’ by Christopher Reid has become the surprise winner of one of Britain’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Costa Book of the Year Award. Reid is the sixth poet to win this accolade and marks a poignant moment in poetry’s history.
Not only has he won an award that is normally received by novelists, but has also undermined those critics who say poetry is only for the educated and sophistocrats of our society. This award undeniably signifies how in recent years poetry has become a significant part of our popular culture.
Although what is termed as ‘high brow’ poetry is still reserved for places such as Radio 4 and the Times Literary Supplement, there are new types poetry that takes audiences on a different journey. Spoken word or ‘slam’ poetry (essentially the traditional kind but to a “hip-hop or world music backdrop”), is an example of the new interpretations emerging.
Hammer and Tongue, a night that originated in Oxford and now has a regular slot in Brighton, is one of the leading players in this shift, claiming that it is about “creating a democratic cutting-edge spoken word culture, reaching out to communities, schools, universities and even prisons”. By bringing poetry to the people, so to speak, they have opened a new, previously tightly sealed door, helping to democratize what can sometimes be seen as a remote and inaccessible genre.
They have capitalised on people’s desire for something new and made it approachable. By merging two mediums, rap and poetry (which some would argue are similar if not the same), they are able to provide two different facets of culture for the price of one. With Eminem’s 8 mile esq battle scenes in mind, there exist annual events for performance poets; including the US Slam Nationals and a Canadian Spoken Word Olympics.
British examples of this new wave in poetry include performance poet John Hegley, and the fantastic Kate Tempest, a rapper and poet who frequently appears at Hammer and Tongue nights. They have been able to broaden the appeal by following this new line, so that kids, teenagers and oldies are queuing up to be in the audience.
Away from the stage, the power of the Internet has surely helped the upsurge of poetry’s popularity: a place for people to lay out their work without needing the approval of the literary establishment. Keston Sutherland, a poet and lecturer at the University of Sussex, points out that the “most exciting poetry still comes from small press and indie publishing, much of it now online”.
Poetry’s fluidity is perhaps to its best advantage then; it’s difficult to commercialise and therefore difficult to define. It gives artists ample opportunity to, in a way, make it up as they go along.
As Sutherland explains, poetry will continue to be successful and popular as it never ceases to market itself as “relevant”: poems for weddings, chicken soup of the soul, the nation’s favourites, lyrics for dark times and children’s birthday parties, are all examples of raw material for writers. Hence, our everyday life will always provide an interesting foundation for poets to explore, in any which way they decide.