"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

What Happened to the Poetry?


The Guardian 2023 New Poetry Choices: 

A Found Poem

A bold debut collection

delving into Blackness,

trauma, sexuality and the divine;

poems of gender, transformation

and the body in a collection about

authenticity and conformity;

the personal is political in a collection

reckoning with resistance, freedom,

caste and the refugee crisis;

drawing on a Hong Kong childhood

a new collection exploring 

postcolonialism and queer identity.

The above was a little nothing I put up on Instagram on New Year’s Day, having read the Guardian selections of the poetry assumed to matter among 2023’s prospective new titles. 

“So many people would not be amused,” was one response, to which I replied: 

“Well, yes, there’s nothing to be done with the humourless but my serious point here is that these poets have been let down by The Guardian which concentrates exclusively on their (wholly worthy) political messages and refuses to say anything about the poetry. The poem, Wallace Stevens said, is “the cry of its occasion”, its poetic form not its paraphrasable content. I speak as someone who has published a lot of political poetry!”

This argument is a very old one that invariably has us quoting Auden yet again: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Others would go further and say that it isn’t the business of poetry to make things happen, it should simply be. Others still would favour political poetry that is studiously ambivalent like Marvell’s great Horatian Ode. Because of course we don’t want rants or propagandist tripe. Enough great political poetry has been written, however, for it not to need defenders. But currently there is a sense, sharpened by the strident “virtue-signalling” of the social media, that without visible adherence to a range of identitarian political stances a poet will not prosper. I cannot say whether this is true or false – it might just be grumpy prejudice from those who reject the politics or feel their poetry is being pushed into second place – but at least at the level of the noise made by publicity the argument feels persuasive.

At the end of last year I received two email comments from friends who are each poets and professors of English. Here is what they said in response to my own views on the poetry scene:


“I perfectly understand your feelings regarding the current poetry scene and the reviewing culture. My friend X recently said that the 'establishment' is now entirely driven by the politics of representation, so that 'poetry as such' is no longer their concern either. There was always plenty of virtue-signalling in the poetry world, and it hasn't got any better in the current climate.

My own view of poetry publishing now is that it needs to be done on something very like the eighteenth-century subscription model, where the books are produced strictly for the people that want them—not unlike print on demand. The problem, then, is that it's difficult to find new readers—so the internet locks us into our groups and we signal to each other without much access to any 'common' culture. But is there one, or was that always an illusion foisted by those who controlled the organs of opinion?”


“Interesting what you say about the poetry scene, which has clearly pulled itself out of shape. The prizes are a bit of a racket, decided, as you say, on extra-poetic principles, and no one publishes reviews any more. The main publishing houses (Faber, Picador etc) also seem to have lost their way, and can no longer lay claim to set any sort of standard-setting.”

Two poets hardly makes for a comprehensive, statistically sound, definitive judgement on the question but the fact is that I would have been surprised if anyone writing to me had not come to such conclusions. If there is anyone out there happy with the current state of poetry publishing and critical reception I would like to meet them.

Personally I would locate the difficulty in the reviewing culture – or its growing absence. I hardly seem to read any serious, discriminating reviews of new collections that are not social media style gush or that don’t sound like a series of blurbs stitched together into a group review. Many important collections simply don’t get reviewed at all with the result that the intelligent general reader, always hesitating before the challenge of contemporary poetry, is bereft of any reliable guide  – though the din of poets telling us on Twitter how “awesome” they are may be drowning such fine discrimination out. 

And it is not a question of identifying the winners and losers but of exploring what a good poem is, what its components might be, and whether the writing is satisfying. Formal questions, ways of saying, language and rhythm, image and music are all part of what makes a poem valuable (and what gives pleasure) and one wants poetry critics to focus on these things.

That doesn’t mean that “exploring postcolonialism and queer identity” is not legitimate in poetry. Far from it. No subject matter is alien to a poet.  But I am interested in the way it is done, the poetry that is made of this matter, and good criticism can help us to think about these vital questions. If a poem doesn’t foreground these dimensions it runs the risk of being an inferior form of agitprop and the poet would be better advised to paint words on a placard and get out on to the street to take what is likely to be more effective protest and direct action. 

Neither of my poet-professors cited above is a “reactionary” and neither, I hope, am I but we are worried about an abdication of critical responsibility. Truly politically engaged poets have as much to gain from reversing that as any aesthetic dilettante.

Could this be a New Year Resolution for poetry editors: start to commission reviews which focus on the poem and its medium, its expressive means, its formal qualities as much as, but not of course disregarding, its paraphrasable content?

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