When I first came across the phrase, ‘the privileging of print’ I misread it and thought it was the ‘privilege of print’. Yes, I thought, it is a privilege for anyone to have the earth’s scarce resources used to make (semi-)permanent their words or other two dimensional signs. Those who are the recipients of such investment must know themselves to be talented and perhaps fortunate, for physical print is a finite resource.
But I had misread. The point being made was that in the literary world the importance of being ‘in-print’ – and let us assume in a physical rather than digital format – is held as both a means and an end of the journey of art. Although there are other ways of, for instance, poetry being shared, it is considered the very bitcoin of validation. Unlike bitcoins, however, poetry books are real, but like bitcoins they attract a value which is separate from the cost of bringing them to market.
Not all poetry books are equal although the cost of their production is roughly the same. I observe that the sale price of a book tends not to fluctuate (until it reaches the secondhand or remaindered market) but that there is considerable fluctuation in the value of the poet and that this is made known to us by the reception of the book. It manifests itself in prizes, awards, readings and thus the adoption of a champagne (or ginger beer) lifestyle. I jest. Really, I do.
So as well as being a means of sharing poetry (in exchange for payment) a book also becomes a means of establishing value for a brand, finding oneself repeatedly and honourably mentioned in dispatches. A regiment is joined, battle is engaged, medals are awarded and suddenly one is taking tea with Queen Victoria. Those who found themselves on the wrong side, or on the right side but in the wrong regiment, or were, it transpires, foot soldiers rather than cavalry, do not fare so well.
But poetry does not only need to be experienced through books or even through reading. A friend recently recounted how they had used a piece of contemporary poetry in the funeral service of their father. Evidently the poem was the right one for that moment, easily understood, resonant in performance, and appreciated deeply by many of those who heard it, and who read it on the accompanying screen shot / print out. The poet, I understand, was pleased that some good had been done.
The value transferred to those listening to that poem is nowhere recorded. As funerals are not books it will not be reviewed or lauded and the perceived worth of either the poem or the poet will barely register. And that is perfectly all right. More importantly, the poem had entered the Poetry Commonwealth. And more importantly still, its experience by those attending did not in anyway diminish its potential for future experience. Poems do not wear out until out patience with them does. They are viruses, multiplying relentlessly, the best with ‘R’ numbers into double figures.
This is good. My heart warms. But I am made a little sad by the knowledge that partly because of the lack of surplus value created by simply speaking and hearing poems, it is print that is not only privileged but has virtually destroyed the barter system of poems spoken and heard by people who are not themselves poets. And as a result, relatively few poems are written for those ‘others’ to remember or even to simply recite. Print is privileged – hurrah! – but a great oral tradition has dwindled away.
Night falls and a multitude gather on the clifftops and seashores of our island. They watch the boats of print bobbing at anchor in the bay or hoisting their sails and turning to the horizon. They know they will never captain a fast cutter or catamaran or even a speedboat, but perhaps they can aspire to stowing away on a ‘Dirty British coaster’ or stepping gingerly onto a chain-hauled ferry. But, alas, it takes a certain nautical swagger to walk up the gangplank and instinctively list to port.
And if they are not poets, these folk on the harbourfront? If they are not poets but might perhaps fancy lying in a rowing boat one afternoon to feel the deep swell of poetry pressing against the weight of their mortality, how will they gather the nerve to speak a few lines of verse to a friend or neighbour, and what verses are we offering them anyway? Damned land-lubbers, messing around in boats, get back to your pedalos in public parks!
Well, that was a rather laboured metaphor, although everyone enjoys a John Masefield reference and an echo of Matthew Arnold. So in conclusion, print is great and useful but access to it can be divisive. Speaking and listening to poems and even memorising and reciting poems – particularly poems from within Poetry Commonwealth, the acorns for our pigs, the kindling for our fires – is rather out of fashion, but can be very nice and can be, sometimes, extraordinarily wonderful. We should, do more of it.
Why this article was written & a declaration of connection:
First of it, it was a bit of fun.
Secondly, I am genuinely interested in thinking about that which we so easily assume are given, the immutable things about poetry.
Thirdly, I have spent some time encouraging people to speak my own poems out loud – and sometimes to make recordings of these – and when I hear them do it I am always shocked about how much better (or worse) a poem is when heard in another’s voice.
Fourthly, I have an event at the Kendal Poetry Festival on Thursday 25th February 2021 and perhaps because of my lack of profile or perhaps because it is one of those tricky weekday afternoon slots, or perhaps because I am dull, it isn’t (or didn’t) attract enormous numbers, although I am deeply grateful to be included at all, pedaling my little poetry pedalo.
There, now you know: high-minded intent mixed with a seamy desire for people to listen to me.
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