Skip to main content

On National Poetry Day, Jack McGowan performance poet and creative writing tutor at the University of Warwick, comments on finding new ways for people to engage in poetry

Jack McGowan, performance poet and creative writing tutor at the University of Warwick, say National Poetry Day should not be an excuse to dust off a few half-remembered verses and then forget about poetry for another year. McGowan’s PhD research explores the nature of performance poetry and is entitled Slam the Book: The role of performance in contemporary UK poetry.

“When National Poetry Day was founded in 1994 the British poetry world looked very different. The T.S. Eliot Prize, one of the UK’s biggest poetry plaudits, was only a year old. Carol Anne Duffy’s Selected Poems was published that year by Penguin, cementing her eminence on the UK poetry scene. Ted Hughes was still alive. Fast forward to 2016 and one might be forgiven for thinking that poetry, never a particularly successful commercial enterprise, might have lost its audience.

“Between 2009 and 2013 alone the total value of UK poetry sales dropped by £1.7 million, and every year sees the poetry market accommodating a smaller number of purchases, even of household-name poets who have adorned GCSE and A-level syllabuses for years and who can cash in on a welcome amount of school-day nostalgia. This is of course misleading. In fact, poetry is very much alive and well. Rather than resigning itself to an unobtrusive burial under unsold volumes of verse, poetry has shifted towards new markets and new ways of communicating.

“‘Messages’; the National Poetry Day theme for 2016, could not be more appropriate considering the state of contemporary poetry and the increasingly varied means by which poetry is engaged with. Be it by letter, phone, email, voicemail, text, tweet, snapchat or status update our ‘messages’; the ways in which we as a society communicate, are constantly expanding and diversifying. What we must come to terms with is that all of these messages can be poetry too.

“Seismic shifts favouring digital means of communication and expression are, contrary to the long standing romanticism of the book of poems (that inky, rectangular, papery, rather sentimental object), great for the art form. The internet; that rising tide that lifts all boats, has facilitated a global network of writing. It allows would-be poets to bypass the inaccessibility of the publishing scene and share their work. It also allows authors to experiment with new forms of writing which the materiality of the page can often restrict.

“This is not particularly new information for a twenty-first century poetry enthusiast. Avant-garde experimental practitioners have always been quick to cotton on to new approaches and Digital Poetry is almost as old as the Web. Likewise, poetry has always shared a strong relationship with performance and the amount of recorded spoken word content available online is testament to this. It is perhaps evident from the fact that viewing figures for certain performance poetry videos on Youtube reach into the millions that the public are already seeking and finding new ways to engage with poetry. But to a large portion of the population the idea that the voicemail they left at the garage could in fact become a spoken word piece, or that their live-tweets of the X-Factor final could be tweaked into a sequence of astounding haiku doesn’t compute with a certain preconception of what poetry is.

“This is the battle which needs to be fought, and events like National Poetry Day are in the vanguard of this fight. By pushing poetry into the public eye the ways in which it has grown and adapted to keep up and to stay relevant can be made visible. This is vital work. National Poetry Day must not ossify in its function by becoming an excuse to think warm thoughts about a few half-remembered poems and then forget about poetry again for another year. National Poetry Day must showcase new, exciting, fresh, and innovative work. It must demonstrate poetry’s breadth and its plurality by representing the work of poets who are using the range of new media available. Let the message of National Poetry Day 2016 be that poetry is here, it is relevant, and it can be found in the least expected of places.”


Andrea Cullis, Features Writer

University of Warwick
Mob: 07825314874