Bringing Back the Common-Land

Jonathan Davidson

Poetry in the United Kingdom is widely present. It is the pastime of tens of thousands, providing solace and entertainment, offering challenge and reward. It is the fuel for an industry that buys and sells inspiration, and the opportunity for inspiration through courses and competitions. Careers are built around poetry, livings are earned from it, or from the many activities that go with it. It is put to good use to sell building societies and fast food. It is put to better use to sell causes and ideas and to denounce ideas and causes. For such an art-form – easy to engage with, with few barriers to entry, requiring little capital other than time – it is remarkably adept at serving the needs of many people and organisations. In some parts of the world, poets and other writers are routinely persecuted, but in the UK books are not often burned, and poets are rarely attacked or sanctioned. In the UK, various forms of engagement with poetry continue to grow, with every year a record-breaking year for sales of poetry books, for entries to poetry competitions, for the visibility of poetry and presumably for engagement with poetry. We have the right, it appears, to roam at will across the poetry landscape.

A neutral observer would suggest that poetry is in little need of defence. Indeed, when poetry does suffer some marginal set-back – its removal from an exam syllabus, fewer reviews in broadsheet newspapers, a little less poetry stock purchased by a public library – alternatives spring up. The internet ensures no one can be short of poetry to read, although they must subject themselves to a relationship with the carrier of this poetry slightly more invasive than their relationship with a public library. The traditionally curated arenas for reviewing of poetry have been enhanced or replaced by the wide-open spaces of social media platforms, where every voice can be heard by at least the few and often by the many. Who would suggest that the removal of poetry from an education system that can increasingly do nothing but count numbers is anything but a good thing? The poetry sector appears to be a constantly changing, relentlessly growing, seemingly self-regulating arena with an infinite capacity for satisfying any hunger that it might discover or trigger. While these structures do not perhaps offer “the right to roam” – all space for poetry is to some extent subject to regulation – we are at least offered many paths along which to wonder, and they are long and winding and beset with opportunities to engage.

A neutral observer might also suggest, however, that amidst this success – the increasing numbers, the increasing quality, the increasing visibility, the increasing use of poetry – there is a possibility that the qualities that initially draw so many to poetry will be forgotten, modified or enclosed, that those long and winding roads to opportunity are in fact narrow lanes of increasingly proscribed engagement. What delights initially about poetry – how words sound, their memorability, how they connect one to the world – are qualities that, initially received as freely as fresh air, quickly become commodified. There are few literary products sadder – or more necessary – than a book of nursery rhymes: the collective memory forgotten, re-mastered and then exploited for profit. Less obvious, but equally destructive, is the wholesale transition of poetry from a spoken, heard and often remembered art, to an art that can only be experienced through the application – or intervention – of some form of technology. Little did Gutenberg know, that in his facilitating remembering he encouraged forgetting. Even the contemporary poetry that is composed to be performed is not composed to be remembered. It is made and shared and sold so that the performer may be remembered not the poem. The performer is commodifiable and does not place themselves beyond the market. That which we may take freely is set back into the shadows and that which we may pay for is placed centre stage. Poets are remembered as much for their clothing as for their words.

Poetry, as it is increasingly presented within the UK, has a built-in obsolescence. The market effectively demands that every poet be new, that every poem be easy to consume, but also that both poet and poem almost immediately make way for the next and then the next. The repetition, the familiarity, the durability of poetry, qualities that have helped it endure across centuries, are not a concern for a market that demands the constant payment for consumption to satisfy its various stakeholders. In the UK, the poetry that is privileged is the poetry from which the structures that exist to share or sell poetry can extract most value in whatever is, for them, the most appropriate form. This is entirely understandable. Poetry that is memorable and can be remembered, and that therefore removes itself from the market, will not serve those who are either embedded in the various structures that exist to trade with poetry or who have invested – for whatever reason – in order to dominate these structures. What system would place an emphasis on the aspects of a good or service that is offered to the market virtually cost-free, that consumes only modest resources to replicate and therefore attracts no value through scarcity, and that is able to be operate beyond the controls of a market place? Why suggest a walk across a field at no cost other than the natural endeavour of walking when a trip to an amusement park might be priced and sold instead?

So, poetry is modified by the environment in which its finds itself. These environments are themselves the products of a cultural enclosure movement that becomes ever more pervasive and rapacious. Over the centuries, poetry that might spring from individual joy, untrammelled by external structures, free at the point of consumption, has been relentlessly enclosed, with fences erected and payments required. Organised religion may not have much of an impact on contemporary poetry – although most organised religions still use poetry as a means to their ends – but various forms of persuasive media have made a grab for poetry and have claimed their territories. What poetry the BBC chooses to broadcast, what poems McDonalds chooses to use to sell its products, these are not without contracts and restrictions; they are part of the trade in culture that gives return increasingly to those who have the money to buy and sell. Education at all stages has also effectively enclosed poetry for their own purposes – to judge, to denote value with which to speculate through the industries of study and re-study. These “land-owners” produce subsidiary structures – magazines, competitions, courses, websites – each of which polices what poetry can be experienced and who can walk at will. While there are “public rights of way”, there are many routes barred and large tracts of poetry are removed from what might otherwise be common land.

This struggle between those who wish to move without restrictions and those who wish to create structure, to extract value to impose order, is played out in many aspects of human life. There are times when structures and order are required but equally vigilance is needed to ensure this is balanced with personal freedom. The defence of poetry from enclosure may not be the most urgent of issues – ownership of the world’s water-resources or vaccines will feel more important. However, if poetry is to continue to do many of the things it is commended for – to bring joy and be a free means of communication, to create permanence from the transitory nature of our lives, to be the eternally accessible art-form for our age and beyond – then it will need to be defended. Walls will need to be torn-down every now and then, fences will need to be flattened, gates taken off their hinges, instances of cultural trespass will need to happen, some re-wilding will be found to be useful. That which was once common-land will need to revert to being common-land again.

Jonathan Davidson
is a poet, writer and literature activist. He lives in the English Midlands but works internationally. His poetry has been widely published and he has also written memoir and criticism. His radio dramas and adaptations have been broadcast by BBC Radios 3 and 4. Much of his work is focussed on how writing – especially poetry – is experienced by readers and listeners.