The New Excellent

Daljit Nagra

As poet and Chair of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL), I am actively involved in developing ideas of excellence around poetry. My aim is to broaden the range of poetries that are regarded as excellent so we improve inclusivity. The RSL is a 200 year old charity that has yet to define literary excellence, and long may this continue because the very idea of excellence is constantly updated in line with new developments in the arts.

I am sure we could all agree criteria to help us define the excellence of the poetry of John Donne and TS Eliot, and we could all aspire to write according to these criteria while sitting at the altar of the canon. The problem with this elitist project would be to assume there is only one way to write, but as we all know there has been a rise in other types of poetry. Two that spring to mind are performance poetry and social media poetry; we cannot judge them by the same criteria as we would Donne or Eliot, so what should happen?

Perhaps we need to appreciate the first medium of exchange for each of these poetries. For page poetry, its primary form of communication is via the page. For performance poetry, it’s through the physical voice and body while stood on a stage in front of a live audience. For Social media poetry, it must hold the online readers attention as that viewer/reader flicks through various items. Where performance poetry must grab the live audience with a range of theatrical and linguistically direct approaches, social media poetry must rely on easy-to-read statements, layout and visual image to momentarily arrest the reader.

Perhaps the genius of performance poetry and social media poetry has yet to arrive and blow our minds, but then again, how often does a genius of page poetry come along? As an academic of Creative Writing at Brunel University, I find that most students feel confident with the GCSE and A Level poems they’ve read, and then, if asked, they usually state names of social media and performance poets. I’ve started teaching social media poetry to undergraduates and in school visits so students feel included in the conversation that poetry can offer. I hope we can accept these new poetries in the expectation that exciting new work will come from these forms as well as form the traditional forms of poetry; that more students might begin to accept poetry as an important form of expression that brings them wellbeing and fun!

Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University, Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Daljit Nagra’s four poetry collections, all with Faber & Faber, have won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and Best First Book, the South Bank Show Decibel Award and the Cholmondeley Award, and been shortlisted for the Costa Prize and twice for the TS Eliot Prize. Daljit is a PBS New Generation Poet whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the LRB and the TLS, and his journalism in the FT and The Guardian. The inaugural Poet-in-Residence for Radio 4 & 4 Extra, he presents the weekly Poetry Extra.