Being a poet himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley was fairly starry-eyed about poetry. Poets, he wrote in his celebrated treatise, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It has to be said that most of the world, then and now, has agreed to differ. Poetry is small beer in comparison to cinema, TV, the novel. Even publishers care less and less. Once upon a time, poetry was felt to be important, almost for its own sake. No self- respecting publisher would be without a poetry list. Somehow, its presence leavened the whole. It added gravitas. Who cared if it didn't make much money? The fact is, it didn't cost much either. Now very few major publishers have poetry lists and accountants don't buy that argument about small-scale things being precious for their own sake. Even Oxford University Press killed off its poets a few years ago in a terrible act of èse-majesté. Faber & Faber is the single survivor of note, with its fabulous backlist of some of the 20th century's greatest talents.
So, how do we make poetry seem to matter again? One way is to reconnect poetry with people. Part of poetry's problem may be of its own making. To many, it can seem like a strangely abstracted mode of discourse, written more by language than by human beings. It can be cryptic - it often uses so few words. It doesn't deal with people in the way that fiction deals with people. It doesn't, generally speaking, tell us stories - you have to go back to the great Victorians for that. We don't settle into it comfortably. It demands much of its readers. It requires to be read slowly, and often more than once. We puzzle over its ambiguities. It can seem strangely intense, but also strangely narrow in its focus.
In the mid-1960s, something happened in poetry which helped to give it a broader audience. Poets from England and America - Allen Ginsberg was among those pioneers - came together in London to create something called Poetry International. Leading poets read their poems out loud to big and enthusiastic audiences. Here was the bard, baggy-trousered, probably a touch tipsy, ranting engagingly for all he was worth.
People began to realise that poetry was not a single, puzzling thing. It was a chorus of many voices. Poets came out of their shells and began to show their poetry to be as full of humanity as any other kind of art form. Reading out loud was born anew - and that has survived into our own day. In fact, live readings are one of the great keys to the present survival of poetry, because when audiences hear poets read, they buy their books, too.
So this new experiment from Bloodaxe Books is to be welcomed because it brings together two things that help poetry to command attention - poets as wordsmiths, and poets as living, breathing human beings who bring their poems alive when they read them out loud to an audience. This is an anthology of works by 30 of the best poets in the Bloodaxe stable - including the likes of Fleur Adcock, David Constantine and the Pulitzer Prize-winning C K Williams. There are a few poems from each contributor, a taster from their individual collections. But there is more than mere words on a page. On two DVDs, slipped handily into a pocket at the back, those same poets read the same poems out loud to us, often in their homes, and they are all inimitably different. John Agard, the great performance poet, makes his words dance and yelp about. C K Williams reads with a raw energy, as if tearing the heart out of himself and presenting it to us on a platter. Brendan Kennelly, every inch the mellowed, mellifluous, seventy-odd-year-old Irish bard these days (gone are the hellraising days) recites from memory, seated next to a blue chest of drawers, in the midst of which is the most chaste and wholesome glass of water imaginable.
Each poet sets a fire beneath his or her words, and there we sit back, anthology on knees just in case we wish to check a word or two, warming ourselves at the poems.
Michael Glover's recent book of poetry "For the Sheer Hell of Living" is published by San Marco Press (http://www.sanmarcopress.com)