Opening doors to poetry

The Poet Laureate is launching a major new project to bring poetry to the public - but is the audience still within her grasp?

New Statesman
Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (PHOTO: ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambridge University Museums have recently announced a major new initiative which it hopes can revive contemporary poetry. The project, entitled Thresholds, will pursue unique partnerships between award-winning poets and some of the most celebrated museums in the country in a cross-disciplinary celebration of the arts. Ten poets will take part in residencies at ten museums, during which they will be commissioned to create works based on the collections.  Some of the most renowned names in modern poetry, including Jo Shapcott, Daljit Nagra and Don Paterson will be working at museums including the Fitzwilliam, Kettle’s Yard and the Polar Museum. The results will be published in an anthology in March.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who is curating the project, has hailed the project's potential to bring back a ‘renaissance’ in the world of poetry. But in an age of dwindling arts funding, diminishing poetry readership and a decidedly dubious future for publishing, how effective, really, are projects like these? Can anything bring poetry back from the brink?

One of the main aims of Thresholds is to expand the current audience for poetry in the UK - in particular, reaching out to different social groups with lower cultural engagement. In this aim, they echo the intentions of many major arts institution across the country. For years, museums and art galleries around the UK have sought out strategies to expand their audiences outside of a predominately university-educated demographic. Yet for an industry widely criticised as "niche" and "inaccessible", will initiatives like Thresholds really make a difference?

There are certainly signs that the timing may be perfect for a poetry revival. Recent surveys have suggested that the creation, circulation and consumption of new poetry may have, in fact, been given an impetus from the most unlikely of areas – the internet.

Despite the threat which the digital age has posed to the publishing industry as a whole, the web has, in many ways, provided fertile ground for the spread of poetry. “It's counter-intuitive. You would have thought that poetry and pamphlets would be failing in the face of the internet, but that isn't happening" explains Richard Price, poet and head of modern collections at the British Library. In his opinion, the internet has provided "a limitless shop window for a new generation of small presses and micro-publishers". Elsewhere, websites like Poetry Archive (launched in part by former poet laureate Andrew Motion) allow viewers to listen to recordings of famous poets reading their work out loud, and are enjoying unprecedented success. Similarly, a host of high-profile poetry apps, notably Faber’s ‘The Waste Land’ have demonstrated an effective way to translate poetics to profit. It seems that, for the poetry world, social media is proving invaluable in  recruiting new members and advertising events.

Thresholds, therefore, comes at a time when one of the world’s oldest art forms is acquiring a new lease on life in the digital age. Poetry might be proving more flexible than its longer-form fiction counterparts, but will that be be enough to bring about the ‘renaissance’ which Duffy anticipates?

Thresholds will receive a competitive grant from Arts Council England to support their project. Particularly, their specific strategy is to work with around 150 young people, including many pupils from local schools. The opportunity for students to hone their writing, work with some of the most prestigious poets in the country, and re-engage with the cultural history of museums is a unique one. Considering that those exposed to poetry at a young age tend to be much more likely to continue reading it later in life, the scheme, demonstrably, has real potential. 

Whether Thresholds succeeds in providing access to the inaccessible will have to wait to be seen, but as Duffy notes:

A poetry project of this size and scale, across so many different, remarkable and beautiful institutions is unheard of. This really is an unprecedented initiative.