Pure doggerel

Poetry - The prize-winning writer Don Paterson recently despaired of the amateurs in his profession.

Poetry should be reclaimed as "a dark art", urged Don Paterson in his T S Eliot lecture at the Royal Festival Hall just over a month ago. Poetic technique, he declared, is the poet's "arcana", something that must be kept secret from the reader. Only by joining together in a kind of medieval "guild" could professional poets "restore our sense of power". Cue scary laughter.

It was splendidly dotty stuff, part Gilderoy Lockhart, part Draco Malfoy, well timed for the DVD release of the new Harry Potter. But if poets are to belong to a "guild", a kind of elite, secret society of magicians - something like Slytherin, perhaps - who are the Muggles?

Paterson was quite clear about this, suggesting the eradication of amateur poets, whom he accused of "infantilis- ing our art". Worse, armed only with "a beermat, a pencil and a recently mildly traumatic experience", they bombard Paterson, who is poetry editor at Picador, with their "handwritten drivel".

But you have to be unpublished before you can be published. It may be hard to imagine, but even Paterson was once an unpublished poet. Not many poets make a living solely by selling books. Paterson (who has received three Scottish Arts Council grants and won several prizes with cash rewards, including the Whitbread) certainly doesn't. Before he became a "professional" poet, he was a professional musician. He still is. In fact, he is also a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Not much time for writing poetry there.

Anyway, what is an "amateur" poet? For most of human history, poetry was largely anonymous, unwritten, public and shared. Only with the recent emergence of mass-literate societies in the west has poetry become identified with the private expression of individual feeling in books by "professionals".

Does Paterson mean he wants to eradicate unpublished poets? Or just those who have ambitions to be published? Those who are not published by a Lon-don publisher? Or those who are not published by Picador? How many poetry prizes do you have to win before you become a "professional" poet? Or is there a hereditary principle involved?

Paterson's idea of the "profession" of poetry appears to derive from a class- specific version of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. According to him, "only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry". Has Paterson never changed a tap, or tapped a drum? Poets are not genetically different from plumbers. Most roofers would be better at writing poetry than poets are at replacing missing roof tiles. Paterson seems to be invoking the old Soviet model in which you had to be a member of the Writers' Union before you could be published.

It is not as if there are only so many as-yet-unwritten poems to go round. Moreover, "amateur" poets in schools, colleges, prisons, libraries, bookshops and poetry readings constitute the bulk of the audience for the "professionals". Do professional musicians feel threatened by people who sing in the bath? Do professional footballers burn with resentment at those who play in Sunday leagues? Do professional chefs object to the thought that most people cook their own meals? Presumably Paterson's students at St Andrews are "amateurs". Has he told them yet that they require eradicating?

Paterson's comments on Harold Pinter are especially instructive. Referring to Pinter's anti-war poetry, he said that "anyone can do that". Indeed, a great many poets - "professional" and "amateur" - have written powerfully against the invasion of Iraq (although few have employed iambic pentameter to such passionate effect as Pinter did in his collection War). That "anyone" can write about such a necessary subject is precisely the enduring appeal and significance of poetry.

Sadly, hostility to the idea of the amateur is a familiar feature of the contemporary poetry scene. The sound of "professional" poets pulling the ladders up behind them is part of the background noise. The Poetry Society may spend its time declaring that poetry belongs to everyone, sponsoring initiatives such as National Poetry Day, Poetry Class and Poetry News, but it also publishes the forbidding and mysterious Poetry Review, a magazine apparently designed to put any casual reader off poetry for good.

The most consistent advocate of this kind of flaky elitism was T S Eliot, the Lord Voldemort of the aristocratic principle in poetry. Fittingly, Paterson (the only poet to win the T S Eliot Prize twice) made his remarks in a lecture named after a man who believed in the divine right of kings and argued that the Education Act of 1944 would encourage cultural "barbarism".

But this is a small crack on a wider fault-line in British literary culture - and in British society. Paterson was tapping into a peculiarly English use of the word "amateur" as a term of abuse. Like "provincial", "humorous" and "earnest", it involves a horrified rejection of the aspirational rhetoric of new Labour Britain. And it smells uncommonly like old-fashioned snobbery and misanthropy.

As Harry Potter's Hagrid says, "when a wizard goes over ter the Dark Side, there's nothin' and no one that matters to 'em any more". Scary.

Andy Croft has published seven books of poetry. His most recent is Comrade Laughter (Flambard)