Jane Draycott made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Senior poetry tutor Jane Draycott reflects on the honour of joining T S Eliot, Daljit Nagra and others as a Fellow of the UK’s most celebrated Literary Society.
For any writer, election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature is an enormous honour. To be invited to join a Fellowship whose roll includes scores of distinguished writers past and present whose work you admire, then asked to sign the centuries-old Roll Book with an illustrious pen of your choice from those belonging to Byron, George Eliot, Dickens, T S Eliot, Jean Rhys or Andrea Levy, all makes for an unforgettable moment in one’s writing life.
The aims of the RSL chime in many ways with the vision of the Department's MSt in Creative Writing, believing that writers thrive best not corralled within genres - poetry, prose, drama etc. – but when they come together as an active community. And that community, as the RSL recognises in its Honorary Fellowships, also includes publishers, agents, librarians, booksellers and producers. For myself as a poet this feels like a memorable moment to be joining the Society, as it continues to launch new initiatives addressing under-representation and expanding the recognition of the contribution of international writers, under the chairmanship of poet Daljit Nagra at a time of vital new energy in poetry more widely.
There are plenty of people who still feel poetry is not for them, any interest they had in it as children destroyed by assessment-led approaches in later schooling, crossword-puzzle exercises that rendered poems intimidating and lifeless - as former US laureate puts it so well in his ‘Introduction to Poetry’:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Over the last few decades though, UK organisations such as the Poetry Society, along with the different national Arts Councils and other arts-engagement initiatives, have been funding successful programmes aimed at bringing poetry alive for younger writers and performers, fostering relationships between poets, teachers and students, and spreading the word about the fruits of that work.
Indeed one of the many pioneers in this movement, writer and educator Kate Clanchy, has been working with multi-cultural school students here in Oxford for several years at the Oxford Spires Academy, tirelessly celebrating students’ poems in anthologies, on social media and through her 2019 book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.
In my own schools workshops, poems are first and foremost for listening to and speaking rather than reading as text – images, rhythms and ideas unfolding in the imagination, echoing to and fro just as a song might do. For me that’s always anyone’s best first encounter with a poem, as audio or in performance. And these are great times for the availability of such encounters as poetry spreads more widely online, on social media and on such international-facing sites as the US-based Poetry Foundation, Poetry International curated in the Netherlands, and the UK’s Poetry Archive and Poetry Library.
The sales of poetry books have risen dramatically in the last few years, with the greatest rise in sales among buyers under 34. Some of that growth in interest has its roots back in the booming popularity of poetry slams, stand-up and open mic events, and in the deep impact of hip-hop and performance poetry with all its energy and evident proof that poetry can be a way of using rhythm and voice to explore not just feelings but ideas, personal and political and everything between.
In his 1962 poem ‘Asphodel, that Greeny Flower’ US poet William Carlos Williams reflected ‘It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’ But in these more vocal times of wider visibility and audibility there’s a great deal of news that can be got from poets, and the move online necessitated by the pandemic has created new live-event spaces for any of us to step into and listen. Let’s hope the number of open doors continues to increase long after the crisis is over, making a real possible difference to poetry’s place closer to the currents of everyday life. As the RSL’s president Dame Marina Warner reminded us recently, quoting Virginia Woolf on the Society’s 200th birthday, writers are ‘not concerned with the single life but with lives lived together.’
Jane Draycott, Feb 2021
Published 18 February 2021