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Poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance,” claims prize juror Jeremy Paxman

The winners of the 2014 Griffin Poetry prizes are due to be announced later this week, which should be a happy event for writers and readers of poetry in Canada and internationally. But the U.K.-based judge of another poetry prize kicked up a minor tempest over the weekend by claiming that poetry as an art form has “connived at its own irrelevance” in the 21st century.

Jeremy Paxman, a television host and one of the jurors for this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry (who also caused controversy over the weekend by claiming an Englishman invented the kilt), has floated the suggestion that poetry has lost its connection with regular, everyday readers, and that much modern poetry exists in an echo chamber consisting of poets talking to other poets.

Writing in the Guardian, Alison Flood positions Paxman’s critique against a background of declining sales of poetry titles in the U.K. Paxman believes that while there are “really good poems” still being written, one of the reasons people are turning away from the form is that they perceive it has little to say about their own lives or experiences.

The poet Michael Symmons Roberts seems to agree, at least in part. Flood quotes Roberts as saying, “Poetry doesn’t have the currency in our culture that novels and films have – people who would be embarrassed not to have read the latest Julian Barnes or Martin Amis are not the slightest bit embarrassed not to have read the latest John Burnside or Carol Ann Duffy.” He stops short, however, of blaming poets for this state of affairs, saying the situation is “far more complex.”

For his part, Paxman suggests (not, it would appear, entirely ironically) setting up “inquisition” panels before which poets would be forced to justify their decisions, including “why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it.” This, Paxman claims, would be “a really illuminating experience for everybody.”

On Twitter, Paxman’s comments were fodder for some choice responses from poets, including Canada’s own David McGimpsey, who wrote, “Asking poets to appeal more to the common person is like asking Colonel Sanders to appeal more to chickens.” And Q&Q’s April cover subject, Sina Queyras, responded, “Jeremy Paxman can kiss my obscurity.”