It was Henry Carr, a minor British embassy official in Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, who complained, in an underdog outburst: 'For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist.'
Applying the Stoppard-Carr ratio to our island's current population of 62 million, we get 55,800 artists, equivalent to the population of Macclesfield. But how many of these lucky bastards are poets? Let's say a modest 5% might at a stretch be described as poetry practitioners, that is poets who are published and read, if only by other poets. That would amount to 2,779 poets (rounded up to 3,000), equal to the population of Framlingham in Suffolk. That seems like too many.
Travesties was written in 1974 and we are in a position to do the math, as they increasingly say. I have before me the hefty Directory of Contemporary Poets, published by Macmillan in 1970. Limited to UK poets it lists around 1,100 (from Abse, Dannie to Zurndorfer, Lotte), so either the Stoppard-Carr formula is flawed or my 5% estimate overgenerous, and should hover between one and two per cent. The 1970s turned out to be the boom years and subsequent editions of the Directory give lower - 787 in 2001, rising slightly to 840 last year. So let's say that Britain sustains a population of under a thousand poets. Not that any of them can earn a living as such, but that's another matter.
Let's look at the bigger picture. How many poets, not just in Britain, are working actively in the English language today? Turning to the International Who's Who of Poetry (Routledge, 2011) we find around 4,000 practitioners, all with proper jobs to fall back on, from Aalfs, Janet ('American writer, poet and martial arts instructor') to Zyck, Adam ('Polish psychologist, gerontologist, poet and translator'). The publishers make no claims to be comprehensive and there are likely to be many omissions, but 4,000 poets in a global anglophone population of 375 million (assuming that poetry readership is likely to be confined largely to native speakers) is a vanishingly small proportion - around 0.0001%.
And of those four thousand poets, how many are any good? Not necessarily popular, just good (and I hope you'll agree with what I mean by that). Could it be as many as a few hundred? And what of the even smaller cohort of great poets, past and (theoretically) present, whose work has lasted and will continue to circulate? Perhaps a dozen in all, writing in English in the twentieth century. Who are, or were, they? Hardy, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Robert Lowell and . . . how many is that? Seven. I realise that the very idea of a canon is old hat, and patrician, and elitist, and barely worth considering. I recently met a bright young English graduate who had never even heard of T. S. Eliot because (as she quite reasonably pointed out) he wasn't on the syllabus and you can't be expected to read everything. Fair enough, although Eliot doesn't strike one as optional and surely a graduate in any subject who hasn't read The Waste Land is by any objective measure culturally impoverished. To her credit she wasn't at all uncomfortable with her admission and to my credit neither was I. But still.
We used to care more, or some folk did. According to Julian Symons (in his handy 1960 account The Thirties: a dream revolved) the inter-war audience for poetry took the form of a pyramid, the broad base formed by a million-strong intelligentsia. Above them a group numbering 50,000 subscribed to and read the handful of little magazines featuring the most recent work of new writers. This section of the pyramid was generally younger than the base and the social composition more complex, including working-class intellectuals, members of the lower-middle class educated at state or grammar schools and in some cases at red brick universities, and a general sampling of professional men and women (doctors, architects, lawyers, dons, economists etc). The artists themselves, around a thousand in number lived, often precariously, at the top. Not, it should hardly be necessary to point out, that they were all wealthy, or even solvent. By 'artists' Symons meant novelists, poets, painters, composers and the like, and clearly wasn't concerned with the applied arts, or with such popular media as the music hall and cinema - both of which would surely bump up the numbers. The UK population in the mid-1930s being around 46 million, that thousand-strong cohort represents a percentage too small to bother about, although it's those very painters and poets and novelists, who today stand for the age - they are what we know of the period.
Not everyone at the time agreed with the proportions of Symon's pyramid, and a jaundiced contemporary of his reckoned the population of serious poetry readers in Britain numbered around a hundred. This was less an indicator of elitism than of exasperation. Symons admits that the image of a pyramid is over-simple and the whole set of assumptions on which his model is based seems very old-fashioned - but what interests me most are his estimated numbers. The overall population has increased since 1935 by around twenty million and let's assume that there has been a corresponding growth in the intelligentsia (not that such a label would be employed in a positive way today). But the greatest increase must surely have been in the number of artists. Post-war access to higher education, the growth of art schools, state sponsorship, lottery funding and the wide scale commodification of culture through new media - all have led to an enormous boom in practitioners to the extent that more people write poetry than read it. So what shape, metaphorically, are things in today? No longer a pyramid but perhaps a wonky sort-of oblong?
There are workshops and festivals and readings and signings and book clubs and many little magazines and anthologies and reviews. There's a radio presence, online activity and a band of public poets who scrape a living through the practice of poetry and associated 'poetic' activities. Not much of this is very good, of course, but then not much of anything is very good. Poetry is, we are constantly reassured, 'for everyone' - the nine hundred doing the work, the ninety doing well and the nine doing good. This is nonsense, of course. Poetry, like all other art forms, is self-evidently not for everyone. It's for anyone.