This week has encapsulated the media's treatment of poetry in several ways.
To start with, there was The Guardian's coverage of the Forward Prize. Sam Willets is a fine poet, but why was he singled out for a major feature prior to the awards ceremony? The answer could clearly be found in his former heroin addiction, which provided much-needed "human interest" for the journalist and newspaper readers. I feel this tabloid-driven slant devalues his excellent work. Meanwhile, Hilary Menos' actual winning of the First Collection Prize gained far fewer column inches.
And then there was Ted Hughes. Again. And Sylvia. Again. The Guardian titled one of their articles as follows: "Ted Hughes's final lines to Sylvia Plath bring closure to a tragic tale". That reference to a "tragic tale" is key to our understanding of the sub-editor's angle on this feature: the focus and draw originated in the tragedy of the couple's background story.
These are not just two examples of how poetry is used to provide colour for newspaper articles. In fact, they resonate further and perpetuate misconceptions among the general public. These features reinforce the stereotype of poets as a rare breed who lead atypical and often tragic lives. Many people are turned off both reading and writing the genre, feeling that poetry is consequently not for them.
I often find people taking a surreptitious fresh look at me after finding out I write verse, assessing me anew. A few have expressed surprise and mentioned that I don't look like a poet! Such articles don't help us to get rid of these caricatures.