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Poetry rules: Emma Hammond on the Queen's poetry reception

Last week the Queen held a reception at Buckingham Palace for the UK poetry world. EMMA HAMMOND explains why the Queen symbolises everything rotten about contemporary society.

Many of us watched in wonder last week as a poetry maelstrom occurred. Around 300 poets were invited and went off to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace for the purpose of celebrating British poetry. And why not? Poetry certainly deserves recognition for being one of the last art forms that is supposedly unsullied by capitalism: there is no money in poetry which means no vast sums of money changing hands. It is not fashionable (as much as marketing executives have tried), and most importantly, a large number of poets are hugely subversive and anti-establishment.

However, perhaps these things should not be the defining features of a poet - the ‘angry young men’ (or women- since they’ve been allowed) image of poets is probably outdated or a romantic notion in itself; but I had rather thought that poetry is at least one of the places where independent, progressive thought is best served.

Let’s be honest, elitism is not particularly civilised - if anything it drives people apart, causes rifts and gives weight to a kind of magical thinking or myth-making that is not at all based in truth. How can we move forward without a reasonable acceptance of reality?

All of these poets and editors have their own reasons for why they declined or accepted, and fair enough. The real problem for me however is not about political integrity (although of course this is hugely important), but rather that poets' heads are still frequently turned by the promise of reward and acknowledgement. In this way the integrity of the work is the thing that suffers.

That is why I think that going to the palace was wrong, and why if the Queen wants to celebrate poetry then she should leave well alone and let us get on with actually writing it instead of fighting amongst ourselves about what an expression of radicalism should really look like. Surely the most radical thing an artist can do is make art? Nowadays it seems like a lot of people have instead bought into the capitalist notion that the individual is of uppermost importance and that winning an award or being included in some kind of mythical inner circle lends our work a certain gravitas that might not be there otherwise.

This is why elitism is rotten - it stifles creativity, encourages cynical networking, inflates or deflates a person’s self-worth and encourages the absolute worst in human nature. How can this be a good thing? The Queen is a symbol of everything that is wrong with our country today, our skewed view of democracy, the shocking lack of social mobility and worst of all, our inability to move forward and embrace new ways of living. The things I love about my country - the folk traditions, the rich humour and complex language - are all things that come from the people.

What I have learnt this past week, somewhat sadly, has been that poetry doesn’t seem to be about poems any more and that the cult of personality which is so prevalent in every area of society and culture is becoming more and more commonplace, even in something as wild and free as poetry. Maybe what has really upset people about the celebration is the realisation that we are not as free as we imagine ourselves to be.

Emma Hammond is a writer and poet from London. She is the founding member of a movement called The New Violence and is currently writing her second book of poems.

Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter.
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