No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

No, it’s not, of course. That was just to get your attention. In fact, the number of poets in the world is catapulting into almost unimaginable statistics.

Just now there are something like  6,897,900,000 people alive, give or take a few hundred thousand. Suppose the incidence of those human beings who write poetry is one in a thousand (I know this isn’t very scientific since some of them can’t write and some of them are babies). That means there might be 6,897,900 people who will be, have been or could grow up to be poets. Nearly seven million.

The estimated population in the heavily populated little country in which I live, the United Kingdom, is currently 61,838,154. That’s nearly 62 thousand potential poets because practically all of them WILL be able to read and write. Obviously some of them are babies and some of them are on the way out. But still . . . it’s a thought. Even if only a quarter of those are in poetry-writing ages and situations, that would be over fifteen thousand poets.

In 1821, the year Keats was polished off by tuberculosis, the UK census estimated the population at 20,983,092. (Thank you, George Simmers.) According to my manifestly unreliable calculation, that could be, say, just under twenty-one thousand poets at various stages of their existences. And considering some of them had TB already and a lot of them couldn’t read, and if they could read, would have had no access to poetry books, it’s probably about ten thousand. But I think that’s still far too high.

According to another possibly unreliable wiki source, as late as 1841, 33% of English men and 44% of women signed marriage certificates with their mark, because they couldn’t write. Apparently the level of literacy was somewhat higher in Wales. . . So I reckon of possible poets, maybe two or three thousand? (I’m sure More or Less could do better.)

Actually, Patrick Yarker could do better and looked this up too. This has been such a lovely day — I have had fun with this ongoing dialogue. Raymond Williams, in the chapter about the ‘Growth of the Reading Public’ in The Long Revolution (1961) suggests (page 187 of the Pelican edition):

Able to sign reg.      Men             Women              Total

1839                   66.3%          50.5%                 58.4%

1873                   81.2%          74.6%                 77.9%

By the end of the century Williams suggests some 95% of both men and women could sign.  His interest is more in the reading element of ‘literacy’ than in the writing, and he has nothing much to say about poets (though notes the popularity of cheap editions of poetry, and of Shakespeare, at the revolutionary end of the preceding century, as part of his argument that technology and capitalist imperatives were crucial in the process of widening the circle of the literate. He also engages with the old argument that quality must decrease if quantity expands, and suggests it is more interesting to consider the changing character of what counts as ‘literature’ at different historical moments.)

In Ron Silliman’s Blog, June 14, 2007 (thank you, Tim Love) Silliman points out that “when the New Americans were just getting started in the late 1940s, America was a nation of 150 million people, with an annual total of 8,000 book titles per year of all types, and something under 200 publishing poets. .. .”

And he goes on: “Today the US has twice as many people, but is now publishing, according to Bowker, over 290,000 book titles per year, of which some 4,000 titles alone are poetry. There must be somewhere between ten and twelve thousand publishing poets in the US today, in contrast with 200 fifty years ago.”

An American friend last week was attending an event with a thousand poets. Quite apart from the scary idea this represents, it is probably something like the same number as those writing poetry at some time in their lives in the UK in the mid nineteenth century. In one building!

No wonder people moan these days about getting their poetry published. No wonder I am bombarded by emails with poetry in them! I can’t quite hold the relative scale in my head, but there are HUGELY more people in this business than ever before. Vastly more. Mind-bogglingly more.

Does quality decrease if quantity expands? I don’t know that it does. The number of high quality writers must also, surely, expand, and it may be that the proportion of the inept to the ept (for want of a better term) remains the same. Hands up if you know any way of researching this without offending 75% of the writers you know.

But whether people are writing well or not, poetry runs in and out of what they do, because it is more than any of us as individuals. It’s something to do with the life of language and those who speak it. The more people who are up and about on a Sunday morning thinking and speaking and articulating words, the more poetry there will be (as well as more drivel, tripe, twaddle, poppycock and balderdash).

And so poetry remains extant, not extinct. Unlike the Tasmanian Tiger, which has definitely snuffed it. However, we are fascinated by what we have lost, aren’t we? Muses are most effective when absent, so it seems to me.

Cliff Forshaw‘s HappenStance pamphlet, Tiger, is at the printers just now and should come back to me at the end of this coming week, together with Chapter 5 of The HappenStance Story. The Tiger sequence originated in a residency in Tasmania when Cliff got fascinated by the way the absent beast persists in symbols and reported sightings. One of the poems in the sequence is called ‘Loop’, and here’s the loop of film that inspired it: the last Tiger in captivity, so far as we know. If you buy this pamphlet (or Jennifer Copley’s Living Daylights), you can select the other one as well for half price. What are you waiting for?

Note: one more week to enter the free Ambit subscription competition, if you are in Scotland. See previous but one blog entry.