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Poetry and its promoters bloom in Britain

PUBLICISTS have decreed it, so it's happening: Poets are coming out of the ivory tower and into the spotlight this month as Britain celebrates a promotion called ``Poetry Live.'' The promotion, which included poetry readings in Waterloo Station and the Albert Hall, is the culmination of a movement toward greater popularity of contemporary poetry in Britain over the past five years.

Increased advertising budgets spent to persuade people that contemporary poetry can be relevant to their lives, and efforts to turn poets into glamorous celebrities, have resulted in increased demand for verse.

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Young contemporary poets have cooperated by showing a willingness to write poems the public can understand. As a result, in village halls, in pubs, in schools around Britain, contemporary poetry is being read and being listened to.

``People [used] to expect not to understand modern poetry,'' says Craig Raine, poet, editor, and proponent of popularizing poetry.

The new emphasis on poetry readings in Britain and advertising techniques - formerly unthinkable in the elitist world of British poetry publishing - have increased poetry sales by as much as 50 percent in the last couple of years.

``Once you've got the idea that poetry can be accessible and can mean something to people's lives, then you have the foundation laid for a poetry boom,'' says Andrew Motion, poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, and a member of the new generation of poets.

But if poetry has become more popular and successful here, is it up to the standard of excellence the world has come to expect from the nation that produced Tennyson and Keats?

``My feeling about the contemporary poetry scene now is that the general standard of writing and imagining is really extremely high,'' says Mr. Motion. ``But also, arguably, there is the lack of a dominant figure - though you can point to two or three people who look as though they're pretty good and important.''

One of these is Mr. Raine, founder of the ``Martian'' school of poetry, and possibly the single most powerful figure in British poetry today. He occupies the publishing chair once held by the late T.S. Eliot: poetry editor at Faber & Faber, the firm that controls one-third of the money spent on publishing poetry in Britain.

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Raine shot to prominence with a book of poems called ``A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,'' published in 1979, and later books augmented his reputation. ``The Martian poetry perceives the world through eyes of an alien invader for whom everything we humans take as familiar is strange and bizarre. It's a highly metaphorical kind of language,'' Motion explained.

Also part of the current boom are Seamus Heaney, the well-established poet originally from Northern Ireland, now based in Dublin; Ted Hughes, nature poet and poet laureate; Douglas Dunn, whose award-winning book, ``Elegies,'' was a best-seller in 1986; and Wendy Cope, discovered by Raine and a best seller with her first volume of verse, ``Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.''

``In the days before I was published,'' says Ms. Cope, ``there were not many publishers making any effort to sell poetry books - and it used to annoy me.

``The publishers would only print 500 to 1,000 copies of the books of friends, and I felt very frustrated on their behalf.''

Now the spotlight is on poetry even in the London Underground. Contemporary poetry has been printed on placards and posted in trains, where it intermingles with advertisements. New designs and prominent displays for poetry books have been introduced by Faber & Faber, and poetry tours have been organized, attracting wide attention for poets like Heaney and Raine.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the attention this group of poets is getting. A.N. Wilson, novelist and critic, says that, because some of the new poets are also working for publishers, the boundary between what is good for poetry and what is good for publishing has been blurred. ``Tennyson said that to be a poet you have to have fire in your belly. Well, there's nobody around with fire in their belly at the moment.

``If you think of the effect on your life of the great poets, there's something consoling, uplifting, and grand about great poetry. But when you sit on the London Underground and see one of these modern poets' work stuck up above your head - do you feel a sense of uplift? I don't.''

In her roomy flat in South London, decorated with London Underground poetry posters, Cope continues the slow, taxing business of writing poems and maintains her perspective:

``Half my time I spend being asked what it feels like to be famous and the other half I spend talking to people who haven't the faintest idea who I am.''

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