Stop being so wet … Detail from Henry Wallis’s portrait of Chatterton (1856)

Henry Wallis has a lot to answer for. On exhibition in 1856, his deliciously necrophilic painting of the 17-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton –lolling in a garret, poisoned by his own elegantly consumptive hand and blighted by the unappreciative cruelty of the cold hard world – became instantly, and enduringly, iconic. Forget Benjamin Zephaniah or Carol Ann Duffy; this skinny eighteenth century Emo kid with a penchant for self-harm and a dodgy taste in cornflower blue pantaloons still epitomises most people’s notion of what a poet should be. The stereotype may be romantically appealing, but it’s also alienating and disempowering. In a time when we have such a diverse and modern poetry scene, why does it still have such an abiding hold?

The myth of the otherworldly poet is as old as writing itself, but it’s the Wallis generation who really dug it in. Blindness has long been used to bestow divine authenticity upon poets, from Homer to the fictional Celtic bard Ossian, as if a lack of outer vision deepens the inner kind. However, it was the self-mythologising 19th-century Romantics, with their trembling apprehensions of the sublime, who really cemented the impression that a poet’s life must be as incompetent as his art is transcendent. And modern films are more than happy to sustain the stereotype by focusing on the frail and the fey – Tom and Viv, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, poor defenceless Sylvia.

Much great work has been done to show that poets are actually robust, engaged participants in, and contributors to, the world. From mainstream initiatives to underground collectives, there is a burgeoning and youthful poetry scene. Our most prestigious poets often seem specifically selected to bring out the reality in poetry’s ethereality, from the earthily intimate Heaney to the bracingly pedestrian Motion. But poetry is still presumed to be an unworldly pursuit.

Much of what lies behind this, I think, is that there is still no reliable, high-profile public platform through which poetry can engage with the issues of the day. Now, I’m the first to admit that politically partisan verse is very liable to be doggerel or worse. Motion’s official assignments cause me, and apparently him, pain.

But British poetry should be treated more like our theatre, which has come out blazing in recent years with engaged and topical treatments that are pieces of timelessly excellent art nonetheless. How about properly integrating poetry performance into the National’s repertoire? I would love to see long runs of the same poem or collection of poems, performed nightly, so they become part of national discussion, review and debate. As most poems also need close, slow, private reading to yield their riches, a published text to take away could be included in the ticket price.

No doubt many will instinctively cringe. As with theatre, universal emotional authenticity, rather than fashionable soapboxing, remains at the heart of great poetry. The demands to get bums on seats can compromise quality and range, and I am in no way advocating a utilitarian view of art. But, like actors and directors, poets are also flexible, engaged craftsmen, and must be included in the material and economic realities of the marketplace if versifying has a chance in hell of becoming a valuable and viable career.

At last weekend’s Battle of Ideas – an inspiring “open-ended exploration of new ideas, research and social trends” held at Kensington’s Royal College of Art – the poets I spoke to were worryingly quick to bemoan their redundancy in a cruel and capitalist world. One trio was particularly concerned about copyright, feeling raped and pillaged by the merciless denizens of the digital age. Social media is a tough and often anarchic environment; but they seemed more interested in lamenting their exploitation than learning how to make use of the new media.

Poets must be proactive in placing themselves visibly at the centre of temporal concerns, and devising ways to influence the national cultural landscape and give poetry a strong role in our everyday lives. Subsidy must provide public platforms – be that the National Theatre or some separate, dedicated venue, with a linked social media presence – to allow those interpretations to be heard. Keats may have said that “my imagination is a monastery and I am its monk”, but it’s time for poetry to come out and play.

Molly Flatt
Guardian Book Blog