THE BLOG
07/09/2012 12:27 BST | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Crowd-Sourcing Poetry

2012 has been yet another demonstration of why the position of literature in the UK is unique. Where else would a national newspaper feature a poem on its front page , as The Guardian did recently with the poet laureate's Olympic poem, 'Translating the British, 2012'?

In this age of austerity, the word 'arts' is often followed by the word 'funding', which is usually followed by the word 'cuts.' But this language of giving, of ploughing money back into culture, can be is misleading. By couching arts investment in the language of money, we can start to lose touch of the huge cultural impact of the arts. Crowd-sourcing poetry is one way in which we can open up the conversation.

This year has seen a hefty number of large-scale literary projects across the UK, from poetry installed in the Olympic park to poetry carved into stones across the Yorkshire Dales, from thousands of poems dropped over London from a helicopter to a worldwide poetry project based in Scotland.

In other words, 2012 has been yet another demonstration of why the position of literature in the UK is unique. Where else would a national newspaper feature a poem on its front page , as The Guardian did recently with the poet laureate's Olympic poem, 'Translating the British, 2012'?

However, whereas we might judge the 'value' of investment in sports according to medals won in the Olympics, we cannot do the same with poetry. But this wasn't always the case. It is a little-known fact that, until as late as 1948, the modern Olympic games included a competition for poetry. Although the general quality of the Olympic poetry offers itself as an explanation of why the competition no longer exists, the very inclusion of an international poetry competition in the games seems like a good way of putting poetry into the minds of those who aren't actively seeking it.

I, for example, spent the Olympic fortnight cheering on handball, dressage and synchronised swimming, despite having no previous interest and absolutely no clue as to their rules. As long as they were on TV, I was watching. Sports, in this way, filtered from the specialists right down to myself over the course of a few weeks. How does it work for poetry, though? How can poetry trickle down into the popular imagination in the way that sports have, and how can we test for traces of literature in the mind of the modern Briton?

Crowd-sourcing is a great way of harvesting the crop sown by the arts charities and institutions funded across the country. By asking a large number of people from a wide demographic to contribute a line of poetry on a theme, we can weave a sort of countrywide brain-scan made up of words. The resulting poem is full of unique and often surprising reactions to the theme, written in the individual voices of a nation.

Back in 2004, Alice Oswald won the T.S. Eliot prize for her book-length poem Dart, which she described as 'a kind of jazz...written by the whole Dart community'. Over the three years previous to publication, Oswald interviewed and recorded the people who worked on the river and lived around it, orchestrating a strikingly original poem from their voices, adding her own to it. Crowd-sourcing takes this work a step further, putting the poet behind-the-scenes as an editor figure, and letting the unaltered lines of the country's populace do the work.

Crowd-sourcing is just one way in which we can open up a poetic conversation in our country: it puts the production of literature back in the hands of the people, and can give us an interesting insight into new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing the world. Instead of hearing a single voice, we hear a chorus, and the harmony is often in the discord. It offers the opportunity for people of all professions and lifestyles to contribute, and allows us to place a steady finger onto the pulse of our country's diverse culture, finding that it is alive through and through.

Seán Hewitt is Apprentice Poet-in-Residence at this year's Ilkley Literature Festival, and is crowd-sourcing a poem on the Yorkshire Dales. Follow him on Twitter for details and updates.