Sunday, 17 July 2011
'Don't Ask What Poetry Can Do for You, Ask What.....'
I spent last week end at the Ledbury Poetry Festival and closed the festival with Joy of Six. I was put up by a lovely local family who made myself and a fellow Sixer more than welcome. I never ceased to be amazed at the kindness of strangers (she says taking a Blanche Dubois pose) who are willing to invite poets into their homes, we are a strange breed often with stranger habits and yet these good souls open their homes to us; so three cheers for all the unsung heroes who put up poets all over the country.
Ledbury is a great festival with a healthy ‘broad church’ of poets from pink fairy ladies enticing children in to create poetry cup cakes, to full-on performance such as the Anti Poet, to Anthony Thwaite, who would not feel aggrieved at being described as not the 'Anti-poet'. The resident poet for the Festival was Ian Duhig who produced some really interesting work as a result of that residency. One of the stars for me was Helen Mort reading from her new pamphlet the 'Lie of the Land' especially a sequence of poems about the Miners strike in 1984 and in particular the Battle of Orgreave. She talks about where this sequence ‘Scab’ comes from on her own blog here so I won’t reinvent the wheel by outlining its background suffice it to say she drew in part on her experience of watching a re-make documentary film made by Jeremy Deller. It was a good reading, in fact I was so slow out of the starting blocks at the end I missed buying a copy of the pamphlet as it sold out in a flurry of eager poetry punters.
I found listening to this sequence engendered a mix of emotions; my uncle was a miner but significantly a Nottinghamshire miner. Mention the Nottinghamshire miners in some parts of South Wales, County Durham or Yorkshire and they may well spit in your face for what was seen as their treachery in not coming out on strike in 84. In fact I happened to mention that my uncle was a miner when once doing a reading in South Wales and when the penny dropped that he was a Nottinghamshire miner the air went distinctly frosty. If you listen to these audio memoirs of Nottinghamshire miners you can hear the very real dilemma these Nottinghamshire miners found themselves in as their region had balloted not to join the strike and they eventually formed their own union.
By then my uncle had died in his fifties of cancer and silicosis brought on by years at the pit. I don’t know whether he would have ever crossed a picket line if he had still been working but I tend to think he wouldn’t have, not because I want to have a ‘rosy’ PC view of my families socialist credentials but because he would have hated to be called a scab by anyone, in those mining communities that word holds such enormous power and baggage that it still has the ability to separate whole families to this day.
As a couple they both understood what the cohesive power of a trade union could achieve. My aunt, his wife, was one of the first female shop steward at the Players cigarette factory and she had fought long and hard not only for female representation in the union but for better pay and conditions for female workers. I listened for years to her tales and my mother’s tales (she also worked there before she married) of the conditions in that factory for women in the thirties and forties. I wrote a sequence of poems about her experience and my mother's using an old copy of the regulations issued by the employers at that time. It was part of the way of thinking for them that a union was the surest safeguard against exploitation.
Thankfully the coal dust made the decision for my uncle before he had to face the dilemma of whether to come out on strike and now all the pits have gone in Nottinghamshire and the slag heap from the pit that you could see from my aunt and uncle’s house is now greened over and part of a new park.
So to rewind, I found Helen Mort’s sequence very moving and also very exciting because it managed to combine real poetry with social commentary without becoming polemic which it can so often do. I wonder whether poetry on the whole has tended to offload strong social commentary onto the singer song writers these days. Poetry in the past has always been at the fore front of political and social commentary and in many other countries throughout the world it still is. If we English (and I am being specific here) write about it we often dress it up in irony or satire , this is a well established tradition, political views should only be inferred from poems. Perhaps poets (and I include myself in this) are a little afraid of appearing a little too self-righteous because poetry is supposed to show not tell, is supposed to somehow remain unsullied by the poets own strongly held views. These views are meant to be inferred by how the poet writes or the subject matter the poet chooses. Palestinian poets, Balkan poets, North Korean poets, all poets who have written poems of direct confrontation that have made them at risk of imprisonment or worse, they have created work of great courage, probing the status quo. Around the world words are important as they carry the weight of certain freedoms.
Here in the UK , well probably in Western societies in the main, we can write whatever we like within the current laws against slander, libel , racism and sexual discrimination and very little happens. Consequences are minimal, even Ezra Pound is still regarded as within the poetry ‘church’ despite his fascism and racism; he even wrote that his imprisonment was conducive to writing, with unwanted visitors kept from his door and a place assigned to him for his writing. The Welsh, Scots and Irish have produced twentieth and twenty-first century poets who were and are formed and informed by their political context, political freedoms are still a burning issue and continue to influence poetry. Sometimes I long for a bit more passion and fire in English poetry at present. Of course I know there are a number of poets who have written poems that contain aspects of real ‘social blood and guts’ without resorting to rant but they seem to be few and far between. Of the ‘bigger’ names’ , Farley, Tony Harrison and Armitage can pull out the political stops in a beautifully crafted way when they put their minds to it. Sometimes I want to feel that a poem is really important to the poet, that it comes from a passionate place, that if they didn’t create the poem they would be eaten up by the need to write it.
The governance of the Poetry Society is still up for debate and an EGM may help or hinder the better running of that society. A lot of poets or those interested in poetry have been tweeting, blogging, Facebooking, emailing, Youtubing and generally addressing the issues from various viewpoints. To take a step back I find it healthy that people want to take their freedoms and their rights seriously, that those currently in power are questioned and held accountable and that people are passionate about how poetry can best be made a thriving part of society . However I doubt whether how anyone votes at the EGM will resonate down through the years as strongly as the outcomes of votes for the Miners Strike in 84. There may be a bit of finger pointing, general bitchiness for a while and some may come out of the whole affair worse or better than they went into it. If the whole edifice comes tumbling down then it will be difficult for a number of people but not for as many as a local factory closing, as has happened near me. Poets will continue to write, some will get published and a few will be read and the best of them may be remembered into the next generation and perhaps beyond. I suppose to misquote Kennedy the question is ‘Don't ask what poetry can do for you but what poetry can do for society’. Writing poems about what really matters most to people in their lives, be that emotionally, socially or politically, may be a small part of that doing.