I’ve a gig in Bristol on March 1st – do come along if you live nearby – and I’m looking forward to it immensely. It’s a little different from your average poetry night. Yes, I get to do the usual, a 40-minute set of my own work – with a few new pieces thrown into the mix just to keep us all interested – but then, after an interval for everyone to wet the back of their throat with a couple of beers, we head off into what is, for me at least, unexplored territory.
Part of the brief for the evening is that for my second set of the night I get to pick, talk about, and share with the audience pieces of work by other authors which have inspired me. It doesn’t have to be poetry – the whole world of literature is up for grabs, so I’ve my work cut out to narrow the selection down. But while I was mulling this over as I walked the dog this morning, I found myself wondering… what’s the point of poetry in a time of austerity?
After all, there’s people out in the real world losing jobs, losing benefits, being hit with a bedroom tax, and generally struggling to make ends meet. There are cuts in services, libraries and swimming pools are closing, the future’s looking less than rosy, and the siren voices that encourage us to blame the ‘other’ (immigrants, the unemployed, people of different faiths, or a combination of all three) are shouting their hatred from the rooftops. In this climate, surely poetry’s an irrelevance, a self-indulgence. Isn’t it?*
Well, no. For me, my poems – whatever the subject matter – are an opportunity to express my heartfelt belief in our common humanity. A chance to focus on our hope for a better world as well as our reservations about the one we have. I think that’s important. The same is true about much of the work I love. It reminds us that the closer you get to an examination of someone else’s life, the harder it becomes to judge them, and the more you see them as a human being. Flawed, undoubtedly, but human nonetheless.
There’s a wonderful prose piece by the poet Adrian Mitchell, called ‘Naming The Dead’. Check it out, it’s worth reading in full. In it, he demands a world where ‘every death inflicted by any government [is] the subject of a book published at the state’s expense’. Each book would tell the victim’s life story, complete with pictures, interviews with friends, their taste in music, and so on. The result? War would become too expensive to wage. He finishes:
This is no bloody whimsy. I want a real reason for every killing.
Poetry at its best. Challenging, imaginative, and passionate. And very far from irrelevant. Right now, I’d say we need that just as much as ever. Wouldn’t you?
*For organisers of poetry events wondering how on earth what I do is ‘entertainment’, let me reassure you: I am available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and birthdays. I’m sure I can fit them in around my rabble-rousing meetings down the docks….