Friday, 20 April 2012

Poetry and war imagery: why what we call stuff matters

The Soapbox has been quiet for a little while, but there have been a good number of poetry-related debates raging on the Facebookosphere, and I think it's about time I went on record and made my views known about some of them. I'm going to start with one that has turned my blood cold just lately.

Back in the glory days of beat poetry and Greenwich Village, poetry was a politically conscious, socially aware movement. In the Vietnam War era it tended to champion the cause of pacifism. More recently we've seen the likes of Ayat al-Gormezi standing up for the rights of poets to non-violent freedom of speech. Poetry, like every social activity (and I *DO* believe poetry to be a social activity) has a political dimension to it.

So I have to confess that the recent proliferation of performance poetry events using overly warlike imagery has left a rather sour taste in my mouth.

The very worst one I've come across used to take place in Leeds until a couple of years ago. I'll grant you that there's a certain linguistic cleverness in the use of the word "Letterbomb" as the name of a poetry night. Poems are made up of letters, and all poets like to think that their words might have the potency to demolish strongholds. But just think about the implications of the word for a minute. A letterbomb is a terrorist device, right? - usually the province of the sort of right-wing extremists whose ideologies are making uncomfortable headlines in the news right now. Do poets really want to have their words associated with this kind of an image?

There's an even more dangerous subtlety about "Bang! said the gun". Billing itself as "Stand-up poetry for those who don't like poetry", this regular London performance night attracts some of the UK's top names in performance poetry. Ian McMillan, the good old Bard of Barnsley, describes it as "One of the best poetry nights in the country" and says that "the combination of excitement, enthusiasm and deep, deep concentration on the poems is a wonder to behold." Its impending launch in Manchester was the reason I ended up embroiled in a Facebook row over the event's choice of name, and found myself roundly derided for daring to suggest that it was at best a tasteless choice, at worst a potentially dangerous one.

I can't fault the aims of the event - particularly when it sets itself up as the antidote to all that stuff about thwarted love and daffodils that I regularly take issue with in this blog. The world needs more urban (and suburban, and rural) live poetry events to take our art away from those who would turn it into mere intellectualism. The programme for the London events is one to make a small provincial literary promoter like me green with envy; and I can only assume that those who have guest-featured there in the past have no qualms about what the event calls itself. So why does it make me so uneasy?

Maybe it's the feeling that the name is a sensationalist one. That, in trying to draw a "non-poety" crowd, it's going for the language of gangsta rap, as if to suggest that it has more in common with the streets of downtown Compton than the South Bank Poetry Library. If this is the case, then I think it's on dangerous territory. An event that's trying to INclude can unconsciously EXclude through the language it uses, the imagery it portrays. And you'd have thought that poets, of all people, would be the first to realise this.

Maybe, as one commentator suggested, I'm taking all this way too seriously. But I can't shake the feeling that there's a matter of principle at stake here. I'd prefer to stand alongside the pacifist poets, the ones who believe that the language we use should be an antidote to the violent culture all around us, not pandering to it. What we call stuff, matters. It says something about what we stand for, the values we hold dear, the culture and mindset we want to pass on to the next generation.

And I guess that's why I won't be guest-featuring at "Bang! said the gun" anytime soon.