Sunday, 31 March 2013

Poetry transvestism?

It's not all that long ago that I was blogging about the possible demise of the York Literature Festival - one more victim of an austerity regime that seems to place little value on the power of the creative arts. Thankfully, the Festival has survived. This year it recorded its most triumphant season yet, with over 2000 tickets sold for a variety of shows ranging from big-name gigs to smaller community arts ventures. There was a veritable buzz about the Festival this year - ample proof that all that energy, enthusiasm and creativity has not been in vain.

One thing that struck me very forcefully about this year's Festival was the capacity for poetry to manifest itself in all kinds of guises that one wouldn't automatically think of as poetry. It crept up on this year's audiences in other guises - wearing the clothes of other artforms, if you will, a sort of literary transvestism.

It manifested itself most clearly in this year's headline act - a double-header, featuring on the one hand a fairly conventional poetry reading by the Poet Laureate herself, Carol Ann Duffy, and on the other a sublime fusion of classic verse with rock 'n' roll in the guise of poetic troubadours Little Machine. Little Machine are a couple of 90s stadium-rock survivors who have teamed up with a performance poet to present several thousand years' worth of poetry - from Sappho through Shakespeare to Philip Larkin's infamous "This Be the Verse" - in a variety of infectious musical arrangements. Some were sublime, some ridiculous, but all were calculated to get right under the skin and leave you humming along. When they handled classic texts, they had the gift of breathing new freshness into words which were otherwise over-familiar, giving them a whole new lease of life. When they set contemporary verse, they created a whole new way of approaching an art form that is all too easily dismissed out of hand as too serious, too difficult, or too intellectual. The great joy of Little Machine is that they showed just how wrong this stereotyping of poetry can be.

Little Machine aren't the first musicians to do this, of course. Last year I had the great pleasure of seeing my personal folk-rock heroes, The Waterboys, electrify the stage with a concert performance of An Appointment with Mr Yeats, an entire album's worth of musical settings of the poetry of WB Yeats. And if Little Machine surprised and delighted, the sheer power of the Waterboys' rendition of The Hosting of the Shee was enough to blow you backwards off your chair.

Poetry and music, of course, go hand in hand as art forms. An even more intelligent form of poetic transvestism took place in the form of Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby's show Kids: a poetry cycle ostensibly inspired by the film reel of Charlie Chaplin's silent classic, The Kid, but underpinned fundamentally by the writers' experiences of working with deprived and troubled teenagers in the most recession-hit areas of north-east England. The power of Kids came not just from the words, the mimes that accompanied them, and the excerpts from Chaplin's original movie that played out as the backdrop to the show (to the accompaniment of a brand-new piano score). It came, most of all, from the quiet anger of the social commentary that infused each poem. This was poetry in the form of an art that wasn't afraid to challenge the status quo, and ask the big questions of how and why society has ended up in such a mess, and what are we going to do about it?

I'll even admit to having a go at a bit of poetic transvestism myself. Telling the Fairytale, my first ever show for the Festival, wasn't really my show at all, if I'm honest: it was a collaborative effort between me and my good friend, storyteller Helen M Sant, to recreate some classic pieces of folklore and re-tell them in a 21st century context. In some ways, Telling the Fairytale was the exact opposite of Kids. Instead of contemporary social comment, here we had timeless fairy stories. Instead of a Powerpoint projector and a piano, our backdrop was an icy cold, medieval gothic church. But the reason I love fairy tales lies in the layers of imagery and metaphor behind them. The archetypes of fairy story may hark back to a bygone age, but they represent real concerns. Love, abandonment, social disconnection, mental illness - and the ultimate need we all have, for that happily-ever-after. Being able to wrap these concerns in the cloak of familiar childhood stories provides a way in for an audience, where a direct approach to the subject in a poem might be hollow or trite. Being able to perform these poems, set against some wonderful contemporary storytelling and a haunting flute accompaniment, made an hour of sheer enchantment.

It seems that rumours of the death of literature in York have been very much exaggerated. It's well and truly thriving, and often in the most unexpected guises. All art is richer when it collaborates, when it draws from experience beyond itself. And poetry, perhaps, most of all.

So that's my challenge to poets for 2013. Try on someone else's clothes for size, and see how they feel. An artist's, a musician's, a social campaigner's. You could find a new freedom in your writing. And, perhaps most importantly, you might find new audiences too.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pretentious poets

I'm not convinced that performance poet Tim Ellis will thank me for name-checking him at the start of a blog post headed "Pretentious Poets." But it's thanks to him that I'm writing this post. Tim and I have different poetic backgrounds and interests, which has made for some lively online debates in the past couple of years. While we often disagree about specifics, we mostly keep a healthy respect for the other's point of view.

But I cannot, ever, agree with Tim that the work of TS Eliot deserves to be consigned to the poetic dustbin.

I should add that Tim is one of the least pretentious poets I've ever met. As a writer he's a genius of rhyme and rhythm; as a performer, he was a worthy winner of the 2011 York Poetry Slam, for which I was part of the judging panel.

As I understand it, Tim's take on TS Eliot is this. TS Eliot is a pretentious poet. Much of his work is so thick with obscure allusions to ancient Greek and Roman civilisation that it's impossible to find a way into it unless you have a higher degree in classical literature. And, surely, any poetry that is this hard to understand just adds fuel to the argument that poetry is something that's disconnected from reality, and simply not worth bothering with.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument – and it's one that has made me think about why I first started writing poetry. I came to poetry relatively late in life, following teenage years filling bookshelves full of ring binders with really bad novels of epic proportion. My poems started life as stories that I was trying to tell: some to fathom out the problems of the world or the complexities of the people around me; others, simply to capture the mood on one particular day or in one special place. "Art", for its own sake, was practically non-existent in my list of priorities.

Accessibility is always really important if you're trying to tell a story. And it's the same with my poetry. If people don't get what my poems are going on about, then on some level the poem hasn't worked.

The trouble is, other poets don't write for the same reasons that I do. There are many who write for no other reason than the joy of artistic expression. They don't necessarily need an audience; and when they get one, it may not matter if not everyone in the audience can understand what they're going on about.

Which brings me back to TS Eliot. His approach to poetry was in many ways the polar opposite of mine. Yet, when I blogged awhile back about "The Ten Poems that Changed my Life", The Waste Land was one of the poems I listed.

There is something magical for me about this poem. Eliot's ability to draw scenes and atmospheres, to get deep into the guts of his characters' (and his readers') dreams and fears, and the sheer musicality of his free verse – all these things weave a sort of spell about me. It doesn't matter that three-quarters of the classical allusions go straight over my head. Somehow The Waste Land bypasses my head and echoes inside my gut in a way that few poems have ever done.

Four Quartets, by contrast, leaves me cold. The layers of classical and artistic reference are so thick here that to me they're completely impenetrable. There's nothing I can latch on to or identify with. The atmospheric quality of The Waste Land is missing, the rhythm and musicality of the words seem to be lacking too. Its philosophising is abstract, self-indulgent. It makes no connection with me and sheds no light whatsoever on the world around me.

There seem to me to be a lot of poets who have been encouraged to write in a way reminiscent of what Eliot does in Four Quartets. The end result is to daze the reader with intellect. This can be done very cleverly; even though I don’t understand the end result of Four Quartets, I can at least tell that there's a master craftsman at work. Mostly, though, it just seems insufferably smug.

If there is a huge intellectual hurdle to be overcome before you can appreciate poetry, to me it is not good poetry, no matter how many awards it wins. Outside the rarefied atmosphere of literary circles, the misconception that 'serious' poetry is something too snobbish for the average man or woman in the street is still one that's all too common. And any poet dead set on propagating that misconception is going straight into my personal rejection bin. They're not telling a story. They're not even enchanting their readers with a glimpse of a dream. To put it bluntly, all they are doing is showing off how clever they are.

I'm really, really proud that there so many good poets on the Yorkshire scene who show that it is possible to be serious about your poetry without it becoming pretentious. The poetry world doesn't need another TS Eliot; one is quite enough, thank you very much. If a few regulars in the learned poetry journals could learn to be a bit less TS Eliot and a bit more Tim Ellis, they'd be doing all of us a favour.