Back in 1979 the Hammersmith Poetry Festival had a pretty good bill. The NME, 25 August, 1979 tells us about it.
The Independent,18 March, 1998 gave performance poetry a glowing write up. The then big names have largely disappeared. The bloke with the loudhailer shouting “fuck” at the Poetry Cafe was Dom Joly. He filmed a few bits of Trigger Happy TV at the cafe’s open mic’ Unplugged night.
Atomic Lip’s video on YouTube is used by several poetry teachers as a how not to do it. The Independent: tomorrow’s chip wrappers and all that.
The word on the street is upbeat – poetry as a performing art is making a comeback, aided by Litpop and a three-day festival.
By Dominic Cavendish
He looks like your worst idea of a poet, squared. He shuffles up to the microphone in tattered old jeans and a shirt untouched by iron or fabric conditioner, his hair wild, his eyes wilder. He starts muttering over the general chatter, “Break through to the other side,” over and over again. It sounds like an exhortation to leave, but suddenly a breath- defying rap fills the musty air of Islington’s Big Word club: “This is for the cover bands, yeah … the coward cover-uppers up-and-comers unoriginal and virginal uninspired and too scared to try insipids,” he hisses. The audience are gobsmacked.
You may have caught MC Jabber’s fleeting appearances after the Channel 4 evening news over the past few weeks. Along with three other relatively unknown poets (Jillian Tipene, Patience Agbabi and Pink Sly) and the rather well known old Lutonian, John Hegley, he has been given three five-minute slots in a series entitled Litpop. These pop-promo-style interventions are tied in with a three-day festival of word power to be held next week at London’s 100 Club.
The intention behind Litpop is to help up the profile and reputation of versifiers who write with an eye to performance rather than publication, a species often treated with more condescension than a scatty great-aunt. The timing is fortuitous: in pub backrooms across town, the talk among struggling performers is upbeat. The London performance poetry scene may be small, they’ll tell you, but nevertheless it’s the biggest and best in the world. Across the country, the Bristol and Cheltenham-led cult of the poetry slam – imported from the US – in which the public give the yea or nay to try-out bards, is generating grass-roots enthusiasm for sweet poesy.
Huddersfield-based MC Jabber and Brixton-bred Pink Sly are being hailed as stars – comparable to yesteryear’s quicksilvered punkster-rhymster John Cooper Clarke and dub dude Benjamin Zephaniah. This generation is also claiming its inheritance from the Sixties, when the Mersey Sound and the Beats garnered media attention on both sides of the Atlantic as re-energisers of the spoken word, for so long muffled in ivory towers.
“Poetry you can dance to,” the Litpop festival fliers promise.
It’s not an entirely fanciful notion: after all, one of the most striking bits of footage from the first International Poetry Incarnation, a massed gathering of scribes at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, is of a woman slowly gyrating during Allen Ginsberg’s performance. The sight of someone giving it large to Jabber’s information-overloaded algorithms (Ginsberg’s “Howl” on speed, if you will) or Pink Sly’s laid-back mock national anthems is all the more likely, given that, like many performance poets today, they take their influences from club culture.
The Litpop line-up boasts an array of names that wouldn’t look out of place on club fliers: JCOOI, Jonzi D, Malika B, Stricke 9. Jabber (aka Scott Martingell) started out five years ago doing spots at all-day festivals and raves and now regularly provides his own “nutritional beats per minute” for up to an hour in a number of northern clubs. Jonzi D dances to his hip-hop “choreopoems”, Jillian Tipene does a Maori haka, while Pink Sly has been known to get his audience doing the conga during his set. Not to be outdone, Hegley has his “Poem de Terre”, which requires the donning of a brown paper bag, a slow jig, potato-tossing and, preferably, a muddy field to do it in.
Steve Tasane, organiser of the festival and member of Atomic Lip, “poetry’s first pop band”, believes that “people who go out and get drunk on a Friday night, or go to clubs, can relate to the rhythms they’re hearing. They can get an immediate buzz from it.” The Lip, who previewed their show a few weeks ago, certainly provide buzz. On stage, Tasane, shaven-headed and sporting a low-cut black Lycra dress and fish-net tights, looked more like a Martian poet than Craig Raine ever did. In grinding polyvocal arrangements, the quartet fenced with acronyms, celebrated the grunts and groans of sex and sexuality, and looped repetitive sounds in a bitter house music pastiche.
So far, so literal. Ginsberg, inspecting Liverpool’s pop poetry in 1965, enthused, after William Blake, “Albion, Albion, your children dance again”. However, the dancing he spoke of was a metaphorical leaping for joy; a state of transcendence. Michael Horovitz, one of the prime movers since the Fifties behind the UK’s rediscovery of the oral tradition, civilisation’s fount, speculated in 1968 that “given free rein [poems] might subtly evaporate the dominion of commercial interests, aggressive nationalisms and governments as we know them.” Unshackled language was being reclaimed for the people.
The downside of this democratic impulse was that roll your own verse acquired a bad reputation. “Performers got very lazy,” says Tasane. “In the Eighties, the general view was that performance poetry was crap. And it was. There are still a lot of poets who are talentless or who make no effort to put on a decent show and they’re holding the scene back. Things have to get slicker, glossier.”
Surrounded by papers and old Evian boxes in his Notting Hill residence, still smarting from his commercially unsuccessful 1996 Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, Horovitz concedes that these are different times. Poetry has to struggle to be heard above the competing din of the mass media, but glossiness is not the answer. He is currently working on `The New Waste Land”, an update of TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, in which he lashes out at the hyping of Murray Lachlan Young, the 28-year-old poetaster who shot to fame on the back of a mega-bucks EMI deal (now ended) and who is currently appearing in a TV ad for Virgin Atlantic. He connects it with the soundbite politics of New Labour. I’m all for everyone trying their hand at poems, but if the result is that thousands of untalented people dream of making it as stars, that’s the last thing they should be encouraged to do.”
You can still hear the voice of everyman during open spots and slams. In Ladbroke Grove, a woman describes the universe from a worm’s point of view; in Cheltenham, an 84-year-old recites an ode to a tablecloth; at London’s Poetry Cafe “Unplugged” night, a man materialises with a loudhailer, intones the word “fuck” for five minutes, then vanishes. Amusing, maybe even touching, but hardly the best advertisement for the scene. Perhaps MC Jabber, whose combination of homeless chic and quickfire technique can draw crowds, offers the best compromise solution. “Poetry’s the last bastion for uncommercialised expression. It’s also a service and these days, we all have to be good little service providers, don’t we?”
Words to make anyone’s lips curl.
Record Mirror, June 28, 1980 reviews The Slits, The Pop Group, The Raincoats, John Cooper Clarke at ‘Beat The Blues’ Festival, Alexandra Palace, London.
And the rain came down, only temporarily dampening spirit soon to be lifted by one J Cooper Clarke who had even the drollest of trendies smirking self-conciously to themselves. Popular classics like ‘I Married A Monster From Outa Space’, and the finale ‘Beasley Street’ warmed the audiesnce quicker than the spasmodic sunshine.
Favourite of many was a poem described by John as, “A love poem in reverse”, about a girl zealously hated by all: “You put the ‘-‘ in Scunthorpe, you took the rain to Spain.” Next came an autobiographical piece about a baby called Larry, mistakenly delivered to Siberia and ending up as an English poet. The end, however, was dramatically interrupted by a punk with bleeding head scrambling onto the stage for help after which a rotund, officious sounding head-steward gave a peace-loving speech. “I think I was outside the take-away”, continued a calm Cooper-Clarke.
The Raincoats started off abysmally: Out of tune, harmonies untogether and somewhat confused, they didn’t get into their stride until ‘Lola’ five numbers into their set. It became obvious that The Raincoats had already done their best, with the piece de resistence two numbers from their debut E.P.: ‘Don’t Get Personal’, and ‘No Side To Falling’. So where do they go from here? The raincoats cannot afford to be casual or uninterested but they do not seem to care.
The Pop Group determined to liven up the “straights” in the audience put on a show hard on the ears but highly amusing. Gareth, their zany guitarist come violinist and dubious part-time vocalist provided the best of the day’s antics with leaps and bounds including knocking a mike stand onto the eager photographers below.
mark’s voice was in it’s usual gravelley form as he blasted red-faced from the stage. Obvious songs like ‘We Are All Prostitutes’, and ‘No-One Is Innocent’ were played with frenzied enthusiasm to the bopping punters. ‘For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?’, was introduced by Gareth, with a picture of Brezhnev, to whom it was dedicated. Aimed at the supposed Socialist Morning Star contingent, this had little effect on the public who were there to see the bands, rather than attend a political rally. In fact the only political force outwardly apparent was manifested in a few surly NF skins.
Ari couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and dressed like one just to make sure that we could. Gabbling away in what sounded like some West Indian tongue, she hopped around the stage in and out of the bongo’s like a tribal princess, livening the performance from the start with a rocking, if not scrappy ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ but much enjoyed. The set, if a little draughty, went well, but The Slits aren’t really an outdoor band, the conditions not lending themselves to their usual intimate, whirlwind performance reserved for night-time.
The gigs were good, with suprisingly clear sound, sometimes shoddily mixed, but well organised. However, there was trouble. Three injured punters hospitalised out of nearly three thousand isn’t bad, but of course, there shouldn’t have been any. All in all it was an enjoyable occasion, at least a different way to spend a Sunday afternoon. By the by, did you know there is a nuclear bunker in Alexandra Park?
The first anthology from Apples and Snakes gets a review in Jamming!, number 21, October, 1984. Funnily enough it’s an anthology that at times when Salena Godden and I are drunk we get the book of the shelf and play “Where are they now?”
Also reviewed are books by Adrian Mitchell and an anthology of West Indian poetry edited by James Berry. There’re a few poems from readers too.
A look at the role of the Poet Laureate from Marxism Today, 4 July, 1984. Michelene Warner was writing shortly after the death of encumbant Sir John Betjeman, she’s a bit off as to her tips as Ted Hughes, who she described as being ‘deeply murky’ and ‘too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus’ got the job. She also thinks that ‘no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will’ whilst things have moved on and we have Carol Anne Duffy as Laureate at present, and one who’s making good use of the position.
LAURELS AND HARDY POETS
Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate since 1972, died on May 19,1984. The newspapers and other media have been full of tributes to his popularity as a poet, a mild man, living simply in Cornwall, keen on lawns and cricket and the calm values of suburbia in his poetry. A man, also, who took an active role in the preservation of Victorian and other buildings of genuine architectural interest. An Anglican, Godfearing, and presumably sufficiently monarch-loving man. The tributes skate lightly over the sub-doggerel he produced in the line of royal duty; and they also don’t bother to mention the convention of the British gentleman’s sexist leering at women which were so integral to his Sunday afternoon poetry. It is absolutely true that he caught at a very powerful part of the middle-brow British imagination, and his popularity in sales terms (a quarter of a million books even before the Royal appointment) testifies to the mass of that imagination.
The many tributes that have appeared, and no doubt will continue to appear, show just respect to one of the Grand Old Men of British poetry, for of course male is exactly what they are. Despite the fact that the names of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were whispered around the nineteenth century as possibles for the Laureateship, no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will. And anyway, if it is really the anachronism it appears to be, with no real state function in its own right, and certainly with no significant relationship to the rest of poetry scene, whether a man or a woman holds the post is entirely irrelevant.
The only minimal virtue the post has is the media attention it draws upon the two occasions of the appointing and the death of the Laureate. At those times a scattering of other establishment poetic names hit the press, a few more books by the already successful poets are sold, the bookmakers get their books out, bets are laid, words are exchanged between Buck House and the Arts Council, and there is a new appointee.
The current favourite is Philip Larkin, and by all that’s logical he should get it. Despite his more bleak outlook — he lacks the jolly hockey-sticks legacy of Betjeman’s upper-middle-class background — he carries the flag of lace-curtain suburbia high, along with a suitably repressed British sexuality. Others — such as the deeply murky Ted Hughes, and the barrack-room ribaldry of civvie street Gavin Ewart — are altogether a bit too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus.
Candidates who have not even appeared on the list of possibles are worth mentioning only to indicate where the taboos fall. If, for example, we wanted an articulate, moving and also sardonic satirist, it is Roger Woddis we should be after; but he is altogether too (sshh) political (I mean left-wing) to be acceptable. Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke, the two giants who have emerged through the 1970s as rhythmic and socially critical wordsmiths, both brilliant performers, both showing a streetwise verbal richness in their different ways that is highly original — well, too crude, too rude, too clever. In the very olden days satirists and political
commentators were acceptable to a degree: Ben Jonson, though not strictly speaking Poet Laureate, was certainly paid to write masques, and the first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden.
Any genuine political poetry was made tacitly impossible by the Poet Laureate who has the worst reputation: the nineteenth-century Alfred Austin, whose first public act of loyalty was to write the most appalling clip-clop doggerel in praise of the abortive raid in the Transvaal, led by Dr Jameson against the Boers. Austin’s crime was not the badness of the poem, but the fact that he expressed what was probably the real jingoism of the government of the day, who were acutely embarrassed by the Raid — not by the fact that it had happened, but by the fact that it had failed. Queen and government were right behind Cecil Rhodes and his expansion in Africa, and it was the humiliating failure that made Austin’s jingoism so embarrassing.
More important than the Laureateship itself is the state today of the art of which he (sic) is thought to be the head. Despite the recent small rumble of cabaret poetry, Betjeman’s period has been marked by an actual decline in resources for poetry. In the late 60s and early 70s there were many small poetry presses, and a great variety of material being published. Through a mixture of exhaustion, increased costs and withdrawal of subsidy, many of these have disappeared. Magazines which used to appear regularly now only appear very occasionally. The establishment of poets in residence is under threat because of the cuts. The major publishing houses cut back on poetry publishing in the mid-late 70s, and have a long way to go before they can return to some of the variety of a decade ago. The result is that the poetry ‘establishment’ is again — as it was in the mid-60s — in the hands of a small number of literary gentlemen, most of whom fetishise lack of feeling and lack of commitment to anything more than small and cautionary experience.
It is not just a matter of more money for poetry — though that would always be nice. It is also something to do with the way poetry is simultaneously revered as the highest of the arts, and treated as its Cinderella, by the literary establishment. In left-wing journalism poetry is feared or dismissed as bourgeois individualism and
discounted by radical publishers as ‘not selling’; and meanwhile all good radicals and true scribble away their closet poetry — or their closet novels.
The extraordinary thing is that poets keep emerging and poetry continues to be written. The fact that it will never die as a literary form which speaks from and to the most intimate of personal/political feeling, and the fact that it is through poetry that the meanings in language and imagery are flexed and tested, should not mean that we should not be concerned about the material ways in which poetry is distributed and encouraged. And the dazzle of the Laureate’s crown will not make any difference at all to this.
Suprisingly things aren’t much different today, despite the interweb, Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and grime. The situation for radical poetry is discussed in this Marxism Today article from February, 1984.
A Spotlight feature, The Trouble With Poetry
There is a prevalent view in white culture of the poet as droopy decadent self-indulgent aesthete shrinking from political change and hiding from the real world to pen banal or unintelligible laments about eternal truths. Poetry is set up in opposition to politics; people working in politics think poetry has nothing to do with them.
The romantic image of the absinthe swilling velvet-cloaked garret-dwelling outsider separates the poet as hero and prophet from ordinary people. It also conceals the fact that most poets are poor and enjoy their poverty no more than other deprived persons. And this romantic view, while to some extent feminising the poet (so that some skinhead poets I know need to reassure their audiences that you can
remain a Real Man despite scribbling rhyming couplets), completely denies the existence of women poets, who may also be mothers hard at work in, and perhaps also outside, the home.
Poetry was once an oral art practised in public. Lullabies, ballads, riddles, curses and chants were shaped and passed on by ordinary women and men as well as by professionals. Though poetry has become, since the fourteenth century, increasingly associated with books written and read by the literate elite, the oral tradition has continued boldly on, in this country flowering anew since the war to produce a rich variety of poets.
Marxist theory speaks of man controlling nature, has no concepts to deal with gender and sexual difference, and tacitly accepts the idea of woman as part of nature to be controlled and exploited for man’s ends: literally hundreds of women break into poetry to demonstrate that by accepting we have bodies and are part of nature, we create culture and press for change. Poets like Alison Fell, Judith Kazantzis, Michelene Wandor, Janet Dube, Stef Pixner, Gillian Allnutt and Berta Freistadt perform their work in pubs, clubs, cafes, meetings and bookshops across the country.
A similar upsurge of black poets has occurred. The experience of oppression in this country backed up by whites’ attempts to deny it has led black poets to mine the riches of Caribbean culture and mix proud angry words with music to testify to their need and determination to survive racism and celebrate a history whites would rather forget. Lynton Kwesi Johnson, now internationally known through his live appearances and his albums, recently completed a successful national tour with Manchester bard John Cooper Clarke, thus proving that black and white can cooperate. He is just one among many: John Agard, Grace Nichols, James Berry, Keith Jefferson, to name but a few.
Some white working-class poets go so far as to declare that poetry is dead and long live rant. The Ranters, drawn from north and south, include Attila the Stockbroker, Joolz, Seething Wells, Little Brother, Little Dave; they draw on the tradition of scurrilous ballads in rhyme and, like the other groups, produce their own fanzines and magazines.
I emphasise that the lists of names above are short owing to the constraints of space, and apologise to all the poets whose names I have omitted. The current poetry revival challenges elitism: any selection of poets is invidious, and in this case is based on my experience as a white feminist.
The public role of the new generation of radical poets is, oddly enough, aided by the current recession. As theatre companies close for lack of funds and grants, so the actors involved have re-formed into variety acts performing at the many cabarets which have sprung up across London and other large cities and which offer a cheap night out: beer and music, mime, comedy, poetry and backchat.
This is very different from the hushed churchly atmosphere associated with traditional poetry readings where the emphasis remains on the written text read from rather than performed in a mixed-media entertainment setting. Instead of welcoming the diversity of choice now available, which reflects our multi-cultural society, some establishment poets ignore it. The recently published Penguin anthology Contemporary British Poetry, for example, caused a furore by concentrating solely on the work of a small elite group of poets (all white and mostly male) and omitting all the poets discussed above. And there are still plenty of critics happy to disdain as tainted or corrupt poetry that is in any way connected to politics, to dismiss feminist poets as shrill hysterics, and to patronise working-class and black poets as occasionally interesting minority inhabitants of a peripheral zoo.
These new poets are frightening, subversive and dangerous. Radical poetry heals the splits our culture inflicts as necessary (common-sense) wounds between intellect and body, man and woman, mother and
revolutionary, conscious and unconscious, theory and ideology. Radical poetry tries to speak what has been unspeakable: working-class , black and female experience. The Left is not always comfortable with this. Nor am I: other poets give me disturbing, shifting images which don’t correspond to my yearnings for simple socialist-feminist heroism. Radical poetry allows the unconscious back in. Labelling it as irrational, opposing it to scientific theory doesn’t make it go away. Poetry makes us laugh or shudder or weep or desire when perhaps we’d rather fantasise controlling the world through a political language which is almost never playful and inventive. The Right understands the power of the unconscious and exploits it in rituals and ideology, utilises the energy of repressed yearnings and conflicts. If we on the Left want to unblock more of our creative energy for change, we need to let poetry (a way of thinking, of understanding, of being) back into our politics.