NME, 5th December, 1981
Keeping The Torch Alight
Neil Spencer visits the Poetry Olympics at the Young Vic and finds out that poets need not be a race apart.
Halfway through the Poetry Olympics on a dark and blustery November night to a bored, half empty theatre, a drunken R D Laing, noted psycho-therapist and latterly literatus and Chrysalis recording artist, was relating how he once listened to his heartbeat and heard it stop for several minutes before it resumed. “I suppose I had what is usually ‘a heart attack’,” he concluded.
British poetry had a similar heart attack for the best part of a decade. Everything went quiet, at least for any public outside the dedicated literary tribe. The pulse flickered out somewhere at the start of the ’70s, around the time the ’60s school of music and poetry vanished into the Sunday supplements, the ad agencies, domestic bliss, its own delusions, or wherever the hell it was that that movement and most of its generation went.
The British muse kept alive, of course, feeding off scraps in bedsits and selling the odd slim volume in grass roots bookshops., but she was in as moribund a state as our music, then brooding in its pub-rock beer.
Just as the music needed a sharp blow to its head with a stick called Punk, only virtual open-heart surgery from the likes of John Cooper-Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson seemed to set the muse’s old mama heartbeat pumping the vital juices through the nation’s cultural bloodstream again. Recently, in spite of the ‘recession’, the clampdown, or perhaps even because of them, things have been looking up for the muse. The cross-cultural success of such as JCC and LKJ, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll; the ghost of Jim Morrison; the endurance of writers like Barry McSweeney and Ian Sinclair; the impact of the Women’s Press; the example of the East Europeans; a burst of new poetry ‘zines, many of them music-related or -inspired; fresh focus and renewed commitment from old warhorses as their nostrils whiff the sharp stench of the ’80s . . . yes, things are definitely looking up for the muse, though the pulse is still faint. . .
But soft, something stirs on the margins of old Father Thames; ’tis yon Michael Horowitz, a bard of these shores some twenty years or more, and indefatigable defender of the muse and tireless self-publicist. Also organiser and compere of the Poetry Olympics, which last year was a slightly disastrous day at Westminster Abbey and which this year is spread across a weekend at Waterloo’s Young Vic Theatre. More than 20 poets will appear, an international array in true Olympian spirit.
Horowitz is a veteran of many campaigns, and if he still talks sometimes as though the famed 1966 Albert Hall reading with Ginsberg was an all-time satori, and dresses with the supreme bad taste of an original beatnik raver, he’s astute enough to realise that the involvement of someone like Paul Weller in the poetry scene could open it right up again to ’60s proportions. He also makes sure that after each gig there’s a party where the poets and their various camp followers can get drunk and trade literary banter. So it is that one comes to see, for example, R D Laing and Elizabeth Scott dancing (rather well) to Chic’s ‘Le Freak’.
Night number one was a Saturday afternoon, right past closing time. Most of the children of Albion are disporting themselves at soccer match and department store, but the muse’s good looks are sufficiently restored to fill the Young Vic with some 300 highly assorted citizens. The theatre is presenting Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and the stage set – a magnificent royal court crested with sheaves of hay and similar symbols of harvest fertility – provides an epic backdrop for the proceedings.
The first poet echoes the imagery, for part of the growing reputation of Heathcote Williams, who shambles on in an overcoat straight from the back of Worzel Gummidge and a goofy court jester grin, comes from his masterly rendition of the sorcerer Prospero in Derek Jarman’s movie of Bill Shake’s The Tempest.
Williams writes in a variety of forms (check his brilliant stage monologue Hancock’s Last Half Hour, fans of the lad himself), and today he reads a selection from his punchy metaphysical confrontations – “Death treats world wars like a line of good coke” – and casts a warm spell.
Liz Lockhead is stocky and Scottish (from Dunfermline) and into her thirties; her poems are pithy and often quite bitter comments on the emotional blackmail and bargaining in the familial and romantic ties that bind and grind. She talks straight and makes sense.
So too does Linton ‘Kwesihead’ Johnson, who’s down here with his three kids, looking and dressing the same as he has these past years and reading much the same selection that’s been his repertoire a year or more. Enough has been written that LKJ’s crucial and prophetic works need no great elaboration here. I don’t get to ask how it feels seeing his poems come true in this year’s riots and whether new poems have sprung from recent events, but he tells me he has recently undertaken an extensive continental itinerary – “the only way I can make a living”.
After the break there’s another black British poet, James Berry, a booming forceful reader whose work speaks eloquently about racism, if without the immediacy of Johnson. He gets his best reaction with a funny poem about a young black woman’s discovery of female liberation as a reality.
Fran Landesman, an American exile these twelve years but still able to pass for a part in a Woody Allen movie, such is the strength of her accent and carriage, tries more of a cabaret approach, glass in hand, rattling off bawdy and disrespectful one and twelve liners and getting a lot of laughs and not a few nervous giggles at lines like “maybe every lonely wank goes straight to the heart of God”. At least it’s lively. She’s backed by her son Miles on acoustic guitar, who also plays in Miles Over Matter, a nouveau psychedelique unit which he tells me plays to “hordes of petrified mods with Paisley shirts on”.
Gales of righteous applause greet the arrival of JCC. He slings his poems on the floor and attacks the mike like a bouncer grabbing a drunk’s lapels. He’s two poems down before the audience has recovered it’s breath, machine-gunning the lyrics into the mike while his body skates about in the mohairs like it was hearing an old Motown classic, all on its own.
I decide Clarkie’s got a competition with himself to see just how fast he can read something, breaking lines by the lungful rather than by sense or rhyme. The only times he slows down are for the two new poems – ‘I Travel In Biscuits’ (“white collar whizzkid/button 3 mohair/I travel in biscuits/getting me nowhere”) and a brilliant dream sequence in which the Bard of Salford meets Al Capone on the astral plane – “The guardian angels work for me,” says the gangland wraith.
Clarkie’s language and explicitness means there’s some squirming on the more genteel benches; the literary establishment still haven’t quite adjusted to the idea of a poet who has a fan club though they’ve had little choice but to take notice, since JCC is probably the most popular poet in the country after Pam Ayres . . .
Night number two was a Sunday, and the theatre was half empty. Tonight’s audience is ten years and two social classes up on yesterday’s matinee, a bookish, sombre lot gathered to hear distinguished elder voices, particularly that of acclaimed Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.
Also on the bill is Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a much-praised account of a nervous breakdown in fluid, lyrical prose. She is a plump woman in her sixties with a face through which a nine year old sometimes peers intensely through the many lines of experience.
She reads an extract from Grand Central, together with some poetry and a couple of songs on piano delivered in a quavering fragile tinkle.
Professor “Ronny” Laing has decided to go after the Charles Bukowski/Tom Waits gold medal for conspicuous consumption and is out there in bow tie and beard gesticulating with a glass and burbling some story about an Ali fight he saw on TV, as interesting as most other Glaswegian drunks. The discomfort of nearly everyone in the room isn’t helped when ol’ R.D. launches into some joke bar-room piano with Horowitz buddying along on one of his appalling kazoo renditions. At the interval two people asked for their money back and there are dark mutterings in the coffee shop.
David Gascoyne was part of the 1930s movement that produced Auden, MacNeice and the rest – his anti-bomb poem from 1947 and a recent despairing work on the age’s amorality add an historical echo to the anti-war, anti-nuclear stance, that is one of the recurrent themes during the Olympics, the other being sex.
Voznesensky looks like an East European ’50s film star, and back home, they tell me, he reads to thousands. It shows. After a translation of a poem has been read, he stands, legs astride, and booms it out in hypnotic Russian cadences.
Most of his work is non-specific, allegorical and symbolic; serious, but he does drop in one line about “We give you our best ballerinas, you give us Pepsi Cola”. He wins the gold for both endurance and book signing.
Night number three was a Monday, stormy Monday, and the Young Vic is full, mostly with Weller fans from the neat suburban end of the Jam following. Imagine what a shock they get when Celtic Bard Ronnie Waphen takes the stage and starts pumping his Gaelic bagpipes into curling grans and hypnotic reels over which he then incants his poems, two protest poems about Northern Ireland, another about brother and sister incest (Gerard Manley meets James Joyce).
There is more culture clash ahead with black American poets. Clarence Major and David Henderson, the first a trifle academic for all his street subjects, the latter real McCoy bebopping poems about street gangs in Harlem and blowing cool blues elegies to the late Lee Konitz and Jimi Hendrix, whose biography Henderson has just written. His stab at a Last Poets style rap over a jazz backing tape didn’t quite happen, but it was close enough to count.
Roger McGough is another veteran. After years of whimsical one-liners, family pop songs and suchlike, I’d rather written him off, so it was good to hear the ex-Scaffolder read so well, mixing in the old frivolity with a new intensity and anger and reaping an audience reaction that took the Silver Clarkie.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, is the star sign right? Paul Weller and friends, right? Wrong. Now it is time for Attila The Stockbroker. Attila, who also plays phased electric mandolin (though not tonight), and is from Stevenage, has gatecrashed the Olympics together with Bradford’s young skinhead poet Swells, and now the two of them, fresh from the Campaign for Jobs march in Woolwich, are planning to trounce the field, Alf Tupper style.
Attila is the first poet of the Olympics to wear highleg Martens and the first to run on stage. He goes into an agitprop squat and smiles out “the Russians are coming” and, a brilliant conceit, “the Russians are running the DHSS.”
“At first it was a rumour dismissed as a lie/But then came the evidence none could deny/A double page spread in the Sunday Express/The Russians are running the DHSS.”
Swells reads a lambast against “Tetley Bittermen” and an anti-John Lennon rant that he later claims is anti only “Corpse worship”.
Both Swells and Attila have read alongside Aiden Kant and Ann Clark, who are part of the December Child/Riot Stories collective that features Paul Weller, poet.
Clark, Kent and Weller sit at a table and take a poem each in turn, all betraying a strong debt to the ’60s poets, including McGough. The emotions are strong even if the words do run away with themselves to no place in particular. As public voices they have some way to go, though their private Muse is not in doubt. Weller seems a trifle self-conscious in his new role but reads forcefully, using a hand-mike.
Whether all this signifies a genuine regeneration of the lamentable state of our poetry is open to question, but at least the effort is being made. It was good sport, though like most sports it had its goodly share of sour and dull moments. The muse, however, will be grateful for the outing.
Further Olympics poetry heats take place the next two Wednesdays at Hampstead’s Three Horseshoes pub.