Friday, 16 January 2015

Law, poetry and popular culture - to instruct and delight

Some months ago I blogged about poetry - in particular how poetry could be used to help stroke victims and included some recollections about my dad, who suffered two strokes. In that blog I talked about the fantastic work that Mancunian wordsmith Mike Garry does in this area. I returned to some of Mike's other work in a later post for my other blog Tickets of Distinction, entitled 'Manic on the Streets of Manchester',  which included some mid 1990s photos of yours truly among tales of Anthony H Wilson, the Manic Street Preachers and The Hacienda. I had been discussing various ideas with Mike during 2014, and in  December 2014 we were delighted to announce that Mike had agreed to join our Centre for the Study of Law, Society and Popular Culture as a Writer in Residence.

First and foremost we are really excited to have an artist of Mike's calibre agreeing to come and work with us - we think this is the first time a Law School in the UK has created a link of this type (although would be interested to hear about others), and are really looking forward to seeing how this develops. Initial plans include work with Creative Writing students, some work with the archives, and we hope to announce the first of some public events run out of the Law School soon, but we have lots of ideas as to how this might develop.

When we first mooted Mike joining the Centre we started to look at the history of poetry at the University of Westminster, and also the link between law and poetry. Gibbons wrote, uncontroversially, that law is inconceivable without language, and Rachel Cohen for our own Entertainment and Sports Law Journal wrote, in a piece about incomprehensibility in music contracts, that despite Gibbon's claim; ' language has long been criticised for its idiosyncratic ambiguity'. This is a fair point - as a law student on a left leaning persuasion I came to law seeing it as a form of bourgeois mystification so Cohen's point certainly resonated with me. Even today much of what lawyers do is based around the ambiguities of language and nuances of interpretation. I started to do a little digging around law and poetry. I was aware from my work on Law and Film of some interest in this from the Law and literature movement, and a quick search through back issues of the journal Law and Literature sees reference made to Ovid, Larkin and Shelley (Percy not Pete) among others. I was more interested, however, in the power of poetry outside of the law rather than the approaches that appeared to have been taken in Law and Literature. During my (at this stage admittedly fairly basic) research I found this really nice  piece by Frank Pommersheim, a US Scholar, on 'Poetry, Law, & Poetry: Some Notes Towards a Unified Theory'. There were a few things in here that I really liked. He talks about how 'Poetry and law are both reports on human experience; reports from different angles with different means'. He goes on to set the two up as a series of binary oppositions...

'poetry is your mother; law your father'

'poetry wounds; law kills'

'poetry is blood, law is water'

'One brings union, the other disunion'

Now these are provocative and contestable statements and ones that, perhaps, Mike's work with us will cast some light upon. More importantly than that however, I think Mike's work with us will help us appreciate the scope, and power, of words. In terms of the University of Westminster's poetry pedigree - its fair to say its impressive and Mike's addition to our ranks only adds to this. The ever dependable Anna McNally in the Archives found lots of details of the history of poetry at Westminster for me. Ezra Pound apparently gave a series of lectures at the Polytechnic between 1909 and 1910, and the Archives hold a number of prospectuses along with other related documents on this. Other notable poets with links to the University include David Gascoyne, Menghistu Lemma, George Barker and Clive Sansom. My personal favourite that Anna referred me to is Louise Bagley who, whilst not specifically a poet,  was appointed Head of the School of Elocution at the Polytechnic, as we then were, in 1913. Even the idea of elocution seems faintly anachronistic today, but Louise Bagley was apparently a pioneer in 'the difficult art of expression through the medium of the voice'. She had a brilliant idea for a  course of 24 lectures in 1917 entitled 'Poets and Poetry of Today', the fee for which was 8/6 for the whole course or 1s for a single lecture! I love this idea, and we are hoping Mike will do something similar in terms of poetry for the public as part of his role, although we would hope to make this free and open access.

Anyway, Louise Bagley appears to have been extraordinarily well thought of. As her obituary in the Polytechnic magazine in August 1926 noted; 'Let those who try to follow in her footsteps  see to it that her work does not die, but lives'. In some small way the arrival of Mike Garry, a poet who acknowledges and celebrates the power of the word, helps ensure that her work and ethos does not die, but is reflected in the activities of the University in the twenty first century, and we are excited about the journey ahead.

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