Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Why Poetry Matters

I was fourteen when The Jam released Sound Affects, an album Weller maintained was their finest. They were already a really important band for me, notwithstanding the callowness of my youth. They had released a peerless run of singles since my first purchase of ‘When You’re Young’ the previous year and I had delved into the back catalogue with relish and found a band to cherish. I’d adored Setting Sons – it introduced me to ideas of class struggle, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and the notion of the concept album – although the latter was sadly not fully realised in the album itself.  Sound Affects was different though. First of all, the breadth and variety of material was impressive. Perhaps this reached its apotheosis with The Gift but here were echoes of the many eclectic influences that Weller was drawing upon across the eleven tracks.  For me, however, the reverse of the sleeve was even more illuminating.

 We had of course dabbled with poetry at school by this point. In fact the poem Timothy Winters made a lasting impression on me in terms of its rhythm and imagery; I was delighted years later to see Christopher Ecclestone use it memorably in Bleasdale’s GBH. Its fair to say that poetry had not yet really grabbed me though. The excerpt on the sleeve did however and stirred something in me, awoke me from my slumber you might say. Certainly lyrics can be seen as poetic, and lyrics to great songs such as ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ started off as a poem. Weller’s love of, and commitment to, poetry went further though, creating his own publishing company, Riot Stories, and publishing poetry and other works including ‘December Child’ and ‘Notes from Hostile Street’. In many ways this excerpt was my gateway drug to other things – when Weller mentioned beat poetry, or Geoffrey Ashe’s ‘Camelot and the Vision of Albion’, I would go and check it out, much in the way that the Manic Street Preachers would later inspire fans to read Plath and Pinter, or discover Kevin Carter and Zapruder. The excerpt from Mask of Anarchy acted as a catalyst for me, journeying to the library to read the full poem and later delving further into Shelley, including picking up Paul Foot’s ‘Red Shelley’ which I loved. So to see Mask of Anarchy picked up by Corbyn and others during what was an inspirational election campaign was personally very poignant – something that had been a catalyst for me was becoming a touchstone for others, and hinted at a collective awakening.
It hints also at the power of words. This is something I have talked about a lot with my friend Mike Garry, a peach of a poet and who we are privileged to have as a member of our Centre for Law, Society and Popular Culture at Westminster Law School. I’ve blogged about the links between law and poetry, and the history of poetry at our institution before, but am now delighted to announce that we have a new initiative starting in November, entitled Poetry Matters, as part of a British Academy/Being Human funded project entitled ‘Found Theatre and Poetry: Disrupting the Everyday’. More details to follow on this in due course, but it draws on the sometimes occluded history of poetry and theatre, and celebrates their power and potential, but in particular pays homage to the power of the word. And that’s why poetry matters.