Recently, I was very kindly invited to speak in Wroclaw, Poland, at the town’s Mikrofestiwal; below is a copy of the short talk that I gave on Friday 26 June.
I have been asked to say some words today about the political potential of contemporary poetry and spoken word in the UK. And so I thought I would give my short talk the title “Danger: The Role of the Poet”.
Why am I saying that it should be the role of the poet to create a sense of danger? Well, I’m probably being a little dramatic. After all, poetry can just be about describing nice countrysides, and flowers swaying in the breeze. But it can also do so much more. Poetry is dangerous because, in a world where we are so often encouraged not to feel, poetry makes us connect with the people and the society around us. It makes us pause through its perception, through its beauty: and, most frighteningly of all, it makes us think.
Authorities are well aware of the threat posed by poets. Just a year and a half ago, in Qatar, a court upheld the prison sentence of the poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami, who was jailed for insulting the emir and spreading incendiary material. Al-Ajami had been arrested late in 2011 for his poem, “Jasmine”, in which he appeared to look forward to the prospect of political revolution in Qatar. “I hope”, he wrote, “that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces”. By Western standards, this might have seemed relatively tame – after all, it was alleged that Al-Ajami did not even perform the poem – but the authorities had seen enough danger in his words, and consigned him to fifteen years in prison.
Fifteen years. Qatar clearly understand the danger of the poet. Al-Ajami was speaking at a time when the “Arab Spring” looked as though it would sweep away a succession of governments. “We are all Tunisia”, wrote Al-Ajami, referring to the first country where an authoritarian leader had fallen. Shortly after the publication of these words, in what was perhaps the ultimate sign of his potential influence, he was deprived of his freedom.
British poets have a far easier time of things. For the most part, we are able to speak as we please. If I would have to name the UK poets who, in recent months, have been particularly effective on the political stage, I would have to identify five people: Hollie McNish, Michael Rosen, Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Raymond Antrobus. I will discuss those poets each briefly in turn, but first I must explain what I mean by “effective”. By that, I simply mean that they have, through their skill with words, enabled many people to reflect upon what it means to be human, and to celebrate our common humanity.
That may not sound like much, but we are currently in a political climate where we are being encouraged daily by our media and our elected leaders to think less of “The Other”. Just last Friday, in Berlin, I attended the funeral of an unnamed Syrian man who had died whilst crossing the Mediterranean. His burial, with the consent of his family, was carried out in a cemetery in the German capital by a group called the Center for Political Beauty. The Center’s aim, in their words, is to “tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion”. They seek to do this by reminding us that these dead migrants are people, by making us grieve for them.
This is why the work of the five poets that I have mentioned is political, and therefore dangerous. Each of them examine the lives of those whom we would regard as marginalised, and they do so with a sympathy that is not helpful to the powerful. The first of those poets, Hollie McNish, published a poem on YouTube in February 2013 called “Mathematics”. In this poem McNish, who studied development and economics at university, challenged the assumption that immigrants merely came to the UK to take the country’s jobs. This poem has now been viewed almost two million times, and has seen McNish tour the nation with its message. “Your maths is stuck in primary”, she recites, “and most times immigrants bring more than minuses”.
Alongside McNish is Michael Rosen, whom you can follow on Twitter as @MichaelRosenYes: he uses this platform to write poems and open letters critical of institutional excess and corruption. Kate Tempest, a poet, playwright and musician, is fearless in her examination of the struggles faced by everyday people. Inua Ellams, like Kate a poet and playwright, writes and performs work with nuanced portrayals of black life. Raymond Antrobus, meanwhile, is one of the country’s first graduates of a programme where poets are trained as educators. He now teaches poetry at a school in East London, and performs his best-selling poetry collection to audiences at various festivals.
What do these poets have in common? Well, they recognise the tremendous power of the spoken and the written word. We arguably now live in an age that is better for poets than any other. The poet, after all, is gifted at one thing above all, which is to distil an image or an emotion into just a few lines, just a few words. In a world where attention spans are shortening all the time, where many of us – including me – are constantly staring at our smartphones, poets still have the ability to capture us, to captivate us. There is a reason why, when advertising agencies are looking to launch their campaigns, they come looking for the expertise of poets. It is because they know that we have an eye for a slogan, for a quick catchphrase.
This skill – to condense a complex situation into just a few lines – also lends itself well, I have found, to a career in journalism. I would encourage any poet who thinks keenly about the world around them to blog more, to report more, to comment more. When leading UK poets are called upon to provide their view to the media, they are frequently very impressive. Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, has been an outstanding advocate for social change for many years. Many other poets are actively involved in fundraising for political causes, and can be found joining marches for progressive causes.
I have spoken of the danger of poets, but I should also speak of the danger for poets. Speaking frankly, most poets will never make that much money or gain that much visibility, which can make many of us susceptible to flattery by the powerful. In that desire for publicity, celebrity or attention, we must be wary of lessening the severity of what we wish to say in order to be acceptable to a wider audience. This is, I think, a temptation. At such times, we poets need to remember that we can amplify the voices of the marginalised partly because, as a genre of artists, we are often marginalised ourselves. We poets must remember that we can promote the cause of the Other because, in so many ways, we are Other.
I don’t mean to congratulate myself and my peers too much, but I am proud of one thing. I am proud that, though the poetry world is by no means perfect, it at has at least managed to provide spaces for self-expression that many other art-forms have not. Some of the most compelling voices in the genre right now are women, or women of colour: Sabrina Mahfouz, Jessica Horn, Warsan Shire, Rosie Knight, Chimene Suleyman, Vanessa Kisuule. Poetry has also been something of a refuge for black people, for queer people. And that, I think, is because – despite the conservatism of the institutions that sometimes surround it – poetry represents freedom. It represents, at its best, the ability to speak from the heart with a carefully-honed craft.
That is poetry’s danger, and its power within the political context. Whether using YouTube or Vine, using microphones or speaking in front of a classroom, we have the ability to humanise, to inspire. That is a skill that those on our society’s fringes – the disabled, the poor, the carers, the unemployed – need us to use more than ever; and, at the risk of preaching, we must not fail them.