Poetry, dear reader; poetry’s the thing.
I may have said this before.
On Saturday night I saw Tony Harrison read in Ledbury, Herefordshire. One of our best living poets, he writes in an utterly English tradition with strong rhymes and lyrical content. Much of it is written for the stage, so it is entirely aural as well as having integrity on the page. Harrison lays full claim to both his own working-class Leeds voice and to Greek classic literature, and owns them both from the inside; not with a chippy sense of having something to prove (though there is that too, sometimes) but with a deep, abiding understanding of their sense and necessity. His quiet, commanding clarity and humour carried the audience through an hour-long reading. Not a murmur was heard, not a bum shifted on its seat.
So this is the kind of authenticity that we’re all working for when we write, no matter what it is we are trying to be true to. I was proud that a writer like Harrison can thrive in our literary culture despite its occasional snobberies, and receive a standing ovation from an audience which knows his worth. I was ashamed – a little – that my own writing falls into traps that he’s worked so hard to avoid.
Dear reader, here is my terrible secret. I want you to think I’m clever and witty. I want you to admire my writing and tell me it moved you. I want to blush modestly whilst claiming enormous literary prizes. All poets have secrets like this, as CJ Allen confirms in Poets.
Yet the biggest challenge in writing, the only one that really matters, is the one that EE Cummings articulated in 1958: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” If you can achieve that, then the other stuff may follow. If it doesn’t, it hardly matters.
I find my own voice in poetry best by working in tandem with someone else; by working out what I’m not, perhaps. The collaboration with Martin Malone continues to amaze me by sending us both in new directions; smaller paired projects have sometimes done the same. I’m working now on a poem for Alastair Cook whose latest filmpoem is here – and perhaps the ultimate collaborative project, 3hundredand65, will get its little contribution from me on National Poetry Day, October 4th.
Back in Ledbury, the famous poetry festival is three weeks away. Last year I programmed it with Jonathan Davidson: in 2012, director Chloe Garner is back from maternity leave with a brilliant programme. Come along and see us there; a little town full of poetry, in the summer. What’s not to like? Meanwhile, here’s a poem from Tony Harrison. Be sure to listen as well as read.