Saturday, October 06, 2012

Sometimes Only Poetry Can Emote Intensity !

Photograph : Jamie Grill/Getty
Golf isn't famed for causing poetic outbursts. The American poet Billy Collins summed up the widely felt sentiment in his poem Night Golf:
"I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep."
But this week, Spanish golfer Jose Maria Olazabal broke the sport's tried and tested snoozability rule. The first two days of Ryder Cup action saw the US dishing out a trouncing, leaving the reigning champions without a sniff of a chance – but with the very last stroke, team Europe achieved a mission impossible, back-from-the-brink victory. The team captain dispensed with his usual over-the-moon blanditudes to make this declaration: "Every man dies but not every man has the chance to live. You have made me feel alive again this week."
The Poetry Society was suddenly inundated with calls from the sports media: was this poetry? And why was Olazabal in the grip of a lyrical impulse?
As a former sports writer myself, I know just how rarely media-trained athletes break from the safety of the conventional script. Geared up to deliver his standard speech, gracious in defeat, the sudden turnaround in fortunes seemed to have sent Olazabal into a near transcendental state, short-circuiting the verbal auto-pilot and allowing him to channel this resurrection song.
The answer can only be that sometimes, only the heightened language of poetry can match the emotional intensity of an experience.
National Poetry Day
Perhaps Olazabal knew National Poetry Day was coming up, for this annual celebration always falls on the first Thursday of October – today. Happy National Poetry Day!
The poetry sector is out there making and reading poetry every day of course, but today is when we forge our main alliances with all the other sectors. It provides a point of poetic focus for the media, other artforms, business, education ... everyone. Organisations that might dip a toe in on National Poetry Day often then come back to establish more sustained engagements.
But it's also about poetry organisations looking outwards and pushing boundaries. A decade ago, our Poetry Places scheme placed 137 poets in 128 different locations across the UK, from oil rigs and recycling plants to branches of Marks & Spencer. Today, the society launches a new poetry residency, in collaboration with the Canal & River Trust, as boating poet Jo Bell becomes the nation's first Canal Laureate.
Inspiring a new generation
Today also sees the announcement of the 2012 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards: a talent-scouting competition for young people aged between 11 and 17. A hundred winners have been picked from a staggering 15,047 poems submitted this year. Winning entries range from a surreal lakeside conversation, to recollections of haunting childhood memories.
For anyone who ever doubts the lasting value of awards for young people, Foyle is a compelling case study in artist and audience development. The past 15 years of encouraging young writers is now really paying dividends across the poetry scene. Prizewinners have kept in touch with each other, and founded their own magazines and performance nights.
Not only are past winners now out there practising professionally and invigorating the artform – published by major houses, and giving packed festival performances – but they're also the bedrock of a large, committed and passionate poetry audience. For an artform that Sir Andrew Motion's report found to be a "problem" for schools and a "bore" for many pupils, it's encouraging to see this movement progress.
Charlotte Higgins, 19, and a Foyle prizewinner herself two years ago, performed at London's Southbank Centre on the day as part of the free poetry showcase, National Poetry Day Live. She's also a prime example of the how poetry has grown in modern times; how digital platforms and social media have done important things for fuel young people's interest in it, with a huge variety of spoken word poetry available on YouTube.
"I listen to it instead of music," Higgins says. "What I love most about poetry is that it's the best way to say exactly what you want to say. You can spend a long time in a novel before you find any message, and because of the brevity of poetry, you have very direct access to someone else's thoughts and feelings."
Hitting home
The best single poem category of the Forward Prize usually goes all but unnoticed once the brighter spotlight falls on the big money prize for best collection. But this year, when the announcements were made at the beginning of October, it was the single poem category that packed all the heat. The award went to Denise Riley for A Part Song, a heart breaking tour-de-force. Written in 20 sections across seven pages, this is Riley's first published poem in five years – a meditation on the unexpected death of her son in 2008.
"I had been living in arrested time for two and a half years," Riley told me. "Then a moment came when the normal apprehension of time returned. The cost of being able to write the poem was the receding away of my own shared time with the dead. There came an almost physiological change... and for that to come in a form that could be written down."
"What is the first duty of a mother to a child? / At least to keep the wretched thing alive," the poem asks ironically. "Come home I tell you / And end this tasteless melodrama – quit / Playing dead at all, by now it's well beyond / A joke."
I asked Riley if it had been a hard decision to make her poem public. "It's a private, yet profoundly common experience, lived in loneliness," she replied. "I thought publishing was worth the risk, in the hope that it might resonate and feel familiar for anyone thrashing around in the same boat. One is led to look for anything else written which might erode that loneliness, and I had been very glad for whatever tiny scraps I had found scattered.
"I was surprised how little there was, that wasn't meretricious, or sugary or emotionally untrue. If someone has written about the same experience, it can lessen the bite of that isolation. I hoped there might be some solidarity there."
Riley's honest and funny and gruelling poem asks what poetry is for. It is also its own answer.
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