“The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life.” Robert Penn Warren
When I was asked to write a piece about poetry, I jumped at the chance, for I have shaken off the cold memories of my school classroom where I had the likes of the great Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen thrust upon me from intellectual heights that were unfathomable to me. I have rediscovered poetry and found a new appreciation that is not born from intellect or reason but through emotion and expression. I have found myself seeking poetry as a means of expression that I have been otherwise unable to communicate.
And I am not alone. All around London there are others like me from diverse backgrounds and of different ages coming together to appreciate the written verse. Poetry is the new zeitgeist for those seeking other ways to socialize, express, communicate, laugh, cry, share and appreciate. There is a growing scene in London that combines nights of poetry with spoken word and comedy (www.expressexcess.co.uk); revered poets brought to life through the voices of actors and musicians such as Ralph Fiennes and Bono (Josephine Hart’s poetry hour). There are new poets getting up and out there organising workshops, posting videos on Youtube, cutting through barriers and sewing together cultures through their spoken word. Thhere’s high brow meets low brow uniting poetry and art; poetry and business (www.poetinthecity.co.uk); city boys and stock-brokers exchanging numbers for words as fly-by-night poets (www.applesandsnakes.org). In cafes, museums, shops, pubs, performance halls, community centers, theatres and institutions – it’s all happening.
There are those of us who do not wish to be fuelled solely by alcohol, sex and mundane banter and are seeking out alternative ways to find inspiration and draw reflection on our lives. It is no surprise that the ultimate medium through which to take refuge is through poetry. ‘
Breathe-in experience, breath-out poetry.‘ Muriel Rukeyser
It’s a Tuesday night in December and an eclectic crowd has gathered in an Oxfam bookshop on the Portobello Road in London. This is not a charity event, neither is it a book signing. It is a gathering of like-minded souls. Ages range from 18 to 90 and they all have in common the desire to share their love and understanding of poetry. This is Pass on a Poem. The concept of the evening is simple. There are roughly 15- 20 readers, each introduced by the handsome and charismatic Will. Then the reader gets up and explains why his/her poem of choice means something to them before reciting it. Some poems are just three lines whilst others are longer, more epic works. Some are extremely witty and others can stir an emotion and touch a chord that only poetry can achieve. Some recite their poems as true thespians and others stumble their way through, but all are involved in bringing to life the inspiration behind Pass on a Poem.
That vision is steered by its pioneer Frances Stadlen whose love of poetry inspired her to create this sanctuary. She believes, like many others, that for poetry to be truly appreciated it must be heard, listened to and shared by ordinary people whose enthusiasm will allow you to soak up the experience in a gentle way. Since its humble beginnings in 2005, Pass on a Poem has continued to grow. Frances’s passion to move people through poetry has become a movement. POAP events are taking place throughout the UK in conjunction with Oxfam as well as other offshoots springing up in Bath, Bedford and Surrey. Its roots are wide spread reaching as far as California and Brisbane.
Frances is not the only lady creating waves. Josephine Hart, an award-winning theatre producer and novelist has been running her monthly event ‘Poetry Hour’ at London’s British Library since 2004. Having achieved enormous success as a novelist, (best known for ‘Damage’, which was adapted for the big screen and starred Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche) Josephine is the ideal figure to guide poetry amateurs towards a greater understanding. Her recent TS Eliot program is already being taken across the pond to Harvard and the New York Library. She believes strongly that for ‘poetry to be truly appreciated it must be heard’. Her passion to reach the hearts and minds of people through reading poetry aloud is so strong that noteworthy actors and celebrities have lent their support for free to help bring to life the wisdom carried through the weight and the beat and the rhythm of the words of our great poets such as Elliot and Milton and Frost. The likes of Bob Geldoff, Eileen Atkins, and Ralph Fiennes are but a few amongst the other highly established classical actors who play a part in making Poetry Hour the noteworthy event it has become.
The venue seats 235 people and tickets for each event normally sell out within the first few days. “Don’t let that put you off just turning up,” Josephine tells me, “there are always cancellations.” Not content at stopping there she has other plans for her latest book Words that Burn, a collection of eight poems with essays on each poet and poem, plus an audio CD. With the help of the British Library website she is developing a platform to roll out the book and CD into the UK’s classrooms as part of British Library’s online learning resource centre. When I asked Josephine what poetry meant to her, she replied as if stating the most obvious of facts: “Well it’s quite simple… poetry is just the best we’ve ever done with language.” Honest, direct and quite simply, true!
But the poetry scene in London isn’t just about the established and establishment. There are spoken word artists bringing a new energy to the medium, appearing at open mic events, theatres and community centres. Artists are breaking grounds and crossing boundaries with their talents and multi platform outlets. People like D’Archetypes, a London based performance poet who combines music, film and digital motion graphics; Will Power, actor, rapper and playwright, whose most noted commission was Seven, a hip hop theatre adaptation of the Greek tragedy. There are others like Francesca Beard whose talents caught the attention of The Tate Gallery. They commissioned her to produce a short film on the Seagram Murals by Rothko. Other organisations such as Apples & Snakes represent a wide variety of artists with poetry in performance. Poets, rappers, storytellers and musicians. Last week I attended one of their events held in Bishopsgate Library by Atilla the Stockbroker, who offered up political left wing rants mixed with Pythonesque humour. The list of these national and international voices is plentiful. Their material is honest, raw, transparent, ground breaking, revealing and above all poetic. Some of them hold day jobs and turn into poets at night, others are already award-winning playwrights, authors, broadcasters, poets, actors and musicians. They are the innovators of today and the change makers of tomorrow.
London is flowing in poetic verse and sonnet. It is the undercurrent that runs through our tunnels via Poems on the Underground ebbing it’s way up through winding city streets to the obvious and not so obvious venues, from the grandest of institutions to the smallest rooms. It is the rhythm that beats, breathing new life into passive minds. An expression that resonates in our hearts offering in abundance a lifetime’s worth of experience, gifted to us with no expectation of understanding and reason. Its justice is served through its captured emotion and endless expression, enabling all who participate as readers, writers and listeners of poetry to allow the sound of the word and sentiment of the verse to resonate first and foremost in their hearts and secondly in their minds.
“To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” Walt Whitman