The Guardian view on the healthy state of poetry: a reprimand to Trump and Johnson | Editorial

English-language poetry is in great health – and has much to tell us about our fragile, fraught times

In 2014, the chair of the judges of the Forward prizes for poetry, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, said: “I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance … It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.” It was only five years ago, but his complaint seems to have issued from another world.

The sealed edges of the poetry world have loosened recently. Some may look askance at poems shared on social media, seeing little of literary merit in the shareable sentiments that some “instapoets” convey, but audiences are also growing for spoken-word poetry, as the means of distribution is opened up by the internet. The contrast with so much current public debate is stark. As Rowan Williams has put it, at the end of another week of Boris Johnson’s and Donald Trump’s lazy abuse of the value of words, poetry’s “task of ‘turning noise into music’ is irreducibly political, a sustained resistance to commodified, generalised language and the appalling reductions of human possibility that this brings with it”.

The last criticism that could be made of the shortlists for this year’s Forward prizes, the winners of which were announced last Sunday, is “irrelevance”. The works in contention for the three categories – best collection, best first collection and best single poem – address the world head-on.

Surge by Jay Bernard, for example, is a sequence examining the scandal of the New Cross fire of 1981 – a blaze in south-east London that took 13 young black lives amid police indifference. While working on the collection at around the time of the Brexit referendum, Bernard writes in the introduction, they felt racism chill the air in an echo of the 1970s and early 1980s. Then, in a yet more uncomfortable echo, came the terrible Grenfell fire of June 2017.

Then there is the entirely different art of, for example, Vidyan Ravinthiran, whose The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here is a sequence of love sonnets to his wife and their life as part of a mixed-race couple in northern England, of troubles in Sri Lanka, of bad days at the office, and watching The X-Files. Also shortlisted for best collection was Ilya Kaminsky, with his Deaf Republic, a series of lyric poems in which the inhabitants of a fictional town feign deafness as an act of resistance after a deaf child is killed by a soldier. The winner of the best collection, Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson, uses Greek myth as a way of confronting rape and sexual violence; these are poems that are ragged and soiled, and there is nothing luminous about them.

These poets are all, in their own ways, political. Race, the body, feminism, gender, the environment, identity, state violence – all these subjects are explored in different ways. Their work pushes at the edges of what a book of poems can be. To read their words is to be brought tidings of the fragile, fraught times we live in that the language of the news bulletins cannot quite convey.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

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