Rhymes, Rock & Revolution- BBC3

I have been involved in performance poetry now for a decade as a perfomer, events organiser, reviewer, blogger, lister, Staffordshire Poet Laureate and audience member, although my interest in poetry as a form goes back to childhood. Despite its burgeoning, cross-generational popularity, largely it is shunned by the mainstream media. Part of me likes that, the fact that I am “in the know”, another part desperately wants to share its joys beyond the confines of the converted.

One of the delights of being amongst the poetry community is its accessibility. Sadly, I am never likely to meet musical heroes like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Ray Davies and Polly Harvey. But at poetry gigs you can. You can have a chat , coffee or beer with your heroes and they are pleased to talk. That connection between performer and audience is still strong.

When I heard that the BBC was producing a programme on Performance Poetry entitled “ Rhymes, Rock & Revolution” my heart soared and sank in equal measure. Soared at the potential publicity, sank at the prospect of a botched job. Transmission time increased that trepidation. But I needn’t have worried.

Trying to cover fifty years in fifty eight minutes was an impossible task, who you left out a far bigger problem than who you included. But such was the canniness of producer Claire Leavey that an impossible task was reduced to the possible, then delivered. Trying to determine a year zero was always going to be contentious, but few would argue with the significance of Ginsberg’s Royal Albert Hall appearance in 1965 as a good a place as any to start. The footage was compelling- so many people, for poetry!

As the roll call of talking heads unfolded, so did a broad smile, as I had met almost all. That isn’t a boast, just an observation that it was possible to gauge the projected image with my knowledge of the real one. I first saw John Cooper Clarke in 1978, when he was supporting the Buzzcocks at a punk gig. His ability to perform catchy poetry, and dodge incoming airborne beer cans, simultaneously, impressed even then. He was a worthy standard bearer to choose.

Attila the Stockbroker too was wisely chosen, although the “Essex Boy” moniker was a little misleading, his ongoing commitment to the form is such that although his profile is less than JCC, his perspective is as sage on the bigger picture. Politically he has always used his verse to prick the conscience of those in power. Alternative talking head was the imperious Lemn Sissay whose simple, but acute observations educated and entertained. Although Linton Kwesi Johnson is over rated in my opinion, his place in the poetry timeline probably deserved at least a mention though.

Gill Scott Heron

Gill Scott Heron

In the 19th and 18th century, poets were regularly imprisoned for their poems when they offended the great and good. No review of the past fifty years could omit Gill Scott Heron, and he was here, reminding us that the revolution will not be televised, an observation more prescient than we could have imagined at the time. From more recent times, Benjamin Zephania’s “Dis Policeman…” was as potent as ever, but inevitably scarcely does justice to his great range of talents.

Young female poets were well represented by Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest, the cerebral meets the visceral. Kate’s incendiary live performance style was well captured, Hollie’s insightful observations well made. Kate divides opinion, but her crowd pulling ability, passionate performance, and skill in connecting with a young audience are beyond dispute. Hollie McNish is very clever, she dances between urban chic, and Woman’s Hour, effortlessly, and with equal credibility, her presence on the programme was a delight.

The link with Rock is a fair one. I can’t think of a performance poet who would not love the adulation a rock star enjoys. Patti Smith was well chosen from the New York CBGBs scene, a woman whose words came to prominence as a rock star, not a poetry star. In another programme it would be wonderful to explore the lyrics of some of some of the great contemporary pop lyricists like Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, Neil Tennant, Damon Albarn and Neil Hanon and assess their poetry.

My list of omissions will be as long as anyone’s, but that is beside the point. RR&R provided a cogent, cohesive and credible review of Performance Poetry to date. In an age where John Cooper Clarke is now more famous for his Coast poem than Beasley Street, and Simon Armitage can go on a poetry busk across the Pennines, just maybe this programme can open the door for a host of worthy, interesting performers who could illuminate and entertain in their own right. Claire Leavey did an excellent job with this programme, let’s hope she is funded to “go again”.

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