Politics and Provocation

8 Oct

Daljit Nagra’s was a packed workshop in the holiday Inn and we were grateful for the posh bottles of water, Holiday Inn notepads and pens, and thankfully, air conditioning. Things got quite ‘balmy’ as Daljit put it as this workshop progressed. I had intended to come as an observer but found myself quickly and irrevocably drawn in.

The political became more and more accessible as a way into poetry as the workshop progressed. Daljit talked about his experience of writing British Museum, that a way to get into the structures of politics, for him, was to look at the structures of buildings; beautifully concrete images to work from. He talked about the joy of taking on The Big Poem, of doing the research without an authoritative or didactic voice, and mentioned my favourite Yeats quote: ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry’. From this, he invited us, amongst other things, to be non-partisan and to write from another’s point of view.

Poetry should divide people, get up peoples’ noses, he said. We should run the risk of being ugly, crude and indelicate and embrace the rough beauty of the Big political Poem. It is worth being deliberately and consciously provocative. This is energising to both the poet and the reader.

I thought of  Tony Hoagland’s work, and his very public debate with Claudia Rankine over his poem ‘The Change’, and remembered Kathryn Maris’s excellent article in this summer’s Poetry Review on transgression and transcendence; I thought of the bust-up between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov over the Vietnam war and the question of whether it is possible to write good polemical poetry, or indeed, as Levertov thought, it is part of the poet’s vocation to do just that.

The excellent writing exercises Daljit suggested produced a mass of raw material for most of us. It was a thought-provoking and door-opening workshop, filled with excited and energised poets.

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