We had a really good night at the Mitchell library last night – Glasgow is a city that really knows how to do libraries – a gorgeous big sandstone building, takes books seriously, sells books, good rooms for readings and other events, good toilets (ok, it’s a middle-aged preoccupation, but our local library doesn’t have a loo within 100 yards), has plenty of computers near the cafe where they don’t bother the rest of us – and the cafe is brilliant too. Only downside is you meed a map and a guide, and possibly even a St Bernard with brandy to negotiate all those corridors, but the staff are that helpful I wouldn’t be too sure they don’t have one somewhere.
The evening was set up by the Scottish Writers Federation, and the organisation was immaculate. I notice that many poetry events these days are the same; I’m not sure if the flaky absent-minded poet stereotype is being de-bunked, or if it is accepted so completely that we overcompensate, but there are several business organisations that could learn a thing or two from the arts people!
There were thirty-five writers reading, and I was assured that access to the opportunity was completely open. Anyone who wanted to read got the chance, although latecomers had to go into a draw for the wild card slots. This meant much greater diversity than you get in a lot of readings – there were performance poets, page poets, novelists, first-timers, very experienced poets, young ones and pillars of the writing community.
Obviously the quality was variable. Obviously there were some poets who wouldn’t get published in the TLS any time soon. And I’ve seen articles by prominent writers complaining that all this inclusivity is an insult to professionals who have spent years learning their craft, and is even demeaning to the whole of literature. I didn’t like the sound of this at the time, and after last night I’m even surer that this is bull-dust.
Let’s take quality first. If you put a lot of beginner poems alongside, say, Seamus Heaney (oops, my prejudices are showing here, but who’s going to argue) it doesn’t imply that one is as good as another. In fact it becomes obvious to anyone who gives a damn about poetry which is an achieved poem and which is a good attempt. And yes, I imagine there are ‘poets’ who will find this a kind of validation, tick the ambition off their life list, and dine out on it ever after, but they aren’t really poets. They won’t stick around because they’ll be off after their next target, and small loss to the rest of us. Any beginner who actually cares about what they are doing will see perfectly that they have a long way to go. The accolade of being included isn’t a reward, it’s permission to roll up their sleeves and start work. And we live in a culture where many people feel the need for that permission. To deprive them of it is simply mean-spirited.
But there’s also something more basic at stake. If poetry is reduced to an academic discipline, requiring years of training, then it becomes an unsustainable luxury, like grand opera. And if there isn’t corporate sponsorship (with the creation of spectacular events so the corporate can do their entertaining) then pretty soon it’s just fiddling while the Big Society burns, and then there won’t be any poetry. And who would miss it?
Last night showed another perspective. There was a lot of very accomplished poetry, and I’ve noted a few names to look out for in future. But some of the least developed stuff was potentially the most important. I don’t know what you called it, George McEwan, but the Ballad of Reid and Airlie ought to be up there with the Freedom Comeallye. People wrote about some of the most important issues of their lives – sometimes personal, sometimes political. People used poetry to get to grips with family issues, personal events, community and historical perspectives. It went beyond ‘self-expression’; it wasn’t just a licence to let off steam about stuff. It was the genuine voice of a community.
Poetry needs this. If poetry loses touch with this, it will deserve to disappear.