Books

John Bird: Let poetry be the answer to these troubled political times

There are few problems that verse can't fix. But perhaps Brexit is one of them

While the House of Commons was resolving itself to remain unresolved, I attended an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poetry event. Surely we should have been in one of the galleries of the chamber, following all of the twists and turns of a political development that was inevitably divisive and unresolvable?

You can’t have a vast, vast minority of voters reject the results of a referendum and still not be thrown into a damaging pit of anger and conflict.

The goose was cooked, and it remains cooked. What will come out of it all? Certainly in Committee Room One, where about 70 people met (members of the public, a few from Parliament, poets and publishers), Brexit was not brought up.

I note that the poet that drew me into considering myself a self-appointed poet, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti, turned 100 last week. I loved the fact that Lawrence helped me believe that poetry was all around me and all I had to do was string some words together and I could then begin my poetic journey. That’s not to say I became a great poet, but at least I could refine some words and make some points about life.

I later found poetry particularly useful when a girlfriend admitted to me that she only bothered with me because of sex

There was a strong sense at last Monday’s meeting that poetry is the answer for most things, because it enables you to reflect and think and try and make sense of something that you may be passing through.

Should we not be offering poetry to our troubled MPs who cannot make up their minds? Or who’ve made up their minds, but the variety and range of these minds don’t conform to a whole; or a whole solution.

Poet and bookeseller Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti is a maestro, but even he would struggle to turn Brexit into poetry

When Ferlinghetti first swam into my ken, I was 16 and I thought that such simplicity of words was fresh and wild. As if by having words in your life meant you always had a record of your thinking. I later found poetry particularly useful when a girlfriend admitted to me that she only bothered with me because of sex.

She rejected my genius, my good looks, my poetry, my drawings and wisdom, my cultural philosophy. Out of which I wrote a poem to make me feel better immediately. Fifty years later it comes back to me:

“Will I find this thing

Well known,

In loveless legs stretched

Wide.

Or will I find this thing

Well known,

On the cool hillside?”

The “thing well known” was fame and fortune as a major painter that I wanted to be at the time. But my girlfriend thought my art was poor and my attempts at being bright and clever were lame. She went off with someone else and I was left with a poem that still rings true all these years later.

She later added insult to injury by saying that she thought I was an ugly version of one of The Beatles. If another poem came from receiving this postcard announcing the end of a friendship, I cannot remember it. But out of this I decided all major events henceforth demanded a poem.

I have hundreds of them; births, deaths, marriages, political events, you name it I’ve memorised it somewhere on a scrap of paper.

Ferlinghetti set up the wonderful City Lights independent bookshop near Jackson Square, San Francisco. I once had the pleasure many years ago of meeting the poet in his shop. He also started a publishing business, producing one of the greatest collection of poems I have. Roman Poems are the poems of the Italian poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was also a filmmaker. One poem, The Desire for Wealth of the Roman Lumpenproletariat, about the working classes of Rome and their love of money, is one of the most powerful images of poverty I have ever come upon: “Their desire for wealth is at once bandit-like and aristocratic, like mine.”

All translated from the Italian by the Italo-American Ferlinghetti.

I’m sure there will be a great body of poems growing out of the undergrowth of Brexit in years to come. Out of the split country that it has created

Is there any poetry to be garnered from the Brexit crisis? I’m sure there will be much to celebrate or abhor poetically about Brexit, but I cannot even contemplate coining one myself.

My own contribution to the poetic debate on the floor above the House of Commons debating chamber on that conflicting night last week was to tell the audience of my passion for tea-towels and poetry.

And how I wanted to sell a million of them to the advantage of schools, community groups and charities throughout Britain. My big buzz would be that a million kitchens would have my poem, The Gardener’s Lament, hanging on their oven door.

Poetry and politics often bump into each other. I’m sure there will be a great body of poems growing out of the undergrowth of Brexit in years to come. Out of the split country that it has created. Let’s hope that some will be uplifting, aiding us to move up and move forward, and will not be all doom and gloom.

To keep poetry alive in my life though – a daily event – is to send text messages to my wife done as poems. I recommend it as a way of improving your emotional wordpower, and to sharpen your editorial skills.

Perhaps we can lean on the editor of this noble publication to collect some of the best text-poems and publish them. Perhaps they may help us in the trying months and years ahead as the Great Referendum became the Great Divide.

Image: Getty

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