On Friday I delivered the first of ten open lectures on a literature course supported by the WEA (Workers Education Association) in Richmond. Despite being long haunted by (and agreeing entirely with) Alexei Sayle’s observation that “anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ and is not connected with light engineering is a twat” I have a mute pride that I survived fifteen years running poetry and creative writing ‘workshops’ in prisons, libraries and psychiatric wards. I feel I’ve earned my stripes and with a recent endorsement in the form of a poem of mine being used as a set text on the Università degli Studi di Milano syllabus (I never went to university myself, like Alexei I came through art school) I thought it was probably about time that I presented a lecture rather than facilitating a ‘workshop’.
Once researched, I readied my papers and equipped myself with a suitable title: ‘Formula One Poetry: From Lewis Hamilton to Marinetti – a car wreck of contemporary literature’ and headed west to deploy my disquisition. On my arrival, I learned that two students had enrolled. I was hopeful of a third. The cleaner said she might come back when she finished her shift. I said I’d help her later if she wanted to sit in now. She scurried off without saying anything. I spotted her during the break in the canteen. I had my doubts as to whether she was really the cleaner at all and that this was a convenient cover, an excuse. Some people will do anything to avoid poetry. And I don’t blame them. This was to be the general thrust of my opening address: It is generally best to ignore most poetry but why do we turn to it in an emergency?
I was not disheartened by the low turnout. I have been advised to avoid words like ‘small’ or ‘poor’ and favour ‘intimate’ and ‘select’ in situations like this but let’s not dress it up – I had two students. The poet George Barker upon his appointment as professor of poetry at Tohoku University in Japan only managed two so I was in good company. Barker was in the Far East in 1939 to avoid the war in Europe and I had something in common with this poet who found himself on the fringes of the New Apocalyptic movement. Should there be survivors in the event of an actual apocalyptic movement the population will no doubt comprise wholly of politicians, pop-stars, generals, CEOs, Premiership footballers and formula one racing drivers. The pop-stars, being sensitive in nature, will be too traumatised to provide any entertainment so this role will fall to the footballers and racing drivers. Arts and culture will be in their hands entirely. It is well then that Lewis Hamilton has already stepped forward offering his services as a poet.
I was not attempting to undermine Hamilton’s work or ridicule his efforts when I presented his verse composition Englands Rose (sic) as our first poem for consideration. There is enough snobbery in literary criticism, enough condescension in art appreciation, no, this was a genuine offering. Society gets the art it deserves and Hamilton’s throbbing heart, sad face, teary face, sad face emoji of a poem is as honest an expression of our culture as you’ll find. Its limping, injured metre, its fractured rhyme, its swollen sentiment to a twenty-year dead princess all display the indulgent hopelessness of our age. The generous servings of sugar applied throughout ensure the nervous nationalism lurking in its verses is perfectly palatable. Palatable and utterly un-nourishing.
I do not agree with zolachrome who comments ‘Stick to driving Lewis’ on the original Instagram post (1 Sept 2017) where the poem was first published. No Lewis should stick to poetry. Lewis should quit driving and take up writing as fast and furiously as he races. Lewis faces death at every bend and I had expected him to know his subject better, I had hoped he’d give us a more brutal, a more insightful reckoning of Diana’s end. But this is only a beginning. Lewis needs to stick to poetry like he sticks to the track, he needs to go round and round and round, faster and faster and faster. His poetry should ‘exalt the aggressive gesture, the feverish insomnia, the athletic step, the perilous leap’ with ‘explosive breath’. I want Lewis Hamilton to become a poet, we need Lewis Hamilton to become a poet.
We also need poets to become racing drivers. 79% of poets can’t drive. Screw poetry slams, get poets out on the track for some proper smash ups. A poetry Grand Prix is what we need. Poets love a prize. They are always making up new awards to hand out to each other. And, while they’d never admit it, they’re also viciously competitive. The officially announced shortlist of a major poetry prize last year listed nearly 200 names. A short list! Imagine the thousands of poor bastards who entered. Imagine them all in a sprint start at Monte Carlo though. Imagine how many would be taken out at the first bend. Lewis Hamilton risks his life for entertainment and so should poets. There’s too much art, we need a cull. Sentiments perhaps expressed by the Italian poet (not racing driver) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti 100 years ago, of whom I argued Hamilton was the modern day successor.
They both understood how to manipulate their audiences. Marinetti knew how to provoke and appal and while Hamilton desires approval he too exploits, poking the tender belly in order to procure an emotional response. They both want a reaction. They both feel the urge to say something. What about saying nothing? Why not just sit behind the wheel and sob? Remember it was not the death of Lady Di but another sportsperson’s tears some 7 years previously that taught the nation how to cry. A thousand poet’s odes could not compete with Gazza weeping that night in Turin.
But now to the podium, between Hamilton and Marinetti steps another poet, this time from mid-century. No, not Barker. While his warm up laps were impressive it was his rival who took pole position and had him lapped by the checkered flag. No, while Barker was facilitating a workshop (or lecturing) to two students in Japan it was another poet who emerged from the London Blitz and twisted language into a new music.
It is ‘disaster’s season’. It has been for the past one hundred years and more but just recently the poets have acquired a taste for it. And they’re racing for the line. These days I do not live in fear of the next terror attack but I ready myself for the abomination of poetry that will inevitably follow. When tragedy happens, poetry will pour and sure not all of it awful. Onto the rostrum then Dylan Thomas. He dispenses with the champagne and offers up a sombre Scotch instead when asked to say a few words about the death…
I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth / Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath / With any further / Elegy of innocence and youth
Lewis, I shall leave you with this, in an age when perhaps we should be reading more and saying less.