Just because we cannot hear them

The Nottingham Festival of Words last week hosted “Writing Hungary”, a reading and panel discussion on Hungarian poetry, featuring Anna Menyhert, Anna T. Szabó and George Szirtes. This looked promising: some years ago I reviewed Arc’s anthology New Order: Hungarian poets of the post 1989 generation, edited by Szirtes, for the Hungarian Literary Quarterly, and found it a truly exciting collection of vivid writing. Szabó was, to my mind, one of the anthology’s stand-out poets. All three panellists contributed to a thoughtful and impassioned debate on trajectories over the past century or more in Hungarian writing; Menyhert read from Attila Jozsef, as well as from her own new novel, while Szabó chanted from the song-like poetry of Nobel-nominated Sándor Weöres, and read her own poetry in Hungarian. Along with his own poetry, Szirtes gave gracious readings of Szabó’s work in English translation. His delivery of Szabó’s ‘She Leaves Me’ harked back to her rendition of Weöres with its sing-song cadence, but Szirtes brought a plaintive and gradually angry momentum to the rhythm, mounting in pace and intensity towards the poem’s blunt end.

‘She Leaves Me’ is told in the voice of a child, although most of Szabó’s poems in New Order come closer to the confessional vein. Her poetry might be described as “personal”, but – like all of the other writers in the anthology – is presented in a political context: as a counter to the “old order”, or the classical Hungarian tradition, which was a subject under discussion on the panel. Szabó and Menyhert both appeared to agree that, historically, poets in Hungary have been seen as spokespeople (or, more accurately, spokesmen), as mouthpieces for the people; over the last few decades this notion has been challenged, but is now beginning once again to colour the work of younger poets. Both seemed concerned at the prospect of a return to an overly-authoritative poetry.

Here in Britain, we don’t face quite the same issue. If anything, we are constantly warned of poetry’s general irrelevance. But nonetheless, poets are often credited with speaking for others, especially for the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the deceased and distant. I recently read a review of a poetry collection in which the poet, writing about past and present conflict in Iraq, was praised for “[giving] voice to the other: those who might not have a voice”. Another review of a recent poetry collection inspired by nude female photographs was described as an attempt “to reclaim the voices of … ‘lost’ women.” This is a vocabulary and a mindset about which I am increasingly cynical. No one is “voiceless”, no one is “lost”, merely because we in the West or in the twenty-first century cannot hear them. Voices do not need to be published, broadcast or immortalised to be significant. The use of the word “reclaim” in the latter review is particularly unsettling: at what point does speaking up for others become speaking over others?

I am certain that in neither collection is the author trying to impose her own ego – it is perhaps simply that in contemporary poetry we have developed this idea of “giving voice” as a kind of shorthand to explain why poets write from perspectives other than their own, and perhaps to lend a bit of gravitas to the motivation. I have used the expression to describe some of my own poems; I frequently write about figures from history or mythology, but not really with any grand mission in mind. I write this sort of poetry because I like to imagine what it is like to be someone else, somewhere else, because I like to think myself into places faraway in space and time, and because I want to try and understand things that are unfamiliar. Does this mean that I sometimes use other people, other characters, as foils for situations which I want to explore? Probably, yes; but surely it is a condition of poetry to move beyond the writer’s immediate position. The poetic “voice” is by its nature chameleonic: it follows rhythms of speech and thought, it mimics and echoes.

Writing which shifts between different perspectives can be empathetic; the inherent contrast between imagination and experience can be highly fertile. At the same time, imaginative writing which engages – even obliquely – with political issues runs a risk of colonising those issues, of exploiting its material for creative gain. It is a fine balancing act. But maybe it is possible to make a distinction between poetry which is sensitive to other people’s lives, which tries to engage with diverse human experience, and poetry which is didactic: which begins with an answer rather than a question. Of course we can never speak about or for others with any real authority, of course we can never claim to know what anyone else is really thinking – but that is the point. The voices with which we choose to speak can help us to frame our questions, and to work those questions open.

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More reading, less pleading

I spent a very enjoyable evening last week at the Olde Murenger House in Newport, taking part in the series of monthly poetry readings organised by Handpost Community Library Association to raise funds for the re-opening of Stow Hill Library, which after over 60 years was closed in 2013 as part of Newport County Council’s programme of cuts. It was a warm, welcoming event – and a pleasure for me to be introduced to the poetry of Kit Lambert, with its cheerily black wit. It was also excellent news to hear that, although there are details yet to be worked out, the former Stow Hill Library now looks set to be converted into Cwtsh, a community library and micro arts centre, opening next year. This is the result of a great amount of hard work by the Association – Cwtsh has no public funding, and depends on volunteers.

Cwtsh is a terrific initiative, but cuts to public services remain a real concern, and are changing the cultural landscape in Wales. The globally prestigious Cardiff International Poetry Competition will not run next year. Pontypridd’s Muni arts centre has just closed. Cameron and the coalition are probably hoping that community groups and corporate sponsorship will take up the slack, but in my view this cannot compensate for state provision of cultural and arts institutions. The danger, it seems to me, is that places such as libraries, galleries and museums – especially smaller, more local venues – will in that sort of climate come to be seen as primarily charity concerns, worthy rather than vital. Visiting them will become couched in terms of support, rather than use: something to add to the list of things that socially responsible, culture-literate, right-on citizens feel that they ought to be doing – like buying organic fruit and veg, patronising independent retailers, reading poetry…

This Saturday sees the launch of the 2014 Books Are My Bag campaign “to celebrate bookshops”. Last week we had National Poetry Day. World Book Day is coming up next spring. The cycle of high-profile literary prizes generates a year-round monsoon of press releases. It can sometimes feel as though we are constantly being chivvied by one literature-promotion after another – to buy, to celebrate, to proselytise, to look – look – look – as though reading was something that no one would actually remember to do if left to their own devices. On the one hand, I do firmly believe in the significance of independent bookshops and small presses, and would love to see poetry gain more attention in the mainstream media, so am for the most part genuinely happy to join in with these campaigns. (Here I am at the Murenger posing with a tote.) Promotional exercises do presumably get people to talk about books, which is fun – although I haven’t heard anyone debating the Next Gen list in the pub or on the street, and I suspect that most people who have had a conversation about it are already committed poetry-geeks. But, just as I fear that publicity campaigns such as Books Are My Bag, or Salt’s Just One Book (which, sadly, failed to save Salt’s poetry list, although the press is still operating), to a certain extent preach to the converted, I dread even more the idea that, by drumming up a sense of duty, they might end up provoking other people to buy the occasional book which they then never read, in the spirit of giving a tenner to Comic Relief once a year.

This is why I believe that libraries, museums, galleries and the like fulfil such an important role, and why they need a presence in the local community, with the security of public funding. If we believe that books and the arts really matter, that exposure to them makes our lives better and more meaningful, then it is essential in any community for cultural institutions simply to be there, without fuss, without selling or marketing anything, without asking people to sign up to a particular ideology or lifestyle, or to keep up with any trends; instead simply presenting material that can be accessed for free, by all, when it is wanted and when it is needed. A library is a place where you can go in, choose a book, and read. If you don’t like it, take it back and get another one. If you do like it, take it back and get another one. This is how we become readers. So good luck to Cwtsh – I hope it will be such a place. And I hope that its importance, and the importance of places like it, will be recognised by those who are supposed to have our interests at heart.

I’m very happy to have been able to take part in Devolved Voices, a major research project into the state of Welsh poetry in English since devolution, based at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The Devolved Voices website features video interviews with 20 writers – so far – as well as articles and a blog, and is expanding all the time.

Click here to see my interview and a short reading.

I’m very pleased to have four poems in the new issue of Agenda: part of a special section on Celtic saints beautifully illustrated with wood engravings by Paul Ó Colmáin.