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Poetry of public and social engagement

A trawl of the poetry-publishing magazines and presses confirms that there is a lot of well-written, intelligent and sensitive poetry around today.

However, much of it is pretty samey — first-person lyric poetry stimulated by occasion, experience and impression. The poet encounters something more or less out of the blue — a landscape, a ‘feeling’, a memory, a TV documentary, a painting — and ‘gets a poem out of it’. The concept is of poet-as-gadabout-tourist-of-his-own-experience and, extending the metaphor, his poems might be characterised as postcards home or even holiday snaps in verse —lovely sunset this evening, really missing you, gorgeous-paella-evoked-in-vivid-sensory-detail, horrific oppression of donkeys, wish you were here — and so on. Well-formed and tasteful postcards, granted, no doubt characterised by lexical, linguistic and formal virtuosity and evocative final lines communicating some blurry really-makes-you-think quasi-profundity, but postcards nonetheless.

I can see the virtues of these types of poems and I’m often impressed — and occasionally moved or even overpowered by them. More often than not though, I’m underwhelmed — meh. What I’m interested in writing — and certainly reading — is poetry that proceeds from position and vision, that addresses content beyond situational response, that engages with the world. I’m not arguing for issue-based ‘political’ poetry or that in order for it to gain my stamp of approval, poetry needs to be an epic tearing-down of capitalism or an angry challenge to the Government’s policy on windfarms. What I’m advocating is more poetry that goes beyond the passive, reactive and personal tendency that currently dominates and has the ambition and confidence to engage with public issues, to be about something, and that has, at least in principle, the potential to make a contribution to what used to be called civil society.

I’ve written my share of first person lyric poetry and will no doubt continue so to do. But most of my recent work is a sustained engagement with issues around globalisation (‘the modern world’), particularly in an English context. Concern about meaning and purpose, the natural world, power, social justice, democracy and other issues in this context has led to my obsessive returning to a complex of themes devolving around identity, fulfilment and sustainability, incorporating religion, violence, warfare, class, landscape, nature, ethnicity, racism, English history, the British Empire and many others. All this ultimately boils down to two questions implicitly addressed to ‘the public’ — Who are we? And how do we want to live?

In their very different ways, the greatest English language poets, including Yeats, Eliot, Hughes and Hill address similar questions. We might not be operating at those lofty heights, but the game is the same, whether it’s played on Hackney marshes in front of the proverbial man and his dog or in front of two hundred thousand in the Maracana.

So who are we? How do we want to live? And who are you? And what have you got to say?


Lehman Brothers
Kardashian sisters:
the loue of money is the root of all euill.
Whore is to body
as slave is to labour
and celebrity to soul.
In each case, ker-ching.
Three card mounte-
bank conmen, conjuring profits and total loss.

(Extract from ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’, Steve Ely)


Come write urgent, visionary poems about the social issues of the day on Steve’s online course – Versus, Vehemence and Vision: Poetry Of Social Engagement – booking via the Poetry School website or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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