At the chalkface: A Spell against Barbarism

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Like all grand daughters, she is raving genius. Like all four-year-olds she is a poet. It can’t be stopped. I hope it doesn’t get stopped when she starts school, that it’s not blocked by the dread syllabus...

The granddaughter Sylvie, age 4, goes into a trance.

“Rainbow and unicorn.
Glitter goes down the rain.
The sea shimmers at me
The glory of glitter.” *

She intones. A spell, a poem. Yikes! Look out Emily Dickinson! Or is it Lorca or Rimbaud?

Metaphor, imagery, ellipsis, myth and mystery. Wow! I’m the amanuensis round these parts, like one of Milton’s daughters. I listen carefully for the next killer line, quill quivering.

Like all grand daughters, she is raving genius. Like all four-year-olds she is a poet. It can’t be stopped. I hope it doesn’t get stopped when she starts school, that it’s not blocked by the dread syllabus.

Still, the signs look good. Poetry seems to be flourishing at the moment. So many English departments are producing wonderful anthologies, so many pupils are writing, reading, performing, sharing it on phones and “social” or going to poetry slams, gigs or public readings. Sales of poetry are at an all-time high.

Two-thirds of buyers are under-34 and 41 per cent are aged 13 to 22. The young seem to be seeking solace and sanctuary in a sea of uncertainties, some kind of private truth in a public world – with its increasing treachery, duplicity and sheer lies. Politics suddenly seems urgent, pressing – see, for example, Ben Okri’s superb Grenfell tower, June 17.

Poetry’s brevity, flash, shock might be another factor. Whatever, it reaches those parts that nothing else can. It makes us better. We can all write it. It heals. It’s fun. It’s visceral and thrilling – and it deals in magic.

Charles Causley said it perfectly: “All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism.”

And it’s a spell against the etiolated, clownish, rinsed, ugly and coarsening language of so much of our public discourse. A spell against programmes like Question Time, that cartoon of antediluvian prejudice, dog whistle bollocks, sheer inarticulacy – an arena where hate crimes are applauded.

The voices of modern poetry are especially various, rich. They clamour to be heard. Right here. Right now. You just can’t stop it. A random list might include Rupi Kaur, Bridget Minamore, Emily Berry, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Lavinia Greenlaw, Kei Miller, Holly McNish, Helen Mort. Daljit Nagra, Kate Tempest, Sam Willetts and Liz Berry. And, of course, the granddaughter.

Hang on. She’s stirring. She’s going into another trance. Here comes another one! Quick, where’s that quill?

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.

*Copyright Sylvie


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