Poetry Season

Local Navigation

Local Navigation

Spoken Word

Patrick Neate

One final question

6 October 2009

Hi, my name's Patrick Neate and welcome to the last of my monthly Spoken Word columns for BBC Poetry Season.

This month I pose poetry's big question, offer some wise words from John Keats, salute one last batch of rising stars and - in my final round-up - preview all that the spoken word and performance poetry world has to offer for November. Thanks for reading!

It is, I realise, my last column, so I'd best address the central question before it's too late. Namely, I mean, like, y'know, poetry - what's it for?

This was first posed to me during a workshop some years ago by a student at Haverstock School in Chalk Farm, but it articulated something that's bothered me for as long as I've been writing.

In fact, most poets I know spend considerable time pondering the purpose of what they do; partly, I suspect, because of the reflective nature of the practise and partly because a poet's lifestyle and work is subject to extraordinary judgement.

Tell someone you're a poet and their reaction will rarely be a brisk nod and an even "right you are then". More likely they will suddenly regard you in one of two ways - either with undeserved and inappropriate wonder or, more often, with equivalent and barely-concealed contempt. In the latter instance, their reaction seems to say: "A poet? What's the point of that?" And so you begin to ask yourself much the same thing. In fact, we've most likely all been pondering something similar lately, as the result of the Nation's Favourite Poet vote is announced this week, on National Poetry Day on 8 October.

Personally, I considered this again during a preview screening of Bright Star, Jane Campion's brilliant film about John Keats' ill-fated relationship with Fanny Brawne. Sure, Keats, himself on the Nation's Favourite Poet shortlist, wrote some of the most beguiling love poetry in the English language, but he also died uncelebrated and penurious at the age of 25. So what was the point of that?

Of course, no sooner had I asked myself this question than I recognised its implication - that I seemed to acknowledge celebrity and financial reward as the only markers of value. How shaming! Because, poetry is really for many things - it can be the map by which you plot passage through your own heart and the primer that allows you to estimate an interpretation of everyone else's. Or, as Keats put it (rather more elegantly): "A poet is a sage; a humanist, physician to all men..."

In this context, however, it is perhaps most important to recognise poetry's value precisely because it is neither a route to wealth nor stardom. After all, can you trust someone to be straight-forward when they are paid to tell you what you want to hear? No. There remains, therefore, an honesty in poetry that's often elusive elsewhere, perhaps in spoken word most of all.

You see, occasionally, perhaps even more rarely than that, I can find listening to a poet perform their work as redemptive as any experience I know. The sensation is momentary, fragile and necessarily unrecorded, just like the truth it speaks.

External Links:
Bright Star official movie site

Events for November 2009

With Beyond Words Remixed on 10 November, the Albany and Apples and Snakes present some of South Africa's finest poets alongside the winners of the 2009 SLAMbassadors competition from The Poetry Society and BBC Blast.

Rum, Punch and Poets at east London's Richmix on 13 November unites some of London's finest spoken word artists with the wonderful legendary dub poet Jean 'Binta' Breeze and the maverick Lemn Sissay for one mouthwatering line-up.

External Links:
Apples and Snakes
Rum, Punch and Poets
Lemn Sissay official site

New talent

El Crisis performs stunning praise poetry pitched somewhere between song-writing and epic verse.

Not a poet as such, but Sophie Woolley is a pioneer of spoken word narrative and there's poetry in everything she does.

External Links:
El Crisis on My Space
Sophie Woolley's site

Dreadlock Alien


Watch Dreadlock Alien's tips for performing poetry

Basement Jaxx performing The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Radio 1 Animations

Watch Basement Jaxx's version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Related Links

BBC Blast logo

BBC Blast

Find out how to enter the SLAMbassadors competition.

Poetry Pie logo

CBeebies: Poetry Pie

Pre-school fun in a magical world of poetry.

BBC The Speaker

Top tips for speaking in public.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.