I unexpectedly found myself in the vanguard of the zeitgeist over the weekend. Steady on chaps, I’m not supposed to be trendy at my time of life.
Pint Sized Poetry at Watford Palace Theatre on Friday night had caught my attention and I thought I’d give it a whirl. I’m not a stranger to poetry but I only attend a handful of events each year and as something was happening locally it was too good an opportunity to miss. Not least, my attendance might encourage more spoken-word events in the future.
The evening was great fun. Pint Sized Poetry had been organised by (Sarah) Kenny, a local poet, who had assembled a dozen or so others to create the occasion. All made excellent contributions, and my interest was particularly engaged by Hayley McFadyen, Alice O’Shaughnessy, Eimar James and Katie Greenall. Ray LaMont provided music (in a style reminiscent of Richie Havens) and Kenny kept the show on track with her sharp introductions and a closing piece. I guess there were about 50 or so people there so it was a good turn-out and it implies a promising future.
What surprised me about the evening was the audience, 90% of whom must have been under 30. This is very different from audiences I’m usually a part of, and a very refreshing change too. What reinforced my optimism was opening the papers over the weekend to read that poetry seems to be having a moment (again). On both Saturday and Sunday there were comments about the recently published 2018 UK book sales data showing that sales of poetry books had reached £12.3m (an increase of 12% and £1.3m) and over the previous five years poetry sales had increased by 48%.
Further analysis showed that two-thirds of the buyers were under 34 years old, and that 41% of them were between 13 and 22 with teenage girls and young women as the biggest consumer group for poetry. That explained to me why the audience was what it was. Watford Palace’s provision of a central venue, and an interest in hosting future events means that poetry is finally escaping from Covent Garden and Hampstead and into more accessible parts of the country.
I came to realise that all those blogs and Instagram feeds I’d encountered online, and passed by with barely a glance, weren’t just juvenile ephemera but first hand evidence of this cultural trend and an encouraging development. If the popularity of spoken-word YouTube performers like Holly McNish and Kate Tempest has resulted in greater book sales then buying poetry has become cool again, for the first time in 50 years.
Yep, 50 years. It was as long ago as the late 1960s that Penguin suddenly realised it had a best-seller on its hands . Penguin Modern Poets, was a series of slim paperbacks and each featured three contemporary poets. Vol 10, The Mersey Sound, with Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten went into multiple re-prints and into two further revised editions to rack up over 500,000 sales. It was one of the books that got me interested in poetry as it was a heck of lot more accessible than the stuff we were reading at school, and it was being written on my doorstep. It made me realise that I could write poetry too, and read it to the crowd at O’Connor’s on Hardman Street between the big name acts. Adrian was always happy to offer constructive feedback on your hesitant efforts, and that was way better than school as well. At last! – you didn’t need to play a guitar to make a name for yourself; you could do it with a few cracking lines and a rat-tat-tat delivery – with deep meaningful pauses at appropriate intervals of course, and a joke or two.
O’Connor’s went on to feature on the gate-fold cover of The Liverpool Scene’s album with Frank O’Connor himself among the band, and a selection of the day’s customers, outside on the pavement. Among the young faces you might notice Carol Ann Duffy who was getting noticed even then.
The band at that time comprised Brian Dodson (drums), Mike Hart (electric guitar), and Mike Evans (sax) standing (L-R) to the left of Frank O’Connor as you look at the picture. Adrian Henri and Andy Roberts (acoustic guitar) are sitting on the front row. Who can spot the current Poet Laureate?
A heck of a lot of stuff has been written about The Beatles and how Liverpool changed the history of pop music, but I don’t think I’ve read enough about the impact of the Liverpool Poets on popular culture. They were very much products of their time and became individually successful in different ways, but it’s not really their poetry that is important – it’s the way they took poetry out of dusty drawing rooms and libraries and into the pubs and dancehalls, the way they shifted poetry into the realm of popular culture, and created the spaces in which later performers like Leonard Cohen, Al Stewart, The Incredible String Band, Joni Mitchell and any number of other poet-musicians could find an audience. Sure, there had been the American Beat poets of the 50’s and early 60’s, and a new wave of British poets at the same time, but neither strand escaped from the cultural high ground in the way the Merseybeat poets did.
And this is why I find Pint Size Poetry so exciting. It’s not Keats House. It’s not the Poetry Cafe. It’s not the South Bank Centre. It’s not a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with tea and scones. It’s a bar, in Watford, on a Friday night. And it’s packed (almost). I’m hoping we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more about it.