The commission is an unusual beast, someone asks for a poem on a subject, the poet goes away and thinks about it and comes up with the goods. Today I heard Ian McMillan's poem for 'The Front Page' BBC Radio 4 programme. Asked to write about a poem for the Euro 2020 final the week before England played Italy, and lost on penalties, then delivering it week after. The poem is never going to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, but it did its job. I also understood it, and got it in one, unlike T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, which I have heard many times, but in truth need academics to point out to me why it is good. In the poem, McMillan refers to Eliot, and as a reader it would enhance the experience if I knew the reference. (I didn't.). McMillan is a decent chap, he is not going to condemn me for not picking it up, but I should I condemn myself?
There is so much poetry about, how can I know it all? As it so goes I have read a good deal of it, but when I am sat in a reading, am I supposed to bring my poetry history with me or simply enjoy the moment, are there two opposites, or have I constructed this myself? If I don't know my poetry history then I am freed from the challenge of acknowledging it? I know my music better, so in my world I would say - should a young rapper know the songs of Elvis and the Beatles, should they even know the history of the song the rapper may have sampled, or is it enough to know your own genre well, or even, then just live in the moment and enjoy the song?
I find, a little like Classical music, there is an inbuilt elitism in poetry that is hard to shake off, even if the poet themselves tells you to shake it off. (And by Classical music I mean Mozart, Beethoven and that crowd, not Led Zep and Black Sabbath, which is how I hear the word being used now! Though, actually that has its elitism, too!) In spite of all this I can tell that McMillan's poem is no The Wasteland, so there is a difference, and getting back to the beginning commissions make for a very different, more accessible poetry.
I guess this is because in this circumstance the poet is writing for the audience and not themselves. When I read Simon Armitage's Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, a book filled with commissioned poetry I enjoyed it greatly, but ultimately it did leave me a little bit hollow by the end. What Armitage is so good at is writing in a poetic voice that is both authentic, and poetic, it feels like if you had sat down long enough thinking about it with a pen in your hand, you could have written it, too. This is a wonderful deception. As Poet Laurette, suddenly everything he writes feels like it is a commission, almost by the nature of the job.
I have read his Lockdown Poem and watched the Lockdown film on television, both wonderful pieces of works, that describe explain Lockdown better than any documentary ever could. Poetry gets behind the mere facts and emphases the emotional, and though we believe we are a religion-less society, it speak in the language of our spiritual being, too. I notice, though that when presented to the World on the internet, the Lockdown poem is presented with a backbeat, and acted out images, and I wonder at the reason for this. Am I being elitist for noticing it, am I rejecting it? Or am I pleased that Armitage is doing his bit to bring poetry to the World in a populist way, surely another of the possible unwritten role of the Laureate's job.
The film which intermingles poetry with talking heads, is perfect time capsule for the future. The individual stories of people affected by Covid-19, are emotional in themselves, woven into the overall arc of a poem provided by Armitage, they become a part of the poetic piece, and the emotion is turned up to 11 (a cultural reference I expect you to get, but if you don't it feels like I though of the joke!). To help the watcher along two ethereal dancers interpret the parts where Armitage is talking as if to emphasise we are talkking in poetry language now. I good trick, but once I spotted it I started to laugh at the thought that every time Armitage gives a reading in the real world two dancers would suddenly appear in the wings.
Today I watched I don't even know how, it came to me via Facebook I believe, and I notice that the poet has put a backdrop of old film footage to enhance the film. I always wonder at this, it is almost as if the poet is concerned that the poem will not be entertaining enough in its own right, that there is an alternative show going on in case you don't want to listen to what's being said enough. It's a tremendous piece, as authentic as you get written by person from Glasgow, about what that experience is like. Such a great feat. Sadly no BBC4 commissions await for the poet, so we create our own film to be in.
The commission as income, that what it is there fore and quite right. There is so much poetry about yet so few jprofessional poets, it seems all wrong to the likes of me that loves poetry, but look at me I prefer the free readings to the paid for ones, and I am a generous person.