The poet may know it when others blow it

This week, the Scots drank to the poet Robert Burns and Derek Walcott won the TS Eliot prize. Now poetry wants to give St George a makeover.

‘It’s your usual politically correct mumbo jumbo,’ said London cabbie John Andrew when he heard about what the poets had done to St George. But will others agree?

Andrew Motion, former poet laureate, has been asked, with other award-winning poets, to give St George a makeover.

St George is the patron saint of England and most famous for his selflessness and courage in killing a dragon. But some feel he’s been taken over by the political far-right and so lost to the majority of the nation.

These poets want to place St George centre-stage again and wish to explore what it is to be English in a much-changed multicultural England. Amid our differences, they want poetry to help us find ‘spiritual solidarity’ with each other.

In this new work - to be performed around the country and possibly used at the Olympics - St George is presented as a ‘troubled soul in search of truth’ and could be male or female, black or white.

This would not be the first time a nation has looked to poetry to help with its self-understanding. The Scots, for instance, celebrated the birthday of Robbie Burns this week.

Known as ‘Scotland’s favourite son’, he died at the age of 37 in 1796, but in his short life, wrote some of literature’s most famous poems including Tom O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne, which is still sung at New Year celebrations.

Burns wrote in the language of the people. The Scots language was often sneered at as nothing more than corrupt English. Burns gave it a new literary status.

Long before Burns, however, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had tried to explain the poet’s power: ‘The distinction between historian and poet is…one describes the thing that has been and the other the kind of thing that might be.’

All together now
So can poetry unite and inspire us in a way that politicians can’t?

The poet Percy Shelley thought so. ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ he said, and this is Andrew Motion’s vision as he brings St George into the 21st century: ‘The challenge has been to make a liturgy powerful enough to uplift everyone and liberal enough for anyone to join in.’

As his work concludes: ‘Let us open ourselves to one another and to God/We are so many different sorts of people/Will you join together in this quest for England and its unknown God?’

A politician could not say this. But perhaps a poet can.

You Decide

  1. ‘The only people who like poetry are poets.’True?
  2. The film director Quentin Tarantino said:‘You can’t write poetry on the computer.’Do you think there’s something more human about handwriting? Or is the keyboard just as good?

Activities

  1. Form your own poetry circle and read a poem you like. It could be one you wrote or it could be famous; it could be funny, sad, angry or beautiful. The important thing is: you like it.
  2. Research different forms of poetry like haiku, limericks, verse, rhyming, sonnet, free form etc. And then write a poem of your own in the form you like best.

Some People Say...

“Poems are just words. Nothing more, nothing less.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what’s a liturgy?
It’s a set form of words used for public occasions like a wedding, for instance, or other religious gatherings. The words of the liturgy define why you’re all there.
And who writes poems?
Anyone — even you! ‘Poetry is just the evidence of life,’ said the song writer Leonard Cohen, who wrote the recent hit ‘Hallelujah’. ‘If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.’
And Derek Walcott is another poet presumably?
Yes, he was born in St Lucia in the Caribbean, and he’s 81 now. His recent collection of poems called ‘White Egrets’ was much admired, and it won him the TS Eliot prize and £15000.
But there can’t generally be much money in poetry.
No, there isn’t. As Robert Graves said, ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money.’