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Visions of home

16 October 2015


IT SHOULD be in big letters on the walls of every teenage poetry class: "It doesn’t have to be about fog and skinheads." Knowing that, as he or she enters those difficult years, a young person’s thoughts naturally turn to nihilism, the poet and teacher Kate Clanchy maintains a sympathetically poised approach to the poetic art.

Her influence seems to have worked; for Oxford Spires Academy, where she teaches, can boast multiple creative-writing awards won by its pupils; a cohort of impressive ethnic diversity, in which languages are spoken; and the cricket team is largely Bangladeshi. This was an excellent venue, then, for Between the Ears: We are writing a poem about home (Radio 3, Saturday), a feature marking a National Poetry Day season that has had national and regional identity as a connecting strand.

For Clanchy’s group, the task was to "write themselves back home", and the examples we heard were remarkable for their clarity of image. Clanchy is a brilliant teacher, capable of tightening a poem with a couple of gentle comments — "put that next to that and it’ll be all cosy" — and an undogmatic approach.

Her students then create work that is self-aware and clever, but rarely pretentious: "My poem will be a rock concert with no perfect edits, no careful straining through a BBC sieve, and no volume knob."

An emphasis on regionalism was what lifted We British (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) from a typical anthology of your favourite British lyrics into something much more entertaining. Thus we had Liz Berry reclaiming Shakespeare for the Midlands by delivering "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?" in a broad Brummie accent; and a rendition of "To his coy mistress" by Barrie Rutter, a native of Marvell’s own home town of Hull.

We are used to hearing the medieval "Gawain and the Green Knight" in hypothetical dialects; but now contemporary pluralism is voiced by Daligit Nagra, whose poem "This Be the Pukka Verse" celebrates a new British regionalism by incorporating Asian patois.

Sadly, The Manchester Ballads (Radio 4, Monday of last week) failed to match these other National Poetry Day offerings, and not for want of rich resources or a talented presenter. This was an exploration of the repertory of poems, printed singly, in broadsheet format, which, in early- 19th-century Manchester, expressed something of the values of immigrant and working-class groups.

The drawback was that it took us a full 12 minutes before we got to hear any of them, either spoken or sung. The lack of published music is no impediment here, since the poems were intended to fit to a well-known corpus of tunes; nor was it a lack of decent singers, for when the presenter, Eliza Carthy, finally sang for us, it was enchanting.

More problematic still was the peculiar appropriation of these ballads made by the artist Jeremy Deller for the Venice Biennale. I can’t imagine that having Manchester ballads sung by classically trained Italian singers would do much for their authenticity. 

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