Saturday, 30 May 2015

John Agard: Poetry to Energise the Soul

I was interested to hear the poet John Agard talking to Kirsty Young as a guest on Desert Island Discs in November 2014. Born in Guyana, Agard came to the UK in the 1970s with his partner, the poet Grace Nichols. Carol Ann Duffy says of him: “John Agard has always made people sit up and listen. He has done this with intelligence, humour and generosity... He has the ability to temper anger with wit, and difficult truths with kindness... In performance he is electrifying – compelling, funny, moving and thought-provoking. His work in education over the years has changed the way that readers, writers and teachers think about poetry,” 

His poems are often satirical, addressing subjects such as slavery and, as the BBC website puts it "the historical myopia of a shared past judged solely through European eyes". His humour is sometimes achieved by provoking an abrupt change of perception in his audience, a disruption of an accepted way of seeing. His readings are, as Duffy says, electrifying, giving language an almost physical quality in which words are played with, emphasised and delivered for maximum impact. Have a listen to him over on the Poetry Archive if you haven't heard him before.

Asked about how he felt about being awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry he says that that the medal is given for your contribution and oeuvre as a poet and that it would be ungracious to reject it. Young people, he says, both black and white, need to be motivated by people who channel the word with positive energy; they need models who can energise the soul, beacons who give them a positive hope that poetry is also something that is worthy of being honoured. For that reason he says he had no qualms in accepting the medal and felt honoured and touched to be in the company of many great poets.

He talks of the process of writing poetry, how the poet uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet as everyone else but there is "a magical moment when you happen to put the right words in the right order and this can trigger off a verbal chemistry that can touch your depths and language begins to fly". A line might come to you, he continues, like a benediction, like grace, like it's a gift. It has spiritual overtones but is not divorced from the mundane of life.

He says he believes that "the poet keeps us in touch with the vulnerable core of language that makes us what we are."

That's certainly something to ponder on.