A place where poetry is heard
By TISHANI DOSHI
06th July 2012 02:54 PM
This week’s column is in honour of the poet. Not a single poet but a whole group of them: 204, to be precise. From June 26 to July 1, London’s Southbank Centre hosted Poetry Parnassus–the largest gathering of poets from around the world in UK history. Named for the ancient Greek home of the muses, Mount Parnassus, the idea was to invite one poet from each Olympic nation to congregate in the relocated Parnassus, south of the Thames. While only 140 made it there, the words of all the invited poets were present in the form of wall poems, sound installations, and bookmarks that fell from the sky.
Poetry Parnassus was the brainchild of English poet Simon Armitage. In his opening address, he described it as an artistic counterbalance to “the great juggernaut of the Olympics”. He told people to think of it as a great fair of languages; a week of conversations, exchanges, and collisions. Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, hailed poetry as an art that remains truly subversive in an age where culture has become something of “an intense picnic for the public to snack and browse on.” She said, “The poet’s ability to speak truth hasn’t been tampered with because poetry carries no cash with it.” A young poet, Tom Chivers, put it rather more succinctly: “Poetry is the cockroach of the arts. It has survived.”
And indeed, to spend five days among the poets of the world, moving from readings to debates with provocative titles such as ‘I Am Not My Country’, ‘Prayers for Exiled Poets’, ‘This is What the World Sounds Like’, and ‘Eat Your Words’ – one would think that poetry was thriving. But of course, it only thrives for those who care to listen to it.
One of the most poignant moments for me was listening to the Francophone Lebanese poet Venus Khoury-Ghata, who was ushered on stage 20 minutes into her event. “I was lost,” she said, “They had to find me.” Somehow, that image of the poet lost in the building of culture, searching for her audience, seemed an apt metaphor for the state of poetry today.
There were moments of triumph of course, tiny and large, none more spectacular than the Rain of Poems, organised by the Chilean art collective, Casagrande, who have rained poems over Guernica, Santiago, Dubrovnik, Berlin and Warsaw – all cities that have been bombed in the past. On an unseasonably warm London evening, a helicopter flying near the London Eye bombed the gardens and the people below with poems from around the world — a hundred thousand silvered bookmark-poems falling from the sky. People below raced across the grass, unleashing their Olympian spirits in the hope of catching one as they sailed to the ground. For a while, in that London twilight, it seemed poetry was everything.
Some days after the Rain of Poems, I heard a story of how a bookmark-poem had floated into the lap of a London cabbie. The poem was from Cyprus, the cabbie’s home country. Fact or fiction? Does it matter? It’s the poetic truth.
While a “Reign of Poets” might seem like wishful thinking in these product-driven times, events like Parnassus reinforce the need at least, for a home of the muses, a place where poetry and song can hope to be heard.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist
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