I like Simon Armitage, the poet laureate. We’ve often listened to his radio series “The Poet Laureate has gone to his shed”, in which he supposedly invites guests - actors, poets, novelists, even Prince Charles - to visit him in his shed in the Pennines and talk about books, poetry, life, the universe and everything. Now he has written what says is a strange poem for strange times, a response to Cop26.
He wrote this by way of an introduction:
“I wanted to react to Cop26 - so many of my friends and colleagues have been emboldened by the conversation it has generated. And strange times sometimes lead to strange poems.
I was trying to chart the peculiar dream-like state we seem to be in, where the rules and natural laws of the old world feel to be in flux, one of those dreams which are full of danger, but not completely beyond the control of the person who sleeps.
The speaker in the poem is watching a world out of kilter, and is full of doubt and distrust, but seems to pluck up enough personal courage to face the future. Let’s call it hope.”
So here is his poem:
I crawl out onto the rooftop
above the world’s junkshop,
lean against the warm chimney
and eyeball the city.
The vibe is … let’s say ethereal,
rows of TV aerials
spelling out HEAVEN,
spelling out ARMAGEDDON.
It’s T minus zero
of the Petroleum Era –
all my neighbours
are burning tomorrow’s newspapers
in their back-gardens,
getting their alibis sharpened.
As the hours evaporate
I say to my spirit
I can’t really pilot
this smouldering twilight
over the scars and crevasses,
but I’ll put on my best sunglasses
and steer the cockpit of morning
into the oncoming.
There you go. You have to imagine it spoken aloud with a North of England accent.
I also like Michael Rosen. That’s why I quote him so often. He’s written another letter to the education secretary,
this time about the importance of including the arts in our education system. There is so much talk these days about the need for education to be purposeful, leading to something, giving importance to degree courses that lead to specific careers. There has always been that kind of debate and there is a tendency to forget that we need to educate the whole person. Even scientists need the arts!
But as so much is being said about the need for our children to “catch up” with the education they missed during lockdown, Michael Rosen has been addressing the question of helping children “catch up” emotionally as well:
“What do five-, six-, seven- or eight-year-olds make of the idea of a virus? We’ve been asking young children to understand that someone can have the virus but then not show any outward signs of it. And yet, people you know and perhaps love, die of it. Trying to explain it can make it sound like evil magic: it can get into your cells, it can spread and multiply but it’s not actually alive. It can hang about in the air. You can breathe it in but you can’t see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. We’re expecting children to understand all this. Or to put it another way, we’re expecting children to deal with it, handle it and carry on in life and school while they’re being asked to “catch up”.”
Quite early in lockdown our then four year old granddaughter solemnly explained that she would be able to visit “when the germs are gone”. So she had some understanding of what was going on. One consequence of the whole Covid precautions business is the disappearance of totally spontaneous hugs. She’s a little wary, as is her seven year old cousin, who drew pictures of the virus, her way of coping with it all. We need to give pir children time to process it all and some free writing and drawing and music making will help a lot more that extra sums.
And here’s what the great Kurt Vonnegut had to say:
“Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
But the sums are important as well - let’s keep everything in balance.
Life goes on. Stay safe and well, everyone!