Monday, 7 June 2010

Poetry and free speech: the Patrick Jones controversy

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 83 of NAWG LINK and appears here with a couple of minor modifications)

It's not often that poetry makes headline news. But that is exactly what happened in November 2008 when the Cardiff branch of Waterstone's took it upon themselves to close down a book launch by Welsh poet Patrick Jones. They were responding to complaints and threats of direct action by a pressure group on the extreme fringe of Christianity, who had read Jones’s poetry and condemned it as "obscene and blasphemous". Fearing violent – or at the very least, objectionable – altercations if the launch were to go ahead, senior management at Waterstone's cancelled the event at the last minute, leaving supporters of the poet and staff from his publishers Cinnamon Press locked out.

My immediate reaction was What on earth is going on? This is supposed to be a democracy, after all, which upholds an individual's right to freedom of expression even (or especially) in the face of violence or intimidation. Waterstone's never took this action against Salman Rushdie when his controversial writing made him the subject of violent threats, so why pick on a poet whose sales are likely to be pitiful by comparison? When The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – surely a far more influential and (to religious extremists anyway) dangerous thinker – was published, many branches promoted it as a staff recommendation. There were no crowds of picketing believers outside.

Was this pressure group attacking a poet because he was a soft target, with nobody influential to fight his corner? And were Waterstone's caving in because they thought the launch of Darkness is Where the Stars Are was a small event, and nobody would notice if it didn't go ahead?

It seems both Waterstone's and the protesters miscalculated. The unforeseen publicity has prompted all sorts of people, who might never have opened a poetry book otherwise, to read Patrick Jones. The first thing I did when I heard about the furore was log on to the Cinnamon Press website and order a copy.

Personally I find Jones's poetry to be a mixed bag. There is so much atheistic polemic in Darkness is Where the Stars Are that other good writing in the collection (and some of it is very good writing) is rather eclipsed. I can't criticise his sincerity. His anti-war poetry is ferocious, invoking the spirit of Wilfred Owen in Keys to your Kingdom when he writes "pro patria mori, the old lie, / you warned us yet no one heard / and your words drifted like ash". But his determination to pin the blame on organised religion is so relentless that at times it loses the personal focus, resorting instead to abstracts. It's a pity, because when he is talking in the first person, Jones's poetry is raw and immediate – and correspondingly powerful. Moment of Light, which for me is his most persuasive "political" poem, is effective not because of doctrinal conviction but because it comes straight from the heart: "today / I have become a born again / atheist / bow to a river bank not the parting of the sea / sing to a star not an invisible man."

It has been argued that Jones is the architect of his own controversy. He has a habit of sending samples of his writing to people who are bound to object to it, in an effort to encourage debate. Is this commendable idealism, or self-publicity? I'm not entirely sure. His publishers state that "Patrick Jones has corresponded with many organisations with whom he strongly disagrees and on every other occasion the result has been mature, if passionate, discussion, not threats. Patrick has never threatened anyone nor tried to curtail anyone else's freedom of speech."

And to be fair to Waterstone's, they have never refused to stock Darkness is Where the Stars Are. My local branch had plenty of copies on the shelves last time I looked. I can’t help thinking they're a little embarrassed by the whole sorry episode.

What the uproar does illustrate is something fundamental about the nature of poetry. You see, poetry is a powerful beast. Whether or not the modern, short-attention-span world claims to understand it, there remains a sort of visceral awareness that poetry packs an emotional punch. That distillation of words, emotions, ideals, into a few short rhythmic phrases seems to have the capacity to disturb, inspire and challenge humankind in a way that few of our arts and none of our technology can achieve. Perhaps that is the real reason why the enemies of free speech are so afraid of it.

Patrick Jones's poetry tackles subjects which many of today's poets don't have the guts to approach. We have become used to the poem on the page as a sanitised thing. We can agonise for hours about the metaphor hiding in a raindrop on a branch. Or, when we dare to tread in sensitive areas, we prefer to whisper and hint, using the gossamer of our imagery to ensure we don't have to touch the bloody, smelly, repulsive things of our world.

There is no such fear in Patrick Jones. He speaks unflinchingly about the (male) victim of domestic violence (in the title poem and numerous others), or the friend carted off to the psychiatric hospital (Spring Asylum). He likens the ruined woodlands where he played as a child (Flowers for the Trees on Mother's Day) to terrorist victims, "a field of fresh corpses". He gives a voice to the persecuted asylum seeker, the victim of female genital mutilation. He may not be Wilfred Owen, but his words reduce war to the ugly, irredeemable mess it is. He may not be Richard Dawkins, but his critique of religious hypocrisy is just as scathing. As a Christian myself, I can’t agree with his condemnation of all religious belief, and can understand why some find it offensive; but I applaud him when he likens the distorted fundamentalism of the group which scuppered his book launch to that of the Taliban. As a poet, I can only admire his determination to keep using poetry to "redress the rigours of th' inclement clime", to borrow a phrase from that other great protest poet, Oliver Goldsmith.

It could be that Patrick Jones is exactly the kick up the backside we poets need. The bards and poetic agitators of yesteryear made their words and their principles work together. Let's see if today’s poets can do the same.

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