Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Power of Birmingham, or: is there poetry in the city?

My literary hero, George Mackay Brown, was once unforgiveably rude about Birmingham. “A poet could not choose a better place to be born than a group of islands, like Orkney,” he wrote in his 1993 essay Enchantment of Islands: A Poet’s Sources. “...If I had been born in Birmingham, for example, I would know that any creativity in me would be impoverished from the start, perhaps fatally.”

Closeness to the natural world, to ancient history and mythology, is a tremendous blessing for a poet, I agree. Most of my own poetry uses nature, myth and fairy tale as its starting point. But surely, surely he’s being unjustifiably harsh?

I have to admit that when I think of ‘city poetry’, the first examples that come to mind are largely negative ones. William Blake’s hymn to London could hardly paint a darker portrait of an urban landscape:

“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

“In every cry of every Man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

“How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening Church appals
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.”

Eliot’s The Waste Land is hardly much kinder with its haunting portrayal of urban desolation. And we all know what John Betjeman thought of Slough.

But hang on a minute. These strong gut reactions are poetry. You don’t have to be in love with a place to be deeply moved by its emotional undercurrents. What Blake and Eliot are trying to capture is the complexity of the urban setting and the effects of human habitation in close, crowded quarters. Both poets are reaching out to make a human connection within the ruins – and isn’t that what poetry is always trying to do?

Mackay Brown points out in his essay that ‘city poets’ such as Keats and Shakespeare were reliant on being able to retreat to the countryside in order to reinvigorate their muse. I’m in the same boat myself: I need open space, coast and sea, landscape and legend, to refresh me and to rekindle the poetic fire. But actually, not all that much of my own poetry is set in open countryside or the distant past. Most of it is in the city because that’s where people are – and it’s people, for me, that make the most fascinating poetry of all. “This is not the countryside, this is the cityside,” declares Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2. “The city is full of people, and people are very complicated.” It may be a throwaway quote from a daft film, but there’s more truth in this line than the script writers realised.

So: does living in Birmingham (or any city for that matter) really kill the creative impulse? I’m not convinced that it does.

Psychogeography – the fundamental connection between place and emotion – is a bit of a buzzword in poetic circles. And I believe the interest in psychogeography is a trend that makes poetry less introspective. It prompts poets to look outward, to understand how their past lives and their current psychological make-up have been informed by the landscapes of their past, as well as the places where they are located now. It prompts them to think about the politics of their environment, and its effects on the people who live there. And because most poets, like most people, have been born and raised in more or less urban environments, this could mean we are on the cusp of a golden age of urban poetry.

As I’ve got older, I have become more interested in tapping into the personal mythology of my childhood to find source material for my poetry. Seen through a child’s eyes, an urban landscape can be a place of wonder, terror and magic, every bit as much as a far-flung island can. My childhood in Merseyside was full of the strange and the mystical: the haunted railway tunnels of Green Lane station, the convent behind the high sandstone wall where we never saw a living soul, the aquarium with every colour of fish imaginable (and. incongruously, an impressive line in Space Invaders machines), the stained-glass hush of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, the treasure trove of Skeleton Records. I’ve lived in many different cities since then, each of which has got under my skin in a different way. Some I’ve loved, such as the 1990s Edinburgh that I commemorated in my first ever prize-winning poem, Joni Melts Wax in a Saucepan. Others have elicited more ambivalent reactions, as attested by the set of poems from my three years’ exile in Milton Keynes which became the heart of my Satires collection. And my ten years in York have mythologised my current home to a certain degree, too. This is a city where the Green Man catches the Number 10 bus home from work, but it’s also a city where couples at the sharp end of Cameron’s Britain are trying to find a new language of love in the teeth of austerity:

“Leaves confetti round,
a dark scarlet tumble. You laugh;

clasp my cold hand, warm it
between yours; pick a thread
that’s trailing down my sleeve. Kiss, and whisper
this is our show – our red carpet –
all these lights, just for us

(from Red Carpet)

I’ve lived in Birmingham, too. In fact, in my writing, the very word ‘Birmingham’ has taken on a whole new meaning:

“We banned the ‘L’ word from conversation
the third time Tainted Love came round on the jukebox.
Decided it was much less bitter, somehow,
slipping in something innocuous. Like ‘Birmingham’.

“We played the game
seven nights in a row.
You give Birmingham a bad name.
I’d do anything for Birmingham (but I won’t do that).
Too much Birmingham will kill you.
Birmingham will tear us apart...

When I wrote this poem, I was aiming at something more than a frivolous bit of word-play. The Power of Birmingham is an urban love poem, full of the tensions and uncertainties that are the heartbeat of a city:

“I walked you to the station
Sunday night at twilight,
the sky exploding violet.
You giggled, kissed my cheek
and said Birmingham is a wonderful colour.

“I waved you goodbye
and promised I’d text
and I shuffled my feet
on the concrete grey platform
and wondered when I’d see you again...”

Its sequel (which ended up being called Ever Fallen in Birmingham with Someone you Shouldn’t have Fallen in Birmingham With?) inhabits that disconnected space that I’m often aware of in a city environment, where the rapid changes that take place in the physical space mirror a shift in the emotional landscape too:

“I stop at the railway station corner
by the boarded-up letterbox.
Remember envelopes
sneaked through the slot,
jokes scrawled across the flap.
Birmingham really hurts without you.
Might as well face it, you’re addicted to Birmingham.
I don’t know who you are but you’re a real dead ringer for...

I wonder
about the ones that never got delivered,
the kisses and wishes
shut behind peeling flakes of fly-posters
for bands long since broken up. Silenced.”

Is there poetry in the city? Of course there is. It might not be the poetry of dramatic landscape and timeless mythology. But it’s there alright – in the cafes, the alleyways, the roar of traffic and trains; in the pulses of the people that are a city’s lifeblood, a poet’s stock in trade. You may have to dig a little to find the poetry, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

And you may really Birmingham the results!

(The Power of Birmingham appears in my collection A Long Way to Fall (Lapwing, 2013). Red Carpet, Joni Melts Wax in a Saucepan and Ever Fallen in Birmingham...? appear in my collection Satires (Stairwell Books, 2015)).