A curious title, this, for a piece that is essentially a celebration of poetry. But wait; it’s about a particular kind of poetry. This is about radical poetry: protest verse and song over the ages, and goes from quotes from the Epic of Gilgamesh to locally-written poems and songs of today. It’s a loose adaptation of a collection by Heathcote Williams, doyen of English ‘alternative’ literary radicalism. Onstage here, we have two musicians, guitar and keyboard, the keyboard man being the narrator, if that’s the right word, plus three other singer/reciters who join in, singly or in concert, at times. They are joined on occasion by a couple of poets from round these parts, and by the redoubtable Su Hart with the Walcot State Choir. In essence, then, a good old right-on anarchist collective.
Some of the claims here for the social and political power of poetry are a bit overblown; for instance the fact that Ghandi liked Shelley, for all that Percy Bysshe was an undoubted rebel in his time, doesn’t actually mean that poetry overthrew the British Raj, does it? But the evening brings an enjoyable resume of some of the classics: Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’, later set to music and most famously recorded by Billie Holiday undoubtedly did have an effect, and is still powerful today. There’s a rousing rendering of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. And of course Country Joe McDonald’s Vietnam Rag, possibly the best anti-war song ever. There are many more, some of them evergreen standards, some of them quotes from little-known poets from around the world. Sometimes it feels a bit dated, as if this were still 1968. The famous Woodstock chant (“Gimme an F…”etc.) may have seemed a bit revolutionary half a century ago, but just shouting “Fuck!” doesn’t count for much today. Of course, the point here, and it’s well made, is that ‘radicalism’ has a long and honourable literary history, and isn’t something that just applies to hate-filled religious crazies. High points of the evening, though, came with the rousing anthemic singing of the Walcot State Choir, and in particular Su Hart’s brilliant solo performance, with the choir on backing vocals, of her song in praise of Malala Yousafzai’s stand for girls’ education – about as uplifting a musical evocation of hope and defiance as you could imagine.
John Christopher Wood