John Agard: Poetry Inc

In 1997 John Agard was appointed poet in residence in the BBC Education Department as an integral part of their Windrush season, a series of programmes marking the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the first five hundred immigrants to the UK from the Caribbean on board the troopship MV Windrush. Here is an article he wrote for Poetry Review about the Poetry Places scheme.


Is the placement of poets in corporate places a misplacement of poets? My answer is, to borrow a bardic expression, a pox upon the cynics. For corporate places, at the end of the day, are inhabited by human beings called the " work force" whose corpuscles can certainly benefit from a transfusion of poetry. But this, I might add, is not one-way traffic.

After working as a poet in companies and organisations around the world, David Whyte, in his book The Heart Aroused (Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul at Work) had this to say: " I found my image of contemporary business as outdated and clichéd as the business world' s image of my own world of poetry and poets".

I shall return to this later, but first what is Poetry Places? For those who don't already know, it's a scheme set by the Poetry Society and funded by the Arts Council lottery grant - a new two year programme of poetry residences and projects in all manner of venues throughout England. Already, poets have been placed in corporate and public settings such as the BBC, Marks and Spencer, Mischcon de Reya solicitor' s firm, Kew Gardens, London Zoo as well as museums, galleries, prisons, hospital waiting rooms and fish and chip shops.

For years poets have been quietly supplementing their un-royal royalties with readings, workshops, performances and residencies in schools, libraries, colleges, universities, prisons, festivals, pubs- wherever the circuit calls. But what seems to have sensationally caught the eye of the media is the notion of a poet in a corporate place, hence headlines such as " from the garret to the boardroom" or " they wandered lonely as a paperclip".

Behind this sub-editorial tongue-in-cheekiness lie certain prevailing attitudes about poetry and poets' relationship with society, not to mention the world of business. Why would a soulful poet want to be in a soulless business? What would a down-to-earth corporation given to marketing strategies want to do with an up-in-the-clouds poet given to the ways of the Muse? Besides, poverty rhymes with poetry, so shouldn't poets be in their garrets? Isn't the world of the corporation the very antithesis of the poet's vocation?

A brief reflection on these question may steer us in the direction of how poetry and poets are widely perceived. Not as part of the fabric of life, but a flight of fancy from life, so the idea of poets in corporate places seems an anomaly, an anathema to the poet's craft.

But while the media have latched on to Poetry Places as something sensationally new, I like to think of the scheme as a revival of an ancient regard for poetry-making as an integral strand of the woof and warp of society, or if you prefer, the " nuts and bolts of life". A scheme that traces its descent to a time when poetry accompanied day-to-day tasks and marked occasions such as births, weddings, wakes and seasonal festivities.

The linking of poetry to crop-cultivation, harvests, hunting and the propitiation of animals has been documented across cultures, so one shouldn't be over-amazed to find a poet (Sarah Maguire) in Chelsea Physic Gardens and another (Tobias Hill) in the London Zoo, or for that matter a poet (Mario Petrucci) in the Imperial War Museum.

Poets were also known to ride into battle chanting encouragement to their side and hurling incantations at the enemy, for a curse was considered a dangerous weapon. Whether we take Homer, Virgil, or jump to Tony Harrison's conscience-stirring 'For a Charred Iraqi Soldier', war has long featured in poetry both as heroic exploit and indictment of humanity. The poet as witness and combatant.

And the idea of a poet (Lavinia Greenlaw) emailing poems in a solicitor's firm might seem less sensational if we recall a time when the laws of many nations were passed down orally in poetry, as in Ireland from pre-Christian times and in pre-Islamic Arabia when poets couched legal matters in metric form.

If we go back to worksongs that accompanied everyday activities such as baking bread, spinning, weaving, then the idea of a poet (Peter Sansom) wandering amongst he food and garment sections of a department store might not seem quite as mind-boggling.

And thought it might appear kind of quaint to see a "soccer poet" (Ian McMillan) chanting from a stadium, I'm sure you'll find a Greek ode or two to good-looking javelin throwers, boxers and long-distance runners with their legs of splendour. Ooh-ah-Pindar.

And do I need to mention those Chinese poems in which food makes its presence smelt? Boiled rice, lychees, winter onions. Here's a line: "The white skin opened - like new pearls" . Not it's not about cod, it's about bamboo shoots, yet succulent enough to make Wigan fish and chip shop poets (Steven Walking and Peter Street) sizzle. And only written over a thousand years ago.

Seen in this light, Poetry Places is not about "poetry larks at Marks and Sparks" or waxing lyrical among wigs and gowns. It's about touching the souls of people, and every poet worth his or her salt finds a way to transform the commonplace and cast oblique light on everyday encounters.

Peter Sansom, recollecting Marks and Spencer in tranquillity, finds that "people become part of this big thing that's business, and to make this restless juggernaut keep going they get caught up in it, but when they write poems and read them to each other, then it's clear what's true all the time is that they're unique individuals".

Even some of the specialist vocabulary, which M&S workers take for granted, strikes a different note in the ear of a poet. "Ambient Food", "Brafitter" , "Shallow Spaces" - to name three expressions that Peter has since added to his word-hoard.

In the case of Lavinia Greenlaw, the arm of the law proved to be long. Her Muse want not unmoved and unarrested. She feels that "legal language is much more interesting than lawyers realise, and they aren't aware of its resonances because they're using it rather than listening to it from the outside" . And in one of the poems which came out of her Mishcon de Reya experience, she explores, through a judge' s monologue, phrases from judgements passed about one hundred years ago.

Here I might add that Ovid and Dante were trained in law, and Gultem Akin, one of Turkey's leading poets and twice winner of the Turkish Language Academy's poetry award, studied law and practised as a barrister for much of her life. In her work she has drawn from her experience defending women in human rights cases " The scream froze / Sketching blue-black pictures above us / - Where did you fetch that scream from, mother?".

As regards poets in corporate places, it may be useful to read what T. S. Old Possum Eliot, who worked in Lloyds Bank, had to say in an interview with Donald Hall back in 1963. "I think for me it's been very useful to exercise other activities, such as working in a bank, or publishing even. And I think also that the difficulty of not having as much time as I would like has given me a greater pressure of concentration. I mean it has prevented me from writing too much. The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts. That would be my danger.

But to return to my earlier point about the clichéd image of the gaunt poets in ivory towers and bland business people in boardrooms. Is it as clear-cut as the "soulful" poet entering the "soulless" world of the corporation? Is this not a stereotype of a poets against a stereotype of a lawyer of a line manager of a receptionist?

Again we come back to people like the shy lawyer who confided in Lavinia Greenlaw that he didn't want anyone to know he wrote poetry; or the BBC security guard who, after reading one of the poems in the staff paper Ariel, came up to me and said, " You're the poet-bloke ain't yuh? Will you be giving us some more poetry then?"

Such moments touch a poet and poetry in turn touches that inner pulse which is not on the business agenda. For corporate speak distances us from our own fragility. "Units of efficiency" hides behind a dehydrated mask of jargon the real heartbreak of a real person made redundant, whereas poetry reconnects people to the fluid resonance of language.

So long may Poetry Places continue to scatter seeds in corporate places. But I leave you with the words of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who spent many years earning a pittance by writing letters in commercial firms:

Don't tell me there's no poetry in business, in offices! Why, it seeps through every pore... I breathe it in the sea air. Because it's all to do with the ships and modern navigations, because invoices and commerical letters are the beginnings of history....