Poetry has always had the power to move us. In 1833, it is said that one man even took his own life while “under the influence of poets”. But when did this most misunderstood of artforms start being so hip? When did it stop being confined to stuffy libraries and church halls and reach out into cafes, clubs and bars? When, not to put too fine a point on it, did poets become so damned hot?
It’s being hailed by some as the new rock ‘n’ roll; a revival, perhaps of the period in the 1950s and 1960s when Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder hung out with Bob Dylan and were the epitome of anti-establishment cool. Daniel Radcliffe is set to take on the role of Ginsberg in the forthcoming film Kill Your Darlings, which opens in UK cinemas next month. Proof, if it were needed, that iambic pentameter is about to become the new pop culture. Man.
“There’s definitely a revival,” says William Letford, a 36-year-old roofer-poet from Stirling. “It’s being mixed with other things. There are live events popping up all over the place, some of them mixing poetry with music, sometimes with animation, sometimes comedy. And because it’s vibrant, and in among all that energy, it’s creating a need or a want for it.
His counterpart Ryan Van Winkle is ready to admit his audiences are less grey than they used to be, and agrees “interesting things” are happening on the scene – particularly in Scotland – but stops short of hailing a revival just yet. The laid-back New Englander came to Edinburgh with the intention of partying like it was 1999 – and ended up making it his home. “I thought Hogmanay that year was going to be f****** amazing,” he smiles. “All my friends from university were doing a big cross-crountry trip then settling down in Boston or New York or Philadelphia to get A Job, and I always wanted to do something different.”
Having arrived in Scotland with ambitions to become a writer, he developed a strong bond with this country so far from his own. “I graduated from Syracuse University, in journalism and political science,” he explains, “and when Pan Am 103 came down, there was a bunch of Syracuse University kids on board. So I ended up spending a year in Lockerbie working on a book project with my old professor, on life a decade after the disaster.”
This life of his is already starting to sound a little poetic. But he says that, like many, he didn’t feel much of a connection to the poets he was taught at school. “That stuff didn’t feel ultra relevant to me, but I always knew that art was more than we see.”
Letford, too, was left cold by the poetic offering at school, but he loved English and reading, and poetry seemed to come naturally. “I remember one of my teachers wrote on my report card, ‘Billy could consider a career in creative writing.’ Another teacher sent a poem away to Roger McGough because she liked it so much. He sent me a letter back, and I think that stuck in my head.
“Even back then, when I started writing, I didn’t automatically think, ‘I’m going to write poetry.’ But the very first creative writing class I went to, the very first assignment, they asked us to focus on a candle flame and write something about it, so I wrote a poem. Not even thinking about it.”
He made the decision at the age of 23 that he wanted to write. “The roofing was just a way to make money. It was a family company, so I could take off all the time I needed. It worked perfectly for me.”
And since he tends to write about things that happen to him, for a long time he wrote about roofs. But he adds: “I’ve sent poems to burger vans and got free burgers, to ice-cream vans and got a free ice-cream. I would send my poems anywhere.”
The appeal, explains Van Winkle, is in that extra layer of expression it provides. “It gives you an ability to articulate emotions that you may not be able to articulate. Like any other artform, it gives you an emotional vocabulary you might not have. And because poetry is not very much about the narrative, it’s more about the feeling, it gives you access to those feelings and a different way to think about them.
“Instead of thinking, ‘I am sad,’” he explains, “you can think, ‘I am a blue strawberry.’ A little bit sweet but a little bit sad. The more you can read that makes you say, ‘Oh yeah, I feel that way,’ the more you can store it up, and the next time you experience something that relates to that, whether it be being out in nature or eating strawberries with your lover or whatever, you have an extra texture to it; a way to understand your own life.”
His own work uses phrases like: “My heart wobbles like yolk” (from I Was A Fat Boy); “Remorse sticks to my tongue like prayers once whispered in a confessional” (from Castles); and “His hair white and gloss as paper. The veins in his hands; slugs plump with ink” (from One Day The Will).
And the subject matter covers life, death, and everything in between. “I’ve written about September 11, Kenny Richey on death row, a bit of real life stuff, a bit of my own personal life. Recently I’ve been dealing with heartbreak. In the last few months I’ve written a poem about the genome project, Mecca and the seven wonders of the world. I’ve written about my own penis ... numerous times! I try to write about what I see going on or what is happening to me.”
It’s not that poetry makes you a better person, he adds. “I think you can have a fully relevant, exciting and happy life without ever looking at a poem.” But it does help you become more empathetic, more sensitive. “I think this is why you see poetry coming out at times of great importance – weddings, deaths – because it helps us connect with these really big moments in life and understand them. And it helps us realise other people have had similar feelings.”
Both men’s work has brought them into contact with fellow poets from around the world, in particular the Middle East – from Iraq and Lebanon – places where there is a rich tradition in poetry and the spoken word. “For a lot of these people poetry still matters,” says Van Winkle, “it still has a job to do. If you’re living in a place where the regime is oppressive, you can’t really come out and say things directly. That’s another thing I like about poetry is that it doesn’t need you to come at things directly. I guess I’m more comfortable with the subtext, or the hidden text, of something.”
Not, he adds, that poetry is not important to people in the West. Edinburgh has a thriving scene, for which he is grateful. But there is still much to be done to have the artform as publicly celebrated as, say, film or television. “I’ve often wondered why we all feel comfortable criticising a film but we don’t feel comfortable about that with poetry. People just don’t encounter it.
“You can read a newspaper and maybe in the first five or six pages they’ll mention a pop culture thing like a TV show. They don’t mention a common poet, because that’s not our common language. We need to work towards that, then people will feel more comfortable saying, ‘This is s***.’ They just don’t feel comfortable with that at the moment because they feel stupid. And they’re not stupid. You’re totally allowed to not like it and to not understand it.
“Imagine turning on the TV and watching one episode of, say, The Big Bang Theory and you think, ‘TV’s rubbish.’ That’s it and you never go back. That would be the sign of a totally mad person. But people will very happily read a poem and say, ‘I don’t like poetry.’”
Letford agrees. “When I first started writing poems, I would write them about how I couldn’t read poetry. If people don’t get a poem, they see it as a failure, whereas if someone listens to a song and they don’t like it, they’ll just say, ‘I don’t like that song,’ they don’t say, ‘I don’t like music.’
“People can get scared. It’s like, ‘It’s too clever for me.’ But there’s so much poetry out there.
“It does sometimes take a bit of work,” he adds, “but, really, what’s wrong with that? You put a bit of time into understanding something – there’s nothing wrong with that. If it takes a bit of time, the pay-off’s better as well.”
by Ryan Van Winkle
My father is rolling that night
over and over – the way I roll over my love,
sometimes say her name as if it was a secret
rosary – he rolls the thumb of his tongue over
and over, says, he’d never seen a castle
not selling hamburgers, says I paid,
says he partnered with strangers, cracked
with laughter. But I have no faces
from that night, no bead to pass
and another time
he paid for Vegas tigers and magic and it cost
more than it was worth. So we sat
in that dark room with mirrors and strings
inside us and the feeling that this neon
spandex and black-light hokum was worse
Remorse sticks to my tongue like prayers
once whispered in a confessional. Forgive me
father I have sinned, it has been decades
since my last true penance. I have disobeyed
my mother, forgotten the hospital you waited in,
lost memories of being hoisted above water
so when you talk of castles
your words are a shocking string of good
prayers I forgot to say since the day I learned them.
I roll myself over and mumble through forgiveness
I might also speak.
In the mountains of northern Italy
By William Letford
In the mountains of northern Italy
The chapel on the hill has no roof
For five hundred years its four walls have framed the universe
The locals laugh at the Sistine Chapel, and call it the coffin lid.
• Ryan Van Winkle and William Letford are both ambassadors for Book Week Scotland, 25 Nov-1 Dec, www.scottishbooktrust.com/book-week-scotland