TAITMAIL Contact, Larkin about with poetry
The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, has been revisiting the poems of Philip Larkin to mark the centenary of Larkin’s birth last week to see if, 37 years after his death, they’re still relevant.
Of course, they are.
He started off with Going, Going, written as it happens 50 years ago which chimes with another important anniversary we’ll come to shortly, that of Contact in Manchester. The verse was commissioned for a government report into the environment, written in the style that a previous Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, called “glum accuracy”, and Larkin found nothing not to be glum about.
He cast about him at his surroundings in regional England and saw nothing good for their future and no collective will to halt the rot:
First slum of Europe: a role
It won't be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
He might have been Poet Laureate himself in the year that poem was written, but he was pipped by John Betjeman. I wonder why. Larkin, the librarian at Hull University for 30 years, was famously disdainful of young people, particularly undergraduates, who nevertheless have always identified with his poetry, not least because of what he wrote about mums and dads. However much he seemed to despise anyone under 25, that is the age group that continues to follow him, in a way that they never follow Betjeman (or even Motion).
Until fairly recently young people have found it hard to identify routes into the arts - amateur or professional - and it’s still not easy. Manchester University saw it and in the year Larkin wrote Going Going Barry Sheppard, general manager of the then Manchester University Theatre, and the professor of drama there, Hugh Hunt, set up Contact as a young people’s theatre - for all young people, not just Manchester University undergraduates - with Paul Clements as its first artistic director. In 1999 it got a £5m remake and rethink with the help of the Arts Council, and between 2017 and last year another £6m recast, so that it is no longer just about theatre. Contact has diversified to cover music, dance, the spoken word, rap, hip hop, art and, naturally, poetry.
And with the work of the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Kae Tempest and Murray Lachlan Young filling auditoria with their performed work, poetry crosses over easily with music, dance and visual art, giving young people dozens of new channels into cultures they can identify with.
I write “naturally” because since Larkin’s time poetry has evolved into a performance art - he was one of the few poets, alongside Dylan Thomas perhaps, who could present their own work well. But they read it, it wasn’t performance.
Contact’s new artistic director is Keisha Thompson (main image), the youngest so far at 32, the first woman to do the job, the first Mancunian, and the first poet to run a multi-arts venue. Her mother was born in Guyana and gave her daughter the Caribbean ease with the written and spoken word, and it was poetry that brought her as a 15-year-old into Contact through which she discovered other artforms, and has developed a mission to knock down barriers between those artforms for audiences.
Poetry, she tells me, has grown in its relevance to young people out of all recognition in the last few years, partly through organic developments like hip hop and rap, partly through the work of organisations like Apples & Snakes, or through the lamented Free Word poetry walk-in centre that closed in London in 2020 when its building was sold under it but whose legacy lives on through the likes of Contact; through poets and playwrights like the Nigerian-born Inua Ellams who is now included in general anthologies and performs around the country; through the likes of Armitage himself who is planning a new poetry centre in Leeds. There’s been a growing appreciation of poetry in Manchester in particular, with its poetry library helping to prise the book of verse from the hands of the classical custodians and handing it round to us all and especially the young. "Poetry doesn’t feel old anymore” Thompson says. “It doesn’t feel out of place, and people can take ownership of it. Young people are looking for it on YouTube and Instagram”.
A hallmark of her tenure is to be using poetry to inform and develop other art forms, so it’s no surprise that she chose to start 50 weeks of celebratory events with a commissioned poem from Georgie Brooke (pictured above at Contact) being shut alone in the new Contact building for 50 hours during which they have composed a 50-word poem, which will be seen and heard in different guises through the next year. “Poetry is not trapped in an imagined rural past, distant and frozen, but a melodious joy-ride. We grab hold with both hands, dragging it through the streets of the twenty-first century with no fear we might somehow break it” they have written, in what could almost be a response to Larkin.
But here’s their own poem, Contact, presented for the first time at 5pm yesterday, the actual 50th anniversary:
I wish I could see this castle of curiosity
with fresh eyes. Wonder 'what
the hell is that?'. Squint,
until panels become palms
pressed together, calloused from 50 years
of first touches. Isn't that
what 'Contact' means?
Thinking what we feel is ours alone,
until another hand reaches out, and grips.