Those who live outside the self-serving and self-adoring media bubble that is Great Britain might be excused for not getting it. Recently, the third-rate television spectacle, that rancid format, Big Brother, featured a verbal catfight between a made-for-and-by-TV celebrity, Ms. Goody, pictured, and one of India's more attractive Bollywood starlets. Racial slurs were said to have been thrown at the Asian woman, and at the very least, there was gross verbal bullying directed her way. Riots ensued in India, engulfing the visiting Gordon Brown, the man who would be king, and the offending participant was voted off the show in record numbers.
Meanwhile, a related story developed, at least, in the media's eyes. A modest, and exceptionally gifted emerging UK poet, Daljit Nagra, who writes of the Indian immigrant experience with real verve (and often in dialect) has his debut collection, Look We Have Coming From Dover!, from Faber and Faber, out February 1. Nagra was a huge supporter of my Oxfam series (he's on the Life Lines CD) and is a great guy. Nonetheless, he should resist the way some talking heads in the media are now trying to position him as the answer to Goody's baddy-behaviour.
Last night, Nagra was afforded the sort of media spotlight the rest of us poets, frankly, just don't get very often (unless one is Tom Paulin). He was on BBC's major TV show, Newsnight, where cultural commentators focused on his new collection, with, for the most part, alarming ignorance of the literary context in which it arises. Only the dazzling Sarah Churchwell, observed, pointedly, that Nagra's verbal exuberance is granted permission for lift-off as much by Paul Muldoon's poetry, as his own, also-notable, invention. The other panelists seemed, thrown a poetry bone, unsure of how not to salivate. One said "give him the Nobel now". Another said this collection was the first in British poetry not to be, basically, flat and about bicycles. There seemed a genuine excitement at getting the chance to discuss poetry, but, rather than praising an individual talent, what drove the (welcome) enthusiasm was, basically, the pleasures of any poem (one commentator enthused about the long lines, and linguistic brio, as if these, pre-Nagra, were alien aspects of the form).
Maybe give the guy the Nobel in a few years? The marketing and pr machinery in the UK has nearly destroyed whatever legitimate conversation the British people might have or had with poetry. Every book is blurbed to the max on its back cover, with ringing endorsements that cannot all be true, certain few poets absurdly celebrated and celebrity-fied, almost all the rest totally ignored, and a general sense of lax disinterest prevails. Every six months, Andrew Motion correctly notes, in the media, that the problem is not that no one reads poetry in the UK, or that "poetry is dying", but that the media doesn't much read it, and always over-reacts when confronted with a poetry "story".
Why, for instance, is Nalgra the topic of the week, and not the ten other exceptional poets up for the Eliot awards, which was just won on Monday by Seamus Heaney? Or, for that matter, where is the media interest in leading younger Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote, whose brilliant New and Selected Poems recently came out from Penguin India? Hoskote does not yet have a publisher in London, which seems a shame for such a significant Indian voice.
At any rate, I believe Daljit Nagra has a good chance of winning the TS Eliot prize for 2007. Why not? His book is very good. He deserves to be read, very widely.
But, can the BBC begin to cover poetry, please, on a more regular basis, with sustained, researched insight? Poetry dumbed down isn't poetry anymore. It's a license for Big Brother.
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