A Departure from Convention
The BBC began the new decade with a new format for poetry programmes. ‘The Living Poet’, which ran until the early 1990s, would feature a single poet giving a recital of their poems. In 1960, this was a radical departure from convention: most poems broadcast on the BBC were read by actors, and most programmes were anthologies bringing together poems by many different poets. ‘The Living Poet’ realised that poets, and poetry audiences, increasingly wanted not just the poet’s words, but their voice.
Three of the most urgent poetry movements of the era emphasised the person of the poet, and turned poetry into an electrifying live event. ‘Beat’ poetry had taken American literature by storm in the previous decade, when poets like Allen Ginsberg, inspired by jazz music, developed a freeflowing approach to composition and performance. At the same time, ‘confessional’ poets like Anne Sexton could command huge audiences for live readings, where the poet’s voice added to the authenticity of verse which didn’t shy away from unflinching and messy depictions of emotion and desire. Also from the USA came ‘The New American Poetry’, Donald Allen’s influential 1960 anthology of poets from the underground and avant-gardes, which would inspire a ‘British Poetry Revival’ later in the decade. Robert Creeley was a figurehead for the New American Poets and their fascination with breath and voice, blending modernist experimentation with the understated patterns of everyday speech.
New Technology Influences Experimentation
In Britain, poetic experiment was also inspired by new technology. Sound poets like Bob Cobbing explored the physical matter of the human voice: his ABC in Sound (1965) plays with the alphabet, while dissolving the boundaries of words and creating a new kind of sense. Meanwhile, in her ‘radiophonic’ work, Rosemary Tonks used all the gadgets available in BBC studios to create a vocal soundscape by turns eerie and joyous.
Literature was now being written in English around the world, and the BBC’s poetry programming reflected this. As the decolonisation of the British Empire gathered pace, poets were transforming the language of the former coloniser to their own artistic ends. Fleur Adcock provides a wry tale of a New Zealander visiting London; Nissim Ezekial and Wole Soyinka accommodate English poetic language to the lived experience and mythological histories of the Indian subcontinent and West Africa respectively; and EK Brathwaite and Derek Walcott reflect on the blend of European and African heritages for Caribbean poets. In ‘Homecoming’, Walcott finds allusions to Ancient Greek myth across the Caribbean islands, anticipating his great adaptation of the Iliad, Omeros (1990), while depicting a predicament for a poet for whom ‘there are homecomings without home’. Brathwaite, by contrast, finds inspiration in the rites and rhythms of the African drumbeat, and remakes his verse to sing to a new beat.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.