A Diversity of Voices
In the 1960s the BBC’s poetry programming opened itself up to the world. In the following decade, it discovered a far greater diversity of voices within the UK itself as ‘BBC English’ began to venture further beyond the rule-bound respectability of Received Pronunciation. Now postcolonial poetry came from Brixton, South London, courtesy of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s version of Caribbean dub poetry, which combines the spoken word with reggae rhythms; Basil Bunting’s reading of ‘You Can’t Grip Years’ (a free translation of the Latin poet Horace) takes especial pleasure in the gravelly vowels and rolled rs of his Northumbrian accent; and Gillian Clarke’s ‘The Sundial’, the tale of a child captivated as he measures the slow passage of time, has a slow lyrical music drawn out by her Welsh intonation. In a lighter vein, the Seventies also saw the emergence of Pam Ayres as a popular comic poet, who first performed with her distinctive English country accent on the BBC TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks.
It was also a period where separatism was growing throughout the British nations; the BBC needed to find a way of speaking to, and giving voice to, an increasingly fractured listenership. Some poets were reflecting explicitly on the violence of the times: Eavan Boland’s atmospheric ‘The War Horse‘ brings the conflict of Northern Ireland to the quiet suburbs of Dublin, as it reawakens memories of civil war half a century earlier. In its own way, Seamus Heaney’s poem here is no less political, presenting a moment of quiet epiphany in rural Northern Ireland and celebrating an understated, shared humanity. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Hill was excavating the violent ancient histories of the West Midlands with his Mercian Hymns. Such sonorous mythmaking gets a more humorous treatment in Edwin Morgan’s sound poem, which evokes a different kind of national mythology: the Loch Ness Monster.
The Shadow of Counterculture
The long shadow left by the countercultural revolution of the Fifties and Sixties can also be felt in the poems here. Thom Gunn said that ‘The Discovery of the Pacific’ (1971) was inspired by the ‘wave of 1967-ers crossing America for the Summer of Love in San Francisco’. Adrian Mitchell took inspiration from the Beats but also a very British sense of the absurd that owes as much to The Goon Show as to Ginsberg: his poem ‘What the Mermaid Told Me‘ was commissioned by the BBC in 1972 to celebrate its first fifty years. Maya Angelou’s ‘Family Affairs‘, meanwhile, emerges out of her activism in the civil rights and women’s liberation movements in America, and gives a caustic reminder that feminist solidarity today can’t forget the legacies of colonialism and slavery.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.