A New Millennium
As a new millennium began, the BBC had become a significant force in the UK poetry culture. Not only did it give a platform to poets and introduce them to new audiences; now, it created festivals and residencies, and commissioned new work. A sign of the times was the introduction of a new radio programme, The Verb, in April 2002, which continues to be presented by the poet Ian McMillan. Just as The Living Poet reflected the poetry culture of the 1960s, with the single author reciting their work, now The Verb, with its informal ‘showcase’ or ‘word cabaret’, placed poetry at the heart of innovations in literature and performance in order to imagine a more expansive idea of the ‘poetic’.
Commissions and Collaborations
Some of the poems included in this decade come directly from BBC initiatives. In 2002, Michael Symmons Roberts was commissioned to put together a programme of ‘Last Words‘, weaving together many of the last messages sent to loved ones from people trapped inside the twin towers on 9/11, and reflecting on their voices and silences. Later that year, Alice Oswald produced sonnets for The Verb using ‘found’ material crowdsourced from listeners, while in 2004 Imtiaz Dharker and Malika Booker were among the poets who contributed work based on overheard conversations to the Radio 3 programme Between The Ears, which explored immigrant experience in the UK.
As well as thinking about how poems fit within the social life of the language, and how they spoke to the world around them, many of the poets here were also revising and reimagining how their poems were embedded in longer traditions. Caroline Bergvall in her Shorter Chaucer Tales, reworked Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into experimental sound art. Meanwhile, both Daljit Nagra and Don Paterson revived the time-honoured ballad form for modern readers.
The Stories Poetry Tells
Nagra’s ballad plays with a radically demotic Indian-English, and in doing so touches on another poetic preoccupation of the Noughties: how the diversity of cultures in UK life were shaping not just the language, but also the stories poetry needed to tell — including what Kei Miller in ‘How we became the pirates‘ calls the ‘old colonial hurt’. Gwyneth Lewis points to a different language politics: the threat English poses to the survival of the Welsh language. By 2010, BBC radio was being listened to by two thirds of the UK population, from Radio Cymru to the Asian Network UK. Mingling with music, song, drama, documentary and news, poetry’s awareness of words as a way of telling the stories of millions of people continued to make for memorable speech.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.