Year One of a New Era
The year that the BBC was founded was also a famous year for modern literature, seeing the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both modernist masterpieces – one in prose, one in verse – are fascinated by the sounds of disembodied voices. The BBC’s radios would soon bring such voices into every home in the land, and, suddenly, the possibility that new poetry could be heard by everyone, everywhere, became a reality. Over the next century, the BBC would gradually transform the poetry culture of the UK and beyond.
The Importance of Radio
It did not take long for poets to realise the importance radio might have for their art. In 1930, the new Poet Laureate, John Masefield, prophesied that it could bring into existence a ‘new poetry for the new audience’. This didn’t happen overnight, but when he died in 1967, Masefield had lived long enough to hear compelling experiments with dramatisations of long poems, ‘radiophonic’ sound poems, and the beginnings of performance poetry.
Bringing Poetry to New Audiences
The BBC also brought poets to audiences who might not otherwise have encountered them, making household names of writers as different as Eliot, Pam Ayres, Benjamin Zephaniah and Simon Armitage. Poetry also found a place at the heart of public commemorations, from Masefield’s ode on George VI’s coronation in 1937, to the Armistice Day poems that the BBC commissioned in 2018 to mark a century since the end of the First World War.
100 Years of Poetry and History
BBC 100 Years of Poetry lets poems tell the history of how poetry has developed over the last century. We hear these poets responding to, and participating in, the great upheavals of the last century. And we get a glimpse of how the BBC has changed as a national broadcaster too.
What is the ambition of ‘public service’ poetry broadcasting?
Among BBC programmers, there was no clear consensus. Some promoted poetry as a ‘highbrow’ form, bringing prestige and cultural edification; others wanted to democratise poetry, making it accessible to everyone. Some saw poetry as a way of fostering a sense of national unity, while others sought to reflect the ethnic, cultural, and geographical diversity of Britain and the Anglophone world. Some nurtured new poetries; others documented the most established poets of the day.
Poetry Giving Voice to a Century
In compiling these recordings, we have sought to do justice to the breadth and diversity of the BBC’s poetry output, and of the different styles and voices broadcast in the last century. One constraint has been that the BBC only started to preserve recordings in a systematic way in the 1980s, and so for the first five decades of its history only a small proportion survive. We also faced the challenge that many of the most exciting poets from each decade were only invited onto the BBC later in life, when their reputation was assured. Organising the poems by date of composition, rather than date of recording, allows a richer, more various history to emerge.
Our BBC 100 collection gives voice to a century that begins in the aftermath of one world war and soon finds itself descending into another, before opening out onto the eras of decolonisation, political liberation, and deindustrialisation. The collection tells a story of the changing technologies of broadcasting: from gramophone to cassette tape and then digital recording. Coming from across Britain and Ireland and the wider Anglophone world, BBC 100 allows us to hear English becoming an increasingly global poetic tongue. Most of all, the collection invites us to participate in these poets’ love for the sound of words, as they become part of the sound of the modern world.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.