Celebratory, mournful, critical and tender - Poetry London
About Luke Wright
Luke Wright (b. 1982) was spurred into poetry when he first saw John Cooper Clarke perform at the Colchester Arts Centre in 1998, which, he said, ‘changed everything’. Since then Wright has become one of the most celebrated live poets of his generation, having penned eight one-man stand-up poetry shows and appeared on countless national, international tours and festival billings, while also acting as a regular support act for Clarke, who claims that Wright ‘must be on some kind of dope’. Together with Ross Sutherland, Wright co-founded performance collective Aisle 16, whose 2005 theatre show, ‘Poetry Boyband’, was a Time Out Critics Choice of the Year, and whose hugely popular, riotous night of literary cabaret, Homework, runs every six months of the year at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. He manages the Nasty Little Press, a publishing house focussing on poets known for their live performance, and curates the spoken word programme for Latitude festival. Wright’s theatre debut, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, debuts in 2015, and publications to date include two pamphlets, High Performance (2009) and The Vile Ascent of Lucien Gore and What the People Did (2011), both with Nasty Little Press, and Mondeo Man (Penned in the Margins, 2012), which George Szirtes lauded as ‘not only verbally substantial, skilful and very funny, but also complex in its feeling. It is Luke-laddish wit but laced with some fellow-feeling for its subjects, and self-irony’. He also performs regularly on BBC radio.
Wright’s work is characterized by its sharp social satire, topicality, and commitment (unusual for a poet of his generation) to formal verse composition, particularly that of ottava rima and the English ballad. His technical accomplishment in this regard tempers the passionate social conscience of his writing, and is astutely (self-)conscious of the various effects of rhetoric, as in ‘Sue’s Fourteener’:
‘tell anyone who wants to listen – this estate’s alright,
that drug and violence rumours can be chalked to local spite’.
Fiercely attuned to the sad peculiarities of everyday speech and signage, Wright elsewhere bemoans, in verse of witty buoyancy: ‘English has some tragic phrases: / pregnant widow; HIV; / Half Price Boneless Banquet for One…’ He cites John Betjeman as a major influence, chiefly for ‘…his use of form and his sense of Englishness’, and is like Betjeman (as described by Jocelyn Brooke) in the way he ‘uses the medium of light verse for a serious purpose: not merely as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, but as a means of expressing a peculiar and specialized form of aesthetic emotion…’ Betjeman’s nostalgia comes through in Wright’s aesthetic emotion – illustrated in ‘Houses That Used To Be Boozers’ or most explicitly, perhaps, in ‘England Heal My Hackneyed Heart’, which pines for ‘a couple holding hands in Hayle / or chalk stone words of love in Dorset fields’ – but is marked with a fiery contemporaneity that seeks to address the state of things after ‘the Twitterati [have] stopped their puns’, and is (in the words of reviewer Dave Coates) ‘fundamentally optimistic’. This optimism is exemplified by the pleasure Wright takes in the liveliness of crowds and people, so raucously evoked in his reading of the two parts of ‘Essex Lion’, which, in spite of the journalistic uncertainty over sightings of the roaming big cat in Essex, 2012, testifies that though ‘we’re just prisoners…that lion was the business’. The poem asserts its last rhetorical punch through its emphatic belief in the visceral: ‘how can a thing that makes you feel / be anything but fucking real?’ Tellingly, each reading here requires no individual introduction from Wright, and the poet switches seemlessly between chorus and voice: that of Babs or Brian up from Clacton Pier, or the Bastard of Bungay, ‘and what the old boy does with vowels…’ This recording is also not without profound moments of performative restraint, as with the careful measuring out of the poet’s voice in ‘Dad Reins’, which self-reflexively comments on the shift in tone, where the ‘nightly monologue / of measured, risque quips [is] swapped’ for a thing more quietly resonant.
Luke Wright’s favourite poetry saying:
‘I want my writing to be as clear as water. No ornate language; very few obvious tricks. I want readers to be able to see all the way down through its surfaces into the swamp.’ – Andrew Motion
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 22nd January 2015 at the Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.
Books by Luke Wright
Saboteur Award for best pamphlet in 2019 for After Engine Trouble