Review: Rain of Poems at the Poetry Parnassus, Southbank, London
At Jubilee Gardens last Tuesday a crowd of people celebrated an episode of state-sponsored littering. In an event orchestrated by Chilean arts collective Casagrande, the English and Spanish translations of poems by writers from Britain and around the world were dropped out of a helicopter, which perched in the air as a fleck on the lashes of the London Eye. It did this one hundred thousand times.
The crowds oo’d and ah’d and cheered as the poems rained down. I saw Simon Armitage and his wife cooing like they’d seen a sea-lion do a trick. Many ran to catch the falling paper in all sorts of odd places, very much a competitive sport to them like Ultimate Frisbee. Some climbed trees and policemen told them off.
Casagrande describe their event, which has happened in many cities that have suffered bombings across the world, as “an alternative image of the past and a gesture of remembrance but also a metaphor for the survival of cities and people.”
I hadn’t read that description before the event and I certainly didn’t think about anything like that during it. And were I a more cynical person I might even conjecture that it was little more than the sort of guff written beside paintings at badly curated exhibitions. But I am not a cynic and the description, whilst over-laden with abstract nouns, does have a ring of sincerity about it. Artists are rarely insincere about remembrance.
What I am more interested in, however, is the idea of poetry as the vehicle for this sort of message and as the substance of this kind of event. The Rain of Poems also asks – what is it about poetry that means this kind of off-the-wall, symbolically charged, dazzling event makes sense to us? I probably wouldn’t go and see a Rain of Prose. A Rain of Tax Returns might have a certain satirical edge. A Rain of Post-cards, I’d say now you’re talking. I would stay well clear of a Rain of Arts Reviews.
But a Rain of Poems, that’s got legs. Why?
To some poetry is, superficially, a symbol of peace and grace. True, it is the language of funeral and mourning and delicate contemplation. But it is also the language of epic narrative, battles, dragons, brawls, drug-taking, visions and revisions, coke cans, abstraction, disruption and dentures.
What poetry is, is obstinate and awkward and patterned. It is predictable, yet unpredictable. More than perhaps any other form, it gives us clue after clue to which way it is going, sometimes following its own rules, sometimes flying off into another direction entirely. Appropriate, then, to see it falling from the sky.
It also demands its own space – it does not conform to word limits or the rules of the page. Another reason for it to make a lot of sense to see it demanding a spectacle, moving an audience – physically – to jump and dive and fight for it. I was pleased on Tuesday to hear none of the usual quibbles when poetry and stunt are combined, of dumbing down, of selling out, of vulgarity. This is partly, of course, because the physicality and spectacle of the act defy an immediate intellectual response: it is more than enough for it to be pretty and cool and exciting.
The event was not a competition. But if it was, I got my ass kicked. More dexterous audience members had scavenged for whole wads of bookmark-shaped verse. I got three. Mine were from Belgium, North Korea and Uzbekistan. My favourite is the one fromBelgium, originally written in Flemish by a poet named Els Moors.
She writes, in the guise of the gardener who tends to a golf course: “in a glass ticket booth I am selling ice-cream / to the visitors”. Is that usefulness, symbolism, tourism or an essential keeper of the peace? Sometimes, it is hard to say.