On the 8th of October the BBC marked National Poetry Day by launching a week long season of programmes celebrating both professional and amateur poets.
As the Director of Arts stated on the BBC’s Media Centre homepage:
From BBC One to Radio 3, the BBC is devoted to celebrating and showcasing the extraordinary arts and culture of the UK, bringing it to the largest possible audience wherever and whoever you are. To mark National Poetry Day, Contains Strong Language will celebrate the urgent and disruptive power of poetry, putting it at the heart of schedules, across the BBC’s channels, stations and online.
On World Poetry Day itself, the BBC Radio 4 schedules were taken over by We British: An Epic in Poetry, a series of programmes presented by Andrew Marr exploring ‘British history and identity through poems’. Arranged in a chronological fashion, the programmes featured readings, archive material, and interviews with a number of actors, media personalities and poets including Ian McKellen, Graham Norton and Carol Ann Duffy.
I must admit, a particular highlight was Marr accidentally calling the poet Liz Berry “Mary Berry”, which I’m sure he’d put down to the final of The Great British Bake Off airing the previous evening.
Listeners were also asked to join the discussion through Twitter with the hashtag #WeBritish. Alongside this there was a special edition of the Shipping Forecast which invited people to ‘sum up their mood or activities in 10 words or less, using the style of the Shipping Forecast’ and submit their poems to Radio 4 via email, Facebook or Twitter. A number of these were then featured on a later edition of the programme.
However, it seemed that the centrepiece of the season came a couple of days later with BBC Two’s 90-minute feature length documentary, Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death.
Broadcast at 9pm on a Saturday night, the scale of the documentary presented itself through cinematic aerial shots of sweeping green landscapes and rustic towns. This was then juxtaposed by stark black and white footage of countryside scenes permeated by flocks of birds and lone foxes, mirroring the imagery of nature that dominates much of Hughes’ work.
Speaking for the first time on television Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, discusses her father’s work, life and relationship with her mother. Her accounts, alongside those of others who knew Hughes well form something of a narrative thread throughout the programme, taking the viewer behind the poems to understand the circumstances in which they were conceived.
In lieu of a single narrator or presenter, the use of interviews to weave this narrative thread throughout the film also creates a sense of authenticity. By hearing the accounts of those closest to him, alongside a few more recognisable faces such as the poet Simon Armitage and arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, it becomes a far more human story beyond the black and white indifference of newspaper headlines and English Literature anthologies.
For me, another particular highlight of this poetry season was BBC Radio 3’s special episode of ‘Between the Ears’ entitled ‘We are Writing a Poem About Home’. In this programme, the writer Kate Clanchy takes us into her poetry workshop to meet some amazingly talented award-winning young poets. Speaking 54 languages between them, the students of the former grammar school recite poems around ‘home’ that takes us beyond mere bricks and mortar to touch upon themes of heritage, belonging and acceptance.
BBC Four also broadcast a repeat of Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, an elegy to the young woman who was brutally attacked and murdered because of her appearance. The screen adaptation of Simon Armitage’s poignant poems about the tragedy is both beautifully rendered and deeply harrowing.
This isn’t easy viewing and nor should it be. If one of the functions of art is to provoke empathy within the observer, then it should not be overlooked that art can also give a voice to the silenced.
In a media landscape in which tragic news stories saturate our television screens and Facebook feeds, it is sometimes only in the steady rhythm of poetry that we can stop to think.