Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Armitage, Dyson and French Lesbian Poetry

Earlier this month, as I’m sure some of you will have read, the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, Sir James Dyson, claimed that the UK had become “decadent” and had forgotten what had made it wealthy in the first place. He went on to suggest that there was a need for more discussion on technology so “little Angelina wanting to go off  to study French lesbian poetry will suddenly realise that things like keeping an aircraft industry, developing nuclear power, high-speed trains, are important”.
In response I’d argue that perhaps there needs to be more discussion regarding poetry so little James wanting to go off to study engineering will suddenly realise that things like language and art are important – not merely self-indulgent – and that contentment isn’t necessarily a by-product of wealth.
Last week, Simon Armitage (poetry’s knight in shining armour) defended poetry from the comments of Sir James by saying that, far from being self-indulgent, poetry could hone skills useful to any society or economy. “The more control that you’ve got over language and the more you appreciate how much other people have controlled it, the better place you put yourself in,” he said. “I imagine that, in some way, that even applies to making vacuum cleaners. Language is the most powerful force in the world. It’s certainly a more powerful force than suction.”

I’m proud to live in a society where individuals champion the merits of poetry; where it is taught, not just in the public schools, but in our state schools; where those who care about more than wealth can study it at university, and where we have the freedom to write, read and publish.

About eight years ago in a second-hand London bookshop – awash with sepia, dust and stacks of musty books – I found a translated copy of No, I’m Not Afraid by the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya.
For those of you that don’t know, in 1983 Ratushinskaya was sentenced – aged just twenty-eight – to serve seven years in a Soviet hard labour camp (to be followed by five years internal exile) after being accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Her crime: writing poetry.
As I stood in the safe and comfortable surroundings of the bookshop, I remember feeling humbled and slightly guilty – in my own darkness I had neglected to appreciate how fortunate I was to have the unrestricted freedom to write poetry. Ratushinskaya’s story, her determination and her poems reminded me about the value of something I’d previously taken for granted.
Whilst imprisoned Ratushinskaya refused to be silenced: scratching verses onto bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick, then memorising, before finally washing away the evidence. If her crime was writing poetry, then she proved that even imprisonment, beatings and force-feeding would not – and could not – prevent her from committing this ‘crime’ further. That language could prevail above it all – because, after all, it is the most powerful force in the world.

Thank you for reading,


Lisa McFleeca said...

I missed Dyson's statement - rather happily I think now. I wonder if his issue is with lesbian poetry, or specifically French lesbians. I'm not the biggest fan of the French from experience, but I don't see how their lesbian poetry differs from ours, except maybe in quantity of European underarm hair...

Possibly not the point of your really interesting and moving piece, but it has got me wondering....

Really enjoyed reading
Lisa :-)

Ashley R Lister said...

Like Lisa, I missed Dyson's statement.

There's a word for guys like him. I won't type it here. Instead I'll use the word 'inventor'. Please feel free to use any appropriate expletive in its place.

Dyson invented a Hoover. It's not like he's done something new or ground-breaking. There were machines sucking crap from carpets before this 'inventor' came along, and there will be better ones in the future that owe nothing to his patent-obsessed interest in design technology.

Nevertheless, our society venerates this 'inventor' and treats his ramblings as words of wisdom.

You're right that it's moronic anti-intellectual statements like this that fuel repressive cultures.

On a practical level, your post has made me decide that the next Hoover I buy will not be one that's been made by a pompous right-wing 'inventor'.

Ash (surprised by my own rant there!)

Adele said...

Rant on VacFluff!

Love Mr Armitage. He knows we are out there. He has a copy of The Dead Good Poet's guide to Blackpool.

We are a growing force. Suck on that Dyson.