Chris Guiton explains the significant contribution made by Luton town to poetry
Over two hundred years ago, the Romantic poet William Blake wrote some of the most striking lines in English poetry:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.
This is the opening – and most often-quoted – stanza to Auguries of Innocence. It’s a poem full of paradoxes, juxtaposing innocence with evil and corruption. This particular stanza focuses on our ability as human beings to look deeply into the essence of something relatively small to reveal the riches of the universe. It’s truly profound, encouraging the reader to search for a deeper understanding of nature through the world immediately around us. One of the beauties of poetry is its potential to distil language, distil meaning and distil life.
Fast forward to the contemporary poetry scene, and this expressive power takes on new forms. The performance poet John Hegley writes distinctive poems which have a wry, poignant, often surreal quality to them. They are also nice and short!
He writes about dogs, glasses and underwear. Plus, of course, his upbringing in the unfairly mocked Bedfordshire town of Luton. And he’s adept at compressing meaning in the service of poetry; promoting a sense of wonder at how the word can unlock the world.
One of my personal favourites is simply called Luton:
(a poem about the town of my upbringing and the conflict between my working-class origins and the middle-class status conferred upon me by a university education)
I remember Luton
as I'm swallowing my crout'n.
Note the brilliant subtitle. It’s significantly longer than the poem itself! Does this make it unique? It’s certainly eye-catching. And the apostrophe in ‘crout’n’. This spelling is often missed from reprints of the poem. But it’s a crucial part of it.
What’s fascinating about this poem is how he packs so much substance into two short lines. He’s reflecting on class, identity and language. This can be a minefield as people often misunderstand the nature of class, the relationship between class and cultural identity, and the role that language plays as a marker of class difference.
Hegley is commenting on the mixed emotions you have on being pressured to leave your roots behind. And the risk of losing your own ‘voice’ in the process. Unsurprisingly, poets from working-class backgrounds often face exclusion from the mainstream poetry world. And find their contributions marginalised and defanged. How they tackle this, and retain a sense of their authenticity, is an ongoing challenge.
The culture sector has taken steps in recent years to improve its record on diversity and tackle the barriers that hamper participation by women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and the disabled. The record is mixed. Some headline successes often obscuring the challenges faced by many to overcome the multiple obstacles placed in their path. But what’s less well understood are the barriers presented by class – and the social exclusion, poverty and inequality that goes with it – that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing or producing culture.
John Hegley was born in North London in 1953 but moved with his family to Luton when he was two. He worked as a bus conductor and a civil servant before going to Bradford University to study European Literature and Sociology. He was discovered by John Peel in 1983, as part of the band The Popticians, and has enjoyed a cult following ever since amongst fans of surreal and subversive comedy.
Hegley is an astute wordsmith. He uses short, comical verse to break down barriers to the enjoyment of poetry, encourage participation, and underline the role poetry can play in our lives. His wordplay has serious intent. By playing with language we help shape how we perceive and participate in the world.
His public performances are an absolute delight. He has a playful, collaborative approach, and rapidly establishes a rapport with an audience as he invites them to join in. He’s regularly visited schools to help teach children directly. He’s also taught creative writing at Luton University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate for twinning Luton and literature in the public consciousness. And helping tackle some of the negative perceptions of the town.
He’s done more than many so-called 'serious' poets to demonstrate to non-literary audiences – young and old alike – that poetry doesn’t have to be regarded as ‘high art’, part of an exclusive literary canon defined by the poetry establishment. But is something that belongs to all of us.
Hegley once said poetry has, "a darker, latent power within it that works when you're not expecting it. Poetry has a surface of significance which is a gift to us, but within that gift is something that hits you – wallop – and tears you apart."
At its best, poetry and the other arts have the potential to entertain and enlighten us. They can also provide a broader canvas on which to understand historical, social and political issues, assert our common humanity, and inspire radical change in the real world.
I’ll let John have the final word, “A poet can be a bit like a lightning conductor where people can share experiences. When it’s going well it can just all fit together. Like a haiku.”