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James Bunting

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Dean Atta - When Poetry Speaks Up

Posted: 12/01/2012 23:00

As someone who deals in words, it is too often that I forget what they are able to do. For better or worse, sometimes words mean everything.

In the last week I've been watching the steady spread of Dean Atta's poem 'I am Nobody's Nigger'. Since the moment I saw and heard it, I have wanted to blog about it, but have been unable to think how to truly say about the poem what I feel needed to be said. Luckily for me, you can now see what Dean himself says about it, and that is the best way.

I'm biased because I am a poet, and I have loved words for a long time, but for other people it is easy not to take the same approach to them as me. I don't mean this in a high-culture, pretentious way, I mean it that everyone has a passion, a love; for some it might be books, a beautifully formulated equation, a perfect chord sequence, the delicate stroke of a fine horse-hair brush, the perfect cross into the box, the optimum combination of hops and barley. Everyone loves something.

However, for all of those people and all of those thousand different loves, it is not often that people take particular note of something outside of their target zone. This week reminded me of what poetry can do to people who don't love 'poetry'. Watching Dean's poem spread, and flourish, and be re-mixed and shared, watching him reach out and speak, watching the way it affected people, it was beautiful to see. It reminded me of what poetry can do and how wide it can reach.

A few days ago Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, published a poem on The Guardian website in response to the trial and prosecution of Stephen Lawrence's killers, 18 years after the murder. Admittedly it isn't her finest work, and has rightfully been questioned somewhat, but it isn't the standard of writing that I object to. If watching the respect and appreciation pour into Dean Atta for his poem isn't enough to see that Carol Ann Duffy shouldn't have done this, I don't know what is.

The signs of the best poets are those who say as much in their words as they do in their silences. Dean Atta's words say so much and rang true with so many that he rightfully received a great deal of acclaim; Carol Ann Duffy has received none of that because she should have stayed silent. This was not her place. This tragic incident that has been drawn out for nearly two decades never asked for 'proper' poetry, it never needed it, it needed someone who was going to step up and speak the truth and hit a nerve. Dean Atta hit that nerve, Carol Ann Duffy wasn't even trying to strike.

But this isn't a critique of the Poet Laureate - whom I do admire - all I'm trying to say is that sometimes poetry reminds you why it is such a powerful art form, and why so many poets write; this week I was reminded. And I can do nothing but take my hat off to Dean Atta for speaking out, saying what he believed, and doing it so effectively and powerfully that countless people heard it who would never normally have done so. Poetry is a powerful tool, and 'I am Nobody's Nigger' is a perfect example of when that tool shows its full strength.


 

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