Poetry Parnassus - An Olympic Acheivement

15/07/2012 23:24 BST | Updated 14/09/2012 10:12 BST

There's a world out there I never knew existed. A world in which Swedish slam poets are talking about fish fingers and breathy Nicaraguan women are writing about rolling apples on their genitals, while Finnish folk-singers accompany them to the sound of an authentic medieval lute.

These are just some of the conclusions I reached after my week helping out at Poetry Parnassus, the UK's largest ever international poetry festival, where I saw all of these performers in action - thankfully not simultaneously.

Many British poets I spoke to throughout the week agreed that writing in this country has a tendency to be insular and self-contained, to a degree they found concerning. By contrast, many of the visiting writers from the Balkans and the Arab world were apparently already good friends, and almost everyone present seemed to have met each other at a festival in Rotterdam a couple of years earlier. So many people seemed to have concurrently been in Rotterdam that I started to wonder if they were referring to the Beautiful South song, where the Dutch city is shorthand for a state of mind; reading and writing poetry, like Rotterdam, is something that happens "anywhere alone."

But then, I think part of the point of the festival is that poetry doesn't need to exist in isolation. Maybe even that it shouldn't. By bringing together authors from across the world the South Bank Centre got us thinking about translation, exile, and cultural exchange, along with ideas of identity that were inclusive rather than divisive.

For the first couple of days, I was a little worried it was just us thinking about it; the festival opened on a conference discussion of Poetry and Money, Poetry and Elitism, Poetry and New Media, all of which inevitably circled the elephant in the room - the need for readers, and their comparative absence. In a room full of poets, I wondered, not for the first time; why do so few people read poetry nowadays? I thought about asking the question, but instead decided to quietly feed the elephant a peanut, for fear of the alternative - Simon Armitage patting its trunk, once, slowly, with laconic displeasure.

I've never been a fan of poets navel-gazing, but I suppose the truth is that if poetry doesn't gaze into its own navel once in a while, no one else is going to do it for it. And we ought to remember that the medium in which most people encounter poetry isn't the sold book, but the individual poem, read or heard - Auden's 'Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Armitage's own 'Mist', carved into a rockface in the Yorkshire Moors. Maybe this is what's most important in the struggle for readers; picking the terms of engagement.

Luckily, after the first couple of days there were ample opportunities to engage with individual poems, read and heard. As befits Parnassus, my ears went on a voyage into the unknown, occasionally taking my brain along with them and, on a few occasions, capturing my heart. I discovered Egypt's Iman Mersal, through a spiky comic vignette about men who respect Karl Marx more than the women they sleep with; Germany's Jan Wagner, whose ode to a garden weed, rendered in English as 'Spurge', amply demonstrates both his and his translator's phonetic powers; and New Zealand's Bill Manhire, whose fluid, deftly-structured observations of an altered normality make you wonder why rhyme ever went out of fashion.

A gala reading in the Royal Festival Hall itself, featuring Manhire, Seamus Heaney, the UK's Jo Shapcott, and former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, was a clear highlight; as was the gratifying fact that the Hall itself was at least three-quarters full. Poetry might not be selling out the O2; but these aren't small figures, either.

Two days after Parnassus finished, I watched the Olympic Torch go through a small town in Lincolnshire. A man on the top of a Samsung-branded lorry loudly and repeatedly thanked us for our support, as a human-sized advert for the latest Samsung blared in the faces of a captive audience. At the start of this aggressively global summer, I'm glad an event like Poetry Parnassus can still exist.