Daljit Nagra

Breaking free of the good, liberal poem by Bridport Prize Judge Daljit Nagra

Perhaps what we look for in a good piece of literature is to know the writer has put their shoulders against the great wheel of kind, thoughtful words that are well mannered and politely phrased. We know that most winners of literary prizes have these good values in oodles. We also know the world can be a brutal place and that perhaps the gentle text is not going to change the world, so we are freed from burdens. Perhaps all forms of expression need to be in the world of letters. Poetry can often suffer from being overly polite where the poet sits behind the desk, puts on the poetry head, like a serious version of the clown’s mask, and writes a series of earnest, heartfelt and eloquent poems that steer clear of syntactical violations, steer clear of excessive linguistic ambiguity and stay away from colloquial banter and crude diction.

I enjoy writing the polite poem as a way of exploring the big ideas or to help me create a delicate mood. My only concern is that I do not want to become trapped in a sensibility. I want to be neither uniformly polite nor repeatedly horrid. In each of my collections so far, I’ve worked hard to create unpleasant moments! As writers, it makes us uncomfortable to be indelicate, our family or friends, perhaps our employers might think this is what we are really like. Yet I feel a collection of verse should seek to have range, in subject matter, tone, language and layout. The sorts of moments I’ve created to put me in a difficult position with myself and with others include a despicable mother-in-law who wishes the worst for her new daughter, a drunk Indian man who uses messy English and hints at his violence, a cast of anomic CSE students from the 1970s, the title of my second collection, and a poem that aims to be so offensive that it is ultimately contradictory and is called GET OFF MY POEM WHITEY. In my most recent collection, alongside my WHITEY poem, I wanted to create other work that espoused a dignified way to deal with difficulties so that these poems might clash with WHITEY. I suspect I learned this trick of sharp clashes from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I love the way he undermines the events of a perfectly sweet poem with those where a harsh political engagement has corrupted both language (‘chartered Thames’) with bleak outcome (the plight of a chimney sweeper).

I am keen to create moments where the reader is not sure about me. They are not reading autobiography and since every poem should be fiction, I am happy to create even first person poems that seem to be angry, bitter, nasty alongside the self-recriminatory, the kind and those that have gravitas. I am always excited at trying to sit these poems that come from very different place alongside each other and allow the reader to shift from foot to foot and see how it feels.

Too many poetry collections can become samey because of the way they are always right in their choices of the decent word and the appropriate subject. We should seek to shock, to embarrass, to prod the reader and perhaps in this way poetry can be alive to the needs of a broader set of moods and aesthetics that relate to our complex contemporary. There is beauty in a swear word used well, or a satirical attitude that is nuanced but defiantly hostile. There is beauty in a vile character so long as complex dramatization takes place. A poet doesn’t have to be a nasty person to dramatize such poetry but someone who can imagine, who is prepared to get behind a skin unlike theirs and attempt to deliver from across the divide. There are so many political issues to be examined: gender, race, environment and so on, that we don’t just have to offer an orthodox, lyrical treatment but perhaps a poem that pings between the political and the lyrical within the body of the text. Every poet should aim to have at least one poem that might cause their cheeks to redden!

Daljit Nagra is a Forward Prize winner, BBC Radio 4 Poet in Residence and the 2018 Poetry Prize Judge. His most recent collection British Museum was published by Faber & Faber in 2017.

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