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Living by Poetry

One of the pleasures of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs is the glimpse it offers into the lives of people in other professions; I particularly enjoy hearing scientists — who could be wizards for all that I understand their working worlds. But today it was a real treat to hear someone whose working life intersects (albeit very slightly) with my own. Imtiaz Dharker's interview with Kirsty Young was not only a musical feast — it offered fascinating insights into the the heart of what poetry is and does for and to people.

It was wonderful to hear poetry being talked about on national radio not just as ‟art”  but as something that informs day-to-day life. At one point Dharker talked about her parents’ response to poetry as something they lived  by and used as an underscore to their lives. All the more poignant, given that just after she graduated, Dharker chose to accept a marriage proposal from a man she knew her parents would not accept — effectively choosing to walk away from a family she clearly loved and respected, never to see her mother again, although she did later reconcile with other members of her family.

Whether or not I agree (and I really can't make up my mind) with her description of the poet as an ‛outsider’; ‘someone who has to live on the dangerous edges of things’  it is clear that Imtiaz Dharker is a woman of immense strength of resolve. Her phrase ‛seeing life at a slant’ reminded me an earlier woman poet who was something of an outsider, but with vast internal resources: Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth but tell it slant ... And of course the elopement story brings to mind Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Except this is a story of our times, taking in Glasgow, London, Pakistan, India, Wales, and many faiths and cultures. Dharker described herself as a ‘cultural mongrel’, and as she did so I couldn't help thinking the world would be a far better place if we all could describe ourselves so.

At one point during the interview, when Kirsty Young remarked on the way in which death is often what draws people to ‘really read’ poetry for the first time, I involuntarily braced myself for platitudes about funeral poetry. Instead Dharker responded with another striking insight into the work that poetry does in our lives, remarking that ‘poetry is almost like looping time’: letting things co-exist. Which is a nicely succinct description of how poetry lets us approach and accept some of the most intense moments of pleasure and pain. I couldn't help thinking that Dharker's ability to accept that she does not regret leaving home because she needed to at the time, but that she will always regret the way in which it was done, is a perfect example of the dignity that lies within poetry's ability to loop time — creating a state of grace within which it is possible to accept reality and regrets at one at the same time and be strengthened, not destroyed by doing so.

No write-up can do justice to what a great listen this 45-minute interview is. So go ‘listen again’ on the Radio 4 web site, or download the podcast to listen on the go. And a selection of Dharker's work, published by Bloodaxe Books, is available from the Inpress Shop. I for one will be ordering some this week...

Post script: The only other Desert Island Discs interviewee I ever recall asking for the Shipping Forecast was singer and entertainer Marti Caine. At face value, Caine and Dharker are a disparate pair but both identified a sense of comfort and peace arising from the familiar incantation: Viking; North Utsire; South Utsire; Forties; Cromarty; Forth; Tyne; Dogger ... And it speaks volumes about the power of words that decades apart, both women responded to the inherent poetry in the Shipping Forecast in a way that made it important enough for them to include as one of eight desert island tracks, and for Dharker her one disc if seven others were washed away.


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