If only Fabio Capello had engaged the services of an official laureate for the team, England’s disastrous exit from the World Cup at the weekend could have produced another Paradise Lost. From hedge funders congregating in Monaco, to center court at Wimbledon, it seems you’re nowhere if you haven’t got a poet on hand to distil the experience into literature, preferably in a form, say the haiku, brief enough to be tweeted.
You cannot be serious? Well, in fact, you can. Matt Harvey is Wimbledon’s first poet-in-residence. For the past three years the tournament has had an artist-in-residence, but this year approached the Poetry Trust to find them a poet.
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Harvey, from Totnes in Devon, is a mild-mannered, mischievous 47-year-old performance poet. A huge tennis fan and a regular on Radio 4, he has in the past been in residence at mental health conferences, in prison libraries, and on countless education projects. He loves residences for the “social context” they give to his writing. As he put it, though, this project is different: he’s had more attention paid to his poetry this week than he has had in his whole career to date. He’s been cheek-by-jowl with Grace Jones and Anna Wintour getting a piece of the center court action and observed at close quarters the “ferocity” of Andy Murray, and the technical mastery of Roger Federer, whom he recalls “playing for half an hour, without making a single mistake.” These, he says, are experiences that “will stay with me.”
Harvey may, too, stay with Murray after the taciturn Scot was described thus in One of Ours:
If ever he's brattish, And brutish and skittish, He's Scottish. But if he looks fittish, And his form is hottish, He's British.
While until now the closest connection between tennis and poetry has been A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman, Harvey’s poems have been embraced and appeared in the British papers along with the scores. For all this, when I catch him between appearances on Radio Wimbledon, he says he was very daunted when approached in March.
Initially, his idea was to approach the residency thematically, “writing about the background, not the foreground [should that be forehand?]…writing about strawberries and cream and lawns.” But for all this (and he’s done that too) he’s been drawn into the live drama instead and found himself reacting to events as they happen, whether it’s getting spectators to join in a collective haiku outpouring during the epic John Isner vs. Nicolas Mahut match, or hanging out with the hopeful fans lining up at dawn for day tickets in the West London suburb.
He carries a battery of notebooks for “scribbling” at all times and has been given a spot in an open plan office at the tournament, but finds the best place to concentrate on finishing his poems on his laptop is the local library where there isn’t any distraction.
While there have been poets obsessed with football (for instance, the late Ian Hamilton and Don Paterson, whose first book was titled Nil Nil), there are those who might wonder the extent to which the audience at say a Super Bowl game or indeed the World Cup, might engage with poetry, as opposed to just the score?
That’s beside the point, Harvey cheerfully argues: “With Wimbledon, the scale of the thing is so vast, that it doesn’t really matter if it’s only a tiny percentage of the audience [who] are interested in poetry.” Via Twitter at wimbledonpoet, where he has 312 followers, during the epic record breaking match, he elicited a stream of responses.
Harvey’s presence was the brainchild of Oona Godfrey and Rosabel Richards at the Lawn Tennis Association Museum and though the idea has yet to catch on over at the FA, it’s not just tennis where this kind of search for meaning has struck a seemingly incongruous note, only to find its voice with seeming ease. London poet, and author of City Poems, B.H. Fraser was recently poet-in-residence at Europe’s largest gathering of hedge fund investors, the Gaim International Conference. By day he is himself an (evil) banker, so the perfect choice. The son of the historian Lady Antonia Fraser and step-son of Harold Pinter, he writes under BH and banks under Benjie to avoid any formal conflict of career. Thus far, he seems to have combined banking and poetry far more harmoniously than T.S. Eliot, who worked unhappily at Lloyd's and in The Waste Land saw city workers streaming over London Bridge as, quite literally, a vision of hell:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.
Matt Harvey performs "Buying Curtains" at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009.
From Monaco, earlier this month, the aspect was double-edged but somewhat sunnier. Take for instance, Mykindatown:
Blessings on Monaco And all its palaces – Particularly the one I live in Covered in bourganvillea. Or the yacht I forgot to mention Abacus 1,2,3.
“I got there and they said, you don’t have to do anything, you just have to hang out,” says Fraser of his commission. He refers to the poet’s role in all this as, “the useful idiot,” and maintains that he has “no idea” why he was asked. When pressed, though, he says that he thinks poetry is seen as a way for conferences to become more engaging, and for them to gain “some edge, rather than always having the same old format. They wanted someone who was an outsider.”
On a more pragmatic note, (after all, it was a financiers conference) “poetry,” he suggests, is seen as a great conduit to "social networking," and forums like Twitter and LinkedIn. As for the hard-nosed participants, "They seemed pleased to see me," he says. Little did they know that they could be on their way to featuring in poetry’s answer to Bonfire of the Vanities.
While London has long had some extraordinary locations for residencies (both Fay Weldon and Frank McCourt have been the Savoy’s writer in residence, an invitation surely no author would turn down), a thirst for poetry over prose seems to be particularly in vogue at the moment.
Former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, isn’t entirely convinced about the artistic results: “It's an interesting thing, isn't it ... My own feeling is that these things are really the cousins of poetry proper, and the result of relationships that spring up between rhyming and/or word-spinning and commerce/advertising/marketing.”
Harvey, for his part, makes a distinction in what he's produced so far between the fast, “cheap and cheerful,” almost spontaneous poetic comment, and poems that require more “time and thought.” His day watching the perfection of Federer on center court inspired Wimbledon Dreams. It’s not enough, he suggests, to simply win:
You don't just grind a win: you win with style. Yes! Power and precision meet guts, grace and guile.
Perhaps that’s the poet’s dilemma too: not just to write something, but to come up with something great, too. (I’ve just been commissioned by L.K. Bennett, the British shoe brand, to write about high heels. I know just how Harvey feels: It’s not enough to make a shoe, it’s got to be an It shoe? I live in hope.)
Poets often understandably groan when pundits proclaim that poetry is the new rock 'n' roll, and yet who wouldn’t raise a smile at news that even Glastonbury had its own poet. A Hundred Thousand Happiness by Jo Bell manages to start, as Harvey puts it, cheap and cheerful, but to become something far more:
So Jean likes to dance, and Tony likes to mosh, And Rich likes to smoke, and me? I'd like a wash: And hundreds like to party until dawn between the stones And hundreds like to raise their hands together. Me? I stood alone In a field with a hundred thousand friends, and Smiling, read a text that said—if I was there I'd be holding your hand.
Let's hope that the Olympics, scheduled to take place in London in 2012, has got a shortlist of poets ready to find moments of lyricism like that.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.