British poetry and Emily Berry's 'Bad New Government'
Some people aren’t interested in poetry. They say it’s boring, irrelevant, that it always talks about love and nothing else. I disagree. I think poetry can verbalise feelings that we could not otherwise express, and especially contemporary poetry. There are many spoken word artists, like the Button Poetry collective in the USA, who vividly discuss important issues to do with social justice, feminism, gay rights, racism, as well as love, friendship, mental health issues … the list goes on. It’s empowering just to watch them, and I highly recommend checking out their YouTube channel (with subtitles!).
But my favourite poets are, like me, British. Their style is more understated, but just as powerful. Take this Emily Berry poem for example, ‘Bad New Government’. It was published in 2011, but it seems so very relevant right today. A lot of people right now are very afraid of 'bad new governments'.
The first line of the poem is really striking. It starts by addressing a lover, but then all those feelings of warmth and love disappear with the image of the cold, lonely ‘empty flat’, and the ‘bad new government’. She’s talking about the flat, but at the same time she’s also talking about her feelings about the government. Although the fridge is now empty, she has the ‘old fuel’ of yesterday, when she still had the old government, and hope.
It’s as if she keeps forgetting about the news, and then has to remind herself. She wants to talk about ‘happy circumstances […] but / today it’s hot water bottles and austerity breakfast’. She even adds, with a touch of humour, ‘and my toast burns in protest’ – it’s nice to think that her breakfast is upset with the government, too.
In the second stanza, she returns to the first theme of the poem, ‘Love’. Despite the ‘worrying new developments’ in politics, there is still some warmth in the poem in the speaker’s love. There is some hope, in relationships with others, and love.
But we can’t ignore the fact that the lover isn’t there. Especially now, when the speaker needs them. ‘You are not here of course’ – why does she say ‘of course’? Are there unspoken problems beneath the surface? Just as in real life, nothing is as simple as it seems.
All of these complex emotions and thoughts are expressed without simply saying ‘I feel lonely’ or ‘I’m worried about the new government’, the way we would talk about our feelings to our friends or family. For me, this is the difference between poetry and speech: in poems, we can say so much apparently by talking about something else.
If you’re interested in reading more poetry, I recommend the Poetry Society website. If you’re interested in writing, why not check out Young Poets Network and the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, a free-to-enter, life-changing international poetry competition for 11- to 17-year-olds, which I won when I was that age?