Pandemic Poetry – Articulating the Chaos

My first encounter with Harry Baker came amid a pandemic of TED Talks. As the new fashion, they infected and forced their way into each tutor period, each PSHE. 

His was immediately different, however. Bright yellow trousers, iridescent against his notedly humble, slightly awkward persona, Baker entered into a effervescent reel of poetry that stunned a class usually flecked with chat.

He is best known now as the youngest ever World Poetry Slam champion, author, poet, one half of the poetry/rap duo Harry and Chris, and presenter of the new pandemic podcast Something Borrowed.

When I (virtually) sat down with him, he explained that he used poetry “to express something in a refined way”. This was certainly the spirit we took away from his talk – Harry Baker’s wistful, perpetually hopeful view of life is not only endearing, but summed up a yearning for optimism held by a group of boys on the cusp of moving forwards.

With a recent upsurge in performance poetry, Harry Baker characteristically admires fellow poets, particularly in reaching “an audience outside of the spoken word theme”, but has chosen to deviate from the path carved by Kate Tempest, Holly McNish, and George the Poet. 

“I’ve performed as part of TED Talks, or I’ve done stuff with my friend Chris in more of a musical/comedy space, and I think it is finding where you can take those words. Holly won the Ted Hughes prize, very much a poetry prize, but Holly’s book is as a memoir, and it’s funny and it’s poignant. Kate has written novels as well as plays, and George is very much celebrated for his music, so I think it’s fascinating for me to see how far-reaching poetry can be and how receptive people are to it, even if they wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as poetry lovers.”

This is perhaps because he sees poetry and the self as very much aligned. His writing is immediately honest, a fact he acknowledges, commenting that “what I write is an extension of myself”.

This has been imperative to his success during the COVID-19 pandemic. Appearing on BBC Radio 4 and ITV’s Peston, his poetry has struck a chord as he sees that “people are yearning for a way to articulate what’s going on”. 

With the vital role of the NHS and scientists across the world, it is interesting that Baker’s creativity has risen to precedence alongside.

“Art has always been a fantastic way of articulating the human experience, but I think it’s an interesting time because it is a new experience for everyone. People aren’t quite sure what’s happening or how it’s going to do that, so to have somebody put that down in words for you can be a very cathartic thing. The problem I’ve written that people responded to is just about wanting to hug people when this is over – that’s a very human instinct. But other people have written about not having too much pressure on yourself to be productive, or how different it is for some people compared to others during this. It’s interesting how quickly people have turned to things like that, or how quickly some of these things can strike a chord.”

He compares it powerfully to Tony Walsh’s ‘This is the Place’, now dubbed by Sky as the “Virgil poem of defiance”, read in the memorial of the Manchester Terrorist Attacks.

“It just completely tapped into that moment and said what everyone was feeling better than anyone else could. And that was a poem he’d written beforehand about something else but held a new relevance in that time. So I think poetry and art is uniquely poised to do that, and I think it’s being valued at this moment because of that.”

This has been particularly clear for Baker through his poem ‘When this is over’, one I personally held onto, and was shared through family and friends at the harshest points of the lockdown period.

It is somewhat reassuring to know that I was not the only one to feel the premonition of tears prickling cheeks at the lines:

I will wrap my arms around you

For the seconds we have lost,

Our words will find a way to wait

As we locate the weight of us

Harry Baker, “When this is over”,

I ask him how it feels to have been the one succeeding in this “yearning … to articulate”.

“One quote that I’ve really held on to is that we may not all be in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm. And I think for some people this lockdown period is one of frustration and boredom, but for others it’s a life or death situation. What I’ve found interesting is being asked to write a song with Chris about the coronavirus. It feels quite strange to be trying to make jokes because you don’t know how appropriate or inappropriate that is, and for some people, they absolutely need laughter in a time like this. And there are new practices that are ridiculous and are funny and we can find lightness in there, but I think for me, at the moment, what I’m drawn to is trying to write poetry that taps into some kind of deeper human yearning. And so the fact that, of all the things I’ve written, it’s been about wanting to hug someone you love that people are responding to, reaffirms in my head that in times of grief or in times of sadness, poetry is able to speak to us in a richer way than maybe it is normally. It’s kind of encouraged me to try and keep tapping into whatever it is I’m feeling during this and documenting it because also, it changes day by day. Some days I feel absolutely fine, and other days it hits me all over again and I am as confused as I was at the beginning.”

Something that really stands out from his new podcast, Something Borrowed, is an eagerness to also find this in the words of other poets. Each invitee is asked to perform not only two pieces of their own (something old, something new), but also a piece borrowed from another.

“I think, for me, having more time to write, I’ve also got more time to read. And I think that’s such a rich thing to be able to do. But I’m also as inspired just getting to listen to a different poet each week on the show, and then again as I’m editing it down to a podcast, I get to sit with those poems. And that feels like such a privilege to be able to do, so I think it can feel like quite an isolated process in terms of writing by yourself especially at the moment when you can’t see other people, and then putting it out via the camera on your phone, but I think the more you’re able to read or tap into that wider context or culture of poetry, the more you realize that you’re a part of something much bigger and more connected.”

A key aspect of Baker’s performance is a close, interactive relationship with his audience, something aided by and essential to the structure of slam poetry, where the audience themselves are given the active role of judging acts. Over the pandemic, he has taken to Instagram live streams and his podcast, not simply to share his work, but to interact with other artists.

“It’s such a different experience to finish a poem and have someone type a clapping emoji compared to being on stage. But I think, for me, even knowing that 30 people are watching and could log off at any point, it sharpens what I’m saying in the same way that being on stage does so rather than rambling on for ages. I’m aware of trying to be engaging and trying to keep the conversation interesting and moving and I think that’s one of the things about life I’ve come to miss. Also I find it interesting because I think, doing that show with other poets feels very possible because you can perform a poem with no reaction, and it can have its own weight to it and rhythm and tone, whereas I know a lot of comedians who are struggling to perform at the moment, because without any laughter, it completely disrupts the flow of telling an anecdote or doing a bit of stand up. So while a lot of people are adjusting, I’ve quite enjoyed trying to create a space where you can have musicians or you can have poets or it can be more like an interview. But I wanted it to feel like a live thing rather than a slick pre-recorded thing that I was putting out in this time.”

However, this interaction with other writers can bring additional pressures. As an English student, I’ve found myself constantly reminded that Shakespeare himself wrote King Lear in a time of quarantine. Alongside this, NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) challenged authors to write a poem a month, suggesting the necessity to produce work to reflect this time of crisis.

In a time in which the role of the arts is dramatically diminished, and their value questioned, despite the recent £1.57bn support package pledged to the arts industry, many, including Baker, have been forced to resort to “Buy a Coffee” schemes in order to survive with his upcoming tour having to be rescheduled. 

Even on a university level, Sian Griffiths reported in The Times that “Students of practical subjects such as medicine, vetinary science and dentistry will go back to university in the autumn – but those studying the arts may be stuck at home”. It was clear that there would be a recalibration of our societal priorities.

“I’ve absolutely gone back and forth on this with myself in terms of how useful I’ve been feeling. And in one sense thinking, I’m not offering anything to society at the moment, you know, I’m very much not a key worker because I’m sat at home writing poems. But at the same time, I do know that offering words of hope that people around the world can connect with is such a valuable thing to be able to do. So I think, coming out of this, on one level, the arts are able to document what’s been going on whether that’s in a historical factual sense, or more of recapturing the sense or the emotion of the times, but I think as well, what the arts is incredible at is reimagining the future and what’s possible and looking back on what this is and what’s come out of it. That’s one thing that is going to require as much creativity as possible.”

This is made particularly prevalent by Baker’s own experience, straddling the worlds of science and art. He initially applied to university to do Medicine, before switching to Maths, and finally becoming a poet.

“I think I’ve always had this internal dialogue between science and the arts, but I think any time I’m performing in that context or going into schools, there is such a surprise that I do both or that I love both. I think we are told very early on that you are one or the other. I think we assume that it’s a binary thing, so I do wonder if that will be widened or not by this. But I do think also, there have been things where, actually, there’s been poems written by nurses and key workers on the front line that are expressing the humanity of what it means to be in those scientific positions. I think one thing we’re seeing out of this is actually science is not a detached, cold form. It is as human and as emotionally connected as poetry can be. Especially at the moment, seeing the NHS and what’s going on, I think we’re seeing that on a wider scale: I would hope that as well as coming out of this appreciating frontline staff more, there has got to be more of an appreciation of connection and of people coming together in general. And I think that is where the artistic side of things can come in and can be helpful in another way.”

In this duality, Baker also reveals a level of vulnerability. Unable to “wrap things up nicely and neatly”, he has instead “tried to let [himself] also be uncertain” – far from the security and surety sought by mathematicians.

“I can write about something once it’s over, because I can sort of work out how to do that. In my latest show, I have a poem about my mum going through chemotherapy, but I was only able to write that once she came out the other side and was okay, because I think a poem is a very permanent thing. It’s a snapshot of a time. And when that time is so constantly changing, as it is at the moment, it feels weird to take that snapshot when you don’t know how things are going to go. I think if you can acknowledge that it is a snapshot and things do change, rather than trying to constantly get the poem to stay relevant; if you can sort of acknowledge it as being attached to that specific moment or time, then I think it in itself can, whether or not it becomes timeless, it can keep its integrity for being of that moment.”

However, it is clear that Baker has managed to maintain the hopeful spirit he conjured for us in the initial TED Talk. The line “I believe in people” from ‘Paper People’ has never been more relevant, and is easily applied to the brilliant work evident across the UK as we begin to look back on the last four months.

“The thing that inspires me is seeing the people who respond to this by wanting to help or by raising money, or, I mean, I’ve got neighbours who have sewn scrubs for the local doctors and there’s people who are going above and beyond because they want to do something and I think that as in my life in general, those are the things that I gravitate towards. And I do find hope. And I think things like coming out and clapping on the Thursday, it’s brought us close to people on our street. So actually, even in a very physical local sense, there is a tangible feeling of people coming together and wanting to celebrate something. So, I think again, in a broader sense, that’s something that people seem to be responding to. No matter who you are, where you are, it’s these stories of hope and of people coming together that feel like resonate and feel that they’re needed more than ever at the moment.”

Photo by Alijphotos