Yesterday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London Michael Horovitz put on one of the events that have been running for many years under the title Poetry Olympics (Horovitz’s title, not anyone else’s, and nothing to with the poetry events coming up soon on the South Bank that form part of the cultural add-on to the Olympic Games). Poets and musicians of all stripes and colours and ages. I’m not going to list them here, partly because it’s too late now to use those names to make you interested enough to buy a ticket, mainly because in the end the sum was greater than the parts: the whole thing cohered, and was seamless while also offering huge variety. Timing was relaxed but controlled: each participant finished leaving you wanting more. Those contributing included a 32-piece band with a wild mix of instruments; as they played, sometimes one of the musicians would come forward and do a solo, and then he/she would merge back into the group and another would step forward. All the performers yesterday were part of one band.
What I’ve just described is very similar to what Terry Eagleton offers as ‘an image of the good life’ in his book (in the Oxford ‘Very Short Introduction’ series) The Meaning of Life: an improvising jazz group, in which ‘the collective harmony they fashion comes not from playing a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this . . . There is no conflict here between freedom and the “good of the whole”, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian . . . One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realise our natures at our finest.’
Eagleton goes on: ‘Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal . . .’ I think this is what Horovitz is about. Seriously and playfully (the two go together; if they don't, something has gone wrong). I don't think he's naive or sentimental in the slightest. At the beginning of yesterday evening’s event he tripped over trailing cables and fell spectacularly, but he’s not going to be put off by a few bruises, and watching him perform and enabling others to perform – both – is inspiring.
PS. In the audience yesterday was Emily, a neighbour, whose father was a poet. Here’s a verse from George Buchanan’s Minute-Book of a City, published 40 years ago:
Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell
from the ceiling in a slow shower. They rang and sent
for another basket of statistics. Could no one find
the document that would increase the amount of hope?
The poets’ message read: ‘If we’re to avoid disaster
it may be enough to make existence attractive.’
The Prime Minister walked crossly to the window.
‘Pleasure? Are they cuckoo?’ He smacked one
clenched hand into another. ‘We must be tough!’