Poetry Army, by Heathcote Williams
Square Chapel, Halifax
As seats are taken at the Square Chapel in Halifax for the performance of Heathcote Williams’ Poetry Army, no-one is quite sure what to expect. The stage is bare, save for a guitar and several microphone stands sat in pools of light.
A slender man – artistic director Roy Hutchins – steps up to his microphone, and begins; a gentle, bluesy soundtrack accompanies him. He starts by telling us that WH Auden famously wrote that poetry never changes anything, then proceeds to demonstrate that that is really not the case.
Heathcote Williams’ epic poem, recited by Hutchins, takes us on a journey from the Peasants’ Revolt in England to the modern day Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, via Class War, World War, Civil Rights, Women’s Right, Human Rights, Earth Rights. By incorporating the transformative words of a host of other poets, Williams demonstrates that far from being a benign force, poetry can strengthen people’s will and unite them; they become a Poetry Army, capable of provoking great change. Poetry can cut through the hardest heart, teaching it to think.
These poets, from Shelley to Yeats, ‘Country’ Joe McDonald to Pussy Riot, Angelou to Kinsella are quoted by a succession of performers, some whose names stand out: John Hegley, Jemima Foxtrot and Keith Hutson. But this is not about them; it is about the power of poetry, and its ability to change the world.
Roy Hutchins, working closely with Williams, has created a production of exquisite grace and beauty. The sparseness of the stage focuses the mind on the words, and what potent, uplifting and stirring words these are. Williams shows again and again that poetry can be a force for change and rebellion, that the people who write are revolutionaries and teachers. We know this in our hearts; it is why poets and writers are targeted repeatedly by authoritarian regimes. But here Williams reminds us, and calls us all to arms, dares us not to become part of the Poetry Army.