You, me, Grenfell Tower and poetry
The horrifying events of the Grenfell Tower blaze that killed over 70 people are being remembered this month in a series of events marking the first anniversary of the tragedy. The depth of sadness the country feels at the senseless loss of life is matched in many quarters by a sense of betrayal at the imbalances in our society that allowed our own citizens to be exposed to such appalling dangers.
As is often the case it may seem that there is very little that the average human being can do to register their dismay or try and effect change. Our unpopular government remains tight-lipped as they slither around their own minefield of financial and moral responsibility. But as many, perhaps all, of us realise that what happened at Grenfell could happen to any of us in any of our neighbourhoods and to any of our friends and families, new forums for protest have emerged.
National tragedies of this kind touch individual people in a myriad of ways and as we know, for the most part poetry can be the most accessible, personal and individual form of expression available. In poetic composition of all forms words are used to channel feelings, deriving new meanings and transcending the relative mundanity of conversation or prosaic expression.
Up and down the country, poetry has provided the required platform for an outpouring of emotion. You may be familiar with Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s startling piece published here in The Financial Times in the aftermath of events, but what about this little-viewed contribution from SophieJade on YouTube which epitomises the depth of response from every corner of Britain? Poems for Grenfell Tower have launched a book and a series of ongoing events all over the UK to raise funds to support the victims of the fire.
Coventry-based poet Antony Owen (pictured) was nominated for the Ted Hughes Award last year for his collection The Nagasaki Elder. He is CND UK Peace and Education patron and writes primarily about conflict and forgotten people. Discussing his poem The night before Grenfell burned he told Write Out Loud: “I wanted to write a poem that captured an everyday scene in the ill-fated towers the night before Grenfell burned from the perspective of an imagined representation of two ordinary people who lived near the top floor.”
But like so many other poets, Owen cannot write about the tragedy without underpinning it scathingly with comment on what he calls “warped British values”. “I do not say [this] lightly, the Tories talk about how culturally diverse and wonderful Britain is but then come out with comments Theresa May made such as "If you believe you are a citizen of the world then you’re are a citizen of nowhere". British and non-British people of all faiths and places of birth go to places like Grenfell by choice or financial limitations or refugee Yemenis being displaced by bombs sold to Saudi by Britain. The protagonists in my poem are making a family and the poem is full of tragic omens such as the simple everyday decision people make such as working night-shifts to earn more money to keep their families fed and clothed. So the man in the poem, if he worked the night-shift he would have survived the fire out of serendipity. The same fate would not be for his lover with child.”
This, and many other poems and works of art which have emerged from the ashes of the Grenfell Tower fulfil the time-honoured artistic brief of harnessing creativity to highlight issues and draw attention to problems, and then to open up those matters to moral exposure for all to see, inviting involvement and a deeper understanding. Our options for registering dismay, disgust or even dissent are broadened, and I urge everyone to read, reflect or write something today about that terrifying tragedy from a year ago.
For Antony Owen, “The reason for writing the poem was to promote true human values over peddled British values from governments and we always arrive at the forgotten people every time”.