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Benjamin Zephaniah at St Luke's, Battersea (review)

PostPosted: Sun Apr 22, 2007 3:41 pm
by Charlie
I'm not big on poetry readings, partly because that's what they are, readings. How come these writers don't know their own stuff well enough to put their books away? It means they're sitting down and looking down most of the time, and we might as well not be there.

But Benjamin Zephaniah isn't that kind of poet. He doesn't sit, he stands. Not only does he not read from any books, he doesn't even have any notes or running order, he knows his material off-by-heart and from-the-heart.

So he looks out at us, noticing that among the 200-plus sell-out audience are rows of young people whom he finds out are seventh graders from Graveveny School in Streatham (that's first year in secondary school, the way we used to count the years in my day).

That's fine by Benjamin, whose books are sometimes classified as children's writing, and who never uses words that a bright teenager would not know. His gift is in juggling and juxtaposing familiar words to convey feelings and conclusions we can understand - not for him, any attempt to show how clever he is by using rare words or obscure allusions.

His stories between the poems are funny, disarming and helpful. He could easily stand up as a stand-up comedian, but prefers to use that style as a framework in which to present his poems with their carefully crafted structures and infectious rhythms.

When it was over, those kids surged to stand in line to get his autograph, to share a closer moment with an inspirational man.

There was one other poet on the bill, and she did read her works. But as she was 14, she got away with it. Helen Grant has just ended a year as Birmingham's Young People's Laureatte, and with each successive poem, we could only wonder how she could get any better. Maybe she could speak a little slower and, yes, learn her own poems off by heart. But as for their content, she seems to have figured out what matters and how to express it. Remarkable.