Only You Can Save Poetry

So, apparently, poetry needs saving. At least that’s the premise of Mark Grist and Tim Clare’s show Only You Can Save Poetry, premiering during The Last Word Festival at the Roundhouse.

Armed with an interactive voting device (not sure that’s the official term), the audience are asked to judge a modern day gladiatorial combat between the poets, deciding which of them can save poetry and which of them (using their analogy of failing schools) needs to give up and become an academy.

This was the first time they had performed predominantly new material and it truly was a spectacle. Aside from the mixed metaphors (see above school vs. Colosseum) and, at times, meandering commentary linking together the pieces, putting poetry decision-making into the audience’s hands was a stroke of genius. I mean, obviously poetry appears more fun when you can decide whether they recite verse based upon cheese or politics. But more than that, it asks satirical and philosophical questions about the audience’s role as critic. You become very aware of your power (and the poet’s vulnerability) when you can anonymously let a performer know that their work ‘needs improvement’.

Grist and Clare performed a range of material, spanning topics from pugs and babies to creativity and politics, which made us laugh and cry – sometimes both at the same time. Waxing lyrical about your unborn child whilst simultaneously acknowledging that that is the most sycophantic tactic possible will do that. But they were at their best when they went head-to-head – using the rap battle format to directly compete for audience votes. Not only did this reveal their verbal mastery, but also they were hilarious. For me, these were the highlights of the show and illustrated their skill through showing rather than telling – some of the more conceptual commentary felt a little self-righteous.

So if poetry needs saving these are the two to do it. Inclusive and funny, meaningful and heartfelt – the show gave us a snapshot into the neuroses of a poet with added belly laughs.


Only You Can Save Poetry is on tonight. The Last Word Festival runs until 18th June.


Author: Vicky Noble


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