Luke Wright’s latest show, although it is filled with witty asides, humorous one-liners and reductionist rhymes, has been incorrectly categorised as a primarily comic venture. Although Cynical Ballads purports to combine the ballad form with politically-charged commentary and literary history, the non-poetic aspects of the show function as prefaces; they ease us in to the fact that the audience has to judge Wright as a poet first and foremost, rather than as a comedian.
The idea that poetry is dying or dead has been bandied about for a long time; the exciting thing about watching Wright is that he manages to single-handedly refute this platitude by demonstrating the palatability of a specific literary form to a mass audience that have been slowly alienated by its perceived inaccessibility. This is hugely important work, and Wright deserves to be lauded on this principle alone. There is a vitality here that has the potential to change people’s attitudes towards poetry en masse.
Fittingly, at one point he says that, in terms of newspapers, Milton is The Times, and ‘balladry’ (at least within the purview of his definition), is The Sun. If we test that hypothesis on Wright himself, we will find that it is accurate in several ways. Primarily it is the aural/performative aspects of his poetry that really stir: his masterly grasp of the form, in particular his ability to rhyme often without strain, is unremitting and persuasive. By appealing predominantly to the ear, Wright makes his poetry easy to listen to; he does not drown his audience in obscurantism, or really make them feel out of their depth at any point. Moreover, like The Sun, Wright has a political agenda: he wants to battle David Cameron’s eerily un-poetic adagio of ‘Broken Britain’, and argue against the notion that we are, as a country, in a state of moral decline.
This is, of course, a more laudable agenda than that of The Sun; but it is a shame that Wright has to adopt a similar form of didacticism in his politics. He is happy to teach us that the media blow events out of proportion in order to create long-running news stories to shift units; or that there is still an uncomfortable relationship between old-money and the corridors of power; or that we should not judge a book by its cover; but, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, everybody accepts the truth of these culturally ingrained lessons already – everybody knows. Wright’s final piece, in which a WWII pilot is blocked from forgiving a burglar by a rampant, justice-seeking media, requires a certain amount self-reflexivity that is simply not present. The piece doesn’t really work because there is no place for the poet within the poem other than that of unequivocal mouthpiece; no hint that the artist, by telling the story in such a way, might be similarly culpable of disenfranchisement-through-fetishisation. Whilst there is undoubtedly a place for didacticism in poetry, as part and parcel of a reaction against lofty postmodernism, the level of moralising in this show often disqualifies these ballads from being truly cynical – perhaps with the exception of Barlow Burton, which was an unsettling look at human nature, and a highlight of the show.
Wright is far more successful as an articulator of modern societal phenomena. His piece about the greed of a generation that consider themselves entitled to their parents’ money is well-observed, satisfying, and incredibly relevant. One of the most interesting moments in his set was when he described being on Newsnight with Simon Armitage; his debunking of Armitage’s contention that ‘Afghanistan is like an apocalyptic Narnia’ spoke volumes about the ability of poets to swap sophistry for substance.
Yet, on the very point of societal observation, there was an elephant in the room. How can a set of poems written to debunk ‘Broken Britain’ neglect the fact that huge swathes of the UK do not even consider themselves British? Moreover, how can the poet perform this show in Edinburgh without addressing the fact that his poems take a localised aspect of England as their subject, and might not so readily apply to Scotland? The issue affects the reception of his work: we Scots have been hating the Tories through the medium of poetry ever since Robert Burns, which is perhaps why his more anti-privilege material was unchallenging. In a way it is hard to blame Wright for failing to address these questions; he is just one of many performers who treat Edinburgh as if it is a smaller London with negligible, twee characteristics, or a kind of performative bubble. The attitude is not malicious, far from it; it is, however, symptomatic of a certain cultural carelessness that illustrates a genuine problem amongst performers at the Fringe – and with the state of Britain as a whole.
To my mind, however, this is the subject of a different ballad, one that Wright is more than capable of producing. The nature of this review has been more critical than it might have been, only because the work is so strong and the substance of Wright’s poetry demands to be engaged with. In terms of performance alone, Wright is a tour-de-force; he could well be the most relevant poet of this generation, which, despite some of the issues I have with the material, makes his show perhaps the most important of this year’s Fringe.
Read the Exeunt interview with Luke Wright.