Ben Okri, novelist, poet and now interviewer of Jeremy Corbyn certainly divides opinion with his work, but tonight young and old unite in front of him as part of Oxford Festival of the Arts. This Man Booker Prize-winner is distinctly unstarry, here sharing stage-time and conversation with unknown poets, yet his use of language, and articulation of its power, are truly stellar.
On this warm evening, Okri greeted audience members outside the glorious church of St John the Evangelist, as sweeping arches and ornate inscriptions greeted us within. The first half of the programme boasted readings by young Oxfordshire poets, competition-winners from the ages of 8 to 21. From Caitlyn Wright's imaginings of Rome's Colosseum and Archie Street's illustration of a just-discovered earthly paradise, to harder-hitting vignettes on homelessness and paralysing self-doubt, these poets produced work as absorbing to read as they were to hear. Meredith Graham approached the competition's theme of 'place' novelly by setting up her internal world as the poem's location, and personifying the inimical fear as a sly persecutor.
Coral Dalitz's 00.10 - London - December 5th most successfully plonked us listeners into its chosen location with observational humour, the bustle of that scene mirrored in its flurry of images and layout on the page. By contrast, the place I'd most like to inhabit was Heather Burke's languid exploration Where I Choose to Rest with its natural and metaphysical reminiscences of Whitman and The Prelude. In evoking the impact of place and memory on a poet, Thomas Thanassoulis and Samuel Usayd Ilyas had marvellous impact. The former contrasted impressionistic diary entries with exploration of the unknown, and the latter's Proust's Samosa masterfully showed the persistence of memory and how sense can unlock those temps perdu. Several of these themes were picked up by Okri post-interval.
Our most garlanded poet of the evening is one whose conversation is inescapably poetic and whose poetry has the fluency of conversation. Thus it is a blessing to have an interviewer whom Okri considers a friend, enabling him to move from autobiography to philosophy to poem without fearing his train of thought might leave our host at the station. He appears marvellously idealistic about what communication can achieve - indeed, far from seeing it as a written thing, Okri widens poetry's definition to encompass the sung lyric and the public oration: resonance makes communication into poetry. If ever there was an edifice suitable for such talk of 'word become flesh', it is this reverberant place, the very writing on whose ceiling exhorts all creation to lift up praise.
Touching on the poet's job and challenges imposed by the education system, Okri suggests a method of 'long-looking', of considering one's subject for enough time that rote-learnt evaluations and other people's connotations can be erased. As he speaks about the value of a unique view, I realise the thick crop of spectators in front of me has been obscuring the poet's face. Fortunately, Okri's hands are great communicators: through my small window of visibility, I see that his left hand cradles the book as he reads, and his right dances, points and suggests.
One suggestion is that poetry is sadly distinct from current political discourse, because one opens the mind to possibilities and the other aims to win listeners to a particular viewpoint. Okri has heard the two combine, though not since the early days of Obama - he remains hopeful that the twain shall meet again. Appropriately, the opinions of the poet were not the only ones on offer - Okri requested questions, thoughts and examples from the audience throughout, genuinely inspired by the shouted extracts from Keats and Bob Marley, and eager to hear again from the prize-winning young poets. Beyond discussing the power of the plosive, of rhythm and education, it is the inclusivity of his vision and his sense of poetry's ubiquity that makes the evening so truly inspiring.