The eponymous sentiments of Roger McGough’s 1967 poem were unanimously endorsed, albeit with more formal eloquence, at last week’s Poetry Parnassus on the South Bank. Sir Andrew Motion and the poets assembled for the Free the Word: I am not my Country debate on national identity all concurred that borders and nationalism have no place in poetry. The week-long event, organised by PEN International, featured poets from Guam to Ghana, though as Sir Andrew pointed out ‘ironically many of the poets only have a birth day in the nation they represent.’

     So is a poet’s role commentary or lyricism? The former leads to opposition and exile by governments, the latter to the institutional embrace, the creation of poet laureates. Kenyan poet Shailja Patel described ‘National Poets’ as, conceptually, ‘hideous and appalling, fascistic individuals.’  Shailja experienced the revulsion most of us feel if our national identity is re-defined at the expense of another’s, when Kenya, torn apart by violent elections, on the brink of civil war, shored up its sense of self by invading Somalia (think Thatcher/Falklands, Blair/Bush/Iraq).

    Pakistani poet, Imtiaz Dharker characterised the poetic identity “…on the uncomfortable edge, with uncomfortable truths, poetry is an eternal illegal immigrant which can’t be contained by national borders. Poetry is not polite.”  Her poem on the dissonance of cultural identity, “They’ll say: ‘She must be from another Country’”, reflects her personal experience as a woman born in Pakistan, growing up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow who eloped with an Indian Hindu to live in Mumbai.  Our personal sense of identity rarely coalesces with the national.

     English poet Jo Shapcott commented on how little the mix of cultures, of which we are all comprised, has to do with either geography or nationality as a political construct of the nation state. Bulgarian/Kiwi/Brit Kapka Kassabova, an embodiment of the idea, expressed it wittily in her poem “I want to be a Tourist in the City of my Life”.  She summed up how superficial and anodyne our sense of national identity often is: in her conversational experience, no one had anything to say about Bulgaria and mention of New Zealand elicited comments about sheep and Lord of the Rings.

   The jingoistic idea of a National Poet, proudly extolling the collective virtues of a nation, may have gone out with Kipling yet we all have our personal affection and significant images of our motherlands and those with whom we share some cultural identity. It may not be military might or pomp and circumstance that stirs us but the smell of grandma’s cooking or the sound of waves on a familiar shore. Perhaps we only love our countries or our cultures in the abstract when we perceive them to be under attack – I can slag off post-imperial Britain with the best of them …until an American joins in.  Maybe our sense of nationhood is more about protectiveness than pride as in this quote from a Yugoslavian child, referenced by Kapka Kassabova, “I love my country because it is small and I feel sorry for it.”  Ah!

 Ardella Jones
Roger McGough’s text
Free the Word
Poetry from round the world
‘They’ll say: ‘She must be from another country’ Imitiaz Dharker text
Kapka Kassabova
Shailja Patel