From lyrics written in protest of the Church by William Blake, to the haunting depictions of 9-11 by Michael Burch, poetry has always been intertwined with social commentary and political activism. Indeed the voice of a poet is never just for the individual: it speaks from and to the masses. This is was the message that Agnes Török encouraged her audience to consider at her talk in the Scottish Poetry Library this past Thursday.
The event held was part of a larger series named My Life in Poetry and features celebrated poets who either perform or reside in Edinburgh, in collaboration with the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Much like Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks, the format of the talk was based around a selection of Torok’s favourite poems, as well as her own work, and their personal connection to her, and their relation to wider political issues.
Török’s story in itself was enough to fill the hour and a half. Born into a liberal arts household, Torok was encouraged to express her opinions through artistic mediums and engage with the socio-political issues of equality from a young age. During her teenage years Torok took part in a variety of different poetry recitals and slams until she reached nineteen, at which stage she moved to undertake charitable work in South Africa. She later relocated to our very own Edinburgh to pursue a career as a performance poet, reaching stardom through evocative performances published on YouTube.
What stood out throughout the eight poems we were regaled with was Torok’s unwavering commitment to self- empowerment. In each of the poems read, the overarching message was always centred on defiant voices of the oppressed in society. Indeed it was no coincidence that every poem was written by a woman; Torok used her platform at the Poetry Library to showcase talent ‘that otherwise might go unheard’. The poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou epitomised the feeling of Torok’s relationship with the arts; in which the voice of a poor, black women, not merely speaking out but shouting down the institutions have oppressed her, forms the poem’s narrative.
The experience of hearing Török reading poetry, in both English and Swedish is a spectacle to say the least. It is very apparent that her readings are about more than just the words; indeed, the involvement of her body and her emotional engagement with the lyrics changed these poems into animated performances. It is this that singles Török out as poet, with her entire being as interlinked with the lyrics that she writes.
Image: Scottish Poetry Library