This week, we have chosen to look at ‘Paper People’ by Harry Baker, a spoken-word poet and UK Poetry Slam Champion in 2015. WhatsOnStage described his collection as an “adventure of poems, puns and pole-dancing, German raps and gangsta maths”. The content of his work is certainly varied and eclectic.
‘Paper People’ is one of Baker’s most successful poems, particularly because it takes the extended metaphor of a paper world and combines it with notions particularly relevant to modern politics and current affairs.
The poem begins with a barrage of consonance and alliteration. “I’d probably prop up proper pop-up purple paper people with a proper pop-up purple people paperclip” displays the sorts of tongue-twisters that are prevalent in Baker’s pieces. The dramatic imagery of a world built from paper, both delicate and dangerous, is interspersed with some amusing dad-jokes and puns, such as getting “stuck in traffic on the A4” or fearing “Jack the Paper-Ripper”.
Having built this atmosphere of light amusement and cultural commentary, the more meaningful observations about the unreliability and shadiness of politicians and the media are easier for an audience to accept. These messages are somewhat masked by a gloss of light-heartedness. Yet the reflections about a “pompous paper parliament who remained out of touch / and who ignored the people’s protests about all the paper cuts” are particularly relevant post-Cameron and Osborne as the futures of public services such as the NHS are in jeopardy, and “paper piggy bankers pocketing more than they need” displays such fatcats and alleged tax-dodging covered almost daily in the broadsheets. This poem essentially sums up the themes of Britain’s national newspapers in just over three minutes.
It isn’t just the UK that’s relevant either. Though ‘Paper People’ was written a few years ago now, America’s “pre-emptive police” are still under global scrutiny after many instances of racial violence. Phrases such as “the greater shame is that it always seems to stay the same / what changes is who’s in power choosing how to lay the blame” contain inner rhyme, wordplay and, above all, a compelling rhythm that drives the poem through to its end. It is surprising that the alliteration of the letter ‘P’ manages to work all the way through the poem without becoming contrived, but this is where Baker stands out from other spoken-word and emcee poets; he varies spates of furious sentences with reflective pauses, allowing audiences to digest the words.
As the piece draws to a close, we are surprised yet again by the mention of prayer, producing an unexpected change of tone. Baker comments that his grandparents “have taken time out of their morning to pray for me / that’s 7892 days straight of someone checking I’m okay.” These personal touches, along with the final optimistic note that “even if the whole world fell apart then we’d still make it through”, give ‘Paper People’ an unanticipated resonance, and a relevance which is rarely accomplished so well in the poetry of today.
Words by Annabelle Fuller