Still, it's a pity that we had so little time to savour Lemn Sissay's wry, incisive observations. Wondering when students will "stop asking me about 'the issue of race in modern Britain'," Sissay's hyperactive presence and perky delivery belie his ability to get under the skin of white liberal fears: "I'll either make you laugh or feel guilty." Yet it's hard not to warm to a poet so alert to poetry's racial platitudes: "Don't worry, I won't be rhyming 'Coltrane' with 'pain' at any point tonight."
Over the past few years, Dana Bryant has been contributing what she dubs "spoken-word music" to the work of various soul, rap and jazz luminaries, bringing her rich storytelling talent to bear on the otherwise leaden platitudes of Gangstarr's Guru and the breezy jazz guitar noodlings of Ronnie Jordan.
Easing herself before the mic, Bryant's languid presence recalls nothing so much as one of her own characters: "He was drawn into a gesture the way someone is drawn into a yawn." She may have been the least overtly political poet on stage, but she evokes a pungent sense of identity, spinning out memories of loves and incidents of her Brooklyn childhood. Her cascading, switchback cadences tease out the syncopations of her remembrances into the most literary funk of the evening.
After such polished, sophisticated fare, it was galling to see the Last Poets take to the stage plying the sort of pally shtick last heard in the mouths of yer man Wogan and Jimmy Tarbuck on Pro-Am Golf night. Though their traded raps and declamatory prickliness anticipated hip-hop's "in ya face" attitude and posturing, the Poets' stream of dogmatic paradoxes, which helped the black consciousness movement rhetorically to elbow its way to the centre of political debate in the Sixties, soon palled. Ironically, only with the suitably deranged poem "Madness" did the Poets' seem to achieve dramatic depth as well as ranting breadth.
Alongside Lemn Sissay and Dana Bryant, the grinding contrariness plodding through the Poets' work, old and new, began to look like a failure to acknowledge those who had performed minutes before them but who seemed light years ahead.