Sport 39: 2011
‘I can’t wait to hear myself read’
‘I can’t wait to hear myself read’
The T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings, 23 January 2011
I’m browsing a second-hand bookshop in London for Larkin first editions when I pick up a free booklet called Literature & Spoken Word: A Guide to Living. Despite the title, clearly the work of a marketing team trying to ‘grow the audience’, it’s the Southbank Centre’s literary programme for early 2011. Is poetry literature or spoken word, I wonder? Or, more to the point, is spoken word literature or poetry? First up, on Sunday 23 January, is the T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings. On the bill are Simon Armitage, Annie Freud, John Haynes, Pascale Petit, Robin Robertson, Fiona Sampson, Brian Turner and Sam Willets, with guest poets reading for Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.
Wow. But we fly back to New Zealand on Monday morning, meaning an early start. ‘Go,’ says my partner, ‘and support Brian Turner.’ She’s right—it’s too good a reading to pass up. A vision of Brian sitting dutifully at the signing afterwards while the queues at adjoining tables stretch into infinity and a well-meaning organiser tries to ease his under-employment with small talk about wind farms being the way of the future comes to mind. Yes, he might appreciate a friendly face. And he might not mind if I bowl up either. My friend Al, a musician, decides to come too and helpfully suggests the most New Zealand way to support Brian would be to perform a haka as he takes the stage. I reveal that public singing isn’t my strength. Al opines that a haka is more of a rhythmic chant … like poetry. I explain that I’m more of a modern poet, and therefore only understand irregular rhythms …
Come Sunday, Al’s poetry enthusiasm is diminishing. ‘It’ll be pretentious, but we can always leave at halftime,’ he says as we walk along the Thames toward the venue. Inside, we grab a couple of beerspage 144 and head to our seats. The huge auditorium, illuminated by beige lighting, is a celebration of brown and orange. It holds a couple of thousand and is sold out—an achievement for which the Southbank marketing team will no doubt be taking full credit. We’re in the very back row. Thankfully there is a large screen behind the lectern on which we can at least view the event, which to all intents and purposes could be taking place somewhere else. It’ll be like attending a live webcast. I express concern that our haka may not be recognised as a cultural gesture of support from the stage or by security. However, given our distance from the event, the possibility of being thrown out would seem a redundant punishment. ‘We’ll just have to make ourselves heard,’ says Al.
The poet Anne Stevenson, one of the judges, opens proceedings with a poem. She seems old and doddery, an embodiment of poetry from another era, and I’m glad she just reads, hurries off and doesn’t twitter on about judging.
The MC for the evening is Ian McMillan, poet and presenter of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. Al tells me the show suffers from a painful hipness. ‘Armitage is always on as a guest and they go on and on about The Smiths and The Fall.’ I don’t see anything wrong with writers talking about their favourite music, which can often be a big influence on their writing, but I can also understand Al’s discomfort. I recently got a Best of The Fall CD called 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong and, putting aside any irony in the title, my reaction to it is Yes they can. Over the years, The Fall have acquired that indefinable quality of authenticity. Somehow, they are considered authentic, while other bands get dismissed as frauds and posers. Terms like authentic and inauthentic have always seemed to me beside the point, if not downright dubious, when it comes to art: surely there is only art you like and art you don’t. And deep down, it seems, I don’t really like The Fall. There, I’ve said it. A lot of their songs are boringly repetitive. Or maybe I react to Mark E. Smith’s strident, jeering vocals. He seems to take himself incredibly seriously yet, at the same time, to be laughing at anyone else stupid enough to do so. Hmm—but maybe that’s exactly why people are always describing The Fall as authentic? All the same, if Mark E. Smith was a writer you’d be suspicious of that ‘E’, wouldn’t you? The bottom line for any band is how many songspage 145 you want to hear more than once, and finally the number of tracks I actually replay off 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong isn’t enough for me to join the 50,000.
McMillan tells us that each poet will read for eight minutes, and that these will be real minutes not ‘poetry minutes’. Armitage is up first. McMillan makes reference to a critic’s comment that the poems in Armitage’s shortlisted book Seeing Stars are something other than poetry. They certainly resemble James Tate’s prose poems in style (Tate is acknowledged with a walk-on part in one poem), but the subjects and sensibilities are all Armitage’s. One of Tate’s narrators might well offer Dennis Hopper a lift, but not Dennis Bergkamp, ‘player of football for Arsenal’ (‘Hop in, Dennis’).
‘If they’re not poems, you’re not having your money back,’ says Armitage. He begins with ‘The Christening’, the first poem in Seeing Stars. It’s from the point of view of a sperm whale, and very funny, and I’ve heard tell that its genesis was whale-watching in Kaikoura when Armitage was in New Zealand for the 2006 International Festival of the Arts. But the ending—‘Stuff comes blurting out’— doesn’t work. It’s too abrupt; I can feel the audience waiting for the next line, uncertain whether or not the poem has finished. Plus, it’s one of those easy sexual double entendres and just isn’t witty enough to work as an ending.
Armitage then reads ‘I’ll Be There to Love and Comfort You’, which begins with a black-humoured joke, but, to my mind, is very quickly not funny. Nevertheless, a woman in front of us chuckles away. Is she dumb? I wonder, as she continues to chortle at the couple in the poem listening to the couple next door fighting. Eventually she seems to get it, as grim suburban reality is both amplified and undermined by a fist coming through one couple’s bedroom wall. Armitage’s poems often walk a delicate line between Ken Loach and Paul Whitehouse, but ‘I’ll Be There to Love and Comfort You’ takes us somewhere completely other—a sort of parallel universe, which is still, at the same time, just through the wall—and it is into this space that the male narrator reaches his hand in search of the couple’s long lost child. By the poem’s end you can hear a pin drop in the theatre.
Armitage reads really well. He says little between the poems and they emerge with clear, mesmerising impact. His third and final poempage 146 is ‘The English Astronaut’—a slightly depressing (or maybe just honest), in a typically Armitage and English fashion, take on having your expectations brought down to earth. The poem’s narrator follows a returned astronaut, who turns out to be more like a character from Coronation Street than the awe-struck space explorer they’d’d maybe hoped for. Instead of David Tennant’s Doctor Who, we get Ken Barlow.
Armitage, like his dad, was once a probation officer and so the dark side of the street inevitably turns up in his poems. I like his poetry, but must confess to being less interested in poems about drug addicts, wife beaters, petty crims etc. I just find the seedier side of life—with which we’re endlessly over-supplied thanks to TV—a big, clichéd yawn. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality,’ wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, and maybe that’s why I prefer poems that go elsewhere or else get at reality via weird angles.
It’s about being genuinely surprising rather than merely shocking, and Armitage’s poem in the programme is exemplary. ‘Poodles’ describes a six-year-old’s encounter with a giant poodle clipped and saddled to look like a horse. The kid isn’t fooled and whispers, ‘You’re not a horse, you’re a dog’, to which it replies, ‘Shut the fuck up, son. Forty- / five minutes and down come the dirty bombs—is / that what you want?’ The great thing about this poem is how it upgrades its surprises. First, the whole horse–dog thing is nutty enough—the sort of wacky charade you might see at a circus or sideshow; then there’s the dog’s response—that it responds at all—to the child’s reasonable accusation; then, rather than letting the dog have the last word, the poem switches tack again and bows out with a bucolic image of childhood innocence: ‘I was six, with a kitten’s face and / the heart of a lamb.’ It’s one of those poems that survives re-reading because, plain as everything is, you can never work out quite where it’s coming from.
Eschewing realism is not, however, an excuse for anything goes. Poems still have to have their own internal logic. They still have to set up their own rules and play by them (or be very careful about how they break them, or they risk losing the reader). Thankfully though, their rules don’t necessarily have to include those that govern the social or phenomenological worlds familiar to us—‘true life’ as my children sometimes call it.
Armitage’s reading feels less than eight minutes, and he leavespage 147 the stage to the applause of an audience who would have been happy to hear more. Job well done.
I may as well say now that if you go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturevideo/8278704/TS-Eliot-Prize-for-PoetrySimon-Armitage-reads-poems-from-Seeing-Stars.html you can hear Armitage’s entire reading, and excerpts from most of the others.
McMillan then warmly introduces John Haynes, whose book You is a book-length love poem. Haynes steps up to the lectern and begins, ‘As Kingsley Amis once said, “After an introduction like that, I can’t wait to hear myself read.”’ It’s a good opening, and despite his book’s well-worn subject the section he reads is also pretty good. The refrain ‘I say I love you, but it’s only words’ recurs, making what is probably a series of Shakespearean sonnets sound a bit like an endless villanelle. The line may sound mawkish in isolation, but repeated throughout his reading becomes quite moving, even to someone as jaded as myself. I say I like it, but it’s only words.
Haynes’ style is more traditional—the sonnets are in pentameter (I can’t work out whether it’s iambic or not) and have regular rhymeschemes. His programme poem, ‘Extract 2’, is in two stanzas of seven lines and deals with the trifling issue of what happens to us after we die. It begins ‘A child is like a soul. That outlives us.’ A child then asks his dad (the poem’s speaker) what will happen when the dad dies: ‘Will you be you? Or just the word instead / of you?’ Goodness, this is some child—already thinking about the difference between a word and what it signifies. The poem has already attempted a definition of the soul and love—both, it turns out, ‘made of metaphors of other things’. The soul, love and death, it seems, all behave like language— which is another way of saying they’re quite tricky to pin down. These are the sorts of ideas that used to get literary theorists over-excited. And the answer to what happens after death, in case you’re wondering, is ‘We become sentences. / We get translated into other things.’ The dad tells his son ‘I’ll be you. I’ll snuggle in / your memory like hide and seek again.’ Is this ‘the Child is father of the Man’,1 or ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?2 The poem is certainly impressive aspage 148 a piece of philosophy rendered within tight constraints, but the last line’s sentimentality is too much for me: ‘The similes he knows are not quite lies / are not quite tears, quite standing in his eyes.’ Quite.
Haynes is older, white-haired, and his voice is a little weak. He does his best to speak clearly, though at times his voice quavers. Overall though, a good performance, but not quite good enough to tempt me toward a book-length love poem full of such earnest, chinstroking inquiry into matters of the heart and soul.
I flip over the programme page to Brian Turner. The beige lights are dim, but even so there’s something odd about his author photo. His beard is trimmed in a harsh new style and he appears younger and angrier. The frown is genuinely menacing, whereas I’ve always thought of Brian as a kind of gruff schoolteacher whose bark is worse than his bite. I blink, and scan the note, which tells me that ‘Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq from November 2003 with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.’ Well, he kept that quiet.
This dude’s an American who must have a British publisher. No wonder I hadn’t heard of any other New Zealander (Curnow, Stead and Manhire might have been eligible) being shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize before. Duh. ‘Good job we realised before our haka,’ I whisper to Al. ‘We would have felt such fools.’3
Turner strides to the lectern and asks, ‘How many of us remember the day that 1000—almost 1000—people died in Iraq and not one bullet was fired?’ Silence. He grunts, and quotes Jalal Talabani (you know Jalal Talabani?): ‘This will leave a scar in our skulls … in our souls.’ I hate people who use their knowledge to belittle rather than inform you.4 Without further explanation, Turner then reads ‘Al-A’imma Bridge’ from his book Phantom Noise, but I’m so stunned by the weak writing that I miss too many handholds to know exactly what incident the poem refers to, though clearly a lot of people are falling from the bridge to their deaths in the Tigris. The poem is fullpage 149 of Iraqi words and place-names (signifiers of ‘authenticity’), but I’m much more alert to the clichés I’m being expected to swallow as good poetry—‘the river’s cold hands pulling her under’, the ‘soft, tender lips of the river fish’. Please.
Turner’s poetry seems to trade heavily on the fact vigorously foregrounded in the programme that he was a soldier in Iraq. I think of Sonja Yelich’s book about the Iraq war, Get Some, which would probably be dismissed by many as ‘inauthentic’ because she’s a mother in Auckland and invented the characters. But as Turner reads, I can’t help thinking how much more I like Yelich’s take on the conflict.
Maybe Turner’s poems work better on the page. Maybe there are other poems in his book that I’d like more. But this was his chance to impress me and he didn’t. However, it’s only fair to mention his poem in the programme—‘Aubade: Layover in Amsterdam’. It’s difficult to write well about sex, and I think Turner succeeds here … until the last line, which collapses under its own desperate effort to be moving poetry. The poem begins
My lover turns in the California bedroom’s
watery dark, arching her back from that slow
smooth glissando of heat within flesh,
our bodies rising on coiled springs
and ends with a prostitute in Amsterdam
and I want her to whisper in my ear,
even in a language I’ve never heard before,
just to hear another human voice, just to breathe in the dark.
There’s a big authentic/inauthentic divide in the poem: the lovemaking in California is portrayed as authentic compared to the sex with the prostitute. But that’s not the dichotomy I’ve been talking about. I’m thinking of situations where something is considered better art because it is about something that actually happened or is written by someone with direct connection to the event. Bill Sewell’s book Erebus: a poem about the Erebus disaster is a case in point. I thoughtpage 150 the book failed because the poems simply weren’t strong enough and that the book ended up piggy-backing on the tragedy. This is perhaps most starkly visible in ‘Frame 22: In excess of jurisdiction’ in which Justice Mahon’s famous phrase ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’ is paraphrased 14 times by Sewell in a list poem. Although Sewell’s lines are entertaining, not one of them has the power of Mahon’s original comment. Having the heft of history behind it certainly helps Mahon’s phrase, but it’s also lyrically sharper than any of Sewell’s parodies. Nevertheless, I believe it should be possible for the imagination to outdo the authentic, to write a phrase of equivalent or greater power—in the way that Wordsworth’s daffodils ‘outdid the sparkling waves in glee’ and his rendering of them, in turn, outdid the actual event.
The next reader is Pascale Petit. Her book What the Water Gave Me is a series of poems inspired by Frida Kahlo. Again, the awkward relationship between life and art rears its duplicitous head. Petit tells us that Kahlo once said that there had been two great accidents in her life: the trolley-bus and her husband (the painter Diego Rivera), ‘with Diego being by far the worst’. Petit goes into some depth about the horrific bus accident Kahlo suffered when she was 16, in which, she tells us, ‘a hand rail entered through her pelvis and exited through her vagina’. Ouch. Knowing that detail is true somehow increases its impact, but what will Petit’s poetry do with such a visceral fact?
You can hear her reading ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’ via the link, so judge for yourself. I am slightly underwhelmed, but I don’t have the ‘weak writing’ reaction that I had to Turner’s reading. Maybe it would have been better if Petit hadn’t told us the brutal facts of Kahlo’s injury before reading a poem about the accident? Her poem in the programme, ‘The Bus’, is also about the accident. ‘I have not yet caught the bus, but we are all here / ready to play our parts’. The speaker is Kahlo. Here’s the moment of impact:
I am next to him, sixteen, my body still
intact when the bag explodes and something
bright as the sun fills the air with humming motes
that stick to my splattered skin. Then the labourer
with his mallet will heave the silver post out of me.
Nice—vivid but not overdone. The ‘mallet’ is an excellent detail, adding a quiet brutality, and the ‘silver’ post gives the scene an almost mythical sheen. The last sentence of the poem loops back to the beginning where Kahlo is still waiting for the bus:
His blue overalls are clean. He is not surprised to find me
alive. Here, in Coyoacán at the stop, where the six of us
wait on a bench side by side, just as we will sit
in the wooden bus, comrades in the morning of my life.
I don’t know, but ‘comrades in the morning of my life’ seems weak. How many poems could end with ‘in the morning of my life’? Sure, it is about to become a very significant morning for Kahlo; and, yes, I can hear a play on morning/mourning; and, true, the word ‘comrades’ works a little bit hard, suggesting both a wider politics and a personal level on which the bus passengers are about to be ‘thrown together’, as it were. But that’s not enough to save the phrase.
The final reader for the first half is Robin Robertson. He’s a dour Scotsman whom I met in the late 90s when he read in New Zealand promoting his first book, A Painted Field. The readings took place in the four main centres and were tacked onto the Landfall 50th-anniversary celebrations, so at each event Robertson had to share the bill with a gaggle of local poets toasting a half century of Landfall. He was also, I’m told, intent on sampling as much of the free flowing local vintage as was on offer, and by the time the tour reached its conclusion in Dunedin his stamina and patience were beginning to flag. The Dunedin poets apparently took full advantage of their ‘poetry minutes’, so it was a particularly tired and grumpy Robertson who finally took the stage. And it was at this already unstable juncture that someone in the audience decided they had lots of very important things that they really needed to say to their neighbour right there and then. Robertson stopped in the middle of the poem he was reading, fixed the talker with a baleful eye, and firmly requested that they ‘Shut the fuck up.’ So I’m told. You’ve got to like him, don’t you?
Robertson’s poems tend to be terse and gritty, like chunks of granite (or whatever they have in northeast Scotland where Robertson hails from). That said, his poetry is not without humour, but it doespage 152 tend to be black, icy, and self-inflicted. He also does a good line in nature poems, particularly the bleak, windswept kind.
Robertson reads ‘Tinsel’, a poem about listening intently, first to nature, then to oneself. ‘You can hear the sound of your body, breaking down.’ // ‘If you’re very quiet, you might pick up loss’. I wonder what Robertson thinks of Larkin. The poem continues listening until it hears only silence—‘the sound of nothing’—but then it suddenly defines this as ‘this voice / and its wasting, the soul’s tinsel. Listen … Listen …’. That’s the ending. A lot depends on how much you like ‘the soul’s tinsel’. To me it doesn’t seem a very silent image, but maybe that’s the point: silence equals death, and so long as the poem continues, there is still a voice ‘and its wasting’, which is also ‘the soul’s tinsel’. Nice sibilance, but it still doesn’t quite work for me as an image.
Robertson then reads ‘Wonderland’, a short poem that was, he tells us, described by one reviewer as ‘obscene’, a word he finds ‘a bit harsh’. I agree. The rude bit is the last line’s sexual innuendo where the speaker tells us about a woman who, after knocking back shots of whisky, would ‘drink me / under the table.’ It’s Armitage’s ‘Stuff comes blurting out’ revisited, but a bit more subtly and therefore it’s more successful as an ending.
What is it about the Brits and bawdy innuendo? They lead the world in cutting-edge comedy, yet have a blind spot when it comes to lame nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes. B-grade comedies like The Benny Hill Show, Are You Being Served? and ’Allo’, Allo! trade on slap-and-tickle double entendres, which you’d think would provide ample clues as to why such word-play isn’t usually witty enough for poetry. The truth is that just about anything can be made to have a bawdy double-meaning if you want it to. My neighbour, Mrs Ramsbottom, likes showing off her early bloomers. Yesterday she stripped off a bulbous pair and handed them to me. ‘Put these in your bed,’ she said, leaning over the fence, ‘and see if anything grows.’ Her bloomers certainly are splendid, but my marrow isn’t going to be winning any prizes this year. Ha ha.
Although Robertson’s poetry is often bleak, he’s able to laugh at himself, so his reading is an odd mix of black-humoured banter and arch poetry. ‘And one more to cheer you toward intermission’page 153 he says of his final poem, the brilliant ‘At Roane Head’. In 2009 it won something called the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and, alongside Armitage’s ‘I’ll Be There to Love and Comfort You’, it’s the standout poem so far.
‘At Roane Head’ is a haunting, narrative poem. Its language is startling—earthy and folk-talesque. The rustic, coastal setting clacks and creaks with uncanny goings-on. The tale involves a woman with four fish-like sons—‘each one wrong’, ‘slacked-jawed and simple, web-footed, / rickety as sticks’. The husband leaves, comes back years later ‘thick with drink’, says he’s had enough of ‘all this witchery’, lines the boys up and goes along the line ‘relaxing them / one after another / with a small knife’. Never has the word ‘relaxing’ been so devastatingly and masterfully re-purposed. It’s not until the last stanza that we learn the narrator, not the murdering husband, is the boys’ father.
She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.
Halftime. Al, who has been put off Armitage by his appearances on The Verb, concedes that his sense of humour goes a long way. I think of the chortling woman and realise how badly some people want to—need to—laugh, and almost forgive her. Only about half of what Armitage read was funny, but already he stands out like an open window in a stuffy room full of serious wordsmiths—the men with their pipes, Pascale Petit with a French cigarette in one of those long holders.
The second stanza (to use rugby league jargon) opens with Fiona Sampson. Everything about her says arty. She’s a former concert violinist, studied at Oxford, and now edits Poetry Review. McMillan comments that he’d have thought reading poetry submissions day in, day out might adversely affect her writing, but it seems to be having the opposite effect. I’m not convinced. Sampson looks like she’s trying too hard to be the sort of person that, to quote Dr Bluespire, ‘poetry might happen to’. And, unfortunately, it seems as if her poetry has fallen into step and is trying too hard to be poetry.page 154
By ‘poetry’ I mean short, free verse, personal, lyrical, anecdotal, beautiful and wise. Sampson’s reading voice has an earnest plumminess to it which is, I presume, the kind of proper English noises she’s striving for … erm, I mean, for which she is striving.
‘Envoi’, her poem in the programme, is an exquisitely turned relationship poem.5 But, oh poetry, I’m afraid lines like ‘… we’ll look back on these afternoons / coined with leaf-shadow and rain’ and ‘finding perfume from things we dream of / in the grain of a table’ make me want to run screaming over a cliff. While I find the monosyllables of ‘bloodclot cherries in a blue bowl’ enhance their stunning visual, is the next line ‘and hogweed frothing at the window’ trying too hard?
I do, however, think that Sampson gets the last line exactly right. To my ear ‘the dust that shifts on the summer sill’ is beautiful, musical, and perfectly balanced, yet crucially it doesn’t seem to be straining to be so. That’s often the conundrum for poets today: how to capture beauty or impart wisdom (I’m not against beauty and wisdom) without using overly manicured images and lyricism, and lines that sound like the wise-old-man-of-the-hills or lifts from The Book of Homilies.
There’s a certain type of poetry, usually written by capable younger poets, that doesn’t have any howlingly bad lines, but at the same time doesn’t have many startling qualities either. It’s as if the poets have learned how to avoid the common pitfalls of bad writing but have failed to come up with anything fresh. Such poetry is rarely bad, but it’s often not much good either. Sometimes the poems are well-wrought imitations of admired poets, making me think of those painters you occasionally see in art galleries copying a great work. Not being a painter, I’m always dead impressed at the copies. I don’t know what happens to them, but I presume they don’t appear in dealer galleries as new, original works.
Perhaps a closer analogy might be a painting or song ‘in the style of’ someone else. Sometimes such procedures do produce something fresh because it’s actually quite hard to imitate someone ‘verbatim’page 155 (to steer my lurching metaphor back toward poetry). And yet even if the results aren’t a carbon copy of a favourite poem or poet, they’re sometimes little more than a pastiche of a particular author or style. I don’t exempt myself from these concerns. Good writing is one thing; fresh writing is another.
Sampson’s studied, beautiful poems seem to fall into this imitative category. They also seem to imitate each other, which makes them difficult to differentiate and therefore recall. She’s no sooner read one and I’ve forgotten it. But I know that if I’d received a poem like ‘Envoi’ as editor of Sport, I’d almost certainly have published it. It’s accomplished and doesn’t have any howlingly bad lines, even though my stomach tightens at some points. I file Sampson under technically competent but forgettable.
Next is one of the night’s absent heavy-weights, Derek Walcott. McMillan tells us Walcott is celebrating his 81st birthday in St Lucia, so the poet Daljit Nagra will read from Walcott’s book White Egrets. While I don’t know Walcott’s work that well, watching University Challenge two weeks earlier I was able to (‘Brown—Massey’) answer the question who wrote the epic poem Omeros?, which, much to my surprise, stumped the college from Oxford. It seems Walcott is still foreign to some English readers.
Daljit Nagra is a good choice for Walcott’s poems. He’s confident (perhaps a little too confident) and funny, and clearly sincere in his admiration of Walcott. He stumbles near the conclusion to one poem, and apologises to Derek for ‘fluffing the ending’. But the real giveaway of being too comfortable in the limelight is that he repeats a joke. White Egrets, we’re told, is a series of sonnets, but ‘modern sonnets’, meaning they sometimes stretch beyond 14 lines. For some reason Nagra reads the number of some of the sonnets as ‘3 and 7. Or 37.’ The joke, which I don’t get, is perhaps something to do with his having a PhD in particle physics.
Nagra exploded onto the British poetry scene in 2007 with his debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! It’s good, but (yes, there’s a ‘but’) I remember reading it while considering possible overseas poets for the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington and not quite being persuaded. Calling it a literary version of The Kumars at No. 42 is probably simplistic, so take a look at Daljitpage 156 talking about it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1glwVx_4BFg. Making a YouTube clip to promote your poetry book says a lot about Nagra’s desire for an audience. He’s certainly clever and articulate, but after a while you might want him to ease up. My signed copy of his book, which I bought second-hand, is dedicated ‘To Zena’, whom I can only assume also tired of his voice. I file him under revisit.
As for Walcott, he does disappear somewhat under Nagra’s exuberance, but that’s what you get for not turning up.
Still, it’s hardly surprising Walcott’s stayed away given the recent Oxford Professor of Poetry scandal. Walcott was in the running for this prestigious position when details of past sexual harassment allegations against him were mailed anonymously to around 100 people eligible to vote for the candidates. Walcott withdrew, and Ruth Padel, the other frontrunner, romped home, becoming the first woman to ever hold the position. Padel condemned the smear campaign and denied any involvement, but it was subsequently revealed that she had in fact flagged Walcott’s murky past to two journalists via email. It didn’t look good. Just nine days after taking up the post, Padel resigned, claiming naivety toward journalistic practice rather than malevolence toward Walcott. Being a former journalist herself, however, this note also didn’t quite ring true.
The whole murky affair kicked off a row over whether the incidents in Walcott’s past were relevant to his standing as a poet and suitability to hold the position. There were claims he had been targeted by politically correct feminists, and on the other hand claims Padel had been the victim of the Oxford old boys’ network.
The new election, which was won by Geoffrey Hill, also raised hackles. Poet Michael Horovitz publicly questioned whether fellow candidate, the biographer Roger Lewis, would be an appropriate choice given that his ‘talent’ was blathering about poetry rather than actually creating it. And Paula Claire, the only woman in the running, withdrew because she felt the pre-election publicity at Oxford clearly favoured Hill. It makes the New Zealand literary scene look like a love-in. A consensual love-in.
Walcott’s alleged past indiscretions affect the way I hear his poem ‘Sixty Years After’ when Nagra reads it. I fall into the age-old trap of positing Walcott as the speaker, and allow his past, as fed to mepage 157 through newspaper stories, to infiltrate the poem’s reality. It’s a very common way of getting a handle on first-person realist poems, but why are we so quick to allow one level of true life to intrude upon another? Because it’s easy? The path of least resistance is a strong motivator. But beyond that I wonder why we so often feel compelled to lasso fiction and imagination in some way and tie them to something tangible, like an author’s life?
‘Sixty Years After’ is the sorrowful musings of a wheelchair-bound man in a rest-home on seeing an old flame ‘in her own wheelchair, her beauty / hunched like a crumpled flower’. If sonnets really can be more than 14 lines (and I’m not arguing with anyone), this one’s a great example. It’s primarily about the awfulness of aging, but the link my brain makes to the alleged rejected advances of Walcott’s past comes in the last few lines where the old man recalls when he and the woman were young: ‘I stalking / an impossible consummation; those who knew us / knew we would never be together, at least, not walking.’ It’s a sad poem—full of regret at the passing of youth and sexual possibility—but instead of the mysteriously uplifting ‘high windows’ that end Larkin’s poem on a similar subject, all the protagonists are left with here are ‘the silent knives from the intercom’.
Nagra steps down and McMillan introduces Sam Willetts, describing his poems a couple of times as ‘hard won’. The adjective seems to sidestep the usual effusions McMillan has served up thus far, making me wonder if he doesn’t really like Willetts’ book. This could be a good sign: I stopped trusting him after his seemingly personal endorsement of Fiona Sampson.
Willetts fumbles to the lectern and gazes out at the 2000-strong audience. ‘My friend told me to just imagine I was reading to six people,’ he says, shaking his head in mock despair, and getting a supportive laugh.
His first poem, ‘Trick’, is about his dad. ‘It’s a sad poem,’ he says, ‘which is in a way inappropriate because he was a funny man.’
‘This next poem,’ he says, ‘is difficult for me to read because it’s about a time when I was addicted to heroin.’ Willetts, the programme says, became addicted aged 37 and New Light for the Old Dark, his debut collection, contains poems about that period and the years he spent homeless, as well as other personal poems about his mother’spage 158 plight in the Holocaust and his childhood in Oxfordshire. ‘Digging’, however, turns out to be the usual stuff about shooting up—blood ‘blossoming’ in the syringe, eyes glazing over, etc. Yawn.
When will alcoholics and junkies realise how boring their addictions are? And, unfortunately, clichéd. Most teenagers could write a fairly convincing account of class A drug use without ever having encountered anything stronger than coffee, so ubiquitous are drug abuse stories in the media. Willetts’ first-hand experience hasn’t, to my mind, particularly enhanced the performance of his ‘shooting up’ poem. Indeed, Armitage’s poem ‘Beyond Huddersfield’ also features the disturbing image of, in this instance, a bear ‘digging’ for a vein. No doubt both poems will one day feature in a Penguin anthology of substance abuse.
Willetts then reads a poem that he prefaces as the only story his mother ever told him about the war. I can’t recall if it’s something she saw or whether she was the child, but here’s the synopsis. A line of refugees fleeing Russia are being dive-bombed by a Stuka. A mother pulls her daughter off the road and lies on top of her to protect her, but the little girl pushes her away because the mother is wearing a brightly patterned dress and would therefore be more of a target. This rendition isn’t very poetic, but neither is Willetts’ poem, which seems to rely too heavily on the awfulness of the story rather than a memorable linguistic representation. Indeed, before reading the poem Willetts explains to us why the child pushes her mother away, which again seems to privilege the story over the poem.
Willetts is very much a personal poet, as his poem in the programme, ‘June 3rd’, confirms. It’s the ruminations of someone waking before their lover at dawn and imagining escaping ‘over those rooftops’, ‘looping like a monkey’. I like the poem—its lyrical rendering of ugly, urban details (‘rolled chickenwire, gas-bottles, toys left out’), its wonderful descriptions of dawn (‘blue in this hour’s one blueness’), its sharp similes (‘You don’t stir when I unstick my damp chest / from your back—at that tiny sound, an orange pulled open, or a kiss / reversed’), its clever line (‘its dawning / on me’) and its vigorous, imaginative movement. The momentum and lyrical imagery at the end are nicely complicated by the infidelity suggested in the final simile, as the speaker arrives:page 159
at shaking speed into a day
that’s opening like an orchard
and an avenue of that orchard
opening to me like another lover’s arms.
Willetts’ slow speech, unkempt hair and the way he looks to McMillan, sitting to the side of the stage, and says ‘One more?’ suggest drunkenness. Note ‘suggest’. He’s also the first reader who seems to be working to poetry minutes. ‘One more’ he says again, and ends on something short, supposedly witty and definitely unnecessary. He leaves the stage, and I know I won’t be buying his book.
Annie Freud was born in London in 1948. Her father is the painter Lucian Freud. Her maternal grandfather was the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and her great-grandfather was Sigmund Freud. No pressure, Annie.
I can’t remember much about what she or McMillan say about her collection The Mirabelles, but I imagine that she’s the sort of poet that Fiona Sampson might turn into if she keeps writing nice, nondescript, personal poems. In the book’s title poem, ‘A young poet visits an older poet / who has enjoyed fame and success.’ A plum tree’s golden fruit lie all over the pavement. When the visit is over the young poet will ‘come back and fill / her pockets with these Mirabelles’. But then we’re told that when she leaves the older poet’s house, ‘she has forgotten / the plums’. This is confusing—does she come back and fill her pockets later? ‘But’ the poem concludes sagely, ‘the thought of them / lying so sweet all over the pavement, //comes back to her and she remembers / them every day for the rest of her life.’ Whoa. Maybe she never actually fills her pockets with the plums; maybe the poem is suggesting that ‘the thought of them’ is more real, or at least more permanent.
Golly. Sampson might appreciate this poem more than I do. It’s not as ‘poetic’ as her poem ‘Envoi’, and it’s difficult to dislike the echo of William Carlos Williams’s plums, but for me the poem is still trying way too hard to be beautiful and to make a wise observation about art. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad poem. Which is exactly the problem— the thing I was trying to say about poems that aren’t bad but aren’t really good either. Their overwhelming feature is that they’re simply ‘not bad’.page 160
One of the other poems Freud reads is ‘Naked Child Laughing’, which is a found poem, being an extract from an art critic. One reading of it posits her as the child stepping out from the shadow of her artist father, Lucien. The poem concludes:
Do we need to know why the child is laughing?
Or indeed that she is the artist’s daughter?
Not in the least.
What matters is that we register her presence
with the greatest possible immediacy:
the inexplicable human gorgeousness.
These may be the words of an art critic, but it’s amazing how well they mesh with Freud’s predilection for beauty and wisdom. Freud is clearly attracted to the language and sentiments. No irony here, thanks, and I’m afraid lashings of irony is the only way I can swallow a line like ‘the inexplicable human gorgeousness’. ‘Naked Child Laughing’ also tells what ‘The Mirabelles’ seems to want to show, making ‘The Mirabelles’ a better poem in my book.
Freud steps down to weary applause, and Al suddenly offers an opinion in favour of Brian Turner, saying that compared to Sampson and Freud at least his poems are about something. I know exactly what he means: what Sampson and Freud seem mostly concerned with are their sensitive sensibilities. I think of the William Carlos Williams line ‘No ideas but in things’, from ‘A Sort of a Song’. But Freud and Sampson are certainly adept at using things to show their ideas and feelings. Freud’s plums roll toward me from ‘The Mirabelles’ and I see the table grain in Sampson’s ‘Envoi’ has a knot that looks like Te Papa’s thumbprint logo, which makes me think of Stu from the 70s TV show Gizago. Nice one! Sometimes readers can really spoil poems.
As McMillan introduces Heaney, I wonder who’s going to read for him. I hardly dare to believe it when a white-haired old gent makes his way up onto the stage, and half expect the New Zealand Brian Turner, clean-shaven, to swivel to the audience. ‘It’s Heaney,’ I squeak to Al. I never thought I’d hear Heaney read tonight, or any night. Ever. My problem with the overly lyrical is going to find me out here. If Ipage 161 were Sampson or Freud there’d be water tinkling or a violin playing in a room stripped back to its original surfaces—a wood floor with perhaps a few autumn leaves that have fluttered through a dormer window open to the sea breeze.
I haven’t followed Heaney’s work in a book-by-book way, but he’s such a feature in the poetry landscape that his voice is a kind of constant presence. And here it is—in true life—a pleasingly round Irish lilt that’s not so broad that I can’t follow every word with doeeyed pleasure.
Heaney kicks off with the opening poem in Human Chain, ‘“Had I not been awake”’, then moves on to ‘Uncoupled’, a quiet, observant poem about his parents. He too is essentially a personal poet. Unless he’s making stuff up, most of the poems in Human Chain seem like snapshots of his Irish upbringing. It’s Heaney on home ground: the poems are largely descriptions of people—family, friends, acquaintances?—going about daily tasks. For pen-pushers, manual work can be an endlessly fascinating subject, and Heaney’s upbringing seems to offer a rich labour source. The activities in his poems, if not the poems themselves, seem to come from a simpler time. Is Heaney really that old or does change come slowly to rural Ireland? It’s not hard to see why his poems are so admired. They seem at once deeply authentic, yet, if I’m anything like a typical foreign reader, also exotic and romantic to the point of being modern folktales. The myth of Ireland allows his poems to occupy both a mythic past and persuasive present.
‘Human Chain’, about passing sacks along a chain, is a standout. The poem’s movement from aid workers passing bags of meal to the speaker’s memory of heaving sacks of grain is effortlessly done. But what really differentiates this poem is its ending. Whereas most of the endings in the book drift away with understated lyricism, the final line of ‘Human Chain’ is two short sentences that reconstitute the cliché ‘once and for all’ and immediately demand re-reading. Suddenly, the poem is a meditation on dying:
That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.
I’m struck not just by Heaney’s warm Irish voice, but also the pace of his poems. When you read Heaney on the page, I realise, it’s almost impossible not to read the poems at the pace at which he reads them aloud. So it’s not just the round vowel sounds and earthy scrape of consonants that he seems able to conduct without moving his baton (or lightning rod), but the very speed at which the poems pass from page to reader. Try reading them fast—you can’t. ‘The Baler’ begins:
All day, the clunk of the baler
So taken for granted.
And there you have Heaney’s voice: the warm and guttural sounds chiming together, the story-telling rhythms, the even pace.
All the poems Heaney reads are good, but each seems to strike a similar trajectory, orbit, and angle of entry. None crashes and burns, and none bounces off. Human Chain is perhaps a successful mission without any new discoveries or space-firsts. Nevertheless, our man leaves the stage to rapturous applause, and McMillan winds the evening up.
I wonder how many of the ten poets that have read tonight make stuff up. No doubt some massaging of true life takes place as a poem takes shape, but I suspect the desire for plausibility remains a strong dictator (with ridiculous rows of medals on its uniform striving for authenticity). I wonder if part of the reason I liked Armitage’s poems, Robertson’s ‘At Roane Head’ and Willetts’ ‘June 3rd’ is that they blatantly jump out of reality. That’s not to say that poems that stay grounded in plausibility do so simply to show us true life: realist and non-realist poems often seek similar things, it’s just one keeps its feet on the ground, while the other might remove its shoes and discover wings. Give me the wings any day.
I need to buy some books and get them signed, even though the queues will be horrendous. Al goes to join the signing queue while I take on the book stall. I get Seeing Stars and Human Chain. I toy with Robin Robertson’s book, but decide against it on the grounds that I admired his first book but have never gone back to it. Therepage 163 was something chiselled and aloof about the poems that wouldn’t let me in, as if they were excessively honed artefacts behind glass. I liked hearing his poems tonight, but I’m not sure I’ll enjoy them as much on the page. They seemed to benefit from Robertson’s measured voice and pace, his droll between-poem banter; under my page-eye they might scoot by too quickly. (I will regret this later and buy his book in New Zealand, where it will lie fallow like his first book.)
At the signing queue, Al has been kicked out for not holding a book and therefore being guilty of place-holding. The Brits take queuing very seriously. This one snakes in and out a fenced-off grid like an airport check-in in a country where the regime backed by the West has just been over-thrown. I’m sure some of the organisers have guns. I am the end of the line. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m prepared to wait. A distressing number of people have Sam Willetts’ book. I try to tune out the chatter of two young American women next to me who have been ‘so inspired to start writing some poetry again’. Their verbiage appals me and, to my discomfort, unmasks a baseless sense of superiority, but I share their enthusiasm.
Forty-five minutes later and I get to Armitage. He looks exhausted, but is friendly and vaguely remembers me from when he read in New Zealand in 2008. I want to say how much I liked his reading and how amazing the evening has been for me, but, verbal communication not being my strength, I fail on both counts.
I then get to Heaney. The rules are: only one book per person and no dedications—Heaney only signs his name. From the queue I’d watched several old biddies engage him in long conversations and had plenty of time to go through all the things I could say to him: chief among them being whether or not I should encourage him to read in New Zealand. The Writers and Readers Week Advisory Group in Wellington has invited Heaney many times, with each invite exaggerating the size of the fish he will catch while here, until it’s virtually been promised he’ll pull up a new landmass (which, I hope he’s been told, does happen to the god-like where we come from). But when I step forward and he looks up at me, I simply can’t wish the trials of long-haul travel that I’ll be facing in a few hours’ time upon him. ‘Thank you very much,’ is all I say. His face is kindly, and he looks strangely like Robert Hass. ‘Pleasure,’ he says.
1 Wordsworth, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’.
2 Larkin, ‘This Be the Verse’.
3 An article congratulating Brian appeared in the Otago Daily Times, and was picked up on a number of websites. —Editor
4 Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, said this in 2005 about a stampede that occurred on Al-A’imma Bridge.
5 I wish we could print at least one complete poem from each poet, but we’re playing safe with fair dealing.