Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes from a poetry reading

Although I have never attempted to hide the fact that I write poetry from my colleagues, their indifference and lack of curiosity had until recently kept work and poetry firmly separate. Things have changed now, and so when someone suggested holding a lunchtime poetry reading to celebrate National Poetry Day I was asked to take part. There is something quite special about working at an institution that can say 'some of its poets will be reading their work'. I gave some though to choosing poems, but it's hard to work out what would work. I have never been to a reading before and had little idea what to expect; in the event, there were 30 people in the audience. The pattern of the readings was that a poet read as many as he wanted (they were all male), and then the audience woudl applaud at the end. The quality of attention was astonishing; I suddenly realised how poorly most people listen.

I started with Mr Eliot's Saturday afternoon service. I think this is one of my best parodies, but it didn't seem to go down particularly well. Thinking about it, it's probably a mistake to start with a parody, since it relies on the audience knowing both that Eliot wrote like that and that I normally didn't. I also adopted something of Eliot's reading style (as shown on various recordings), with its changes in tempo and heavy dramatics, which again would only be appreciated by those familiar with him. Finally, the poem (apart from its last line) is not funny in itself; its only humour derives from how far it accurately reflects Eliot's style.

Next was Experience. This worked much better, partly because it has jokes; partly because I used a less mannered delivery; and partly because, especially in a live context, the recurrent lines and rhymes of the villanelle give a shape to the poem. Readers can see at a glance whether a poem is long or short, dense or spare; an audience can only hear it as they go along.

In comparison A poetry of place worked less well. Although the rhymes are not excessively forced, the poem's mysticalisation of place is not in fact something I approve of, and there are a couple of weak rhymes. My liking for the poem is based mainly on pleasure at having managed to include 'the archaeology of ideas' in verse, despite the rhythmic challenges this involves.

I deliberately said that Peterstone would be my last poem, just to warn the audience that they ought to clap at the end (there's nothing worse than a speaker stopping and the audience having to work out if this is a dramatic pause or the actual end). 'Peterstone' is perhaps a justification for the argument presented in 'A poetry of place' that
"there is a sense becomes attached to ground /
the grammar of thought has a locative case"
, in that most Welsh topographic poetry tends to be about mountains, valleys or rivers, rather than dismal plains. Inhabitants of low-lying coastal margins tend to a pessimistic outlook; their experience is that things happen to them more than they make things happen, and I think that
"the prospect of distant hills /
mocking our ambition for purely local victories."
is a more general human truth.

Nerves before and relief after meant that I was unable to form a view about the poems read by others, but the event certainly seemed to meet with enthusiasm; maybe next time I won't have to keep changing stance to stop my knees from comically trembling.

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