actors make ideal readers of poetry. Given the chance, I'd expel actors from my poetic republic, on pain of hearing an endlessley repeated reading of Tennyson's 'Break, Break, Break', given by Donald Sinden. Because, for the most part, they just don't get it. Their oratorical training lends them power, charisma, grandiosity and flashes of the craftily sincere, but also a tendency towards what Basil Fawlty described as the bleeding obvious. Those silken or trumpeting tones belong in the auditorium or on the screen: they are so rarely equipped to touch on the the idiosyncratic mysteries of the poem.I couldn't agree less with Lord Saatchi that
Some years ago, there was a Radio 4 reading of Keats's 'The Eve of St Agnes' by Michael Maloney. It should have been a rare treat, to hear the whole of a great poem at three o'clock on a weekday afternoon. It wasn't. Maloney's enunciation, his intonation, his abrupt, non-metrical pauses, his obtrusive sense of himself were all so acute that the effect was emetic rather than scary, sensual, forbidden and delicious. No inner life: all display.
On another occasion I witnessed Fiona Shaw reading Eliot's 'Waste Land', a show that won golden acclaim. She can be a fine actress, certainly; her performance in Beckett's Happy Days was breathtaking and that is, of course, a supremely poetic play. But what she inflicted on 'The Waste Land' failed to capture its fragmentation, its repressed torment, its distinctly conservative apocalypse. Pound knew what he was about with his editing and what he didn't aim for was melodrama. Listen to Eliot's own reading and you will overhear the true timbre of desperation. Especially on Margate beach.
This may be the point. There are so many available recordings of poets reading their own work that it seems otiose to dragoon thespians – let alone Bono – for the privilege. The flaws in a poet's reading are very often an aspect of the poem's dark corners and infuriating ambiguities. Liste to Ciaran Carso, who speaks with a stammer and will, occasionally jerk himself into fluency with a brief tune on the flute. He chooses to write in long lines so, in a sense, courts anxiety. Take Simon Armitage on the West Yorkshire attack; Jackie Kay a burst of sunshine, a growl of rage. Seamus Heaney, that gentle, tough, tentative bear of a man. Or the deceptively offhand Don Patterson, the mischievous vitality of the late Michael Donaghy, the quirky, stubborn, slightly bonkers Selima Hill, the much-more-acerbic-than-she-seems Wendy Cope.
I also believe that many poets would do better job than most actors with dead writers. There would be a fusion or collision of signatures, the words of a dead man modified in the guts of the living, as Auden put it. How grand to hear Tony Harrison as John Clare, Sharon Olds as Emily Dickinson, Andrew Motion as Edward Thomas. What about Billy Collins as e e cummings? Poets read well because they have not been trained to do so: they proceed from the inside outwards. And there is another danger. Actors may be able to dignify and drape lousy work. At the Brighton Festival, Timothy West and Prunella Scales gave a reading of a 90-minute-long poem about Nietszche. Yes, 90 minutes. Yes, Nietszche.
It goes without saying that there are exceptions to my irascible rule. I recall hearing Alec Guinness read 'The Four Quartets' over forty years ago and I experienced a connection with the music and the circular time scheme more fully than any 15-year-old might hope or expect. I have, more recently, rejoiced in almost anything read by Juliet Stevenson, especially Carol Ann Duffy's work.
But I'll stick to my guns. Stroll along to your nearest reading, whether it be by the deft, pithy John Hegley, Brendan Cleary, the Irish card, or even Les Murray, the scarcely audible depressive giant. You will listen to thoughts, feelings and bewilderments which elude stars of stage, screen and colour supplement.
Thursday, 14 March 2013
In February of this year there was a masterclass course with the title 'Get Heard, Get Seen, Get Noticed'. It was in Manchester and being run by Apples and Snakes ( Arts Council grant for 2012/13 £400,000 ). The advert stated that it was appropriate for poets at all stages of their careers, from those who are just starting to seek paid work as well as established artists who want to get up to speed with the best ways of maintaining and growing their profile.
It happens that this sort of course was just what I was looking for as on June 4th the book contract I won as a result of being joint winner of the Geoff Stevens' Memorial Prize ( with Julie Maclean ) is due to come to fruition with the publication of 'The Amen of Knowledge' published by Indigo Dreams Press.
I have no background in the publishing or literary world. Leaving the NHS when I did last year was partly so I could concentrate on writing poetry – a sort of change of career. This class seemed to show the way to how to get readings, generate publicity, learn how to read properly in public etc.
Well, it did and it didn't. The problem was that it was restricted to a group of poets who are termed Performance Poets as opposed to Page Poets ( those are Apples and Snakes words ).
The query then is what makes a Performance Poet. I go to poetry events and read. I've heard many examples of poets who, I presume, class themselves as Performance Poets who are nowhere near as good as, for example, Simon Armitage at putting on a performance.
Which wouldn't matter as much if the funding bodies didn't have to cut as they have been over the last year or so. It's not the time to be discriminating between different ( if they are different ) types of poets.
Monday, 4 March 2013
Mike Cracknell, Glenda Charlesworth and myself have been presenting the Arts Scene programme on Preston fm for the last 7 years. It is a weekly, hour long show which, as the name suggests, covers the arts in Preston. What the name doesn’t suggest, however, is that our guests come from all over the world. If they are in Preston they will be interviewed – and without exception they have been terrific. We try and balance local with regional and international. So we might have the Preston Lacemakers in the first half of the show and Vasily Petrenko in the second. We’ll intersperse them with appropriate music, a Poem of the Week and end up with our What’s On guide.
Which brings me to the point of why mention this on terry quinn poetry uk. Well, we have a podcast facility and if you want to listen to an interview with Billy Collins or Sarah Hymas, Alan Dent or Sophie Hannah then click on the link.
And I’m mentioning it now because I’ve just put an interview with Chris McCabe, the Librarian at the National Poetry Library, on it. I think you’ll enjoy the twenty minutes or so. Though I wish I’d mentioned the hard chairs.