Sparkle and fizz that prove poetry can hold its own in a festival
VARIOUS VENUES, ST ANDREWS
IF YOU had tried to assess the reaction to Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michael’s reading at the Byre Theatre in terms of applause alone, you would have had to conclude that it had been a disaster. But that wouldn’t have been fair - the colossal intensity of her poetry built a silence whose surface tension it would have been sacrilege to break.
When she read a poem that alluded to prayers uttered on Holocaust trains and then somehow wheeled around, with the most sensuous possible use of imagery, into a meditation on love’s haunts and rememberings, her audience fell entirely silent. No coughs, no shifting about in seats, not a single sound. That’s what intervals are for, and as the audience poured out of the Byre shiny-eyed at half-time some people said they’d never heard the like.
Back inside again, Tony Harrison stepped up and read a very different kind of poetry. Public verse, not fugitive pieces: poetry that pressurises politics, that turns left-wing rage into subtle rhyme. And right from the start, there was applause.
Another difference: before he read each poem, Harrison explained its imagery and roots. Fourteen years ago, on his last visit to St Andrews, while the first Gulf war was raging, Harrison passed Lindisfarne on the train and saw a cormorant with a fish struggling in its mouth. On the news the day before, he’d seen other cormorants, oil-covered and dying; heard a cock crow behind a reporter covering the 2am bombing of Baghdad.
So already we were half-prepared for a poem that tied those connections together in verse: connections between the cormorants with which the Saxon scribe Eadfrith illuminated the word of God in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the cock crowing at the false dawn of a blood-red sky in another, darker age; between the sign of the cross and the bomber’s cross-haired target. When it came, the applause was as much a natural response to Harrison’s technical virtuosity as silence was to Anne Michael’s.
Yet it, too, died down when he entered more personal territory: those much-anthologised poems about his parents, the gap his education opened up between him and them, his childhood memories.
Here, as with earlier readings by Stephen Scobie about forgotten friends and places, or Ian McDonough’s poems about the simple pleasures of life he’ll one day remind his young daughter of, the audience delivered something between awed silence and loud applause: a quiet hum of recognition, a barely verbal assent, an inner "yes". And yes, Saturday at Scotland’s poetry capital fully deserved all three reactions.
THE final day of StAnza 2004 ended on a high note, against all the odds. The gap left by Derek Walcott’s last-minute cancellation was seamlessly filled by a star-studded double bill of Simon Armitage and Don Paterson, two very different poets engaging with similar themes of modernity and masculinity.
Paterson’s beautiful, dense poetry strikes a fine balance between intellectual rigour and tenderness. He began by telling us that there are 53 words in Scots for "to cough" and that perhaps this explained the absence of a Scots erotic literature. Then, despite his cough, he went on to read the most erotic verses of the festival. He also treated us to a sneak preview from The Book of Shadows, his book of aphorisms, which will be published later this year.
If Paterson brings traditional rigour to modern poetry, Armitage is engaged in producing verse for the 21st century. Occasionally sardonic, sometimes surreal, he is always incisive in his commentary on contemporary life.
It was a theme which ran throughout the day. "What do we do, as poets and lovers of poetry, in a wicked world?" asked Gillian Clarke, from south-west Wales. Then, in her work, she demonstrated what poetry is capable off, taking on 11 September, foot-and-mouth disease, even the Madrid bombings, in work which was passionate, angry, engaging.
Is poetry old-fashioned in our fast-paced televisual lives? asked Skye poet Angus Peter Campbell. Then, reading in Gaelic and English, he answered his own question. The picture he paints of the poet as the wandering tinker, mending pots and pans, the useful person you don’t know you need until he turns up at your door, is the most insightful, passionate, humorous manifesto for the role of poetry that I’ve heard in a long time.
How marvellous it is that, in the words of StAnza chairman Andrew Clegg, "poetry should sparkle and fizz like a roman candle for several days". Those prophets of doom who claimed that Scotland could never sustain a festival based purely on poetry will be eating their words. We have witnessed the best StAnza ever.
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