StAnza Poetry Festival

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A Champagne performance

Various Venues, St Andrews

THERE are small bubbles of tension in any poetry festival. A good one, like good Champagne, has lots. They lie in those moments when a poem has ended and its thought and images are still hanging in the air, and the audience might want to applaud but knows that, for some reason, it cannot. When the listeners want to respond, not in a generalised way at the end of the reading but right there, right now.

Why those silences should exist is rather odd. When a magician does a good trick, we don’t sit on our hands and try to make up for it with a bit of cheering at the end. And how much more important is poetry’s weight of mind than sleight of hand?

For anyone who was at StAnza over the weekend, the reason for those small, awkward silences between poems is quite clear. Without them, Michael Donaghy’s poems, depth-charged with eroticism and a haunting cleverness only compounded by the fact that he recites, rather than reads, would each have needed intimidating levels of applause that would have doubled the length of his reading.

His fellow American, Alison Funk, is slightly more allusive, but never obvious. "In the natural world", her extended poem about the devastating 1811 earthquakes, so intense that the Missouri is said to have run backwards for a week, with aftershocks that lasted for a full month and the survivors looking back to find out what predictions they had ignored, is impossible to read without thinking of the events of 11 September, even though it was written long before. That’s another thing poetry has that magic doesn’t: resonance. And yes, sometimes to hear that resonance, you really do need silence.

You need silence for Simon Armitage’s grittily idiosyncratic poems to sink in, to catch Donny O’Rourke’s nuanced drift, follow Andrew Clegg’s brilliant exposition of Neruda’s Canto Generale or David Morley into his Romany childhood. And then, for Scotland’s finest poetry festival, here in such excellent form, bouquets and bucketfuls of deserved applause.