The StAnza Festival's 60-plus events cover every form of poetry, but there was one reading that rose above all others
'SIMONIDES'S greatest poems are bodybags." That's Robert Crawford beginning this year's Stanza lecture about the ancient Greek poet, probably the first European whose words were written to be read as text. Bodybags, because Simonides memorialised the Greek dead in the Persian wars two and a half thousand years ago, fixing their lives in words that stitch in time.
At its best, Crawford argued, that's what poetry can do: make time collapse, the present disappear, transcend the daily grind, reach beyond death and show that what is almost lost can last. His own translations of Simonides into a fresh, raw Scots made precisely that case, while the events of last weekend – which showed that the demand for bodybags isn't going to let up any time soon – underline the old Greek's enduring relevance .
Where else at StAnza – the annual festival of poetry held in St Andrews – did time stop? Friday night, about 8:45pm. Paul Farley is on the Byre Theatre's main stage. He is reading A Minute's Silence, which imagines the hush at a football ground taking off: out through the turnstiles, stilling the streets, then sweeping out to the countryside to the coast – all this with conversational digressions and sudden depths at the end. His poem Treacle – in which a tin of the stuff opens up into the past, yet is filled with the stickiness of the present – does the same breathtaking pirouette, unshowily spinning the familiar until it turns into something else, something different and oddly strange. I'd never heard Farley read before, knew nothing of his work other than that it had won awards. But for me, this was the standout reading of the festival.
We didn't have to go all the way back to Simonides for enlightenment about the past. A former miner himself, poet Rab Wilson's film Finding the Seam slid back a couple of decades to look at the human cost of the collapse of Scottish mining after the 1984 strike ("three generations/hung out to dry by The Wealth of Nations"). African-American poet Kevin Young breathed new and eloquent life into story of the 1839 Amistad revolt with poems based on the letters of some of the former slaves on that ship, and their halting requests, in a language they were just being taught, to be returned to Africa.
Elsewhere, Gawain Douglas made a convincing case that his ancestor, Lord Alfred Douglas, shouldn't be remembered as the man who ruined Oscar Wilde but as an accomplished poet in his own right. A pink-socked aesthete, he is an unlikely descendant to the 14th-century Black Douglas or even the mad old Marquis who did for Wilde, but both his talk about great-uncle Bosie and his performance of Eliot's Four Quartets were well delivered and enjoyable.
Although history was one of this year's festival's themes, the main focus seemed to fall on how the meaning of words and ideas can also twist and change across time. Simonides's epitaphs to the loyalty of the Greek fallen, for example, read slightly differently to an age, like ours, in which war is not seen as heroic.
What is lost in translation from past to present was the subject of a riveting discussion about the translation of that 400-year-old bestseller, the King James Bible (born, festival director Eleanor Livingston reminded her audience, at a meeting in Burntisland). Religion, theologian David Brown pointed out, is inherently poetic, as talking about God inevitably forces us back to metaphor and image. Diana Hendry and Fiona Sampson stressed the influence of the beauty of Authorised Version's language, with Hendry showing how its translation into Scots triggered a response in her own work.
Brown, however, pointed out that the Authorised Version itself occasionally wiped out the ever greater beauty of the Coverdale translation. Thankfully for Anglicans, he added, Coverdale lives on in their evensong liturgy. For the rest of us, perhaps, the harsh fact has to be faced that today's younger generation will grow up unaware of the Authorised Version's poetry, perhaps even without religion. Perhaps it's no coincidence, said Sampson, that the decline of religion is matched by a revival of Ovid: poetry needs archetypes, a common mythology, a liftshaft down through the centuries to older ideas which we can use to interpret life.
This was a festival that was also strong on translations between languages as well as centuries. Exiled poets Yiang Ling (China) and Adnan al-Sayegh (Iraq), and leading German poet Durs Grnbein ("my favourite living poet in the world – Don Paterson) all gave engaging readings in their own language alongside their translators. The bond between poet and translator is invariably a firm one, and was explored further on Sunday morning in yet another of the festival's excellent breakfast discussions.
This time, Kevin MacNeil appeared alongside Paterson and two poets whom he had been commissioned by the festival to translate into Gaelic – Lidija Simkute and Tom Petsinis, who although both now living in Australia were born in Lithuania and Macedonia respectively. Asked that old chestnut about whether the translated poem belongs to the original writer or the translator, MacNeil came up with the neat sidestep that while he wouldn't take praise for the translation he would take responsibility.
Paterson isn't, he pointed out, a translator but someone who occasionally writes versions of other poets' work – invariably writers who have no equivalent in English, which might be the reason he's attracted to them in the first place – "that and the hope that you can somehow get the other writer's strength from them … If I don't feel some sort of spiritual kinship I wouldn't go near them." Sometimes when working on these versions of other poets' work, and hence attuned to their mindset, he finds himself writing poems in their tone which he doesn't quite know how to classify as he can't claim them as his own poems, but they are not the original poet's either.
Edwin Morgan was, of course, one of the great Scottish poet-translators, and as his biographer, James McGonigal, pointed out in a wonderfully engaging interview with Robyn Marsack, he was reading Mayakovsky at the age of ten, when he proudly told his diary that he had learnt his first word of Russian. Though Morgan's modesty always impressed casual friends, McGonigal said, Morgan knew he was going to be a famous poet almost from the time he was 15. That insistent individuality, he guesses, was the reason he never wrote poetry about the Second World War. Other people were doing that; he himself would make his own path.
Such single-mindedness – bear in mind Morgan was in his forties before his poetry was published – is perhaps a necessary part of the poet's psychological make-up. Certainly it's there in the detailed focus Philip Gross brings to his subject. In the case of the best poems in his TS Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table, where the powerfully churning waters of the Severn Estuary are used as closely-detailed metaphor, that obsessiveness clearly delivers.
Inevitably, there were some disappointments. American poet and critic Marilyn Hacker gave a oddly flat reading, flamboyant New York poetry slam-founder Bob Holman tried unnecessarily hard to make a case for poetry (at a poetry festival you don't really need to do this) and perhaps it is best to draw a veil over Selima Hill's event apart from wondering what a poet who clearly hates reading from her work was doing there.
Against that, you could argue that every poetry festival has to be allowed sub-prime levels of risk. In StAnza's case, audiences are demonstrably growing. So is its range. Those 60-plus events took readers into practically every form of poetry, from the Gruffalo to Ciaran Carson, from the Poetry Slam to the SCO playing newly commissioned work to celebrate Sorley MacLean's centenary. When the programme was announced, some critics noted that, compared to last year's (when Seamus Heaney was the star guest) it lacked a true poetry megastar. That's true, but when a festival has bedded down as firmly as this, when the smaller venues are crowded and sparking with creativity, it doesn't matter so much.
One final thing about Simonides. He was, Robert Crawford noted, the first poet to demand monetary payment. The first, in other words, to make us think precisely how much we should value the arts in general and poetry in particular. In this year's StAnza, the old Greek would surely have felt reassured.
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