Poetry review: Liz Lochhead & Gillian Clarke, St Andrew’s Town Hall

SUCH is the strength of the programme at this year’s St Anza Poetry Festival that the first evening featured a double-bill of laureates, Scots makar Liz Lochhead and Gillian Clarke, the national poet of Wales: two strong women, at the height of their poetic powers, and rightly recognised as such.

Liz Lochhead & Gillian Clarke

St Andrew’s Town Hall

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Laureateship brings responsibilities, however, and both have found that the requirements of writing what Lochhead calls “first-the-phonecall poems” have stretched them in new directions. Clarke read a variety of these, on subjects ranging from the royal wedding to the fiftieth anniversary of the mining disaster at Six Bells colliery.

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One of Lochhead’s best-loved poems, about the differences between spoken Scots and written English, was one such commission. This relationship with language, common to many Scottish writers, echoes Clarke’s own: her aspirational mother refused to let her speak Welsh, though she learned the language later as an adult.

In a lecture earlier in the day, Clarke spoke about the importance of poetry which taps into memories from early childhood. Her own new recent collection, Ice – short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize – was sparked by a memory of the polar bear skin rug in her parents home.

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Lochhead, too, writes from memories, from an old memory of a miner, weary and blackened, cycling daily past her childhood home, to much more recent memories of her friend and collaborator, the late Michael Marra. All are testament to the power of poetry to evoke and preserve that which is precious.

susan mansfield