Hungover at dawn, the poet looks up
A skein of geese heading south,
Hundreds of voices, one arrow.
Next year, he says, it will
Happen like that
Here in St Andrews
A hundred poets, one room.
THAT'S (sort of) the story StAnza's artistic director, Eleanor Livingston, told on Sunday about how the idea of Scotland's largest poetry gathering came to Jim Carruth, and of course it's suitably poetic, too.
An inspired idea, then, for the festival's last day. But could it be an organised one? A hundred poets, a hundred introductions, two minutes' reading each. Add pauses for applause, add poets going walkabout, and those no-shows snowed in snowed under. Add audience listlessness, listening fatigue and weigh crowd-pleasers and word-teasers against lost-love poets and poor readers.
The whole event was scheduled to take five and a half hours; oddly, and thanks largely to Carruth as a particularly brisk emcee, it did. Newsflash: poets turn out to be punctual after all.
But what kind of poetry? Mainly short, mainly sweet; easy on emotions, easy on the beat. From Dublin poet Tony Curtis's opening poem, surely never more apt, about a poetry Olympiad, to John Hegley's audience-involving turn or Eddie Gibbons's The Shopping News, that applied to a sizeable number of the 102 poets involved.
As that's too many to mention in a short review, I should only single out a few: Lorraine Mariner for her deadpan poem about breaking up with an imaginary boyfriend ("he knew what I was going to say/before I said it"); WN Herbert's gloriously rhythmic Bad Shaman Blues; and Andrew Greig's A Long Shot, which may well be the finest golfing love poem in the language.
None of this is to suggest that the five hours was devoted solely to easy entertainments. Penelope Shuttle read movingly about bereavement in The Repose of Baghdad, Andrew Jackson mixed The Song of Solomon and a report into the Abu Ghraib atrocities to devastating effect in Acts, and "Scottish Muslim Calvinist" Imtiaz Dharker reached similar depths with Honour Killing.
It was Alastair Reid, however, who provided a truly fiery finale. Back in 1971, he noted, he had lived in St Andrews, renting a cottage by the Old Course, across which he walked most mornings. On a sunny one, "the kind of spring day particular to that part of the planet", he met a woman from the fish shop.
Their conversation - in which, speaking about the good weather, she warns "We'll pay for it! We'll pay for it!" - turned into his poem Scotland with indecent ease. The poem has subsequently, he said, become fastened to him "like a ball and chain" and it was time to rid himself of it.
Taking from his pocket what he later insisted was the original of the poem, he then proceeded to burn it. A hundred poets cheered, and their gala reading - which ended, to everyone's surprise, absolutely on time, came to a dramatically successful conclusion.
• THE gathering of 100 poets to celebrate StAnza's tenth birthday recalled a much earlier gathering, the day in June 1965 when Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Trocchi and co took over the Albert Hall and filled it with languid chainsmoking children of the revolution.
Peter Whitehead's film of the event, Wholly Communion, shown as part of the StAnza 2007 programme, left us nostalgic for their idealism, though perhaps not all of their poetry. Nevertheless, the contribution made by poets to the world of film - celebrated in one of the main themes of this year's festival - tends to be of the highest quality. Writer Bernard MacLaverty has made a beautiful short film inspired by Seamus Heaney's poem Bye Child, while Mario Petrucci's compassionate poems about Chernobyl form the basis for David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky's tender, harrowing film, Half Life.
Poetry is a generous art form, feeding its inspiration willingly to artists in other fields. StAnza 2007 hosted the premiere of Drift o' Rain on Moorland Stane, a composition by visiting jazz professor Richard Ingham, inspired by the poetry of Marion Angus. It resisted setting the poems to music, preferring to use sound to create a landscape around them.
Singer-songwriter Michael Marra, on the other hand, was poetry in motion. His fine writing and offbeat imagination seemed completely at home in the context of StAnza, conjuring for us visions that crossed borders, artistically and geographically: Dr John in Blairgowrie; Bob Dylan in Edinburgh; Frida Kahlo in the Tay Bridge Bar, Dundee. Poetry can do that - cover long distances in a short time. In a few days in St Andrews, we went with Imtiaz Dharker to Bombay, with Jenny Daiches to Auschwitz, with Mark Strand on the New York subway, and with Ruth Padel to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We also travelled in time, in the popular Dead Poet's sessions, to the worlds of Keats and Shelley, Manley Hopkins and Marvell.
And there were animals, too: cats from Alastair Reid, five dogs, two horses and a singing camel from Mark Strand, fire ants from Pascal Petit and a poem by Jane Yeh in the voice of the snowy owl in the Harry Potter films.
There were poems that made us smile and think, and poems that left us disturbed, puzzled or enlightened. And some poems so sad - such as Petrucci's monologue about a Chernobyl woman nursing her dying husband - that the audience was left holding its collective breath.
On Saturday night, courtesy of two of the country's finest performance poets, there was also laughter. Matt Harvey and John Hegley took us all the way from blancmange to bereavement.
As soon as Hegley stepped on stage at the Byre theatre, wielded his ukulele and said - in characteristic deadpan - "OK, St Andrews, let's rock," I knew that, while poetry is many things, the people at StAnza have not forgotten that one of them is fun.