IT ALMOST sounded like a student dare. Imagine that there's a poetry reading, with not a couple, but a full one hundred poets reading. How long do you think you could last? At what point - regardless of quality, entertainment or availability of alcohol - would even the most literary individual throw up their hands and say: "Enough!"
Well, the challenge was made flesh at StAnza, the poetry festival at St Andrews last weekend. In part to celebrate its 10th anniversary, they decided to run an event featuring more than one hundred poets, all reading one example of their work. I didn't see anyone from the Guinness Book of Records there, but imagine they probably ought to be contacted if the organisers decide to run a similar event next year.
It was scheduled to run from 11 in the morning until 4.30 (in the afternoon, not the next morning) - and, thanks to some fairly adamant chairing by MC Jim Carruth, they actually stuck to time. This in itself was something of a surprise. I was only regretful that I'd sat near a window, just in case a quick getaway was required.
Also pleasantly surprising was the overall quality of the readings. I must confess that my first thought on learning of the event was to question whether there were 100 poets worth hearing in Scotland. Nevertheless, there were excellent contributions from critically acclaimed writers such as David Kinloch, Robert Crawford, Helena Nelson, Angela McSeveney (sporting a splendid and appropriate hat), John Glenday, Jackie Kay and WN Herbert. The fact the event could go ahead without some of the 'big guns' - Liz Lochhead, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson weren't there, for example - is testament in itself.
There were guest slots for writers visiting the festival, and it was especially welcome to hear Jane Yeh, Gwyneth Lewis and George Szirtes. Given the nature of the event, it was also a great chance to hear unfamiliar poets - and on that score I've mentally noted to buy work by Jen Hadfield, AB Jackson and Lorraine Mariner (who did a superb little piece about splitting up with her imaginary boyfriend). It was great to see some poets younger than 40 as well: there seems to be a dearth of new Scottish voices.
The 100 Poets Gathering did, however, confirm some old prejudices. The Browser's first rule of poetry readings is that the weaker the writer, the longer the autobiographical preamble - with copious detail about where, when and possibly why the poem was written - and critical apparatus, just in case the audience is too dim to get what the poem's about. And indeed this was the case at St Andrews.
I often feel it robs the reader of having their own experience of a work if the poet insists on spelling it out. A writer as talented as Donny O'Rourke can convey multitudes in two lines and a thank you; the more amateur versifiers are far more reluctant to give up those precious minutes in the limelight. Indeed, the dread words "My poems are quite short so I thought I'd read a few" - and they weren't haiku - were uttered.
Another nice touch was the matchbook-sized edition of William Hershaw's 'A Leid Caaed Love' given out free to those attending the readings.
The end of the event effectively evaporated all the qualms. Alastair Reid read his totemic poem 'Scotland', with its echt-Calvinist ending of "We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it". Then, acknowledging that times really have changed, and that he's rather sick of the poem, he set fire to it. It was one of the rare moments - possibly a unique moment - when burning literature seemed positively life-affirming.