Review: New British Poetry Stars Reunited

“Please no talking during poetry reading”

New British Poets Reunited

Durham Book Festival; Gala Theatre; 21 October 2010

Overwhelmed by the reunion of four of Britan’s best, and wanting to stand out ourselves, here are two (different) reviews of the (same) night. Find profiles of the different poets in the third page.

Matthew Griffiths reports:

Durham’s Gala Theatre plays host to a happy reunion on Thursday night, when poets Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay, Glyn Maxwell and Lavinia Greenlaw are brought together again for the first time in 20 years – as they’re keen to keep reminding us. The reading commemorates the anniversary of their 1990 tour as “the New British Poets”, and Armitage builds his introduction around the sub-Stones exploits the quartet enjoyed on their long-ago sojourn round provincial B&Bs. Their delight in sharing a stage again is evident; however, as Maxwell suggests in the Q&A with Prof. Stephen Regan after the poems, their grouping as poets was somewhat arbitrary, the vocation being necessarily a rather solitary one. When they first assembled two decades back, he notes, it was relief in finding that others shared this vocation, rather than a shared poetic project, that properly drew them together.

Twenty intervening years have only sharpened the differences between their distinct poetic styles. Jackie Kay takes to the podium first, with a sense almost of brimming over with delight. She reads poems about friendship, parenthood, return and – most amusingly – about comic-strip legend Ma Broon going for colonic irrigation. It is joy rather than cheek that comes through her reading, and she plays with the music of both Scots and English in creating her effect. But, pace Ma Broon, it is the mood rather than the individual pieces that linger after she retakes her seat… Though at least this gives the lie to the implication that she is a poet of “issues”: she laughingly recounts that, on a trip to speak to schoolchildren in Germany, pupils were told that “those interested in adoption, race and homosexuality should see Fräulein Kay”. It tickles the ribs of her peers and her audience.

Glyn Maxwell is up next, and seems preoccupied with what it means to be “a poet”. He’s even strived to look the coolest of the night – jeans and an untucked red checked shirt. Poetry is the old rock ’n’ roll, remember. Rather combatively, he works around his poems with plenty of detail about their inspiration and composition. In the case of a chorus from his play Lily Jones’s Birthday, he’s even interrupting himself every other line to fill in the fictive background of its 2018 setting. Yet there’s no question that the poems themselves are stronger than their backstories, even when these are as closely related as in one powerful piece about a dance he invented with a school acquaintance and her later descent into neurosis and suicide. In other poems Maxwell picks apart the language of the media and the way it constructs the kinds of story we consume – “In other news” a relentless refrain showing how blinkered our scopes can be. Acknowledging his poems’ gloominess, Maxwell still dourly informs us that he enjoys writing like nothing else, and describes his heavy stage persona as a mask. It’s one he finds difficult to remove tonight.

The finest, most finessed poet of the night is Lavinia Greenlaw. She writes, and reads, with a crystalline lyricism, memories adeptly captured and almost set apart from reality. That her subjects are so much part of our experiences, however, only makes this technique more resonant. It’s all our lives, not just hers, on the page – even though we hear the anecdotes, which, in the case of her editor mistaking “Lo Fi” for an unknown Chinese poet, are charming. But the change of register when she reads makes poems like “Silent Disco”, “Essex Kiss” and in particular “The Literal Body” among the most memorable of the night. Pity her fourth collection is “forthcoming” rather than available on the book stall when the reading closes.

It’s our festival laureate Simon Armitage who reads last, with the consummate ease of one used to speaking to theatres full of GCSE students. He’s the most assured performer among the four, choosing his funniest and most intriguing pieces and delivering them with a deadpan, well-paced voice. That they are a greatest hits package – I’ve heard him read at least half this selection before – does not detract from their appeal, performed or on the page. “Christening” is spoken by a sperm whale, as though responding to one of those Sunday-supplement “This Much I Know” interviews: “Stuff comes blurting out”. Though poems such as those set at St Michael’s Mount and on the Yorkshire Hills undoubtedly draw on Armitage’s own experiences, they are, like Greenlaw’s, given an enigmatic distance – only wryer. The first becomes dreamlike, for instance, and the second filmic. As he responds to one question from the audience later with sardonic evasion, “I think you’re confusing me with the narrator of the poem.”

Discussion and questions do not follow easily from a reading like this, the absence of obvious common ground between the poems meaning that questions have to fall back on some extraneous knowledge of works not read tonight: asked about the differences between the poem and the song lyric, they all answer cogently and without making easy assertions about the two. It’s the last question of the night that becomes the most apt, because it picks up on the prevailing mood rather of the night rather than trying to force a theme from it. “Have you had a good time?” It seems, rather coyly, that the poets have. And I think, largely, we have too.

Sylvain Aliocha was there too:

“Have you had a good time?” I ask them through the microphone I’ve been handed to ask my question. It is one of those evenings where it is supremely obvious that everyone in the audience has. My joke goes down well, though everyone on stage is a tad confused. Simon Armitage tries to get in with an (ironic) line about him suffering for us. Lavinia Greenlaw, having remarked earlier that poetry is about death, sex and poetry, is meaningfully silent. Glynn Maxwell, not for the first time this evening, manages to moan about Time in a seductively and mysteriously “deep” way. Jackie Kay, as always, has a huge grin on her face. They are nice and clever people, and it is not for nothing that their work has received many prizes.

One of the reasons to go to readings is that good poets are wonderful people to be around. Or these four really were, which is what prompts such a generalisation. Due to the occasion, they were asked what they had in common and what they were hoping for when they got going, twenty years ago. The only decent answer that surfaced was that they wanted to “talk to people through poems”. That is precisely why it was amazing to be there as they read: they come with things to be enjoyed together.

Indeed Armitage and Kay were very funny much more than once, with Scottish jokes no one got (that is what was so good about them) and poems about going on a shoplifting spree with your father (try it). But you’re not safe with these two. They are experts at humour yet I can tell you the pain suddenly flashes in and you are moved and shaken (see “An Accommodation” and “Darling“). Glyn Maxwell, in a purple checked shirt that both suited him very well and yet didn’t (these things are important) said that he wasn’t gloomy even though the poems he had been writing recently were. That he operated on a more abstract level than the others was in fact refreshing.

Yes, the others were more upbeat and felt more connected to our experience, but Maxwell does know how to draw you in. Lavinia Greenlaw’s poems kept ending way before I thought they would. As I like them, this left me disappointed and wanting more. Yet, as the last lines played themselves again in my mind it was clear that everything that had to be said had been said. Just when you think you’ve realised how elegantly she writes, it hits you how good she is. You had to get excited about some of the new pieces she read, which will be in her upcoming collection (there is a really good poem on the Chinese sage Lo Fi).

Both Maxwell and Greenlaw also had beautiful moments between their poems where the intensity of what they said came out in how they introduced the following piece or simply in the pause before the audience clapped. The audience even applauded after every poem (this is not part of the protocol). Being of the grumpy sort myself, I found this tedious, but you could tell everyone was taking it piece by piece and enjoyed everything they were served.

This is because they are very good at language, not because they are sometimes funny – “the dead are here, holding our hands” (for example) is just a really amazing thing to say. Some are sad pieces, but there is something undeniably fantastic and marvellous about both Maxwell’s “poem of my useless sorrow” and Armitage’s “I’ll Be There to Love and Comfort You”. With this sort of duplicity, a line like “we’re going nowhere tonight” can come across as trivial and desperate at the same time. The poems say they’ve seen it all, and yet they speak as if nothing is over.

Poet profiles

By John Clegg

Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in 1963, and is well-known to a generation of schoolchildren for his appearance in the Best Words GCSE anthology; Sean O’Brien has suggested he might be the first poet since Larkin whose individual lines have become part of our national literary consciousness. He’s published ten volumes of poetry with Faber and Faber including Seeing Stars earlier this year, a selection of surreal monologues and twisted narratives representing a major departure from his normal voice (world-weary, northern, making substantial use of cliché and vernacular), which was deservedly nominated for the T. S. Eliot prize earlier this week. Other important works include his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, likely to be the version chosen for inclusion in the next edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. He also plays guitar for a (slightly ropey) outfit called the Scaremongers.

Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw has published just three collections of poetry, but all of them are stunning, especially 2005’s Minsk, which was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize. She has a real scientific eye, which is not achieved at the expense of emotional depth, and is perhaps more capable in manipulation of precise mood than any other poet of her generation. The Poetry Archive describes her voice well, highlighting its “hushed and wondering quality like a naturalist describing a rare creature they’ve been waiting a long time to study”. Though I haven’t read them, Matthew tells me her two novels are a joy as well (Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age).

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay has written in an enormous amount of different forms: poetry jostles for position in her corpus alongside biography, novels, short fiction, plays and novellas. She has also an award-winning poet for children. Her Darling: New and Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in 2007 and received deserved rave reviews. It’s also the only book of poetry I’ve seen someone reading on the Tube (I did see a man holding William Blake on his lap once, but he didn’t open it between Totteridge and Leicester Square, which was where I got off). Kay’s poetry displays a mastery of monologue and dialogue: in her first collection, The Adoption Papers, three different voices intertwine around each other.

Glyn Maxwell

Glyn Maxwell was born in Welwyn Garden City, but wisely escaped to Oxford and the States, and now lives (contrary to false reports in The Bubble’s previews) in London. Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky praised Maxwell’s early work, noting that “Maxwell covers a greater distance in a single line than most people do in an entire poem”; more recently, comparisons have been made between Maxwell’s verse and Auden’s. Certainly he has inherited some of the elder poet’s vast range and wisdom, and also (like Auden) is an accomplished lyricist and enthusiast of dramatic verse. I think the only poet of his generation to also achieve success as a playwright, one of his plays (Witchgrass) is currently in development as a screenplay.

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