Poetic patterning bumped up against a mechanical metre yesterday. I went to London’s Royal Festival Hall to hear Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan, Wole Soyinka and four other world-class poets read their work.
Half way through Soyinka’s reading, someone’s mobile phone began to ring. The audience attempted to maintain focus on the great man’s words, but few of us could resist those pleasurable, disapproving look-rounds in search of the Philistine idiot who was the source of the disruption.
Except that it was Soyinka himself.
He finished the poem he was reading and then sheepishly, to loud applause and laughter, apologised, pulled his phone out of his pocket and switched it off, saying, ‘If that’s who I think it is, then…’ The laughter was louder when he produced a second phone and made sure that one was switched off too.
Even high-minded geniuses – for such is the reputation of poets in general and Soyinka in particular – can’t resist the mobile, need more than one phone, need them on them and on at all times. I laughed because I felt so reassured.
Maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. Writing poetry is a communicative act, as Susan Utting, a wonderful poet and teacher, who I spotted in the crowd last night, said to me in a tutorial last year. Anyone writing wants to communicate and mobile phones are just another channel for broadcast.
I haven’t been to that many poetry readings. Fewer than ten, I think, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gone last night. It was such a rare and wonderful evening, the sort of evening that I feel ought to be earned, worked up to and then properly enjoyed, with all decorum, in due course.
I suppose I felt too green, too untried and unproven to be in the auditorium, even as a reader. ‘Look,’ I felt like saying to Simon Armitage, the progenitor of Poetry Parnassus, ‘this timing just doesn’t work for me. Give me a few more years and it will all be so much more rewarding. For me.’ I’m sure the Olympics (with which Parnassus is linked) could’ve been put back a few years. Just till I’m ready, yeah?
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I loved it.
I went for Heaney and Ryan. They did not disappoint. But they were far from the only good reasons to be there.
Jo Shapcott‘s ‘bee’ poems are still vivid in my mind. I hope she publishes them soon. In the interval I ran into Tamar Yoseloff, another fabulous poet and teacher, who agreed about the bees. (Phew. More reassurance.)
I’m glad I heard Bill Manhire. He was generous enough to share a tip about writing ‘list’ poems like his beautiful, elegiac 1950s . To paraphrase, he said the real problem in writing the poem was to find a final item that would reflect back on the preceding items in a way that was meaningful. That’s something I’m storing away.
His performance of Hotel Emergencies I found simply electrifying. I bought his book afterwards, joining a feverish crowd at the end of the show.
Kim Hyesoon made the most significant political contribution, I thought. Speaking through an interpreter she said, ‘I am a poet writing in Korean therefore I will read in Korean.’ And she did, allowing her interpreter to read to us in translation afterwards. I had a long and tortuous conversation in my head about cultural colonialism while trying to stop myself thinking that she looked like Edna off The Incredibles. As a result I found it hard to concentrate on her poems, which she introduced as ‘short’. I thought they were quite long. But she’s the other writer whose book I found myself running to buy, somewhat to my surprise.
Kay Ryan closed the show. Her poems use a lot of humour and it’s perhaps easy to underestimate their power and resonance as a result. She’s another performer who sent me away with some consolation. She read a poem, Drops in the Bucket, about being a beginner, which directly addressed my sense of having no purchase on the craft of poetry, of simply trying things and not being able to see how they connect up into a whole method, or many methods.
She also read her poem Relief arguing in introductory remarks that relief should be included as one of the major emotions. All the patterns of the evening made sense to me then.
As a former poet laureate of her native United States, Ryan was always a worthy candidate for the send off, even among worthy candidates. Yet she was clearly a little embarrassed by the honour, beginning her set with the line, ‘I don’t know why I got clean-up, but I did.’
‘Clean-up’, eh? That’s a phrase to savour and store, to drop insouciantly into conversation with real poets. That’s a mobile phrase my diffidence and frustration are working hard to switch off in the pockets of my imagination.