Monday, 28 March 2011

The End of Poetry, Now

After such powerful lectures by Belinda McKeon and Anne Carson on Thursday it was with high expectations that the DLR Poetry Now Festival proceeded for the rest of the weekend. The audience was not disappointed.

The first day of readings opened strongly with Joseph Woods, Luis García Montero, and Paul Farley, introduced by Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin. Woods read from is forthcoming collection with Dedalus Press, who have published his previous two, Sailing to Hokkaido (2001) and Bearings (2005) in a single volume entitled Cargo (2010). Montero read in Spanish with translations read by Martin Veiga. Paul Farley gave a strong and highly enjoyable reading, mainly from his last two collections, The Tramp in Flames and The Ice Age. The second reading of Friday was introduced by Philip Coleman, and had Heather McHugh and Michael Longley read. Very different poets and very different readings. McHugh got up and grabbed the crowd by, throat. With a kind of sharp and unpredictable humour, it was terrifying to watch and exhilarating to experience. She commented, joked, challenged, discussing as she went along, at one point stopping to question her choice of a particular word. The last poem she read was entitled ‘What He Thought’, a wonderful exploration of the glib, the easy, the lesson of difficulty. It closes with the image of Giordano Bruno, face covered in an iron mask to prevent him inciting the crowd: ‘poetry is what | he thought, but did not say’. Longley read mainly from his new collection A Hundred Doors (Cape, 2011), with a gorgeous, almost unbearable nuance. Particularly powerful was his poem ‘Citation’, a ‘found poem’, made from his father’s citation for the Military Cross. Longley read with the softness of one putting petals back on a flower, with syllables that were so delicate you needed a pair of tweezers to separate them. He is an artist working with gold leaf, brushing it on with his breath.

Saturday’s readings had Dave Lordan, Fiona Sampson and Jaan Kaplinski. Lordan read a kind of performance poem, with enormous energy, while Sampson’s reading was a good deal more muted, more intricate, more poised. And Kaplinski opened his reading with a poem he said he had not yet written, which comprised a minute of silence. There followed the evening reading, by Sinéad Morrissey and Gerald Stern, beautifully introduced by Aengus Woods. Morrissey read from her latest collection Through a Square Window with a quietness and firmness that made you sit up straight and sometimes lean forward, catching details in a breeze. Stern asked that the lights be raised over the audience in the (normally darkened) Pavilion Theatre so he could see them, read to them. This speaks volumes, volumes of poems. He was a ball of pure energy and read with an extraordinary sense of engagement and wit. This sense of fun is anchored by a tremendous sense of the important, the essential, the utterly compelling.

Sunday’s afternoon reading was with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Don Paterson. These are two poets who listen to waters that run deep under ‘official’ English. Ní Dhomhnaill writes in Irish and has often talked about the experience of writing in a language that is spoken with fluency by a small proportion of the population but claimed to be spoken (for all sorts of social and political reasons) by a considerably higher number.1 I greatly enjoyed the reading but she has a school-mistress quality that made me a little nervous and she read like she was speaking to a group of intelligent but lazy students who could get this if they really tried. I felt as if I had not done my homework. Paterson read from his latest collection Rain as well as new, unpublished work.2 He has a remarkable sense of ease with his own discomfort, all the more remarkable because it in no way mitigates that discomfort for the listener/reader. I believe Paterson to be a great poet.

A theme of silence ran like an undercurrent throughout this year’s festival, inadvertently perhaps, inasmuch as these things ever are, pointing up the end of the festival. From Carson’s lecture on untranslatability and the silences of translation, to Longley’s remarks about the silent white spaces on the page (and cf. the epigraph by Barbara Guest, The future writ in white space, in his A Hundred Doors), to Aengus Woods’ meditation on Adorno and the (too) oft-quoted remark about poetry being impossible after Auschwitz and Gerald Stern’s response that only poetry is possible after Auschwitz, not to mention (!) Kaplinski’s silent poem one minute long.

It was a chance to meet old friends and make new ones. Catching up with the poet and illustrator PJ Nolan for example, was a great pleasure, as was meeting the poet Leanne O’Sullivan. I was greatly glad to meet Nikolai Popov, an academic and translator (as well as the husband of Heather McHugh), a man with an aristocratic intelligence and the vague and exquisite sadness of an exile. Meeting him was what I think it would be like to meet Dante.

Belinda McKeon closed proceedings by thanking those who’d contributed to making this year’s Poetry Now Festival the great success that it was and struck an emotional note as she expressed her regret that the festival is to be dismantled. Heaney, too, expressed grave concern at this decision when he accepted the Irish Times Poetry Now Prize for Human Chain. When Longley began his reading, he lamented the decision to ‘tinker with the Festival in any way’. It was a remark warmly received by the audience. This is a bad decision and being taken for bad reasons. The financial crisis has created a state of exception in which all manner of decisions are allowed to be taken under one guise but with motivations that are not at all related, quite unequal to the consequences. Dun Laoghaire has suffered a terrible loss and the end of the Festival left me with a sense of having witnessed something pass from us, without being able to properly articulate it nor indeed resist it.

Belinda McKeon let poetry have the last word, and read a wise and warning poem:

‘Had I not been awake’

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamores

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

from Seamus Heaney, Human Chain (Faber, 2010), p. 3

1. See her essay ‘Why I Choose to Write in Irish, the Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back’, first published in The New York Times Book Review, 8 Jan 1995, pp. 27-28, repr. in Representing Ireland: Gender, Class, Nationality, ed. Susan Shaw Sailer (University Press of Florida, 1997), pp. 45-56.

2. On which I’d had occasion to write about.


Bo said...

Sounds wonderful!!

Miglior acque said...

It was, really. It was.

Padhraig Nolan said...

Great overview. This years festival fuelled me even more than I realised in its midst. Full of wonder, I'm left reeling.

Emerging Writer said...

Thanks very much for the write up. I only wish I could have been there for the whole of it.


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