Thursday, April 26, 2007

The wish list

It was one of those rare moments when fate seems to have intervened. There I was, idly studying the Metro's listings guide less than a week after posting a review of Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin, when I discovered that the Poet Laureate himself was due to speak at the Wales Millennium Centre the very next evening, as part of Academi's BayLit Festival. And, what's more, he would be doing so in the company of current National Poet of Wales Gwyn Thomas and his predecessor Gwyneth Lewis, both poets whose work I've encountered regularly of late. Of course I had to be there.

Let's just say the proliferation of wrinkles and sensible knitwear was something of a contrast to the previous evening's entertainment, when I saw this lot in action (review to come)...

Having snaffled the second last ticket available, I was delighted to find that the event would be kicked off by readings from both poets in turn. First up was Gwyn Thomas, who (aside from a poem about the sound of rain on the sliding slate heaps in his home town of Blaenau Ffestiniog) chose to concentrate on pieces which would make us laugh. Particularly good were the excerpt about Tarzan from his self-translated autobiography 'Bywyd Bach' and the closing poem about trying to teach his one-and-a-half-year-old grandson how to read and discovering that he wasn't quite picking up the concept of pointing to animals and making appropriate noises.

And then came Motion and his so-very-English voice, perfectly suited to the poems he read - deep, resonant, painfully and awkwardly Received Pronunciation. Despite Motion's apparent unease at reading publicly, there was some light relief in the form of recent composition 'Rocket Boots', a barbed commentary on the activities of his upstairs neighbours in Camden - but, for the most part, the gravitas of his delivery matched that of the poems, which were characterised by a restrainedly elegiac tone. (No wonder Motion is a fan of Larkin and Betjeman, then.)

By far the longest was 'Serenade', a poem about the horse from whose back Motion's mother was thrown, ultimately resulting in her death. Its shift from purely visual detail to the delicate poignancy of the conclusion held the whole room spellbound. He repeated the trick with his final poem, 'The Wish List', about all the things he wishes he could have laid to rest with his father, who died last year.

After that tour de force, it was little surprise that the ensuing discussion / debate between Thomas and Motion, and chaired by Lewis, was something of an anti-climax. The poets talked (not always particularly articulately, it must be said) about what it means to represent one's country, about the nature of public poetry, about the healthy state and reputation of poetry and - in response to audience questions - about the value, to a poet, of having led a traumatic and unstable life.

The room was full, at least for the duration of the readings, but all the same it was a bit depressing to see that only around 150 turned out to hear the Poet Laureate in conversation with the National Poet of Wales. It was even more depressing to mention the names of Thomas and Motion to friends later that night and be met with completely blank faces. Perhaps poetry's not quite in the rude good health they (at times) suggested it is - though through no fault of their own.


An edited extract about the death of Motion's mother from last year's 'In The Blood: A Memoir Of My Childhood'

Right To Reply - Poetry: present and future (Part 1 of 2)

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