Accounts of Evenings Feb 08 - Oct 08
Genuine warmth and an affecting humility quickly enabled Frances Wilson to draw an appreciative audience into her instantly recognizable world of haunting family memories, evocative places and chance human encounters – a birthday celebration, a manor house hung with memories of war, a passing word or two with a neighbour working in the garden, a boy on a bicycle. But it was soon apparent that there is nothing ordinary in her way of looking or in the execution of her craft. Throughout the poems there is a toughness about life, often a wry humour, and a capacity to enjoy what it offers. The subject matter of her poetry may well be the stuff of ordinary living but it is brought strikingly alive in fresh language that startles and lifts the poems from the page, the ‘glossy lacquered daughter’, the gravel ‘exploding’, ‘the little firm buttocks’ of greengages. The apparently ordinary becomes transmuted into something that lives in the memory. The poems about her deceased husband illustrate her charactersitic way of looking at life and a relish for the apparently mundane. Determined to write about what made Harry the man he was, these poems focus strikingly on the behaviour which were the essence of the man and not on her response to his passing. Novelist, Penelope Lively has a fiction writing premise of ‘taking the immediate and particular and giving it a universal resonance’ and this also sums up well the nature of Frances Wilson’s poetry.
The first part of the evening consisted of Frances reading and talking about her work, taken mostly from the first published collection, ‘Close to Home’ [Rockingham Press 1993] and her most recently published work, ‘Rearranging the Sky’ [Rockingham Press 2004]. During the evening she referred generously to various people, such as Michael Laski, who had helped to nurture her talent, and it is clearly a gift that she also possesses and generously shares. It was manifest in her readiness to engage with her audience on matters relating to the craft of writing and, in the second part of the evening, the encouragement she showed to the creditable number of members eager to share their own poems on family and friends. These poems ran the full gamut from laughter to tears. A very satisfying close to a fulfilling evening.
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John has read for us before, more than once, but never his children's poetry, I only discovered afterwards that John had read from it till then only to specialist audiences of teachers or pupils. It was a first for both him and us. So he was at first uncertain of his reception, but the audience warmed to him, he to us, and it was an excellent evening, in turns funny, eerie and moving.
John, as is only decent for such an experienced teacher, lecturer and critic, is a technically resourceful and accomplished poet. (Compare Michae1 Rosen, the current childen's laureate when you've a spare moment.) He uses a wide variety of styles, jokes and limericks, riddles, counting songs, variations on nursery rhymes, stories and soliloquys, matched with a similar variety of forms, couplets and ballad metre, blank verse, free verse, even prose with internal rhyme, (see "The Big Top" in 'Boo To A Goose').
For subject matter he does draw on his own childhood, but much more on his experience as a father and teacher, even examples of his pupils' homework, ("Taking The Plunge" in 'Boo To A Goose'). He often used to do the creative writing tasks he set for them himself, but he doesn't forget that children care about serious matters, though more about that later. All is illuminated by his ability, not to see inside a child's mind just, but to live inside it, "The First Day" for example, or "The Box" which he wrote for his son.
John is mostly, not always, an unobtrusive, understated poet, who uses his technical skill, empathy and imagination to transmute tiny details of everyday life into always interesting, at best moving, small pieces, (e,g, "The Shoes"). But that is what most poems are. Poets write very few masterpieces; some very good poets write none at all. Anyway, children don't want epics very often, not epic poems anyway.
In my youth, we were introduced to poetry via nursery rhymes and lullabies, though they were more like "Golden slumbers kiss your eyes .. ," than John's "A Cradle Song". I spurned the uggy Patience Strong type pieces in Golden Wonder Books. In my first year at primary school we had a singing class once a week and graduated to carefully expurgated folk song, though we were never told that they were poetry, so they didn't count. Later, at 8 or 9, we were introduced to Silver Bells Book Two, carefully selected, very simple poems for adults which were very improving and sentimental. It was as though children's poets had never been invented. Well they had, but only just. These days it is an industry.
But serious poems for children? Who is there? To write serious poems for children is seriously difficult. John reckons he can count those that can on his fingers, but Charles Causeley is certainly one. Both Charles Causeley and John have told me that when compiling collections of both their adult and children's poetry at the same time, they found themselves including the same poems in both.
"The Shoes", which John read, is typical Mole, a heart rending poem about a pair of shoes. The boy's father had left them behind when he left home, "Variations on an Old Rhyme", ("This is the house that Jack built"), is about politics and war. "The Mad Parrot's Countdown", which he didn't read, is a counting song about the annihalation of humanity in a nuclear war. It first appeared in an adult collection.
The big lesson, I believe, is that there is only one good reason for writing a poem, that you have something of importance to say which is so difficult and complicated that it can be communicated in no other way. To set out to write for say, ten year olds is likely to result in something second rate. How old is 'a child'? Anyway children differ. Our job, both as writers and parents surely, is to help children to explore both their own imaginations, and ours.
Writing anything well is difficult. What John showed us was that writing for children is not a lesser art; that the best children's poetry is just as rewarding for adults, as long as we are prepared to listen, and believe that what is inside children's minds is important. After all, they are human too.
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Allison's poems have appeared in numerous journals as well as in the Times and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. She was the winner of the Poetry and Business Book and Pamphlet Competition in 2006. The poem, ‘Portrait,’ was also highly commended in the Forward Prize 2007. After a career in IT as both Networking Engineer and IT Service Manager, Allison took an MA in Poetry at Royal Holloway, The University of London where she was awarded the PFD Poetry Prize in 2006.
Allison soon demonstrated why she has attracted the attention of the poetry reading public. Acute observations, together with a strong and strenuous use of language, and a bold and confident poetic voice were distinctive features of her readings of poems from her first collection, ‘The Night Trotsky Came to Stay’ [Smith/Doorstep Books 2007]. The wartime experiences of Allison’s parents – both were active participants – powerfully haunt her poems and make for strong abiding images in the reader’s mind. Further subjects included the tender, yet ambiguous, nature of human relationships depicted in the apparently simple activities of parents learning to dance, being taught to swim, and the knitting of an arran sweater. Never far away was the vibrant, but unvarnished life, of the wider community of her Manchester girlhood, particularly the resilience of its women, and their domestic triumphs over adversity, or the day to day tragedies such as drownings in the Ship Canal, all providing strong roots for her poems. In this respect the roots of her work bring to mind the lines of Yeats from ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:
I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Economy of language, precision of observation are never absent, as these lines from ‘Kippers’ demonstrate:
She slits fish, slides guts into the slop bucket splays them wide to news print slaps on salt, drops each fillet into brine.
Other poems stemmed from her own wry observations associated with the painful process of growing up, such as the affecting ‘Boy on the Bus’ which with its powerful recall of adolescent yearning, the reader astutely judged worthy of a reprise as this very enjoyable evening came towards its close:
I never learned your name or saw you, beyond your walk to an empty seat, was never brave enough to look behind or smile, but I felt you all the same.
In many ways, this affecting poems bears the hallmarks of much of Allison’s work – the readiness to face strong feelings head on, a clarity of language and a sure grasp of form. An attractive personality, with an open eagerness to talk about the origins of her poems and to provide a clear commentary on them, Allison McVety is already shining in the contemporary poetic firmament. Further appealing characteristics included a generous tribute to her tutors on the MA course at Holloway College and her respect for those of her contemporaries also making a name for themselves on the poetry scene. More recent poems show her extending her range and that the sources of inspiration remain fresh, vivid and increasingly varied. Further information about Allison, including her reading itinerary, can be found on her website.Back to Top
We were treated to an exciting evening, starting with a poetic performance by Steve, who demonstrated how skilful changes in volume, speed, intonation and the use of pauses can enliven a presentation. Steve exploited to the full the techniques which caused him to be selected as the one poet from 500 applicants for a Milton Keynes show last year. We saw why he was so popular for gigs - a variety of poetry (all his own) was delivered as a whirlwind of internal and external rhyme. Part of the act is his innate charm and self-confidence: he addresses us directly - he is Steve and his poems are Steve. Much of his poetry is social commentary. In the poem No Television he develops his material and ideas to those of us immersed in this medium. I particularly enjoyed the way he invites a friend to come in and watch the radio.
His confidence and verve were infectious for the second part of the evening, when we entertained each other with our choices of Parody, ranging from Milton to Masefield, and Martha Ault's witty 1994 version of an anthem for Charles III which we all sang to the tune of "God Save the Queen".Back to Top
From his chota-pegs and tea plantations, to the wisdom of a winkling Welshman, Martin Cook certainly took members and friends of the TPS on a global, poetic journey, when he entertained us as a visiting speaker on the second Tuesday of March 2008. It was a wide-ranging evening, encompassing much of Martin’s vast working experience, with a poetic repertoire that ranged from Dustcart and Dung Beetle to Frederika, the Prussian Princess. What his work displays ostensibly is an acute sense of observation, blended with a quite touching brand of empathy, and these qualities are further enhanced by his admirable ability in descriptive passages. Interlaced with all this runs a rather impish sense of humour: everything from light whimsy and dry wit, to the bawdy bedroom belly laugh. It was certainly an evening to savour.
The touching notions to his verse were immediately apparent in the very first poem concerning his father’s own sad demise with the bittersweet comment that it was rather, “like standing outside the headmaster’s study,” as a child. Those of us who have, unfortunately, waited at those demon portals were well aware of the mood. And, in a similar vein, anyone who has suffered the loss of a close friend, or has served in the forces, could hardly fail to be moved by Martin’s words of praise for the military colleague he lost in the Troudos Mountains. But there was also a whole string of short, neat poems of touching sympathy in the latter half of his book, “Mackerel Wrappers.” Here, Martin’s poignant style glimmers through a dozen thumbnail sketches of people he had encountered in life in well-crafted lines and beautifully balanced stanzas.
Another aspect of Martin’s work that appeals to me, (and I must add that this is only a personal appraisal) was his love of nature poetry and the artistry involved in his descriptive phraseology. In “Quack,” for example, which is basically a humorous poem; there are some quite captivating lines between the randy bits. “Sedate and stately… on a millpond’s calm…unaware of a shadow… sliding below… in a weed jungle.” Words, it seems to me, almost too good, too poetic, to be included in a comic verse. But my favourite piece in the descriptive genre was, “Tan Y Craig,” which so evocatively reminds me of the tumbledown cottage my grandmother bought when she retired in 1944. The collage of the first five stanzas is so beautifully and economically constructed that it reeks of a damp and decrepit old building. Whilst in the second half of the poem, the change of syntax, pace and tone creates a rewarding air of tranquillity that paints nature at its wholesome best. Phrases like, a “ multitude of mist-shrouded pines…as sun sliced through the land’s pale coverlet…(where) our worries would be blown away,” are most adroitly penned and highly effective.
Another facet of Martin’s work that appealed to me, was the use of humour, sometimes subtle, sometimes crude, but invariably a true comment on life. “George,” for example, the awkward old sod in the nursing home, reminded me so much of my lady-like but outspoken aunt in similar circumstances. There were two further reminders of my own life, firstly, in the whimsical, “My Lost Address Book,” and secondly in the hilarious, “Christmas Letter,” which was so reminiscent of the two round robins I receive each year, though infinitely more humorous. I also thought that, “Dad’s Will,” and, “Suburban Music,” were masterpieces of comic verse, and also of originality, without ever losing the key elements of superior verse. But that was Martin’s evening, and although the venue was as warm as a tea plantation and we needed a chota peg, I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed my poetical Cook’s tour.Back to Top
Susan’s ambitious programme for the evening was to attempt to demonstrate ways in which a musical setting might influence, possibly intensify, our response to a poem.
The room was full and it struck me how much trouble Susan had taken to prepare her material, not only finding suitable settings on disc to play to us, but also photocopying so that with a copy of the text in front of us we might more easily try to identify in detail our responses to each setting.
In her introduction she discussed the sort of aspects of poetry a composer might wish to express in musical terms - for example the mood induced by a musical preamble and the rhythms and sound effects the words and syntax themselves created.
She began with “Under the Greenwood Tree” from ‘As You Like It‘, as set by Korngold. We were able to note how the arpeggios at the opening at once set the magical atmosphere of the Forest of Arden together with the way the setting emphasised the rhythms of the song’s invitation to the reader/listener to ”Come hither, come hither”.
There followed two settings, one by Roger Quilter, and another by Korngold of “Come away, come away Death” from Twelfth Night; each of which managed in very different ways to reflect how the song fitted into the theme of the play to reflect that Orsino’s mind was changeable - “a very opal”.
After this, two Betjeman poems set by Madelaine Dring (afraid I’d never heard of her but they were superb). Following with the text it was easy to see how she had created with laid-back rhythms “The sleepy sounds of the tea-time tide
Too lazy almost to sink and lift Round low peninsulars pink with thrift”. (Very sensuous.)
The second poem “Song of a Nightclub Proprietress” created effectively in music the nightclub atmosphere, pointing the witty detail of smoke, glasses, full ashtrays etc.
Susan concluded the first half of the evening with Britten’s setting of Blake’s “Sick Rose“.For me this setting goes to the many layered heart of the poem, the horn solo creating a universe of ambiguous unease - quite superb. I think this is a perfect example of the way a musical setting can provide in sound a whole added dimension, validating Pater’s often quoted saying that “all art aspires to the condition of music”.
Sadly but inevitably we ran out of time. So in the second half we were happy just to listen to Vaughan Williams’s wonderful settings of Housman poems.
Susan had given us a rich and fascinating evening and we hope that perhaps some time later in the year we can have a follow-up session.Back to Top