Accounts of Evenings Oct 06-Nov 07


rik wilkIt was a privilege to have a whole evening of Rik reading and talking about his poems. It reminds me of years ago when as treasurer of TPS we knew him as Eric!

As he reads Rik tends to make each word live in the way an actor seems actually to become the character he is playing. (Was it called ‘Method’ acting?) Anyway he cast such a spell that though I tried to make notes I found myself too involved to succeed beyond writing down some of the titles. We should put more pressure on him to put a collection together so that we may see as well as listen.

His poem ‘The Old Address Book‘, printed on the back of the TPS newsletter gives some idea of words on the page. Its opening stanza shows how an extended metaphor leads the reader/listener into what follows - the deeply felt personal experience of the poet. For those who haven’t got it by them I quote that first stanza.

“Each slow turn of the curling page is a wave
breaking on a beach - and there on the scuffed
and scribbled foam are decades of old friends
and people I never met or hardly knew.
I acknowledge them with a smile.

This opening, as in many of the poems he read, is a way into a personal experience, developed and presented as if in a conversation with the imagined (or actual) reader/listener. Here, as the ‘curling page’ turns into the ‘wave’ the words ‘scuffed and scribbled’ apply equally to both ‘wave’ and Old Address Book; while ‘foam’ suggests the detritus of past years;and then the poet introduces himself . Rik’s conversational style may well include chatty asides before moving on into deeper realms. I feel the line from his teasingly entertaining poem ‘Uphill Cycling’ is relevant to much of his poetry - “ I jest but I’m in earnest”.

Rik is tremendously versatile. Among more obviously serious - if that’s the right word - poems he gave us is the joyously funny ‘Boys will be Boys’ (read in a broad Yorkshire accent) which, while being an account of childish and often painful or dangerous escapades, makes a serious comment on the tendency of today’s nanny state to make children always play safe. Then he gave us the hilarious ‘Requiem Rap’ beating time with his hands and reading in a sort of sprecht gesang. His mother whose funeral it was, would surely approve the wit - what are wakes for if not to celebrate life? There are always layers of possibility to be found in Rik's poems as for example in the requested poem ‘Catastrophe’ which may include the joke reference to the ‘Cat...’ in the title as the poem ends, though we had been led to other possible interpretations! Rik jests but he’s in earnest.

I do hope that a collection won’t be long in coming. I very much wish I had a copy of one of the last poems he read - ‘Standing Stone’; there’s so much in it. We should have asked Rik to read it again - possibly to read them all again!

Peter Stileman

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guy russOur venue was packed to overflowing to hear Guy read so we knew we were in for a good evening. The language of Guy’s poems is largely colloquial. He doesn’t go in for over-dramatization but in a laidback way lets the wit of his perceptions emerge. I loved the ‘Call Centre’ poem where the supervisor’s instruction to the operator to ‘put a smile in your voice’ is so often repeated that it becomes extremely ironic, until, in an unexpected change of register, the operator tells the supervisor to ‘stuff himself up the socket’ - such an appropriate conclusion. And then in ‘Everyday America’ he writes of a guy who is the son of Nasa’s top computer security expert; and then for a bet

‘to get some headway with this girl he like enters
a virus in the system which he figures he can like
neutralise? but it has this major error which like
he hadn’t checked and the thing’s like multiplying’.

You can just picture the chap ‘like’ speaking! As the poem proceeds you can imagine him as Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove since the scene then goes haywire into a possibly nuclear nightmare as it is developed. Incidentally this poem was published in The Interpreter’s House some time ago, as was the ‘Night of the Unread’ (below) and makes me hope Guy will get a collection together.

It is great to hear him read but it is an added bonus to see the poems on the page. In the ‘Night of the Unread’ Guy mentioned the influence of his reading of Alexander Pope. You get taut rhyming couplets:

‘The Heavens crash, the full moon hides its face,
The winds lash and the lightnings’ forks embrace,

And in the graveyard mosses start to writhe
As things which have been but are not alive . . .’

So he can do the high style too, although, like Pope in the Dunciad he also descends in this poem to hit bad writing at cloacal level – rhyming ‘Commercial Pap’ with ‘Pure Crap’; indeed each rhyme scores a hit. Great fun.

I much enjoyed the poem with the long title ‘Trying to read Poetry Review to my Girlfriend in Bed’. You can relish the scene - he reads and then finds ‘she’s already asleep’. Altogether different was the register in ‘Patience’ where he wrote sensitively about relationship with his grandmother.

Luckily we managed to give plenty of time after the interval for discussion. Guy has a degree in classics and the classical influence showed in his frequent revising (he told us) of what he has written. I fortunately have both the copy of his poem mentioned above – ‘Night of the Unread’ - and also the version which is in the Interpreter’s House (June 1997). It interests me to see how much the later version has improved on the earlier one which begins:

‘Lightning scrawls, and Rain reprints the Graves
While Storms distribute. Could any Mortal brave

The Horror of this Night, to see these Plots
Beyond the River, where Things best forgot. . .’

Good; but compare this with the opening quoted above. So much more power and immediacy in the later version. Guy said that at the moment he is writing prose rather than poetry since he spends much time reviewing for ‘Tears in the Fence’ magazine; also he said that he had had a number of stories published in various magazines. The discussion gave us a glimpse of Guy’s extensive knowledge of literature and we admired his articulacy in answering questions. Indeed , it was so interesting we could have gone on well beyond the time allowed. A great evening.

Peter Stileman

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The society was treated once again to an evening of contrasting poetic styles.

suzanneSuzanne whose poems have won prizes and commendations in competitions, draws very much from detailed personal experience in which the detail becomes incrementally significant as she works it in from her starting point.

She began with an amusing catalogue of her disapproval of the sort of person likely to be a “Susan” - over prim, over neat, not at all the sort of person to write real poetry. We noted the spelling of "her" own name - “Suzanne”! One of the striking features of her writing is the way she is prepared to divulge intimate personal experience. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in her description of her response to the discovery that she had breast cancer. She gave an honest, factual account of the ordeal that ensued, immensely moving because so un-self-pitying.

Much of her writing is monologue, very effective in its use of lively narrative techniques as shown in the superb poem “Talk to a Hat”. This hat was a spectacular rainbow of wool covering the ears, which made her the talking point for all viewers. She put it on to prove the point. Happily for us she finished with the imaginative, inventive and altogether joyous poem “Red Boots”.

alan mAlan’s poetry is very different although also personal in the way he draws on his ‘pre-poetry’ life as a philosopher. As he reads he seems to be actually thinking aloud as if he is discovering the poem as he speaks, much in the way Glen Gould plays Bach - totally absorbing for the listener. His poetry is thus apparently a form of structured meditation in which the structure is very evident with detail highlighted in memorable phrases as in “The Darwin Museum” where paradoxically Darwin “discovered in death the secrets of life”. Later in this poem Alan describes how, in a flash of lightning “the lid of the world lifted, then quietly closed”. A wonderful descriptive talent here.

There is much sensitive appeal and sympathy for others in the detail of his writing as shown in the poem “Eden” where he itemizes the strategies needed by patients to communicate after a stroke and gives the moving description of the sufferer’s “slow iambic shuffle to the door”.

Possibly I responded most to the philosopher’s recognition of the problems of personality, the poem “Soon” looking at the dichotomy within selfhood – who am I?; who is the other me?; and to the power of his imagery as in “Depression” where the depressed finds “the day roaring up to meet me” and “my black sun rising”. This takes one right into the situation.

Discussion after the readings had to be brief as the hour of eviction approached but we had had a rich evening with much stimulation from both poets.

Peter Stileman

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john grJohn Greening kept members of TPS completely absorbed with his expressive reading of a wide range of stimulating poems. His assured sense of rhythm and subtle use of rhyme and half rhyme give his work a musical quality which make it a pleasure to listen to.

We enjoyed the variety of forms he uses including the challenging sestina. In ‘The Treasures of Tutankhamun’ the six words which end the lines in stanza one are used in the same way but in a different order in all six verses. John cleverly dovetails ‘a teenage Pharaoh’s history with his own ‘coming-of-age exhibition’ as he waits for the results of his university applications. This is typical of the way in which he fuses present and past time and explores unexpected associations, sustaining imaginatively conceived metaphors.

We enjoyed the wit of ‘Horse Chestnut’ with ‘Grandfathers who have spiky outsides’ but ‘can be fun’ like conkers – ‘proud fivers on shoelaces’. Another old man who comes vividly to life is a Nubian John Greening knew when he lived in Egypt. This poem, like many others, contains sadness and regret. Shukri of the ‘devilish wink’ insists that every guest eats a dried date as a ‘commemorative act’. No dates can be grown in Nubis since the building of the High Dam.

John has an exact ear and eye for telling details and often uses what he has read as a springboard for poems, including facts which anchor the work to reality while his imagination takes flight and he attempts to penetrate the heart of the mystery.

He obviously loves the natural world and in his wing-shaped ‘Summer Wings’ writes of ‘supersonic’ swallows and of butterflies seeking their ‘buddleia grail’. In ‘Listening for Nightingales’ he hopes to hear ‘the pure original song’ and ‘fly by nightingale’ as Keats did in an age in many ways less ‘dark’ than our own – an age when, as in ‘Night Calls’, ‘motorway madness strikes’ and the shrieks of owls ‘are the new-born dead taking to the darkness’.

Thoughts of death link with John Greening’s preoccupation with war.He writes movingly of his father’s Second World War experiences in Iceland,of his mother’s memories of ‘nights the sky fell in’ and of Myra Hess’s piano recitals in the National Gallery.

Loving music, he writes of Holst, of Elgar, and of the ‘Death in Aldeburgh’ of Benjamin Britten in a poem full of the sound of the sea linked with the ‘creative spring tide’ of Britten’s music.

Wide-ranging, sensitive and always thought-provoking, John Greening’s poems gave us an evening to remember.

Ann Biddle

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siriolSiriol Troup gave us a bravura reading showing the remarkable range of her poetic output. She began with an early poem "Botanic" which won her, as a prize, a weekend in Italy. The poem showed us straight away her ability to use startling metaphor. In this poem flowers - how truly observant and how rarely remarked - give us "truth in precision"; also, equally true and stimulating, from the mouths of horticulturalists comes "the sly rustle of Latin". Just perfect! She also showed her delicious sense of fun in the poem "Ivory Tower" where she has tea with the Bishop's wife who "all fluff and Godliness", patronises Siriol who concludes the poem with this Biblical parody:: "her cup runneth over - her cup, not mine, was full".

Siriol creates atmosphere so effectively. When she read the sonnet "Wind" we too felt the tearing power of the air with

    "bulrushes buckling like sinners, 
     gulls ticker-taping the plough"
    "hedge-rows cock-a-hoop with shrieks".

In this sonnet ( as in "Ear-piercing" - another moving sonnet ) Siriol compresses the experience using the sonnet form in her own way: octave obediently followed by sestet, using the rhythm of a five stress line with a conversational tone and placing the emphasis exactly where she wants it to be, using assonance and repetition to subtle effect.

One could write extensively analyzing the prosodic complexity of her poetry, but I choose now to select just a few of the poems she read for us. For example the brilliantly entertaining "Three-Toed Sloth", an "evolutionary slug-abed" a "foraging folivore", the "dreamer idling in zoology's slow lane".How stimulating to coin the word "folivore" for 'eater of foliage'! Next I pick her eulogy on "Broccoli . . . the perfect vegetable" which contains every positive you can think of; which "Gainsborough found an inspiration"; whose appearance is "a self-repeating shower of Bonsai trees". Absolutely spot on; no wonder she feeds her family broccoli.

After the interval Siriol most generously gave each of us a printed sheet of recent poems to look at as she read. These gave us an inkling of how much research lies behind the poetry. Included were 3 poems on elephants transported to Rome (astonishing in itself) to be slaughtered along with other wild beasts in the Coliseum. Also a fully researched sequence on "Hirohito's Horse" - 5 poems in appropriately stylized Haiku- Tanka like rhythms. So versatile - such variety! She is a fine poet and entertained us nobly.

Peter Stileman

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A Poet for all Seasons

peters As anyone who knows our esteemed chairman might expect, this was an evening of marvellous entertainment and stimulation. Peter began with an explanation of how his poems are inspired. There is a moment of perception and an attendant excitement which demands expression. A sense of fun is also important in much of his work. His poems’ themes show the profound influences of his love of his family, life, art and the countryside.

The poems he selected for us ranged from the gentle fun of “Will you step into my Humber” to the merciless wit of “Proud of Herself” and the hilarious“Names”; from the beautiful observation of “Sweetness and Power”, “The Coronal” and “Hokusai - Waterfall”, to the social comment of “Catalogues” and the more intimate experiences of “Haircut” and “Behind the Summerhouse”. Throughout the programme, we were treated to shining images. To catch just a few of these: in Peter’s universe there are “cricketball planets”; modern harvesting machines

              "....... dropping
               rounds of straw waste like golden faeces; or

               fat, new minted sovereigns;”

and Gannets which

              “like Concorde jet into the waves”.

If one was in any doubt, the evening would have convinced that here is a poet who is a master of form. Like all the skilled, he makes choosing the best form for a poem sound easy. To paraphrase: The elements of the poem develop a shape inside you; what you create must fit this shape. Even choosing a syllabic form can lead to powerful poetry. Peter’s poem “Conversion” made a telling example which, like so much of his work, reminded me of a quote from Alan Brownjohn. Asked what impression he’d like his poetry to leave on people, Brownjohn replied, “I want it to go down like lemonade but to hit them like vodka.” Our evening was full of lemonade-into-vodka experiences.

As for rhyming forms, Peter commented, he preferred to use para-rhyme or half-rhyme for the “conversational freedom” it allowed. His lovely poem “Haircut” perfectly illustrated that kind of freedom.

If you missed the evening, I’m afraid you won’t catch up on all the poems we heard by studying Peter’s spellbinding collection, My ’Handful of Pleasant Delights’. It doesn’t include many of the poems he read, ably assisted by Anne, Ann and Brian Biddle and John Thynne. Let’s hope he brings out a second volume soon as I crave a copy of the aforementioned “Conversion”; the political piece concerning Matilda, the vegetarian and “Names”, among several others.

The evening brought all the rewards that come from immersion in the voice of an excellent poet. There’s something infectious in the generosity of spirit conveyed by such work. I woke next morning with my mind whizzing with ideas and a greater understanding of the craft of poetry. It was tempting to believe the amusing understatement of Peter’s first poem of the evening. “Travel light, all you need is a pencil.” Also helpful would be a small fraction of his own skill, wit, perceptiveness and love of life.

Martha Ault

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