This has always been one of my favourite Gary Larsson cartoons, and pretty well describes what I thought poetry readings were like, till I actually started going to them fairly regularly in the last two or three years. I guess I imagined an aura of quiet piety and the scent of Earl Grey, punctuated by thoughtful Mmms and occasional hesitant polite applause. It’s been nice to be disabused. So this week’s cobweb’s about readings and readers, and prompted by the fact that on Friday next I’ll be off to Camden for the launch of my chapbook, ‘Larach’ [WardWood Publishing]. I’ll tell you all about it next Sunday, or maybe the week after, because next Sunday I’ll be off to Whitby for the Poetry Business residential, and the company of 17 other hardworking writers, and the inspirational Sansoms.
Right now, I’m going to reflect on two readings last week, and what makes a reading special. I wrote in an earlier post that the first time I ever went to a reading it was nearly 30 years ago, and it was Tony Harrison. What I found utterly compelling then was not only the poetry, but the reader, the focussed intensity of Harrison’s delivery, the unwaveringness of it. That and the tension between the sometimes esoteric range of reference and the inflections of a Leeds accent that came through the overlays of grammar school and university. There’s always a sense of controlled danger in Tony Harrison’s voice, I think. It’s never tentative. It’s partly why I found ‘The nuptial torches‘ so terrifying, and why the tenderness is so powerful, the desperate pity for Isabella, who prays ‘ O let the King be gentle and not loom/like Torquemada in the torture room’, gripped as she is, this young girl, by the horror of the auto da fe, of the burnings.
Utterly different was the second reading I went to. This was an accident. A wet night in Stratford in the 70s, mooching about with my colleague Tom Baker a couple of days into a residential course for our BEd English students, and wondering what to do with ourselves. Which is why we came to be reading a notice board outside the Shakespeare Institute, and finding a handwritten note that said Seamus Heaney would be reading in about twenty minutes time, in the upstairs room of a pub in the next street, and that we would be let in for a charge of 25p. So we went. I remember that he had a fiddler with him and that they read and played alternately. I remember that I bought Heaney a pint of Guiness. But most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.
It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.
Which brings me, circuitously, to (un)discovered gem Number 6: Tom Cleary. The first time I heard him at an open mic I was riveted. That voice. The quiet unassertiveness. The rhythm. The Heaney thing. The Jim Caruth thing. I was too entranced by the rhythm to properly take on the poems, although there were clear strong resonant images in there, and a strong feel of the narrative of a natural storyteller. The next time, another open mic, the phrases and their authority, started to stick, especially the opening lines. Like these:
‘Matty lived for a whole year
in a hardwood and glass shed on the lawn’
‘She had her eighth baby, little Jude,
when all the students had gone home for Christmas’
‘Her first husband fell into a machine at work.
She missed the touch of his rough hands’
Now listen to those lines in a soft Irish voice, and imagine the merest hint of a rising inflection on the last words of the lines, and you’ll get the idea. So understand my pleasure, after performing woefully through a headcold and a bronchial cough at Poetry by Heart in Leeds (which deseves much better…it’s a lovely venue), I drove up to Hebden Bridge the next night to listen to Tom read, along with the absurdly talented Gaia Holmes, at the launch of his debut collection ‘The third Miss Keane’. You can find all about it and its publishers, Happenstance, at the end of this post. But before that, I’ll tell you a bit about Tom, and then leave you with one of the poems from the collection. He gave me carte blanche to choose. I hope he thinks I chose well.
Born in Co. Tipperary, he did a degree in English and Irish at University College, Dublin. He taught English for 30 years, in London, in Manchester, in Leeds. After he took early retirement, he did a degree in Spanish and Russian at Bradford, and then lived for three years in Spain, teaching English. Now he lives in Hebden Bridge where a canal and a river and a railwayline are squeezed into a narrow steep-sided valley, along with an unseemly number of poets. Like me, he started to write seriously when he was around 70, and got a leg-up when he won the Writers Forum/Happenstance Competition in 2011. And here’s the poem I chose. I’ll let it speak for itself.
I saw her first at the bridge where we went
for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.
They all wanted her but she chose me.
Come with me for the goose, she said.
Her father’s face was swollen with burst veins,
his nose a welk. He winked at me
over the whisky glass. He squeezed my hand.
His mother raked out grates and swept floors, he said.
She shouted at him to get out. He wrinkled his nose,
tipped his head to one side, and sidled off.
His mother lay all day on a chaise longue.
She wore a black patch on one eye, and offered me
a hand like twigs to kiss. Her sister squinted at me
round the door. Get in here, Sis.
Don’t think I can’t see you. A fall and a tumble
and footsteps rushing upstairs. Her brother scowled,
his oily hair swept back.
Here in our house she leads me blindfold
through ravines of corridors, and hollow caverns of rooms.
I stumble on footstools. Wardrobes embrace me
like portly dancing partners. In my room,
the apple brushes my lips, caresses my gums
but eludes my teeth. I sit on the iron bedstead
while she strokes my hair. I hear the key turn in the lock.
Don’t forget for a moment to listen to how that has to sound, that rhythm I tried to describe. Tell it to yourself, as you realise you may have thought you were into a straightforward narrative of rural Ireland and then find yourself morphed into a folk or fairy tale; something odd, sinister. That’s what Tom Cleary does. It sounds as it sounds, but nothing will be as it seems.
You’ll be wanting to know more,and I hope, wanting to buy the book. Here’s the link you need.
Tomorrow I’m off to the Puzzle Hall Poets to listen to Steve Ely, and to compere the open mic. I may see you next week. I’ll certainly see you the week after. Thank you for being here. Don’t forget to put the chairs straight.