Arts & Books: Poetry, for crying out loud

In forty years of recording and performing, English poets have discovered the power of reading aloud. By Michael Glover
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The Independent Culture
Good ideas, like plants, always have a vigorously cyclical life. Back in the mid-Sixties a man called Peter Orr, head of recorded sound at the British Council (a post that passed away peacefully with his retirement in 1978), produced, in collaboration with the Argo Recording Company, a series of long-playing records of poets reading their own work under the generic title of The Poet Speaks. About 100 poets were recorded, some at their homes to the accompaniment of desultory birdsong, others minding their Ps and Qs in more formal studio surroundings. Poems were read and, between the poems, poetry matters discussed: how the poems came into being; what it meant to be a poet, how much or how little, etc, etc.

These poets, by and large, were the Lambeg Drums of their time: Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice, Stevie Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Betjeman, Robert Graves, WH Auden. I own half of these records, which represents a cull of 42 such names. Forty of them are men.

Now, 30 years on, the British Council, in conjunction with the small- press publisher Bloodaxe Books, has just launched a new, updated version of the same idea, this time on cassette, under the title of The Poetry Quartets. Twelve poets read on the first three cassettes. Half of them are women. Even in the Sixties everyone was aware that women had lives. Now we can rejoice in the knowledge that they have voices, too.

The voicing of poetry was just coming into fashion at the beginning of the Sixties. Now it is commonplace - every night of the week there is a poetry reading in some under- or over-heated arts venue or other. Poets sell their books at readings, often more rapidly than from bookshops. They shamelessly test out new poems on their audiences, probing their strengths and weaknesses, listening out for heartfelt gasps of approval or groans of out-and-out revulsion. Readers, for their part, use public readings as tasting sessions, determining whether a particular poet whets the appetite or not. Did that generally portentous air of gloom and despondency fail, in the end, to appeal?

And poems take on a much fuller human character when read aloud; they are contextualised, humanised, demystified. A tone is established, bringing to earth something that may once have seemed, thanks to too much wilful grammatical subversiveness, to be edging towards pure abstraction. In the words of John Milton, "printed poems are the flat score of the spoken word". That flat score bursts into life with the maker's voice behind it. (If the maker has a good voice, that is.)

But in those bad old, pre-Sixties days of intense, silent reading in that back bedroom behind the gasworks, poems, by and large, spoke to the inner ear. (Where else could they be heard?) And sometimes it seemed almost unimaginable who might have been their authors. Perhaps - such was their subtlety, their awe-inspiring inscrutability - language had written them with no human assistance whatsoever.

Peter Orr, now living in vigorous retirement in Cleveland, reminisced about those times to me this week. "I remember one reading at the Pen Club at the beginning of the Sixties," he told me. "All the poets were sitting around in a kind of semi-circle, not quite sure what to do. One of them was Stevie Smith..."

Much has changed between then and now, not least in the style of reading. Orr finds poets of the present guilty of conformity of style and understatement. Their voices, he says, sound somewhat similar to each other. Perhaps TV is to blame for this standardisation of pronunciation, hastening along the slow, poisonous spread of Estuary English.

There is no equivalent, these days, of the Baroque extravagance of the reading style of a John Heath Stubbs, for example. Rhetorical splendour has all but died away - in both the writing and the reading. The resounding phrases of the past have vanished. Where, he asks, are those great statements that poets used to make, often in the magnificent opening lines of their poems? He then quotes John Donne at me, followed by Hugh MacDiarmid, whom he recorded at Biggar in Lanarkshire in July, 1966: "Are the living so much use/ That we need to mourn the dead?"

Is this true? In part. But we need to ask ourselves why it may be true, and the answer is tangled up with questions about the way in which poets see themselves. Some of the poets of the present, as represented on these new cassettes - Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Glyn Maxwell, Selima Hill - do indeed seem to belong to a more modest crowd than their Sixties counterparts. They speak more casually, more conversationally, even a little more lazily, if you like. They don't tend to raise up poems as if they were objects of splendour that had been crafted with the express intention of dazzling, if not overawing, those who are fortunate enough to be invited into their company. The poets of our time seem to be within our reach, educated up to our own modest standards and no further, living and breathing rather in the way that we live and breathe. All part of the heaving, demotic crowd, doing nothing more lofty than explaining their own lives. The one great exception to this generalisation, paradoxically enough, is that Leeds lad Tony Harrison, who wages his war upon received pronunciation with thundering rhetorical force on the third of these cassettes, thickening and thickening his glottals until the looms of owned language are smashed apart.

But what is it exactly that a poet should be able to bring to his own poem when he voices it? According to TS Eliot, introducing his own reading of The Four Quartets, what a poet can - and should - do is to deliver to the listener the way the poem sounded when he'd finished it. The poet has lived inside his poem in ways that no one else could; words have been fended off, others chosen; suggestions of yet other words lie behind the words finally opted for, like shadows eerily mismatching their objects. In reading, echoes of these words are often heard. Such subtleties come over time and again in a good reading.

But the voicing of poems is not always a good thing, especially if the poet is not a good reader, let alone a good interpreter of his or her own work. Some poets reduce the imaginative scope of the poems they read by the physical limitations of their own voices. Though poems are always written by someone, their reach, if the poem is good, is much greater than the circumstances and the life of their creator.

A good poet who reads a good poem badly limits it to the physical capabilities of one imperfect life on one particular evening - just as a bad film adaptation, seen before a good book is read, can ruin that book for ever.

So the voicing of poems is always fraught with perils and dangers.

The first three `Poetry Quartets' are published by the British Council and Bloodaxe Books; each double-cassette costs pounds 11.75. The poets reading are: Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and Glyn Maxwell; Fleur Adcock, Selima Hill, Carol Rumens and Carol Ann Duffy; and James Fenton, Tony Harrison, Ken Smith and Peter Reading

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