Arts: Reading between some very fine lines

Three poets, with three very different styles, together add up to a night of warm lyrical excellence.
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THERE ARE few things more unnerving for a poet than preparing for the moment to begin. Tom Paulin, he of the wild and unnerving stare, looks like some small, shocked animal caught in the headlights as he sits in his chair, nursing his script, listening to the presenter listing his manifold and glorious achievements as poet and critic.

His knees are squeezed tight together, his fingers steepled. When she's finished, he bounds to the lectern, and out it comes pouring - a great spool of a poem made up of bits and pieces of his life and his reading, mixing up Kipling, Marvell, nursery rhyme and snatches of obscure family business. His voice is a weird instrument, high and yelping like a dog's, frisky, nervy, questioning. Even when it's not asking a question, it sounds locked into the interrogative mode. When the reading's over, he leaves the stage as if released from a cannon.

How different he is in self-presentation from Paul Muldoon! Muldoon's new book of poems is stuffed into his pocket, not too precious an artefact after all, merely the thing that will enable him to do the business. There is a natural, unforced comedy about his presence. In fact, he's a near perfect visual counterpart of his own playfully learned poetry. Tonight he's tricked out in black shoes and a desperately sober grey lounge suit At least grave enough for a funeral, but it looks like a jokey comment upon that fact. The trousers, just a mite too long, fall in deep corrugations; the trumpeting tie hangs long - two inches below his trouser belt. His hair, though short enough, looks as though it has outwitted a comb or two in its time.

But it's the voice, and the movements of the face and the body, that are irresistible. He is forever shuffling with his legs, stepping back, stepping forward, as if files of ants are proceeding up and down them somewhere inside, and, being in performance at a major arts venue, there's not a thing he can do about it other than, well, quietly fidget along like this for ever.

The voice is pleasingly warm and conversational, with the lovely natural pacings and cadencings of the well practised yarn-spinner. He opens with a poem called Symposium, warning us all not to take it too solemnly.

It's an odd sort of a concoction: bits and pieces of proverbial utterance, English and American, rammed up against one another, containing such lines as, "Rome wasn't built between two stools". Definitely at the wackier end of this book's spectrum.

After some lines, he jumps back, as if he's just ignited a small textual firework, quite unwittingly. And then he stares at us, boyishly bemused, as if to say: "You may think you're in the midst of a maze. Take pity on me. I am the maze."

And, when the reading's over, Muldoon presses his hand to his much loved stomach, gives the semblance of an odd little half bow, stuffs book back into pocket, and briskly goes back to the unfettered freedoms at the front row.

And, reading between these two Irish poets on the closing evening, is Olga Sedakova: all turbulence, all intellectual itchiness, every notion of poetry as artful verbal play, falls away. Sedakova is dressed all in white, smooth-featured, tranquil, a mite bashful, entirely inscrutable. As she's being introduced with the usual enthusiastic hyperboles, she gnaws at her nail end and contemplates the ceiling.

Two of the poems are elegies to dead Russian poets, and the translations, with Carol Rumens reading rather laboriously, are of variable quality. When Sedakova takes over, she tilts her head up just a little as if to offer it on a platter, and recites them from memory.

She seems not so much to speak as to breathe out the words. Poetry as the soul's breath.