Talking Books: Priestly enunciations versus bardic apocalypse

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The Independent Culture
Poetry Quartets 1, 2 & 3

Bloodaxe pounds 11.75 each

Do you prefer your poems on the page, where the eye must interpret for the ear, or read out loud, coming at you like music or conversation, with the chance to zero in on the personality revealed in a tone of voice? If the latter, who best to read them, author or actor? Some people prefer Alec Guinness's coffee-and-cream version of Four Quartets to Eliot's own priestly enunciation, or Robert Burton's Under Milk Wood to Dylan whipping up the four horsemen of the apocalypse in his best bardic manner.

Actors read well when they let the words and rhythms do the work. But not when they fling themselves at the godhead like Lennie Bernstein let loose on Mahler. Poets themselves are subject to various fashions and traditions, from the chanting, incantatory style of Tennyson, Yeats and Pound to the throwaway of Michael Hofmann or the pop inflections of John Cooper Clarke. Still, the poet can tell you things no one else can, both in the delivery of the poems and in the chat in between, itself a minor art form perfected by Heaney and other veterans of the reading circuit.

Reviving Peter Orr's classic LP series of the 1960s, The Poet Speaks, Bloodaxe, in partnership with the British Council and aided by some Lottery money, has had the good idea of issuing a set of tapes of some leading contemporary poets. Each box comes with two cassettes and four poets reading for a half hour each. Poetry Quartets 1 features the ubiquitous Simon Armitage (recently appointed to be the voice of the Millennium Dome), Kathleen Jamie, who oscillates between "Wee Wifey" and "The Queen of Sheba", Jackie Kay, who has an engaging line in anecdotal autobiography, and Glyn Maxwell, who once dubbed himself the Shakespeare of Welwyn Garden City.

All are still in their 30s with growing reputations and a wide range of styles. They throw in little intros and asides which help you find your way about among their themes and preoccupations: Armitage's star-gazing as "a night-time form of day-dreaming", for example, or Jamie's "massive breakthrough" when she wrote in Scots, though why she should ever have thought Scots "wasn't a proper language for poetry", given its distinguished history, I can't imagine. The subtext here is obviously political: down with Westminster, and down with the oppressive hegemony of that wicked Keats.

Box 2 has Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Selima Hill and Carol Rumens: the cool, the streetwise, the surreal and the politically concerned. Hill is touchingly confessional about her big theme, "what it's like to be a woman", learning how to "write with my body and my heart" and to hell with male editors, putting on a "hysterical or silly voice" when she wants to, writing in sequences "very fast and flat out ... partly because I brought up five children and never had time, partly to keep ahead of the critical voice," ie the censor in the head. Sometimes she sounds like a punk Stevie Smith, or Munch's Scream drawn out with lengthy and improbable similes. The danger is whimsy, the delight a wild despairing humour and piercing accuracy about the comi-tragedy of sex and love. Adcock, by contrast, is tersely understated, kicking off with her wonderful short poem "Things" and taking in all sorts of other disasters along the way.

After the female quartet comes a male one in Box 3, James Fenton, Tony Harrison, Peter Reading and Ken Smith. All avoid old-style declamation, Fenton reading in a low, intimate voice as though to a friend late at night, Harrison punching out sonnets from "The School of Eloquence", Smith launching himself at whole paragraphs and topographies as he lopes into the rhythms of "Fox Running" - Allen Ginsberg meets Dylan Thomas in the "milk-bottle dawn". It's fun trying to work out Smith's accent, an unplaceable mixture of west-country, Irish, and mid-Atlantic. Peter Reading tells us about the "continuous threads" that run through his books, each one "meant to work like a novel". His last words on the tape tell us that "Nature poems, all poems, [are] inadequate", but that doesn't stop him taking a leaf out of Beckett's book and talking on to infinity, come rain or rain.

Carol Rumens says she wants to "subvert" male genres and expectations, and several other of these women poets express feelings of exclusion. Virginia Woolf went so far as to say that grammar itself was a male conspiracy, or at least had been appropriated by men. Good point or special pleading? Listen to this round dozen of enjoyable voices and judge for yourselves.

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