Poetry. That's what the Poetry Society specialises in. Stanzas and similes – not sniping and scandal. Though you could be forgiven for forgetting that, what with the epic in-fighting, domino tumble of resignations and massacre of trustees that led the Arts Council to withhold its funding from the organisation last week. Anyway, Radio 4 offered a salutary reminder of the society's century-old values this week with the first of its quarterly Poetry Workshops. Presented by Ruth Padel – a figure well versed in controversy following the Oxford Professor of Poetry debacle in 2009 – the programme promised to "go behind the scenes of a poem", visiting regional poetry groups and offering advice to budding writers.
The first workshop came from Exeter's ExCite, one of the Poetry Society's "Stanza" groups, run by volunteer members across the country. And the first poem to be placed under the scrutiny of Padel and fellow visitor, the poet Lawrence Sail, was called "Snipe". No sniggering at the back! This was snipe in the game-bird sense, not in the bitchy-bard sense, and so was in keeping with the workshop's theme of nature poems, or How to be Heaney.
It's a soothing way to spend 30 minutes, listening to poems about the natural world. Alice Oswald's "Bike Ride on a Roman Road" set the standard ("a little random man, with his head in a bad/ controversy of midges,/ flickers away singing Damn Damn") and the ball rolling on the lit crit session. This was quite illuminating, unpicking the sounds, meaning and energy of the piece and rendering it transparent and accessible. Though it also seemed to me that if you talk about a poem for long enough, you can make it mean whatever you like. Perhaps that's the beauty of it.
I enjoyed listening to the members reading their poems out, too. It's rather fun to guess at the low points the group will pick up on, though it's probably less enjoyable for the poor poets who had to sit there while their opening couplets were dismissed, their syntax queried and their language picked over like the defenceless carcass of a snipe amid a pack of ravening pointers (see, even I was inspired). "I felt like it was a little bit like an advert for cough mixture," ventured one member over the use of the word "throat" in the aforementioned "Snipe". "I've struggled with 'throat'", admitted the poet. "But I had 'trachea' to start with and that didn't work at all." Lessons learned all round.
Poetry of a different kind came in Radio 4's The Ice Cream Van Cometh, a lovely paean to the sweetly chiming harbingers of summer in which Jim Carey, a sound designer, set out on a "chime scene investigation" to uncover the vehicle's history . This took in a visit to the world's largest factory in Crewe – "We have one here awaiting collection for Libya," said its managing director Stuart Whitby, "which, with the troubles they've had this year, could be here for some time" – Glasgow's ice cream wars and Margaret Thatcher (who worked at the Lyons factory in the late 1940s).
Along the way, he spoke to Status Quo's Francis Rossi – a former ice cream man – and Johnny Vegas – a longtime ice cream fan. He also, excitingly, interviewed Banksy. It seems that all you need to do to lure the elusive graffiti artist out of hiding is dangle a Mr Whippy. Via a voice-changer that barely concealed his West Country burr, Bansky recalled childhood ices on the beach at Weston-super-Mare and revealed a long-standing love of the vans. "I was probably always attracted to them because they're one of the few vehicles where people are able to draw all over them." The artist went on to make a burnt-out van (with a jangling tune recorded by Carey) the centrepiece of his 2009 show at Bristol Museum. "It's a childhood thing gone wrong. A loss of innocence, the broken shards of a burnt-out husk of Britain," said Banksy, in a Bard of Modern Britain moment. "But still with a soft centre."Reuse content