They are poets, and they know it


You can say what you like about poetry. You can extol it as the sublimest art or define it as, say, the best words in the best order; you can use it for comfort, enlightenment or sympathy; you can reject it as irrelevant or pretentious; you can take it or you can leave it. But one thing you can never do is explain precisely why certain arrangements of words, often in themselves very simple, can knock you off balance and resonate down the rest of your life; you may get up again and try to analyse how they did it, but you know you never will. And that, dear reader, is why this column is largely devoted to poetry.

During the last couple of weeks, some of the best English poetry, old and new, has been broadcast. Is it to do with spring? (After all, as Hopkins announced in one of his knock-out first lines, nothing is as beautiful as spring). Whatever the reason, the clocks went forward, the birds switched on their megaphones just before dawn and poetry began pouring into the house.

The radio adds a new ingredient, of courses in the skill (or otherwise) of the reader. In the first edition of Stanza on Stage (R4) last weekend, two of the country's most lauded poets read from their anthology, The School Bag. The Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, did quite well (though he reads his own tremendous poetry much better than he does other people's), but our more local laureate, Ted Hughes, is quite hopeless at reading aloud. He had a go at Wyatt's masterpiece, "They Flee from Me". Alas, it sounds infinitely better in your own head. The Tudor poet remembers the woman stalking into his room, letting the loose gown fall from her shoulders and clasping him in her slender arms. "And therewithal so swetely did mee kisse," Hughes intoned, miserably. "And softly said, Deere heart, how like you this?" Not in the least, I thought.

Last night came the second edition. It was a revelation. Viv Beeby's programme about the decade preceding the death of Raymond Carver, Pure Gravy, was one of the highlights of last year's broadcasting. This time, Beeby returned to Carver's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, and produced a masterly account of her slow progress from the first shock of bereavement into something bordering on acceptance.

Gallagher's voice in conversation is warmer and rounder than when she goes poetic, but she's a lot better at reading than are most poets, and her work shines with a clear-eyed lucidity and unsentimental tenderness. "If the sun could walk into a room," she read, "You could not want such a man as he." As though to prove the point, Kerry Shale read a couple of little poems written for her by Carver himself, with quiet, humorous love. (I don't know whether or not Shale writes poetry, but he's an incomparable performer.) Tess Gallagher's latest collection, Portable Kisses, is on my shopping list.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was born 350 years ago and died a rackety 33 years later. Poetry Please (R4) enjoyed a romp through his writing, but the impression left was still, almost inevitably, smaller than the man himself. David Westhead read the poems not, somehow, quite well enough, and a silly script compared Restoration rakes to Hooray Henrys. Rochester would be scarcely a footnote in history if he hadn't been a sublime poet as well as a libertine. The key to his character comes in a line from "Absent from thee I languish still": too often was he wearied with a world of woe.

Night Waves (R3) marked another, sadder anniversary. It is 10 years since the writer, industrial chemist and holocaust survivor Primo Levi died. This was a thorough and well-researched tribute to him, which included some discussion. Anthony Rudolf, for example, said that Levi was the Ancient Mariner; forever bound to relive the nightmare of Auschwitz "and 'til my ghastly tale is told, the heart within me burns." But Levi could write essays about fleas and poems in celebration of a sycamore. In fact, he seemed to be able to do almost anything: one reason to believe his death might have been an accident is that he was working on a cookery book when he died.

Finally, a couple of extraordinary and disturbing plays, both excellent, that mingled truth and fantasy inextricably. Glowboys (R3) was more like a film, cutting between characters and scenes at breakneck (and occasionally confusing) speed. It was about a dangerous kind of plumber who dares to repair nuclear reactors while they are still running, risking, it transpires, all human life.

Lance Dann, its young author, appeared on The Afternoon Shift (R4) to assert that such people do exist and have a kind of mythic, heroic quality in America. His play - fast, violent, comic and scary - elevated the myth into super-universal grand guignol, in which the exploded Glowboy becomes the exultant source of all matter, all energy, all power. Rohan Kriwaczek's score screamed and pulsed between a motorway and a Geiger counter, as an FBI man chased the Glowboy in an increasingly vicious and hopeless quest.

A subtler violence dominated Wally K Daly's Death of an Important Pope (R4) which suggested that the brief reign of John Paul I was terminated by a CIA conspiracy. It was hard to disentangle fact from fantasy in this clever and alarmingly convincing thriller, but if Vatican politics are really as murky and vicious as Daly suggests, God help us all.

It reminded me of the philosophy of Joe Grundy (sorry about returning to Ambridge, but it's been a great week for Joe, as all Archers fans will know). With his usual consummate pessimism, Joe predicted a doom that did not in fact befall: "It's never so dark," he opined, in the tones of a suffering Job, "that you can't turn down the wick." Pure poetry.

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