POETRY PLEASE

"Ledbury - Land of poets" proclaims the inaugural Ledbury Poetry Festival programme. You can forgive a newcomer to the cut-throat world of midsummer festivals pretty much any hubristic marketing ploy, especially when it's devoting itself to an artform that's as old as the hills, and subject to more ageist comments than an Eighties Radio 1 DJ. But this "picturesque and thriving" Herefordshire market town - "land" of poets? The alliteration hints at the justification: for it was on the nearby Malvern hills that William Langland set off on his Middle English epic Piers Ploughman: `In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne'. The sun may be nowhere to be seen during the festival, but there should be plenty to transport you elsewhere. At the very least, coaches, providing visits to the area's poetic haunts: those of Langland, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Dymock poets, as well as the home of Ledbury's Poet Laureate, John Masefield. When you learn that WH Auden taught in the local school and got "married" to Thomas Mann's daughter, Erika, there, you might really start to wonder whether it shouldn't be "Ledbury: leyline of poets".

The backbone of the two-week festival is provided by circuit stalwarts Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Matthew Sweeney and Liz Lochhead, plus lunatic fringe lads John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke (above). The flesh comes in the shape of themed/performance spots. On Fri 4 Jul, for example, George Melly talks about the paintings of his friend, Conroy Maddox, which are accompanied by surrealist scribblings. That evening, there's a spoken word homage to those spirits of the open road, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Whitman and Steinbeck. Talks on unknown Victorian poetesses and one-man portraits of Wilfred Owen and Robert Frost might be steering things too much into the realm of stuffy sensibility, but the organisers promise "populist" events, such as pub limerick competitions, to help people let their Pam Ayres down. Every festival has its share of events that lack even the most moribund marketing imagination. Just be thankful you missed the first one, last month: the launch of kiddies' poems on balloons hosted by former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read. Truly, by the sound of it, a thing of baddenesse. Festival 4-13 Jul; main events Fri 4-6 Jul and Fri 11-13 Jul. Info: 01531 634156.

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