How nice to hear poetry that isn't 'churchy'

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The Independent Online

Why is it that almost all poets sound as if they were trained in the same read-a-poem school?

Why is it that almost all poets sound as if they were trained in the same read-a-poem school?

I can't help feeling that there is something about poetry which draws all readers of poetry, all reciters of poetry, all performers of poetry, all Big-Poetry-Issue street sellers of poetry, towards roughly the same sort of voice. The poetry voice.

The poetry voice? It's sing-songy without being musical. It's incantatory without being hypnotic. It's slow, it's monotone, it's somewhat self-important and it's always slightly reverential. It's not unlike the voice of a clergyman who is doing the daily service on Radio 4 and wants to sound a bit like God without actually giving himself airs.

I probably would not be expressing these thoughts on the churchy nature of the poetry voice if I had not found myself the other day listening to Andrew Motion. The Poet Laureate is presenting a series on Radio 4 in which he is grandly surveying British poetry, past and present.

Every time I hear him reading poetry, the thing that hits me is not whether the poetry is good or bad but how ecclesiastical his voice tends to be. Not in a grand cathedral manner, more in a plain, parish church, small-but-brave-congregation sense. So I was not entirely surprised when the first person he introduced on his first programme as a witness to poetry was Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams? Expert on poetry? Not the first obvious choice. Nor the tenth. But as two churchmen they sounded a good double act.

(This was reinforced in the second programme when Motion said that, after considering "borders" in the first outing, he "would like to think about 'heartlands' in this programme". That is such a parish clergyman kind of thing to say. A broadcaster always says he would like to "talk" about something. A clergyman says he would like to "think" about something. "This week I would like us to think about free will and choice." ...)

What keeps me cheerful is that I have also recently heard poetry on Radio 4 which was not in the least churchy, mostly because it was read in voices rooted in a region. Ian Macmillan recently presented an edition of With Great Pleasure in which his own Barnsley voice was well to the fore, but the outstanding feature of which was a slow reading of "Ilkley Moor" by a Yorkshire chap whose name I didn't catch. I have always known "Ilkley Moor" as a jolly chorus number, so to hear it rendered as a slow, dark, very grim Yorkshire poem was wonderfully chilling.

Even more cheering was hearing John Hegley doing a special Valentine's Day programme, Love Cuts. I'd forgotten how good he was. Yes, he writes terse bits of verse, funny and pointful, singing the tiny glories of Luton and small town life. Yes, he modestly mixes in music skilfully with the result - his own mandolin, Karen Street's accordion. Yes, he has all the confidence of a poet/comedian/musician who has won over all sorts of crowds.

What I most like about him is he has worked out his own way of saying poetry. It is totally anti-Motion, anti-establishment. It stresses words almost childishly. His voice bounces along his sentences like a ball in a pin-ball machine, rebounding off key adjectives and recurrent motifs with a wink and a nod and flashing lights... John Hegley has reinvented the wheel, where poetry is concerned. He has come to it with a fresh mind which ignores everything Keats, Shelley and Browning ever did and starts all over again, and I spent all of my school years doing Keats and Shelley and Browning, and I haven't read any of them for 20 years, but I have listened to John Hegley, and with great pleasure.

It makes a girl think.

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