“I hope you’re in a cream fondant sort of mood”, said Annie Freud, reflecting on sixty years of the one of the world’s most extensive poetry resources. And we couldn’t fail to be, as the occasion of the Poetry Library’s 60th birthday presented us with a formidable poetic banquet. The night opened with six commissioned poems (“like getting drunk on miniatures”). If I were to extend that simile, I’d have to say that the main event was like getting drunk on flagons, or tankards perhaps. Ten poets were asked to read from a favourite Poetry Library loan, as well as reading one of their own poems – requested by the Poetry Library staff – and a few of their own choices. It was all a very overwhelming, in the nicest possible way. I must confess at this point to being a little bit attention-span challenged, so it is to the organisers credit that a breadth of reading styles, ranging from deadpan to dramatic, mostly prevented fatigue from kicking in.
Daljit Nagra read from his new version of the Ramayana, clearly revelling in the kind of ecstatic, childish language your junior school teacher would have drawn a red line through, grinning as he pronounced each syllable of ‘indestructabilityness’. After cavorting through a series of myths, concentrating on the detail of Jen Hadfield’s poems required a bit refocusing, but they soon revealed themselves as worthy of intense scrutiny. They were all new and unpublished, and I didn’t quite catch the titles, but there was a strong focus on interactions between nature and the human body, and a ‘plinky boat’, (I think), half instrument, half boat. I’m usually cynical about invented language in poems, so I was surprised at myself enjoying two poets in a row who employed it. It did seem to move beyond the old fallback of modifying nouns into verbs and vice versa.
I didn’t know quite what to make of Amjad Nasser’s reading – it was almost as if the literal of the poems was presented by his publisher Margaret, reading in English, whilst the sense came in Amjad’s reading of the original Arabic. Although Margaret did her best to infer the emotion of the poems, the experience still felt strangely compartmentalised to me. Continuing the pleasingly erratic pacing of the night, Fleur Adcock opened with a poem called Future Work, which boasted of her future chess tournament wins and show openings. Charon, built around a desperately bleak pun on the serial killer Harold Shipman, in which he appears as the boatman carrying the elderly across the river Styx to the underworld, is dubious as a political statement, but moving as one person’s expression of fear of a drawn-out death. It was not quite a pleasure, but certainly an important experience to hear her read it.
Peter Finch was in an impish mood, building up to an academic-sounding translation piece, then launching into a series of growling vocalisms that occasionally veered towards sense before pulling away again, and eventually finishing on a single phrase of English, ‘… the lady of the flowers’. Post-refreshment break, Emily Berry dropped through the conviviality of host Ian McMillan much like her ‘perpendicular daughter’ dropped into the world. I’ve heard her reading style described as flat, but personally I admire her commitment to portraying the gothic lyricism of Sweet Arlene (‘thank you, Arlene, for giving us things we did not have before/ like the chance to eat pears while looking out the window/ at a pear tree.’)
I know some of my colleagues were disappointed by Brenda Shaughnessy, and it did occur to me that her reading wasn’t so much of a statement as some of the others that evening – it wasn’t convincingly dark, it wasn’t consistently funny… I was still soothed by the gentle surrealism of the moon as a ‘bad boyfriend in a good band’, and the seemingly rhyme inspired but still empathetic Artless, ‘That loud hub of us/ meat stub of us, beating us/ senseless’. Kei Miller told us a story about 29,000 rubber ducks let loose at sea – I had to google it when I was back home, and it turned out to be true. His introduction played down the poem’s role as a loose metaphor for the middle passage, but the comparison definitely wasn’t flippant; it came across as a creeping awareness of something bubbling under.
Warsan Shire’s reading started out on an odd note, as the poem she was asked to read by the Poetry Library was the three-line long What Your Mother Told You After Your Father Left, and she seemed a little confused by its selection. But it wasn’t long before she was confiding about getting over-emotional on the Northern Line reading Sharon Olds, and blinding us with the one-sided conversational force of Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre). I’m always stunned by her ability to skip between every day and figurative language, starting sentences with, “Well…” and “God…” before telling us that “these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep”.
By the time John Agard took to the stage, I regret that I was feeling so overwhelmed with stories and ideas that I couldn’t be persuaded to join in with the chorus of his Alternative Anthem (‘Put the kettle on / It is the British answer/ to Armageddon’). It was interesting to hear Remember the Ship so soon after Warsan’s poems; Agard’s invitation to view each member of the human race as ‘a ship on two legs’ seemed a calmer way of expressing, ‘Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second…’ Both metaphors felt equally important: a testimony to the cacophony of voices ricocheting between the Poetry Library’s walls.