Spoken Music: Ledbury 2013

My wife and I have just returned from two days at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. We impulse-attended an enjoyable workshop by Jane Routh and Mike Barlow on short poems, ate delicious local beef and went ambling in the Malvern Hills in unsuitable footwear. But all of this was incidental to our reason for going: the opportunity to hear Owen Sheers and Deryn Rees-Jones read aloud.

For me, poetry is made from sound. Everything else – the way it looks on the page, the imagery, the content – is secondary (not unimportant, but secondary). The poems I love are essentially spoken music. Some of them are quiet, trembling pieces and others need the whole orchestra, but all use the interplay of vowels and consonants to make musical patterns. Conversely I have no time for poetry that ignores sound-play or makes a hash of it, however original its imagery and however laden with prizes.

The Welsh half of my brain can be guilty of seeing this as an exclusively Celtic obsession, so the English half pre-empted by revisiting Basil Bunting’s “The Poet’s Point of View” on the train to Ledbury. This short essay is one of the clearest and most persuasive arguments for poetry as a heard art, and if you don’t know it then it’s well worth hunting down (Bloodaxe reprinted it along with lots of other good stuff – and a wonderful CD/DVD – in their 2009 edition of Briggflatts). Here is one of several extracts that ought to be compulsory on every creative writing course in the land (and every publisher’s submission guidelines):

Poetry is seeking to make not meaning, but beauty; or if you insist on misusing words, its “meaning” is of anther kind, and lies in the relation to one another of lines and patterns of sound, perhaps harmonious, perhaps contrasting and clashing, which the hearer feels rather than understands, lines of sound drawn in the air which stir deep emotions which have not even a name in prose.

Perhaps this is why the experience of hearing the real thing read properly is more visceral than cerebral. You feel things you can’t name and have no idea why you’re feeling; you feel them physically in your pulse and your breathing and the flush of your blood.

Owen Sheers was reading in the Community Hall. This is slightly off the main drag and by-eye seats a couple of hundred. Poetry festivals take place in borrowed spaces, in this case one that might otherwise be commandeered for a school play or fundraising jumble sale. A blu-tacked sign above the door prohibits stiletto heels; there’s a permanent hum of air conditioning or overhead lighting; the chairs squeak on the floor. In short, it’s perfect.

Sheers had chosen a varied selection of mid-length extracts from Pink Mist that gave a good sense of the poem’s – and his – dramatic range. He’s a natural. Within a couple of minutes I was tapping out a beat with one finger and starting to sway unconsciously in my chair. Peripherally I could see one or two others doing something similar around the room. The rest were just listening. There were several minibus-loads of schoolchildren in the audience but no one fidgeted.

There’s a significant and vocal subset of the poetry world who downplay things like rhythm and line-breaks; who insist on reading (and writing) poetry as if it were prose. The argument I hear most often is that giving any emphasis to lineation or sound-play is “affected” or “unnatural” (allowing no middle-ground between the chanting excesses of Yeats’s radio broadcasts and an Alan Bennett monologue). As a kindness, these people should be taken to an Owen Sheers reading to hear how rhythm and pulse and vowel-music can make a poem come alive and an audience hold their collective breath. It was no accident that they sold out of copies of Pink Mist well before the signing queue had died down. In the Q&A I asked if he composed his poems aloud; I suspect no one in the audience was surprised that he answered with an unequivocal yes.

Deryn Rees-Jones read in the Burgage Hall, a more intimate 60-seater venue next to the church with its calming graveyard. She was reading alongside Lawrence Sail, who read well (and his translation of a short Goethe poem was particularly good, preceded by a reading of the original German that moved even those of us who can’t speak a word of the language).

Rees-Jones read a couple of older poems then focused on her most recent collection. I’ve enthused previously about Burying the Wren, and every time I go back to it I fall more thoroughly under its spell. Rees-Jones read with an unaffected but powerful rhythm that fitted the poems perfectly. On the page, the Elisabeth So sequence has a strange and beautiful sense of distance, almost as if translated from a non-existent original – held at one remove not just by the assumed persona but by the hard-won restraint of its own language. This comes across even more strongly when read aloud: the poems not only confront but dramatize the struggle to say what cannot be said.

Before launching into the remarkable “Dogwoman” sequence, Rees-Jones apologized that it was “a bit long and a bit relentless”. Some of the audience seemed a bit uncomfortable with what followed, and if your idea of poetry is something safe and anecdotal with the occasional clever simile then no disclaimer is going to help you like this sequence. But the rest of us were floored by it. My wife and I weren’t the only ones with wet eyes and white faces by the end: it was (in every sense of the word) stunning. This was poetry as incantation, as primal magic, as spoken music and summoning spell. As we walked out into the sunshine we passed one of the festival organizers sat on a wall. He apologized for needing a moment, and we didn’t need to ask why.

On our way home I thought not just of Bunting’s essay but of Coleridge’s Wedding Guest, whose reaction I now understood rather better than I had an hour earlier.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Sadder, wiser, but also glad for having experienced something truly special.

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