12 September 2011

Poetry Proms

By Rachel Sloane


Poetry Proms 2011 at Snape Malting Concert Hall.


In her introduction to the Poetry Prom at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Director Naomi Jaffa, said that the three poets that were to perform had been chosen for the quality of their work but also because of their differing styles, voice and subject matter. She added that she also loved the idea of an all-women line-up!


That they were very accomplished, yet very different, poets was certainly true, as the capacity audience was to discover.


First on stage was children’s author, Orange Prize-winning novelist and poet, Helen Dunmore, who said that sometimes people were surprised that, with her other work, she still wrote poetry, and she quoted Philip Larkin, “You don’t give up poetry, it gives you up”. She spoke about her life and put her chosen poems into context: “The Malarkey” conjured up many memories of many family car rides, “stop that malarkey in the back there…..”


She told us of a poem inspired by her husband’s poetry school book, discovered on a bookshelf; with its references to DH Lawrence (“Does anyone know what he’s on about?”)and I also liked the idea, proposed by her poem “To My Nine Year Old Self”, of what we would say to our younger selves if we could meet. Helen Dunmore’s poems touched our hearts and made us smile.


For laugh-out-loud comedy, the second poet, Jackie Kay, was a treat. Also a writer of books and plays, she spoke in a warm Scottish accent, a natural story-teller. She delighted us with her poems and anecdotes about her life growing up a mixed race child with adoptive parents,. The poems occasionally included (as she acknowledged: “You won’t understand but … that’s life!”) phrases and words that we, as non-Scots would find unintelligible. It really didn’t matter as, with a smile as wide as the stage, she spoke to the 800 or so in the audience as though speaking just to us. An excellent mimic, the tales of her search for her birth parents, (her father a born-again Christian in Nigeria and her birth-mother a Mormon), visiting her ancestral village and of the Scottish mother who brought her up, had the audience laughing aloud  – or producing a collective sigh of appreciation. This amused her greatly as she said she expected it to develop into a joint orgasm! The poems she read ranged from “The Returning” (about her young son’s brush with death) to “Maw Broon Goes for Colonic Irrigation”, one of a series of poems about a popular Scottish cartoon character. If anyone thinks poetry is stuffy, pretentious and middle-class they need to hear Jackie Kay perform her work. I plan to buy her books and am very tempted to invite her to tea!


There was a complete change of pace after the interval when the third poet took her turn on stage.  Alice Oswald, who has won many poetry prizes, had a very different style of performing her work. Intense, slower, with pauses to emphasis her points and perfect diction, she recited her poems with barely a glance at the script in front of her. Descriptive and reflective, this was more, what I would call, traditional poetry, rather than the story-telling of the first half of the evening. We heard none of the context of her life and how the poems came to be written, as Alice obviously prefers the lines she writes to speak for themselves. I missed this aspect as I like to know more about the poets themselves. As well as including extracts from poems such as “A Sleepwalk on the Severn”, Alice also premiered part of her latest work, a new book-length poem “Memorial” which tells the stories of the minor characters in Homer’s “Iliad”.  


The Poetry Prom is the second biggest poetry reading in the country and the three poets chosen this year certainly offered something for everyone’s taste. I hope the recordings of the poets will be available soon as podcasts on the Poetry Channel. http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/poetry-channel


(This review also appears onhttp://www.onesuffolk.net/home/previews-and-reviews/reviews)