Bath Writers & Artists Meetup 19th May
Yesterday’s meetup of the Bath Writers & Artists group was outstandingly successful and very well attended considering that we were competing with blissful weather, the FA Cup Final, multiple events in the Bath Festival and the Wedding of the Year.
With the dazzling exception of Claire Dyer’s book launch (more later about this) the meetup was devoted to poetry. The morning workshop focussed on the meaning and uses of form in poetry while the afternoon readings offered a selection of pieces demonstrating how differently master practitioners have employed form in their work.
The morning workshop participants brought in poems of their own, reconfigured word for word and repunctuated appropriately as prose. The task for everyone was to discover the ‘inner’ form which (visually) had been removed by this exercise. This task brought into discussion the huge question whether the form of a poem is from the outset indivisible from the content, or whether form is a vehicle for taking the first idea of a poem into a further, better place. Does form exist organically in each individual poem, or is it gathered in from the tradition, to enrich and augment the work? Is it the poet’s task to discover the form inside the poem it falls to him to write? Or is it his task to fit his first thought into a form which pre-exists? These are not of course ‘either’/‘or’ questions, though it is hard to tease them out without suggesting that they are. The idea of form, perhaps, is like the string on a musical instrument. The poet and the poem must find the place on the string which will produce the note they want to play.
As it happened, our afternoon poets – chosen, eloquently introduced and beautifully read by Frances-Anne King, Shirley Wright, Claire Dyer, Ama Bolton, Harry Thurston, Margaret Heath and Roger Whelan – gave us a wonderful demonstration of the breadth of possible uses of form in poetry. At one end of the spectrum, we heard Elizabeth Bishop’s much liked villanelle, ‘The Art of Losing’, a famous example of extreme formality. Intensely concerned with form, also, are the 150 poems in Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection Drysalter which was strongly presented at the start of the afternoon. It was interesting that the villanelle form could communicate itself so powerfully sight unseen, whereas Roberts’ chosen 15 line ‘constraint’ for Drysalter seemed not to have a strong aural existence, but to be more about appearance on the page. This was something we had encountered in the morning workshop when Louise Green’s ballad form poem refused to surrender its form when converted into prose, while Shirley Wright’s terza rima poem kept the secret of its formality until we saw the original poem on the page.
There is a contemporary interest in poetic form as a desirable discipline, or perhaps as a constraint to free the poet from what he or she might regard as the prison of the self. Michael Symmons Roberts spoke about this at his Holburne Festival Reading later in the day, saying that he did not want to write ‘another Symmons Roberts’ poem’ and hoped that imposing formal constraints might help him to this end.
Conversely, poets sometimes want to subvert traditional forms to show that they are not trapped inside the constraints of history. This might mean rejecting punctuation, something explored by Claire Dyer in her morning workshop speculum poem, and explored very differently, by W.S. Merwin, whose poems Ama Bolton presented in the afternoon.
The morning workshop had considered punctuation as an element of form – the way it works, with line and stanza breaks, to ‘score’ the poem for the reader, and, by showing a reader how the poem should be read, or delivered, to add to the clarity of what the poem has to say. The absence of punctuation – visually so arresting but aurally undetectable – is a powerful formal possibility which a future workshop might explore another day.
The Pass on a Poet contributors gave us a marvellous feast of good poetry and I hope many of the pieces will be reviewed in the comments boxes below. The three poems which remain most vividly with me this morning are Sue Sims’ poem from Hawthornden, George Mackay Brown’s poem about the falcon, and Kei Miller’s ‘Unsung’. Sue’s poem held me because its subject was simple and powerful, its expression was disciplined and direct, it wasted no words, it knew exactly where to end and Sue has mastered the use of the microphone so that she can deliver her writing as it should be heard, giving her poem an apparently effortless journey from the writer to the listener’s heart. I don’t know whether the Holburne Museum hadn’t provided microphones for Michael Symmons Roberts and his interviwer last night, or whether for some reason they had chosen not to use them, but the resulting loss of resonance, range and expressivity throughout that event was quite striking. The poems were entirely audible, at least for me, but swallowed up and flattened out dismally by the space. There is probably a counter-argument that a festival audience likes the sense of privileged eavesdropping on a private conversation, but this is a rather tired formula now and personally I prefer poets to look on themselves as musical performers whose duty is to envelop their listeners in the magic of the sound and meaning produced by their chosen instrument, the human voice. I want to be spellbound (as I was earlier in the week by Ben Okri, and yesterday by Kei Miller) by every syllable. At £10 an hour for the Holburne ticket, that doesn’t seem too much to ask.
To return to the Duncan Room….
Margaret Heath had chosen three pieces by George Mackay Brown. I knew The Hawk already and already loved the fierce trajectory of its taut writing and the rigour of its form. I thought Margaret’s reading conveyed the poem’s formality and economy very well.
None of us will forget the last poem of the Pass on a Poet set. It was Kei Miller’s ‘Unsung’, which we heard, for the first time, read by Kei Miller himself, thanks to a clip I was able to purchase from the internet. There he was, in a still image, above us on the screen while his immaculate voice surrounded us in the room. (If I had been more technically courageous, we could have had a clip of the live reading. I am still floundering a bit with the move from my Mac to the Duncan Room’s PC.) Roger Whelan was then generous enough to give us a live reading of the same piece and to let us share the powerful effect the poem had on him. ‘Unsung’ is a poem calling out to be read – and we were fortunate enough to have a reader knowing how to use the resources of the voice and microphone to deliver what the poet meant to say while also making the piece utterly his own. I hope we will all learn to read to each other as well as Roger Whelan does.
If nothing more had happened in our meetup, it would already have been an outstanding day. But we had four more terrific experiences in store. A truly excellent tea, provided by the Writers & Artists – too generous, as usual, but sumptuous to share. Sue Sims then gave us a rivetting take on her experiences at Hawthornden Castle, speaking with great poise and accomplishment to her specially created slides. Thanks to Sue’s energy and professionalism, we were right there, at Hawthornden. This was a marvellous example of how good it has been for us to make the expensive move to the technically equipped BRLSI. Sue and Paul’s presentation of their son Mark’s memoir was one of the highlights of the March meetup. It was a great treat for us that Sue was willing to offer us another illustrated talk.
Finally, our two star launches, with Claire Dyer not only reading from The Last Day, but taking us on a really fascinating journey through the process of successive drafts and giving us insight into the roles of agent and editor. Claire will be speaking again at the Waterstone’s event on Thursday 24th May in Reading Library – an evening, for anyone within reach of Reading, which should certainly not be missed. We returned to poetry with Shirley Wright’s presentation of her latest collection, Sticks and Stones. Beautifully structured, beautifully paced, these poems manage to be intricate and powerful, formal yet organically alive, and Shirley’s reading, as always, had tremendous power, conviction, variety and grace. I hope some audience members will add reviews of our two launch books in the comments box, or mail me appreciations to augment to this post.
Thank you so much to yesterday’s contributors and to the attentive and sympathetic audience members whose presence made the afternoon so special for us all. Your comments will also be extremely welcome and I will be delighted to add them to this post.
Our next meetup is at the end of July when we will explore the theme of journeys with a particular inclination towards the travels of Odysseus. RWA artist Malcolm Ashman has just become a Friend of the Bath Writers & Artists group and we will open our July session with an introduction to Malcolm’s landscape paintings ( on slide ) and a homage reading from the Bath Poetry Cafe’s own great journey, The Listening Walk, for which Malcolm provided the cover image, so well loved by us all. I have already received a few other fascinating Homeric suggestions, including one from Lesley Saunders, and I am eager to have more. Graphics will be hugely welcome. I think we may already have an exciting offer from Larkhall artist Jude Wisdom, if her forthcoming exhibition at Chapel Arts leaves her time to share her journey thoughts with us. I am also hoping that Nikki Kenna will be home from her art course in Newlyn in time to contribute to the show. We will need good readers and this is an advance warning to them both that I am hoping to coax in Margaret Heath and Roger Whelan from among our Friends. I will send a begging message to everyone very soon. In the meantime, do get to the Emily Wilson Odyssey reading in the Bath Assembly Rooms on Saturday 26th May if you can. ( And, unlike the Holburne Museum, let’s hope the Assembly Rooms provide a microphone.)
For those of you who couldn’t join us yesterday, I will post the Pass on a Poet programme notes up on the blog, with a few of the slides, so you can share at least some of the afternoon. I will also ask the readers to send me the titles of their contributions so that we can all revisit them.
And to the well-behaved dog who didn’t materialise….a kindly greeting and a hope we might meet you and your carer in July. As everyone knows, a poetry event without a well-behaved dog is like a well behaved fish without a bicycle.
Please comment on this post, either directly, or by sending me in your thoughts, which I be pleased to post.