Past & Present
St Andrews Town Hall
5th March 2016
For my first cherry-popping visit to Stanza, Scotland’s long-running poetry festival set in the heady spectacularness of sea-girt Saint Andrews, I opted for three of their ‘Past & Present’ readings. Eleanor Livingstone, the director, does a wonderful job at piqueing any poet’s particular penchanterie, providing an eclectic forum for eclectic tastes. I dabble with the art form myself from time-to-time, & was curious to experience the thought-processes of other exponents of the craft, to feel if I was unique or one of the multi-winged creatures that swarm across Scotland’s holiest city for a few wind-swept days in early March. Scattered across several venues, for me I would be making camp in the Chambers Rooms of the Town Hall, above the bustling, busy, chit-chat tizzying stalls where publishers such as the effervescent Nell ‘Happenstance’ Nelson were plying their wares.
Alan Riach is a professor of Scottish Literature in Glasgow, & the theme of his talk was his recent poeslation, The Birlinn of Clanranald. This mid-eighteenth century Gaelic poem, first invoked by Alasdair Mac Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, is a nautical wonder, & should rank alongside the great seagoing poems such as the Odyssey, Childe Harolde’s second canto, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner & the Lusiads by Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões. Composed just after Culloden, Riach describes it’s creation as a metaphor for the survival of the Highlanders, & their ability to, ‘recover strength after passing a terrible storm of devastation.‘
Riach has treated this ‘deeply meticulous’ poem with great reverence, & despite not speaking Gaelic, has used the assistance of native speakers in order to fuse together a wonderfully cinematic poem, where image after images flashes in the minds eye. I loved the way the word ‘oar’ – those melodious oars – kept popping up, as this 16-manned boat was driven through the furrowing channels between the Scottish islands. This is poetry as it should be & really helped to summon the salty-spray into one’s psyche, far better than say, De Bussy’s La mer. The best parts of the poem followed the arrival of the Clanrald chief – the elixir of the Highlands – it created a sense of urgency, really changing the energy & I could almost feel the chieftan in the chambers – an excellent alteration in mood.
Like many others at the reading, I had not heard of Jack Gilbert an American poet of the Beat era, though not a Beat Poet at all. This is something that regal-voiced Australian, Sarah Holland-Batt, clearly wishes to correct, an acolyte as she is of Mr Gilbert & read us almost immediately the following lines..
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
I was already intrigued. Sarah went on to give us a great little biopic of Gilbert; how he’d shunned massive fame, eschewing the literary world in order to travel the planet on the edge of poverty, to experience life to its fullest & devote himself with ‘unabashed ardour’ to his art.
Gilbert’s hermetical life reminds me of two canonical poetical maxims – Robert Graves; ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either,’ & Oscar Wilde’s; ‘He lives the poetry that he cannot write.‘ For me, the tales of Gilbert’s life, so passionately delivered by Sarah, were more interesting than his poetry – although all were of a fine standard. He flew against the contemporary current into an orientalian schema, his uncluttered thought flowing from him with a simple & proud beauty, to whom his best work was inspired by his muse-women. The final poem Sarah read to us encapsulated all of this, devoted to his Japanese wife who died of cancer at 36, it describes him searching for her hairs in their house – an amazingly poignant piece.
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
Martin Crucefix, a prolific & pretty poet, has turned his craft to a new rendition of the ancient text, the Daodejing. He began with the legend of its composition – of Lao Tzu leaving 5000 characters on the ‘Ten Thousand Things’ for the keeper at the Gates of China, before disappearing into the distance forever. From the early example he gave us, that a king should ‘govern a nation as you would cook a delicate fish,’ Crucefix cast a spell over the audience, transcending the yawning ages & cultural differences between we westerners & classical China.
Crucefix loves the Daodejing, connecting personally with its laconic, laid-back style, its economy & its enigmaticness. His own versions of those epigrammatical pearls of wisdom are simple & effective & imbued with true poetry. This was a fascinating talk, whipping a wee bit of the ‘Way’ into Scotland at the very same spot where Saint Regulus brought a selection of Saint Andrew’s bones to impress the Picts on the absolute necessity of Christianity.
I’d had a wonderful afternoon in Saint Andrews – including Jemima Foxtrot’s performance poetry & all-inclusive pie & a pint at lunch – all three of the P&P readings were interesting for me & delivered with the professionalism of these poetical practitioners. I had been taken on a journey, visiting many regions of the planet in that hour & a half – & the whole experience was something listening to a three act radio play. This is the wonder of a festival, there are always different things going on, & for anyone who loves, likes, or even doesn’t mind poetry – a visit to Stanza should become a fixture on your calendar – I will certainly be attending next year & for more than a single afternoon.
Reviewer : Damo Bullen
One thought on “Past & Present”
March 8, 2016 at 11:55 am
[…] day through Fife. Dropping me off in Fife, they continued on to Newport-on-Tay where they had pals, while I covered the Stanza poetry festival. I saw a few things, including the fantastic Jemima Foxtrot & a talk on the Tao te Ching […]