Edinburgh International Book Festival
18th August 2016
Poems are like little time-charts – they keep things safe
(Carol Ann Duffy)
It is a very good thing to be a poet, a very fine thing indeed. There are two types who exist on this Earth. There are those who roam the mountain wildernesses like lone wolves, howling to the moon & the wounded buzzard who has followed them from afar, from up high, observing them with a curious eye as the wolf howls laments to its slaughter’d pack each evening across the shrub-tussl’d plains. There are also the other kind, the ones caught as pups by the more adventurous fellows of Empire, taken back to the homelands & placed in confinement in zoos or parks for the entertainment of the natives, to be peered at & commented on as they pace their cage or compound in routine serene. The other day I found myself in a most sturdy donjon to see the latter sort on display, where the finest examples of the were placed before us for our entertainment. In the morning, we had the grand old dames themselves, the Lady Laureates of the UK & Wales, Carol Ann Duffy & Gillian Clarke, while evening gave us the winners of the Edwin Morgan Trust award for the best poet under thirty.
The Lady Laureates read out some poems from their ouvre in a round-by-round fashion the first time in their lives they had been on the same bill. Introduced by Asif Khan – the new Duke of the Scottish Poetry Library – & accompanied rather cheekily by John Samson on various wind instruments – indeed, he introduced the ladies with a medieval sennet – it was a jolly good hour of sorts. Starting off slowly, Duffy grew into her performance with a growing magic.Her first efforts were more abstract word theatre than poetry, but when towards the end she read her poem invoking the 96 bells of Liverpool cathedral ringing out an unspoken elegy to the ghosts of Hillsborough, to the haunting chimes of Sansom’s recorder, I found myself consummately bewitched. Of her poems, the one about the counties of Britain, written in protest at the Post Office’s decision to phase-out county names on letters, was the most scionic from her soul.
But I want to write to an Essex girl, greeting her warmly.
But I want to write to a Shropshire lad, brave boy, home from the army,
and I want to write to the Lincolnshire Poacher to hear of his hare
and to an aunt in Bedfordshire who makes a wooden hill of her stair.
But I want to post a rose to a Lancashire lass, red, I’ll pick it,
and I want to write to a Middlesex mate for tickets for cricket.
But I want to write to the Ayrshire cheesemaker and his good cow
and it is my duty to write to the Queen at Berkshire in praise of Slough.
But I want to write to the National Poet of Wales at Ceredigion in celebration
and I want to write to the Dorset Giant in admiration
and I want to write to a widow in Rutland Advertisement in commiseration
and to the Inland Revenue in Yorkshire in desperation.
But I want to write to my uncle in Clackmannanshire in his kilt
and to my scrumptious cousin in Somerset with her cidery lilt.
But I want to write to two ladies in Denbighshire, near Llangollen
and I want to write to a laddie in Lanarkshire, Dear Lachlan …
But I want to write to the Cheshire Cat, returning its smile.
But I want to write the names of the Counties down for my own child
and may they never be lost to her …
all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire…
Gillian Clarke was more consistent, a wee tour de force of her life & lands, she had the more poetic voice of the two, & more variety in her themes. There was one poem in particular where gawp-lipped Duffy was sat transfixed on Clarke’s every word. After hearing the magnificent lines, ‘He hammered stammered words in the hallowed air / Of the House, an Olympian among them,’ I just had to find out more about the poem & cobbled Clarke in the press room – she told the Mumble that in her role as Laureate of Wales; ‘Though not obliged to accept a commission I am usually tempted. My favourite early request came from the Bevan Society for a poem to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the National Health Service. Its creator, Aneurin Bevan, was a hero in my childhood home. Here’s ‘A Sonnet for Nye’.’
London was used to trouble from the Valleys,
People who lived close, loved song and word,
Despised the big men’s promises and lies.
With them the socialist vision struck a chord.
Colliers, who hated class and privilege,
Whose work was filthy, dark and perilous,
Spared a portion of their paltry wage
To pay a stricken neighbour’s doctor’s bills.
They sent their man to Parliament. Who dares
Wins. A fierce man with a silver tongue,
He hammered stammered words in the hallowed air
Of the House, an Olympian among them,
Stuttering his preposterous social dream
Translated from ‘a little local scheme’
After the Laureates I enjoyed a rare sunny day in Edinburgh, returning to Charlotte Square in the evening for the final of the Edwin Morgan prize. This is its third incarnation, & when £20,000 is given to the winner tax-free, it has shunted itself into the forefront of British poetry awards. Morgan died in 2010, & his nationalistic legacy, his ‘conceptual universe,’ included a trust to award, biennially, the best lapped up the verve of the modern world, the sizzling energy in its expression, & would have been happy to hear that this year, a certain young Aberdeenshire lassie called Penny Boxall – Education Officer at Oxford’s University Church – won the award for her first collection, Ship of the Line.- I agree, & wrote the word TALENTED in capital letters by her name as I was taking my notes.
Judged in tandem by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar and Stewart Conn, former Edinburgh Makar, the work of all six of these youthful & illustrious Parnassia palustri was of a great standard – from the genuinely authentic doric of Orkney-born Harry Giles, to the wondrous poetic voice of Stewart Sanderson, who, one expects could handle an epic in his maturer years. Of the winning poet, Kay told the Mumble: ‘Penny Boxall runs a tight ship. Her poems are beautifully crafted. Reading her is to go on an interesting journey of exploration—stopping at fascinating places along the way. She has a curator’s mind and is always putting one thing beside another in an unexpected way.’ Here is one of her poems, the subject of which is three separate shipwrecks off the shores of Wales whose lone survivors shared the name Hugh Williams.
Williams, Who Lived
When this man was hauled from the foam
and, shaking, asked his name, the news spread fast.
They skimmed him back to shore –
a talisman, breaking the waves like eggs.
Hugh Williams had lived before. The name
confounded shipwrecks, made men float
through salted depths towards the aching
light. Williams was a lonely but a living sort.
It seemed the surest way to last gulp air not water,
to die dry, was to be him; or if not him
another of his kind. The parish registrars
scrawled Williams upon Williams as though they kept
forgetting. Williams married Susan, married
Mary, married Anne; and when he died,
(and died – and died -) the headstones
read the same, like yesterday’s paper.
Williams stayed at home and picked rocks
from the binary of ploughed earth.
Or travelled, wrote a book, did
or did not like onions; wet the bed.
And when he went to sea – as captain,
passenger, stowaway – he kept himself
to himself; threw his name around him,
vein-strung, tenuous as a caul.
‘The muse is in very good hands,’ said Conn at the awards evening, & I very much have to agree. The future of poetry is guaranteed, for in the sanitised labratory environments of such places as the modern poetry world & its awards, the genes of the older specimens can be passed down more safely to succeeding generations without risk of contamination. And so the song plays on…
Here’s a poem by me – Damian Beeson Bullen – your reviewer – written during the Morgan awards
Sonnet : Composed at the EIBF Edwin Morgan Awards 2016
A gift it is to leave a legacy
Decanting lipless ghosts into a room,
To wander with rapacious clemency
Among the pearl-eyed maulers by the tomb.
Drawn to this fabric garden of the North,
Of soft retiring voices on the green,
They sing to me, this sextet, funell’d forth
Thro’ judges sate admiring, smiles serene;
They speak to me, these paragons of youth
In lyrical semantics, midnight-hewn,
From dreams they fashion’d poems, born from truth
Unfetterd by this pure, presaging moon
O bauble gleam… thro’ dark, serrated skies…
Thro’ hearts endors’d… vault from aerated eyes!