So I found myself heading for King’s Lynn last weekend, the train moving quietly along via Cambridge and gradually into the heart of East Anglia and the fens. The sun shone, the fields were green and bright, cut by bright canals of water. I had no idea the land was so flat there, but it stretched on either side of the train for miles and miles with perhaps only a low-lying village roofscape or a church on the far horizon. On the train I found myself in one of those comical Maeve Binchy situations: across the aisle were two poets I’d never met before, and a quick perusal of the festival programme confirmed that they were poets X and Y, both deep in poetic gossip of a fairly harmless but recognisable kind. X announed to Y that another poet – due to read at the festival – was a hypochondriac, but that at least he knew it. Beautiful, ageing, Y spoke in dulcet tones about his wife and her tenantcy problems. I began to feel guilty as I could pick up every word, yet shied away from moving across and introducing myself. I was actually quite happy with my own company and not ready at that early hour to push myself toward conversation. Much easier to sit and listen to Radio Poetry while my eyes absorbed a new landscape!
On arrival, we were met at the platform by a bag-piper and the festival organisers, who welcomed us with champagne. The day was warm and dry, a few degrees more so than in Ireland at the time, and very quickly poet-to- poet chat got underway. It was all very cheerful and polite compared to the way things are done here at home. Sincerely polite too, not polite in quotation marks.
Still: I had reason to ruminate a LOT over the weekend, partly because I realised howccompletely unprepared I was for English poetic conservativism, the more so because two or three participants were fairly dogged old scribblers, entrenched in their ways, and utterly opposed to Modernism. Hello? Anybody there aware that it’s now the 21st century? Er . . . I nearly fell off my chair and off the stage in the Town Hall as poet X (from the train) announced with some melancholy that the great tragedy for English poetry was TS Eliot and Modernism. This morsel was uttered in the course of a discussion prior to the publication of the Michael Hulse edited new anthology of 20th century Poetry in English, in which we participating poets were invited to consider who we believed should definitely be included, while said very personable Hulse chaired proceedings. To say that I found the dislike of Eliot to be profoundly shocking is an under-statement. Even worse was to come, the casually dismissive response to ‘experimental’ poetry, to American poetry, indeed to anything which, it seems, is not still locked in the grip of late Victorian metres. I put in my oar and attempted a defence of some sort of the notion of experiment – because without experimentation, nothing happens, does it? – and how the best of American writing has actually reinvigorated English-language poetry and invited it to parttake of the active sense of serious ‘play’ that sometimes accompanies it. However, I was the outsider poet, in a sense, and although I was heard, I was not really heard. At times like that, I wish I was one of those mouthy women who can’t be shut up!
I did however meet some wonderful poets while there: Andrea Porter, D.M.Black, Alan Brownjohn and Kit Wright among them, who brought interest, verve, some humour, and serious poetry to the weekend programme.
There was also the added bonus of meeting my publisher from Arc, (based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire), Tony Ward and Angela Jarman, both utterly charming, professional and a pleasure to be with. And it was a chance for me to read some new poems for their ear(s), specifically.
King’s Lynn, Hay, Aldeburgh over there – Cuirt, ex-Poetry Now, Mountains to the Sea, or the Patrick Kavanagh Weekend over here – it does make me consider about the notion of festivals though, and we Irish are no slouches when it comes to poetry festival know-how. Do outsiders, non-writers, recognise how careers are made or frozen into nothingness at such events? Have they any idea of the amount of hard work that goes into all the gaiety, the discussion, the readings? They are wonderful to take part in and yet so often depend on the personality and/or celebrity of the participants to draw crowds. But festivals also highlight the despoiling of once-talented poets who have effectively sold-out to being crowd-pleasers, who are part of the establishment and can take it for granted they’ll be invited to read at the major festivals, who get to read what might be not their best work and find it uncritically lauded. Do I sound envious? Sure I do. It feeds into my sense of fair play and merit, things which interest me infinitely more than celebrity line-ups because often a less-obvious ‘name’ may actually be the more interesting writer/performer. I do hate speaking of ‘names’, as if writers were commodities. We are not commodities and never will be, although the administrative element within the arts does threaten us with such a destiny.
Perhaps that’s the nature of life and perhaps it doesn’t matter. It probably doesn’t, provided there is fair play (something the English value, as well as me) and poets are not allowed to present views as if they had canonical value. Poets have an obligation to be alive in the moment, to be of their time, and not to look back in bitterness to an imagined idyll, especially when as we all know, idylls rarely exist and when they do are frequently inhabited by a poison-penned serpent or two.