Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Murray, Motion, The Rialto

At The Playhouse tonight, the 25th anniversary of The Rialto, with readings by Andrew Motion and Les Murray. Two such different poets would be hard to find. They each read for fifteen minutes, then, after the interval, engage in conversation with Michael Mackmin, the editor of The Rialto.

Fifteen minutes is, in some ways, a very audience-friendly time for a poet because attention span is always in short supply, which is not to say that there is any reason why attention span should not improve. And some poets can hold you transfixed for two or three times that length of time. It may not be the poetry alone that does that, of course, but something about the presence. Two very different presences then: Andrew M, tall, nervously languid, appearing diffident but actually very alert. He has had to do politics in his time as laureate. I don't imagine Les Murray has done politics in quite the same way. Les occupies space both physically and mentally, the lines of his poetry flicking light at you, line by line, observation by observation. Les can't do languid - he does stolid with gusto. Something flashes about him when he speaks, Andrew murmurs and speaks plain. Les parleys and speaks high-maintenance. Andrew is, I think, essentially an elegiast. He reads a group of three striking poems about a young soldier killed in Afghanistan. The ghost moves through the elegy in it bringing with it both personal and national history. Andrew's poems need ghosts. Les reads more poems with fewer words between. Nothing elegiac, more a kind of bounding. Les's poems need goats.

The discussion afterwards asks three main questions: Is poetry important? (Answer: ahem, yes.) What is the role of the state in supporting poetry? (Depends on the nature of the state, the nature of the support) What is poetry? (Andrew: poetry is whatever turns you on. Les answers: It is being surprised). A question from the floor asks about the relation between performance poetry and book poetry. (Andrew basically replies: whatever turns you on. Les: poetry on the page is more surprising).

(My answers: What is poetry? Poetry is a perfectly ordinary human room completely filled with lightning. Performance poetry is for people who like parties and cheering. Poetry on the page is for people who prefer solitude and silence.)

Now let us go into the dark complete with goats and ghosts.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

'Poetry is a perfectly ordinary human room completely filled with lightning.'

Nicely put, and certainly something to aim or hope for! Reminds me of Milosz's description of haiku as a form in which 'things appear like lightning, or as if in the light of a flare, epiphanies of a landscape.' Or Tobias Wolff's 'synaptic lightning'. Or Les Murray's marvelous 'Who'll fish the blind scrawl of lightning /
out of Life's mouth, that old clay golem?'