Friday, 1 May 2009

Ursula / The Laureateship

U. A. Fanthorpe - Ursula - has died after a long illness. Last time round she was a candidate for the Laureateship eventually awarded to Andrew Motion.

I reviewed her second book somewhere, probably the TLS, it seems an age ago, and part of the review was quoted on some of her subsequent books. I actually met her some time after the review appeared, at a festival, and we read together. She was charming, warm and very good at reading. Her companion Rosie was there too, Dr Bailey, with whom she later developed a poetic double act of good-humoured camp, like a poetic Hinge and Bracket: Rosie in her Cluedo Professor Plum jacket and bow-tie, Ursula in her sensible shoes and grey trousers, the pair of them occasionally telling each other off for some fluffed line.

As that very good obit programme, Last Word, told us today, she preferred the humble, the overlooked, the undefended as subjects. Her poetry talked rather than sang. Song, in the Yeatsian sense, would have been too high-falutin' for her. Her ear was acute and kindly, her poetic voice deeply commonsense, almost matey at times. She would have made an excellent laureate because she would have been loved in the way Alan Bennett is loved, and because she had written on 'official' subjects, a royal birth for example, in unofficial ways.

Under the gentle matiness of the voice there was, however, an uneasy but profound sense of the ancient past flowing just beneath the surface of the present: lost rivers, lost encampments, lost people and buried names. Her landscape poems were generally short while her more characteristic poems, about the human situation, ran to roughly middle length, extending just over a page or so.

This is a shorter poem from her 2003 book, Queueing for the Sun.

Waiting Room

I am the room for all seasons,
The waiting room. Here the impatient
Fidget, gossip, yawn and fret and sneeze. I am the room

For summer (sunburn, hay-fever, ear wax,
Children falling out of plum treesm neding patching);

For autumn (arthtritis and chesty coughs,
When the old feel time worrying at their bones;

For winter (flu and festival hangovers,
Flourish of signatures on skiers; plaster of Paris);

For spring (O the spots of adolescence,
Unwary pregnancies, depression, various kinds of itch):

I am the room that understand waiting;
With my box of elderly toys, my dog-eared Woman's Owns,
Permanent as repeat prescriptions, unnswerable as ageing,
Heartening as the people who walk out smiling, weary

As doctors and nurses working on and on


Andrew Motion has been a remarkably selfless Poet Laureate. It was always impossible to follow Ted Hughes in 'the voice-of-nature-and-blood' stakes; impossible to garner as much affection as someone a little more ordinary, or more eccentric might have done. He remained productive as a writer, teacher and reviewer. I don't know how he found the time. That and the Poetry Archive.

The Laureateship is a strange post. Today at about 1.30 I was rung up by BBC World Service and asked to dash into the BBC studios in Norwich to do a World Service programme about Laureates here and in Europe, along with Roger McGough in another studio elsewhere. Roger has spent the day being whisked from studio to studio to comment on the new appointment. The programme was a brief conversation and almost entirely substanceless. I say a little on the role of Hungarian poets in public life, but not much. Roger says nice things about Carol Ann Duffy.

Ten years for the Laureateships is, as Roger remarks, too long. Two or three years would be better. And then it need not be as a singer of royal occasions, or even particularly state occasions, but as some kind of commemorator of whatever happens at large, in a reasonable public voice that is not bending over backwards to be public. That and whatever else the incumbent fancied doing to encourage interest in poetry.

In that respect Andrew Motion will be hard act to follow too. He has worked his socks off for poetry at every official level. How he has kept sane I don't know. What will Carol Ann be like?

She will certainly be popular. She already is. Popularity is partly a matter of school syllabuses, and school syllabuses are not entirely about poetry - they are more about subject, about stuff to talk about. Popularity - even the idea of 'accessibility' - is not something I have ever tried to strive for or thought to have: I don't think they are good ambitions as ambitions. People must write about what excites them. But good poetry can be popular without ever trying to be so and, in that way, be taken to heart. Duffy's most substantial poems are popular in that sense. They are sad, tough, lyrical cries formed into prayers. The best of them is, in fact, 'Prayer': a poem that is properly popular at depth. Mean Time is, in my view, her most compulsive book to date.

As for the rest, poetry is not a joke, not a sermon, not a wink to the knowing, not the official voice, not the school syllabus, not the popular voice. It is none of those things. It is cry as song, the universe as form.

It is chiefly what Dylan Thomas thought it was:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.....

It is the lovers in bed with all their griefs in their arms. Duffy knows that well and has laboured in just that singing light. May she go on doing so. The first woman laureate. Welcome then.


I met Nicole S, who occasionally comments here, at the Hampstead reading yesterday. Good to meet her. I have now sorted out the problem with the links in the Cleo Laine post below.


Nicole S said...

Thanks for the kind words, George. The reading, and meeting you, were a great pleasure for me. And thanks for fixing the links. Being a bit slow and going back, like Morecambe and Wise, to the question before last, or even older, I wanted to add that I agree that Picasso is more of a draughtsman than a painter; no match for Matisse at that recent exhibition comparing the two. Picasso is three-dimensional, bursting out and raging at the restriction of paint, but delightfully at ease and inventive as a sculptor, although not as well known for that.

George S said...

The sense of form - playful form most of the time - is very much at home in sculpture which is practically all form.

But the drawings leave me quite breathless.

Nicole S said...

Sorry, not Morecambe and Wise: Two Ronnies.