I wasn’t one of the 1,700 people filling the Festival Hall last week. People seem to have enjoyed it, especially (in my approx 1% sample) the readings by John Burnside, who won; Carol Ann Duffy, who can really carry off such occasions; and Esther Morgan. Opinions on which is the best book vary widely. I’ve only read three so far. All had some very good poems; but all raised the question, are editors rigorous enough about weeding out fillers?
I had a ticket, but sold it on to someone else. I’m sure I’d have had a good and very sociable evening, but would have missed Alice Oswald and John Kinsella; and I felt like going to the Torriano to hear Stephen Watts and Cristina Viti read from Mountain Language and Journey across Breath.
The Channel 4 interview with Burnside had an awards-style buzz. Maybe they’ll be televising the whole thing in a few years - though hardly in the lavish mode of the Turner or Stirling Prizes, where people dress up for the cameras, eat dinner and look as if they paid a lot for it all.
No, of course they won’t be televising it.
When I started going regularly to London poetry readings several years ago, I expected them to conform to the poet-in-echoing-hall-reads-to-one-woman-and-a-dog formula. (Where did this originate? Were readings really like this? Was there a set piece in some 1930’s or 50’s novel? Or several? If so, I’m sure I’ve read it/them, so strong is my mental template.) I was surprised to find readings were usually crowded; standing room only, sometimes. Admittedly, the meanness of the accommodation can contribute to this effect.
Nowhere more so than at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. The café and staff are lovely, but the basement for readings is cramped and airless. The Poetry Society may be based upstairs in the rest of the Betterton St building, but it’s impossible to imagine Poetry Review holding a launch in the basement.
Last time I was there was for a South Bank Poetry launch. The event itself, as always, was very enjoyable. And at least I got a seat... in a row near the back with my knees jammed into the chair in front, and unable to move without crippling the person behind. Getting up to read involved careful planning of least-disruptive moment to squeeze out and up to the front, avoiding the wine glasses and coffee cups that can get spilt or broken in the thick undergrowth of legs, chair and human. The worst thing is that people in the ground floor café have to come down the creaky stairs to the basement for the loos which are at the back, not far enough away from the room. They arrive near the stage (or rather, front of room where people read). Some of them creep down and wait for a poem gap before manoeuvring all down the narrow room past the people standing at the side. Others galumph down the stairs and charge straight through, mid-reading. None of this would matter much if the venue was atmospheric, but it isn’t really. Here it is, in uncrowded mode. This is IT, apart from another couple of rows going further back. And a dark corner where they stack chairs and one can stand.
I said all this to someone recently and the reply was Ah well, Earls Court… meaning when the Poetry Society had a vast mansion at its disposal, lost in financial mismanagement episode 1 (decades before last summer’s events).
Time for a national venue, that anyone can use? A House of Poetry. It would have a large space for readings, book fairs etc. A bar/café. Some rooms for workshops, school sessions and suchlike. A poetry bookshop selling pamphlets, magazines and other stuff one can’t buy in shops. And ideally a separate exhibition space for collaborative projects, bringing in anyone - from artists to doctors. Thinking big, grand project, it would be purpose-built, architect-designed; thinking normal, it would be any place that would meet the spec, doesn’t need to be smart at all, just atmospheric and with good acoustics.
OK, I’m in cloud-cuckoo land. Especially in these times. Well, it’s a better use of money than a new royal yacht. And it would get used, because, in terms of activity, poetry is on a sort of virtuous circle: creative writing MA’s, workshops, courses, small publishers, open mics, etc. New venues like Kings Place seem to do well; the Poetry School is booming. Everyone goes to everyone else’s occasions.
So why bother, if everyone is getting on without a national venue? Because it would act as a focus, a way of expressing continuity between poetry past and future; somewhere for the non-poetry specialist to go as an alternative to a theatre or gallery, somewhere for children to associate with the experience of getting immersed in poetry. Somewhere for people to find out or reaffirm that, as TSE Prize winner John Burnside said in his Telegraph article last week, ’poetry is, or can be, as central to our experience now as it has ever been’.
The House would need a National Lottery grant (and ongoing support), or a generous benefactor; and/or backing from institutions such as the Poetry School, one of the poetry libraries, universities, publishers, PoSoc or several such, joining forces. It doesn’t have to be in London, though most such things are. (Apologies if this feels like a very London-centric piece, but it’s where I live.)
Is it old-fashioned, when there are so many virtual homes for poetry, and such thriving local scenes? I don’t see why; look at the Tate, the National - every art has its focus or centre of excellence, or several, formal and informal, and great use is made of them. The more virtual we get, the more we need reality.