Ledbury Poetry Festival, July 2004
By: Anthony Moore
I wish Edward Thomas (that poet) were here to ponder gulfs in general with me as in the days when he and I tired the sun with talking on the footpaths and stiles of Ledington and Ryton (Robert Frost, “A Romantic Chasm”)
Those days, at the start of World War I, were among the eleven convivial months when Frost lived near Dymock, in England’s rural Gloucestershire. The two writers came to mean so much to each other in just three weeks that when Thomas died in enemy action Frost mourned him as “the only brother” and “the best friend” he ever had. Frost was nourished, too, by the informal congenial community nearby known now as the Dymock Poets. Flummoxed by the Dymocks? Don’t lose any sleep over it. Literary history is, after all, full of amnesia about poetasters once thought daring. Some of the school are dimly remembered in single works, such as Eleanor Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken” and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.) Others earned their present neglect with verse that is insipid or worse, like Wilfrid Gibson’s vacuous “The Golden Room” (We talked and laughed, but for the most part listened / While Robert Frost kept on and on and on / In his slow New England fashion for our delight).
Ninety years on, you can walk in the footsteps of Frost and Thomas (literally) during an eight mile field trip, through the stiles and kissing gates they knew, across meadows dotted with the region’s red and white dairy cattle. It’s Olde Englande straight from a picture book. Then ramble on north past Ledington to Ledbury with its cobbled lanes and crooked half-timbered houses. Every July, the medieval market town puts contemporary verse in your path and offers animated literary camaraderie. Ledbury’s annual ten-day Poetry Festival is “the best in the country” (says Andrew Motion, the British Poet Laureate). And biggest almost anywhere, I shouldn’t wonder. It draws a crowd from all over that (as Frost said of his neighbors back then) speaks your language and understands your thoughts.
Care to tire the sun with talking about poetry? Drink plenty of fluids as you pick one, more, or take all, of over sixty authors featured (in person or by proxy) in eleven venues, with prices of admission from free to £15 ($27.50). The program’s horn of plenty belies the festival’s youth (this is its eighth year) and is untainted by what Charles Bernstein years ago called “official verse culture.” It swells with local civic pride while celebrating domestic and international strains in recent poetry from established, emerging and unknown names. All told, three thousand paying customers turned up this year. I was one and our tireless desire to participate was stimulated at the start even by setbacks. The national government representative for the development of the arts got stuck in traffic and was unable to open the festival officially. So we launched it ourselves, encouraged by his mission statement delivered by mobile phone, “We believe in the transforming power of the arts—power to change the lives of people throughout the country.” And chilling rain failed to dampen enthusiasm for the gigantic block party in the High Street. Steam rose from hundreds of vibrantly transformed bodies of all ages—eighteen months through eighty-five—as joyful revelers danced and sang to the powerful union of tribal Zulu chants and searing electric rhythms pumped out by Shikisha, the South African female band.
The literary bill was topped by four figures who’ve long been cherished in Britain: Pam Ayres, Alfred Brendel, Germaine Greer, and Roger McGough each drew capacity audiences. Greer is in the fourth decade of a career made from cutting social and cultural polemic and, like Camille Paglia, her sister act on this side of the Atlantic, she combines academic penetration with savvy media skills. Her talk “The Boy in English Poetry” was true to form: she smashed others’ icons with fluent dialectic and galvanized her listeners, in equal measure, to new thought, outrage, and laughter. Brendel (yes, that Alfred Brendel, the internationally known concert pianist) says his writing life “just evolved” to the point where he now also enjoys international standing as a rigorously entertaining music essayist and as a witty poet. Cursing Bagels (Faber, 2004), his sardonic second collection of poems joins, according to one European paper of note, “the sparse ranks of genuinely comic literature.”
Ayres would be foreign to Americans, but her cheery home companion style and the ordinary flesh and bone of her subjects would not. She won a network television amateur talent contest nearly thirty years ago and from then on has appeared regularly on national radio and television. Her material and stage manner are heirs to the pure democracy of popular music hall. She may be up there but we’re all on the same level, we’re not so different from each other. Her sunny, intimate delivery, commenting on our small human failings and the gentle absurdity in everyday events, brought frequent gasps of happy recognition from the audience. Here she imagines with amused tolerance the vanity of middle-aged human wishes.
Do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?
I know I’ve just turned forty-three,
And one eye’s gone at a funny angle,
And I have to wear a copper bangle,
As I’ve got arthritis in this left knee,
But d’you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?
Me husband says I must be mad,
And didn’t I know Bruce Springsteen had
Teenage bimbos wall to wall
Young and slim and brown and tall,
They can dance and stay up late,
Their knees don’t click and their eyes go straight,
He says Bruce wants rock and rhythm,
Not some old bird’s rheumatism.
(from “Do You Think Bruce Springsteen Would Fancy Me?”)
It’s not great art, but it raises a smile to learn there are others who grapple humorously with serious questions—failing health, for example. Ayres, like the rest of us, does her best to negotiate the vagaries of the world we all share. With more than twenty reprints, the wry self-deprecation of her Selected Poems (characteristically titled The Works, BBC Books, 2000) obviously has a wide appeal.
Ayres and McGough were publicly honored by Queen Elizabeth II this summer for services to poetry; but he is two ranks above her in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (which Tony Blair intends to rename the Order of British Excellence). Has this gone to his head? Well no. He’s always had the swagger we’d expect from a lad from Liverpool (recently awarded the Freedom of that city) whose 1960’s band (with the other McCartney brother, Mike) had two Top 10 hits when there was serious competition from The Beatles. Since then his stories, poetry books and recorded readings, for adults and children, have sold by the metric ton. His latest poetry collection Everyday Eclipses (Viking, 2002) has attitude from cover to cover, blithely offering outrageous advice to Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and rock ‘n’ rollers of all ages. His deadpan distrust of fame (including his own) is caught in this exemplary moment with Bob Dylan.
At the intersection of Bold Street and Hardman Street
He stopped. “I’m at the crossroads, Rog,” he said.
“I can see that Bob,” I said. “No, I mean my career,
I don’t know which way to turn.” “Seems clear to me, mate,
Let’s have a coffee and I’ll put you straight.”
So over cappucino in the Picasso I laid it all out.
Dump the acoustic. Forget the folksy stuff and go electric.
Get yourself a band. I remember the look on his face.
Sort of relief. The tension in the trademark
Hunched shoulders seemed to melt away.
(from “Bob Dylan and The Blue Angel”)
As well as delighting in verse that is roundly comic and searchingly light, the festival vibrates with the serious pleasures that poetry provides. For examples of the easy mix of cultural notes in this year’s score, consider Sophie Hannah and Robert Adamson, who read their work earlier on the day of the High Street party. Hannah is as English as they come, yet her formal rhyming verse, often wickedly arch and seductively droll, is accessible wherever the language is spoken (First of the Last Chances, Carcanet, 2003). This deft hard-hearted lover’s letter is all the better for its memory of Dorothy Parker’s acerbic epistles from the sexes’ war zone.
E-mail your lover one full-stop
To let him know he’s got the chop.
The old heave-ho, the push, the sack.
Period. Tiny, plump and black.
And if a question mark comes back,
Rows of full-stops across his screen
Will point out starkly what you mean:
You loved him once. Now you do not.
If he mistakes an awful lot
Of full stops for a dot dot dot,
Go bold, pump up the font, press hash
(The one he made of things), then dash.
For each new season’s thriving crop
Of travesties, each wound, each flop,
E-mail your lover one full-stop.
Adamson is a case in point of the truisms that fine poets elude categories and absorb influence without anxiety. He is indebted to twentieth century Americans—such as Hart Crane, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop—and honors those debts with interest in poems and books named for one or the other. He in turn is admired by, for instance, John Ashbery and Robert Creeley, and publishes frequently in American literary journals. He’s been winning prizes for decades in his native Australia where he has twenty books to his name. But Reading the River (Bloodaxe Books, 2004) is his first to be published in the UK. He has a fabulist’s devotion to the fauna of New South Wales and, as Creeley says, “can touch all the world and yet stay particular” (It’s difficult to describe the ruff, / this bird’s a living metaphor; / puffing plumage into simile). His tender and rugged recent poems illuminate the loving mystery and the murk of family life—those blood ties we often resent, sometimes embrace, but never escape—with harsh precision and maladroit tenderness. He links poetic kinship and family in this direct address to Creeley.
The Festival welcomes aspiring poets generously in frequent one-on-one sessions, workshops (Mark Doty was the 2004 poet-in-residence), open mike nights, and the poetry competition. Jacob Polley won three years ago and his first collection The Brink (Picador, 2004) was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize and is a Poetry Book Society Choice. I let my fancy roam and imagined the creative energy generated between Frost and Thomas still crackling in the Ledbury air as their shades stoked the town’s ten-day poetic adrenalin rush. This festival is among the most relaxed celebrations of the art that I’ve attended. There was never a shrill or earnest moment, nor a single sighting of college lecturers or writing instructors in search of a better job, and no shots were heard from the other side of the world in the so-called poetry wars. Without those distractions, I enjoyed a full-hearted concentration on the thrills, the inspiration, the intoxications that are in words imaginatively handled. Poetry does matter, at least in Britain.