Note: Derek Walcott’s White Egrets was announced as the winner on Monday 24th January. This is a report on the readings that took place at the Royal Festival Fall on Sunday 23rd January.
Walt Whitman understood that in order “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” There is a sense, then, that when two thousand people fill the Royal Festival Hall for a poetry reading on a Sunday evening in late January, a sort of reverse could also be said to be true: great audiences require great poets. The readings, on the eve of the announcement of the T. S. Eliot Prize for the best collection of poetry published in 2010, certainly promise greatness; not just in terms of the sheer creative accomplishment manifest in a shortlist that contains two Nobel laureates, but also with regard to what host Ian McMillan calls the “humanity, musicality, and precision of language” that reaches without exception across the spectrum of poets involved.
The elegant and erudite Anne Stevenson, one of the three prize judges, opens the evening by reading Eliot’s tribute to Walter de la Mare, which ends, fittingly, with the line: “the inexplicable mystery of sound.” This seems to be what the evening is mostly about – there is a potency in the performance of the poetry that is not always present in the paper words. A handful of audience-members have already attended Michael Symmons Roberts’ lively and illuminating overview session which took place earlier in the afternoon, and it is mesmerising to see poems which, earlier, had left some people cold, rise breathtakingly off the page into the cavernous acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall.
Simon Armitage, the most genuinely public poet on the shortlist, reads first, from Seeing Stars, a collection that could almost be described as flash fiction: “if they’re not poems, you’re not having your money back,” he quips. He reads from “The Christening”, a poem about a sperm whale, (“Don’t be taken in by the / dolphins and their winning smiles, they are the pickpockets /of the ocean, the gypsy children of the open waters and / they are laughing all the way to Atlantis” ), and from “I’ll be there to love and comfort you”, in which the lines “out of the void, slowly but slowly it / came: the pulsing starfish of a child’s hand, swimming / and swimming and coming to settle on my upturned / palm” transform a deadpan Yorkshire vignette into a nightmare. Structurally and formally many of these poems differ strikingly from his previous work, but he is a poet at the height of his powers, whose masterly resourcefulness of imagery, remarkable gear-shifts and humorously melancholic delivery render his work utterly compelling and a strong contender for the prize.
He is followed by John Haynes, who reads in a rasping and sorrowful voice from You, his dense and philosophical paean to his Nigerian wife. The line “I say I love you, but it’s only words,” is repeated throughout one of the extracts he reads, an indicator of the buried unity underpinning the whole collection, in which the poet uses an extraordinarily tight form perhaps as an attempt to liberate himself from self-parody. His intricate structuring is masked however with a winning anecdotal quality, and a vividness and intelligence that beautifully captures a lifelong encounter with love.
Brian Turner, a American army veteran, reads from Phantom Noise, a collection which examines not just the experience of war, particularly in Iraq, but its aftermath, as well as the experience of becoming a poet and the magnitude of bearing witness. It makes for uncomfortable – or discomfiting – listening. Turner is passionate and embittered: verses which on the page feel cold but not without a sense of moral message, are transformed into booming polemic as he reads. The visceral subject matter (“jets of tissue and meat”) can be distracting, but this seems to work in Turner’s favour as it draws attention away from the poet’s often clichéd lexicon, moving to the foreground the poet’s anguished depth of connection with what he has observed.
What the Water Gave Me is Pascale Petit’s exploration of the life of Frida Kahlo, through her paintings and, as Petit explains, “in her voice.” As standalone poems, they are meditative, mysterious, and moderately compelling, coloured by trauma and delicately wrought. The shadow of Kahlo looms long over the collection, however, and whilst it is a clever examination of what art and poetry can do together, Petit’s breathy delivery, coupled with her unconcealed veneration of the tormented Mexican painter, doesn’t really work – for this reviewer at least, Frida is a million miles away from Pascale Petit.
Robin Robertson is a folktale-maker, a Yeatsian creator of magical, terrifying worlds; his reading is sinister, atmospheric, and deceptively languid. He reads poems from The Wrecking Light, a bleak, evocative, extremely tightly-wrought collection, in which he moves dexterously between several registers, and which would be a noteworthy winner of the £15,000 prize. We hear the rather brilliant “Wonderland”, in which Alice, “trained and able / in the thousand ways of pleasuring a man” drinks Black Label, and subsequently the narrator, “under the table.” Robertson also reads “At Roane Head”, which won the 2009 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Lines such as “Aonghas the collie, lying at the door / where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap”, and “All born blind, they say, / slack-jawed and simple, web-footed, /rickety as sticks” bleakly enmesh the feral with the human, and stay with the listener long after the mesmeric Scots voice has ceased.
Fiona Sampson’s poetry is described by McMillan as “challenging”, with words being flung against each other to see if sparks will fly. She has a voice that lends meaning and invocation to her poems, giving the impression that Rough Music is, as the title suggests, a work that should be heard as well as read. She is extremely ambitious in subject, as well as in tone and voice, with a genuine technical interest in the ways in which language works, stemming partly from her talents as a musician, linguistic philosopher and as editor of Poetry Review. The poems she reads twist inexorably towards the unknowable or the inexpressible, testing the limits of language in pared-down verses whose surface minimalism conceals a penetrating roughness that runs like a crack into the audience.
Derek Walcott’s White Egrets is read by Daljit Nagra, as it is his eighty-first birthday and he is marking the occasion in St Lucia. Nagra is a brilliant reader, delivering Walcott’s poems with insight and charisma. White Egrets goes beyond the elegiac and towards the valedictory – one of the poems read this evening is “Sixty Years After”, a sonnet in which the speaker, in his wheelchair, sees an old flame, “sitting in her own wheelchair, her beauty / hunched like a crumpled flower … treble-chinned, old, her devastating / smile was netted in wrinkles”. The standout poem, however, is “The Lost Empire”, a luminous and powerful study of the legacy of the British Empire: as Walcott writes, “there is no greater theme / than this chasm-deep surrendering of power … and the Saharan silence afterwards.”
In New Light for the Old Dark, Sam Willett’s first collection of poetry, grave truths are fathomed through great precision. He begins with what he describes as “a sad poem for a funny man” (his father): “his absence is a brute absurdity.” Willetts writes about his mother, about the Holocaust, about his drug addiction, about “Fur-Sorting”, in a style that combines high levels of intensity with huge perspective, with wit and with devastating specificity of detail. Of all the poets who read tonight, his are the words which linger the longest, “something like a blown flower, out there on the earth as it tilted”, and although it is unlikely that he will win, he seems to receive the loudest, longest applause of the evening.
Annie Freud resolutely takes charge of her poems, and of her audience, leading us somewhere that feels, as McMillan puts it, like coming out of a film in the afternoon. She reads vivaciously from The Mirabelles like a classically-trained British actor, warmly conveying her dexterous observations about people and relationships, and verbatim details from her personal life, as her poems build in fragments towards a definitive sense of someone: “a graceful young woman with impeccable diction / and a mild but educative manner showed me / the google-eyed Mask of Temporary madness. / That’s the one for me, I thought, and felt better / immediately.”
Seamus Heaney, revered ambassador for the written and spoken word, closes the evening’s reading with poems from Human Chain. He is greeted with rapturous applause, and although he looks frail, speaks resoundingly about the links between humans being tested and broken, or holding firm. Like Walcott, his poems tend increasingly toward the valedictory, with luminous moments from his past casting light on his present and future. He reads, shatteringly, “Chanson d’Aventure”, a poem about being incapacitated by a stroke: “Everything and nothing spoken … no journey like it until then.” Although Heaney confronts mortality and heredity, there is no sense in this collection of perfectly-formed, highly concentrated meditations, of regret, or of wishing to be elsewhere: his clarity of vision here resides in his steady gaze at life, which, particularly as he reads, is both striking and moving.
The readings over, the audience is invited to a book-signing in the ballroom. Before long a winding queue has formed and Sam Willetts can be seen on the staircase rummaging self-consciously for a pen; but for most of the audience this commercial tumult is not what the evening has been about. Poetry books may not sell particularly well today, but it would seem from the swelling crowds clutching tickets, that the way back is in performance.