In the republic of poetry (2)

As I am now a poet according to The Poetry Society, Jeanette Winterson and the laureates of England and Wales (and in this company, who am I to disagree?), it is time perhaps for me to go public and brace myself for that first poetry reading.

The opportunity has come from my friend Chris Kinsey, who in so many ways is responsible for repatriating me back into the republic of poetry. Her latest collection, Swarf, will be launched at Oriel Davies in Newtown, where she is poet in residence, on Thursday 15th September 2011, at 7.30pm, and she has invited me to duet with her.

The idea is thrilling but also perplexing. I don’t write poetry per se, so am not quite sure what I’ll be expected to read at this ‘poetry reading’. Ever supportive, Chris gives me some suggestions of speeches from my plays which she feels have resonance with some of her poems in Swarf. This helpfulness merely perplexes me even more. What she has chosen are dialogue from play scripts, speeches written down as prose in the same format as this paragraph you, dear reader, are looking at now. They were not written as poems, but words to suggest a character, create pace, dynamic and rhythm, to push a story along. They aren’t set out in any shape or manner that resembles what I’ve seen published in poetry books – Chris Kinsey’s included.

This relationship between language and form – poetic or otherwise – has puzzled me for many years.

When I was younger, I used to read poetry widely, but somewhere  along the way became nervous and suspicious – not of the poems, but my own capacity to understand them. There were always some poets I still read and engaged with, but I wonder where this self-denigration came from? I’m not the only one feeling this way, or asking this question. In this quarterly’s edition of Mslexia magazine, D J Taylor queries why generations are growing up with a phobia, if not fear, of poetry.

Although I don’t actually write poetry, my version of Persians won the Ted Hughes Award for new works in Poetry earlier this year. As Aeschylus’s original, which I followed closely, was a verse drama, it fits the label. I was honoured to win the award and to have my name linked with two astonishing Poet laureates – Ted Hughes and Carol Ann Duffy, who initiated the award.  So why this trepidation in labelling, this fear of the poetic word? Will I be an imposter, masquerading as something I’m not at Chris’s book launch?

I look up the other readers who will perform that evening, to see if some clues lie there. R V Bailey has published three solo poetry collections, and From you to me – Love Poems, with her partner U A Fanthorpe. Andy Croft is the publisher of Smokestack Books, a widely published poet in his own right, and (a detail which delights me),  the writer of a regular poetry column in The Morning Star. The final reader will be Jane Dards, who has poems published in publications as diverse as Envoi, The Spectator, and The Oldie. Alongside them and the cause for this gathering is the wonderful Madam Kinsey, BBC Wildlife poet of the year, celebrating her third collection….

They are all poets. They all write poetry.

I wonder if I’m being overly literal. I’m not a fan of this segregational attitude I seem to have taken on. ‘Descriptive, not prescriptive’ I often say at workshops – and here I am, probably being blinkered in view and definition, quibbling about form.

But form is so essential. It is the life marrow in the bones that hold my work up.

I go back to the words.

What I seem to write are performance texts or prose which are viewed as poetry by poets, deemed highly lyrical by critics and cultural commentators. Told by the Wind, which I co-created with Jo Shapland and Phillip Zarrilli for The Llanarth group last year ‘..has the astringent purity of a haiku poem..’ Elizabeth Mahoney reviewed in The Guardian.

‘The pleasure in O’Reilly’s play … is in  the easy, generous flow of the writing, with its mixtures of wit and singing lyricism ..’ Lynn Gardner wrote in the same paper of an earlier play, Belonging, for Birmingham Rep’.

At the Saville Club in Mayfair when I was given the Ted Hughes award, I likened it to discovering and being welcomed into a section of the family I never knew existed. I could see the family resemblances, sense the shared DNA – but was also aware of those rogue genes which brought unfamiliar features and essential differences.

Poets… Playwrights….I wonder if I’m being too narrow in my definitions.

When I think about it, many poems I read (not least the Poet Laureate’s The World’s Wife) use words ‘to suggest a character, create pace, dynamic and rhythm, to push a story along’, to quote myself from earlier in this post.

But more importantly, are there others who doubt their own capacities to read and comprehend poetry? If so, where does that come from? What has distanced us from where we began, and what we loved so much as children – and what we turn to in bereaved or troubled times?

Any comments?


For details of the poetry reading and book launch of Swarf by Chris Kinsey at Oriel Davies, Newtown, Wales, click on:         

Andy Croft’s most recent column in The Morning Star:

For details of the book and the publisher:

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