So it never actually did turn out to be the new rock and roll. That was merely a marketing ploy from the nineties. Poetry more popular now than soccer. That was the headline on a piece I read at the turn of the millennium. That didn’t seem to be true either, given the recent crowds at Ninian Park. But, and not wishing to be compared to a government finance minister, I have seen signs of new green shoots out there.
We have a new Poet Laureate and one who turns out to be best mates with our own National Poet, Gillian Clarke. Carol Ann Duffy, the radical choice and famous loose cannon is now actually the woman at poetry’s top. She’s no stranger to Wales, either, having toured here many times down the decades. And what’s more important, people actually enjoy what she does.
At the Hay Festival research showed that audiences like to hear writers talk to each other and reveal secrets about their private life. The work itself comes a poor second. I’m paraphrasing, naturally, but this doesn’t sound good for verse. Live poetry is an art form which scores by having itself read out loud, performed, recited, said.
Not that this hasn’t stopped Peter Florence including a whole raft of great versifiers in this year’s scintillating show. Among them are Imtiaz Dharker, Richard Marggraff Turley, Damian Walford Davies, Kevin Crossley-Holland, the woman tipped for the chair of poetry at Oxford, Ruth Padel, the nearly Laureates Roger McGough and Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw, James Fenton, Maurice Riordan and Carol Ann herself.
Back in the town, Lyndon Davies and John Goodby’s Hay Poetry fringe runs at Salem Chapel. This alternative jamboree majors on the sort of poetry that normally attracts men in great coats and women in cheesecloth dresses. However this year it could be that the alternative has come of age. The programme sets out Wales’s alternative stall in some style. John Goodby’s performance troop, Boiled String, the dynamic duo of Wendy Mulford and John James, Chris Torrance, David Greenslade. The inimitable Chris Ozzard. Even the Insider, Peter Finch. A complete roster of outsiders - one-time, actual and real. The only significant Welsh name missing is Llangollen’s tri-lingual Childe Roland.
The Jamboree has two lectures – Alice Entwhistle on women and Matthew Jarvis on recovering the history of other Welsh poetries. It’s a history worth recovering, too. During the Welsh avant garde’s formative years – pretty much everything between 1966 to 2000 - the Welsh literary establishment engaged in what can only be described as an act of determined denial. Few magazine appearances, not anthologised, missing from the criticism. It’s great to see the work now celebrated. The Jamboree runs 28th to 30th May.
A version of this piece appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 16th May, 2009.