Jaci Stephen had this right ages ago in The Evening Standard when she dryly remarked about poetry readings – “just when you think they are finishing they go on…” And go on some of them do. Tell the poets they have a fifteen minute slot and inevitably they’ll attempt to read for forty. How much poetry read out loud does the world need?
I’ve been on the road recently promoting my new book, Real Cardiff Three, which ostensibly is not poetry. This is travel writing, history, memoir, psychogeography, story. I get onto the platform and talk about the city’s history, my take on how it has come into being and why it looks like it does. I discuss Cardiff’s peculiarities – the lost watercourses, the vanished holy wells, the ways in which the place has got itself named after metals, precious stones and the shires of England. I talk about its tall buildings, its sophistication, its hidden tunnels, its all-white cityscape, its place as Wales’ heart, stuck out like a fist, here on the south east border. My audience listens. Then I read one of Real Cardiff’s poems. The books have just a few. I do the one about the Russell Goodway Memorial Roundabout or list the books people never borrow from the new Central Library. A History of Minor Roads in Wales. The Joy of Splott. Highlights in the History of Concrete. Bombproof Your Horse. Did Lewis Carroll Visit Llanrumney? Caerphilly Cheese Problems Solved. The audience wakes up and falls about. Poetry gets to places where prose never can.
At the biennial John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry the other month the level of sophistication, invention and sheer linguistic verve proved once again that good verse could still thoroughly entertain. The place was packed. I don’t think I’ve seen a poetry audience enjoy themselves so much in years. Dafydd Wyn, the west Wales winner, gave us Anglo-Welsh poetry like it used be but with added oomph. Liam Johnson made the air flicker with his verbal virtuosity. Thaer Al-Shayei came on dressed as a gorilla and had the entire place falling off their chairs. Sally Spedding managed the same trick with her tales of medical misdemeanours. There were top end performances that embraced everything from football to fighting demons. Live poetry still does it. In two and a half hours I spotted not one yawn.
And if you look about you’ll see that this reading thing is going through a revival. Mab Jones and Ivy Alvarez rock at the Promised Land. The Absurd in Mold mashes music and bi-lingual verse into an entertaining whole. Seren take the high ground with their First Thursday series. John Williams works lit and music at Chapter this month. There are rumours of new poetry and music series starting up elsewere in the city. Poetry certainly has a future.
A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 16th January, 2010