Forward on National Poetry Day

02_poster-artwork copyHappy National Poetry Day! I’m heading down to the Southbank Centre in a little while to hear live poetry in the Clore Ballroom (in the Royal Festival Hall building), and then to not one but two events this evening. At 6pm, The Pity – four poets reading specially commissioned work on war. Steve Ely, whose book Oswald’s Book of Hours was one of my main books of last year. Zaffar Kunial, whose Faber New Poets pamphlet is out – as it happens – today. The wonderful Denise Riley, and the inspiring Warsan Shire, London’s Young Poet Laureate. After that, a celebration of Michael Donaghy, ten years after his death. There are stilltickets available for both events, I think. Be there, or miss it. In the meantime, think of a poem

So, the Forward Prizes went ahead the other night, and as anyone with sufficient interest to be reading this blog knows, the winners were Kei Miller for Best Collection and Liz Berry for Best First Collection.

The two books – Kei’s The Cartographer Tries to Map His Way to Zion, and Liz’s Black Country – form a sort of diptych, both dealing overtly with place and place-identity. Both make plentiful use of dialect, so that the sound of the poems is the sound of the place. Both these books are intensely alive to the subtle play in language, rich in nuance and symbol, rich in analogy and even humour.

Years ago I heard Liz Berry read for the first time, a tiny slip of a thing with a halo of light blonde curls – it transpired that she was an infants teacher – reception – and I could see how the kids would ADORE her. She doesn’t even appear to talk extra loud when she reads she just sounds gentle and good-humoured and completely commands the attention of even a large audience. A pin could drop.

She opened with a poem called ‘When I was a Boy’, which begins: ‘I was a boy every weekday afternoon/ the year I was seven’… I still think of this as her signature, in some ways – the cheerful aliveness to what childhood was like, and the equally cheerful attention to what ‘being a girl’ is. Last week I took her poem ‘5th Dudley Girl Guides’ to me Tuesday night group:

Your plain faces are lovely as bunting
in the sunlight while you pitch your tents

calling each other to pull guy-ropes taut
crawling easy as lads…….lifting

the silver pole inside the green canvas…

It’s a small poem – there are only three more lines, but they’re corkers, in the same vein of imagery – sexual, gently humorous, a bit wistful – that says more, far more, than what’s merely on the tin.

Kei Miller has the same easy, unforced manner of reading – these two are not the haranguing kind of poet! – musical, unfussy, giving the words their space. It;s the sort of compelling that is what I think George Szirtes had  in mind when he described a poetry reading as an intimate event, where the poet has something he or she must absolutely tell you about. (Or words to that effect.)

The subject of this book is the relationship between the linear Western European way of looking at things – embodied in the mapmaker, the cartographer – and the rastaman’s more holistic and felt experience of place, which is Jamaica and also time – ‘On this island things fidget./ Even history.’ – and the interplay between the two, which are clearly two sides of the poet. Poetry is being able to see between.

The poem ‘ii: in which the rastaman disagrees’ begins with a slipping-between:

The rastaman has another reasoning.
He says – no that man’s job is never straight-
forward or easy. Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and real as ourselves; is to make flat
all that is high and rolling; is to make wutless
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without…

There were of course many other fine collections on both shortlists – ‘Best’, and ‘Best first’. We all know that there is in reality no such thing as ‘the best book’. Such a thing can’t exist, and both of these collections with their ‘betweens’ tell us just the same.

Briefly, I’ll mention The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, by Colette Bryce – whose dreamy time-slip poem ‘A little girl I knew when she was my mother’ left one of my students practically weeping into it, going ‘I want it to wiiiiin, I love it soooo much…’.

Here, ‘miles away’, near a dressing table, her mother sits on a piano stool: ‘all that is left of the instrument’:

I see them floating in the triptych mirrors
the little girls I knew when they were my mothers.

They look down at their old hands,
jewelled rings screwed over knuckles.

And Kevin Powers, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. Like last year’s War Reporter from Dan O’Brien, this book is part of the War Poetry of our own time – in this centenary year, a real thing to remember. These poems come from the front line – in Texas, in Iraq, in his mum’s garden while she waits, no longer able to sleep.

The first stanza from ‘Self Portrait in Sidewalk Chalk’:

Once, when seeing
my shadow on the ground
I tried to outline it
in chalk. It kept moving
as I knelt and as the sun
moved itself from horizon
to horizon, the chalk
was changed.

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