March 25, 2007
Glyn Maxwell and Jo Shapcott: In Celebration of Auden and MacNeice
Sun 25th March
Poetry has an undeservedly difficult reputation. It was a cosy and intimate reading on Sunday night and this was very nice for us but a great shame for everyone who didn't hear it. What poetry often does need is a handle, a way in. Faced with a dense mass of words and ideas we baulk. I don't know why audiobooks of poetry aren't more popular, because the rhythm is so vital. I don't mean a formal structure, just the way the words bound. It's like a foreign language - if you stop every time you're stuck or delighted the sense is lost, and so meeting a new poem is best done at its own pace.
Jo Shapcott and Glyn Maxwell read (beautifully) their own work alongside that of Auden and MacNeice. Maxwell makes explicit his link to Auden, and it would be interesting to know whether Shapcott and Maxwell could partake in a similar reading on any poet you care to mention, or whether they are genuinely drawn to Auden and MacNeice and influenced by them. Though they both say that often the influences are unknown.
Jo Shapcott began with Auden's Hymn For Saint Cecilia's Day. She then read her sequence of Rose poems, the link being that they too have been set to music. She then talked about memory, first evoked by a sensual experience in MacNeice's Soapsuds, then confused and out of time in his After The Crash. Her own poem Spaghetti Junction is also about a crash, and involved raiding all the car magazines in Smith's for technical language. She finished with her poems Hairless, Piss Flower and Letter To Dennis. Her work is always bold, like the golden tigers on her dress, and she takes on any part of language or topic. It's handsome rather than beautiful; funny, provocative and substantial.
Glyn Maxwell looked disarmingly like a used car salesman, with a crumpled suit and spiky blond hair. With no introduction he launched straight into Audens The Two. If you don't know it, find it now! It's subversive and gleaming. He came to Auden late, having managed to get through an English degree (Worcester College) without reading any at all. He is often now compared with Auden. He admires Auden's enormous intellectual curiosity and knowledge, and explains how Auden divided the whole world into Alices, who know everything and Mabels who know nothing. He feels Auden would have counted MacNeice as a Mabel, because while Auden flies high and looks down, MacNeice is always in the moment. He illustrates this with MacNeice's The Brandy Glass which is an all-encompassing poem about getting drunk in a room. Mabels have come through the academic knowledge to the state of Unknowing and this is a great thing. Maxwell then reads Snow and House On A Cliff. The latter contains a line so lovely and so balanced that Maxwell has to stop and read it again:
"Indoors the sound of the wind. Outdoors the wind."
(I later discover a poem of Maxwell's with a similarly poised line:
"Not too late to not go in." from My Grandfather At The Pool)
We get through the line the third time, and Maxwell says "a line of poetry should be the sound of someone existing in the world". I suddenly realised I've missed the following sentences. Maxwell finishes with two of his own poems: The Old Lad and an extract from Thinking Earth which he wrote for the world service. The Old Lad is breathtaking and has fire in its belly and I'm quite glad we're nearing the end - like a lovely meal I don't want to replace the taste of it.
Peter McDonald, the chair of the meeting, finishes with snippets of Auden and MacNeice. They are gentle by comparison and I am glad. From The Cave Of Making this is Auden on poetry:
"After all, it's rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background-noise for study
or hung as status-trophy by rising executives,
cannot be "done" like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored."