Monday, 18 June 2012


A waste of time and money?

Perhaps you spent a miserable childhood being nagged to do music practice every night.  Maybe you are a parent who has shelled out eye-watering quantities of hard-earned cash only to find the ungrateful offspring never touches an instrument again after leaving home. 

So it was heartening to read Helen Farish’s dedication at the beginning of her new collection Nocturnes at Nohant (Bloodaxe 2012):  “In memory of my parents with thanks for all the years of piano lessons”.

I heard Helen read at Grasmere last Tuesday, together with Daljit Nagra.  Both poets read beautifully, sometimes speaking the poems from memory.  What a pleasure to see and hear poets who engaged so fully with their audience.  

I was particularly interested in Nocturnes at Nohant based on the relationship between George Sand and Chopin at Nohant, Sand’s family home, in the ten years following their first meeting in 1836.  Helen is reading at Ledbury Poetry Festival with a pianist playing Chopin – well worth going to if you can (Saturday 7 July 4.15pm at Hellen’s Manor)

Music and poetry go well together – content or performance or both.  Joanna Boulter’s Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich is a superb achievement, in which the poetic forms are directly related to Shostakovich’s biography and music, for example “Mirror Fugue”

As for individual poems with a musical theme there are so many I could choose.   I’ve selected some of my favourites and put links so you can read them (and in one case watch on youtube). 

“Bach and the Sentry” is set in the trenches of the First World War

Langston Hughes sings the blues in “The Weary Blues”

Michael Longley wrote a perfect (if a few years late) “Elegy for Fats Waller”

In William Carlos Williams’ “The Dance” the poet imagines the sounds “in Breughel’s great picture The Kermess”  Those peasants “swinging their butts” to “such rollicking measures” knew how to enjoy themselves.

Here are a few more without links – Sheenagh Pugh’s “Mozart Playing Billiards” (Song for the Taxman Poetry Wales Press 1993) and Pauline Stainer’s “Chromatics” as well as her short moving poem “After the Bread Queue Massacre” about the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović (both from The Wound-dresser’s dream Bloodaxe 1996).

Do you have any favourite music poems? 

And now, confession time: I’m a failed grade 5 pianist – but I’m a good listener.

Saturday, 9 June 2012


Poet Ruth Bidgood will be 90 this year.  On her birthday in July she will be launching her latest collection (Above the Forests Cinnamon Press) in Aberystwyth.   I first read Ruth Bidgood’s poems when I was in my teens.  She is a poet of landscape and people.  There’s a touch of the Thomases (both Edward and RS) in her short lyrical elegiac poems of the Welsh countryside. 

One of her poems which I particularly enjoy is “Llanthony” in Singing to Wolves (Seren 2000).  Visiting the ruins of Llanthony Priory on a busy summer’s day (a Bank Holiday?) she imagines the monks , tired with being stuck in the middle of nowhere, asking “Why should we stay here / singing to wolves?”  In the present children are dashing around excitedly, the restaurant is packed and the colours of the hanging baskets outside are bright and brash.  But there is one small girl “carefully picking daisies”, choosing to be apart.  Perhaps, the poet speculates, she will grow up to be one who loves solitude, “risk-encircled beauty” and “the sweet / unprofitable singing to wolves”.

Is it something to do with the Queen’s Jubilee that age has come into focus more recently?  “The Age of Creativity” has been the subject of Radio 3’s The Essay all this week. 

Five artists working in different disciplines have explored the interaction between creativity and ageing: screenwriter Colin Shindler, painter Tess Jaray, writer Frances Fyfield, poet Maureen Duffy and composer Francis Pott.  I’ve noticed some common threads in their talks.  Creativity is not about personal self-fulfilment (though to ignore creativity is damaging).  Rather creativity carries with it the responsibility of using artistic abilities for others.  Frances Fyfield quoted Samuel Johnson, “The true aim of writing is to enable others to enjoy life or to endure it.”

Maureen Duffy  spoke of how she, like Hardy, has returned to concentrate on poetry in later life.  Tess Jaray said that for a creative artist there is no such thing as retirement, only a perpetual search for the elusive grail of the perfect work of art. 

On a daily basis the artist, young or old, battles with procrastination (pencil sharpening and coffee making syndromes rank high on the list).  That’s why Jack London was right – “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”