Wednesday, 23 July 2014

GARDENS, POETRY AND CUTS

It’s open gardens season again.   On Sunday my neighbour’s garden was open, and, having seen some of his early pioneering work on a difficult site I was keen to see how his garden had progressed. 

He has transformed the steeply sloping ghyll into a series of beautiful viewpoints, each colourful planting giving a glimpse of the next group of flowers and shrubs further on.  Wild flowers and self-seeded plants rub informal shoulders with garden plants and shrubs given him by friends.  The whole effect blends beautifully with the surrounding fields and woodland.  The garden incorporates two ponds fed from the stream.  
Afterwards there were teas in the village hall and – not sure how we got onto this topic – I ended up talking to two literary friends about touring theatre performances we had seen in the county.  Brilliant theatre companies (some now defunct), actors who are now famous, plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, Hare.  I realised after a while what we were talking all the time in the past tense.  And I realised the reason – Arts Council cuts.  While we do have a fine theatre at Keswick, Cumbria is a huge county and there is hardly any high quality touring theatre here now. 
On Tuesday of last week I was at one of the Grasmere summer poetry readings run by the Wordsworth Trust.  The first Grasmere reading I ever went to was in 2001.  I had long been an admirer of Gillian Glarke’s poetry so the opportunity to hear her in person was too good to miss.  I was not disappointed – she was a most inspiring reader and her explanations of her poems enabled me to appreciate them at a deeper level.
Last week Philip Gross opened his reading with – a smile.  He looked so happy to be able to share his work with us.  It was an immediate connection with the audience.  I smiled back – I hope everyone else did too! 
Over the years I’ve been to many Grasmere readings and it’s been fascinating to see how different poets present their work.  Andrew Greig and Helen Farish recited from memory, only occasionally glancing at the page – very good for eye contact and projecting their voices.  Robin Robertson plunged straight in without preliminaries.  David Morley included audience participation.  Josephine Dickinson brought along a harpist and the ethereal music acted as a counterpoint to her spellbinding reading.  There have been translation events too – Persian Poets a couple of years ago were very moving and I enjoyed Menna Elfyn’s bilingual reading earlier this year.
Poignantly memorable was Seamus Heaney’s visit four years ago.  He read for an hour in the dim light of St Oswald’s church, his soft Irish voice penetrating deep into our hearts.  The evening had an elegiac quality I only fully recognised later – it was Heaney’s valedictory to Grasmere.
Another unforgettable reading was Paul Muldoon’s in 2003.  I find some of Muldoon’s poems quite demanding on the page, but when he read them aloud all the difficulties disappeared and the poems became absolutely clear.  That was the evening an elderly gentleman asked “Why is this poetry?”  The implied  criticism in the question goaded Muldoon into a response which lasted about twenty minutes and was the most powerful defence/definition of poetry I have ever heard.
At poetry readings I have discovered the work of several poets previously unknown to me.  I have bought Collected Poems, Selected Poems and single collections.  A good poetry reading is “soul-food”, as Scots Makar Liz Lochead said at Grasmere in 2012.  

It’s therefore particularly disappointing to hear that in the latest round of Arts Council grants/cuts the Wordsworth Trust’s contemporary literature programme was a loser – to the amount of £80,000.  I hope the Trust will find innovative ways to continue to bring contemporary poets to Grasmere – we need that soul food.
www.theguardian.com›Culture›Arts funding

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