For most of my life I have had an aversion to poetry readings. The quickest way to get me out of a building would be to put up a sign announcing one about to begin. I used to pride myself on only having been to one: Marianne Moore, reading in Cambridge, Mass., in 1965. I went to please my then wife. I recall Marianne Moore’s appearance in detail: a tiny woman wearing a blue suit and a flat black hat rather like the one judges used to put on when they pronounced the death penalty. And I remember her clear, ‘proper’ voice. Not a word of the poems. But my memory is bad for poems.
I don’t think poems read aloud in lectures count as poetry readings. Another Graves story which one of my nominators recently reminded me of: Graves in 1962, in the Oxford ‘Schools’, reading a poem. ‘Two women!’ (barked out as if a military order, then a pause as Graves reaches for his glass of water... Glug, glug glug... puts glass down.) ‘One as good as bread....’ I prefer his recordings of poems – more natural. Some poetry reading on recordings is captivating: the accent (again ‘proper’ Boston) of e.e.cummings, Sorley MacLean’s Gaelic chant, Martin Seymour-Smith’s rasping London voice which he described in a poem, The Love Toucan, which ends:
Don't let me drain your eyes
Of their new green,
Let me be by you in a cage
All night, all day,
And, though I cannot sing,
Love you with my hoarse cries.
The first poetry reading I attended after Marianne Moore’s was my own, in May 2009 at the book launch of Always Two. To my horror, I enjoyed it. I’m used to hearing the sound of my own voice giving lectures or talks on neuropsychology, but reading my own poems I actually found myself moved by them – or not. More precisely, I realised that some were difficult to read aloud, because moving, and others not, because not. I haven’t done enough further readings (only one, later that month, in Belfast) to work out why only some of my poems move me when I read them aloud. Perhaps some of it is context. I read ‘Desire in Belfast’ in Belfast with a sense of anxious excitement because there were some rather proper (that word again) people in the audience who were old enough to know the background scenes of the poems pretty well, and I wasn’t sure how they’d take torrid stanzas about my love-life in those scenes. But they clapped. So now I enjoy poetry readings.
I will be giving one in Oxford, at University College, on Wednesday 2nd June (Hardy's birthday) at 8.15. I don’t like poetry readings, even my own, enough to think they should be very long. This one will be introduced by Rory McTurk, then I’ll read some poems and perhaps chat or invite comments about them, then there will be a brief break, then my singing daughter Christina Raphaelle and her colleague Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas on guitar will do three Spanish songs, then I’ll read a few more poems.
Perhaps the word ‘proper’ keeps coming up because I am embarrassed by reading my poems. The poet James Reeves said that true poetry was embarrassing, but that was all right because in this day and age it was embarrassing to be alive. I don’t agree. I am not in fact embarrassed by anything in my life. But poetry is outspoken. So it is best to keep it between friends, at least for a while. I don’t know whether John Donne was embarrassed by his poems, but he came to believe his love poems were private and he suppressed them when he became Dean of St Paul’s. This was just politics. A lot of poets, even now when supposedly ‘anything goes’, become safer and safer as they become better known. But safe poems are usually duds. Perhaps these poets have unsafe poems in their desk drawers. Hardy attempted to resolve the problem by labelling his more personal poems idiosyncratically as ‘personations’ – i.e. ‘these poems aren’t really about me.’ But at least he published them, and since poems have a life of their own I think they should be allowed to come out and live it. Publishing involves risk. I don’t mind publishing a personal poem like, for example, The Hugger-Mugger. For all people know it’s a personation. But I do wonder if I’ll have the nerve to read it at University College, Oxford. I’m not embarrassed by it but it’s not very proper. I don’t know whether it will move me or not.
Anyone reading this Blog is welcome to the reading.