When Carolyn Howard Johnson reviewed my poetry book Fool’s Paradise as “Very experimental. Wholly original” I was surprised. Of course I don’t think of what I write as particularly original, what I write feels normal. So Caroline’s review made me think, after all Caroline is a multi award-winning poet.
As I have said in previous post I was blessed with being taught by an inspiring creative English teacher – Elizabeth Webster – who introduced me to the work of some wonderful and great poets. In particular she introduced me to the work of the British poets of the early to mid twentieth century – T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. And surprise, surprise the works she first introduced me to were all verse plays: Murder in the Cathedral by T S Eliot, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice.
Those early readings were etched into my memory and, I suspect, my poetic DNA. Every year at this time on the cusp of winter I find myself repeating the lines from the opening chorus of Murder in the Cathedral:
Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud
What is more under her direction I acted in a number of verse plays – including Under Milk Wood and plays by another British verse play writer Christopher Fry. Plays like Under Milk Wood and Louis MacNeice’s Dark Tower were written to be performed on radio, the BBC was a major sponsor of verse drama. But the roots of poetic dramas are deep in the beginnings of theatre. When I was twelve or thirteen I performed in a production of Alcestis by Euripides, first performed in the 5th century BC. I can still remember some of the lines:Daughter of Pelias fare thee well. May joy be thine in the sunless houses.
Just listen to the cadences in that one line. And of course there was Shakespeare. I was playing Caliban in The Tempest at the age of twelve, loving the poetry in the play (Caliban has the isle is full of voices speech) and realizing how verse can by woven into drama. Later I was to play Viola in Twelfth Night – another character with some great poetry.
The poetry group at the Arts Centre, which Elizabeth ran and of which I was a member, gave regular readings and in one of these we performed MacNeice’s The Dark Tower and in another extracts of Blood Wedding by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The poetry group with its emphasis on reading aloud taught me the importance of poetry as performance. Some of the best poems, even when not written to be read by different voices, are dramatic. And some, such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, although not written as plays nevertheless have different voices woven into them. My long poem called Poem for Voices, is the same.
You can see why writing poetry for different voices is so natural to me. I don’t always write for voices, many of my poems are to be spoken by one voice. But writing for voices allows me to explore textures, emotions and forms in a unique way. This approach, which was once so prevalent, is now so unusual that Carolyn comments on it. Have I developed it further? I don’t know. It’s just how I write sometimes. But then it does seem to me that if people claim their work is original and experimental it almost certainly isn’t.