“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together”. The same could be said of poetry, as of Ionesco’s dreams and anguish. Inside the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday is a group, anticipating new poems; verbal representations of meshed dreams and realities. We are here, expectant, under the same distant roof as the poet-laureate, no less. Our group is familiar with two nominees.
Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, mossy tunic sparkling, introduces proceedings. Of Valerie Eliot – widow of the Nobel prize-winning T S, his devoted editor and executor, donator of prize-money – Duffy says, “her elegant presence will be missed”. Today, in the 20th year of the Prize, Duffy reads ‘A Dedication to My Wife’, private words read in this most apt of public spaces.
Compère this evening is Barnsley poet and BBC3 presenter Ian McMillan, who opens by telling us he’s wearing the same shirt as last year. But different trousers. That is, he posits, modern poetry; continuity, and change. McMillan encourages us to let off party poppers if we have them. Deems the first poet a “living, breathing gold medal in poetry”, conceding the stage to Gillian Clarke.
The Welshwoman reads from Ice; poems including ‘Polar’, and ‘Freeze’. She is monochromatic, a large metal disc around her neck. She finishes with a touching poem about a swan, which, having mated for life, is left alone.
“A practical guide.” An unusual description for the work of Sean Borodale. According to McMillan, Bee Journal “makes us question what a book of poetry can be, do, become. Ways of helping us how to think”. Borodale kept bees, consumed their honey, kept their queen when she died. His inebriating poems are fresh, weighty but not verbose.
McMillan praises the “quality of listening” the audience employs. Julia Copus claims to be “daunted” by the stage. The World’s Two Smallest Humans is a collection about relationships, brothers, an orange rug. She’s the only poet not wearing black. ‘Heronkind’ is followed by a mutter of knowing laughter.
In place of Jorie Graham her publisher, Michael Schmidt, reads from P L A C E. In ‘Lull’, Graham’s judgemental fox is palpable. Her euphonic lines are alive like the quizzing creature. McMillan calls her “avant-garde; Eliot would approve”.
Simon Armitage unfolds his glasses to read from The Death of King Arthur. Yorkshire tones send historical alliteration to grooves in the Hall’s wood panelling. Jokes about scandalous tweeting, drink-spiking, disguise. His familiar voice rounds syllables of his ‘British Iliad’.
Kathleen Jamie is first in the second half. The Overhaul is crouching, animalistic; undoubtedly sounding its best in her Edinburgh lilt. Echoic r’s, and wavelets. ‘The Study’ addresses the moon; ‘An Avowal’ is a “wee poem” about a flower.
Jacob Polley pulls his beard, banishes hands to his pockets. From The Havocs, he reads a poem inspired by quilting; ‘Lunarian’, from his “occluded early mind”. He jokes, and rhymes in couplets.
Softly, Deryn Rees-Jones reads from chimerical Burying the Wren. Liverpudlian intonations of her “dog-self”, inspired by an artist. Rees-Jones’s long poem is resonant, dog-filled, delightful.
“Between the choir singers and the raffle” is where Paul Farley last read. From The Dark Film, a provoking poem about power precedes ‘Google Earth’; jocular, Franco-Scouse pronunciation close to spot-on, probing our digital voyeurism.
McMillan, excited to receive Stag’s Leap in the post, closed the door on his thumb. ‘Poem for the Breasts’ speaks of companionship, loyalty of these “dumb” twins not shown by her husband. Sad, remarkable, her collection ends with their relationship. “-my old/ love for him like a songbird’s ribcage, picked clean”.
The audience whoops and whistles, as though at a gig. Unified, for two hours, by mellifluous, dream-fuelled writing. Congratulations to Sharon Olds, deserving anointed of ten worthy winners.