Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Philip Levine, Seagulls and Keats

I don’t seem to have posted for a while dear reader, events have rushed at me like a herd of stampeding wildebeest ( I am imaging that scene from The Lion King when computer generated animals populated the screen). Aldeburgh Poetry festival threw up a lot to be savoured most of all Philip Levine who has been a poetry hero of mine since I was 16 years old. Someone showed me his poem The Horse and I had this epiphany about what poetry can do in the world.

Philip Levine was interviewed about his life and that session alone would have been worth the price of the weekend. He was taught by Lowell and Berryman. Lowell he said was a terrible teacher whilst Berryman never turned up drunk to a lecture and was a brilliant teacher. He recounted a tale of an incident when he and Berryman had gotten very drunk together and fell asleep on Berryman’s bed. In the morning they were awakened by a telegram boy announcing he had a telegram for a 'Mr John Berryman'. Berryman sat up in bed and stared at Levine, “Are you John Berryman?” he asked with no hint of joke in his voice. “No” replied Levine, “In that case the telegram must be for me,” Berryman told the puzzled telegram boy. “I hope it’s from Saul Bellow,” he said, “He has money these days and I need to keep in with him.”

There was an interesting discussion with a panel of the great and the good about whether all poetry is ultimately about sex and death and another one about whether there is anything that could be deemed the female poem. The general answer seemed to be yes and no, which is the usual answer you get from such discussions. Jo Shapcott the chair of the second discussion wrote about this in an article in the Guardian some days later.

I spent a great deal of time watching the gulls wondering if they were engaged in poet spotting, trying to guess by their plumage which walkers along the strand of beach would be looking at them in a poetic way. There were a number who seemed to have been extras in The Hitchcock film the birds as they had obviously engaged in a few method acting lessons and could do menace quite well, digging deep into their inner vulture maybe. The sight of someone with fish and chips sent them into a whirling feeding frenzy and I didn’t help much by hurling them the odd chip which they could take on the wing, like a dog I once had that specialized in grabbing a Frisby in mid air.

So what will I remember from Aldeburgh 2009 .

• Crying after Philip Levine had finished his reading on the Sunday afternoon, as I knew that this would probably be the first and last time I would hear him read. Over forty years since I read The Horse sitting on a bus on the way back from school and suddenly all the noise and yelling on the top deck drifted away and I was somewhere else.
• Being impressed by the enormity and agility of the seagulls
• Tom Paulin giving such a close reading of some poems that it was at an almost sub atomic level, I could almost hear the sound of the rhymes, half rhymes and vowel forming in the movement of the air.
• The people at the quiz who got such high scores that it revealed an almost unhealthy level of poetry knowledge.
• The poor woman who trapped her toe in the chair in front in the hall where the reading were held and let out the most primal of screams that caused everyone in the place to freeze and stare.
• This year making sure I had enough time just to sit and look at the sea without having to rush between events

Since returning from Aldeburgh I have been to a great reading by Roddy Lumsden and Tom Warner

I think I need time to digest all the poetry I have accumulated in my head over the past couple of weeks. There is such a thing as poetry constipation, when so much has been consumed it can cause a blockage. On top of all this I went to see Bright Star, the film about Keats and Fanny, so much angst, so much longing, so much coughing.


Anne said...

These days with parallel programming no two people experience the same Aldeburgh. I heard the scream from the bleachers and was waiting for the nee-naws, quite convinced that someone had been stabbed in a disagreement about poetic form.

I'm suffering from poetic overload too. I haven't even blogged about Aldeburgh. Hearing Levine was a great experience, and it's astonishing to think of you reading "The Horse" on the school bus. Who introduced you to Levine? I didn't discover him till about 15 years ago, with What Work Is. His work wasn't available in the UK until a) amazon dot com and b) the recent (long overdue) Bloodaxe Stranger to Nothng.

The internet is utterly wonderful and IMO has revolutionised reading habits.

Writearound said...

Ah the delights of being a teenager in Cambridge with access to American students on exchange over here. Thus I was given a copy of this poem by an earnest young American student who happened to have come across the poem the other side of the pond, I believe it was actually published around 63, three years before I read it.
A friend in the States has sent me snippets from time to time since the late seventies. What Work Is, was a present when it first came out in the States, which actually I now seem to have lost so I am glad that the Bloodaxe selected works is now available.