Poetry Archive

Poetry: ‘A lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime’

What is Poetry? “It’s just a lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime.” So I discovered yesterday, when I searched for “poetry” and “journeys” on the Soundcloud site.

Having enjoyed the latest edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, on the theme of “Dusk ’til Dawn” (perfect listening for a post-run bath), I searched for “Poetry Please journeys”, and discovered that Roger McGough did hit the road, in March 2015, in the company of Tennyson, Arnold and Cavafy, among others. Unfortunately, that episode is not available on the BBC iPlayer. (Note to BBC: please add it asap.)

So I tried the same search on Soundcloud, couldn’t find the journeys episode, but did turn up Poetry, Texas, in which a Danish poet, Pejk Malinovski, went all the way to the Lone Star State because he’d seen a picture online; a picture of a water tower with the word “Poetry” on it: Poetry, Texas. His programme is gently revealing of rural life, and the voices are wonderful. It was made by the innovative team at Falling Tree Productions and went out on Radio 4 in May 2013 —  but again isn’t available on iPlayer. I’ve put the Soundcloud link in below.

The poem and the journey

The winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award will be announced at a dinner in London on Thursday. Geoff Dyer, who has been shortlisted for White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was musing in the review section of The Guardian at the weekend on what constitutes travel writing. The poet Billy Collins, he says, “considers himself a travel writer even though the experience of foreign travel plays no part in his work”. I can’t link from here to Dyer’s piece because, for some reason, it hasn’t gone online, but I did come across a revealing interview with Billy Collins on the WorldHum site.

Poetry, says Collins, is “travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness. The poem’s music and its rhythms combine to form the soundtrack to these mental excursions, which carry us in two directions at once: out into the world and back into ourselves, for we read poetry not so much to discover who the poet is as to discover who we are.”

Gone for a Burton

There’s long been a kinship between poets and pints, says Jean Sprackland. It’s particularly strong in her case: she grew up in Burton-on-Trent, a town synonymous with brewing, and had a summer job in the maltings. In Gone for a Burton, on Radio 4 earlier this week, she led a lyrical tour of the trade and the town. In the process, she learnt a new explanation of the phrase she’s borrowed for her programme’s title…

On Heaney’s home ground

The Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a new centre in Bellaghy, County Derry, that will celebrate the life and work of the poet, is due to open at the end of this month. Helen Mark went to the village for Radio 4’s Open Country programme to hear how plans are proceeding. The priest, Father Dolan, says that Heaney has made the local landscape “sacred and immortal”; the teacher who first took Heaney’s work into the classroom says the poet has helped children value what they took for granted. Even those with little interest in poetry know that the legacy of “Famous Seamus” could be good for business.

Not too good, I hope. I’m reminded of a fine piece Fionnuala McHugh wrote a couple of years ago for Telegraph Travel, in which she observed: “Heaney tours are currently at that happy stage where people are still tickled by visitors. May that never change.”

Poetry and shepherding on the RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list for the Royal Society of Literature’s prize this year includes James Rebanks’ bestseller The Shepherd’s Life and a debut poetry collection rooted in rural Ireland. See my story for Telegraph Books.

A wintry look at Edinburgh

Making reference to “a city of contrasts” isn’t the freshest way to introduce a piece of scene-setting, but the poet Stewart Conn recovers swiftly in Edinburgh at the Year’s Midnight: A Winter Journey in Poetry through Scotland’s Capital City, which was aired yesterday on Radio 4 and is due to be repeated at 11.30pm next Saturday. He reads alongside the actors Siobhan Redmond and Gordon Kennedy, with music arranged and played by Aly Macrae, all under the direction of Marilyn Imrie.

I particularly enjoyed Conn’s poem giving voice to the Camera Obscura in the Outlook Tower, one of the city’s earliest tourist attractions, which moans that even in winter there’s “no let-up in the tourist season, a hullabaloo all year round, the sticky-fingered hordes lapping up every minute, even those with iPhones or entwined in one another’s arms… How I pray for a blanket of snow capable of blotting out everything!”

Bombay, by a resident poet

“You’ve been to Mumbai a couple of times,” a colleague said to me a while ago; “what should I read to get a flavour of the place?”

Off the top of my head I recommended Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s plump and populous non-fiction account, and Rohinton Mistry’s novel of endurance, A Fine Balance, and his short stories about life in an apartment building, Tales from Firozsha Baag. If I were asked again, I would have a few more suggestions, among them the poems of Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Subramaniam lives in Mumbai (Bombay), where she works as a writer, editor and curator. She was short-listed for this year’s TS Eliot Prize for her collection When God Is a Traveller (Bloodaxe Books), and I heard her read from it at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month. Ian McMillan, MC for the evening, noted that her words and stagecraft won her “the first whoop of the night” (actually, it was the only whoop of the night). There were giggles, too, during several of her poems, including one about a garrulous fellow-passenger on a train, “Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh”.  Among the many snippets of autobiography that Mrs Salim Shaikh dispensed were the lines ‘My heart is pure.’/’I practise no religion,/only homoeopathy.’, which, four days after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, was funny and poignant at the same time.

“I  have mixed feelings about Bombay,” Subramaniam said that evening, “but its trains have often offered me fodder for poems.” Those feelings are forcefully expressed in “The City and I”, which she wrote after the terrorist attacks there in November 2008, and which I’m now featuring on Deskbound Traveller. You can hear her discuss her work in an interview for the BBC World Service programme “The Forum”, recorded when she was in London for the TS Eliot Prize readings. On the video below, she reads more of her poems.

Arundhathi Subramaniam from Neil Astley on Vimeo.