A feast of words last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to celebrate Faber and Faber's 80 years of publishing poetry. Current front-list poets – Seamus Heaney, Alice Oswald, Paul Muldoon, Wendy Cope, Daljit Nagra – read from the backlist – Ted Hughes, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath. Added to this, projections of evocative black and white photographs filled the stage as archive recordings brought to life Ezra Pound, Louis MacNeice, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore.
But why when we were there to celebrate poets and poetry, include tenor Robin Tritschler accompanied by Julius Drake, singing Britten’s settings of Auden’s work? No denying the consummate performance of the two musicians but not a word of Auden’s poetry reached my ear. Nor anyone else’s, judging by the dissatisfied talk afterwards. This musical section offered an entirely different listening experience. The tenor’s tortured enunciation at the service of the music [and it is fine music] was so far removed from Auden’s voice.
There is music enough in the poetry itself.
High points for me were Paul Muldoon reading from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ Heaney reading Hughes and Alice Oswald reading Beckett.
Heaney has acknowledged that, in his early days as a Faber poet, he looked up to Ted Hughes, so it was poignant to hear seventy-year-old Heaney reading ‘Thought Fox’ watched over by a photograph of Hughes in his twenties. Later Heaney read his own ‘Digging’ – both poems now seminal works on the process of writing.
Alice Oswald, so earthed and embodied, didn’t sound a wrong note as she read Samuel Beckett’s play/poem ‘Rockaby.’ Extraordinary. Reading from her own long work, 'A Sleepwalk on the Severn', a poem that captures several voices, there was an echo of Beckett in the rhythms and repetitions, a touch of Dylan Thomas too in the portrait of a village and evidence of the influence of Ted Hughes in the precise connections to the natural world she evokes. But, Oswald has synthesised all of these voices. Hers is a mesmeric, highly original music.
The best of last night has sent me back to read, read, read. And, reminded me that so much of writing involves listening. Listening in to early drafts and asking – what is it I’m trying to say? What does that sound like?