Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live. I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.
Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.
The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.
The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.
David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making. And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:
. . . For a moment I thought
it might be the same bird that flew
from the glove of Mabon son of Modron
into the mouth of a shepherd
known to Henry Vaughan.
It had appeared as effortlessly as
a piece of clothing I never knew I had
until I bent to pick it up . . . .
. . . Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain
but it didn’t go away and it did change everything
about that retreat I’d planned, considered
and thought I’d carefully arranged.
As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,
But it wouldn’t go. I tried
to be as fierce as a vixen
driving off her cubs.
Defied, the crow would glide into the trees
but return within an hour.
Soon it started waiting near my window.
Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:
One night, with the hostel
all asleep, I waited mesmerised
beneath the fig tree where
Brân the Blessed perched,
Both as Bendigeidfran
and as Branwen
son and daughter
of their liquid father Llyr,
whose half-speech I now learned.
While soft, slow, pearls of rain
sparkling by kitchen light
fell in glistening strings,
dollops of scintillating guano
puddled freshly opened oysters
on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.
The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.
A similar hurling occurred over here. And then there was a cussin and a holerin. And then the dog got a kickin. And then a moment of reflection: bring back Sport On Four.
Hi Dan – glad to hear you get up in time to listen to Saturday Morning Live. Bring back Test Match cricket on radio 4, certainly.
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