EIBF 2014: COOL LICKS AND POLITICS – PAUL FARLEY AND ROBERT CRAWFORD

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Paul Farley and Robert Crawford perfomed on 14th August 2014.

by William Bonar

These two contrasting poets each showcased a new book. Farley read mainly from his Selected Poems (Picador, 2014); while Crawford aired his latest collection, Testament (Cape, 2014). This reviewer was up at 6.00 a.m. in order to catch a train that would get me to Haymarket in time for the 10.15 a.m. start, so I was grateful for the complimentary tea available in the Guardian Spiegeltent after grabbing a couple of mini-pastries in the press yurt. The early morning start probably influenced the audience demographic–mostly grey hairs and nae hairs–but the venue was well filled and the relaxed seating around café tables and soft morning light created an enjoyable atmosphere. These two poets are both capable of being entertaining and they each delivered after their fashion despite the restraining effect of the format.

First up was Paul Farley, who chose to recite Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent’ as his opener. This is a risky thing for a poet to do because it sets a standard for his own poetry to emulate but it is something it would be good to hear more often. It sets a context for the poet’s own work in terms of what is admired and what might be an influence. This particular sonnet is a proto-feminist poem and is thus profoundly political. By choosing to recite it, therefore, Farley seems to be inviting political interpretations of his own work.

Farley, however, is also a likeable, self-deprecating performer and he introduced his Selected Poems with the comment that the creamy white cover of the book reminded him of a white chocolate Magnum (surely everyone’s favourite kind) and then licked the book to make his point. He has a beautiful reading/reciting voice; the ‘voice’ of his poems has the same lovely cadence of his own soft, Liverpudlian accent and you might be lulled into luxuriating in the rich, dark (pun intended) nostalgia of ‘Treacle’.

Funny to think you can still buy it now,
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.

Farley was born in 1965, yet he is able to capture that lost world of the 50’s and 60’s by his precise selection of cultural references.

Breathe its scent, something lost from our streets
like horseshit or coalsmoke […]

As he said in the Q&A session, his family moved from the centre of Liverpool to a peripheral housing scheme when he was only around 5 years old. Yet he experienced this move as an immediate loss and nostalgia for an already vanishing world. This is an event that has shaped his creative imagination and he finds himself repeatedly returning to this lost time in his work. He has lived in other cities for decades now but seldom finds himself writing about these other places. Farley also remarked that he thinks of treacle as “filthy”; indeed, it is, “the last dregs of an empire’s dark sump.”

This tin of treacle has political and historical heft. Farley’s precise examination of the tin and its contents becomes a ramifying deconstructive interrogation of a cultural artefact. Nostalgia is suddenly problematic and we are trapped in its sticky implications.

see how a spoonful won’t let go of its past;
[…]
as you pour its contents over yourself
and smear it into every orifice.
You’re history now, a captive explorer
staked out for the insects […]

His third poem was ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ from his 2006 collection Tramp on Fire, which is a fine representation of another of Farley’s tendencies, that is, his love of playful, witty fantasy. There are echoes here of the Liverpudlian poets of the early 60’s, Roger McGough and, more especially, Adrian Henry, in this approach. However, as with those poets, this is play with a serious intent and this poem is a (successful) attempt to articulate a common disturbing existential (some might say ‘spiritual’) experience of solid reality momentarily dissolving like the rapid switching off and on again of the illusory world of the Star Ship Enterprise’s holodeck.

I’ve felt it a few times when I’ve gone home,
if anything, more often now I’m old,
and gaps between get shorter all the time.

‘Relic’ is from Farley’s 2002 collection, The Ice Age. Farley explained that it is a found poem and, indeed, the story of his ‘finding it’ is more interesting than the poem itself. He described it as “a shipping forecast of the mouth” but it fails to achieve the reverberating existential echo that Carol Ann Duffy, another poet with a strong connection with Liverpool, rings from her shipping forecast litany.

‘The Heron’ is from Tramp in Flames. Norman MacCaig famously called for a moratorium on poems about or featuring herons. But he must have known he was shouting into the wind. There are so many heron poems that any poet has to be on top form to attempt one. It is all the more surprising in that Farley is predominantly an urban poet and, indeed this is a Scouse heron, which Farley voiced in a close approximation of what I imagine is his boyhood accent in order to describe the bird’s “begrudging”, “cranky” take-off palaver:

fucking hell, all right, all right,
I’ll go the garage for your flaming fags

Not many poets could link a heron, Icarus and Superkings (a defunct brand of cigarettes) with that alliterative, expletive strewn urban demotic as skilfully and wittily as Farley does in this poem. This is poetry that breathes the whole culture; that, like the heron, “struggles / into its wings then soars sunwards and throws / its huge overcoat over the earth”. There is an inclusive generosity here; a fundamental belief in the irrepressible spirit of human creativity and aspiration. Perhaps this is something more characteristic of urban poets (Cf. Carl Sandberg or Edwin Morgan); but that is a passing thought that no doubt may be readily contradicted.

Farley finished with two new poems not included in Selected Poems, the first of which introduced modern technology, another of Farley’s favourite themes. In the Q&A he referred to, “these strangely mediocre and limited devices”, which is a challenging description of machines that would have struck mediaeval scholars as miraculous. ‘The Gadget’ describes a “box of sobs” that “sulks on standby” and “points to the presence of a soul”.

‘Clever and Cold’, his final poem, came from his own belief that, as a child, he once glimpsed the frightening figure of Jack Frost, combining this with a recently read report by Sigmund Freud on a woman who also claimed to have seen Jack Frost.

The sun can’t have everything its own way

It sounds like stereotyping, but Farley does have that sardonic, wise-cracking, sometimes surreal, dark sense of humour associated with post-industrial urban centres like Liverpool and Glasgow. The funniest poetry reading I have ever attended was given by Roger McGough at the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews a few years ago. Mostly the audience appreciated it as much as I did, but there were those who thought that all that hilarity meant it was not quite poetry, not the real (serious) thing. Perhaps this sort of po-faced reaction slightly inhibited Farley from giving his wit full-throttle, or perhaps it was a courteous desire not to upstage Crawford, or perhaps it was merely the early hour.

Testament is also the title Robert Crawford gives to the final sequence of poems in his new collection. He described these poems as “biblical paraphrases” with “a red thread of rhyme running through them” (incidentally, the first in the sequence is called ‘Thread’ and the last, ‘Red’) and “mostly of Christ’s words”. The King James Bible used in the Presbyterian  Kirk of my boyhood, in addition to the Old and New Testaments, usually also contained the traditional, mainly Victorian, hymns, the metrical Psalms, both sung by the congregation as a whole, and the Paraphrases, a handful of which were given an occasional airing by the choir. So Crawford has followed an old tradition here, with which the Church of Scotland, at least, has a long association. This is characteristic of Crawford’s thematic pre-occupations with Scotland and its peoples, faiths, languages, literatures and politics; and of how history has both influenced these and been shaped by them.

Crawford began his reading with Writer’ from the ‘Testament’ sequence. It relates the story of ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ (John 8: 3-11) and Crawford evoked R. S. Thomas’s declaration that “Christ was a poet”:

When the young married woman
Who slept around
Was brought to him,
He wrote on the ground
With his finger.

Christ, of course, refuses to be goaded by the ‘wiley unco guid’ into condemnation of the woman and continues writing, “As if / In the middle of a poem”, until, at last, he gets up and speaks:

‘Hey
I want one of you
Clever
Men
Who has never
Sinned
To chuck the first rock.’

No doubt it is a reflection of my generation (people try to put us down!) and its cultural tastes, but I could not help but image the astonishingly young Bob Dylan facing down all those Brylcreemed, suited, middle-aged hacks in press conferences all over the States and the U.K. in the early 60’s. [1]

Crawford’s collection has five titled sections in all and he was careful to visit each in his reading. ‘Mick Imlah’ comes from the penultimate section, ‘The Marble Quarry’, and as might be expected, is an elegy for the poet, Crawford’s friend and sometime editorial collaborator. In his preamble to the poem, Crawford was entertaining in alluding to Imlah’s mercurial nature and personal difficulties: “[H]e was what he sounded, an English public schoolboy, who liked to claim in book biogs to have been born in Aberdeen but who was actually born in Lewisham”. The poem itself effectively captures that elusiveness:

Your sports star, film noir, flaneur’s louchness spooked
By the meth-rinsed phantom of The City of Dreadful Night.

That mention of the masterwork of that other drink-plagued London-Scot, James (B.V.) Thomson, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ [2] is characteristic of how Crawford’s work is steeped in the Scottish literary tradition, much to the annoyance of his less sympathetic critics both within and outwith Scotland. [3]

With ‘Waas’, we were on to the middle section, ‘Greik (eftir Cavafy)’, a sequence of six loose interpretations in Scots of poems by Cavafy. Each of these poems is followed either by a prose transcription in English or by a brief glossary. A chirpy repost to those critics, perhaps? ‘Waas’ is a beautiful short lyric on the brevity of life and the mortal limits of one lifetime’s achievement.

I’d sae muckle tae be daein still, ootby
Aa yon days they biggit the was, hoo come I didnae ken

‘Nightingale Floor’ whisked us on to the first section, comprising seven erotic poems, entitled ‘Hard Wearing Flowers’. Crawford explained that nightingale floors are constructed in Japanese temples. The boards are sprung against iron nails that chirp and sing when the floor is walked on. The floors are, in fact, security devices to warn of intruders. The nightingale floor becomes an image of the poet and his lover in their love-making:

All perfect plainness, tiny cries

Crawford saved the political poems from his collection until the end of his reading and gave them the greatest portion of time. There are eleven poems, of which he read five, gathered under the title, ‘A Little History’. They comprise the longest of the five sections in terms of both the number of poems and the number of pages occupied, and clearly they are intended to be taken as most prominent of the various “testaments” in this volume. This will come as no surprise to those already familiar with Crawford’s work, especially in this Year of the Referendum, as he has always been prepared to make explicit his support for Scottish independence.

Those familiar with Crawford would expect political satire and flyting and the audience was entertained by the knockabout linguistic inventiveness and spirited performance of both ‘March Past’ and ‘Daveheart’:

Aw Daveheart, will ye muster men
At Cumnock or Port Seton?
Nae every battle’s won, ye ken,
On the playin fields o Eton.

‘In Memory of Donald Dewar and Enric Miralles, Architects of the Scottish Parliament’ is a generous, succinct and elegant, tribute to two visionaries. ‘The Scottish Constitution’ however, risks accusations of wistful romanticism:

It must contain silver sands. It must hold water
In the shape of lochans, hydro dams and firths.

‘Reveille’, however, with which Crawford closed his reading, has much more of a sense of a threshold of infinite possibility. It urges the “new nation” to “wake up” and leave old fears behind:

You who have slept so long – too long –
With one eye open.

Both these readings were highly enjoyable but I was left to wonder why these two poets were yoked together. There was a brave attempt by the chair (Lilias Fraser of the Scottish Poetry Library) to link the two through a presumed shared interest in the social impact of technology, but this felt strained and artificial and remote from the poems read with the one exception of Farley’s ‘The Gadget’. As a result, the Q&A that followed the readings never really took off. Farley confessed at one point to not knowing what to say, while Crawford was professorial in his eagerness to obligingly fill the gaps. It would have been far more preferable instead to have heard an additional handful of poems from Farley.

Notes:

[1] See Martin Scorsese’s wonderful 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

[2] First published in the National Reformer 1874 and then in book form as “The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems” in 1880.

[3] E.g. Jane Yeh’s review of Crawford’s “Selected Poems”, which begins with a lengthy, virulent, anti-Scottish diatribe: “Is it possible to be professionally Scottish?” www.towerpoetry.org.uk/poetry-matters/poetry-archive/160-jane-yeh-reviews-selected-poems-by-robert-crawford

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