Once again this evening’s workshop reminded me of the power of the spoken word. However much or little time we spend in front of the blank forbidding screen, shunting words around like naughty trucks on the island of Sodor, we cannot forget that poetry is, as Nicholas Parsons would have it, a spoken medium. There comes a point in every poem’s life when it needs to be spoken aloud, either in the calm, welcoming and reverential surroundings of the Library at Questor’s Theatre or in the hustle and bustle of the concourse of a major London Railway Terminus, which was how I chose to debut all my latest work to My Public right up until Network Rail issued the exclusion order. I still remember the rapturous reception for my 3-act verse play British Railway Ham Sandwich which I delivered to an animated crowd of commuters at 8:30 one wet Wednesday morning. That it was necessary to be taken to Paddington Green in a black maria ‘for my own protection’ is an opinion I will never be able to share with the detirmined officer of the British Transport Police, but I am certain that he sincerely believed he was doing his duty.
Happily, Ealing’s Finest were not needed at tonight’s workshop being, by and large, a law-abiding affair. Nick Barth got things going with an enigmatic recollection of a Scouse central heating engineer. Alan Chambers has been sitting in a walled garden, wondering what happened to the hush of old. James Priestman reinterpreted the story of Hosea for an audience that believes in love. Peter Francis returned to the subject of his father in a piece full of Pre-Raphaelite imagery. Louise Nicholas brought us a beautifully-crafted response to Browning’s My Last Duchess. Gillian Spragg has been having problems with her printer (no, really). Finally Christine Shirley brought back her poem wishing a sea traveller well.
The life of a poet throws up many dilemmas, but perhaps the most significant poser is whether to hop up on to the soap-box and give voice to one’s own oeuvre or to employ the well-rested tones of one of this country’s army of professional thespians. This quandary is excellently demonstrated on a weekly basis by BBC Radio 4’s own vehicle Poetry Please, often prefixed chez moi with a firm No and a mad rush for the Off Switch which risks furniture and objets d’art alike.
A fact that often surprises the unwary pedestrian is that Poetry Please began life in 1962 when a disconsolate Al Alvarez bumped into a solitary Kenneth Williams at the Pitshanger Poets Workshop one Tuesday evening. Alvarez had been attempting to interest the BBC in a radio programme to launch his to-be-seminal book The New Poets, but the BBC Head of Spoken Word, Poetry and Camp Fire Sing-Alongs had inisted on a big-name attraction before lighting the green signal lamp. Williams enthusiastically agreed to get on board with the project on condition that he could do all the voices himself in appropriate regional accents and/or characterful stylings. Recordings of the darkly hilarious broadcast are notoriously difficult to get hold of, amateur tapings having been sought out and systematically destroyed over a period of years by the poets themselves. If you have been, thank you for reading.