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Virtual First

by on 7 October 2020

Scorched Earth Quenched

Virtual First

Poetry Performance, On-Line, 4th October

Review by Mark Aspen

With the exigency of the scorched earth policy of containment, the Covid pandemic has ravaged the world of the arts.  The theatre arts, drama, opera, music have fared worst; the visual arts, which need galleries to be open, has done slightly better.   Nevertheless, there is one art form that is solitary in its creation and fireproof in lockdown.  That is poetry.  If proof is needed that poetry has thrived in 2020, then Virtual First stands witness to the fecundity of verse, which, like a rosebay willow herb on a bomb-site, has blossomed in lockdown.

However, the ethos of Poetry Performance is that poetry needs a listener, that the page needs a stage, that the spoken word is paramount.  Its monthly readings at the Adelaide in Teddington had become the must-do for lovers of the liquidity of language.  Restrictions since March though have forced the poets around Teddington back to their metaphorical (we trust) freezing garrets.  Nevertheless, the garret windows have now been flung open once more with Poetry Performance’s inaugural on-line conversazione, an experimental toe-in-the-water presentation of two dozen poems.

Did it work?  Yes it did!  With a mixture of established work and new writing, the evening buzzed with enthusiasm.  The poets own works ranged eclectically from ecology to ecdysiasts, exhibited with éclat.

The event was hosted by Clive Rowland, an encouraging and upbeat Master of Ceremonies.   Much of the first half though was a tribute to Bob Sheed, the influential co-founder of Poetry Performance, whose tragic accidental death in spring last year was such a blow to all the group’s members.  That the first nine of the evening’s poems came from the pen of Bob Sheed was a pæan from the group, but it was a pæan tinged with poignancy. 

Bob Sheed

Appropriately, the opening two poems were read by Laura Lindores, his daughter, who recalled that these had been written in a café in Norwich.  For the Good of her Health is in bouncy style of fellow humourist, Stanley Holloway, in which a lady is taken to Cleethorpes, “for the good of her health” … in a wheel barrow!   Equally quirky was Stardust in which ex-convict turned interplanetary dustman spends his time clearing up space debris.  

Pat Cammish

Many of Sheed’s poems winkle out truisms, such as Hurricane Warning read by Graham Harmes.  The media likes bad news, but the anticipated hurricane comes too late for the bedraggled reporters on the esplanade.   Others keenly observe everyday life.  Pat Cammish read To The Park, in which the walk is for the benefit of a Sudanese Lurcher (a breed unknown to Crufts), who takes an olfactory interest in the historic fæcal traces of other dogs.   Still others show a genuine empathy, for instance Rejected by Fran Thurling reveals the dispiriting process for a writer of getting works published, but shows a warm sympathy for the subject.  Sheed’s Poetry Performance co-founder Anne Warrington introduced his My Two Daughters, written shortly before his death, which she beautifully delivered with great feeling.  It was almost with prescience that Sheed wrote The Choice, which was read by Heather Montford.  It expresses the preference for a quick sudden death rather than a lingering one.  In view of the suddenness of Sheed’s fatal accident, the irony is manifestly patent and not lost on his fellow poets.

Robin Clarke

Nevertheless, Sheed’s trademark was humour and a rich vein of humour was mined during the evening by many of the contributing poets.  Robin Clarke struck a chord with many in his Joy of Gardens, the joy emanating from a deckchair rather than having to deal with slugs in the hostas, bindweed in the shrubs and hummocks on the lawn and in the black humour of You’ll Have to Guess, in Hilaire Belloc-like couplets about a boy who chooses crime instead of school, a morality tale if ever there was one.   

Heather Moulson has a knack of finding humour as she reminisces about her youthful days.  In Recollections of Soho she recalls a daring outing made with a school-chum in 1976 to the sleazy heart of Soho, then the epitome of a seedy red-light district.  A mixture of curiosity, revulsion and adventure seen through the eyes of two wide-eyed teenage girls really gave a flavour of the scene.  (Disclaimer: they returned unscathed.)  Equally painting a nostalgic period picture was her Harlow 1961, describing the new town, boxy aluminium houses with tiny open-plan gardens, in contrast to the character of the Victorian inner-city house that she had moved from.  

Carol Wain had a similar mix in her two poems, literally putting on a jester’s hat for her April, A Jester’s Lament, written on All Fool’s Day with the inspiration of the sixteenth-century court jester, Patch Sexton, whom Cardinal Wolsey “gave” to Henry VIII.  In contrast her On Rhossili Beach, Gower Coast is an atmospheric description of place, nostalgic since it describes visits to her son in university when parents and son walked on the sands.  The greyness of the scene, which she visits “Always in autumn when strong winds blow”, is relieved by a jaunty internal rhyme, “The moody, lanky lad walks with his dad” as she watches them.

Andrew Evzona

Now, when it comes to wearing jester’s hats, Andrew Evzona upstaged all with his polychrome wig, reading from his anthology, 100 Poems to Make You TLC (Think, Laugh and Cry).  However, his 2020 had a serious tone, the pandemic causing a slip from the community spirit seen in the spring to the spectre of the descent into anarchy manifest in radical protests in the USA and increasingly here in the UK.  In contrast Barbara Lee presented a less worried look with her Lockdown: just relax and regard it as a “life pause”. 

For a pragmatic but stark view of Covid 19, Heather Montford’s studied conclusion, which on her own admission would not chime well with many, is summarised in her poem Coronavirus Pandemic.  Its thesis is that the pandemic is nature’s way of culling the weak, sick and elderly.  Hard-nosed but probably true, and as a retired medic, Dr Montford should know.

Connaire Kensit

If this is all too stress-inducing, the answer is given by Connaire Kensit in his excellent poem, Stress Management.   As a member of the academic staff at the University of Portsmouth he had been obliged to go on a course by this name, which he found irritating and, well, stressful.  “You’re the expert on things about you”, he asserts, as “Both horns of the dilemma gore you through and through”.   Kensit is not only a robust thinker, but a great poet (who also runs a poetry club in Putney) and it shows.  Kensit references The Lament for the Makaris, a poem by William Dunbar, poet in the Edinburgh court of King James IV, listing who he considered to be the greatest poets but with the constant Latin refrain timor mortis conturbat me (I am troubled by the fear of death), which links poetry and pestilence.

Looking at the thoughts of poets of the past, others may have taken a more laissez faire approach to troubles, such as the eclectically-spelt Jeoffry.  Silvia Kogan read Christopher Smart’s eulogy of his cat, written in 1757 when he had his own troubles (He was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum in Old Street, solely with his feline companion.)  From Jubilate Agno, the fragment For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry describes in eighty-nine lines the what-me-worry attitude of the cat, “For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life”, but “…having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour”.

John Sephton, however, hung on to the mortality theme with his incisive poem the Apocalypse Now.  Sharp and keenly structured, it had real bite. 

For real and hard impact though, Bob Kimmerling’s Donald is outstanding.  It is a childhood reflection, seen through the wisdom of many decades since.   Its nostalgia is not a mawkish recherche du temps perdu, but a bitterly regretful contemplation of wrongs innocently done in childhood.  The narrator recalls Donald, a child that was different from the others and mistreated by the other children in ways that they at the time would not have recognised as bullying.  The poem is straight in there, pulling no punches with the humiliated Donald having messed himself and the narrator’s child-remembered description of his stools, going on to recount how Donald was intimidated by the other children.  But now, looking back, the narrator questions how Donald had suffered poverty and abuse at home, remembering his bandy legs, probably the result of rickets.  The poem is touching in the extreme and seems to be impregnated with a transcendental quality, beautifully expressed in lines such as “Tempered heat cannot relive the spring that comes before the fall”.   (Note also the brilliant double meanings in spring-fall, seasons or actions?) 

Ken Mason

Spring: “April is the cruellest month”, said TS Eliot, and All Fool’s Day was cruel to Tudor jester, Patch Sexton (who most certainly had learning difficulties), but April has a gentler side, delicately expressed by Twickenham playwright Ken Mason in his poem Thoughts in April, a well observed carpe diem piece.   

With reminiscences was where we came in and Bob Sheed would probably have recognised the nostalgia and pleased to see the variety of subject and style that Poetry Performance elicits.  He ducked and dived with observations and lots of humour through all sort of subjects from life to death and all between.  And so with the poets of Virtual First, which promises to be the opening chapter of a series of monthly revelations of creative élan.  Our gratitude must go to Poetry Performance for demonstrating so adroitly that wasteland of Covid can act as a spur to the art that can’t be locked down.

Mark Aspen, October 2021

Photography by Carl Spitzweg, John Ramard, Griff Evans, Toby Bright, and Coit Fredrickson.

One Comment
  1. John Sephton permalink

    Thanks Mark, an excellent and warmhearted appreciation of a meeting that poignantly remembered Bob.

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