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Virtual Third

by on 11 December 2020

Best Wine Saved

Virtual Third

Poetry Performance, On-Line, 6th December

Review by Quentin Weiver

The contributors to Poetry Performance, that wonderfully enthusiastic potpourri of purveyors of poetry, do exactly what it says on the tin: they perform their own (or sometimes other poets’) works.  The predations of microbiological marauders have this year driven their monthly readings from the fuggy conviviality of Teddington’s Adelaide pub to the crackly cosiness of the Zoom room.   It is there that we now go for the third of the group’s virtual monthly meetings.

It is often said that poets cannot read their own poetry.  Words sired in the mind and which blossom on the pen can easily be killed on the lips.  A tragic example of a master committing filicide is TS Eliot reading his poem The Hollow Men.  Thankfully in the hands of a skilled reader, such as Jeremy Irons, the same poem sings.

Here lies both the strength and the weakness of Poetry Performance.  As a body it is a broad church ranging, on the Poetry side, from tyro rhymesters to published professional poets and similarly, on the Performance side, from shrinking violets to consummate thespians.  Through the portals of Poetry Performance lies the potential for unpolished poesy to shine, or soaring verse to plummet.  To be fair, usually the balance is for good poetry to be well presented, but there is a frisson generated by the possibility of a figurative car crash. 

However there was no F1 fire-ball at the Zoom track in December’s Virtual Third, but rather a cold start.  It took most of the first half of the event for momentum to build, but unfortunately those of the audience who slipped away before the interval missed some exciting displays of skilled driving of the beauty of words by wordsmiths and performers alike. 

Heather Montford, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies (Mistress of Ceremonies?  Or are both proscribed nowadays?) opened by reminding us that the ostensible theme of Virtual Third was “Gift”.  Let’s pick up some highlights.

Pat Cammish dropped us a seasonal gift in the middle of the first half with Winter Solstice, which neatly pointed out that in mid-December “Apollo’s daily course” is all too short, but that even Pagan hearts could be lifted by the solstice, a time of hope, a turning point from which things could get better.  She then looked wearily with The Caterpillar through the Keyhole at Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.  Taking a circumspect view of recent controversies surrounding Carroll’s proclivities, and with the 19th polymath as narrator, Cammish regards the keyhole as the threshold of a world that he dare not enter.  Prudently cautions, it is thought-provoking piece.

Another pair of poems that had a 19th Century feel were presented in the middle of the second half by Ann Vaughan-Williams.  Her gifts had the quality of water-colour landscapes.   The Tower painted a picture of the Suffolk coast, “Sea’s edge, samphire, sugar beet in the sea marsh”.  You could almost smell the seaweed as the titular tower, an Admiralty fort, loomed out of the mist.  Earlier she had taken us to warmer climes, the sunshine of the Dordogne.  Now verbally donning the smock of a French Impressionist, Vaughan-Williams took us to the Cave At Les Eyzies and into the art-world of prehistoric cave painters.  The atmosphere now was one of desiccation. 

Poetry Performance is certainly not parochial.  One of the contributors was Tim Waller, an American published poet, who Zoomed in from the environs of Chicago.  His poems were touching memorials to his mother, who had died when he was twelve years old.  Protection describes his feeding sparrows in the snow with his mother, his childish delight at baby birds, and then his recoiling on discovering that one was dead.   “Why does God do that?” he asks with the innocence of a child.  In The General Store recalls cooking with his mother, then how much different it was to do it for himself at Uni, as he writes back home to his family.

Gentle nostalgia also opens Keith Wait’s commemorative poem written in May, one of a series remembering various Second World War events this year.   In his Forward from Dunkirk, metre and rhyme at first conjure the moneyed leisure of the interwar years on a pleasure boat moored near Teddington Lock.  That rhythm ebbs away in the first of two mirrored stanzas, as though in post-coital repose, to re-emerge in a more martial mood: it’s a transition that effectively evokes the way the vessel, like others, was pressed into service for the evacuation from the French port, whose eightieth anniversary the poem commemorates.  Wait’s use of alliteration in the later parts of the poem expresses resolve in the face of danger, while a weaving together of literary allusions and family histories shows how personal and national traditions have become intertwined.

Past-master (or Past-mistress?  No, let’s not go there again!) of nostalgia is Heather Moulson.  Her nostalgia though is tempered with humour, as in The Longest Journey.  The journey in question took place in 1978 when she went by train from King’s Cross to Filey to take up a low-wage job entertaining in a holiday camp.  Living in a cold caravan convinced her that glamorous it wasn’t.   Then Cold Caller pushed home the message that the shine rubs off very quickly, even on that new-fangled push-button telephone.   (Could that have been one of those Trimphones?  Shaped like a block of cheese, we all raved about their style in the ‘Seventies.) 

Palace of Varieties, yes!  Let’s forget about spoken poetry and go on to a more animated form of verse, the songs of the music hall with a mood-lightening entr’acte from Nelly Power, the dynamic performer who wowed, amongst many, King Edward VII.  Nelly not being personally available, we were entertained by her alto ego, Lottie Walker.   Oh, what unstrained joy Zoom (muted) gives to be able to join in with Lottie singing The Boy (Girl) I Love Is Sitting in the Gallery, without offending anyone.   (If you go to the Hackney Empire ask about the mysterious number 04 on the side of the proscenium arch, and its connection with this song, Nelly Power and the then Prince of Wales.)   Let’s have more of Lottie’s Nelly.

Lottie Walker’s attack, in the dramatic sense, perhaps underlines my remarks on the importance of the Performance side to sculpt the verse into a living three dimensional being.  Actor Ken Mason also performed, again using a sense of fun, in his poem Pomposity, a portrait of a self-important personage when confronted with a public demonstration.  Clipped voice: “What good do all these protest do? … … “They stop me getting to my club!”  Uncomprehending woke selfishness meets uncomprehending bluff bafflement.

In contrast, the works of Thomas McColl, the month’s featured poet were somewhat underperformed.    These were largely from his anthology Grenade Genie, which was recently published by Fly on the Wall Press.

At the highest of performers, it was rather disappointing not to hear on this occasion from celebrity guest and contributor Jane Horrocks.   Apart from being an Olivier Award winning actress Jane Horrocks is also an accomplished poet.  Poetry Performance is hoping that she may become a regular contributor.  It would certainly have been intriguing to hear the versatility that has encompassed roles in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice on the stage, Chicken Run on film and Teletubbies on television, to name just three. 

The voice is clearly a key to performance of poetry and another of the second half gems was Connaire Kensit’s poem, Keys to Character.  This addresses the question, what lies behind a key?   He starts with physical keys, those in our pocket or those which might gather on a bunch of spare keys.  As the poem progresses, the physical nature of these keys is subsumed into an understanding that each of these are keys to a lifestyle, and indeed keys to personality. 

Connaire Kensit is himself one of the personalities of Poetry Performance.  An academic who lectured in oriental literature, he was South of England Mastermind in 1981.   His erudition was obvious in his poem In the Palace.  With the form of ninth Century Chinese poems, it begins in the Chinese language.  There is an evolving comparison between Court battles in long-ago China, and today’s all too topical struggle against a powerful virus. 

Possibly Kensit’s influence brought about Poetry Performance’s Parthian shot for the evening, eighteen delightful haikus on the theme of Christmas .   And so ended the last celebration of Poetry Performance for 2020, an end of year party, but it is a pity that the best wine was saved for so late in the gathering.

Quentin Weiver, December 2020

Photography by George Douglas, Philip Broadbent, Didier Planchanet and Dave Benett

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Dear Pat, Thought you would be interested in reading this very honest review of last Sunday’s Virtual Third Poetry Performance. Ax

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