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Virtual Sixth – Escapement Checked

by on 21 April 2021

Paths of Perception

Virtual Sixth

Poetry Performance, On-Line, 11th April

Review by Mark Aspen

(Part Two)  Escapement Checked

Zulu spear to lime green handbag … now there’s eclecticism …

Since its followers have taken to the aether for their seleno-cyclic sharing of their poetry, Poetry Performance has each time chosen a theme.  For its April virtual gathering the theme was “Spring”.  When opening Part One of this review, I wondered whether our Teddington based poets would still have spring in their steps along such a well-trodden path of poesy.  The vast majority of the Poetry Performance coterie went to the subject with voracious enthusiasm, turning stones and looking into all the nooks and crannies on this path.  Most were positive about the season of rebirth, although there were some misgivings that spring “disturbs the equilibrium” (Judith Blakemore, Lockdown) and one (Ken Mason, The Spring) explored a winding side path adding a twist of homonymic horology.  Thus Poetry Performance thoroughly saturated the theme of “Spring”.

Nevertheless, other themes are available … that lime green handbag for example.  Heather Moulson has quite a knack in combining humour and nostalgia in her poems.  In Handbag this was the first proper “grown-up” handbag, she had at eleven years old and, although she progressed onto a fashionable clutch bag in her teenage years, the smell of the leather in the early eponymous item stands the test of time.  Her humour creates the foil for Heather Moulson’s metaphor for the reality of life.

While we are hitting the humour button, Trisha Broomfield’s The Bois de Boulogne is a sideboard teaser, for it turns out that the title is the name of a big black dog.  If that is a bit off-the-wall, her Sizzling Fillets is full whammy comedy.  It involves an adventure with burnt steak when Mum’s dinner party to impress Mrs Hyphen-Jones veers towards disaster.  Mum skilfully rescues the day with the aid of a tinned Fray-Bentos steak pie.  Mrs H-J finds it quite a delicacy, but the difficulty is silencing Dad, for whom tact is not a strong point.   How many ways are there to make the word “darling” barbed enough to gag him, without drawing third-party attention!

Exploring an entirely different form of family relationship is the subject of The Room Where We Sit by the unparalleled Bob Kimmerling.  The room is a crumbling old timber conservatory, where an aged grandfather rests in his favourite room.  Full of scavenged plants, it is more than just a place, it is a repository of the elderly man’s life, reliving his interests, his achievements and his travels.  Two weaver nests from Goa, a Zulu spear, a barometer, a Nepalese walking stick, each has a significance.  James Bond might have been envious, but these were for real.  The man is resigned that one day, “My memories will be consigned/ And taken to the nearest tip”.  Kimmerling is a consummate writer of reflective poetry.  (v, his Centurio Romanus Sum.)

Following the allegory his The Tree is inspired by JR Tolkien (Leaf by Niggle?) who recognised his own “tree-love” and frequently used trees symbolically.   Kimmerling’s The Tree is allegory on life being a growth of joy and not of despair.

Carol Wain also recognises another writer’s inspiration in Who Am I?  The answer is Roger McGough, the President of the Poetry Society.   The well-known broadcaster is the sponsor of   Arts Richmond’s The Roger McGough Poetry Competition, an annual national event.  Two of the nominated finalists are Poetry Performance members, Pat Camish and Trisha Broomfield.

Dr Matthew Griffiths

No stranger to poetry competitions is the Poetry Performance’s featured poet of the month, Dr Matthew Griffiths.  A published poet and respected academic in the field, Matthew Griffiths was commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2020, one of the most prestigious poetry competitions.  His The New Poetics of Climate Change, an authoritative treatise on the influence of Modernist poets on current poetry in addressing climate change, is critically acclaimed as revealing novel links presaging the dynamics of global warming.  It is a tome with heft, at half a kilo and price tag to match, but for the less robust pocket, How to be Late at twenty-eight pages and less than the price of a pint at The Adelaide (where Poetry Performance met pre-Covid) provides a lighter intro to Matthew Griffiths’ works.  In another vein, he is a sci-fi buff and contributes to the Doctor Who: Short Trips anthologies.  His science fiction novel, The Weather on Versimmon, draws on the Dr. Who model.

Prof Douglas Dunn

His interlocutor for Poetry Performance, Clive Rowland gave a fairly comprehensive introduction, but here are two little-known facts:  Matthew Griffiths was a University Challenge team member for Durham University in 2010; he is a skilled actor and once played the Shakespearean son of this very critic!    The interview with Rowland did however draw out much about Matthew Griffiths’ early interests in writing and his development as a poet, and about his approach to poetry.   As a child, it was Sci-Fi that fired Matthew’s imagination, and this is a genre that he has never been far from.   And, yes, it was an English teacher who fired off his love of poetry, initially with The Whitsun Weddings, as an introduction to Philip Larkin.  His teenage years widened the styles to include the aforementioned Roger McGough.  At the University of St Andrew, Matthew studied under Douglas Dunn, the Professor of English, who had been a protégé of Philip Larkin.  Matthew found himself particularly drawn to modernism and poets such as TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf.  

Asked about the unlikely concatenation of poetry and global warming, Matthew explained that his book The New Poetics of Climate Change had arisen from research work he had done at Durham University, where it had formed the subject matter of his PhD thesis.  He had at this time worked as a sub-editor of Renewable Energy World which helped form his ideas.  At the start of the evening’s Poetry Performance event, Clive Rowland had quoted from Shelley that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World” and Matthew picked up on this recognizing the closing line of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.  Two centuries on, the question remains, what can poetry do..?  Not merely offer polemics.  The New Poetics of Climate Change has gained a considerable reputation, having been mentioned is the Times Literary Supplement and on Radio 3.    It featured in the Richmond Literary Festival in 2019.  Tying in the interest in Sci-Fi  writing (including writing for Dr Who fanzines) Matthew believes that Sci-Fi can open up ideas in ecology.

Clive Rowland asked if Matthew Griffiths had any tips on writing poetry.  “I could tell you about editing” was the modest reply, but then the advice to make it strong, just write it, put it aside, then come back as a reader.  “Work it out at that level.  If your reader has different opinion, you can’t gainsay that.”

Matthew Griffiths read seven of his short poems.  At Teddington Lock describes the local landmark at a time when “Summer has soldiered on to Halloween” as series of metaphors for nature returning to rest, not as the antithesis to the evening’s theme but as a precursor of a spring to come.  Pantones for the Anthropocene picks up the subject of climate change, looking at geology.  “Earth gone the way of the spectrum of plasticine / Globed in the hands of a child”

Rhythmically alliterating its points, it underlines how the age of mankind has resulted in “the confusion / Of air and ourselves we have made of the future”.   Crown estate builds this theme, concluding that “cracked hands can gesture / to catch the last of sky”.

Written on New Year’s Day, the poet’s thoughts run contrary to the traditional hopeful task expected that day, in his poem Irresolution.   Triggered by an unexpected death in the faculty at Durham university, it recognises that the future may not be “an always rising, always filling cup”

First Time Round.
Second Time Round

Burton Going was commissioned for an anthology called Double Bill.  In an hotel in New York, Griffiths had seen a plaque with a sonnet to Bobby Kennedy, who was notoriously fickle in his personal life.  This sparked a notion.  Griffiths’ father is Welsh, and in him he sometimes hears the voice of Richard Burton.  Burton Going is a tongue-in-cheek look at the famous actor’s rather fluid approach to marriage.  The poem could be described as a reverse double sonnet.  It dexterously slices Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and, like those thin tough pieces of plastic between the slices of a prepared smoked salmon, it slots in every other line a tough observation of Richard Burton’s marital philosophy, pithy slivers of wit cutting into the contentions of constancy of the Bard.  Moreover, Sonnet 116 is presented backwards, line-by-line, so that instead of Shakespeare’s fidelity which lasts “even to the edge of doom”, Burton’s progression “alters when it alteration finds, / I near the start”.  As such Burton Going is a strong defence of marriage, much needed at a time when family values seem under attack from all sides.  The case is made though with subtle humour … or full-blown cynicism: “… though rosy lips and cheeks / Are more forgivingly filmed in monochrome”.

Griffiths’ penultimate poem The Metaphor pulls together some of the themes of its predecessors, autumn, change, the perception of symbolism, but the mood seems downbeat, for digging down there is the hint at a relationship going cold. In contrast How to be Late written whilst sitting in pub waiting for friends to turn up.   Griffiths is pre-eminent is this field as he as written a whole book on the subject.  “Sling your hammock / From a calendar grid / Blank with days”.  So you can profit from having friends who are never ready.

Matthew Griffiths’ friends in Poetry Performance though were certainly ready and indeed honoured to have such a consummate poet as a guest. 

However, it would have been more satisfying if there had been opportunity to discuss and to talk in plenum at the end of the event.  This has been the pattern in previous meetings, and the immediacy of feedback is one of the strengths of using Zoom, as indeed is the social aspect, which runs strongly through the ethos of Poetry Performance.  On this occasion, it would have been even more agreeable, as not only had those taking part been from across the country, one member of the audience, Jill Trowbridge, was a guest from Chicago.   

Clearly Poetry Performance’s fame and followers are spreading, as indeed are its themes.  We asked if there any that have been saturated with perception.  In keeping with its holding broad themes, next month’s Poetry Performance, on 9th May, has as its theme, “May”.  Now there’s plenty of opportunities for the sport of thesaurus diving.  I’m sure they will make a splash!

Mark Aspen, April 2021

Photography by Gucci®, Gene Jetter, Liam Davenport, Tobias Gregor, Pierre Montre and John Bolter.

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