At drop of dusk

It’s near-darkness on a placid autumn evening and I’m sitting in my sherbet-lemon car.  Floodlights towering over the pitch beyond throw their glow upon the burnished leaves of the birch tree in the car park.  A car pulls up next to the pitch and a woman with a baby harnessed to her chest walks up the lane.  The baby’s name is Max. They are wrapped together beneath her coat and she is talking to Max, kissing his hatted head. She watches for a while as the coaches shout to the boys who throw and catch, run and ruck.  She tells Max how well his big brother is doing, explains to him some of the simpler rules of the game and, even as she breathes in the milky sweetness of his forehead, she knows that the years will be short before it is him she is watching in the steaming pack of muddy boys on a still autumn night.

I sit back in my car seat and put my head against the rest.  A migraine is in retreat.  It is too dark to read – the floodlights don’t reach this far – so I take out my phone and find something to listen to.  Dylan Thomas shuffles to the front of the queue, he’s reading Over Sir John’s Hill.  I rest my head and close my eyes; I’m there with him and it’s bliss.

I think Dylan Thomas’ poems work on many levels, many points of sophistication; Thomas is to poetry what Abba is to pop music.  Listen to the poem (here, although I prefer the reading from ‘Dylan Thomas at the BBC’) and you will hear lively imagery animated by alliteration, assonance and repetition.  It sounds free and almost prose-like, but if you read it (here) you can see that, as in Don Paterson’s poetry, everything is held together by a solid frame of form.  Five stanzas of twelves lines with a syllabic pattern and rhyming aabccbdefegh.

As I’ve said before, poems seem to take on an added dimension when read aloud.  Donald Hall agrees.  In an article for The New Yorker, a series of anecdotes and thoughts on poetry readings, he says Thomas’ poems were ‘fabricated for his rich and succulent Welsh organ’.  He also says:

‘When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex.’

But for me, as a listener, it is something purer.

Sitting there in the darkness, listening to Thomas examine his own mortality, it took me back to that moment of promise before a first kiss.

60 years in 60 poems

I’m a little behind the times on this, but it’s worth a mention anyway.

In a project commissioned by Faber & Faber, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy compiled a collection of poems for the Queen’s jubilee; sixty poets were each assigned a different year of the Queen’s reign to write about.  You can buy the book – Jubilee Lines – or you can read them here.

Or you can have them read to you here – a neat little page from The Space, a partnership between Arts Council England and techies at BBC.

I love hearing poetry read aloud, especially by the poet, which often brings nuances not apparent on the page.  Dylan Thomas springs to mind.  Almost always a poem is enriched by the voice of its creator.  Second best is often reading it yourself.  Listening to an actor read poetry is a little like having it translated – they should be chosen carefully to ensure that they enhance and enrich the voice of the poet.

The readers here are Samantha Bond and Dan Stevens, who have clear, pleasant voices more suited to classics rather than contemporary poetry; Lindsey Marshal reminded me of a primary teacher at story time, although this worked with some poems, particularly Gillian Clarke’s Running Away to the Sea (1955); but Alex Lanipekun has a voice that is deep and rich and brings the poetry to life.  Scroll down to 1962 and listen to him read Sixteen (1962) by Brian Patten.

I would have loved to hear Alex read Don Paterson’s awesome sonnet The Big Listener (1997), but as he didn’t I’m happy just to read it myself.  Here, you try it –

The Big Listener by Don Paterson

Midnight. Connaught Square. A headlight beam
finds Cherie just back from her speaking date.
She looks at you. Less animal of late.
You lose no sleep but wake within a dream.
Your favourite: that old divided dark;
the white square at your neck; your good ear bent
towards the long sighs of your penitent.
You rinse a thousand souls before the lark
and wake refreshed, if somewhat at a loss
as to why they seem so lost for words.
They are your dead, who still rose to the birds
the day we filled the booths and made the cross,
before you’d forced them howling to their knees
to suffer your attentions. Spare us. Please.