I had a good time at StAnza yesterday. First I saw Annie Freud on the life and work of TS Eliot and Janice Galloway on that of Edward Lear. They were both really good and it was interesting to see the differences and (perhaps more surprising) the unexpected connections between the two poets.
I saw Sarah Maguire’s StAnza lecture on “poetry and conflict”. It should be on the web at the StAnza site quite soon. She was asserting the importance of poetry even though that importance isn’t taken seriously in western culture. She contrasted that with how vital poetry is in many other cultures e.g. middle eastern and Arabic cultures. And in despotic societies, where even lyric poetry is viewed as subversive, there is a hunger for it. But despite the marginalisation of poetry in the west, it’s nonetheless vital that poets here continue to speak.
That summary of an hour-long talk is a gross simplification of course. It was an interesting speech. I suppose I’m left with the feeling of not really knowing what response she was hoping for, what her aim was. It certainly did make me ask questions. If lyric poetry possesses an innate value and is “a way of happening” (Auden) in itself, what does that mean in a society in which few people read poetry? What’s “happening” exactly and what value can it have if the vast majority ignore it? And if the dominant lyric poem hasn’t been a “way of happening” for the vast majority of people (who don’t read it), is there a need for poetry to engage more with public and political issues, not at the level of rant, but as a way of witness or warning (she quoted MacNeice, I think, as saying that poetry could act as a warning)? Would that have an impact on more people? Or should poets concentrate in getting their poems (lyric or otherwise) seen in unlikely places, outside the usual magazines that are read mainly by other poets?
In the evening, I saw Tess Gallagher and August Kleinzahler reading from their work. My favourite piece from Tess Gallagher was actually a short story – witty, warm, and clever. August Kleinzahler gave the best 45 minutes at StAnza so far. A really brilliant reading! Some people sitting at the back thought he was a bit quiet, but I was at the front and could hear no problem. A lot of people are touted as being great contemporary poets, but Kleinzahler is the real thing.
More on Paradise Lost coming later…