Two readings stood out for me in 2013.
It was a remarkable event for several reasons. First, it was a privilege to see such waves of respect flowing between two poets of such different temperaments. Second, hardly anyone was there. I counted 21 people, including the organisers and one beautifully behaved child. Having driven more than an hour to find the venue, it felt like something of a pilgrimage. Third, the setting was amazing. It was April, and freezing, and pouring with rain. Matthew said he felt quite at home, being from Oregon. We sat in the cafe with bread and butter pudding, the rain pounding on the slates.
The reading was mercurial: lofty and intimate; mysterious and revelatory. Each poet gave what seemed to be the best of themselves in the sense that nothing appeared unsaid, while retaining the illusion that much more could have been. In the words of the late Seamus Heaney, ‘we all knew one thing by being there.’
I heard Michael Symmons Roberts read from Drysalter at the Greenbelt Arts Festival in August. Michael is an old friend I see once a century if I am lucky, so it was a joy to see him give such an exemplary performance from what has to be one of the poetry books of the year, maybe even the decade. He was by turns wry, confiding and professorial, his every syllable laced with his characteristic self-deprecation and knowledgeable charm.
Earlier in the year I enjoyed reading poets who were new to me in preparation for a Poetry School course I gave on health and the body. Among these was The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle by Tom Andrews. It’s a remarkable book if you do not know it. It contains poems with titles like ‘Praying with George Herbert in Late Winter’ and ‘Reading Frank O’Hara in the Hospital’. The lengthy title poem is an extraordinary, one-sentence tour de force which plays with the tension central to any poet’s life, the finding of ‘the right rhythm of wildness and precision, when to hold back and when to let go’. These lines became a touchstone during the course, and I am deeply grateful to have discovered them.
Later in the year I was moved to read Jean Sprackland‘s most personal collection to date, Sleeping Keys. The book’s slenderness betrays the depths of feeling it contains. She achieves what Raymond Carver called for, imbuing everyday objects —a donkey-jacket, a football scarf, a beach spade— ‘with immense, even startling power’.
The same can be said of my favourite pamphlet of the year, Fiona Moore’s The Only Reason for Time. It is a loving book of memories, grief and talking ghosts which circles around the death of a partner with a kind of tactful yet winnowing rage.
Sometimes it is possible to be side-swiped by poetry when you are least looking for it. This year I found the work of the late Margaret Avison in the most unlikely of places, an awards ceremony speech by August Kleinzahler on YouTube. Later I discovered Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows in an Oxfam shop, for all of £2.99. Both have added to my sense of what is possible in lyric poetry in ways I could not have predicted. Not least, they have reawakened my sense of still wanting —and needing— to be surprised.
Very early in 2013 I was asked by Rose Cook‘s publishers to write some words of recommendation for Notes From A Bright Field. This too is a book of treasures, featuring cows ‘implacable as sideboards’, ‘pummelled dune-grass’, the ‘fruit-gummed glass’ of a cathedral window and birds ‘like a fall of snowballs,/dawn raid of small feet to the roof’. I watched as Rose launched her book in her sitting room accompanied by her husband’s jazz band. It was an afternoon of toasts and much laughter, followed by a slap up cream tea.
I’ve just realised that’s three readings.
We always get more than we bargained for.