On generosity

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By the time you read this I will be far away from here. It has not happened yet, but I am pretty sure I have just heard the greatest poetry reading of my life. Tonight, at any rate.

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Here is unique. Aldeburgh (Snape? It doesn’t matter. What’s in a name? Glastonbury is in Pilton). In case it needs saying again (it doesn’t): the place is poetry.
Here. So (as we say). Yards from where I am sitting a woman is sitting reading Beverly Rycroft’s miraculous book of poems about breast cancer, missing. I met Beverly virtually some months ago, as we exchanged emails in preparation for our conversation yesterday about Poetry and Illness. I have known her a mere 48 hours. But already she is a lifelong friend. Last night we drove her hilarious-generous kids to their lodgings in wet Suffolk lanes. I have known them all their lives, too, meeting them first in and between the lines of (have I said this?) Beverly’s extraordinary book of poems, missing.

Another woman is writing in her journal. A poem, perhaps? Almost certainly. We last saw each other in 2001, five minutes ago. Death has happened since. Cancer. It took a minute to catch up and go past this, before we got on to the poetry, the main event.

To my left a gent in a navy jumper is reading Adélia Prado’s The Mystical Rose: Selected Poems. He is making tiny, shifting movements in his chair which indicate his socks are being knocked off.

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You might be in the comfort of your bed, or on a mobile waiting for the shuttle bus back to Aldeburgh.

I will be in some service station, probably, almost certainly cursing the British notion of ‘service’ as I search for a coffee to fuel the next 150 miles back to Devon.

It will be dark. And raining.

Of course.

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A poet comes up to me in the queue at the bookshop. ‘Are you always this enthusiastic?’ she says.

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Each day I have breakfasted with poets, shared toast with them, watched them slurp their tea. Peter Sansom, Thomas Lux, my own private Jerwood mentoring scheme. The greatest mentor of them all, Michael Laskey, is here. In his beret, I notice. Only two people are allowed to wear those, I tell him. You, and Morpurgo. I know he already knows this, but this is my way of saying I love him. If my cancer came back tomorrow, the main thing would still be to tell him: thank you.

For this. For starting it. For making it happen.

For rescuing me.

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Let’s think about mentoring for a moment.

A culture cannot created in a vacuum. We know this. We can be scientific about it, but in reality, in the dailiness of the passions of our lives, to quote Adélia Prado, it is about people. Not investing in them, like products, but nurturing them, drawing alongside them, saying an enormous YES to their poems and their energy, even when they are not perfect, even when they are not ‘our thing’, even when we do not understand them.

You see it in the eyes of the schoolteachers bringing their prizewinning young poets to perform their poems. You see it in the way poets embrace each other. In the poets spending their fees (© Kim Moore, 2012) in the bookshop.

Both Helen Mort and Dan O’Brien said it before they said anything else: thank you for supporting me.

Think how long it takes to achieve that. It is not instant. It cannot be achieved with a few leaflets in the local arts centre. It takes time, pages of it, long, walking, patient, endless time, phone calls, paying attention to details, harrying, worrying at them, not being satisfied with ‘good enough’, all to enable the drawing alongside to happen, to facilitate this amazing exchange of gift and generosity and grace.

This is not a religious place, not in the formal sense, but rarely have I seen generosity and grace preached in the actions of kindness like I have here.

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I am past Membury now. Past Leigh Delamere. Heading towards dark Gordano. It is filthy. The radio has decided to go on the blink.

There is no poetry to be found on it.

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Dean Young says in The Art of Recklessness that you can’t have too much poetry, or poems. Even bad poems, he says, do not actually hurt anyone.

Aldeburgh puts the first of these laws firmly to the test.

You can have too much.

And it is not enough.

It will never be enough

6 comments

  1. margaret cox

    Dear Anthony, you are my secret passion* – not that I know you, but your blogs (and I buy your poetry). And you love and know the poets I love and introduce me to others I didn’t know. One of which, known, Michael Laskey, I feel particularly strongly about. He was the first tutor at my first Arvon course and I was there because of him and he was the most significant. When I first read his poetry I knew that was what I wanted to do. When he first spoke to us he said we had to know that we were all poets. After that course he spent two years turning down my submissions to Smiths Knoll! Kindly. But I have lost means of contact with him, except that I have just bought his latest collection of course. Then there are Peter and Ann Sansom – Arvon again. But then Whitby and then Whitby again this December. I have written more in response to them than to anyone. I saw them recently, briefly, in Sheffield, and felt an overwhelming affection. I am shy of well known poets – I think you may be. Or do you lose that once you yourself are well known? Thank you for your blogs. Meg Cox xx *not that secret – I constantly promote your blog to poet friends.

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  2. Brian Ings

    Stunning post, Anthony! Love that enthusiasm for poetry, even the not-so-good stuff! You know, I have often wondered what poets do when they are not actually writing. ‘Slurping their tea’ never once occurred to me! It probably requires another poet to notice, and then comment wittily on, such hitherto clandestine aberrations. Seamus Heaney’s eldest used to refer to his dad (Nobel prize-winner et al) as ‘old Head-the-ball’, which is curiously comforting to this mere mortal, and will, I hope, give you a filip, after the post-Pilton flatness sets in!

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  3. Jeff Schwaner

    Your spirit is catching, sir.

    Great to see you mentioning Art of Recklessness, too. While I’ve stayed away from reading much writing about poetry, I really enjoyed that book, and among my favorite bits is the part you mentioned.

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