Why we need Aldeburgh


Dan O’Brien began by saying he wasn’t really a poet, but a ‘moonlighting playwright’. Selima Hill took out her glasses, looked up at the audience for a long time, a second perhaps, then clacked her glasses cases shut. Tom Pickard read standing not behind the lectern, but exposed, on the stage alone, a glass of red wine in his hand.

This was all on the Friday.

We were given Dan’s extraordinary long sentences about war and hard-drinking parents, Selima’s extraordinary short poems merging gender theory with tennis (and everything else), and Tom’s long and short soaring sentences about merlins, Bunting and the northern Pennines.


When did it dawn on me that this was already a great festival, a classic? When Dan began by saying thank you? When Selima clacked her glasses case? When Tom first said ‘fuck’?

Before that perhaps. Within a word or two of Naomi’s introduction. Its attention to detail, its sense of compression, like a poem, mirroring the art that was about to take shape in front of us. Mimesis. A glasses case. A glass of red wine. A nervous young man. Just details…

They say that God is in them, those details. In the attention to them and their execution, as I believe sports people say. The things you take for granted, like the precise wording of an introduction which you don’t fully take in but nevertheless marvel at, for all the things you expect, but most of all its love, the sense you have of someone sitting up two nights alone to get it right, after the rest of the working day is done.

There were three empty glasses on a little table, next to a jug of water. They were exactly the same distance from each other, in a little triangle. Someone paid attention to this too.

I knew before the reading, of course.

It was there in the family reading, where the same level of attention to detail was lavished on the poems of the prizewinning young poets of Suffolk, some of them as young as 6. Proper, typed introductions, with wit, humour and love, not one child left out. For some of those families it will have been their first landing on planet poetry. For others it will have been the beginning of a lifetime’s work. As Raymond Carver said, we are talking influence here.

But it was there, before that, even. Think for a moment how you go about creating that level of engagement in a locality, the cultivation of a culture, if you will. It does not happen overnight. It begins with respect paid to teachers, by inviting them to workshops and readings, by inculcating them in a methodology which does not involve levels (for once), or targets, by saying, You can participate in this too: here’s how. It involves saying the same to the young, our young, who of course are the readers and writers of the future.

Aldeburgh has been doing this for twenty-six years now. Everyone who notices the quality of the size and the listening of its audiences is really saying thank you to the hard, patient work of culture-cultivation painstakingly undertaken, out of the spotlight, by Michael Laskey, Naomi Jaffa and Dean Parkin, and the staff at the Poetry Trust.

It does not happen overnight. It is a lifetime’s work for all of us.

Other evidence of this was to be found in the acceptance speech of Helen Mort, for winning the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014. Division Street, she said, began to come together when she participated in the Advanced Seminar (now the Aldeburgh Eight) in 2009. This year’s festival saw the presence of those talented Eight queuing for food and drinks with the rest of us, drinking it all in, notebooks on laps, shepherded and mentored by Peter Sansom and Michael Laskey, for the duration of the festival and for a week afterwards at Bruisyard Hall.

Or in the commanding, New Voices reading of another Aldeburgh Eight alumnus, Chrissy Williams, a model of poise and simplicity.

Some of the process you see, but most of it you don’t. Naomi dropped a big clue in her introduction to Ellen Doré Watson. She had been corresponding with Ellen for several years, she said, in an attempt to persuade her collaborator Adélia Prado to come to the festival, before Ellen finally let slip about her own poetry. I find the humility of this astonishing enough, but what really takes my breath away is how Naomi didn’t give up each time Adélia politely refused to get on the plane.

We need Aldeburgh because it is a place without parallel where dogged attention to detail creates a space in which conversations between poets and readers (which included poets) flourish, all the while making this effort appear spontaneous. Just like poems do.

A final word about Naomi. In her very last introduction, on the very last evening, something of the cost of this effort finally broke through. I noted it down. In the most personal statement she has made about her decision to step down as Festival Director she calmly noted that the resources required to sustain such high levels of excellence are ‘not infinite’. I have no doubt that she meant personal resources of patience with bodies which hold purse strings and thus power over its continued existence. Whatever that future holds, the legacy she leaves is one of generosity, breadth, vision, education, and pursuit of the best.

The standing ovation she received on the final evening is testament to that.

To use Larkin’s phrase, Aldeburgh is an enormous yes to finding ways not to remain silent. Long may that self-delighting disobedience continue, and long may its conversation flourish.


Details of the Naomi Jaffa appeal


Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2014 blogs roundup

Maria Taylor, Commonplace

Katy Evans Bush, Baroque in Hackney (before and after)

Charles Boyle, Sonofabook

Greg Freeman, Write Out Loud

Fiona Moore, Displacement

Ellen McAteer

Kim Moore




  1. Dear Anthony

    I’m more of a Ledbury man myself but you make Aldeburgh sound prettty good too.

    Best wishes from Simon


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