It was a performance of great generosity, humour, anger, humility and power. You get to a stage in your poetry-going/reading life when you can tell when people are phoning it in. There is no more dispriting a spectacle. This was the opposite of that. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it reminded me of a remark by the conductor Benjamin Zander, when he said that a maestro achieves their power not by making a sound, but by releasing those around them to be the musicians they are meant to be as they interact with the score.
Prompted by the twinkling Pádraig (‘It’s on page 51’), Robinson treated us to a several poems from A Portable Paradise as well as many more from his earlier volumes, some of which are now out of print. Introducing ‘The Job of Paradise’, he spoke of how it was inspired by the sight of a hearse slowly turning the corner of his road in London. He removed his hat, he said, and stood in respect as the hearse passed by. But it made him think. Here was the driver of that hearse, doing his job, suit and shirt pressed, his gaze steady, his pace stately. And here was the hearse doing its job, just by being a hearse, a long, shiny black car unlike all the others in the flow of traffic. And from there he made the point that it is the job of each poet and poem to ‘remind us how to live our days’ by showing readers the ‘paradise’ that is all around them.
As I say, it was compelling, and generous and humble in the best sense. He spoke with gratitude of writers like Bernadine Evaristo and Kwame Dawes who had ‘given [him] a hard time’ over his first efforts, always with the goal of making the poem at hand better and never in the interest of scoring points. He answered questions from young and old alike with grace and humour. My favourite was to a young writer, right at the end of the reading: ‘Set yourself a task of writing absolute rubbish. Don’t judge it or show it to anyone. Just show up and practise your craft. All you need is an idea of the change you want to see, and to use your creativity to move towards it.’