Luke Kennard began by setting his latest book A Lost Expression in context as a book that tries to employ alternate poetic modes to those found in his previous work. The light shed on some of the poems, written as part of an editorial process in which Kennard’s editor tried to ‘wean [him] off irony’, gave the audience a sense of Kennard’s engagement with poetic tradition as well as his subversion of it. He followed the sincerity and plain-spoken-ness of ‘Leather-Bound Road’ with ‘Tragic Accident’, a ‘fast angry poem’ which satirizes the tone of tabloid newspapers. Then came ‘My Friend’; surely one the frankest poems about the complexity of friendship to have been published in recent times. Kennard’s penultimate poem, ‘Spade’, a poem written in the style of Francis Ponge (who liked to write about singular objects; pushing his associative descriptions to extremes until the object is altered) was an apt gesture towards the scope and ambition of the final poem, ‘Wolf Shibboleth’, in which Kennard’s literary alter-ego, a talking wolf that appears regularly in his work, returns to castigate his accent (and broach the subject of class and privilege in a startlingly original way).
Gillian Clarke began by speaking of the sadness that is hanging over the poetry world in the wake of Seamus Heaney’s death. Her first poem ‘R.S.’ was a moving testament to how our reading lives inform the ways we live and the things we come to believe. Clarke’s reading meditated on other formative moments; how our identities are formed through a contact with language in ‘First Words’ and the memory of a polar-bear-skin rug encountered in childhood (‘Polar’). The poem ‘Home for Christmas’ set the mood of her latest collection ‘Ice’ in its depiction of the struggle to get home in a particularly severe festive snow-drift a few years ago. Clarke’s reading served as an example of the power that poetry has to memorialize. Many of her poems are, like photo albums, a means of bringing back past events. The poem Clarke wrote for the Jubilee Lines project, ‘Running Away to The Sea, 1955’, created a vivid picture of this moment in history and how it speaks to our present moment.
Frances Leviston read mostly from her forthcoming second collection Disinformation. There was a feeling that some of the poems read were being tested in front of a live audience for the first time which lent an extra layer of excitement to the event. This tour has been an opportunity to witness the alchemical process by which, as Leviston put it, a poem ‘becomes real’ when it’s read aloud and how this process connects readers and writers to the poem. Leviston started with the title poem of the second book which had contemporary modes of communication, and indeed deception, in its sights. This was followed by an homage to Elizabeth Bishop (‘Bishop in Louisiana’) and a poem entitled ‘Pyramid’ that made use of Leviston’s knack for evocative description to conjure an ‘unfinished town’. Leviston also read work from her T S Eliot Prize shortlisted book Public Dream including ‘I resolve to live chastely’ and ‘Scandinavia’. The last three poems worked in conversation with those read by Kennard and Clarke (‘Sheepskull’ and ‘A Shrunken Head’ focus on objects and ‘Story’ examines the thirst for information, even in the absence of facts, that drives a news story). This sense of all the poems read on the night being in conversation was a thrill to see and hear.
Philip Gross’s reading served as an elegy to his late father and in particular the means by which a person can be lost before physical death (in Gross’s case this involved the ‘edifice of five languages’ that his father spoke ‘crumbling’ over time until he could no longer be readily understood). Perhaps poets, with their attention to the subtle nuances of words, are especially aware of the manner in which we live in and through language. Gross’s first poem ‘Flying Down Wales’ introduced a psycho-geographical thread that was picked up in the next poem ‘Variations On A Theme’ and later in ‘Severn Song’ a poem that captures an estuary that Gross described as a ‘wonderfully ambiguous open space where the whole wide world enters’. In all of the poems Gross read, though, was the figure of his father and it was this sense of the poems being haunted that made this reading so moving.