At StAnza this year, time stopped (for me) more than once in St John’s Undercroft, one of my most favourite venues in the world. Click on this sentence to see a picture.
The undercroft is an unexpected offshoot on South Street, not far from the fish shop. You just suddenly turn left into what seems like a doorway, shuffle down a few steps and find yourself in a medieval barrel vaulted cellar, which forms the cellar of a younger, but still ancient building. The stone ceiling arches over you, light streams in gently from windows on one side, and birds in the garden on the window side can be heard, as a backdrop, through every reading.
You can’t fit many people into the undercroft – perhaps 50? The small audiences intensify the listening experience, and it’s as though the words, released from the poets at one end, circle and embrace the listening human beings. A magical sort of space.
You would think the sound of the birds outside might distract. Somehow it does the opposite. I have never been more caught up in the sound of human voices than I have in the Undercroft.
You can be caught up there in meanings you like or dislike. You can be fascinated by verbal pictures that attract you or repel you. Whatever the experience, when you come out, blinking, into the shopping street outside, you are slightly changed. Occasionally, profoundly changed.
I sat in the Undercroft yesterday, listening to the remarkable Diana Hendry, one of our national treasures. She delivers her poems so beautifully that I found tears running down my cheeks not once, but twice. She read with SMSteele, whose poetry on the subject of soldiering, delivered with astonishing verve and charisma, filled me with unease in so many ways I was even more grateful for the birds. What was it Edward Thomas said somewhere – ‘Verse is the natural speech of men, as singing is of birds’?
War is a theme this year at StAnza, because it’s a hundred years since one started. And the first World War is the war for studying through literature at school. I have always been interested in (and slightly alarmed by) the relish young people have for the ghastly details in Wilfrid Owen. One of my former colleagues was a specialist on concentration camps. She went on holiday to visit them. Please don’t think I make light of this. I only remember it was so.
How to react to it all? How to process the meaning of wars that go on always somewhere? How to make sense of what we human beings are? Verse may be our natural speech. But we make weapons too. We maim and kill and hate. I once thought women might stop it all. Now I don’t think that.
In the Undercroft, both J.O. Morgan and Tomica Bajsić read about war too. Tomica is Croatian. He seemed incredibly young to me, but he is a war veteran. He spoke about the friends he lost in the war: his five dead friends. He read in English, his accent wrestling the English words slightly out of shape. Something in his process of mastering the language made it even more moving. I think it was his vulnerability, offered in language, as in content – his truth, his absolute honesty. If you are reading this now, at this minute, Sunday morning 9 March, 2014 ten past ten in the morning, you can hear him live streamed from a poetry breakfast. If time has elapsed, that chance will have been missed. http://www.ustream.tv/channel/stanza-2014
After Tomica, there was J O Morgan, about whom I have written before, delivered a long sequence from At Maldon. This time he had it by heart. I have never heard anything like it. I had heard him read before but I have never heard anything like this. For the first time in my life I grasped the living concept of the epic -- I inhabited it. J O Morgan took us inside that terrible, beautiful, ancient story of what men do, and held us there. Time stopped. If I had only heard him when I was reading Virgil at school, or later when I feebly attempted Homer, how different things might have been. But I’ve heard him now. I have heard him now.