It is a fine June afternoon, but I have fast-forwarded to the end of the season. ‘Summer ends now’, I proclaim as the pre-solstice sun warms up the London pavements: “Now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise / Around’.
I have brought Hopkins’s sonnet ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’ to the Poetry Exchange, to read and discuss it with a poet and an actor and later to receive a recording of it, which they hope will be in tune with the way I think and feel about the poem. It’s an interesting and generous idea, though the aim seems a bit lofty – and complex – for a single recording to accomplish.
I’m a bit sceptical about the project altogether, if I’m honest. I’ve been invited to choose ‘a poem that has been a friend to you’. Now this is not the way I think about a poem: it sounds perilously like poetry as therapy, a view I reject. And I get the impression from the Poetry Exchange website that an actor will record the poem for me. I don’t usually like the way actors read poems, too often dramatizing, adopting special voices, coarsening contrasts and subtleties and seeming unable to trust the poem to make its own way. So I arrive somewhat spiky, like Hopkins’s stooks but without their beauty.
The Poetry Exchange is a relative newcomer. Its founder, the poet Fiona Lesley Bennett, was invited a couple of years ago by the organisation Workers of Art to contribute to the Wise Words festival held annually in Canterbury. ‘I looked at this phrase,’ she says, ‘and thought that most of the wise words I’ve been given have come through conversations with friends.’ She thought too about ‘poems acting as friends’ – about how one responds to a poem, entering into an internal ‘conversation’ with it as into an actual conversation with a friend. From here came the idea of exploring individual poems with individual readers, seeing what the reader’s relation with a poem is, how the poem elicits its response – including, possibly, an element of provocation. We don’t, she suggests, always agree with our friends, but this doesn’t destroy their value.
When I talked with Fiona, we discussed this – to me – somewhat dubious concept, the poem as friend. It’s true that people who would never describe themselves as poetry-lovers do look for a poem to express something profound or complex at a key moment in their lives: like others, I’m asked from time to time to suggest a poem for a particular occasion – funeral, memorial, wedding. But people don’t, Fiona argues, just relate a favourite poem to a crisis or a particular event: the poem may represent or confirm their experience of the world. They value being ‘in the company of the poem’ – and although she tried other phrases, she kept returning to ‘the poem that’s been a friend’.
So now you’ll find the Poetry Exchange popping up at festivals or chosen venues. During 2015 these will have included the ‘Full English’, a student-run Literary Festival at Kent University; the Durham Book Festival (a return visit); Wise Words again; and a day at the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre. You’re invited to book a session to bring your chosen poem, to read it and discuss it over a coffee or a tea with an actor and a writer, in a session lasting up to 45 minutes. All this is free, as is the recording of the poem which one of the team then makes for you. A copy of the recording also goes into the Poetry Exchange archive, along with an extract from the conversation – and, obviously, your permission is asked for this.
The Arts Council has smiled on this project. A bid for some initial funding was approved, to recruit a small team of actors and writers. So there is a pool of about half a dozen people to draw on, who now know each other well, and work together closely. Each pair will discuss the poem after the session, to be sure they are clear about it and about what the visitor wanted. Both read the poem aloud before deciding on the voice that best suits it; one of them is always a woman and one a man, to get the greatest variety of voice. Voicing is what matters; and it isn’t always the actor who does the reading.
I don’t yet know all of this when I turn up with my three copies of the Hopkins sonnet. Being slightly unsure about the status of a possible podcast, and conscious of copyright issues, I’ve decided – rather reluctantly – to stick with the canon. But this Catholic poem is one I’m deeply attached to, unbeliever though I am. Fiona and her colleague, actor Michael Shaeffer, ask me to read it first. I enjoy this, and roll it out enthusiastically – in fact I don’t read it, I know it by heart. I first met it at A level when I was sixteen or seventeen, at the age when what you relish sticks in your memory. Its clouds and wind and wheat-sheaves are part of the landscape of my mind. And its billowing rhythms carry me along.
Why is it important to me, they want to know. Well, there is that initial encounter with Hopkins – the surprise and excitement at so inventive a poet. And I have taught it since, watching new readers catch some of that excitement and hoping that they will learn to love it too. Hopkins is challenging to teach. He is, famously, ‘difficult’: even Bridges, his earliest reader, had to ask for elucidation – and this is lucky for the rest of us, as Hopkins had to write a number of explanatory letters to his friend. But his intensity, his syntax and coinages – and not least his theology – mean the poems don’t unfurl themselves easily, unlike, say, Lawrence’s. There’s a constant worry that explanation will clog everything up, with no room for students to explore. Yet what a thrill if – as happened once to me – someone tells you later that they loved the poems so much they went out and bought their own copy!
‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, then, is part of my teaching life – but why this sonnet rather than another? For many years I drove every day past a row of cornfields. ‘Stooks’ have long vanished from the farming world, replaced by bales – though when I was a child one still saw the ancient patterns of propped-up sheaves in the fields after harvest. But whether sheaved or baled, the harvest always lies under the tumultuous wind-driven English sky. Passing these fields every September – that season of fresh beginnings, with its tang of expectation – and seeing above them the shifting cloudscape, I’d find myself chanting this poem aloud: ‘what wind-walks! What lovely behaviour / Of silk-sack clouds!’ It’s a wonderful poem to mouth, with all its ringing alliterations, its exclamations and the breath-taking exhilaration at the end when the voice is invited to take off into the sky, as the heart ‘hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet’.
As will be evident by now, I thoroughly enjoy my conversation with Fiona and Michael, despite my initial reservations. I go on enthusing about Hopkins – his interest in Anglo-Saxon, his fusion of the alliterative tradition with the conventions of rhyme and stanza, the inventiveness of his metrical patterns – and we talk, too, of the influence he himself has had over the intervening century since his work hit the world. It took Bridges, as we know, decades to get over his puzzlement and distaste sufficiently to publish that 1918 edition, nearly thirty years after Hopkins’s death. So its appearance coincided with the great burst of literary innovation and experiment – Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Owen – and contributed its own influence, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve always thought the writers of headlines and advertising copy should credit Hopkins for his audacity and prodigality. Whether they know him or not, his DNA, transmitted through a line of heirs and imitators, is a strand in theirs.
Time’s up. I leave the Poetry Exchange still chanting the poem in my head, knowing that I shall receive a recording of it in the next few days, and having fixed a time to talk to Fiona later about the organisation.
So, I ask during that later conversation, what happens after the visitor has left, and before the recording is made? Fiona outlines two guiding principles of the process, the first of which is ‘to remember that our job is to understand the world of the poem as it appears to this person’ – and later a wicked thought darts into my mind, though I don’t think of it at the time. What do they do if someone comes along with a ludicrous misreading of the poem? I have known students persist so immoveably in a patently daft view that despite the arguments of everyone else in the room they cannot be swayed. But perhaps that poem never becomes a friend to them, so the problem doesn’t occur. Fiona’s second principle somewhat reassures me: ‘to stay anchored in the craft of the poem…in a way that might encourage others to look back into it’ – and, by implication, to see something that might have been missed.
When the team members have decided which voice will best embody the poem, the recording is made on the spot. It would be possible, of course, to ‘bank’ the conversation and to make the recording later, but it seems that people prefer the acoustic of the place where the initial reading and conversation happened. And indeed when my Hopkins sonnet arrives a couple of days later, it carries the faintly cavernous sense of the high-ceilinged room at the RSA where we met, and between the octave and the sestet I think I hear very distantly a bass note of traffic. Michael Shaeffer has done a very good job, too: I don’t agree with every breath or intonation, but the lift and exhilaration at the close is spot on – the sonnet seems to fly up in the air!
What happens to these archived recordings, and to the ten-minute clips from the conversations? A second bid to the Arts Council is in progress, precisely to explore the uses of the archive. It’s hoped to use the material to run events – as a stimulus for a group to consider a poem or the wider topic of poetry in some aspect. Several sessions have already taken place with community groups, and with a library. Some poems are already available on the website, to read and in some cases to hear the recording: see http://www.thepoetryexchange.co.uk
Meanwhile new conversations are booked, ‘making a space,’ as Fiona puts it, ‘for individual people to spend time with an individual poem, and with one or two people they don’t know’. It’s been surprising, she says, to see the variety in the people who have walked through the door at festivals and libraries – a very mixed demographic in terms of age, race, class – ‘unexpected readers just as there are unexpected writers.’
It will be interesting to see what happens next to the Poetry Exchange. After all, poems and readers are always springing surprises. Elaine Feinstein finds herself in ‘Park Parade, Cambridge’ staying by chance in a room once visited by Elizabeth Bishop, whose ‘friendly toughness’ her poem embodies. In Gillian Clarke’s ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ a patient silenced by dementia listens to a poetry reading while the daffodils bloom outside. Suddenly unlocked, he recites Wordsworth. Auden (for whom Wordsworth is ‘a bleak old bore’) creates a brilliant Byronic imitation of ‘Don Juan’; and a recent ‘Magma’ featured Simon Barraclough’s recasting of Byron’s ‘Darkness’ – eternal night – as ‘Brightness,’ eternal sunlight, with sinister results. So the encounters go on. And we all know what happened to Keats when he looked into Chapman’s Homer.
‘The Poetry Exchange is supported by Arts Council England, Spread the Word, New Writing North and Wise Words. For more information, and to listen to the recording of the poem Christine Webb brought to the Poetry Exchange, please visit www.thepoetryexchange.co.uk/listen‘