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Which Poets Would You Invite To Read?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have been asked to programme two events at a poetry festival. You have an unlimited budget, but each event must contain only three poets.

For the first event you can invite three living poets from anywhere in the world to read together. Who would they be? And why would you invite them?

For the second event, you have been granted special powers to raise the dead. You can invite three dead poets from any time and any place. The event will involve a few poems being read, and a discussion between the three poets. Who would you invite? Excerpts from the imaginary discussion are also welcome, although not obligatory.

This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. I’d like to hear three women, Claire Crowther, Lisa Jarnot and Kate Lilley. Now I know I publish two of those, which is a bit cheeky, but set that aside, they’re all fascinating voices and from three continents. And they’re all extending the lyric in radically different directions. Crowther has reinvented a domestic voice which is both delicious and disturbing but even with her carefully judged experimentation she’s a warm and accommodating writer. Jarnot uses echolalia and linguistic techniques to create surprising collisions of imagery and experience, dream like, song like, nursery-rhyme like poems that can be deceptively simple but intensely memorable and she is a writer of the sublime. Kate’s work, at least the pieces I know from (god lord) a decade back are comic, explore her sexuality, they’re cheeky, ebullient, and good company.

    If I have to choose the dead, though. Not that anyone is forcing me, I’d love to hear Behn, Herrick, Marvell. Herrick might be rather older than the other two contemporaries. A bit doddery perhaps. We might need lots of port and faint paint and wigs, but I’d like to eat a meal selected by Marvell and listen to something like Purcell’s Te Deum. There would have to be plenty of nectarines and peaches.

  2. (1) Kenneth White, Kathleen Jamie and W.S. Merwin. Hearing White read was the best poetry event I’ve ever been to, Jamie is a fantastic reader of her poems and Merwin is just wonderful. All of them having a strong interest in the natural world, their poems would complement each other and yet being very different kinds of poets there would be great variety also.
    (2) Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes and Anna Akhmatova. Three strongly magnetic individuals, the chemistry between them would be fascinating to watch whatever the discussion.

  3. (1)Kamau Brathwaite, Malika Booker & Roger Robinson – All fantastic readers, all reflecting Britain’s contemporary complexities, with poetry that has work to do in the world.

    (2) Audre Lorde, a personal favourite & inspiration; Phylis Wheatley one of the earliest if not the earliest Black poet published in the UK; Amyrl Johnson who died at her mature best.

  4. 1) Alice Notley, Jorie graham, Louise Gluck
    2) Sapho, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Octavio Paz

  5. 1. Sheila Black, Li-Young Lee, George Szirtes
    2. Ted Hughes, T S Eliot/ Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath/ Virginia Woolf (sorry! I couldn’t make my mind up)

  6. 1) Tomas Salamun + Tatiana Shcherbina + James Tate
    All these are fun, which is what you need in a reading

    2) William Shakespeare + Rosalia Castro + Homer.
    I suppose you might argue for Louise Labe, but Castro was indisputably great. Bronte, Barrett browning and Dickinson wouldn’t do something so demonstrably unladylike as giving a reading “in public.” (How scandalous!)

  7. Good question… Dorothy Parker, Wendy Cope and Pablo Neruda are my inclination today….ask me again tomorrow and the answer would probably be different!!!

  8. I fail at choosing three each, but excluding the few great poets I have met (because they’d all take priority on my poetry night):

    1) Seamus Heaney, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Luke Kennard/Tim Atkins/Anthony Caleshu

    2) Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Zbigniew Herbert, William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Milton… and I’d fit Matthew Arnold in, just to do Dover Beach as an encore.

  9. Brian Turner, Adnan Al-Sayegh, Choman Hardi

    I think these three poet would provide an amazing counter point to each other. Brian’s two collections speak powerfully of his experience as an American soldier involved in the invasion of Iraq and the emotional consequences that has had on him and others. Adnan is an Iraqi poet in exile first from Saddam and later from the repressive militia in his country post invasion . He was conscripted into the Iraqi army to fight in Iran so his beautiful work has some reasonances with Brian’s. Choman is a Kurdish woman poet who has lived in the UK for some years but is steeped in the culture and small agonies exile can bring.
    I think that reading would be something to remember.

    Just in terms of fireworks and interesting poem choices and arguments especially if wine was to hand maybe Sappho, Bukowski and Shakespeare but if Bukowski is too drunk to turn up I’d maybe throw Thomas Hardy into the mix

  10. The living poets that I would invite would be John Burnside, August Kleinzhaler and Jane Draycott, for the simple reason that of all the poetry readings I have been to during the past two or three years, these three stand head and shoulders above others in engaging with and transporting the audience somewhere else through their rich use of language.

    Dead poets I would like to resurrect for a reading would be W.S.Graham, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, for no other reason than I find their poetry both poignant and moving.

  11. Michael Longley (wonderful Irish voice), John Lyons (exciting Trinidadian voice), Les Murray (distinctive Australian voice).
    The ‘dead’ poets would be Salvador Espriu, Anna Akhmatova, Ted Hughes

  12. Among the living, Michael Longley, whose poetry is rich and subtle both rhythmically and imaginatively, and who is unbeatably engaging in performance; Jane Draycott for the formal beauty of her verse and the finely nuanced clarity with which she reads it; and Les Murray for his human scope and entertaining presentation.

    Among the dead, I’m tempted to say Shakespeare for the vastness of his imaginative and expressive range, and the intelligence it implies, but I hate to think of all the scholars and critics who’d seize on every word to justify their interpretations. Could I have him in the audience instead of onstage?
    I’d like Yorgos Seferis for his gut-wrenching emotional power. I’ve heard him on tape and know he was a moving reader of his own work. If possible I’d have Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard alongside to read him in English.
    I’d like Baudelaire for his haunted, haunting transformations of the city into inner landscapes.
    Baudelaire and Seferis being obsessed and tragic poets, I’d like Chaucer to complete the reading team, both to lighten the tone and for his range and flexibility of sympathy. He wrote his poetry for performance, but with as much subtlety and sophistication as any page poet.

  13. Live(ly) Poets: Billy Collins, Wendy Cope and Sophie Hannah as they could all show that you don’t have to be solemn to be serious.

    Dead poets: Robert Graves, Phillip Larkin and R S Thomas (if only to see who would quit the stage first! I would guess Thomas – if he would come in the first place!)

  14. For the first reading I’d have Jeremy Reed, Brendan Hawthorne, Roger McGough
    and for the second Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, and Jim William Jones.
    Brendan Hawthorne is a fine performer and Jim William Jones was the finest
    exponent of Black Country dialect poetry we’ve had. I’d include both these poets In a last-ditch attempt to save my local culture. Multiculturism I fear doesn’t include indigenous English dialects.
    Geoff Stevens

  15. I hate making decisions that involve leaving people out,
    so forgive me for name dropping here…

    Poets Alive:


    Benjamin Zephaniah [esp. for “Naked”
    and kids poems like “Wordology”]
    because [like Valerie Bloom: “Sandwhich” and “Yuh hear bout”
    and Michael Rosen: “Trying to be Jewish 2” and “How many”]
    he hasn’t lost touch with the concerns of children,
    and he has a lovely sense of fun.
    But what really puts him in the No.1 spot for me
    is the fact that he knows –
    despite us all being touched
    in different ways by our environment –
    that we are truly equal.


    Jean Binta Breeze [esp. for “Riddym Ravings” and “Mother…Sister…Daughter”]
    because [like Carmen Tunde: “Shut down”
    and Wole Soyinka: “To the madmen over the wall”]
    she knows exactly how delicate
    yet determined we can be.


    I’m sure you won’t appreciate me splitting this position six ways, so…

    Poets Dead:


    Pat Parker [esp. for “My lady ain’t no lady”]
    because [like Meiling Jin: “Disaster”
    and Suniti Namjoshi: “Among Tigers”]
    her poems were there for me when no body was.


    As I’m not particularly familiar with alot of dead poets,
    I am going to put two names here;

    Michael Smith [“Yout out deh”]
    because [like L.K.Johnson: “It noh funny”]
    he doesn’t let even his own peers off the hook,
    and gives them no reason to think they should do so with him.


    Basil Bunting [“What the chairman told Tom”
    and “These tracings from a world that’s dead…”]
    because, when I finally made the time to enter poetry comps
    his work (like so many others, I might add) appeared
    and helped me stretch my mind just a little further
    than I thought it would go.

  16. Living:
    Sophie Robinson, Linus Slug and Tim Atkins – representing the experimental approaches that keep poetry pushing forward – just like the Modernist poets.

    Leslie Scalapino, Frank O’Hara and e.e. cummings – because they still sound fresh and exciting.

  17. Dammit, I knew there was someone I’d forgotten in my already-too-long dead poets list: Mick Imlah.

  18. 1 – Mario Petrucci, Ben Okri, Robin Fulton
    2 – Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid, Walt Whitman

    Sure it won’t take me as long as a whole day to change my mind, but that’s my tuppence worth

  19. Very tricky question, Rob!

    1 — Geoff Trenchard, Taylor Mali, Billy Collins, in a kind of US slam-meets-performance-meets-page extravaganza.

    2 — Edwin Morgan, because I never got to see him read. Philip Larkin and Allen Ginsberg, because I’m a fangirl of both, and because they’d surely be a lethal combination.

  20. Re yesterday’s rushed comment on Michael Smith [and L.K.J] –
    what I should have said was:

    With it’s talk of the overbearing
    and sub
    cultures you not only feel
    the metric pace
    and rhythmic bass
    but get a sense
    of the whole
    social deal which
    is what’s so sound
    about Dub.

  21. Live Poets: Seamus Heaney mostly for ‘The Pitchfork’. Ian MacMillan for ‘Bramwell Bronte Reincarnated as a Vest,’ me! I appreciate that there are far more worthy candidates but I can’t let up a chance to be heard (and perhaps even be published in mainstream publishing).

    Dead Poets: There are so many I could choose, today it would be Stevie Smith, mainly for ‘Song d’Athalie’, Walt Whitman for the poem which Ralph Vaughan Williams used for his ‘Sea Symphony’, and Thomas Hardy for ‘At the Station, Upwey’. But then there is Housman, and D.H.Lawrence (a much better poet than novelist in my view. There are the poets from the classical period of Rome (e.g. Terence) and Greece (Sappho) and Li Po from ancient China. The list is endless…………….

  22. and my punctuation & etc. is very poor today! Perhaps I should make up a poem about it.

  23. am so glad to see that this game is still running – having given more thought to the fact that the Dead Poets reading “will involve…a discussion between the three poets poets [,excerpts of which] are also welcome…” I decided to call my poem of yesterday:
    “What Ms. Parker might have said to Basil B
    ’bout Michael’s style of poetry”

    corny, but hey, no deadline’s worse than a tight one!

  24. The live reading would have to be:

    Jorge Esquinca – a Mexican poet who is widely known in the Spanish-speaking world but not here, Jack Gilbert – a North American poet and one of the best, but shamefully undersung in the UK, and Akram Khan – a dancer, I know, but I love readings that are interspersed with music and I’d probably love a reading even more if there was dance in it – and Khan is amazing.

    The ghost reading would have to be:

    Rilke, Rumi and Mirabai (I’d love to have Spike Milligan there too)

  25. For my dead poets, I’d go for Dante, John Milton and John Berryman. Should be interesting!

    For the living reading, maybe August Kleinzahler, Kei Miller and Michael Hofmann. The first two are outstanding readers, and I’ve never heard Hofmann read but would like to.

    I have resisted the temptation to slot together three living poets who despise each other, amusing as that might be for a short while.

  26. Alive:

    Les Wicks, Jack Gilbert, Karen Knight


    Jose Lezama-Lima, Michael Dransfield, Nestor Perlongher, Allen Ginsberg

  27. Living: Paul Henry (he can play guitar too), Karen Annesen (a very good reader, still and intense), Paul Muldoon.

    Dead: Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig and Sorley Maclean. I had the great good fortune to hear those 3 read together and only wish someone had recorded it.

  28. Marlowe, Rochester, Coleridge.

    Would be worth hanging around for the after-reading drinks.

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