Saturday, 30 January 2010

Poetry and the Prime Minister - Poetry Live for Haiti

Gordon Brown and Carol Ann Duffy at the Poetry Live for Haiti event (taken with my mobile phone so apologies for the poor quality)

I am a lowly creature; I like nothing more on a Saturday than to potter about the house, drinking tea, reading and catching up on bits and bobs that I haven't managed to do during the week. This might sound boring, but to me it is simple luxury as I rarely manage to have such days so I relish my lazy weekends. All too often, however, my lazy weekends evaporate into a burst of outings, chores and general gadding about. My lazy day this weekend was all planned, Saturday was going to be a day of reading, pots of tea and patchwork. But, I found out about an event that I couldn't miss.

I spent this afternoon at Poetry Live for Haiti. Organised by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy the event was put together to raise funds for Haiti. The event was a marathon, lasting four hours, during which over 20 Poets from the UK read to an audience who just couldn't believe their luck. The poets included, Dannie Abse, Gillian Clarke, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Roger McGough, Elaine Feinstein, Maura Dooley, Robert Minhinnick, Brian Patten and many more some of whom are mentioned here.

I cannot begin to write a critique of their work or the poems they read as almost 100 poems were read out and, frankly, it would require a PHD thesis length of a blog post. All the poets were captivating and I am so grateful to have had the chance to have seen them read their work. I was blown away by Dannie Abse's lyrical and humble words which hung together so clearly and so beautifully. You can hear some recordings of him reading on this website.

Dannie Abse with 'the poets' in the background

Jo Shapcott's poems were wonderfully intellectual, playful and personal but without cliche or pretence and Elaine Feinstein also balanced the personal with a resonating profundity. John Agard stole the show with 'Alternative Anthem' which you can read on this website here if you scroll down a bit.

I do not want to detract from the power, presence and importance of the poetry at this event. However, it has to be mentioned that Gordon and Sarah Brown unexpectedly entered and Gordon gave an opening speech, a transcript of which you can read here. Nothing can hi-jack the poetry, Gordon's speech did not even come close to giving me the rollercoaster ride of emotions that all twenty-odd poets gave me this afternoon. Politics cannot overshadow the beauty and soul-force of poetry. However, I was impressed. Call me naive, call me a sucker but I do not believe that the 'impromptu' appearance and speech was just a PR stunt. Ok, so it's good PR, so Gordon is coming up to an election, so the Chilcott enquiry is taking place at the moment. I was sitting two rows from the front (hurrah for me and my elbow shoving up the stairs) and I saw every movement that man made, I saw his hands shake, I saw him delivering a meaningful and worthy speech for a very worthy cause in the midst of what must be media and political hell at the moment (ahem, having been done up like a kipper by Tony Blair).

Anyway, my blog is not a forum for political views so I am going to move swiftly back to what I know about; words. I am glad that my hermit plans for today were interrupted by the better side of my brain deciding to step out into the crisp, icy day to hear some poems. And I was even more glad when I was walking past the serene and silvery Westminster Abbey and I looked up into the depthless winter sky to see a brilliant, radiant and full moon shining down. A simple and steadfast luxury for modern times.

I am reverting back to my planned lazy weekend so will write the long promised post on the wartime letters of Iris Murdoch which are being published next week and which I was fortunate enough to be sent a review copy of. Lazy weekends should start with a poem so here is one of my favourites from today. Listen to a recording here or read the words below.

The Yellow Palm

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I watched a funeral pass -
all the women waving lilac stems
around a coffin made of glass
and the face of the man who lay within
who had breathed a poison gas.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I heard the call to prayer
and I stopped at the door of the golden mosque
to watch the faithful there
but there was blood on the walls and the muezzin's eyes
were wild with his despair.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I met two blind beggars
and into their hands I pressed my hands
with a hundred black dinars;
and their salutes were those of the Imperial Guard
in the Mother of all Wars.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I smelled the wide Tigris,
the river smell that lifts the air
in a city such as this;
but down on my head fell the barbarian sun
that knows no armistice.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
I saw a Cruise missile,
a slow and silver caravan
on its slow and silver mile,
and a beggar child turned up its face
and blessed it with a smile.

As I made my way down Palestine Street
under the yellow palms
I saw their branches hung with yellow dates
all sweeter than salaams,
and when that same child reached up to touch,
the fruit fell in his arms.

Copyright © Robert Minhinnick 2006


  1. That sounds like an incredible day, despite its not being the lazy weekend you were after. :) I unexpectedly got a reprieve from the busy moving-my-sister-into-her-new-house weekend I was expecting. It was lovely.

  2. It was an incredible afternoon. Your reprieve sounds welcome, I hope you find some time to yourself to enjoy.

  3. Quote from your post: "...I looked up into the depthless winter sky to see a brilliant, radiant and full moon shining down." I think you are something of a poet yourself.

    I fear you are right about how some will regard the Browns participation. Given the low profile of poetry in this country, it is difficult to successfully claim that a senior politician speaking at a poety event - albeit one raising funds for a cause that is big news - is simply looking for a good PR opportunity. A fairer interpretation would be that such a politician (whatever his or her party or ideology) helped raise the profile of the event, but sadly the actions of those in public life are not always fairly interpreted.

    Thank you for reminding me why I should devote some attention to poetry.

  4. First of all I'm incredibly jealous!! I would have loved to have gone along to this event. John Agard's Alternative Anthum is quite brilliant and I will check out your link to Dannie Abse. I will definitely listen to the recording of Robert Minhinick's The Yellow Palm. What a wonderfully constructed poem. It's message that maybe out of war comes hope is uplifting but all too fleeting.


  5. I love how we plan to have quiet weekends and then never end up having them!

    Why did I not know this was going on?! Sigh. I am too suburban. Sounds brilliant - as much as I abhor reading poetry, there is nothing like hearing it spoken; it is uniquely emotional.

    Good for Gordon Brown for showing up - I doubt it was a publicity stunt, either - poetry doesn't have a high enough profile in the press to make it worth his while going if it was just for column inches. Cynics seem to forget that politicians do have hearts - some are just more well hidden than others.

  6. That sounds fantastic - lucky you. And looking forward to hearing about the letters!

  7. What a fantastic idea, it sounds like you had a lovely day!

  8. Yes, it was absolutely brilliant. I was there too, just behind you (smaller elbows) and think it was not only extremely good value, but all for a good cause and a very memorable day. I liked it that Gillian Clarke told us that every single penny raised would go to Haiti - everyone was working for nothing. Credit to them.

  9. What an extraordinary experience. It sounds absolutely amazing.

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  11. I was at this stunning poetry event. I didn't expect it to have such a huge turnout, nor the Prime Minister to attend. A memorable and hugely enjoyable day for me even though I went along alone as always 'Alone, alone, ever alone I loiter / Ancient cafes and their ingle-nooks / carrying a bag of books.' Minhinnick's wonderful poem is in the same meter of Auden's 'As I Walked Out One Evening.' I walked out of County Hall after a brief convo with Andrew Motion whom I've met several times, poetically replenished, wandering about into the crisp cold night taking photos you can see here