Poetry does not always make its bed on the page. It often makes bed-fellows of other artistic forms, including dance, radio, film, opera and installation. So what happens to the words (and the reader) when poetry hops cots with an unlikely partner?
Radio is perhaps poetry’s most comfortable bed-fellow: a trained voice reading (or reciting) a poem, means it keeps its shape; its form can be imagined. In the Afterword to Field Recordings, Paul Farley writes how broadcast poetry must in many ways keep the architecture of page poetry: “I discovered that I’m always thinking about the page, even when I’m writing for the ear: if the poem didn’t possess any formal pressure, or a shapeliness the eye could also register, then I noticed the appeal of reading it into a microphone diminished.”
Farley also notices that tying poetry up with theatre or broadcasting is “intrinsically collaborative”, drawing the writer (rather mercifully, the tone suggests,) away from “waiting for lyric inspiration to arrive at your desk.” Wryly, Farley notes that though print could eventually be lost by “our swelling sun”, the radio wave never dies: broadcast poems, the shipping forecast, the weekend chartshow . . . will never be lost; the radio waves only gradually attenuated.
Many poets have found their ear for rhythm and metre adapting well to musical scores, and been drawn to libretti (recent examples include David Harsent, The Minotaur; Glyn Maxwell, The Lion’s Face; Blake Morrison, Dr Ox's Experiment). Perhaps what Glyn Maxwell – one of our featured poets – does best is give the libretto the intimacy of poetry, taking away the distance between stage and audience. Maxwell gives the protagonist Mr D’s words a sense of private monologue between poet and reader (see the extract in his profile).
In the preface to The Lion’s Face, Maxwell writes: “To have one isolated speaking voice calling out in a world of song seemed a valid metaphor for the gulf between sufferer and stranger . . . and it helped to make his words, his thread of English, seem helpless, frail, arbitrary, as if he were the last speaker of a dying language, which, in a way, he is.”
David Bickerstaff, the director of the film Heavy Water, which was inspired by Mario Petrucci’s poem of the same name, talks about poetry opening up “the testimony of survivors in a different and powerful way. It opened up the process of constructing a unique narrative form and offered a more abstract approach to filming. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of some other poetry-led films where the images only served to illustrate the poems in a slavish way. The film grew rather organically around the poems . . . The most discussion was during the editing process where we wanted to maintain an economy in the edit that would allow the viewer to engage with the poems instinctively and formulate their own relationship with the characters.”
A clip of Heavy Water is available under Petrucci’s profile.
In the Summer 2010 edition of Poetry Review, which looks at poetry “Off the Page”, Eva Salzman argues dance is a metaphor for poetry, with its arabesques, rond de jambes, pas de bourrées, a “recitation of alphabet and vocabulary”: its exacting movements part of the greater ballet. “In writing too one supposes strategic silence as a mode of communication and expression, a musical score’s rests having weight, like the notes . . . Constructing a living, breathing architecture for silence, dance is the embodiment of metaphor followed to a logical non-verbal conclusion.”
With so many forms of poetry flourishing away from the page (as well as on it), the Poetry Society has set up a new prize, The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, which looks to recognize poets for their work both on the page and beyond, for example writing for public sculpture, film, radio and stage. The prize was established by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, funded by the honorarium the Laureate would usually receive from HM the Queen. The inaugural award, announced in March 2010, went to Alice Oswald, for her work on the illustrated book, Weeds and Wildflowers.