Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage, Inspirations at the Tricycle Theatre

Two fine poets select an invigorating programme of poetry and prose.

Inspirations: From l-r, Seamus Heaney, Jenny Jules, Charles Dance and Simon Armitage
Inspirations: From l-r, Seamus Heaney, Jenny Jules, Charles Dance and Simon Armitage Photo: George Torode / English PEN
I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter’s evening than in the company of two fine poets. Organised by English Pen (all proceeds went to the charity), Inspirations at the Tricycle Theatre in North London brought Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage on stage together. Each poet selected 10 pieces of writing – verse or prose – that meant something special to them. Bringing the readings to life were the actors Charles Dance and Jenny Jules.

Heaney quoted the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s 11-word autobiography, “A man dabbles in verse and finds it is his life”, before introducing the opening of “The Great Hunger”. Dance read the rich landscape descriptions in a light Irish accent: “We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain, / Till the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay / Rolls down the side of the hill.”
Although he has a natural affinity with Irish writers, Heaney has also looked outside his native land for poetic models. His collection Station Island was inspired by Robert Lowell’s versions of Dante. We heard a passage from Canto 15 of Inferno, in which the Italian poet is astonished to find his old teacher on the burning sands. At this point, it would have been nice to have also heard Heaney’s “Ugolino”, a deft translation from Dante’s terrifying account of a starving nobleman who eats his children. (A great hunger, indeed.)

We were kept waiting until his final choice for Heaney to read his own work. The piece was “Two Lorries” – “one of the least romantic titles for a poem ever”, he drily noted – which opens in the Forties with a memory of his mother having coal delivered: “It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.” The last two words seemed familiar. Then I recalled something from Heaney’s sixth choice, James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Stephen Dedalus’s dead mother appears in a dream smelling of “wetted ashes”. Was this a felicitous coincidence or did Heaney want us to spot the borrowing? Whichever, it felt like a glimpse into the poet’s creative method.
Armitage selected Waiting for Godot by that reluctant Irishman Samuel Beckett. It was a shame, though, that Dance and Jules were not especially well-rehearsed and stumbled on the quickfire back and forths. Jules later redeemed herself with a moving rendition of “We Are Seven”. Thousands flock to Wordsworth country each year, said Armitage, but how many still read him? His poems might be “sentimental and preachy”, he added, but they cut right to the heart. Few who heard the ballad about a girl refusing to accept the deaths of her brother and sister could disagree.
To end, Armitage chose DH Lawrence’s poem “Bavarian Gentians”, which he had recently heard Geoffrey Hill read at a similar event in Manchester. Armitage told us that, when he’s creatively stuck, he looks again at Lawrence’s descriptions of the “ribbed and torchlike” flowers, and imbibes its “ease and grace”. After two hours of readings, the audience left similarly refreshed. 

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