|London - darker at night, in both senses|
Last night I turned up with trepidation for a poetry reading, the blurb for which included the word ‘interactive’ – always one to make me nervous. My suspicions were increased by the inclusion of a free glass of wine in the ticket price, an indication of a need for loosening up.
This was not the kind of poetry reading I wrote about in my last post, as the work being performed was a poem for many voices called Night Thoughts, by David Gascoyne, who passed away in 2001.
I must have discovered Gascoyne’s poetry via a preoccupation with surrealist art some years ago. I loved the idea of surrealist writing, but much of it didn’t work for me – somehow the unlikely juxtapositions of concepts that I enjoyed in visual art seemed forced or just plain silly in words, leaving the reader frustrated and suspicious (again). But Gascoyne’s work had an urgency about it and a ring of integrity that made it gripping rather than trying. Not all of his poetry is surrealist by any means; he just happened to hang out with a fair few surrealists, influencing him alongside his addiction to amphetamines and precarious mental states that sometime put him in mental hospitals.
25 of us were handed photocopies with sections highlighted in fluorescent pink. There was no practice run; after a wonderful introduction to the life of Gascoyne by his biographer Robert Fraser and Roger Scott, we were off.
The effect was magical. Despite the range of people in the group, which included poets, friends of Gascoyne, experts, actresses, arts reviewers, and the merely curious, everybody read with sincerity, humour and faith. The poem flowed and moved us; it spoke for itself and it is probably testament to the writing that it could shine in such an impromptu performance.
The poem was inspired by London at night, and conjures a dark (in both senses) megalometropolis, with eerie images of its inhabitants all asleep: ‘In double-beds or on divans, with lamps out, curtains drawn,/ Immobile many millions lie, all interchangeable,/ All horizontal humans out of use until next morn.’
Sinister passages in which we navigate the London underground and pass the slogans of advertisements – ‘Drink more drink! Wear more clothes! Don’t lose hope! Don’t forget!’ – mingle with pleas that we not lose ourselves in the noise we create to escape thought: ‘So endless noise/ We need to stuff our burning ears with, huge uproars/ Must keep on breaking out lest we should judge/ Unwillingly how far and near are all in the void...’
The visions of the poem, of a world distracting itself in carnival so as not to face the fact of human solitariness, could have been produced as a commentary on London in 2013.
There were some gorgeous lines. I got to read out one of my favourites: ‘Old oak’s slow taut-slack creak, clock’s slow quick-slow-quick tick.’ But one line in a prose passage stood out as summing up Gascoyne’s endeavour with this poem: ‘I cannot bear to hear myself repeating words of prayer that might be mumbled and not meant.’ There was something prayer-like in the poem itself, possibly conjured by dint of reading as a congregation, possibly in the rhythms of the language and the sense of an exhortation to consider the world and one’s lonely place in it. But the whole thing felt so profoundly meant, in contrast with anything familiar mumbled, that even those in the group who had never read any Gascoyne before were exhilarated and inspired by the end.
Thanks to the Saison Poetry Library for organising this unusual event, and I hope there will be more like it in the future.