Chance by chance I've been working my way through a stash of BBC TV poetry season programmes recorded off the telly. This week (whilst my Mark was out winning a cricket match) I watched Sheila Hancock's 'My Life in Verse' (you can't watch the programme on the i-player any more but the Daily Mail, of all papers, has a lot of its content here). 'My Life in Verse' is a series where four famous people (one actress, one singer, one comedian, one children's writer) talk about poetry and what it has meant to them, how they've come across it and so on. It could, I suppose...in the wrong hands, have been an abomination of a TV series but I think it has worked really well and I've enjoyed plenty in the shows I've seen so far (the Sheila Hancock, the Robert Webb and the Malorie Blackman). Yes, the programmes are focussed on the famous person at times but that is very much their starting point and on the whole (and from what I've seen so far...I've still got Cerys Matthews' one recorded to watch) the poetry and poets come to the forefront in a very impressive and often moving manner, accompanied by interesting interview snippets and plenty of expert help.
In Hancock's programme, for example, she introduced (or reintroduced) viewers and listeners to content by and about Yeats, Tennyson and Blake as well as a poem I really love called 'Time does not bring relief; you all have lied' by Edna St Vincent Millay (read that poem here). Hancock almost annoyed me a couple of times - the 'here's our beautiful house in France, here's our beautiful house in Wiltshire...oh, and we have a house in London...' business got a bit tiresome - but in the end what can you do...she is an actress...and I liked her quite a lot elsewhere in the programme so I made it to the end without falling out with her or anything like that. There was a jolly little segment on how Shakespeare's words would have sounded in his day and I liked her poetry choices very much too - in particular, a little section with and about English poet Wendy Cope.
I mentioned Cope in the last post (she was interviewed by Christina Patterson back in May 08) and also back in my '25 writers who've influenced me' post (here). Overall I would say that I am a Wendy Cope fan (though some of her best-known poems like 'Bloody Men' I can live without out...just not my idea of funny and, for me, a bit clichéd...she has much, much better poems than that). There is so much about her that is admirable though – her work is very clever and something like fashion-resistant, she can write with humour and/or piercing emotional detail, plus she has been hugely successful (in poetry terms – published by Fabers, sells lots of books) and she is even something like popular (quite an achievement for a living poet) as well as a respected editor of anthologies and so on. She is also English without being annoying (again quite an achievement) and I would say she is something like the Larkin of now. In fact if I could pick poetry parents I would have Larkin as Dad and Cope as Mum... if that's OK.
I liked the little segment with Cope in the Hancock poetry programme partly because of her very straightforward way of talking about poetry. This is such an unfashionable thing to say in poetry world but she said it:
"It (writing poetry) helps me deal with things, it helps me deal with difficult things."
We are not meant to admit things like that about writing poetry just now...it is all about art and creation and craft and invention...but I'm with Cope here – writing helps me deal with difficult things. It doesn't always do that but it sometimes does and that doesn't mean I don't think about art and creation and craft and invention too (the processes are not mutually exclusive). I'm an even bigger Cope fan after seeing and hearing her on this programme - so much so that I am not linking to lots of her poems online because I know she doesn't like that kind of thing. See, I can be good.
The last poem in the Hancock hour was 'Try to praise the mutilated world' by Adam Zagajewski. Would you think less of me if I said I'd never heard of him before? Well, I hadn't. I loved the poem though – big and chest-beating and important and stirring....but gentle and thoughtful too (hurray!) and there's a blog post by someone else all about Zagajewski (including the text of the poem) here.
So thank-you Sheila and the BBC. Another fine hour spent thinking and listening and learning.
p.s. I watched both the Webb and the Blackman programmes very quickly yesterday as they were due to go off the BBC i-player and I had somehow omitted to record them via the TV. The Robert Webb one had some lovely moments (his old teacher, some Larkin, plus poet Don Paterson on trying to write 'more and more simply'...bless him, if he keeps going in that direction he'll end up writing like me). The Malorie Blackman was probably my favourite one so far though as it was just brilliant – political and personal, full of fine details and big issues. She squeezed in Grace Nichols, a psalm, Marvin Gaye, Benjamin Zephaniah, Emily Dickinson, Jackie Kay and several others. It was a fascinating mix and a heartwarming trip through Blackman's relationship with words, poems and a life in Britain. It had poems and this quote from poet James Berry too:
"Poetry's for everybody. It's like sunlight."
Let's hope we all get plenty of both.
5 hours ago