Poetry audiotapes

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
THE POETRY QUARTETS 1. Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Glyn Maxwell. THE POETRY QUARTETS 2. Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Selima Hill, Carol Rumens THE POETRY QUARTETS 3. James Fenton, Tony Harrison, Peter Reading, Ken Smith THE POETRY QUARTETS 4. Brendan Kennelly, Paul Durcan, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian THE POETRY QUARTETS 5. Elizabeth Jennings, Helen Dunmore, U A Fanthorpe, Jo Shapcott. The British Council with Blood-axe Books pound;10 +VAT each. BASIL BUNTING READS "BRIGGFLATTS" AND OTHER POEMS. Bloodaxe Books pound;9.95 + VAT.

Poets regularly invited to read in secondary schools are likely to have found themselves introduced as "a real live poet", as if, somehow, they had not yet taken out membership of The Dead Poets Society or were visiting on day release from the printed page.

This is particularly the case where the pupils have come across few poems, if any, other than those they have been required to study for their exams. If the visitor is approachable, reads well and is able to talk engagingly about his or her work, much will have been done to overcome what is often a rather fearful classroom resistance to poetry shared sometimes - it must be said - by teachers.

This series of Poetry Quartets (there are plans to add three or four titles each year) could well have the same effect as a successful visit. Most of the recordings are made in the poets' own homes, the sound quality is uniformly good (even picking up background birdsong in a couple of instances) and there is a fascinating diversity about the readers' relationship with the microphone.

The poets most experienced at giving readings seem to know exactly how to present themselves. Jo Shapcott's smart inventiveness, for example, is matched by a brisk and practised confidence of delivery, while Paul Durcan (much more of a troubadour) introduces his poems with a rather distant mini-lecture on the value of hearing poems read aloud by their author and then comes in so intimately close that line after line dssolves into breath. The danger is that an unprepared class might regard this as a self-conscious mannerism.

There is a danger, too, that some of the other poets' asides, while of a kind familiar to fellow-practitioners, might seem unhelpfully evasive to the uninitiated. Selima Hill, for example, intersperses her intense, often surreal poems with illuminating remarks about "writing as a woman" but tends to fly off into poetry-reading chatter. The spontaneity of this is engaging, but teachers and pupils may find it of limited value. U A Fanthorpe (a syllabus regular), on the other hand, thoughtfully fills in the background to her poems and is assisted, as in her public readings, by the second voice of Rosemarie Bailey which makes for particularly good-humoured entertainment.

Jackie Kay, Simon Armitage and the admirably clear and informative Brendan Kennelly (whose work deserves to be more widely read in schools) are also substantial poets whose presentation on these tapes is immediately accessible. Carol Ann Duffy's reading of "The Kray Sisters" is a treat, but teachers will need to listen first and make their own decisions about how and when to introduce them.

What is beyond question, though, is that the British Council and Bloodaxe Books are building up a valuable resource.

More demanding than any of the Quartet poets, and in a class of his own, is Basil Bunting - whose magnificent "Briggflatts" is rightly regarded as one of the great English poems of the last century. "Poetry, like music, is to be heard," he once wrote. "Reading in silence is the source of half the misconceptions that have caused the public to distrust poetry."

His resonant, alliterative emphases, the fine Northumbrian rolling of his r's, are sheer invigoration. There's no chatty exposition on this tape ("never explain", was Bunting's advice to a fledgling poet, "your reader is as smart as you.") but buy it, listen, marvel, and, yes, find some way of working it into a lesson.

John Mole


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