“You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry… Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke are coming to town.” Natalie Holborow writes about the night she saw two of her literary heroines read their work at the Dylan Thomas Centre.
On 9th December 2012 I spent my entire day like a child on Christmas Eve. Not because Father Christmas was coming to Swansea. Not because lectures were dwindling off in time for Christmas. Because Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy were coming to The Dylan Thomas Centre that evening and I’d been guarding my ticket like Gollum with his “precious”. I was going to see a collaboration between my Beyonce and Shakira of poetry.
I arrived at 7.30pm to a packed-out auditorium; the evening showing having been sold out many weeks prior to the event. It was pleasing to see so many of the younger generation there: this to me is proof that as poets regularly featuring on GCSE syllabuses around the country, both Clarke and Duffy’s work have made an impression on young minds as well as mature ones. I myself came to be familiar with both poets during my studies, and hearing some of their older poems that evening would doubtless feel like being reacquainted with an old friend.
The lights around us dimmed and the focus shrank to the figures of Clarke and Duffy dressed soberly in black as they took up their seats carrying their latest publications. In Duffy’s case, these were The Bees and Wenceslas: A Christmas Poem, a beautiful re-writing of the original carol. In Clarke’s this was Ice, a collection inspired by the snows of Winter 2010-11. After a brief introduction, Duffy was first to read out her work and the audience fell to an anticipated hush.
Taking her place at the microphone, Duffy was every inch the powerful woman I expected, mesmerising the audience with each carefully-selected word. Yet I must admit that two things surprised me. The first was that she was sober. Too many times have I heard from students: “oh, Duffy? She doesn’t read; she gets pissed and slurs, you might as well just read the book yourself.” This left me a little apprehensive whilst waiting for her to appear. I thought that the water-jug was in fact full of Gordon’s gin.
The second surprise was her down-to-earth humour, which kept a little bubble of laughter rippling throughout the auditorium between her poems. I was left with the sense that Duffy would definitely be the sort of girl you’d take with you for a good night at the pub (in the same way that I wish Dylan Thomas was still alive so he could come to JC’s and slur Fern Hill across the pool table). On the theme of drinking and the stigma that surrounds the “drunken poet”, Duffy brought our attention to the familiarity of common pub names and how she adored the way that traditional pubs could tell a local story, legend or familiar image in the space of just three words. Joking (I hope) that she had visited all of the following names (and been banned from several), her poem John Barleycorn was thus “a lament for, and celebration of, the Great British Pub,” following the figure of “the green man” around a host of familiar British haunts:
Britain’s soul, as the crow flies, so flew he.
I saw him in the Holly Bush, the Yew Tree, the Royal Oak, the Ivy Bush, the Linden.
I saw him in the Forester, the Woodman.
He history: I saw him in the Wellington, the Nelson, Marquis of Granby, Wicked Lady, Bishop’s Finger.
I saw him in the Ship, the Golden Fleece, the Flask
The Railway Inn, the Robin Hood and Little John.
My Green Man, legend-strong, reborn, John Barleycorn.
Sticking with the theme of locality, Gillian Clarke’s poetry was very much close to home as she wrote about Welsh places and used the language to add a beautiful touch to her words. Duffy said herself that there is something pleasing to a poet about specificity of place in a poem, adding that the decision of Royal Mail to not require the name of counties on an envelope or postcard filled her with a “middle-aged rage”. To her it was like stripping away the character of a place and the quirks associated with it (Wensleydale cheese sandwich anyone?). I can’t say I have got to that stage yet, but maybe when I’m at the age when I opt for slippers and brandy over vodka and swinging my arms along to Bonnie Tyler I’ll give these things more thought.
Clarke’s Six Bells referred to the local tragedy of the gas explosion at a coal mine at the Six Bells Colliery in Abertillery, Monmouthshire, which left 37 dead and a further 8 missing. You needn’t have been there at the time to feel the full weight of her words:
Perhaps a woman hanging out the wash
paused, hearing something, a sudden hush,
a pulse inside the earth like a blow to the heart,
holding in her arms the wet weight
of her wedding sheets, his shirts. Perhaps
heads lifted from the work of scrubbing steps,
hands stilled from wringing rainbows onto slate,
while below the town, deep in the pit
a rock-fall struck a spark from steel, and fired
the void, punched through the mine a fist
of blazing firedamp. As they died,
perhaps a silence, before sirens cried,
before the people gathered in the street,
before she’d finished hanging out her sheets.
Clarke’s stage presence was notably a lot softer than Duffy’s, but by no means weaker. She appeared to the audience like an old friend, a gentle woman with a lovely sense of humour and warmth that made her instantly likeable to those who perhaps were only familiar with Duffy’s poetry. The marked softness in her words did her readings justice – the delicate images of the ice that ran throughout her latest collection stirred gently to life.
I was pleased to hear Duffy read out her poem Rings, written for the royal wedding of Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton. This illustrated the importance of the role of Poet Laureate, as Clarke later pointed out when speaking of her dismay that nothing had been written of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989, “it is the duty of the National Poetry Laureate to put into words how a nation feels.” Poetry indeed has this central, yet often overlooked place in society. Clarke herself approached the subject of doing so with caution, having written a recent piece on the disappearance of April Jones, which I have to admit almost moved me to tears with its rawness (no, this wasn’t anything to do with the fact that in my excitement to get there that evening I had sprayed Ghost Deep Night perfume directly into my eye). Her words had a raw, moving power that was both daring in subject for a poet dealing with recent local news and very carefully written as to reflect the anxieties of a community searching for “everybody’s daughter” without causing offence or dealing with the subject as taboo.
I could have happily cracked open the bottle of Merlot that was in my handbag (classy student prepared at all times for obligatory house parties) and stayed there listening all night to the two wonderful ladies in their dark dresses. But just after 9 o’clock the performance ended and the poets took a bow to a well-deserved burst of applause. Before heading off, I browsed the books on sale, trying not to buy everything and end up homeless, starving and unable to afford Christmas, and eventually bought Gillian Clarke’s Selected Poems which contained one of the first poems ever to get me into reading poetry during my GCSE year: Stealing Peas. I told Clarke this when I went to get my book signed, unable to ask her all the questions I wanted to ask because my mind went blank and I felt like the dumbstruck child placed on Santa’s knee. She laughed and explained about how this was one of her clearest early memories of exploring the allotments with one of the first boys she liked and I remember feeling this in the poem – the first pangs of disappointment in young unrequited affections.
I then handed over my copy of Rapture to Duffy. I tried to get my name out. It came out something like “Naaaaarrrhhh”.
Eventually I managed to make it clear that my name was Natalie and could say no more, unable to even tell her that it was in fact her work that got me into writing, her poems that first touched a nerve and her poems that made me feel the first sense of the power of the female voice in the fantastic, funny and patriarchy-crushing The World’s Wife.
“Thank you” and a smile would have to do.
By Natalie Holborow