amongst books

amongst books

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Spellbinding reading at the National Library

The Ottawa International Writers Festival held a poetry caberet featuring two writers: Ken Babstock and Simon Armitage from England. Babstock's writing just didn't hold my attention in the wonderfully crowded, yet stiflingly hot, over-perfumed room, but Armitage was incredible.

His poetry was mesmerizing, humourous, witty, and full of splendour, rhythm and life. He mentioned during the Q&A that he'd begun to understand the shamanism of poetry when he was 15 and read Ted Hughes, the idea that such magic could be contained within a bit of black ink on a small white page. It's clear that he's a magician of words and a story teller. The host, David O'Meara, talked about the beauty of common language I think, in his intro to Armitage and this beauty was very evident in Armitage's reading. He was using fairly common language, but he gave it resonance, rose it up. Made it shimmer somehow. It was resplendent. I use a word from Middle English perhaps because his writing is so evocative somehow of that era.

He was born the same year as me and in the same part of England, so much of his dialect and accent was very familiar, almost comforting. I purchased one of his earlier books, CloudCuckooLand (1997 Faber and Faber) because his Selected wasn't there. The book contains a sequence on constellations that sounds both fanciful and thoughtful. Like the Canadian poet, Robert Priest, he's a renaissance man who writes for radio, television, film and the stage, adapts classics like The Odyssey, and even has a few novels to his name.

I liked the way he talked about the use of old language in modern speech. A word like "samen" from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is something he recognizes as part of his own dialect, "to sam something up" (to gather, I think). I had a good discussion with him during the break about my own observations on my family's use of "thi/tha" which means "thee/thou." He used the word "snittering" which was an old word for snow falling down coldly. Snitter is also a word for wild place or snow from the 11th century.

Some writers make me want to write. He is definitely one of those who inspires, yet such a familiar voice. His voice and words were like coming home in a way.

Here's one of the poems he read tonight from An Anthology of Local Poetry, Peter Samson, Ed. 1985; I think the version was slightly different from the one he read:

Two Go Into Winter

The pointed wind of our first winter needles us
It draws our breath, and patterns on the windows.

Will our friendship splinter in these icy times
Or can our sun-kissed history hold us tight.

We were brilliant in the sun. Reeling in the days
Spun on the wheels of bicycles, those summer shapes

Annealed and tempered now to glimmers. Small wonder
We're re-forging old safe-keepings for our winter:

Some stars of coaldust in the concrete bunker
Some token things for the electric meter.

I should also mention that David O'Meara did an excellent job as host of the evening and moderator of the Q&A. Hat's off to the Writers Fest organizers for another fine show. I've never been to such a well-attended poetry reading in Ottawa.

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