Robert Crawford and Paul Farley, 14/8/14

Robert Crawford and Paul Farley, Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Guardian Spiegeltent, Thursday 14th August, £10/£8

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP2, September 2014]

‘Home’ is the subject that these readings, from two very different, extraordinary poets, continually stub themselves against; so often a towering landmark in the map of literary imagination, ‘home’ is at once insurmountable and fragile, and, as it proves in these poems, an eternally fruitful idea.

Paul Farley reads from his newly published Selected Poems (Picador, 2014), drawn from his four collections including Tramp in Flames (2006) and, his most recent, The Dark Film (2012). Farley confesses, only half-jokingly, that putting together a Selected Poems is a depressing experience, making him feel “nearly dead”. He reads thoughtfully, with welcome footnotes to his pieces, including a found piece for which he recorded his dentist’s in-chair commentary to create a brief, incantatory poem, referred to as a kind of “shipping forecast” for the mouth. Home, for Farley, is more specific; the Liverpool he grew up in is, despite his years in London, the place that his writing most often returns to. I like the comment after his reading in which he explains that London holds little “imaginative traction” for him, or at least far less than Liverpool did and still does. Farley is keen also to challenge any conception of the nostalgic potential of his poems – nostalgia, he argues, is not always cosy or rose tinted, but can be dark, troubling, and dangerously irresistible. His poem ‘Treacle’ describes this kind of shadowy anchoring of memory through an ancient tin of treacle that moved house along with his family. Around this memories and indefinite feelings coalesce:

                                Funny to think you can still buy it now,
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.
When you lever the lid it opens with a sigh
and you’re face-to-face with history.
By that I mean the unstable pitch black
you’re careful not to spill, like mercury.

Farley reads with compelling ease and a gentle, measured delivery which happily never brims into gravitas; he’s not too serious to add levity in his brief commentaries, informing the audience that he spent a good chunk of his time as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust “sitting watching Deal or No Deal in my boxers”. In his poetry he marries superbly quiet, astute introspection with perfectly pitched demotic language and phrasing. That latter quality especially, the supposed lack of which so often brings poetry in for public criticism, surely makes him an excellent poet for the public arena.

Robert Crawford’s reading offers an intriguing mixture of political satire and meditative lyricism, occasionally combined. Crawford begins with a poem taken from his latest collection, Testament (Jonathan Cape, 2014), one of his poetic paraphrases of the Gospel, in this case the story of Christ and the adulteress. Crawford cites the idea that “Christ was a poet”, which first drew him to such a project. Even if not all exegeses assert this idea, Crawford subtly exposes the lyricism that can so often be lost in the parsing of biblical texts. Crawford shifts gears several times throughout his reading, his rich Scots voice steering from the erotic lovesong that imagines two bodies as a ‘Nightingale Floor’, “dovetailed with joinerwork of love”, before he slides, with barely a ripple, into his own songs of home. Well-known for his literary and academic writings on Scotland, and for his support for Scottish independence, Crawford earlier this year published Bannockburns, which traces Scottish independence in the literary imagination over the last 700 years. In this more personal reading, Crawford traces the image of the nation in his own imagination. Scotland-as-nation is, historically, a difficult, anxiety-ridden concept to pin down. Crawford’s poems here are, fittingly, both evocative and elusive; like Farley, the fact that his inner compass continues to point North remains problematic. Crawford seems to enjoy his own reading most when he reaches his political poems, many of which focus on the impending referendum. He is quite clear at drawing a distinction between these ‘louder’, public poems and the quieter pieces with which he began. Cranking up both his volume and his accent, Crawford delivers ‘Daveheart’:

                                He sing the joys o’ Union lang
And loud through shitty weather.
His een are bricht. His voice is strang,
‘We’re better aff thegither!

which garners the kind of appreciative titters that only the Guardian Spiegeltent could produce.

The final discussion, led by Lilias Fraser of the Scottish Poetry Library, mostly returns to ideas of home that clearly and understandably touch a chord with readers and listeners. Apart from this, perhaps most interesting is a question about whether technology and digital media are destroying our ability to appreciate poetry – to “think deeply”, as the questioner puts it. Encouragingly, both poets firmly rebuff the idea that technology and poetry are fundamentally incompatible (not, I suspect, what the questioner wanted to hear, but I think a very welcome answer); both find an affinity with the idea of the poem as a machine, eternally opening out on itself in quasi-mechanical formations. Crawford archly comments, in response to a comment about poems becoming shorter as a result of the younger generation’s quick-fix mental capacities, that brevity is not the opposite of depth.

It is heartening to know that poets as eminent (and different) as Crawford and Farley are sanguine about the effects of an ever-changing society and its forms of communication on contemporary poetry.  Farley’s ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ concludes, with a fitting tremor of both fear and excitement, that “the gaps between get shorter all the time”. Farley and Crawford are two Janus poets, successfully straddling the ephemeral borderlands between past, present and future. They are drawn irresistibly to both private and public pasts, but they also anticipate the danger inherent in this, and look forward into ways by which, through innovations of language and thought, memory and history may be reframed and still proclaim their own relevance.

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