National Poetry Day's mistake: letting normal people do the reading

Plus: ‘the breath of lost countries’ filled the airwaves in Radio 3’s Between the Ears and what it’s like to hear Gandalf read your award-winning short story live on Radio 1?

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

Imagine what Brennig Davies must have felt like just before 11 o’clock last Tuesday evening. The 15-year-old was about to hear Ian McKellen reading his prizewinning short story nationwide on Radio 1. The voice of Gandalf broadcasting words that have emerged from your own head must have been a spooky moment for Davies, whose story ‘Skinning’ had just won the BBC’s Young Writers’ Award (organised with the Book Trust). This new venture (attached to the BBC National Short Story Award, which was also announced last week, the winner being Jonathan Buckley) in some way makes up for the fact that there is now virtually no programming for children on the BBC’s radio networks; no way for them to learn how to listen, to be drawn in to a world suggested in sound and then created in the imagination.

In Brennig Davies’s story, a young teenager is asked by his Dad to skin a just-killed, still-warm rabbit. It’s to help him grow up, ‘become a man’. At first the boy flinches, but then something takes him over, which Davies describes with the kind of honesty only young people can have, unfiltered by experience. ‘Skinning’ is an astonishing story, Brennig using very few words to conjure up the scene. Yet every necessary detail was graphically described (you could tell this was written by a teenager, Brennig not holding back, not afraid to linger on the gore). But there was more to it than mere description, as this new young writer created the sensation of what it feels like to leave childhood behind. The ending, too, was clever, toying with us as readers in a way that was not entirely comfortable.

McKellen obviously relished every word (you can watch him on iPlayer, not just reading but performing behind the mike, although there’s no real need because all his movement, his facial expression, is there in the voice). It was a shame that Radio 1 chose to put out the reading so late, although for its target audience I suspect the schedule hardly matters. They’ll tune in whenever suits them. But if you missed it, it’s worth going online not just to hearMcKellen’s stellar performance, but mostly for the excitement of hearing such talent, such clever writing, from someone so young.

Kate Clanchy gave us more young voices on Saturday night’s edition of Between the Ears, produced by Jonquil Panting (Radio 3). Clanchy, an award-winning poet and novelist, runs poetry workshops at a comprehensive school in Oxford where the pupils speak 54 different languages. Not the kind of poetry we learnt at school, she promised us, the kind of poems which ‘live on beaches, on moors, in the wild west wind’. But verses that emerge from ‘the flip of a fire door, the crack of a ball, the water of voices quenched by the bell’.

We heard her encouraging her young poets to write about home, what it means to them, calling down their poems by beginning with a simple list. The things that are in your street. Or in a street you once knew. We could hear them working, not just pencil against paper, but the eerie sound of brains thinking, churning through words and images. And, said Clanchy, ‘the breath of lost countries fills the room’.

Then they read for us, her pupils, their young voices often at odds with what they were saying, strings of words that were heavy with meaning, full of an understanding that was inspiring. The boy from Bangladesh talked of ‘hot spicy dahl’ and ‘the hot polluted air of the country I lived in’. He read, ‘My poem burns the tip of my tongue.’ His poem, he says, is about ‘young farmers in a watery land under the intense heat, / Being wrapped in a cloak of frustration and hunger.’ That’s why, he says, ‘My poem is my country, / My home country, / And my country is poor.’

He read with such fluency, such conviction, and his words were so raw, so direct, they cut through the air and cast out the memory of National Poetry Day, celebrated last Thursday on Radio 4 with a day-long bundle of programmes. I really wanted to like this: a day of poetry interrupting and blowing open the schedule. And perhaps I would have done if it hadn’t been presented by Andrew Marr and been called We British. The combination made it sound like one of those big-themed TV series, the drama heightened by a bit of patriotic flag-waving. It also broke all the rules of poetry reading on radio, which is never, ever let normal, ordinary people do the reading. Either get the poets themselves (difficult, I know, when they’re dead) or make sure you ask the finest readers to do it, because it’s jolly hard to get right and especially when you’re behind a mic. In the Victorian section (the day went from Chaucer to Kate Tempest) we were harangued, cajoled and bludgeoned into appreciating Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ while every so often there was a blast of the kind of Sensurround music more usually associated with natural-history programme

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  • Kate Clanchy

    Thank you very much for your kind review. We are all thrilled. Tarzina Khatun, author of the ‘My country is poor’ poem is very grateful for your close reading, and would just like to point out that, though she is from Bangladesh, she is also a girl. Her poem got a bit mixed up with Ismail’s.

  • jennybloggs

    Andrew Marr ruined the day for me. He could not simply let the poetry speak for itself.

  • carl jacobs

    National Poetry Day described:

    It was on a dreary night of October that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I observed its dull yellow eye stare blindly into darkness; it breathed not at all, and no convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

  • I don’t approve of that kind of ‘growing up’ — nor that kind of poetry. Does modern art know how to do anything gentle, outside of shock and awe?

    I wouldn’t encourage it either, Ms Chisholm: next he’ll be axe-murdering his landlady just so he can write a ‘gripping’ poem about it.

  • Dominic Stockford

    You snob. Many ‘ordinary people’ are far better at reading poetry than those paid to do it, because we do it for enjoyment not payment.