There is a sense that poetry, or poets as a community (whatever that may mean), is unusually guilty of not appreciating those from previous generations who have the bad grace to remain alive beyond the first stay of their influence. Obscure in life is often followed by cult status in death, as though the poet’s inability to question interpretations of their work somehow qualifies such interpretations to take place. I would suggest this is hardly any more true of poetry than it is of almost everything in life – once gone, soon forgotten, until expiry somehow enshrines memory and allows an individual to focus comfortably on what is now static. Perhaps this is a beautiful thing – the maintenance of a resolute sense of change, with or without our permission. Poets however, do leave something which does not allow for such vagaries, and that is their poems, as concrete a record of their life as there is, which will often live long beyond them. But before that comes to pass, there is the opportunity some might view as a responsibility, for those who belong to a new generation of poetry, who are still being shaped, by their forebears as much as anything else, to reach out and connect with those who have come before, if not to learn from their practise and their experience, then just to sit back and watch how it is supposed to be done.
On Wednesday April 18th at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, London, a privileged few were on hand to witness a rare occurrence that contradicted the often maudlin passing of the older generation. Four great poets who came to prominence in the 1960’s and have all maintained a relentless, brilliant and imperative writing practise in the fifty years or so since, read together, in reunion, with great humour, dignity, intelligence and generosity. Their mastery of poetry and their affability of manner provided the many in attendance, poets and readers of poetry what alike, an example of what might be the fruit of a lifetime spent as a poet – honest to conviction, ever humble in the service of is new, and what is exciting, about writing and reading poetry.
Without cynicism or fatigue, all four poets displayed an authority and a contentedness that represented the ubiquitous and almost taken for granted width of their influence. Not a single member of the quartet began writing to show those in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s what was possible in poetry, what could be achieved, what could re-understood, re-heard, reborn, and yet all the more for their sense of it being just about the poetry itself, they have continued to impact those lucky enough to witness, read and follow their work.
As Anselm Hollo read William Carlos Williams, poems written just ten years before his birth, as Gunnar Harding recounted his time in the Swedish mounted cavalry, as Tom Raworth casually, and gently, evidenced again why he is the greatest living British poet, and as Andrei Codescu lamented the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in kind with the end of secrets in the modern age, one could not help but get a sense of the inability to perceive just what they had collectively achieved, across hundreds of collections, thousands of readings and more than a dozen nations.
If it was true, as was said and probably is the case, that these four men will never again share a stage, then all the more do we benefit from taking a moment in their collective presence to consider what it is all for – the practise of being a poet, reading poetry, attending readings, living with a pen in our hands. It is just about the poem, and being honest to that poem, amidst the same responsibility as everybody else, to be a decent person, one who will help those coming after them with a selflessness and a generosity that belies any notion of the poet as some pretentious conduit for some pseudo-muse in a lofty tower of god given talent. It is precisely this harmful notion that these four men have done so much to destroy, to prove that poetry comes from a lived life, from wide reading, from being a person as well, if not before, being a poet. And should any poets from my generation achieve half of what these four have in their lifetime, they will indeed be counted among the very few.