Tuesday, 30 October 2012
I'm not entirely certain how it happened that I came to miss the news of Josephine Hart's death last year. I suppose this is what happens when you only read the FT and the IHT. Where else are such deaths reported but in the obit pages of the broadsheets? What a strange, long-lasting tradition; the obit pages. I wish the British Library would have posted a notice on their events page - where I regularly go to find out when the next Poetry Hour will take place and always come away wondering why the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour never appears anymore. Almost certainly, someone, somewhere would lambast such a notice as callous and disrespectful, but for my part, I still find it difficult to understand why our culture deals with death - even difficult deaths - as a quiet thing to be hidden away. Or as a thing to be boxed off in the pages of broadsheets no one reads anymore.
I miss the Poetry Hour. For my money, it was consistently one of the finest cultural events in London. There is such power in beautiful, insightful poetry read aloud, particularly when it is read by highly-skilled actors. I'm a huge supporter of the next generation of poets and poetry publishers and I certainly think Britain has a rich and vibrant contemporary poetry scene it can be proud of. Many of these younger poets are as skillful performers as they are writers, though the scene's interest in supporting the new and the next (no bad thing in a discipline still understood by most of the rest of the population as Shakespeare's sonnets), means that there are very few opportunities (outside of academia, at least) to re-examine the beauty and skill of previous generations of poets in a public setting.
The format for PH was simple but effective: Hart always introduced the poet-subject with brief contextual background - in her wonderfuly thick voice - before the actors took turns reading various poems from the chosen poet's oeuvre. I can't remember all of the evenings I attended, but the two that stand out were Damian Lewis and his wife Helen McCrory reading Auden, and Charles Dance and Dominic West reading Larkin. I also heard on Radio 4, before I ever went to PH, Robert Hardy and Greg Wise reading Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, which still stands out as one of the best things I've ever listened to on BBC Radio.
I've written elsewhere about the Larkin and the Auden evenings, about how both events made me entirely re-evaluate my views on both poets and their respective works. I can't fully express how wonderful, in particular the Larkin, evenings were - the pleasure of being made to realise and reflect upon how poems are song and how song is so intimately bound up with human culture and human expression. That these are words which are meant to be read, meant to be listened to and how wonderful, almost essential, it is to listen to them together with other people. And because Hart so often selected experienced stage actors, people whose professional success depends upon their ability to make words meaningful, the old poems came alive in ways in which they so rarely do on the page.
So now that I finally know why the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour never appears on the British Library events page, I wonder whether the time might not be ripe for an adaption and extension of the theme? Perhaps a new poetry hour that teams the next-generation of future-classic poets with their soon-to-be-superstar-stage-actor counterparts? Tempting.