Durham Book Festival: Carol Ann Duffy and Friends


Saturday nights and an evening of poetry are not necessarily joined together as ‘entertainment’ in today’s society, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. It is rare to find the time to sit and listen to anything in our sensory-driven environments and hence, without the use of any cinematic effects, the audience can be transported by words alone. Indeed, in the quiet but strangely intense atmosphere of the theatre, I found the mere act of the poets slowly pouring themselves water a bit dramatic. But perhaps I’m looking too deeply- maybe they had just caught fresher’s flu as well.

the audience can be transported by words alone

Mark Pajak was the first of the ‘Friends’ to enter centre-stage. Indeed, he did fit the stereotype of the languishing poet. His poem Brood soon confirming this, as it recounted the visceral images of battery hens; their ‘feathers stripped to stems’ revealing their ‘scrotum skins’. Luckily, he broke the tension with a sarcastic quip that he was available for children’s parties as well as moody recitals.

Proving that poetry is multi-purpose, Keith Huston soon changed the atmosphere as he bounded onto stage smile and all. The tone of his performance was certainly one of comedic nostalgia as his poems mainly centred on his love of ‘showbiz’, one-liners and Tommy Cooper. For those of you unfamiliar with Cooper, my point that his comedy was of its time should become self-evident. For those who did recognise this epoch, his humour was well-received- perhaps seen as a comforting throwback.

he did fit the stereotype of the languishing poet

Finally, Carol Ann Duffy, the main event, appeared before the audience. She has been a lover of firsts in her career, acting as the first Scottish, female and openly gay Poet Laureate. Therefore, it was strange to see her reciting from her last collection of poetry as Laureate – Sincerity. Yet, despite this feeling of closure, the energy which first attracted me to her poems remained as they proved admirably accessible. One of my particular highlights from the collection was the sestina, A Formal Complaint, definitely a poem for the fan of an expletive, as the arrangement of insults captured the political anger of the modern day. This sentiment was continued in Gorilla, in which she prophesized ‘with a day’s more evolution it could even be President’. Indeed, what event in modern culture is not complete without a cheap jibe at Donald Trump? Every Gorilla needs an orangutan it would seem.

poetry should be brought into the realm of modern entertainment more often

In reflection, this performance proved to me that poetry should be brought into the realm of modern entertainment more often. The ability for the poet to skip from one mood and subject to another in a matter of minutes, potentially even a matter of lines, is unique to this art form. Perhaps the only downside to this attribute is that it can lead to a lack of continuity within a performance – making it bitty. On the other hand, maybe poetry reflects the fact that life can also be bitty with its stops and starts, its highs and lows; helping us to face up to that rocky ride we must all go on.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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