Durham Book Festival Review: Live Canon Present War Poets


Live Canon are an acting ensemble made up of acclaimed and up-and-coming performers. On Sunday afternoon (9th October) at Durham Book Festival were Simon Muller, Iain Batchelor and Roseanna Frascona all performing war poems from memory.

It was not performance poetry in the normal sense of the phrase. Performance poetry usually consists of poems that have been specifically written to be read aloud. There is a particular rhythm and style: yet, this event didn’t resemble performance poetry I’ve seen before.

The war poet event was more like only hearing the dramatic monologues from 35 unknown characters from unknown plays that haven’t been written.

I imagine the actors encountered many problems when deciding how the poems should be performed. Some worked better than others: those written in the first person were very natural, for example the timeless protest ‘To Whom It May Concern’ by Adrian Mitchell powerfully translated the anger felt for the lies of war. Sometimes the poems were too short to take the time to reflect fully on the subject (if you were not already familiar); yet this must represent one of the many challenges found in bringing these works off the page.

There was something strange about seeing some of the poems performed. This was for a few reasons, namely the emotional intensity and somberness of a lot of war poetry. But Live Canon also included poems that broke the mold, such as ‘On Being Asked for a war poem’ by W.B Yeats, making for some light relief.

However, the general feeling was sadness. At a couple of moments one of the actors had real tears in his eyes. He needn’t have apologised however. The emotion reminded everyone of the very real lives these poems were birthed from.

The poems were hugely varied which I was not expecting. Being a fan of Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas I expected to hear a few of their famous poems and maybe some less well known war poets. Yet, I was struck by the myriad of war poets and poems they had found and performed. They performed ‘The Big Ask’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Bombardment’ by D.H Lawrence, and ‘The Bombs’ by Harold Pinter – these are all writers I did not previously associate with war poetry. There was also a refreshing number of more modern war poets, commenting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam and Bosnia.

In the end, I was left at the end feeling a little lost and not knowing what to really make of the event as a whole. Was I supposed to feel sad, thoughtful? Was it meant to be cathartic? Or was it to make you reflect on recent wars and ongoing conflicts? There was all this intensity and then we all left the room-after a lengthy applause.

Despite some confusing elements, the performance by Live Canon was a rare opportunity to hear poetry in a voice and interpretation that wasn’t my own, and to hear the real breadth of war poetry that exists. The event brought many poets back to life and wars back to memory, if only for a fleeting fifty minutes.

Image credit: Surian Soosay, Flickr

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