Matthew Dancona

A poetic evening

Text settings

From its founder Joseph Addison – a poet of some significance – to its present poetry editor, Hugo Williams, the Spectator has always had a rich association with the poetic art. Indeed, an editorial by J.D.Scott in 1954 was widely regarded as the founding text of the so-called “Movement” of that decade; Vita Sackville-West, Sassoon, Freya Stark, Larkin, Kingsley Amis and James Michie have all played their part in this glorious history.

So it was in the spirit of renewing our finest traditions that we hosted a very special poetry event at 22 Old Queen Street this evening – a standing-room only sell-out - featuring Sir Andrew Motion, Clive James, Annie Freud and Olivia Cole. In anticipation of the publication later this year of her first collection, Restricted View, Olivia began by reciting poems including “The Writer’s Dairy”:

On Amwell Street,

the dairy has been locked up,

abandoned carelessly,

as if an earthquake or volcano

exploded, and not just the decades,

and now all around, slow gentrification.

Damp years of junk mail

load the floor, cool as the milk

and the ice-cream which the signs

still promise can be carried away.

Clive James, promising to play Al Sharpton to Olivia’s Brooke Shields, read poems from his most recent collection, Angels over Elsinore, including a wonderful account of childhood “When we were kids” and “My Father Before Me” – a profoundly moving recollection of standing before his father’s grave in Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong:

Your wife, my mother, took her turn to die

Not long ago. I don’t know what to say –

An astonishingly arresting line from this most supremely eloquent and garrulous of men.

I look up to the sky, down to the sea

And hope to see them, while I still draw breath,

The way you saw your photograph of me

The very day you flew to meet your death.

Back at the gate, I turn to face the hill,

Your headstone lost again among the rest.

I have no time to waste, much less to kill.

My life is yours; my curse, so to be blessed.

Annie Freud read from her collection The Best Man That Ever War, including the brilliantly-titled poem "The Most Beautiful Bottom in the World", and the erotic memoir that gives the volume its title:

I saw visions of my own: daisies,

sometimes brown contented cows, dancers’ puffy skirts,

a small boat adrift on a choppy sea; and once a lobster sang

to me:
Happy Days Are Here Again!

Sir Andrew Motion, until recently the Poet Laureate, read a series of elegies, including "The Mower" in which he recalls his father:

You always did come back, that was the thing.

As you also come back now in the week you died,

just missing the first thick gusts of rain and the last

of the giddy apple blossom falling into your footprints

with bright grass-flecks on your shoes and trouser-legs,

carefree for the minute, and young, and fit for life,

but cutting clean through me then vanishing for good.

A superb audience of Spectator readers asked questions and made contributions as incisive and searching as you would expect, and the discussion ranged freely and widely from the nature of memory as a spur to poetic creation, the poet’s need for an audience, what Emily Dickinson would have made of the event if she had walked into the board-room at 22OQS, and the sad decline in writers’ knowledge of poetic form. A splendid and civilised evening – the first of many poetic adventures, I hope!