Last night saw the re-opening of the Poetry Library at the South Bank Centre, after over a year’s closure for refurbishments. To celebrate there was a party for Friends of the Library and a special ‘London’-themed poetry reading, featuring Sean Borodale, Tobias Hill and Iain Sinclair.
The poetry event took place on Level Five of the Royal Festival Hall, with magnificent uninterrupted views across the Embankment to the heart of the city. And it was particularly significant, with all three poets reading from work inspired by the city, to be able to view London darkening into evening as the reading progressed: ruffled flashes of river winding through the trees, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the nearby London Eye, overcast sky seen through the gigantic bicycle spokes of its wheel.
Sean Borodale was an earnest young man in a suit, reading from Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass), a hefty tome of a collection featuring 25 walks around London written in verse. His style is very filmic. There’s little mention in his work of how London smells, for instance. His work is about gathering visual snippets, half sentences, words shouted incomprehensibly across a busy street, traffic noise, weeds grey from traffic fumes and struggling to grow between paving stones, words on torn posters or shop signs glimpsed in passing.
The pace is unvaried, and is that of walking. Ambulatory verse, this. It’s also very flat poetry, by which I mean Borodale doesn’t seem interested in bothering us with how he was feeling on a particular walk, or what that area means to him personally. It compares poorly with Iain Sinclair’s urgent, almost mesmerising delivery and Tobias Hill’s thoughtful humour, but if you like your poetry extremely lengthy, presenting a scene rather than commenting on it, riddled with similes (though they are also metaphors here, often well thought-out, eg. ‘blackbirds tying knots of sound’) and highly cinematic, then Sean Borodale is your man. You certainly couldn't accuse him of a lack of ambition, and I'm all for ambitious poetry.
Tobias Hill came to the podium in tee-shirt and jeans, a little stubbly, his hair attractively dishevelled. He’s a people person, good at engaging the audience, and makes us laugh - with relief? - in the first few minutes, with a poem that describes class structure as shown by behavioural differences between types of taxi-goer. He also tells us how TS Eliot stayed in one of his favourite haunts, Cricklewood, back in 1911. ‘But Cricklewood is mine,’ he insists, with a hard smile. ‘I discovered it.’
His poetry has an eye for the grittier side of the city. In what can only be described as a ‘poetry voice’, hitting all the right inflections and emphases, Tobias Hill reads us his poem 'May', a lyrical piece about a now vanished Cricklewood night-club where clubbers queue to get in and ‘piss’ down alleyways when caught short outside - ‘May’ is from a sequence entitled ‘A Year in London’. Then he brings his father’s memories of the city at war eerily up to date with beautifully rhythmic lines about bombs in fog: ‘a sound like London’.
One of his own ‘walking London’ poems, ‘Nocturne’, brings us poetic decriptions coupled with emotional involvement, the poet’s take on what he sees, which compares favourably with Borodale’s less engaging monologues.
Last of the three poets to read was Iain Sinclair, a legendary poet and editor of the influential avant-garde anthology Conductors of Chaos. Looking very smart in a dark suit jacket, very much the poetic statesman, he reads to us from The Firewall, his new Selected from Etruscan Books.
According to Iain Sinclair, London is made up of a series of walls, designed to keep some things in and others out. These walls can be created by historic buildings at the heart of London, modern skyscrapers in the city, the river itself, rings of housing estates, the M25, and a real wall protecting what will be an ‘exclusion zone’ about the new Olympic village. He wants ‘to be possessed by London, to be ventriloquised by it’, his writing a kind of ‘memory Polaroid’.
‘The real London has gone,’ he tells us, indicating the darkening cityscape behind him, the glow of streetlamps along the Embankment, ‘and the virtual is overwhelming it.’ In his own ‘poetry voice’, transformed here by the urgency of his rhythms into something rich, visionary, mesmerising, he reads us what he calls his ‘journal-like poems of the workaday world, suddenly possessed by the high of the other London’ - presumably the magical city invoked by his work.
Iain Sinclair talks at length and with great authority of the history of London and his own involvement with it, how he cut the grass in London churchyards in the 70s, has walked the city for hours, admiring ‘old London, no London, the liminal landscape of the city’, once witnessing an elderly man’s clumsy attempt at a suicide. His passionate love for ‘London’s sacred geometry’ is inspiring. Then he makes us all laugh with a marvellous one-liner in one of his poems: ‘poet is another way of saying Irish.’
Three poets with very different voices and visions of London. One superb event. And a newly refurbished Poetry Library waiting to be visited and enjoyed at the South Bank Centre.