Thoughts on… Don Paterson and PJ Harvey at Poetry & Lyrics

By Ali Thurm

A stimulating sold-out evening of discussion and performance from two of the UK’s best lyricists and poets kicked off this year’s Poetry and Lyrics paid events.

Don Paterson, from Dundee, is a leading poet with several prize-winning collections to his name; his first collection won the Forward Prize and he’s twice won the major T S Eliot poetry prize. Before embarking on a writing career, he worked as a professional musician and composer, and has been Poetry Editor for Picador since 1997. He is now poetry professor at The University of St Andrews. P J Harvey is a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter and poet from Yeovil, with a hugely successful career in music. The event was hosted by John Wilson, BBC arts commentator, familiar to radio listeners from BBC Radio 4’s magasine arts programme Front Row. A quick search on Wikipedia turned up the fact that he is also the son of former Arsenal goalie and Sports TV presenter, Bob Wilson.

Don Paterson began by reading a number of ballads, emphasising the rhythmic quality and alternate stress that is so close to song. His wry commentary on his own poems and his gentle mockery of his home city was appreciated by the audience. I enjoyed his dialect poems but, in spite of attending a Scottish university and living in Scotland for a further two years, was still very glad of his translation into Standard English.

P J (Polly) Harvey has been moving towards a stage where she wants to deepen her poetry and it was Don Paterson that she turned to, enrolling on one of his workshops at the Poetry School in Lambeth. Three years ago I spent a fascinating day on his 6 by 6 course analysing poems by six poets which might well have been the same one – it was an intensive day! She still has a pronounced West Country burr which came across in her mesmerising reading of some of her new unpublished collection written during the period that Paterson has been her mentor. It centres on two imaginary characters: Ira and Abel and uses folk song/folk memory and landscape to explore home and displacement. It reminded me strongly of Jacob Polley’s Jackself that won the 2016 T S Eliot prize.

Readings were intercut with a wide-ranging discussion: of the link between poetry and lyrics Polly said lyrics have to be much simpler and to the point, because they have to be sung. On their own they’re often unremarkable. Whereas putting poetry to music you can’t get your mouth round it because there are too many consonants. For Don the setting of poetry to music was like looking at a painting through stained glass. So they both made a clear distinction between the two. That they have completely different purposes.

Asked about editing Don described it as a process like midwifery, ie bringing out something that is already there and is different for each poet he works with.

He went on to say that there’s been a huge change in poetry because of digital age. Poetry is now rarely simply in a book, on the page; there is an expectation that it should be performed. He talked about the poet as point of sale, relying on festivals to sell and promote their books. Someone like Kate Tempest has straddled both contemporary music and poetry. Hip hop has been instrumental in returning poetry to the physical. Polly described her physical response to reading/hearing good poetry as [pointing to her belly] something coming loose …a stone rolling away.

The lyric as literature was discussed in the light of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize. Much discussion ensued and it was agreed that he has achieved this but it’s very rare that lyrics can reach this level.

The event finished with more readings =graphic poems from Polly on violence, pornography and loss; and finally a commissioned poem from Don about his home city of Dundee which ended with he wanted to ‘get the fuck out’. You can imagine it wasn’t well-received by the council!

A thought-provoking and enjoyable evening of poetry and discussion which set a high standard for the 2017 Poetry and Lyrics festival. My only criticism was that owing to lack of light in the hall, it was almost impossible to take any legible notes for this blog.

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