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Poetry Isn’t Nice

By Nicolas Soames

24 March 2007

The 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake (1757–1827) has brought the usual retrospectives and eulogies, and none more fruitfully than from the pen of Peter Ackroyd, the poet’s most astute biographer. Ackroyd wrote a play for BBC Radio 3, The Fiery World, directed by Naxos AudioBooks producer Roy McMillan, in which the purpose was ‘to meet Mr Blake’.

The poet was such an individual and unusual person – even within a rather individual profession – that it is particularly difficult to put the man together with the voice.

The play was startling to many as Blake immediately appeared as a physical man of the people grounded in the streets of London, while living with the angels. Or appearing to do so: the nature, and frequency, of his visions have always been difficult to pinpoint, however vividly they appear in his work. Yet the visionary nature of his art was balanced by his strength as a living man: at the age of 50, in an altercation with a serving soldier (one of the topics of Ackroyd’s play), Blake summarily ejected the boor from his garden.

I muse on this now, some weeks after the broadcast, because Roy has just finished recording a 1-CD set of Blake’s poetry (due for release in July) read by Michael Maloney, Stephen Critchlow – and Robert Glenister. Now, in The Fiery World, Glenister played Blake: a bit rough, certainly; belligerent, yes; a working-class man whose primary occupation was engraving while his imagination was rich and colourful; a man who, after early recognition, was fallen upon hard times.

The voice and character were powerfully present in The Fiery World. But imagine my surprise when, hearing the first edit of the recording, the same character leapt out of my speakers declaiming words from The Auguries of Innocence! Oof! This was not nice, warming poetry! This was inyerface, threatening, interrogative.

‘Hey!’ I thought as I reached for the phone. ‘Roy… c’mon… you can’t do this. Poetry is nice.’ And then I stopped and listened to the words. They were not nice. Jerusalem is not nice. Blake did not write poetry to be nice.

And that is the danger of recording ‘the classics’, whether poetry or prose. It is so easy to fall into a warm bath. None of the great writers are nice. Homer, Dante, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Sterne – they challenge and chill. I once agreed (shame, shame) that there were too many teacups in Jane Austen. Dickens may veer sentimentally off-piste from time to time, but Gradgrind is real and not nice.

It is easier when one comes to classic writers nearer our time, and in our time. Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, the great Irish trilogy, wrote to challenge us. Every story and line throws down gauntlets. Get out of the bath! D.H. Lawrence ditto. And it certainly applies to one of the most stimulating writers of our time, Haruki Murakami. William Anderson, the Naxos AudioBooks sales manager in the US, urged me to read Blindness by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago. It is an extremely uncomfortable read, both in content and style. But I couldn’t put it down, and I am more alive as a result.

A friend of mine, the Scottish poet Michael Venditozzi, is on at me time and time again to venture out of the bath and dip a toe into the contemporary vernacular. Of course, it is not only about accents – and I hope you all feel that the Joyce, Sterne and Dickens from Jim Norton, John Moffatt, Anton Lesser (and others) – and, yea, Austen, many from Juliet Stevenson (a voice with the sharpest nib) – do challenge.

I remember being in the studio for The Unnamable, the final part of the Beckett Trilogy with Sean Barrett. He started with a tone and a pace that I found hugely uncomfortable. We talked. I remonstrated. He insisted (and he is a very calm and undemonstrative man, which you wouldn’t BELIEVE from his readings). And I went with him. You have to trust someone you respect. Listen to it… it ain’t easy, but you will never forget it!

So – all this from the poetry of William Blake. I guarantee you will get a shock. Of course, experiencing poetry doesn’t just mean the voice of the poet. More than with any other writing, we, the readers, the listeners, are a crucial part of the relationship. We hear it ourselves. That is why we have different responses from other fine actors, Maloney and Critchlow, whose voices represent different aspects of the poet’s work.

Here is the opening track of the forthcoming release (MP3 file, 2.6 MB).

Nicolas Soames

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