Lucky enough to go to the South Bank with Robin Houghton who had nabbed second row seats at the T S Eliot award readings on Sunday. As last year, it was a wonderful way to experience readings from the best of last year’s poetry publications. There was indeed fine poetry on offer. I’m rather dubious about competitions generally, and comparing the apples with the oranges of this year’s offerings must have been particularly hard.
Most interesting to me were Claudia Rankine and Sarah Howe. Both delivered single poem readings of great power and intensity. Sarah Howe said her poem from heart and paused dramatically before she began. She read, with utter clarity and beauty, her poem ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ from her collection Loop of Jade. The poem’s opening line of ‘Something sets us looking for a place’ took me to a Rilke’s Duino Elegies-ish place in my mind (always a good thing). Of dual British and Chinese heritage, Sarah’s poem described how she has ‘crossed/the imaginary line’ into a different and larger identity using travel to explore the eastern side of her identity. It was a breath-taking reading. At least one person Robin spoke to was put off by her sheer professionalism of her delivery, sneering at its theatricality. I couldn’t have disagreed more. It was a stunning performance and I was glad to hear the next day that Sarah had won for Loop of Jade.
Claudia Rankine read from ‘Section VII’ of her book Citizen, which she introduced by asking us to imagine we were archaeologists examining the pronoun. The poem seemed to me perhaps over-long but it had a bracing ambition that I found completely exhilarating. Rankine, and Howe too, are dealing with the eternal trope of identity in a utterly refreshing and direct way.
If the event did anything, it made me zoom out and buy Howe and Rankine’s books. Along with Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, which is also a rewarding book.
Even though Robin and I were sat in the second row, I was too spellbound by Sarah’s reading to snap her, but I did manage this not particularly brilliant shot of Claudia Rankine.