Review: The Cambridge Poetry Festival 1979


John Pilling


If it is difficult to think of a venture more ambitious than the Cambridge Poetry Festival, it is also true to say that it raises more questions than it can answer. The 1979 festival, the third of its kind, was surely the most catholic there has yet been, offering readings (up to eight hours a day for four days in different venues), discussions, exhibitions and a concert two days later that one must presume was intended mainly for the native of Cambridge, when all the visitors (those interested in poetry at least) had returned, more or less enlightened, to their more or less real and unpoetic lives elsewhere. The catholicity of the enterprise was reflected not only in the diversity of entertainments, but also in the way that the organizers had attempted to present a cross-section of known and unknown poets from Britain, Europe and America without forcing them unduly into prepackaged colour schemes but also without separating out those whose work is naturally best appreciated as an ensemble experience, either in terms of particular presses (the Anvil Press, the Many Press), magazines (Aquarius, Curtains) or Zeitgeist (of which the chief example was the Saturday night reading dominated, in sound if not in sense, by Allen Ginsberg).


Perhaps the least happy collocation was that which presented four poets of such widely divergent styles as C. H. Sisson, Elaine Feinstein, Edmond Jabès and Joseph Brodsky, and then expected them to read without the benefit of a public address system in a building whose acoustics are more adapted to the roller-skating and punk rock concerts for which it is normally used. Sisson responded to the appalling conditions with a fervour that was splendidly commensurate with the bitterness and economy of so much of his work, although the quieter, and more cerebral aspects of a poem like ‘The Usk’ (surely one of his finest) were not well-served by the surroundings. Brodsky, too, as befits a man used (at least before departing from Russia) to reading to huge audiences, gave a performance of unforgettable power, in the Russian style, and (despite a command of English sufficient for him to have translated one of his own poems) in Russian. Those who have already discovered this remarkable poet in the Penguin translations of George Kline (who read two magnificent new long poems) will need no second bidding to purchase the volume A part of speech that Oxford University Press hope soon to bring out here. Of Jabès, whose reputation is very much on the increase and who was most ably supported by the translator of his Book of questions, Rosemarie Waldrop, it must be said that the nature of his poetry was ill-suited to the conditions, and that he might have done better to have read from A share of ink newly available in English just in time for the festival, in the translations of Anthony Rudolf for the Menard Press. Or that he might have benefited from the more intimate atmosphere in which Madeleine Follain read from her husband Jean Follain’s poetry, with a conviction and authority that were deeply moving. It is excellent to know that Follain, with a much less ‘cult’ set of concerns than Jabès can command an audience, albeit small, at an occasion of this kind.


The presence of Paul Celan’s widow at a reading given by Michael Hamburger in a gallery devoted to her paintings gave the event a poignancy that Hamburger, despite a surprisingly large audience for a poetry that is synonymous with difficulty, was unable to add much to, partly because he contented himself with reading from his Penguin introduction and translations, and partly because, as with Jabès, the idiosyncrasies of the poetry do not lend themselves to public performance. It was unfortunate, in this respect, that he should have been asked to read only an hour or so before the four Americans (Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman and Kenneth Koch) were let loose on the predictably large audience for the Saturday evening, in large doses ascending from forty minutes to over an hour. Anne Waldman’s ‘disembodied poetics’ turned out to be more of an applied Gertrude Stein, and Allen Ginsberg’s oracular and rambling utterances (faithfully mouthed by Orlovsky) turned out to be a much more ‘barbaric yawp’ than Walt Whitman would have permitted himself, whether or not (as in this case) seated in front of a pedal organ from which settings of Blake were reluctantly squeezed. Orlovsky and Koch, by contrast, came over splendidly, with Orlovsky rabid, mercurial and funny, and Koch, who almost invariably seems flat on paper, a beautiful reader of his own mercurial and funny (though certainly not rabid) work. Kenneth Koch, like Charles Sisson, whom he otherwise resembles not at all, decisively answered the nagging question that almost no one at such a festival can fail to ask themselves—is the author the optimum reader of his work?—in the affirmative.


The other questions—is poetry at its best when read aloud? is it possible to concentrate on poetry for longer than thirty minutes? is it desirable to have more than three poets in one session?—remained unanswered, although the majority verdict would surely have returned negative response, especially, for example, to the event that featured Andrea Zanzotto, the most compelling of contemporary Italian poets but strictly, on this evidence, for private consumption in the study, preferably in the Princeton translation, which was not used.