Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Sharing the deep emotion

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Sir Andrew Motion, poet. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir Andrew Motion, poet. Photo / Dean Purcell

Sir Andrew Motion, Britain's first unexpired ex-poet laureate, has an extravagantly rich, rumbling, velvety voice, like Clive Owen's or Alan Rickman's. His voice - as much as his message - is a reminder that much poetry is designed to be read aloud and, by keeping it shut up in books on the shelf, we are missing out.

Thus Motion's voice is a great advertisement for the (unpoetically named) Poetry Archive, which he helped set up in his role as poetry's official cheering "hanger-up of bunting". On the archive's website, you can hear poets read their own poems, from Yeats, Tennyson and T.S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan. The archive's earliest recording is of Robert Browning from 1889. "He rather touchingly forgets his poem," said Motion, during a lecture at the Auckland Museum last week.

One of the first poets recorded specifically for the archive was our own Allen Curnow, shortly before he died aged 90, in 2001. It was a reminder, says Motion - for whom death is a favourite poetic theme - "that you're nearly always too late with these sort of things".

But also, often, you're just in time. At the museum, Motion played us English lyric poet Charles Causley, reading Eden Rock, aged 86, two weeks before he died. Motion described how Causley started to cry during the recording. "You can't hear it but tears are pouring down his cheeks." Motion thought that perhaps "somehow, he's saying goodbye to his poem".

However, another explanation is suggested by the poem itself, which is about Causley's parents beckoning him over a stream: "I hear them call, 'crossing is not as hard as you might think'." Perhaps the poet imagined them beckoning him out of life, across the River Styx, to be with them again.

Coincidentally, I came across another great advertisement for the Poetry Archive recently, not in the museum's hallowed halls but on the hoardings around happily shabby upper Symonds St.

Phantom Bill stickers pastes up an occasional poetry series - a fantastic idea (although not all of the poems are in locations such as bus stops or crossroads where pedestrians are likely to read them while waiting for the green man or their chauffeured ride to town). Phantom have helped take New Zealand poem posters and even poets to New York and this year, back home, they commemorated Janet Frame's August 28 birthday, by putting up posters of her poem Daniel. And beside the poem is a large square QR bar code that those with smart phones can photograph and instantly hear Frame reading her poem. For, yes, the bar code connects to the Poetry Archive itself.

Daniel was written for Frame's great-nephew and is full of "wink-quick" language play and Mahy-esque wonder (there's a witch by a tree). Frame reads it matter-of-factly, slowing down to en-crisp all the consonants.

Her natural rhythm is important to the poem - she has no brook with that silly special sing-song poetry voice. Some poets do, but happily, some poets - also including Causley and Motion - don't.

- NZ Herald

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