Wit and wisdom of compere almost steals the show

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His picture may not appear in the programme … but the warm and witty compering of Barnsley’s Ian McMillan was a key factor in the smooth success of the TS Eliot prize readings at the Royal Festival Hall.

The presenter of BBC Radio’s The Verb showed deep respect to each of the 10 poets reading, but offered plenty of wisecracks, too, as well as expansive descriptions of the poetry.

Introducing the four readers about to contribute with Daljit Nagra, he wondered whether they represented some kind of tribute band. Before Moniza Alvi’s excerpt from At the Time of Partition, he observed pointedly that it was better to leave poets in charge of history, rather than politicians.

The 150 poems, each of 15 lines, in Michael Symmons RobertsDrysalter were likened to an “American freight train of endless wagons” rolling across the landscape, emblazoned with spectacular graffiti. They also stood out of the page “like 3D printouts”.

Dannie Abse, McMillan insisted, should not be thought of as either a former bright young thing, or a grand old man, but as a “bright, senior thing”. He also paid tribute to one of the poems in Abse's collecton, "the sexiest poem about a cricket bat I've ever read". 

Helen Mort’s sensibility was “defiantly northern”, said the compere. “That’s got to be a good thing, in my opinion,” he added, not unreasonably. McMillan also paid tribute to a fellow user of Twitter, George Szirtes: “He tweets more than I do, which is something.”

Eventual winner and Belfast laureate Sinead Morrissey made a great impression when she read at the reception for poets at Buckingham palace, he recalled: "The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and Joanna Lumley were all nodding to each other." 

And introducing Robin Robertson, McMillan recalled hearing him at the Aldeburgh poetry festival in early November. It was chilly outside, but really warm inside Snape Maltings, with people “fanning themselves with slim volumes [of poetry]”. Robertson, said McMillan, “makes his own weather, creates a micro-climate”.  

One audience member, poet Malika Booker, tweeted during the readings:  “Ian McMillan is such a superb host, I look forward to his introduction as well as the poets reading.” 

◄ Write Out Loud at Bolton on Sunday

Enthralling night, bumper crowd at prize readings ►


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Stuart A Paterson

Fri 17th Jan 2014 01:01

Not just a good host/MC but a cracking poet too. I see Sinead Morrissey "made a great impression when she read at the reception for poets at Buckingham palace". Excuse my overly suspicious synapses for twitching (& yes, I've read & like her work) but it seems that, nowadays, one grand schmooze just leads to another.....

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