Historic night at Southbank as five laureates read together for first time

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It was, as Liz Lochhead said, “a wow of a night, right enough". Five women poet laureates – Gillian Clarke (Wales), Sinead Morrissey (Belfast), Lochhead (Scotland), Paula Meehan (Ireland), and Carol Ann Duffy (England) – were reading together for the first time on Friday 7 March as part of the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World weekend festival to mark International Women’s Day. The laureates at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were each introduced verbally by Irish poet Theo Forgan, and musically, with a suitable fanfare, by John Sampson, who often accompanies Carol Ann Duffy when she reads. Thus Gillian Clarke came on to the sound of a trumpet. She talked a lot about her mother – “her tragedy was that she died before John Lewis opened in Cardiff”, how she wore stiletto heels “even for gardening”, and her verdict on one of her daughter’s broadcast readings: “Very nice, dear. Not too Welsh.” Clarke read several poems from her recent collection Ice, and concluded with ‘Running away to the Sea’, her 1955 poem from the Jubilee Lines anthology, about two schoolgirls bunking off and dashing through the dunes.

Sinead Morrissey, still in the afterglow of her TS Eliot award triumph in January, paid tribute to both her parents in her poem ‘Genetics’:  “My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms. / I lift them up and look at them with pleasure – / I know my parents made me by my hands.” ‘Electric Edwardians’ was inspired by two 1900s businessmen who filmed people and then invited them at fairs to watch themselves on the big screen.  The old films were found in milk churns and restored by the BFI. In the poem Morrissey observes that in the films “everyone wears clogs … the women loiter less”.

The irrepressible Liz Lochhead was on next. I saw her take part in a BBC slam heat in Edinburgh last summer, and was impressed that the makar of Scotland was prepared to take on all-comers in such a way. She lost in that particular heat’s final, and didn’t seem to mind a bit. She gently explained to the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that “you mustn’t clap the individual poems, they all get very jealous of each other”. Her readings included a brief extract from her play, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a tribute to Ira Gershwin, “one of my favourite poets of the 20th century”, and his brother George, and ‘Sorting Through’, an elegy for her mother, that spoke of “the sadness” of “dispossessed” dance dresses, and of “every ragbag scrap of duster … old lipsticks”.  

Ireland’s professor of poetry, Paula Meehan, also paid tribute to the event: “This is a historic occasion, without a doubt.” Poems for her grandmother, a women who was staunchly Catholic but at the same time “absolutely anti-clerical”, included the warning not to tell the priests too much at confession: “Don’t give them a thrill.”  Another poem, ‘Home,’ was set in 1994, when Meehan was touring Northern Ireland at the uneasy time of the first ceasefire. Her poem ‘Seed’ was used in the Irish Leaving Certificate examination, and she concluded with ‘The Solace of Artemis,’ which centres on the remarkable fact that every polar bear is the apparent descendant of one brown bear from Ireland.  

Sometimes you feel that Carol Ann Duffy, with her preoccupation with bees and their role as “canary in the mine”, bears, like Atlas, the weight of the world on her shoulders. Maybe it goes with the territory and the expectations, as England’s poet laureate. She read two poems about bees, and also two poems about her mother; her last words, and her life rewound. There was also a haunting sonnet, ‘Hillsborough’ – “not a matter of football, but of life” -  with John Sampson playing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in the background. She wound up on a lighter note with ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High’, about the extended hysteria of pupils that drives the head and staff  to despair, which also referred back to her well-known opening poem, ‘Head of English’, about the sceptical reaction of a teacher to a visiting poet.

The readings went on much later than billed, and rightly so. The five women laureates returned to the stage to receive their applause together. Let’s hope they get together again, soon.   

Greg Freeman      


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