Newcastle's rebel poet from the 60s, and still fiery - Tom Pickard at Aldeburgh
Out of Newcastle in the 1960s there came the Animals, “Likely Lads” Bob and Terry … and Tom Pickard, a teenage poet who set up his own bookshop and poetry readings and attracted famous poets to them, rescued Basil Bunting from obscurity, and was praised by a visiting Allen Ginsberg. With the publication of hoyoot, Collected Poems and Songs, by Carcanet earlier this year, the reputation of Pickard, now in his late 60s, is on the rise again, after a period in which he has had a greater following in America than here.
At the main reading in the Britten Studio at Aldeburgh poetry festival on Friday night, it is fair to say he stole the show, despite strong competition from the wonderfully quirky Selima Hill, and last year’s Fenton Aldeburgh first collection winner, Dan O’Brien.
Pickard has a colourful backstory, some of which he elaborated on early the following morning at a discussion on the poetry of disobedience, stating: “As a citizen I think it’s my duty to be disobedient, especially in these reactionary times.”
He told his audience that he left school without any qualifications, having failed the 11-plus, but by the age of 16, with his then-partner Connie, had founded the Morden Tower readings in Newcastle, in a mediaeval tower on the city walls. “I had the great fortune to meet the modernist poet Basil Bunting, who became my mentor.” Describing himself as “an arrogant little twat”, he said the audience at Morden Tower included friends from school, “rough, working-class lads and lasses”, part of the breakdown of the class system during “that great flowering” in the 1960s.
On Friday night Pickard’s poetry – blunt, acerbic, and lyrical – was like a sharp, cutting wind on his beloved North Pennines. He read poems about catching sea trout, merlins pursuing skylarks, building dry-stone walls, and several about Jamie Allan, a legendary gypsy piper from the Borders, who sometimes stole horses, and joined the army for the recruiting money before running away. These were capital offences, but he managed to get away with them. As Pickard said, just his kind of guy: “Much of his rebellious lifestyle appealed to me. I was writing poems about the fells and moors of Northumberland and Durham, and I gave these poems to him, to that character.”
Pickard concluded his reading with ‘Books as Ballast’, an extraordinary rant against “preening politicians … anaemic academics … celebrity cackle from coked-up cacky-crammed crack-heads … bloated tomes by toady poets who sit in circles blowing prizes up each other’s arseholes with straws”. The title is based on a 1970s drugs scam that Pickard found himself caught up in, and nearly landed him with a prison sentence. He is frank about it in his memoir More Pricks Than Prizes.
He is also a librettist and a TV documentary film-maker, and has recorded the decline of the shipyards in the north-east - at a time when Margaret Thatcher was more keen on supporting shipyard workers in Poland - in films for Channel 4. He concluded Saturday morning’s discussion with these brief words: “Never ask the same guru two questions. That’s my approach to obedience.” A fascinating poet to see and hear at Aldeburgh, and an inspired festival booking.
DYLAN THOMAS reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, a “bardic” performance in plummy, indeed BBC English; John Drinkwater delivering his ‘Moonlit Apples (1924) in a dinner-jacket voice; and Tennyson chanting ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ from the 19th century, using Edison technology. These were all examples used by the BBC’s Julian May, introducing Something in the Air: Poetry & Radio, at the Britten Studio on Friday, to illustrate his theme that radio was the medium of general communication best suited to doing poetry and poets justice, writes David Andrew.
We also heard Seamus Heaney reading his celebrated ‘Digging’, the colours of his voice crucially reminding us that the poem’s last line is not spoken: “I’ll dig with it,” but: “I’ll dig with it.” Radio also offers the resources of a sound studio to widen the effects, such as Jackie Kay in 2002 on Thought For The Day reading a work to the counter-point of children’s voices. For myself, the most intriguing and affecting example was a setting for guitar and voice of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, itself inspired by a Picasso painting, the music composed and played by Martin Simpson. And an exploration of both sound poetry and the poetry of sound included Katrina Porteous’s ‘The Refuge Box’ on the causeway to Lindisfarne, combining her words with live interviews and sea sounds recorded under the waves.
THE TWO-MINUTE SILENCE on Remembrance Sunday was observed at the festival at the end of a 15-minute close reading of a 17th century German poem about The Thirty Years’ War by Andreas Gryphius. Literary translator Iain Galbraith said that ‘Tears of the Fatherland’ was very famous in Germany, and often read in schools. The poem mentions “our river’s yearly flood / Near-choked with corpses”. Galbraith said this was not hyperbole: “The rivers really did slow down with the number of corpses.” He added that the war, between 1618-48, resulted in a reduction in the population of the German states of between 25%-40%, the male population falling by almost 50%. “It is a war that everyone underestimates – it was the most devastating war that you could imagine.”
THE OUTGOING DIRECTOR director of the Poetry Trust, Naomi Jaffa, received a standing ovation as she stepped down after the final reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival on Sunday, writes David Andrew. Jaffa, writing in Aldeburgh’s splendid Poetry Paper, packed with interesting articles and distributed free throughout the festival, says of her 22 years at the helm: “It’s felt like a calling rather than a career, something well worth more than two decades of my life and mainly down to the limitless pleasure with working with Michael Laskey and Dean Parkin. We have different tastes and different ideas but we’re drawn to poems – from all over the world and not just in English - that communicate and connect with people’s lives. We believe that poetry should be part of the human conversation, not stuck in some rarefied tower – hence, for example, poem posters on the backs of loo doors to capture readers at every opportunity. Our version of Poems on the Underground.”
She concludes: “While I’m obviously very sad to be stepping down, I also know it’s the right time to hand over the baton to someone with fresh energy and vision. Here’s to my successor and to many more years of Aldeburgh poetry festival joy.”
PHOTOGRAPH: GREG FREEMAN / WRITE OUT LOUD