Editor's Review: Benjamin Zephaniah at the Hay Festival

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The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah  **** (four stars)

Benjamin Zephaniah is definitely a modern master of poetry, and this thousand-plus sold out Hay Festival gig was his opportunity to indulge us and himself with an insight into his life and poetry.  Ostensibly he was here to promote his book The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, this being the Hay Literary Festival after all and virtually every speaker has a product to plug.  But this was more than a spoken word show or poetry recital, he himself could barely contain his excitement at what he was doing, not hiding behind the subject matter of his poetry but speaking personally and candidly about his own life.  “This,” he said at the beginning and not without a hint of trepidation, “is me.”

Well he delivered everything one might expect from a Benjamin Zephaniah show, he was funny and erudite, and settled almost immediately into his accustomed effortless stride.  He treated the audience to a wide selection of his material including more than one written in his childhood some of which, by his own admission, were “not really very good examples of poetry” (he was only eight when he wrote some of them).  However, within the context of this show material like I love me mother was entertaining and illustrative, and we could see how personal these poems were to him as he delivered them and their various accompanying anecdotes with relish and emotional pride.

He moved through some of his more hard-hitting political and direct material, performing some moving works such as The Death of Joy Gardner which combine heart-wrenching story-telling with powerful delivery and immaculate linguistic composition.  For every single poem he delivered he took great care to include the audience in the back-story before he started, ensuring everyone understood what he was about to do and could go on the journey with him.  This thorough contextualising of his work was, on one hand, the point of the show in that it was about his life, however the explanations sometimes veered slightly towards too much chat and not enough poetry and while he is engaging and funny he is no stand-up comedian.  He belied his own professionalism and experience by clock-watching a little too much, and more than once his references to his diminishing stage time left me thinking he should stop chatting and just get on with some more of his actual poetry.

But that may just be part of his stage-craft which has served him extremely well through an enormously successful career and has allowed him to carve out a very special and secure place in the landscape of contemporary British poetry.  He finished the set to great cheers as he delivered his classic Talking Turkeys! which manages to combine social comment with the mainstream middle-class appeal of a Pam Ayres favourite.  The result of his efforts was an hour of laid-back edification and a feeling of having had a drink and a chat with him down the pub rather than attended one of his shows.  No doubt that suited him, indeed it may even have been exactly what he was going for.

Photo: Sarah Methuen

◄ Rip Bulkeley and a poem for Grenfell

You, me, Grenfell Tower and poetry ►

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