Last by year’s visit by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was one of the smash hits of the 2010 Festival. It had an unexpected spinoff too, because according to Festival Director Fiona Stuart the response the poet got then was so moving it triggered off her latest big idea, to write poems under the heading National Poems For Cathedrals. This latest visit allowed the Laureate to read the first of them in the very place that had sparked it all off.
She was supported by her chum Gillian Clarke, National Poet for Wales and a very welcome return saw musician John Sampson adding his quirky music from a collection of weird and wonderful instruments including the sackbut, the silken gourd (Chinese) and the crumhorn, my favourite, a sort of bent recorder.
After presenting prizes to the runners up in the Young Poet Laureate competition, (subject – A Window On The City) Joseph Clay, Ella Sykes and the winner, Natalie Haslam, Ms Duffy opened the show with readings from her acclaimed collection “The World’s Wife.” These slyly comic verses chronicle the careers of history’s great men as retold by their spouses, including Mrs. Midas who describes a pear picked by her husband as “like a lightbulb – on”, adding, “I told him to keep his hands to himself”, Mrs. Tiresias whose husband became a woman with a voice like “a cling peach slithering from its tin”, Mrs. Darwin who found a chimpanzee reminded her of husband Charles, and finally Mrs. Faust’s unholy experiences which Ms Duffy dedicated to Rupert Murdoch. She finished with her poem on Lichfield Cathedral, describing Lichfield as “marked by refinement of taste and manners, civilised.”
Gillian Clarke’s poems by contrast were more meditative, concentrating on the seasons and the natural world of her native Wales, and ranging from the power of memory in “Blue Hydrangeas” to commemorative verse about a modern Welsh mining disaster, all very warmly received by the packed audience.
After an interlude when John Sampson gave us Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on the recorder (funny and very effective actually), the Laureate retook the stage with work ranging from a sonnet about Shakespearean murders in response to the banning of one of her poems by a GCSE Board for supposedly inciting knife crime, a poem about the demise of county names in addresses and some of her newest poems inspired by an interest in the worldwide plight of bees.
This evening was one of the most enjoyable I can remember spending at any Lichfield Festival, with a palpable warmth flowing from performers to audience and back again that was very special. It is plain that as a writer Carol Ann Duffy touches many hearts, and her calm magisterial assumption of the role of Laureate, so often a poisoned chalice for its holders, proves that for once it is being held by someone who is the people’s choice. May she return to us again and again. Just lovely.