An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Ian Duhig, Anne Rouse, Matthew Sweeney & Benjamin Zephaniah
Bloodaxe Books
NE48 1RP
ISBN 1 85224 551 4

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This recording comprises the quartet of Anne Rouse, Ian Duhig, Matthew Sweeney and Benjamin Zephaniah. Each poet has about 30 minutes, with 10 or more poems. There is usually a little intro to each poem, referring to its setting and inspiration, with comments on the process of writing. We are told in the blurb that this quartet are noted for giving brilliant performances; on the other hand, that is not quite the same thing as being effective (or not) speaking lonely lines in a recording-room, isolated from a conducive environment and receptive audience.

Anne Rouse says she tries to be accessible, with the emphasis on ideas, and her poems are certainly approachable, neat and observant. Nevertheless she herself says she is more a page poet than a performance one, and it shows really; she reads fairly sloppily and quite shyly and, to be honest, is not able to put on any distinctive voice beyond a flat monotone. She sounds quite self-conscious and awkward (as most of us would, I suppose).

Ian Duhig too, in this format of recording his performance, is somewhat inhibited and restrained (rather nervously fast), but he has a distinctive, quite camp voice which helps his delivery. His poems often deal with society's outcasts and oppressed. He has some witty pieces such as FUNDAMENTALS (with a joke or two at the expense of the Victorian missionary and explorer, David Livingstone) and A DREAM OF WEARING STRING VESTS FOREVER; poems such as CHOCOLATE SOLDIER and COME THE MORNING are put to traditional tunes, and with a simple form and rhyme, and cheeky, fruity language his poems lend themselves to recitation, aided by a mild, folksy social conscience.

Matthew Sweeney says poetry-reading is a dramatic thing. He reads much more confidently and clearly, and this makes all the difference. The poems are accessible and conversational and capture expressively quirky moments and comic (often imagined) episodes and situations, as for example pieces like SANCTUARY (on seduction), THE TUNNEL (remembering a childhood fantasy), THE COMPROMISE (about being buried on the moon), GUARDIAN OF THE WOMEN'S LOO IN WATERLOO, FROG-TAMING and RUSSIAN where somebody wakes up suddenly speaking Russian.

Benjamin Zephaniah is generally brilliant at this; we are told in the blurb that he is a master of oral and performance art, and in poems such as DIS POETRY, MONEY and OVERSTANDING he has all the variations of voice and tone, use of repetition, simple rhymes, changes of speed and pitch, often to rap, that make his work the most effective of those on oral show. He says his work usually tries to make a statement, as in MACHO MAN, MONEY, WHO DUN IT? (about South Africa) and WHAT STEPHEN LAWRENCE TAUGHT US. Nonetheless, the very political ones rather overdo the straight-faced heaviness, and are surprisingly plodding and a little boring.

I think Anne Rouse's point about there being a distinction between a page poet and a performance poet is most apt, yet these recordings to tape by the poets themselves don't fall in either camp. Any skill the poets have in performing before a live audience is not necessarily tapped, and professional actors/readers would make a better job of voicing these poems to tape than their originators who often seem a little self-conscious and embarrassed by the exercise.

reviewer: Alan Hardy.