StAnza 2011 - Kevin Young and Gawain Douglas

International poetry guests and a reading of a 20th century classic

One of the international visitors to the 14th edition of the Stanza Poetry festival in St Andrews was Kevin Young, hailing from Georgia, US. His five published collections often take history and blues music as themes, but for this appearance he read odes centring around the comfort derived from rich southern foods such as a Cajun chicken or boudin, a sort of black pudding, and described how he turned to such foods whilst grieving for his father. His latest collection turns to the story of a group of Africans taken and sold as slaves from Sierra Leone in the 1840s. After organised an uprising against the ship’s captain, they sailed the boat themselves, but ended up in America due to mistaken navigation where they were jailed but eventually freed by abolitionists. The poem is long, in many parts with many voices, including that of a young boy whose voice echoes with the praise songs of the bible.

Other headline poets on the programme, such as Paul Farley, Selina Hill, Philip Gross and Marilyn Hacker, delighted the audiences with their readings and contributions to the themes of this year’s Stanza. Throughout, the creative process of translation came up repeatedly and in many different guises, whether it was in the translation of Iranian poetry into English, or from Scots into English. Discovering the poetry of two great Scots poets, Joe Corrie and Harvey Holton, was also a highlight.

It was intriguing to hear the grand nephew of Lord Alfred Douglas talk about the friendship and love between Oscar Wilde and his relation. Gawain Douglas' talk included a run down on various members of the Douglas family, known collectively as ‘the black Douglas‘ as well as 'Bosie' himself, and very amusing it was too. It also filled out the sketchy picture most of us have of the spoilt Alfred and presents him in a much more sympathetic light, and as a very good poet in his own right who wrote some excellent sonnets.

A personal highlight of the festival was another element of Gawain Douglas’ contribution. His reading of the Four Quartets by T S Eliot brought out the full measure of its brilliance and transfixed the whole audience. I had studied it years ago but never felt its meaning so sharply as when hearing it this time. Elsewhere, Professor Robert Crawford had been asked at an earlier StAnza lecture whom of our modern poets he thought would be still remembered as 6th Century BC poet Simonides is today. He replied at first that he could not know this, but then qualified it by saying that the Four Quartets was a poem that had come out of the Second World war, and would probably last. I totally agree with him.

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