by SRB

EIBF: Glyn Maxwell and Michael Symmons Roberts

August 12, 2013 | by SRB

A Sunday morning poetry sermon was held in the Spiegel tent. A nameless chairwoman in white from the Scottish Poetry Library introduced two preachers in black. 

Glyn Maxwell took to the stage first and bellowed out the confrontational lyric ballad ‘Byelaw’. The first poem in his new collection Pluto revelled in combat, demanding the listener to ‘have skirmishes with me, have wars/O come my way, go yours’ . 

It was a bracing start. If the congregation were still half-asleep it surely woke them up. Maxwell was the edgier of the two, both in poetic style and physical appearance. His poems were peppered with expletives and slang, but occasionally seemed formless and his delivery turned staccato, a trait of modern poetry which is increasingly annoying. However he ensured the congregation were entertained. Reading another ballad, ‘Black Dress’, Maxwell raised his hood to became a parody of the grim reaper. His penultimate poem was a surreal paean to the endangered Mallorcan Midwife Toad and finished with an attempt to bridge the perceived gap between human and animal. The toads ‘sing for the world is new/like you, we imagine, do.’ 

The professorial Michael Symmons Roberts was introduced as a ‘spiritual poet in a secular age’. Like his poetry, his voice was calm and measured. He took pleasure from the fact that the word ‘drysalter’, the title of his new collection, has been culled from the OED. It refers to a 18 th century high street alchemist but the title is also a play on ‘Psalter’, meaning a book that contains both the sacred and profane. But it was the poems that were not overtly metaphysical which impressed the most. In the ‘The Road Retaken’ walking became a way to relinquish cultural baggage until ‘you have forgotten all you ever knew’ and return to the primal: ‘turn around. Drop to all fours. Now run.’ His best, ‘Animal of Light’, was full of the complex simplicity and subtlety of Larkin. 

Both poets spoke of silence and absence: ‘I speak into silence, in case there is no such thing as silence there’ were Maxwell’s final plangent words. In Symmons Roberts’ ‘The Night Porter’s Promise’ the protagonist promised to ‘stare into the silent hours, until the silent hours stare back’. 

Hardly anyone responds to the bell-ringer’s call anymore and something is definitely needed to fill that silent Sunday morning void. What would be better than the voice of a bard? 


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