Liz Lochhead was this year named as the national poet of Scotland, or Scots Maker, succeeding Edwin Morgan. This week she gave a brilliant poetry reading followed by a fascinating and far-reading discussion with Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, exploring topics including poetic vocation, the difference between poetry and art forms such as theatre, and how poetry can bring great pleasure to life.
“There are some people who make the world better and make you sit up and listen”, said Kelly, and one of the ways Lochhead does this is through humour, and it was indeed an evening punctuated with delighted laughter.
It was an evening celebrating the power of the human voice. Kelly pointed out what a lovely voice Lochhead has, and it was a voice that did indeed hold the audience in the Purcell Room entranced as she read out a selection of her poems. When asked about her development as a poet, the moment she “knew in her belly” she wanted to be a poet, Lochhead described how her granny worked as a maid in an elocutioner’s house so voice has always been of interest. She takes great pleasure in the act of being able to communicate with a voice. When in love or grief, people turn to poetry, said Lochead, and she believes that poetry should be heard out loud.
“The purpose of art is not to instruct but to delight” – David Mamet
Liz Lochhead described how being the national poet of Scotland had not changed the fact of doing what she believes in, but gave her a greater platform to speak out against issues that concern her, such as library closures, and how poetry is taught in schools.
She called upon this quote from Mamet whilst discussing how the joy of reading poetry should be brought back into schools, rather than students and teachers hating or fearing it. Poetry should not be a penance but a pleasure, she said.
“That rare, random descent” – Sylvia Plath
Lochhead also shed interesting insight into the mysterious process of creating poetry, quoting Sylvia Plath’s phrase “for that rare, random descent”. Part of the delight in reading Lochhead is the way she plays with language. She spoke of how she enjoys flipping clichés, for example “I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes”, and find ways of refreshing outworn sayings. Shoes were indeed a theme of the evening, as Lochhead’s silver shoes sparkled before the spotlight. It was her poetical feet that also stole the show, as Lochead discussed the joy of reading other good poets and being inspired by them and also held the audience captivated with the beguiling poetic feet of her own verse.
“I don’t really believe in standard English”, said Lochhead, saying that to do so would be to condone a “bog-standard English”; instead she celebrates the gloriousness of “living language”, a language she delighted audiences with at the event this week, leaving us with a sense of the thrilling possibilities of that language.