On Friday I went to the Gulbenkian to see Carol Ann Duffy perform as part of the Wise Words Festival. I knew it would be inspirational to hear her read (last time I saw her she made a comment about how the sonnet was the ‘little black dress of love poetry’, which inspired the form of a poem I’d been struggling to write – Little Black Dress.)
I was impressed last time I saw her, and this time, even more so. Last Friday she had musician John Sampson on stage with her. He plays various wind instruments, ranging from Sopranino recorder, to a Chinese woodwind instrument that I’d never heard of. He seemed a genuinely nice guy, with a quick witted sense of humour delivered in his Scottish accent.
Listening to poetry live, especially in a great performance venue like the Gulbenkian, is always powerful. Hearing a poet lift words from the page, and project them out into the world, adds a new dimension. When we read poetry in a book, the formatting is important, the shape of the lines, the white space on the page change how we interpret a poem. When listening to poems read aloud, it’s the silences that affect us, the inhalations, the exhalations, they are as important as the spoken word, they give shape and definition, they give us space to reflect, to absorb what’s being said.
Silences around music are important too. A silence provides an edge for us to collide with. I used to play in school orchestras and bands, and my favourite moments in a performance were those split seconds of silence, when the music has stopped and the moment seems to hang in the air, just before the applause starts.
Combining music and spoken words multiplies the effect of these silences. The spaces between the words and music become deeper and more intense, and by contrast so do the words and music. Carol Ann Duffy’s performance was full of those moments of silence, concentrating the resonance of her work.
I am in awe of people who have that kind of power over words. Using everyday language she gave me goosebumps, tingles down my spine and choked me with tears. It reminded me of what’s possible.