On the evening of National Poetry Day, Jeffrey Wainwright took to the stage at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF). He was there to discuss his poem, ‘An Empty Street’ with Manchester Metropolitan (MMU)’s Martin Kratz before an audience of eager poetry fans.
This event was not only held as part of National Poetry Day, however. It was also to celebrate Jeffrey’s poem ‘An Empty Street,’ which had recently been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, in the category ‘Best Single Poem’. One of the judges, Jeremy Paxman, attracted media attention and controversy by stating that poetry needed to ‘raise its game’ and involve itself more with the general public, as poetry has become ‘connived at its own irrelevance.’ Paxman suggested that poets should therefore appear in front of a ‘poetry inquisition’ made up of the general public to explain their poem. Jeffrey Wainwright was willing to do this for the audience at the IABF. The Manchester Writing School has been holding free events such as this, that give the audience opportunity to discuss with the writers, for some time. However, this was the first to be focused on the ‘inquisition’ of a single poem.
The evening started with a short introduction from Martin Kratz who included a short clip of Jeremy Paxman’s comments. Jeffrey Wainwright then went on to read his poem, ‘An Empty Street’ to the audience. Many seemed eager to question him about his techniques, jotting down notes as he spoke.
Martin Kratz presented Wainwright with the questions that Paxman believed should be answered at such an event, before unleashing the audience’s queries. Firstly, Martin asked about Jeffrey’s inspiration for ‘An Empty Street’ and he responded,
“I happened upon this painting (Ottone Rosai, via San Leonardo) one afternoon and I just knew that this was something that I wanted to cogitate. Once I had got the opening phrase, ‘What is there to an empty street?’ the rest of it came quite quickly, what I am trying to say is that I didn’t have an intention in advance about what I was trying to expound, it was more a process of exploration. So what the poem is about and how it came about is somewhat of a mystery to me.”
The form of ‘An Empty Street’, Wainwright stated just “presented itself” after he had written the first stanza that consisted of 12 lines.
The audience members were keen to address Paxman’s comments with regards to Wainwright’s poem. One audience member mentioned that Jeremy Paxman could have picked on any number of occupations to pick on, that primarily talk only to each other, such as mathematicians and philosophers.
Wainwright commented saying,
“I have wondered about this and whether it is a legitimate comparison. I don’t think it is, as, amongst scientists and mathematicians there is a general understanding that there isn’t an expectation of being understood, that you are in a way communicating with the so called ‘ordinary people.’ Philosophy is a different matter; I think philosophy is talking about things that are important to everybody. Plato famously said that ‘the object of all philosophy is death’ and that we are all interested in that. It is to do with what or how people are expected to express themselves.”
The evening, through exploration of Wainwright’s poem allowed the audience and Jeffrey Wainwright to voice their opinions on the recent comments to do with encouraging poetry in a general domain. After speaking to several members of the audience, I found that they all enjoyed the evening and felt that it was set very well within the context of National Poetry Day. In terms of the audience itself, however, it could be questioned whether this was what Paxman meant by ‘general public’. The majority of the audience at this event were writers themselves or scholars of literature.
Overall, the event was a resounding success, and as I left there was a hum of appreciation for poetry, which was exactly what the event, and National Poetry day, were all about.
If you want to know more about the upcoming events at The Manchester Writing school, please visit manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events