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Carol Ann Duffy – not at all stuffy

Carol Ann Duffy by Ben PhillipsCarol Ann Duffy by Ben PhillipsSo, that Carol Ann Duffy.

Poet Laureate for a few years (no it's not Andrew Motion anymore. Or John Betjemen). Looks like a Serious Proper poet in the photos. In real life (and in her poetry) a wry humour and, although her words can be 'deep', she quite enjoys a frivolous heckle.

Her event was the finale of the fourth Marlborough Lit Fest last night, as she performed with John A Sampson - a musician who shares that wry humour with a huge streak of silliness.

The venue was the Marlborough College Memorial Hall - a place I last was in for an Abba tribute act. And half the audience was last in it for a school assembly, probably.

The Mem Hall is like a huge drawing room - long brown patterned curtains, table lamps at the top of each row of seats and glass lanterns hanging from the celling. We entered through what looked like a confessional box. So the stage was set for a religious Victorian* recital.

And indeed there were recitals of music and poetry though not as the Victorians would have known it. John opened with Charge of the Light Brigade performed on a herald's trumpet, which may have been some kind of obtuse reference to our local Lord Cardigan. (Or I might have made that connection because I saw him earlier that day, volunteering to keep the charge of shoppers in order at a National Childbirth Trust sale).

This trumpet was the first of many, increasingly obscure instruments during the performance. A great introduction by John, wonderful in its simplicity: basically a few tunes followed by 'and here's Carol Anne Duffy.' And really that's all the intro she should ever need but...it says something about the popularity of professional poetry today that the top poet in the country is not universally recognised, or had not packed out this event. As one of the co-ordinators of the Swindon Poetry Festival (which starts this Thursday) said at this year's launch: 'Even Carol Anne Duffy can't earn a living from poetry and has a second job.' Don't get me wrong. It's the biggest venue in Marlborough and was very busy but the Abba tribute band was busier.

Anyway, I'm on my seventh paragraph and nothing about the poetry so far.

For the first bit, CAD opened with a selection from The World's Wife, an anthology that featured mythological characters, reimagined with modern lives and a spouse, and spoke with the wife's voice. The best thing about hearing CAD read her own poems are the enlightening introductions, the meaningful delivery and the nugget of insight into where her personal politics lie. So, for Mrs Midas: 'being married to [gold touch] King Midas would be a nightmare. Mrs Tiresias: the punishment of being turned into a woman for seven years is 'a bit like being poet laureate.' Mrs Faust: on Faust selling his soul to the devil was 'like Nick Clegg.'

And I really liked that CAD didn't assume any knowledge - I wasn't expected to know who any of the characters were or what high jinks they'd got up to, Carol explained all this in her preambles. Too much of poetry (and art), I find, revel in being deliberately obtuse.

Then more from John. He asked us if we knew where one of his exotic looking instruments was from. I can't remember the correct answer but I do remember someone heckling 'Swindon.' That's what you get from a student audience - training themselves for stand-up comedy nights. Tickled CAD though.

CAD read from anthologies Rapture and her latest, The Bees. She recited her poetic response to the stripping of her twenty five year old poem Educating for Leisure ('written when Meryl Streep was prime minister') from a GCSE syllabus, leaving in its place an empty space except for the statement: 'This page has been deliberately left blank.' The cutting of her poem was so hilariously wrong footed that it needed a repost in the shape of a poem to cover all the angles (see Slashing arts funding is like burning the Mona Lisa warns the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy) However, that kind of bad press is just the thing to make reading poetry popular again...

The Bees, by the way, is about 'the buzz of anxiety about bees, the canary of the mind.' The poem, The Human Bee tells how humans have been needed to pick up the slack in some parts of China, where bee colonies have collapsed. Other themes included the devastation of Hillsborough (Liverpool), A Secular Prayer and, er, being advised by the Post Office not to write counties in addresses anymore (okay, so that one had a deeper meaning of loss of place and regional identity).

The evening finished off with a beautifully emotive piece about CAD's mother, Premonitions, which remembered her relationship backwards from the time of her mother's death. Wonderful. I wanted to thank her for sharing something that was so personal but was also - like poems are best as - so universal.

Then the students who surrounded me leapt like practised gazelles up the padded (but still uncomfortable) wooden benches**, discussing how they were going to stave off the teenage hunger pangs, whilst I walked back to life my middle aged numb butt.

*The other, more knowledgeable (smug), chronicler tells me it was built as a WW1 'memorial' and therefore can't be Victorian in style. In the words of the student populous: whatever. I won't let the facts get in the way of a good analogy.

**The other, more knowledgeable (#sigh), chronicler tells me that the benches are listed and there was a battle a couple of decades ago with English Heritage to allow them to be padded.

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