Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Poetry Aloud - 'Fox Running' and 'Sleepwalk on the Severn'

A watery bit of London

I spent two nights last week at the poetry library, tucked cosily away above the royal festival hall, reading poems aloud with strangers. The poetry library - celebrating its 60th birthday this week - experimented with this earlier in the year, with a joint reading of David Gascoyne’s 'Night Thoughts', which I wrote about here. I am so pleased that they have decided to try out this kind of night again, because it is such an easy, rewarding way to engage with poetry – something I really do believe is good for writers of any form.

‘Fox Running’ by Ken Smith seduced me with its title, fascinated as I am by the fox in folklore and associated fiction, and it did not disappoint. Because of the release of Sarah Hall’s BBC short story prize-winning ‘Mrs Fox’, which was based on a novella called ‘Lady into Fox’ by David Garnett (available online free here), I had been thinking a lot about fox-human transformations in literature. In Ken Smith’s poem, which in my ignorance I would describe as mixing elements of Gascoyne, Auden and Ted Hughes in terms of style and content, an urban fox traversing London seems to merge and morph into a man struggling to live in the city and in himself in the midst of Thatcherite disintegration.

The style leaps about, but never threatens the coherence of the piece. We encounter snippets of songs and sayings, political invective, lyrical flight, splintered memory, humour and the cold horror of depression, all threaded through an inventory of London places:

‘To Morden to Putney to Wandsworth/to Beckenham Junction/to Stockwell to Battersea Park/Where I was anyone anywhere/on hands and knees/who would crawl to the horizon/finding someone to say yes to.’

There are so many interesting parallels between this poem and Gascoyne’s ‘Night Thoughts’, I’d encourage anyone with a passing interest to read them side by side. I said of ‘Night Thoughts’ that it could have been evoking London in 2013, despite being written in the 1950s. The same can be said of Smith’s 'Fox Running', not just because of its references to Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes and the presence of that familiar, sinister urban fox, but because like Gascoyne he captures the loneliness that spreads beneath the frenetic activity: 

‘Among/the endless conversations, starts, stops,/unfinished lives’ biographies,/feints, gestures, cries, his life’s/plain furniture, a borrowed room/in Camden to begin again from nothing.’

Alice Oswald’s ‘Sleepwalk on the Severn’ is also a night poem, and also involves a kind of personification, in this case of the moon. It was quite a ride to travel through the world of this long poem by hearing it aloud in many voices. It is so rich, in images and ideas, that breaking it into spoken parts worked very well. Characters loom and fade, repeat and echo themselves, changing each time to reflect the moon’s phases.  We follow the writer and the moon, ‘two sleepwalkers’, out beside the Severn in each phase, and hear the moon speak, though her forlorn voice is replaced later in the poem by the voices of people, ‘some living, some dead, all based on real people from the Severn catchment.’

This mix of writer, moon and real people allows for shifts from the lyrical to the absurd to the comic – from ‘There are moon-beings sound-beings such as deer and half-deer’ to ‘enter to the right a married couple being washed downriver on a sofa’. I enjoyed the sheer variety of ways in which Oswald is able to evoke the moon and moonlight, and reading aloud meant that these washed over us, just time to engage with the image before it was replaced by another for a different moon phase – ‘Little light left on’, ‘shedding a weak, low battery light’, ‘A mere mouth/Not fully human’, ‘Maker of shadows snowface’, ‘the unseen shiny of one eye/Glinting in its hood’, ‘shedding a black and white television screen light which picks out loneliness’ - to list but a few.

This originality and density of expression is what I find so inspiring as a prose writer – it makes you realise how much harder you can push yourself to describe and your reader to  understand. ‘Sleepwalk on the Severn’ moves between poetry and prose, but even in the longer looser lines, ten people all reading them aloud together for the first time picked out the same rhythms to the phrases. This was a great reminder of how much rhythm and readability does matter even in prose, guiding the reader to certain words and images even if they are not aware of it.

So, thanks once again to the poetry library for introducing me to wonderful poems. As one participant pointed out, taking part in the reading itself is like being a player in an orchestra; you attend to the piece in a different, more intense way. I will certainly remember these poems and return to them as to favourite pieces of music.


  1. If you can, find the original version of fox running, published by the author as rolling moss press, before bloodaxe produced an edited version. it's even better!

  2. just heard some of this evocative poem read on radio 4. It travelled on the surface of London,underground, through time and history, threading different lives and experiences,shifting endlessly but remaining in some sort of narrative frame. Will look out for the printed version most definitely