actors make ideal readers of poetry. Given the chance, I'd expel actors from my poetic republic, on pain of hearing an endlessley repeated reading of Tennyson's 'Break, Break, Break', given by Donald Sinden. Because, for the most part, they just don't get it. Their oratorical training lends them power, charisma, grandiosity and flashes of the craftily sincere, but also a tendency towards what Basil Fawlty described as the bleeding obvious. Those silken or trumpeting tones belong in the auditorium or on the screen: they are so rarely equipped to touch on the the idiosyncratic mysteries of the poem.I couldn't agree less with Lord Saatchi that
Some years ago, there was a Radio 4 reading of Keats's 'The Eve of St Agnes' by Michael Maloney. It should have been a rare treat, to hear the whole of a great poem at three o'clock on a weekday afternoon. It wasn't. Maloney's enunciation, his intonation, his abrupt, non-metrical pauses, his obtrusive sense of himself were all so acute that the effect was emetic rather than scary, sensual, forbidden and delicious. No inner life: all display.
On another occasion I witnessed Fiona Shaw reading Eliot's 'Waste Land', a show that won golden acclaim. She can be a fine actress, certainly; her performance in Beckett's Happy Days was breathtaking and that is, of course, a supremely poetic play. But what she inflicted on 'The Waste Land' failed to capture its fragmentation, its repressed torment, its distinctly conservative apocalypse. Pound knew what he was about with his editing and what he didn't aim for was melodrama. Listen to Eliot's own reading and you will overhear the true timbre of desperation. Especially on Margate beach.
This may be the point. There are so many available recordings of poets reading their own work that it seems otiose to dragoon thespians – let alone Bono – for the privilege. The flaws in a poet's reading are very often an aspect of the poem's dark corners and infuriating ambiguities. Liste to Ciaran Carso, who speaks with a stammer and will, occasionally jerk himself into fluency with a brief tune on the flute. He chooses to write in long lines so, in a sense, courts anxiety. Take Simon Armitage on the West Yorkshire attack; Jackie Kay a burst of sunshine, a growl of rage. Seamus Heaney, that gentle, tough, tentative bear of a man. Or the deceptively offhand Don Patterson, the mischievous vitality of the late Michael Donaghy, the quirky, stubborn, slightly bonkers Selima Hill, the much-more-acerbic-than-she-seems Wendy Cope.
I also believe that many poets would do better job than most actors with dead writers. There would be a fusion or collision of signatures, the words of a dead man modified in the guts of the living, as Auden put it. How grand to hear Tony Harrison as John Clare, Sharon Olds as Emily Dickinson, Andrew Motion as Edward Thomas. What about Billy Collins as e e cummings? Poets read well because they have not been trained to do so: they proceed from the inside outwards. And there is another danger. Actors may be able to dignify and drape lousy work. At the Brighton Festival, Timothy West and Prunella Scales gave a reading of a 90-minute-long poem about Nietszche. Yes, 90 minutes. Yes, Nietszche.
It goes without saying that there are exceptions to my irascible rule. I recall hearing Alec Guinness read 'The Four Quartets' over forty years ago and I experienced a connection with the music and the circular time scheme more fully than any 15-year-old might hope or expect. I have, more recently, rejoiced in almost anything read by Juliet Stevenson, especially Carol Ann Duffy's work.
But I'll stick to my guns. Stroll along to your nearest reading, whether it be by the deft, pithy John Hegley, Brendan Cleary, the Irish card, or even Les Murray, the scarcely audible depressive giant. You will listen to thoughts, feelings and bewilderments which elude stars of stage, screen and colour supplement.