Heaney/Longley

Philip Hammond is in a minority of one at the Waterfront Hall - or is he?

A Belfast Festival event featuring two iconic figures of contemporary Irish poetry – the two iconic figures - was always going to be a sell-out. The Seamus Heaney/Michael Longley axis has justifiably dominated the Irish poetry scene for decades.

As they appear on the stage at the Waterfront Hall, the sometimes penetrating, sometimes unsettling, and always insightful literary minds of the two poets are now cloaked in a beguiling, saintly, slightly portly, aged and white-haired wisdom - like the fabled bards of classical times.

Such an analogy is not so far fetched. Both poets have an abiding interest in the great Homeric epics of the past, which informs and is reflected in many of their own works - there is often a 'classical' structure and form to their writing that provides a firm foundation for the images they infer and imply.

In this evening of poetry, spoken against classical works played by the Ulster Orchestra, it is remarkable how closely aligned and interrelated is their choice of poems. Remarkable but, again, unsurprising. How could two such experienced wordsmiths fail to choose a meaningful and absorbing poetic compilation for such an evening?

There is a human scale to their, too. Each poet reads in alternation and the very sound of their voice is enough to further enthral their already captivated audience. The absorption is often so intense that nobody reacts to the subtle humour implicit in some of the poems.

There is an air of comprehension which goes beyond the need to openly respond. Don’t we all relate to the beauty of the natural world, so much a part of Longley’s imagery? Don’t we all feel instinctively the very personal experiences of Heaney’s writing? In poems such as 'Ceasefire' or 'The Strand at Lough Beg', aren’t we all silently drawn to the powerful human emotions so sensitively revealed?

These poetic revelations are not, however, matched by the musical interludes. Whether it is the lacklustre, often scrappy performances by the Ulster Orchestra or the strangely unrelated, unexplained choice of works that interrupt each couplet of themed readings, I find myself becoming increasingly annoyed and distracted. This format does not work for me.

I would like to know why the poets chose these musical pieces. Is it a first choice or a compromised choice, forced upon them by other considerations? Is this '100 best tunes', a 'desert island disc' selection? A sop for an audience clearly more aligned to literary knowledge?

Why the bleeding chunk of 'Sibelius Five'? Why Mendelssohn’s 'Wedding March'? Why that bad arrangement of Bach’s 'Sheep May Safely Graze'? Why Copland’s 'Fanfare for the Common Man'? Why the obscure choice of Proinnsias Ó Duinn as conductor for such an otherwise prestigious event?

The hall rises spontaneously to their collective feet as another Copland lollipop is tossed at the audience, bringing the 'concert' to a close. Naturally this engenders an encore. Each poet reads a poem by the other in a wonderfully moving tribute – which is then spoilt by a banal performance of Brahms' 'Fifth Hungarian Dance'. Again, why that?

It seems, from the response of the audience at least, that my overriding discontent with the musical offerings of the evening naturally places me in a minority of one.

Did you attend this concert? Email us at info@culturenorthernireland.org and share your views:

Jane:

I couldn't agree more with your review. The music was DIRE and I also found myself increasingly irritated by it. I have enjoyed both these poets read under a more informal setting and felt the rather formal tone set by the conductor leading them in got in the way of their usual warmth and humor. (They were still a joy to see and listen to though!)

The poor Orchestra! I was there the night before for the Mariinsky, so the comparison was never going to be good! Dreadful choice of music though, I was surprised to read that these were the poets' choices. They really chose all the tunes I particularly hate!