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Sounds Formal

Will Arndt

Jane Griffiths: Poetry and Music
Oxford Poetry Society
Keble College
12 November







The first event by the newly reformed Oxford Poetry Society took the shape of an evening of discussion on the relationship between music and poetry. The society has been dormant for some months but has recently been revived by a new committee, and April Pierce, the new president, has envisioned three separate approaches for the group: appreciation, creation, and performance. Creative writing workshops, open-mic nights and poetry slams are promised, but this first evening was devoted to the more critical analysis of forms.

You could have been forgiven for fearing—as I did—the usual Oxford stodginess in this event. But happily any such expectations were disappointed, and the evening turned out to be thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. Jane Griffiths, an award-winning Oxford poet, was guest speaker. She read ‘The Skater,’ a poem from her collection A Grip on Thin Air (Bloodaxe, 2000) and then played a recording of the same poem which the composer, Peter Knell, set to music in a performance in Germany in April 2004. Hearing the two side by side—her original intention for the sound of her words set against their musical transformation—provided a solid foundation for the rest of the evening. From there consideration turned to ‘Funeral Blues’ by W. H. Auden, set to a selection from Benjamin Britten, and then to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, which participants read silently to themselves before hearing a recording of Ginsberg reading alone and then another with an accompanying cello.

Other topics for discussion included the ironic implications of the simple cadence of the Flobot’s, ‘No Handlebars’ (“I can keep rhythm with no metronome / No metronome / No metronome”) and the bizarrely catchy rapping of KRS-One to Vivaldi. There were reflections on the politicisation of hymns, the difference between performance and reading, and the technical control of poets compared that of composers in their respective forms. A major question that emerged from the evening will surely be carried forward into future events: what should be made of the long-standing trend away from formal rhyme schemes in poetry? If it sounds too esoteric, I promise it wasn’t— it was simply good (remarkably well-informed) fun.

Will Arndt is reading for an MLitt in English at Keble College, Oxford.