Literary Review – Stratford-Upon-Avon Poetry Festival – Carol Ann Duffy and LiTTLe MACHiNe

On Sunday night of the 30th of June I attended the opening night of the 60th Stratford Poetry Festival, a night which would consist of two performances; one from Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and the other from LiTTLe MACHiNe, a phenomenal poetry band that have set the great poetry of many eras to music, with astonishing results. This is a feeble attempt to review that night, though undoubtedly, as all attempts at reliving experience do, it will fall considerably short of the real thing. I’m going to try and review this in two halves and hopefully give you a taste of what the event was like.

  1. Carol Ann Duffy

Now I will admit before I begin what is going to be an overwhelmingly, and honestly, positive review, that I have, in the past, disregarded Duffy as a poet. I did acknowledge a few of the smatterings of poems by her that I had read, but did not really see what the fuss was about, to coin a phrase. The reason I largely disregarded her was because I never had anyone recommend her to me for any reason other than she was a woman poet and a Scottish poet and she was made Poet Laureate. These were not compelling reasons for me to investigate her poetry at a deep level (the only way that poetry can truly be investigated). Naturally, as a liberal minded and artistic person, I don’t really care about gender, or background, or even her achievements. I only care about the merit of the poetry itself. Can she write poetry – real poetry?

On Sunday, I realised that she could. Oh yes, I was about to realise that my previous assumptions were deeply invalid. This was a wonderful if slightly terrifying experience for me, but I like to think I embraced it.

The event was hosted in The Shakespeare Centre, the birthplace of the great Bard, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a highly appropriate locale. The Queen Elizabeth room served as the chamber for the recital and performance, which fitted around fifty people. I was probably the only person of 19 (nearly 20) in the audience but there was a surprising number of young people a few years my junior, and plenty that were middle aged or older.

Carol was warm, good hearted, humble and praising of the second act of the evening. Her ease put the audience at ease. She began with a reading from a poem all about an incident at school in which there was a laughter “epidemic” and frequently returned to sections of this poem throughout the evening to break up her other poetry. Its warmth, acuteness of observation of human behaviour and humour, were well received. “Laughter, it seemed, was on the curriculum”, the poem goes, and so too did the evening.

To list all the poems that Carol read and which I enjoyed would be exceedingly tedious for you, though perhaps joyfully nostalgic for me. Instead, I shall pick out my two personal favourites.

First was the poem “Mrs Midas” from her collection The World’s Wife. Her aim with this collection was to relive the great myths that had “formed her”, but through the eyes of potential heroines, some in evidence (such as in Delilah, a poem which she did not read, but which can be found in the collection), and some that are her own creation. These poems are perfect for performance, as they take the form of dramatic monologues, much in the tradition of one of my great heroes, Robert Browning. Mrs Midas utilised this particularly effectively, because the original story of Midas from Ovid concentrates almost solely on the eponymous character, and does not go into much detail of how his actions emotionally affect others. The fear Mrs Midas experiences, a fear that she will be turned into gold herself and that Midas will inevitably destroy everything in his path, is at once comic and tragic: “He was below, turning the spare room into the tomb of Tutankhamun”. The grand sepulchral image of the Pharaoh’s tomb juxtaposed over the ordinary, but living, spare room is subtle, intelligent, and funny. The triple assonance adds to the ludicrousness of the image.

I was impressed, but Carol Ann had more to show me.

The other poem I have chosen to mention really set a bar high. It is called, Mrs Faustus, and from the same collection. The intriguing thing about this poem is that the focus seems to still be on Faustus, but the female perspective offers insight into his condition which intensifies the understanding of the myth. I learned the hard way with my own humble efforts at poetry that to revisit a myth is not enough, you have to relive it, reinvigorate it into something current and breathing, and then to stamp your own personal touch into it. This is not easy, and to claim one has done it successfully is an act of egregious pride. Carol Anne Duffy however, has achieved this transformation, this reliving. Her descriptions of Faustus are at once humorously over-the-top, and hauntingly close to home:

“Then take his lust
to Soho in cab,
to say the least,
to lay the ghost,
get lost, meet panthers, feast.”

To pick apart the rhymes almost at random one can see a high art. ‘lust’ is a consonantal rhyme with ‘least’. This then shifts back to a another consonantal rhyme with ‘ghost’ which is onomatopoeically ghost-like in that it does not quite fit, creating a synthesis of language and meaning. We then get a perfect rhyme in ‘feast’. A ‘feast’ is obviously a state of excess, but it is rhymed with ‘least’, a coupling which immediately creates a dissonance and suggests there is a great shallowness and hollowness in the feasting. The compounded effect of this mix of perfect and imperfect rhymes generates an infinite number of prisms through which to draw and develop meaning from. This is real poetry. Or at least to me it seems to be. It also has real flow, and heard aloud becomes even more potent.

Phew! that got a little technical, but I guess you can tell I was geekily excited. I found myself surprised and inspired, as well as in agreement with her on several issues that were raised. Due to the venue, frequent references were made back to the Bard, and later she shared a sonnet dedicated to Shakespeare. In her introduction to it she remarked:

“I do so hate all that snobbery that denies who Shakespeare is.”

I could have cheered with almost violent volume. Thank God for that! Someone who understands not only that Shakespeare almost certainly did write all the plays and sonnets himself (a singular personality seethes within them), but that the plays were essentially “who he was”, a part of his integral being. To deny his plays is to deny him and ultimately commit an act of literary atheism. If Shakespeare did not write his plays then how can we know that anyone ever wrote anything? It is a state of infinite regression that leads one into insanity. Hell, maybe in four hundred years time they’ll say this review was written by monkeys with type writers. It delineates enough.

  1. LiTTLe MACHiNe

The second half of the evening was similarly spectacular, though very different.

I first saw LiTTLe MACHiNe in 2012 in Birmingham, around October, and they truly blew my mind. As someone who is trying to put my own poetry to music, to see verse translated into rock so effortlessly was inspiring and wondrous.

The name LiTTLe MACHiNe comes from a quote from Don Paterson: “A poem is a little machine for remembering itself”. True to the origins of their namesake, LiTTLe MACHiNe are memorable. And here’s why.

Only the very best bands can boast having both brilliant lyrics and brilliant instrumentals, but considering that LiTTLe MACHiNe draw upon some of the greatest poetry in the English speaking language to supply the words for their songs, and considering the variety of tone, texture, rhythm and style in their musical arrangements, I’d say they have achieved this golden combination. Their origin-poems range from anonymous medieval lyrics, to Shakespeare, to Lord Byron, to Percy Shelley, to Henley and up to Carol Anne Duffy herself. They are a three piece band, with the enthusiastic and gifted Walter Wray as their lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. Walter is a fantastic front-man: engaging, passionate about the literary without being snobbish, and totally immersed in the voice of the poem he is singing, making it not just a song but a dramatic performance that renders the poetry not just accessible, but vibrant. Chris Hardy, whilst also being a great vocalist, plays the lead electric guitar which gives the tracks their rock vibe. There is a hint of a reborn Dire Straits in some of their pieces, which I intend as the highest of compliments, given Mark Knopfler’s renowned song-writing ability and guitar skills. The third member of their group, Steve Halliwell, seems to play everything: performing on the guitar, bass, piano and even mandolin throughout the evening. He also has a gifted voice and the harmonies that the three achieve together are astounding.

Once again to list all of the songs I enjoyed from their performance on Friday, would be to list every one that they performed. So I shall mention the two that stood out to me as even more exceptional than the rest. Their rocked up interpretation of Fear No More, by Shakespeare, has to be perhaps the greatest medium translation of all time. That is a grand statement, I am aware, but probably a true one. The backing vocals from Chris and Steve, echoing an insistent but strangely gentle “Come to dust”, whilst Walter’s soaring voice resonates over the top, sent shivers up my spine. The guitars drive this song on with an alarming pace, and one feels like one has been chained to a rollercoaster that is slowly accelerating and then changing course. Their live rendition is also a few minutes longer than the studio version, with added instrumentals and even greater a dénouement.

There are too many other songs to mention, and picking one more is really quite cruel on LiTTLe MACHiNe, but their interpretation of Lord Byron’s We’ll Go No More A-Roving makes it seem as if LiTTLe MACHiNe gave Byron the music and asked him to write lyrics over the top of it. As Walter Wray said in his introduction to the song: “This is a poem, written by a man who, at twenty eight, was bored of shagging…” Though a comic remark and thought, their interpretation evoked a certain tragedy to Byron’s tiredness of amorous activity. It is soft, touching, and so catchy that even members of the audience were participating at the end. Having read the poem before seeing their version, I had never before seen the other side of the poem, that it is not just about a young man’s exhaustion with sex, but also a reflection on the fatality of the human condition of aging and mortality. There will come a time when we will all “go no more a-roving / so late into the night”.

Quite simply, listening to LiTTLe MACHiNe’s music is a profound experience, not just an entertaining one.

You can purchase LiTTLe MACHiNe’s CD from their website as well as getting loads of free downloads of their music. I would highly recommend it if you love poetry or even if you just love rock and want to try something a little different.

You can visit Carol Ann Duffy’s website here:

I hope you enjoyed this blog. If you got this far: many thanks for reading it, despite its ridiculous length. You can find out more about me and my own poetry by visiting my website Lots of love to you all x

7 thoughts on “Literary Review – Stratford-Upon-Avon Poetry Festival – Carol Ann Duffy and LiTTLe MACHiNe

  1. This is a tantalising review full of really great ideas. I now have a copy of the CD and it is superb. ‘We’ll go no more a-roving’ is a masterpiece of literary interpretation via music – the voices and the instrumentation simply illuminate the words in a way that speaks of the human condition for all of us. Quite, quite brilliant – well done, Little Machine.

    1. You’re worth it Walter! I am listening to “We’ll go no more a-roving” as I write this; also, I have posted a link to this review on my Linkedin profile – over 2000 contacts worldwide – hopefully it will generate some interest. I’ll post it on my Facebook too.

    1. Great – accepted – and now I have access to your FB pics I have ‘liked’ and shared you on FB with about 200 friends, some of them in music, TV and art, so hopefully it will do good.

  2. First class in depth review of a poetry festival, Joseph. I am very impressed. I shall follow this blog and look in from time to time. Funnily enough, I was just having a conversation over on Linkedin with James about our Poet Laureate. Your view of her exactly mirror my own. Until my wife bought me a copy of her “The World’s Wife” collection a couple of years ago, there wasn’t anything I’d seen to recommend her and I’d never heard anyone I’d talked to in the poetry community, come up with an unsolicited recommendation for her work. However, you have put your finger on several reasons why she is so good and it is promising for you that you have understood at an early age how important it is to dig deeper into poetry, albeit, and very importantly, with the ability to recognise and discard lower forms of this magnificent art.

    1. Thanks very much! Very kind of you! Yes, I realised i had never really engaged with her poetry directly but merely heard news stories and marketing – when i was faced with the actual thing itself i had a very different response. I really appreciate your following this blog and commenting! I shall follow yours as well. Poets need to stick together!

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