George Szirtes reviews High Performance by Luke Wright

Luke Wright: High Performance, Nasty Little Press

Poetry is a hybrid art and a pure one. It is pure because, at one level, in its origins, it is spell and cry, an oral art that enchants and conjures. On the other hand, the history of poetry is bound up in writing – in books, on sheets of paper. Then again, once written, it is memorised, consciously or unconsciously. It becomes hybrid. It is performed both internally and externally. It performs itself through the eye and the internalised ear that interprets as it hears.

It varies even in oral performance depending on context. A man or woman whispering a poem to another in a private space, even in an imagined private space – in a prison or hospital, in the desert – is one form of performance. The figure whispering, or saying, or even chanting it aloud while perfectly alone experiences it differently again. A small gathering on a formal ritual occasion – a wedding, a funeral, a vow, a liturgy – experiences a poem in its own way. A verse remembered round a fire differs from one spoken, chanted, sung or dramatised in a public space, whether that is at a party or in a club, at a cabaret of some kind, or in an auditorium.

There are occasions of greater or lesser intimacy. A book, however, is primarily an intimate form. It addresses people individually. The book was a revolution in consciousness in that people far from us physically could address us as though they were present, on a confidential basis. But they were not present of course. They were not in the room. What was, and remains, in the room is the words they have written, that constitute a different notion of presence. The rise of individual consciousness, the responsibility of interpretation, of being treated on an individual basis, cut people from the immediate pressure of groups. The invention of the printed book was a political moment as much as an aesthetic one.

Describing specific spaces, however, does not mean it is easy to draw hard lines between them. Poems are rarely restricted to contexts. The whole nature of poetry is to travel and cross boundaries.

Luke Wright is known primarily as a performance poet – a rightly popular and successful one. The poems he has written specifically for performance address audience conditions, which is not to say they are written to conjure a particular reaction from that audience, except an intelligent, fun-loving pleasure.

His chapbook, published by his own, Nasty Little Press, is in fact titled High Performance. Here, however, the performer is physically absent. The poems have moved from the stage and entered the private room of the ear. Good poems perform themselves there: the music, the wit, the narrative line invite, and depend on, the reader’s concentrated imagination.

The two poems bang in the middle of the collection convey that sense of crossing over.  ‘The Launch’ needs no public performance. It walks and talks like any good poem anywhere. ‘Mr Blank’, opposite, tells a story with a more overt eye to a live audience.

Of course he was going to make me a star
I mean, that’s what happens to poets. Right?

That ironic ‘Right’, after the full stop, is a wink waiting to be given. The space between the poem and the reader is filled by the imagined gesture.

Throughout the collection there are in fact poems that hold a page with no necessary live performance in mind: ‘Stansted’ and ‘Family Funeral’ stand out. There is also a poem about Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, in which Bleaney is revisited as a party creature. I should admit at this point that if I ever had a first instinct about poetry it was that it was the opposite of parties. It was, as Eliot said, ‘an escape from personality’, not the creation of a public persona. I wanted the genuine, not the entertaining.

Mr Bleaney is partly the point. Larkin is to the point. Luke Wright has clearly been reading Larkin. Larkin wrote about the poignancy and vacancy of ordinary life in plain language, with immense skill, and much greater warmth than he is sometimes credited for. The deep resonance of Larkin is a product of his deep humanity: he comprehends the substance of English Everyman and is as tough on, yet as understanding of, English Everyman’s condition as he is on his own. Wright’s poems share the plain language and the essential warmth. If I were an employment agency, I would say he had a fine range of transferable skills. The range he is primarily aware at the moment is his own specific audience, but there is movement towards a more meditative form of writing there, something that requires silence, concentration and solitude. The range he currently has is very much worth having: it gives pleasure with an increasing sense of depth. It is a party with genuine thinking and feeling thrown in.

The best compliment I can pay the book us that Luke Wright on the page is funny, pretty light on his feet, tells a good story, and can compass both wit and pathos. You can read the poems without actually having to have him read them for you.

George Szirtes


My Dad used to work for the CAA
in a round building just off High Holborn.
And whilst there he worked on the planning permission
for the control tower at Stansted.

This was the most tangible of his achievements
and whenever Dads were mentioned I’d say:
My Dad was involved with “The Stansted Project”
I’d say: My Dad was the main boss.
And on occasion, to proud freckle-faced boys
Yeah, well, My Dad built Stansted Airport.

And yet I never really knew what he did.

I didn’t know it like I knew
his mahogany trouser-press,
the brass bowl for his change,
the way his cheek felt cold
when he came back from work in the rain
smelling of trains
and the morning’s aftershave.

Or the skeleton clocks he spent his weekends making
meticulous time-keeping under glass domes,
the way he’d rest his hands
on his stomach after we’d eaten
the brown sweater with the hole in the cuff.
Or how his check shirt would show
at the neck of his workshop overalls
the silver popper at the top undone.
And I’ve never asked.

I just see him out on a flat field
that is not yet a runway
clipboard in hand
directing other men
windsock blowing in the breeze.

* George Szirtes is a poet and translator.  He has over 40 publications and has won many awards and prizes including the TS Eliot Prize for Reel in 2005. His most recent book of poetry was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and is The Burning of the Books (Bloodaxe 2009. He is currently a Reader in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

* Luke Wright has four solo poetry stage shows: Poet Laureate, Poet & Man, A Poet's Work is Never Done and his current one – The Petty Concerns of Luke Wright.  He is currently developing a fifth – Cynical Ballads. His first book: Who Writes this Crap?,
co-written with Joel Stickley, was published by Penguin in 2007. A live
show based on the book enjoyed a sell-out run at Edinburgh 2008.

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    I am a big fan of Luke's performance work but this book does well to transfer the energy and charm of Luke's on-stage persona. I think the line is ever-blurring between 'page poets' and 'performance poets' (in fact I don't actually believe in either label). What we can deduce from Mr. Wright is that he's essentially a very good poet. It's a beautiful little book too, am proud to have it on my shelves.

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