John Smith reads at the Confederation Centre Public Library
Review by Michael Oliver
Island Poet Laureate John Smith presented the second segment of his celebration of the canon of great English poems with a reading at Confederation Centre Public Library on Sunday, February 16th, of selections ranging from the seventh to the sixteenth century. The opening presentation was at the Arts Guild.
This series runs till early April. "Sunday Afternoons With Poetry" is sponsored by the P.E.I. Writer's Guild, the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, and the Confederation Centre Public Library. Professor Smith's intention in this series is to "give a voice" again to the entire history of classic English poems that have sometimes been forgotten in the rush of modern life towards the future.
Voice indeed. John Smith assumes the role of bard with confidence and clearly loves to utter poetry in public. Smith began this reading by observing that to sit before a table piled with books and look out on an audience reminded him of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus at his desk about to conjure devils when his tragedy begins. Smith ended his performance by delivering the famous speech on egocentric pride assigned to Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Such subtle symmetry seems fitting for a poet laureate possessed of such a grand, Marlovian, declamatory style of reading.
Smith presented Caedmon's "Hymn," portions of "The Seafarer," and bits of Beowulf in flawless Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, then moved on to excerpts from Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, presented, carefully, in reconstructed Middle English. Then the poet switched to northern border ballads, first "Sir Patrick Spens," then "Mary Hamilton," performing them in Scottish dialect. The afternoon concluded with some sermonizing stanzas out of Spenser's Faerie Queene and, as a coda, Tamburlaine's pronouncement on ambition.
All in all, this represents a challenge to the most accomplished reader's voice, but Smith was more than ready for the task. In fact, he reveled in performing these selections, endlessly adjusting cadences to fit the mood and emphasizing phrases with a vocal tremolo that Dylan Thomas would have envied. It really did not matter that the audience could hardly understand the older language of much of this performance-what they listened to was voice.
Amid his oratorical delivery Smith sometimes tossed out footnotes and asides to comment on the passages he read, but for the most part he appeared more than content to simply let the poems have their say. But did the poems really have their say? Or were they acted by a consummate performer? Some might question Smith's assumption that poetic language must be dramatized to be authentic.
Nonetheless, the audience was pleased with Smith's performance, and the "Sunday Afternoons With Poetry" events will probably continue to be well attended. It is certainly a good idea to review the canon of great English poems. There is danger, more than ever, of neglect and cultural decay. We should take pride that people on the Island care about this excellent tradition and are doing something to preserve it.