There was a time when I couldn’t have gone, and I haven’t forgotten it.

There was a time when I couldn’t have gone, and I haven’t forgotten it.

But last weekend I went. I was part of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, part of the Aldeburgh audience, and it was a pleasure and a privilege.

Not everyone feels like that. More than one practising poet has told me how scary they find poetry festivals: they have tiptoed in to find themselves an outsider in an ‘in’ crowd. Some never get there at all: apprehension (or suspicion, or poverty) prevents them trying.

But others make it, and you can see the exhilaration in their eyes. It’s a restrained sort of exhilaration: no shrieking and bounding; not even much sign of alcoholic excess.

It’s the exhilaration of intent listening, nodding, murmuring – even arguing. It’s the excitement of applied intelligence and delight – the Aldeburgh hmmm.

This festival is generous and it is welcoming. Here is a crowd of people who embrace words, and love using them (but not exploiting them). A festival is for celebration, and these are the celebrants. It is quite a cerebral celebration, of course, but no less exciting for that.

And it is welcoming. It isn’t a set of punters all assembled to marvel at the feet of the GPs (Great Poets). The GPs – the people you pay to get in to see and hear – are there marveling too. They are wandering through the streets of the village marveling and talking and meeting all the others. They are out in the playground, playing.

What are they all marveling about? What are they all talking about out in the playground? Poetry.

What is Poetry? Nobody knows. And it doesn’t matter. Here, Poetry’s a way of reading.

You come away with snippets, fragments, musical sentences trailing round your ankles. Here’s one from Peter Sansom: “You start off by writing, don’t you? And then you get over that, and start to learn to read.”  And another from Kay Ryan, talking about the dark and sad: “Poetry never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.”

What is Poetry? It is a kind of reading. It is reading like no other. It is listening like no other. It never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.

I worry about one thing. When I was younger (in my twenties and thirties and forties) when I wrote alone and didn’t speak of it, when writing, for me, was a secret affair and blogs did not exist – I could never have gone to a poetry festival. It was all I could do to pay for the books I bought, and in those days, I got a huge number of them out of a library. Yes, I even ordered books from the library, which cost £1.00 per book, and I thought that quite enough.

I could not have paid for train tickets to run the length of the island, for tickets to get in, for places to stay, for food. I had obligations, and not enough money to meet them.

Now I am old(ish) and my children have left home and are much taller than me. They are even employed! So I can get to a festival, if I choose to, though the most precious thing in the world to me is no longer money, but time. And I can’t help noticing a huge proportion of the Aldeburgh celebrants are in my sort of age group and my sort of colour and even my sort of gender…. (the same cannot be said of the GPs).

But festivals are running out of money, Arts Councils have run out of money, culture is competing for your cash. My cash.  Dear me – I am even one of the competitors. I want you to buy HappenStance publications with the same money you might spend on going to a Festival or a reading.

But I want festivals to continue. I want the money to be found. The money pays for brilliant organizers and lovely venues and wonderful GPs. But I’d like there to be a way of sponsoring readers too: the practising readers, young and old, who can’t afford to get there, and need to get there. The people who don’t look like me, or at least lots of them don’t. They need poetry; poetry needs them.

Perhaps there should be Readers in Residence? No, that won’t work. At Aldeburgh that’s precisely what every single member of the audience becomes.

How can we keep these celebrations going? How can we share the intelligence? How can we make this exhilaration of reading accessible to all, even the totally skint? Could those who can afford to go, but can’t – for reasons of illness or indisposition or needing to be elsewhere – sponsor someone else who is desperate to be there but can’t? Could there be some sort of scheme for that? Am I just a dreamer?

The great advantage of the inter-world is at least you can read about it hither and thither and all over the place. Here are some links, most of them with splendid pictures. I took my camera but it stayed at the bottom of my bag. . . .


  1. I love your description of Aldeburgh Helena – one way I spread the excitement to the totally skint is by going back to my students at Liverpool John Moores with copies of the Poetry Paper for each of the second and third year and MA students – nearly a hundred students – being enthused myself and introducing them to new poets I’ve heard at the festival. I have undergraduates writing on Philip Levine, Stephen Dobyns, Toon Tellegen, Lorraine Mariner, Dean Parkin and others they would not necessarily have read had I not been to Aldeburgh. It was called ‘cascading’ in the 80s in teaching and it helps!

  2. Lovely to meet you at last, Nell, but sorry not have had longer to talk. Yes: Aldeburgh is an inspiring, cockle-warming and wonderful experience.
    On the Peter Sansom remark you quoted, I was lucky in that I began by reading and it was the reading that pushed me to start writing. It’s always the first thing I ask aspiring poets ‘What are you reading?’.

  3. This was my first year visiting Aldeburgh. It was a fantastic, uplifting, and occasionally strange, experience. Everyone I met was friendly and positive and I came home full of inspiration.

    I’m still at the stage of having young kids at home, and a fraying shoestring budget, but the financial sacrifice was well worth it!

  4. It is still called ‘cascading’, in further education in Scotland at least, although what we get cascaded over us is less inspiring than what your fountain is dispersing… Or so it seems to me! Thanks to all for comments. Nell

  5. I loved reading your post, Nell – plus all the comments. Approximately a quarter of our audience every year are attending Aldeburgh for the first time; many people come religiously every year; and a substantial number come back, but more intermittently. The price of attending is something we’re keenly aware of – Aldeburgh is not a cheap place to get to/stay/eat in. And our tickets aren’t bargain basement either. But meeting the budget for the kind of programme we offer is a major challenge (even with flat rate fees to poet) – box office income accounts for about a third – and many events sell out well in advance. So there’s some argument for basing ticket prices on supply and demand. Equally, though, we don’t want to exclude impoverished-but-keen attenders. There were 16 free events during the Festival weekend (Close Readings, Open Workshop, Short Takes etc), plus giveaways like The Poetry Paper and Poetry Channel podcasts. We do try to share the Aldeburgh riches, make them accessible! And, for example, all participating poets enjoy comp tickets for the main readings and each year we employ young interns (yes, we pay them!) who also get to hear a lot of great poetry for free. We’ll always listen to someone who passionately wants to come but can’t afford to. But finally, I’d just say that it seems to me that when people – young, middle-aged or old – want to do something badly enough, they seem to find the money. Here’s just a random quote about the Latitude Festival which I think, if poetry rather than music is your ‘thing’, could easily apply to Aldeburgh: “Latitude probably costs me £350 all in, and I couldn’t justify this if it was just about the acts. It is indeed the stuff you can’t buy that makes it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.