Jacob Polley at the Portico

Year 12 and 13 English Literature students with T S Eliot-prize-winning poet Jacob Polley at the Portico Library (with its famous ‘Polite Literature’ bookshelf)

You really have to start a report on an event at the Portico Library with a comment about being seated under its magnificent domed ceiling (which you can see on the picture). On this particular Thursday in November, it boasted the added bonus of sheltering an award-winning poet.

Urmston Grammar English Literature A-Level students got the chance to meet Jacob Polley, whose fourth poetry collection Jackself won last year’s T S Eliot Prize (which you can read me raving about here), in a reading and Q&A session hosted by Manchester’s loveliest hidden literary gem.

Jacob’s reading brought to life the aural aspects of poetry which are often analysed on paper but all too infrequently listened to. Admitting that poetry can be hard to listen to, he welcomed just taking it in ‘as music’, though the context which he gave throughout, and the compelling voice of his poetry, made for easy and attractive reading, and gave us a feel for the collection’s unique atmosphere.

We got a flavour of the mixture of ‘everyday and impossible’ which defines Jackself, with ancestors’ skeletons in ‘The Lofts’, familiar classroom antics in ‘Lessons’, and boyish escapades in ‘Peewit’, ‘Jack Frost’, and ‘Nightlines’, the poem which first spawned the character of Jackself.

In the engaging, funny, and relaxed question and answer session which followed we focussed on the difference between meaning and significance, the role of poetry, and the relationship between writer and reader at all stages of the process. Titles of individual poems, as well as the physicality of the book, Jacob shared, are particularly important to him, and often have a lot of work to do in supporting the poems, and enticing readers. Admitting ‘I never know what I’m doing’, and that his first response to a poem of his own is often ‘I’ve got no idea what that is’, Jacob discussed the excitement of that discovery process, and the arc of creation, shaping work for a reader once the initial ‘mess’ has been defined with retrospect. A writer has to be ‘provoked’, and then craft their work to be ‘provocative’ to their reader.

Jacob shook the foundations of A-Level English Literature study by revealing that he’s not particularly interested in what a poem means, that he wants to be read how he reads (and how we all best love to read), to provoke a reader imaginatively, but not necessarily to give them a puzzle to solve. Whilst literary analysis is ‘enriching’ and develops critical thinking skills (cue a ‘phew’ from our teacher), Jacob is more interested in the ‘reality’ of his poems, and his ‘web of resonance and allusion’ rather contributes to the ‘texture of the poem’ than excludes non-literary readers.

An intimate setting to grill the daunting ‘writer’ who features so heavily in essays and thinking on literature was a privilege, and sharing wise words about poetry and life, in a room full of books, was, quite simply, delightful.

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