AWF15: Carol Ann Duffy, and An Irresistible Critic: Daniel Mendelsohn

Now that’s something I haven’t seen before: John Campbell visibly nervous. British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, however, seemed calm. They conversed together on stage and Duffy read us some of her wonderful poems.

In some ways it was a strange session. Despite Campbell’s proven skill as an interviewer and his obvious deep admiration of Duffy’s work, they failed to connect. This is partly because Duffy told us she doesn’t enjoy this kind of thing: “I’m keen for people to read my poems but not to read me”. It was also because, in his boyish and – unusually – inarticulate fandom, Campbell came across as just a bit silly. This understandably nonplussed Duffy; even made her a bit impatient.

I would have been happy to spend the whole hour with her alone at the podium telling us about her poems and then performing them – Duffy’s mana was magnetic. She read us three poems from The World’s Wife that I absolutely adored: “Mrs Midas”, “Mrs Tiresias”, and “Mrs Darwin”. The second of these, in particular, got huge laughs – especially the part imagining what men would be like if they got periods (a week in bed, and writing letters to the editor demanding twelve weeks’ a year menstrual leave).

I’m not sure whether Campbell had seen (or heard about) David Mitchell’s session on The Bone Clocks yesterday (which I reviewed here). If he hadn’t, it was a strange coincidence. Mitchell had said he sometimes reads what he’s written and thinks “god I’m good”. Campbell asked Duffy whether she does that. She looked at him like he was nuts. “No.” We were all completely with her.

She read us five poems from Rapture: “Text”, “Tea”, “Row”, “Syntax”, and “Art”. They were sonnets; a form Duffy called “the little black dress of love poems”. There is something very special about hearing poems read aloud to an audience, when we can enjoy them together “in company”, as Campbell said. Someone from the audience asked Duffy whether she writes for performance. She said she doesn’t plan how her poems will sound aloud, but does listen to that silent voice in her head for the music of the poem.

The Irresistible critic: Daniel Mendelsohn

cv-daniel-mendelsohnMy second session today was also my second one about criticism, a subject that interests me greatly. Ian Wedde interviewed US critic, classicist and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn. He was absolutely charming, and I was fascinated to hear his views about what criticism is, and what the critic’s responsibilities are.

On Friday, in The Role of the Critic, Wystan Curnow said a teacher had told him that “the function of criticism is to postpone value judgement”. Mendelsohn’s view is slightly different: to criticise is to narrate the means by which one has come to a decision (or value judgement) about a work. By making the mechanism of decision-making apparent, the critic also invites the reader to apply their own tastes and opinions, and form their own conclusion. This idea of dialogue, says Mendelsohn, is all part of the fun.

Mendelsohn’s training is in the classics, and he told us that word critic comes from the Greek word meaning to judge. I was delighted to hear Mendelsohn speak passionately about the crucial value of judgement. It’s one of my particular bugbears as well, the way in which, in our culture, judging has become a suspect act. The reason we have intellect, says Mendelsohn, is to enable us to make critical judgements.

Something else Mendelsohn takes very seriously is the critic’s responsibility to do their homework, and actively seek to inform themselves. He said he remembered a teacher telling him “before you write anything you must have read everything”. This idea of amassing a body of knowledge before being licensed to write reminded me of what Nick Davies had said in Hack Attack on Friday. One of the things, said Davies, that journalism must do to survive online is provide what he called “explanation by brilliant people”.

It occurs to me that this phrase could easily have been one of the subtitles of the Auckland Writers’ Festival itself. I am hugely grateful to the organisers and all the speakers. It’s so wonderful to take time specifically to celebrate, share, and generally rub one’s face all over books, words and ideas. Thank you, thank you everyone – and happy reading.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage