Every evening at Poetry International was an’embarrass des richesses’ of poetic talent. Unlike today, no ‘cult of celebrity’ existed, and performers and audience alike all mixed together in the bar and talked to each other. These were the egalitarian Sixties.
I recall the young,handsome Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, reading. His country was, politically, on the verge of Russian occupation. ( This was just before the Prague Spring of ’68) when the Czech people were brutally invaded by Russia).
Thirty years later, in 1998, I heard him read again at the 1998 Brighton Festival, and his work was still as fresh and vigorous. This time he read alongside Carol Ann Duffy, Sophie Hannah, Hugo Williams and others. A few weeks later, he was dead.
But the most thrilling writer to walk onto that stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was, undoubtedly, W.H. Auden. Wearing a worn,crumpled brown suit, a waistcoat and carpet slippers, he looked haggard and grey, his remarkable face lined by years of taking gin, vodka and benzedrine. However, when he read in his soft, transatlantic voice, his manner was masterful and assured. The entire hall was still.
When he finished his reading, there was thunderous applause, and some of us dared to jump on to the stage next to our revered idol. I gingerly asked for his autograph, and he then wrote it neatly and precisely on my programme.
I treasure it to this day.
When the Festival was over, the poet and critic, John Stallworthy wrote:
‘Come again, every good poet who has been lured to London this week for Poetry International ’67’..