William Marshall responds
Brian Green’s typically well-researched article on poetry in Dulwich (Whatever Happened to Poetry in Dulwich ? The Dulwich Society Journal 193 Summer 2017) described the flourishing Dulwich poetry scene in the 1940s and 1950s, with regular meetings at the Crown and Greyhound organised by the Dulwich Branch of the Poetry Society. Poets who were household names (at least in poetry-aware houses) read at the meetings, including Dannie Abse CBE, Paul Dehn, Stephen Spender and Laurie Lee.
However, the group withered in the later 50s, and although it was briefly revived in 1960, could not be sustained. Further efforts were made in the late 1980s, led by local poets Wendy French and Hylda Syms, with regular readings, usually with musical interludes, being held once more at the Crown and Greyhound. These evenings typically featured a well-known poet (including Wendy Cope, Maura Dooley and Moniza Alvi) together with ‘open mic’ sessions for aspiring poets to read their works in public, often for the first time. But running regular events requires a surprising amount of organisation, and despite Wendy’s and Hylda’s best efforts and reasonable audiences, a monthly programme could not be sustained and once again public poetry readings in Dulwich came to an end. A Dulwich Poetry Festival and competition was held a while ago, but was a one-off.
As Brian Green pointed out, Dulwich has a thriving art scene, and books by local authors feature regularly in our two excellent independent book shops (both of which stock a good selection of poetry books). Music and drama flourish too, with frequent high quality performances by local ensembles and the Foundation schools. So what has happened to poetry?
It is certainly not dead. There are at least two published, prizewinning poets in the area - Kate Miller won the 2017 Seamus Heaney Prize, and Wendy French was second in the 2017 Torbay International Poetry Festival, having previously won the inaugural Hippocrates Poetry in Medicine Prize. There may well be others. A group of poets meets regularly at the Gipsy Hill Tavern and there are at least two local self-help groups who meet regularly to criticise their own and other poetry - ‘Perplexed’ and ‘Southwark Stanza’. Within an evening’s return journey, there are regular poetry readings at the Troubadour in Earls Court, and various venues in Greenwich, and at the Poetry Society in central London.
I understand that the Dulwich Society is considering organising a poetry event for 2018. This is excellent news and I would encourage the organisers to consider doing this in the context of a poetry competition. Although there are many of these up and down the country, they are invariably well-subscribed, and budgeted for appropriately, should be cost neutral or even generate a small surplus - which could perhaps be used for promoting future events?