Open OCTOBER 21, 2009 - by Michael Barnett


The Serpentine Gallery's Poetry Marathon, held in London's Kensington Gardens last week, brought together famous names in art and poetry for an entertaining if incoherent weekend.

Listening to poets read poetry - especially their own - is a hit-and-miss experience. Listening to artists, sculptors and actors read their own verse should logically only lower the hit rate.

However, not much about the Serpentine Gallery's Poetry Marathon was logical.

Held on October 17 and 18 in a semi-sheltered temporary structure in London's Kensington Gardens, it smacked of being two months too late. What would be more British than lazing around a park half-dressed in midsummer, leaning against a tree imbibing Pimm's and poems?

And yet the bracing autumnal breeze seemed somehow appropriate. There is something stoical about the idea of exhausting an entire October weekend at an endurance event, encircled only by a three-quarter length glass wall and an aluminium roof - to all intents and purposes, outside. It focuses the mind.

The event has evolved over its previous three years from an Interview Marathon, to an Experiment Marathon, to a Manifesto Marathon. Timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair, this year's iteration was conceived as a continuation of "the long and vivid history of exchange between artists and poets", according to the gallery's literature.

As an exemplar it cites John Ashbery, who appeared remotely on the first day in a film by Artforum editor Tim Griffin. He joined other impressive poetic names on the programme such as Don Paterson, who was this year's Forward prize winner, and poet Geoffrey Hill, who can without equivocation be called canonical.

With the organisers seeming to favour the Expressionist and avant garde, however, it should be no surprise that they were joined by apparent anomalies like artist Tracey Emin and music producer Brian Eno.

We arrived as Henry Blofeld, Radio 4's voice of cricket, compared the rhythms of sport with those of verse in an interview with novelist Tom McCarthy. They were immediately followed by readings from performance artist John Giorno - "another legendary figure" on the line-up although it also notes that his best-known performance involved him sleeping for five hours while Andy Warhol filmed him.

His rhapsodic meditations on dead friends and a life fully lived flowed with quasi-liturgical cadence, though they depended wholly for their music on the passion of the performer. This was in contrast to James Fenton and Nick Laird, each of whom appeared shortly afterwards.

One a former Oxford Professor of Poetry, the other one half of literature's version of Brangelina (Laird is married to White Teeth novelist Zadie Smith), both showed that verse need only be driven by rhythms already latent in its forms.

Laird's reading of Lipstick from his 2007 collection On Purpose, his Ulster drawl turning intently monotone as he inhabited the voice of a soldier surreally happening upon made-up corpses in the Bergen-Belsen death camp, was Open's highlight.

It speaks to the variety of the contributors that the masochists who braved the cold and came out seemed to stay, and enjoy the experience. Likewise, putting the poems of Tracey Emin and Brian Eno on the same bill as those of Geoffrey Hill perhaps makes up in entertainment for what it costs in coherence.

But had the event been used instead to showcase art and poetry informed and inspired by one another, the brief of highlighting that "exchange" might have been served somewhat better.