The Scottish Poetry Library is one of my favourite literary venues in Edinburgh, consistently programming thought-provoking events. Therefore, I was intrigued to see how they would approach the Muriel Spark centenary, especially given that the literary scene is set to saturated with events celebrating the great author this year. I was not disappointed; this event predictably offered something a little different.
On the panel were Alan Taylor, journalist and Spark’s biographer, and Elaine Feinstein, poet and academic. Unsurprisingly, given the location, the speakers were tasked with exploring Spark’s career as a poet. Although she is best known for her novels, Spark was a keen poet; her first novel was published in 1957, 10 years after she became editor of Poetry Review.
Although conversation inevitably turned to Spark’s novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in particular, the discussion was an interesting exploration of her less well-known writing. Poet Elaine Feinstein’s comments on the musicality of the language Spark used were particularly striking. Both speakers, identifying Spark as ‘a collector of phrases’, noted how carefully chosen word placement, such a vital aspect of poetry, carried over into Spark’s novels, giving them their clarity and sharpness.
Alan Taylor, despite a tendency to digress into personal anecdotes, was able to offer a personal take on Muriel Spark and her writing process, which was the standout aspect of this event. So many stories about Spark note her forthrightness – often considered outright rudeness – so it was a treat to hear about her softer side. The warmth with which Taylor spoke about an author for whom he evidently had a great deal of respect helped to present her in an entirely new light.
To conclude the evening, Elaine Feinstein read a selection of her own poetry. Feinstein was a beautiful speaker, noting insightfully as she began that in the process of shaping a retrospective poetry collection the shape of a life begins to emerge. Her poems were astute and personal, and it was especially rewarding to hear such intimate writing performed by the author herself.
I found the discussion accessible and engaging. Even for a Spark aficionado, the personal takes offered by Taylor would have undoubtedly added a fresh perspective on Muriel Spark and her work. In shining a light on her poetry, this event was a reminder that Muriel Spark considered herself first and foremost a poet; tellingly, the inscription on her gravestone reads ‘Muriel Spark/Poeta’.
‘Edinburgh Villanelle: A Celebration of Muriel Spark with Elaine Feinstein and Alan Taylor’ took place at the Scottish Poetry Library on Thursday 22 February 2018.
Image: Nikita Jha.