I was excited to be covering Lavinia Greenlaw’s reading at this weekend’s North Cornwall Book Festival. Her poetry is beautiful. Last Autumn I discovered her smooth, complex verse in a volume that put Greenlaw’s poetry side by side with the journals of William Morris during his travels in Iceland.
There is a comfortable, gentle atmosphere in the Betjeman Marquee where Greenlaw is due to speak. People are holding copies of her new collection, A Double Sorrow, Troilus and Criseyde, a response and a rewriting of Chaucer’s famous work. The books re-emerge later in the bookshop during a signing session.
Greenlaw reads a selection of her Chaucer-inspired poems. She tells the audience that rather than translating Chaucer’s (or Boccacio’s) story she wanted to “clean out the language.” Her verses are clean and precise and flow musically. Although the book is in rhyme royal seven-line verse, from page to page, the language lilts effortlessly.
Her presence on the stage is understated, and more interesting and dynamic for it. You don’t feel assaulted by her but gently charmed. As a writer, her language and form expertly integrate. As she reads selections from her book, she offers revelations of how she combined meaning and form. She explains that the Chaucer-invented rhyme royal style gave her the opportunity to create intense personal episodes in a story about love and the frailty of humanity set against a backdrop of war.
After the reading, Rev Richard Coles, Patrick Gale and other members of a contentedly awed company ask questions. I can’t help asking her to sign my copy of Questions of Travel. She enthusiastically tells me about Morris’ scruffy notebooks in the British Library. Richard Coles joins the conversation and I listen as they talk about William Morris, the sagas and their shared experiences of Iceland.