The Royal Society of Literature has some 500 Fellows. They include most of the very best novelists, short-story writers, poets, playwrights, biographers, historians, travel writers, literary critics and scriptwriters at work today.
The Fellow's Choice page features selections from the RSL Library by one of our Fellows.
This month's curator, David Harsent, has published ten collections of poetry. The most recent, Night — published in January 2011 — was Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2011 and won the Griffin International Poetry Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Forward Prize (Best Collection), the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Costa Poetry Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and a member of the RSL Council.
His work in music theatre has involved collaborations with a number of composers, but most often with Harrison Birtwistle, and has been performed at the Royal Opera House, Carnegie Hall, the Proms and on Channel 4 TV.
The story goes that John Adams was in conversation with a cab-driver who asked, ‘What do you do?’ It’s a tricky moment for anyone involved in the arts. Auden used to say he was an historian. I’m not sure if that always got him off the hook, but it was evidently better than owning up to being a poet, though lately I’ve tended to say just that. It tends to stop them in their tracks. Maybe Adams, like me, had tired of apologetic, self-defensive fakery, because he said, ‘I’m a composer.’ ‘Yeah?’ said the cabbie. ‘Not like that Harrison Birtwistle, I hope.’ The depressing thing about this story (Birtwistle laughed when he heard it) is that it’s not only the cabbie who thinks that way. ‘Birtwistle’ has – simply because he’s more difficult than many and better-known than most – become a metonym for modern music. People who hear something they insist ‘sounds a bit like the orchestra warming up, heh-heh’, might identify it as ‘Birtwistle’ but could just as well be listening to composers as different as Xenakis and Michael Tippett; ignorance betrays them. I suppose they find ‘Birtwistle’ difficult because they find modernism difficult. It means they’re not interested. I suspect those people consider much modern poetry unapproachable for the same reason. If I sound chippy, it’s because if you put modern poetry together with modern music,...
Photograph of Michael Holroyd by Caroline Forbes