Sunday of 0th week is an odd time. I feel I should be working, but also, it’s the weekend, I’m hungover from a bop I happily cannot remember and – most importantly – I’m lazy. One part of my day has featured intermittently in most of my Sundays in Oxford: Magdalen’s Florio Society. A poetry discussion group, informal, typically with alcohol, it would not be an unusual scene across Oxford. There is, however, one extraordinary difference: the poetry being discussed is very much contemporary; so contemporary, in fact, that frequently the first time it has received audience is in that very room – it is the attendees’ own.
The society goes back at least as far as 1956, and some of its members have gone on to achieve notable literary success (former members include Adam Thorpe, James Fenton – even the politician John Redwood). Its guests have included authors of the highest rank: Auden, Pinter and Murdoch have all attended. The Society is named for an old member of the college, John Florio (1553? – 1625), known best for Italian translations and whose work Shakespeare used as a source for ‘The Tempest’. The notion of translation is peculiarly apt: the society takes pride in, and frequently achieves, clarity of expression. This poetic imperative lends itself, so far at least, to a high quality of poetic expression from all submitters.
I may be the exception to that rule. I write poetry infrequently and the idea of ‘creating’ is a terrifying one. Too often I fear my ideas might be too shabby, maybe even too clichéd to bear any kind of scribal effort. I did, however, produce a poem for Florio this time around (this Sunday). It’s not published here – I’m not sure it will ever again see light of day – but it was immensely worthwhile to elicit a response from others whose poetical abilities far exceed my own. And I’m not just talking about that third-year English student who’s notoriously bright; alongside we pretentious, high-minded undergrads, the evening is frequented by Magdalen’s Emeritus Fellow, John Fuller: he is a renowned poet in his own right, and to have your own work critiqued by a poet (and former tutor) of such acuity is an immensely thought-provoking experience. To be able to criticise his poetry, most of which is unpublished, is also a powerful leveller – first and far-too-many years share in a unitive anonymity where ‘contextualising’ a work is an impossibility.
This anonymity is a tool I should stress more clearly: the discussion requires no admission of authorship. Katie Mennis, a first year Classics & English student, attests, “I would not normally let just anyone read something I’d written – in Florio, I don’t have to worry. The atmosphere is relaxed enough that I’m not afraid just to send something in – and no one knows it’s me. It’s also a great learning experience; it usually points out where I could be syntactically stricter, and so helps my writing overall.” Attitudes like this are, I’d expect, common across those who go.
Each week is loosely grouped around a theme. This is almost invariably ignored, unless it can somehow be related to what a poet wanted to talk about anyway. However, the poems do share something in common: they ache to be read, and read aloud. As no one author has any claim over any poem, each time someone elects to read, the poem is lent an oral depth which transfers naturally into discussion. It is this discursive element which makes Florio so powerful – it is more like a conversation – the poems merely starting points.