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In the olden days, when festivals happened, I was once in a big marquee at Hay on Wye. I was there to speak about LTC Rolt’s book Narrow Boat, on which I considered myself a bit of an authority. As I got ready to go on stage, I was introduced to an elderly woman with a glint in her eye. “This is Jo Bell, the Canal Laureate”, said the person introducing us; “….and this is Sonia Rolt”. LTC Rolt’s widow was a vital campaigner for the canals, and bright as a diamond at ninety-two. She was the very last person I wanted to see in the front row of my talk, and she knew it. She enjoyed my discomfort. We got on like a house on fire.
Our subject today is introducing someone. It needs to be a personal introduction (not an introduction to the works of Rumi, or the third law of thermodynamics) because an introduction is uniquely useful to the poet. First impressions, after all, are based entirely on the five senses. What was that person wearing, and did they flinch at your accent? Did they have dirty fingernails or overpowering aftershave? Did you bond immediately as you both raised an eyebrow at the same lame joke? What did you notice? Noticing everything is the poet’s main job; if you can do that, then you have the raw material for anything.
Introductions set the chemistry fizzing between future spouses or enemies. Think about the moment you were introduced to your spouse, your best friend, your biological mother – and remember that in the poem you can be any one of those people. Here’s a poem which makes a square between a child, her two parents and the poet who introduced them. Some people strike you immediately – the colleague at work whom you instantly hate, the kid at school whom you just know will be your nemesis, the woman who later ran off with your wife. Others barely figure as a backdrop to something more important, or as one introduction in a stream of passing faces. Some people who should have met, never did; introduce your child to its long-gone grandparents, or vice versa.
Perhaps your introduction is a more formal one. You are introducing someone on stage – JB Priestley loved to sabotage speakers before they ever stood up, like this:
“In introducing one or two of the chief speakers, grossly over-praise them but put no warmth into your voice… If you know what a speaker’s main point is to be, then make it neatly in presenting him to the audience.”JB Priestley, ‘Quietly Malicious Chairmanship’, in Delight
Make a caricature, and let us meet Ms Passive-Aggressive or Mr Brexiteer. Be the go-between who first brings Romeo and Juliet, or Myra Hindley and Ian Brady together. Be the foolish, pompous master of ceremonies who clumsily introduces Shakespeare at a royal audience. Introduce big, abstract ideas by literally introducing them. Introduce us to your God – or introduce yourself humbly to him. (NB If you do introduce yourself, to God or anyone else, be truthful and not too self deprecating. This is not a cocktail party, and we will not think you vain if you say in passing that you have good cheekbones. Be objective; it is impossible, but do it anyway.)
Let the characters of both introduced and introducer show through a gesture, a turn of phrase, a silence. Let us get a glimpse of a new character: after all, we don’t get the opportunity so much nowadays, as this startlingly prescient poem from 2013 shows us.