The Poetry Society Annual Lecture: history

Since 2007, following the inaugural December lecture series in 2005, the Poetry Society has commissioned an annual lecture, given by a prestigious poet on an aspect of contemporary poetry.

Often with the aim of bringing lesser-heard voices to the UK, past lecturers have included Anne Carson, Les Murray and Charles Simic.


Rita Dove gives The Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2015
Rita Dove gives The Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2015. Image: David Tett

Rita Dove – ‘How does a shadow shine? Poetry, Music & the Underside of History’

Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate, gave the 2015 Poetry Society Annual Lecture. 

The lecture is printed in full in the December 2015 issue of The Poetry Review.

Rita Dove made history when she became the first African-American Poet Laureate. In this lecture, she looked at the poet’s role in re-shaping, reframing and reimagining history, interweaving her talk with poems.

Presented in association with Birmingham Literature Festival and Writing West Midlands and supported by King’s College London, NCLA Newcastle University, Scottish Poetry Library and University of Liverpool.

Photographs from the London lecture at King’s College London’s Arts & Humanities Festival, October 2015

All photographs by David Tett

Writing West Midlands logo        Birmingham Literature Festival       kcl-logo      Scottish Poetry Library Logo     University of Liverpool  NCLA logo  



Carolyn Forché, The Poet as Witness

Annual Lecture 2014 Forche IMG_0286
Image credit: The Poetry Society

American poet Carolyn Forché explored how poets have been shaped by extreme events.

From William Blake, caught up in the Gordon Riots, to Emily Dickinson living through the American Civil War, or Thom Gunn watching his friends die of AIDS, what has been the impact of being an eye-witness to suffering? 

Using the work of John MacRae and Isaac Rosenberg who fought on the battlefields of World War I, to dissidents who lived with surveillance, internment and exile – such as Akmatova and Mandelstam, Forché examines poems composed at the limits of human endurance.

This lecture was published in the autumn 2014 issue of The Poetry Review. You can listen to a recording of the lecture as it was given at Southbank Centre, as part of the London Literature Festival and Poetry International in July 2014, here:


Anne Carson, Stammering, Stops, Silence: On the Method and Uses of Untranslation

Anne Carson, Annual Lecture 2013
Image credit: Hayley Madden

Poet and classicist Anne Carson offered an illustrated exploration of the untranslatable with examples from Homer, Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon, Hölderlin, Rembrandt, Paul Celan and Ibykos.

Also referencing her own poetry, Carson discussed gaps between languages, the airy haunted space where ancient and modern come together, and words that go silent in transit. 

The lecture was published in the winter 2013 issue of The Poetry Review.
Buy the limited edition signed print of ‘Short Talk on Herbology’ by Anne Carson


Paul Muldoon, The Word on the Street: Parnassus and Tin Pan Alley

Annual Lecture 2012 Paul Muldoon c Harry F Rook 2012
Image credit: Harry F Rook

How do we know when and why a poem is going to be a poem and a song a song? Muldoon introduced new poems and song lyrics, and discussed the impact of one genre on the other in his own work and others.

The lecture was published in the winter 2012 issue of The Poetry Review.

 Buy the limited edition print of ‘A Giraffe’ by Paul Muldoon.


C.K. Williams, On Being Old

The Poetry Society Lecture 2011
Image credit: Hayley Madden

Influential American poet C.K. Williams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, made a special trip to the UK to deliver the Poetry Society Annual Lecture. His lively and provocative lecture was interspersed with dramatic new poems exploring his changing relationship with the great poets of history, from Wyatt, Wordsworth and Pushkin to Bishop, Auden and Lowell.

The lecture was published in the winter 2011 issue of The Poetry Review.
Buy the limited edition signed print of ‘Whacked’ by C.K. Williams


Les Murray, Infinite Anthology: Adventures in Lexiconia

Les Murray
Image credit: Hayley Madden

In a rare UK appearance, Australian poet Les Murray explored his life-long fascination with word-collecting. From the folk words and country speech he heard as a child, to the new coinages he collects for the Macquarie Dictionary, Murray explained how he has used poetry as a word-store. From rangas and pobbledonks to belly leggings and jail tats Murray served up some of the words that have most inspired him, while discussing how he’s chosen to direct each word’s unique potency. He also gave a reading of his poetry to introduce the lecture.

The lecture was published in the winter 2010 issue of The Poetry Review


Charles Simic, The State of the Art

As speculation mounted about the identity of the new British Poet Laureate, the Poetry Society offered an opportunity to discover the insights of America’s most recent Laureate, Charles Simic. Drawing on his experiences in that role, Simic delivered a playful and provocative lecture about the shifts in today’s international poetic landscape. Revealing some of the immeasurably bizarre poetic activity he discovered online, he made some startling conclusions about the current state of poetry. 


Eavan Boland, Shades & Contours: A Cartography of the State of Poetry

Eavan Boland has lived in Ireland, England and the United States and has, through a long and distinguished career as a leading poet of her generation, reflected, both in her art and in critical explorations, on the complex intersections and divergences between the language, meaning, history, inheritance, obligations and public functions of poetry on both sides of the Irish Sea and either side of the Atlantic. 

The Poetry Society was privileged to have such a seminal explorer of life, of women’s lives in particular, and of poetry in general in Britain and Ireland, and author of many collections including ‘The Journey’, ‘Outside History’ and ‘The Lost Land’, give the Society’s annual lecture, and metaphorically map some of the geographical complexities and geological shifts that delineate the virtually unchartable landscape of poetry today. 


Dame Gillian Beer, Rhyming as Intimacy, Rhyming as Radicalism

The lecture looked at the persuasive power of rhyme. Taking examples from poets including Thomas Hardy, Tony Harrison, Don Paterson, George Herbert and Ruth Padel – as well as nursery rhymes and advertising – Beer discussed how rhymes can provoke half-beliefs and resistances, weld things together or topple hierarchies and how they are, in Freud’s sense, uncanny. The lecture was an insightful exploration into how a technique often associated with ‘old-fashioned’ poetry has repeatedly been (and is now) a tool for radical work.

As Beer went on to say: – “High and low can be freely paired in rhyme, making matches that stir up our assumptions about what is most valuable and what is kin to what. Rhyme takes us inside words, undoing their autonomy and revealing parts hidden in their structure.”


Professor George Steiner

The inaugural December lecture series was presented in collaboration with London Review Bookshop and St Giles-in-the-Fields.