Interview: Robert Seatter on John Drinkwater’s ‘Moonlit Apples’
In this interview, Robert Seatter, Head of History at the BBC and Chair of the Poetry Archive, discusses the first poem broadcast on BBC Radio, John Drinkwater’s ‘Moonlit Apples’:
ROBERT SEATTER: So in February 1924, 100 years ago, the first complete poem was read on BBC Radio, and it was a poem called ‘Moonlit Apples’ by the Georgian poet, John Drinkwater.
Just a little bit about the context of BBC Radio before we plunge into the poem itself.
So in 1924, the BBC is only two years old, and it’s hard for us to imagine, really, the impact that Radio had on people’s lives, way back then, in the 20’s. I mean it was utterly transformatory. People could not believe that at the turn of a dial you could have the voice of the King, the voice of the Prime Minister. You could have weather forecasting, band music, classical music, for the first time ever accessible to everybody; drama, all these words, all these voices coming out of the ether in a way that was completely unimaginable before the impact of radio.
So it completely transformed people’s lives and poetry was there right from the start, and it is this rather strange, lyrical poem called ‘Moonlit Apples’, rather mysterious actually, which harks back, I think, to the pre-industrial world that Britain always lingers and longs after, this world of nature that we felt so dislocated from. And it also comes just after the Great War, of course, when civilization is shattered and broken forever.
So you have this image of these luminous apples that speak of a lost nature, but also of a very domestic nature. These apples are there in the attic, above our sleeping lives, and the other thing that strikes you of course when you listen to the poem, is the voice, this sonorous voice, this rather incantatory voice.
And the one very powerful thing that radio does, right from the start, is it liberates poetry from the page. It goes back to sort of Bardic tradition. It goes back to voice, what the voice means for the poet and the poem.
And if you look from this moment onwards, across the decades, you can see the impact that BBC Radio had on poetry in the UK and poetry in the wider world. It gave platforms for completely new voices like Stevie Smith, or Langston Hughes. It also blurs the dimensions, the boundaries between poetry and other literary forms, particularly drama, so one thinks of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milkwood’, that extraordinary, sardonic, revelatory collection of voices that are conjured up in the Welsh village in Dylan Thomas’ piece, but also, most importantly, throughout the decades, right up to the present moment, it keeps poetry completely fresh and vibrant and contemporary. It brings it back to the spirit of our own voices, and you think of Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, myriad more voices that all found a new way of communicating poetry through the medium of radio.
But it all began, 100 years ago, with this strange and luminous poem by John Drinkwater, ‘Moonlit Apples’…