Lawrence Sail was born in London in 1942 and brought up in Exeter. He read French and German at St John’s College, Oxford, taught for four years in Kenya, then held various teaching posts in England before becoming a freelance writer.
He has published eleven collections of poems, most recently Waking Dreams: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010: Poetry Book Society Special Commendation) and Songs of the Darkness: Poems for Christmas (Enitharmon Press, 2010). He has compiled and edited a number of anthologies, including First and Always: Poems for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (Faber, 1988) and, with Kevin Crossley-Holland, The New Exeter Book of Riddles (Enitharmon, 1999) and Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems (Enitharmon, 2005). Enitharmon also published Cross-currents, a book of his essays, in 2005. A number of his poems, including a sequence on the theme of silence, have been set to music.
He was chairman of the Arvon Foundation from 1990 to 1994. In 1991 he was programme director of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, and a judge for the Whitbread Book of the Year awards. He was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in 1992, and an Arts Council Writer’s Bursary the following year. In August 1993 he undertook a month-long tour of India for the British Council, for whom he has since worked as visiting writer and lecturer in various countries, including Bosnia, Colombia, Egypt, France, Kenya, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Ukraine. From 1994 to 1996 he was the British representative on the jury of the European Literature Prize, and from 2004 to 2007 he was a judge for the Eric Gregory Awards. In October 1999 he was a co-director of the 50th Anniversary Cheltenham Festival of Literature. He was on the management committee of the Society of Authors from 2007 to 2011 and, in 2011, president of the U.K. jury for the European Literature Prize. In 2004 he received a Cholmondeley Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
While Sail has been occupied in these literary roles for some time, he has not neglected this own writing, quietly amassing a serious body of work, the growing importance of which the retrospective Waking Dreams: New & Selected Poems makes a substantial claim for. In these recordings made especially for the Poetry Archive in 2011, Sail's measured yet lyrical delivery brings out the subtle tones of his sober, troubled poems. While the subject of his work is often the natural world, the view is never sentimental or romanticised, rather as listeners we become slowly and inevitably convinced of the authority and humane reasoning of Sail's voice, which is often preoccupied with the uncompromising severity of its subjects. Even when the mood lightens, as in 'The Snooker Players', the poems remain closely in touch with the 'framing darkness' of history, the 'doubt that dogs the game', the cycles of nature and human behaviour, only sometimes finding solace in the redeeming qualities of art and love. These poems are wary of the consolations of beauty and craft, so the moments they insistently draw our attention to are never merely striking, but worthy of careful consideration. Sail focuses in on vivid and precisely drawn images with a certain touch that proves the attentiveness and patience of a master. His poems have become increasingly honed and perceptive over his long career, illustrating 'the fine economy of age', and showing us how an admiration of and devotion to skill creates this special deftness, the ability to demonstrate a 'sure knowledge of every angle' – a gift as impressive to observe as it is rewarding.
Lawrence Sail's recording was made at Attic Attack Studios, Bristol on December 7th 2011. The producer was Richard Carrington.
Lawrence Sail's Favourite Poetry Sayings:
"In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
- W.H. AUDEN
"Entre la Voix et la Pensée, entre la Pensée et la Voix, entre la Présence et l’Absence, oscille le pendule poétique."
- PAUL VALÉRY
2004 Cholmondeley Award
2010 Poetry Book Society Special commendation