Sunday, 17 July 2016

Louis MacNeice: 'Wolves'

Waves by maxine raynal. Used under Creative Commons license

I haven't been writing a lot about Louis MacNeice lately, but he very often comes to mind at times of drama and tragedy on the world stage - Autumn Journal is one that I have re-read a lot. I posted his poem 'Prayer Before Birth' here, in January 2015, in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

MacNeice, who I think of as a journalist of poetry, has that quality of reassurance when you read him - for me, it's like watching a terrible event unfold on the news, but your favourite newscaster is covering it in a calm, measured fashion. It doesn't take away the horror, but it does make it a little easier to process.

This week I thought of MacNeice's short poem 'Wolves', which you can read here:

'Wolves' was written in the mid-1930s, like many of MacNeice's great poems. Thursday's atrocity in Nice may have given it an extra charge, based on the seaside imagery. Essentially, though, I find it quite a difficult poem to grasp firmly. On one hand, the speaker wants to be a person who lives in the moment, with the joys and difficulties that this brings; on the other hand, he knows that this means burying his head in the sand. Presumably this was a very difficult balancing act in the 1930s. It is now, too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

New Poem Published in The Level Crossing

B738 by Bernal Saborio. Used under Creative Commons license

Dedalus Press, the well-known Dublin publishers specialising in Irish and international poetry, recently published the first issue of a new journal, The Level Crossing. I was honoured to have my poem 'The air outside American airports' published in the journal's Poetry of Place feature. It was one of 14 poems published in this feature, out of more than 900 submissions.

In another life, which is also this life, I lived in Dublin for a few years and worked in the United Airlines call centre. I felt as though I were living a double life, where I worked an unglamorous job and then flew off regularly on holiday, mostly in business class, to destinations including New York, Chicago, Sydney and Tokyo. I also commuted through the US a lot, especially travelling back to see my family on the West Coast of Canada.

'The air outside American airports' arose out of that part of my life. I wrote it when I was still living in Dublin and working at that job - probably about eleven years ago. The way in which it was chosen out of the poems I submitted, to come home to Dublin, is mysterious and beautiful to me.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

My Translation of Emile Nelligan's 'The Ship of Gold' ('Le Vaisseau d'or')

I recently translated the French-Canadian poet Emile Nelligan's 'Le Vaisseau d'or' ('The Ship of Gold'), and here it is. The original French poem is below the translation.

You can read my translation of Nelligan's 'Soir d'hiver' ('Winter Night') here, and some more details about his life. I find him quite difficult to translate. His poems tend to have a sort of high-strung edge which is hard to convey without going over the top. I did try, but the rhyme scheme also eluded me - or it would have involved contortions I was unwilling to enter into.

The final line of this poem has haunted me for a long time.

THE SHIP OF GOLD (Emile Nelligan, translated from the French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

It was a great Ship, of solid gold,
Its masts reached up from sea to sky.
Love's Venus, wild-haired and bare-skinned,
Sprawled on the prow, in the heady sun.

But then came a night when it struck a reef
In the trickster Sea, where sirens sing.
And fiercely wrecked, its tilted hull
Drowned in the Gulf's unrelenting grave.

It was a Ship of Gold, whose melting sides
Showed treasures that the cruel sailors,
Disgust, Hate and Madness, ripped apart.

What is left after the brief storm?
What of my heart, the deserted ship?
Alas! It foundered in the Dream's abyss!


Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses mats touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues ;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève ?
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté ?
Hélas ! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve !

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Friday, 1 July 2016

Geoffrey Hill, 1932-2016

Shadows, Severn Valley by Kumweni. Used under Creative Commons license

We learned today that the English poet Geoffrey Hill died yesterday, on 30 June 2016.

Many will have something more insightful to say about Geoffrey Hill today or in the days to come. I am a long way from being an expert on his work, though I have read some of it. It always seemed to me that his work would demand the same level of engagement as, say, Paul Celan's (one of Hill's influences.) But I haven't gone there yet.

In a quiet way, Geoffrey Hill bestrode the literary world like a colossus. It was like being alive at the same time as TS Eliot. From reading other tributes today, I would say that it is a little difficult to talk about his death without sounding superstitious. This may have something to do with the times we live in, and the questions about the United Kingdom and about identity that many are asking themselves. It also has something to do with the fact that hearing of his death is like turning around and noticing that Stonehenge has vanished without trace.

There is a sort of Geoffrey Hill thing that happens, at times. It is a feeling like being watched, then realising that an enormous mountain is looming over you. It could also be the feeling just before the avalanche hits you.

Here are a few poems to read today.




Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Sidney Keyes: 'Neutrality'

Battersea Park. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

'Neutrality' is a particularly interesting poem from one normally considered a war poet. Sidney Keyes called it "one of the poems for which I have - I can't tell you why - genuine affection."

NEUTRALITY (Sidney Keyes)

Here not the flags, the rhythmic
Feet of returning legions; nor at household shrines
The small tears' offering, the postcards
Treasured for years, nor the names cut in brass.
Here not the lowered voices.
Not the drum.

Only at suppertime, rain slanting
Among our orchards, printing its coded
But peaceful messages across our pavements.
Only the cryptic swift performing
His ordered evolutions through our sky.
Only the growing.

And in the night, the secret voices
Of summer, the progression
Of hours without suspense, without surprise.
Only the moon beholds us, even the hunting owl
May watch us without malice.
Without envy.

We are no cowards, we are pictures
Of ordinary people, as you once were.
Blame not nor pity us; we are the people
Who laugh in dreams before the ramping boar
Appears, before the loved one's death.
We are your hope.

                                                                      16 July 1941.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Poet in Cleary Garden - 18-19 June

This weekend, 18-19 June 2016, I will be in Cleary Garden, City of London as their poet-in-residence  in association with the Poetry School, and as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

The address is: Cleary Garden, Huggin Hill, City of London, EC4V 4HQ

I expect to be there around 11 AM-3 PM on both Saturday and Sunday (though it could possibly be more like 11:30-2, especially depending on the weather!) If you stop by, you may get a personal or group poetry reading, a handwritten poem, or a chat about poetry and gardens...

There will be many other wonderful poets-in-residence around London this weekend, and you can find a full list here.

Cleary Garden, London, 2016. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Poetry in Our Kind of Traitor: Unreal Cities

I recently saw Our Kind of Traitor, the new film based on the 2010 novel by John le Carré. A story about the Russian mafia and corruption in the highest levels of British society, it may not sound like anything particularly out of the ordinary - but although this was not my favourite le Carré book nor film, it was still very good (in both forms) and it does have the vivid, ironic writing and the complex ambiguity of his other works. The film is visually beautiful and has some excellent performances, especially the tour de force by Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the Russian money launderer Dima.

In the novel, the protagonist Perry Makepiece is a teacher of English literature, and there are references to poetry, but it isn't necessarily his main area of expertise. In the film, he has become specifically a teacher of  'poetics', which he also describes as "so boring" (to a Russian, who predictably tells him that poetry isn't boring. He then adds that it's only boring "when it's put under a microscope.") I had to wonder if Perry became a poetry instructor for the film, rather than just an English literature expert, because to many people poetry would suggest a particularly high level of detachment from reality. Alternately, he could be a poetry instructor because of poetry's peculiar insights into the nature of reality. In one scene, Perry is giving a lecture on TS Eliot's The Waste Land, quoting some of my favourite lines:

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The film also ends on a rather beautiful visual reference to these lines. In the lecture room, however, when Perry goes on to 'Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,' the camera lingers on the bored faces of the students. In his lecture, Perry speaks of the "corrupt listless societies" described by both Dante and Eliot, populated by "lost souls". His wife Gail points out to him that the Russian vory recruit "people who are disillusioned with their lives and have lost their way." 

The irony is that Perry's life shifts from the unreality of the poetry lecture room to a cascading hierarchy of power games and violence (often referenced with games such as tennis, chess, and even children's hide-and-seek), the secret world of the spies, and the unreal cities of London's chrome and glass to Switzerland's beautiful sterile music-box towns, which hide uglier realities (or unrealities.) Nothing in le Carré's works is entirely free of corruption or ambiguity. Criminals and traitors on both sides show deep, sincere love for their families. Loyalty comes in unexpected forms. Everything slides away and resists definition. The MI6 agent Hector makes reference at one point to the Polish philosopher Kolakowski and his stern definitions of good and evil, but the film suggests that things are not always so black and white.

This isn't the first novel or film from le Carré to feature poetry quite prominently: The Russia House quotes poets including Boris Pasternak, Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke, and Our Game alludes to Osip Mandelstam. Smiley, his most famous character, is fascinated by the German poets. I think John le Carré understands how poetry hangs in the balance between realities and unrealities, and how - as in the best poetry, or simply the best writing - people and situations can be both intensely metaphorical, and intensely real-world.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Alberto de Lacerda at the Poetry Library

The Poetry Library at London's Southbank Centre recently had an exhibition about Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda and his relationship with London.

Alberto de Lacerda lived in many countries in his lifetime, but London was his greatest love and he lived here for years, also working as a BBC presenter. His friends and colleagues included Edith Sitwell, TS Eliot, Alec Guinness, Christopher Middleton and many others.

His work was new to me, but from the handwritten manuscripts and short poems displayed at this exhibition, it was extremely beautiful, personal but with the breadth of the light and the sky. Southbank was one of his spiritual homes, and apparently he was living a lonely existence in Battersea (my area) when he died in 2007 at the age of 78.

Looking at the exhibition, I felt as though I were shaking hands with this poet across years, or as though he were someone I could have smiled at or chatted with on one of my many visits to Southbank. There is something special about writers who loved the places you love.

Here are some photos from the exhibition: