Saturday, 2 September 2017

Rosemary Tonks: 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas'

Tonight I thought I would share the deliciously cynical 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' by the late Rosemary Tonks.

Rosemary Tonks had an unusual life, and if you wish, you can find plenty of more or less judgmental commentary about it online. Setting aside the details of her life, I've found 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' absolutely delightful from the very first time I read it. It is evocative of London in the '50s or '60s, but anyone who has lived in London for a decent length of time will still recognise many of the details: "My café-nerves are breaking me/With black, exhausting information" is a little too reminiscent of my own life when I don't sleep enough and drink too much caffeine.

It appears that in this poem, the speaker has an unbearably annoying and rather creepy flatmate or romantic partner: this, too, is London. ("He wants to make me think his thoughts/And they will be enormous, dull...") Tonks also takes aim at, well...annoying people. But in particular, she takes aim at annoying artistic types. I love it when she writes "And their idea of literature!/The idiotic cut of the stanzas". This reminded me irresistibly of a terribly stupid discussion I witnessed online wherein poets (apparently) discussed whether or not the first letters of all lines in a poem should or shouldn't be capitalised. According to a shocking number of them, capitalising the first letters of all lines in a poem was no longer a valid artistic choice (although a large number of remarkably gifted living poets, ranging from Sean O'Brien to Sasha Dugdale, do it on at least a semi-regular basis). Apparently this should have gone out with the first half of the twentieth century and some considered it "distracting". Given that probably 90% of poetry in the history of the world has featured capitalised first letters of all lines (since it's only recently that this has ceased to be a universal convention) it really made me wonder if they'd ever read anything good.

Rosemary Tonks was a brilliant poet with a remarkably distinct voice, and I do recommend her poetry if you're looking for well-crafted, so-spot-on-it-hurts observation of human nature. And I, too, like going alone to the "taciturn, luxurious" cinema.

Photo: End of an era by Nic McPhee. Used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Louis MacNeice: 'To Posterity'

Louis MacNeice, in his occasional guise of near-prophet, published the poem 'To Posterity' in his 1957 collection Visitations.

'To Posterity' is an unusual poem to dedicate to, well, posterity - although MacNeice only had a few more years to live in 1957. The use of the word "media" was surely less common then (or perhaps used a bit differently) but it gives the poem an unmistakably technological air, although it is also pastoral, with its longing for green grass, blue sky, and other simple, fundamental elements of nature.

Succintly - and with a strangely prescient air - MacNeice touches on the issues which trouble us today: are technology and social media cutting us off from each other and from nature? Are they rearranging the connections our brains (and our hearts, perhaps) are capable of making? (It is only fair to point out that similar concerns arose during the advent of radio and television.)

The use of the words "seized up" hit me particularly hard: that's the kind of thing we say when our phones, tablets and laptops freeze or die, but here MacNeice applies it to books themselves. If he saw where we are today, he might not be so surprised. But perhaps MacNeice would also be happy to know that books have not actually seized up, and that the death of the paper book and the triumph of the e-book have so far been much exaggerated.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Benjamin Fondane Update

In case you thought this was just a lot of big talk, I actually did pick up Benjamin Fondane's Le mal des fantômes in Paris a few months ago and I've now translated a few of his poems. I'm looking at translating a few more and seeing if I can find a suitable home for them somewhere. (I feel more trepidation over sending out translations than over sending out original work, but that's another story.) 

In the meantime, I thought I'd share this interesting excerpt from a 1985 interview with EM Cioran, who knew both Fondane and Paul Celan. It confirmed my readings of their respective work. (The interview was with Leonard Schwartz and appears in the recent selection of Fondane's work in English translation, Cinepoems and Others, published by New York Review Books, 2016).

Leonard Schwartz: Do you see any sort of connection between Paul Celan and Fondane?

EM Cioran: I knew both Fondane and Paul Celan well, and I suppose it is true that they had something in common. They came from almost the same geographic area in Romania: Bukovina and Moldavia are provinces that border on each other. Both were Jewish poets and both had an intellectual curiosity which is not absolutely normal in a poet. But they were very different as men. Fondane had an immense presence; all became enlivened around him; we were very pleased to hear him speak. Around Celan one felt a kind of uneasiness. As I've told you before, Celan was so susceptible, so vulnerable: Everything hurt him... With Celan one always had to be on guard. He was a wounded man, in the metaphysical and psychological sense of the word, and that was why one felt so uneasy. Whereas Fondane was the contrary: You felt you didn't have to supervise yourself.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Recent (Sherlock Holmes) Poem Publications

I still write poems on other subjects (I promise) but my recent poetry publications have been of the Sherlock Holmes variety.

In late June my poem 'Beekeeper' (which first appeared in The Ofi Press Magazine) was reprinted in Canadian Holmes. This is the journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto, one of Canada's pre-eminent Sherlockian societies. I was a member for several years, during which time I published several reviews and essays in Canadian Holmes - including an essay written when I was in junior high and attempting to prove that Sherlock Holmes was a Canadian. Canadian Holmes also printed a poem I wrote in tribute to Jeremy Brett (my favourite Sherlock Holmes actor, and probably my favourite actor full stop) after his death in 1995. I was 16 and it was either my first poetry publication or one of the first. This was my first publication in Canadian Holmes for something like 15 years, so it's nice to be back.

In early July, Ink Sweat & Tears published my poem 'Watson on Dartmoor', which strictly speaking is a Watson poem rather than a Holmes poem. Watson, a romantic soul, seems quite overwhelmed by the eerie atmosphere of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. But if I'm honest, this poem is mainly me being Watson. I visited Dartmoor a few years ago - it was December, and it was just like the descriptions in the Hound, but more so. It truly feels like a world part of but separate from our own, and so it can never be fully captured.

Image: I Looked Out Across the Melancholy Downs (Sidney Paget, from The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hokusai at the British Museum

The Great Wave of Kanagawa. Hokusai, 1831

About ten days ago, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (until 13 August, but check ticket availability if you're interested in going).

Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the greatest Japanese artists of the creatively rich Edo period (1603-1868), is best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of a beautiful series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The exhibition featured many of these famous prints but it also highlighted the unusual European influence in many of his works and the extraordinary range of his art. I saw cherry blossoms whose petals were so soft and multifoliate that I wanted to touch them, birds that seemed photographic but with a hyper-real beauty, swirling dragons, sharply defined bridges and lakes like something out of Tolkien, wry and delicate self-portraits.

Hokusai was also very close to the poetry world. He provided illustrations for poems, and depicted poets, in the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry and One Hundred Poems Explained By the Nurse. In this particularly beautiful example, Poet traveling in the snow, the rider may be the Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu; 712-70), one of the greatest figures of Chinese literature. It's suggested that he could also be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who was famous for writing poems about snow.

Hokusai's work became more and more extraordinary in the last years of his life. In the final room, looking at the paintings on silk from the two years before he died, I found myself struggling to breathe, then in tears. I saw a dragon with desperate human eyes emerging from rain clouds, diving ducks transforming beneath the surface, a joyous tiger bounding upwards through the snow. Shortly before his death, Hokusai reportedly said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five years, then I could become a real painter."

Thursday, 13 July 2017

U2 and Poetry: The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour

U2's current world tour is, unusually, not to promote a new album - it's for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and they are playing this album in its entirety, along with other songs before and after. I saw them last Sunday at Twickenham Stadium in London. It was a remarkable show for many reasons, not least of which was the screening of poems on the stage backdrop just before the show actually started.

I have a long history with U2, which sort of started close to 30 years ago when my brother bought The Joshua Tree. But it really started a few years later when I bought War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire and later their other albums, when I was about 14. Those albums feature very prominently in my mental and emotional timeline from my early teens. I discovered those albums for myself, and the obsession was like falling in love. My relationship with The Joshua Tree is probably a bit harder to define, as I first encountered it through my brother and through the radio when I was younger. I was always impressed, but I also regarded the album with a slightly detached sense of awe which I've never quite shaken. I think it's their best record, but I'm not quite as closely bonded to it as I am to albums like War and Unforgettable Fire. I'm perhaps closer to its individual songs than I am to The Joshua Tree as a whole.

Before seeing U2 play on Sunday, I was already aware that they were scrolling poems on the big screen during the intermission between the opening act and the start of the main show. There was a fair amount of media coverage in Canada when one of the poems chosen was by Canadian poet laureate George Elliott Clarke. However, most (if not all) of the other poems chosen are by Americans, and it seems that different poems have been used at different shows. The poems that I saw were:

Elizabeth Alexander - 'Praise Song for the Day'. This poem was read at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Walt Whitman - a selection from Leaves of Grass

Sherman Alexie - 'The Powwow at the End of the World' 

Robinson Jeffers - 'Juan Higera Creek' 

James Dickey - 'The Strength of Fields'

Shirley Geok-lin Lim - 'Learning to Love America'  (this is actually the poem's full title, although it said 'Learning to Love' on the screen).

Pedro Pietri - 'Puerto Rican Obituary' (I didn't get a picture of this one, as the show was starting just as the poem finished...)

This U2 website has detailed more of the poems which were included on other shows (or perhaps I missed others when my friend and I were wandering around after the opening act.) Many of these poems will also be available to read online:

Personally, I was especially surprised and happy to see the Robinson Jeffers poem 'Juan Higera Creek'. Jeffers has been a bit of a well-kept secret for a long time, but in the current socio-political-environmental climate he seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. I also love the James Dickey poem, 'The Strength of Fields'.

I don't know who was involved in selecting the poems, but to accompany (or precede) The Joshua Tree, they seemed to me exceptionally well chosen. In them, I saw the following which I also find in The Joshua Tree:

A variety of voices and experiences, including those of minorities and immigrants. The poems are by Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, among others. U2 composed The Joshua Tree in part because they'd fallen in love with America, and as Irish musicians they were well aware of their country's close links to America and of the huge numbers of Americans who are descended from Irish immigrants.

American landscapes. The landscapes of The Joshua Tree are dual (at least), as in poetry's landscapes. When U2 played 'Where the Streets Have No Name' ("I'll show you a place high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name"), the huge backdrop screen sent us flying along an American desert highway. The song was also partly inspired by Bono's humanitarian work in Ethiopia and by the divisions in Northern Ireland when he was growing up; finally, it seems to be about the speaker's spiritual quest (continued in 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. There seems to be something of this in 'The Strength of Fields'.) But the imagery of the album's lyrics often evoke idealised American landscapes, especially in the song 'In God's Country'. These poems also travel all over a real and figurative America.

Stories of oppression. 'Puerto Rican Obituary' came out of Pedro Pietri's experiences in advocating for civil rights along with fellow Puerto Ricans in America, and it tells a series of tragic stories. The songs 'Bullet the Blue Sky' and 'Mothers of the Disappeared', in particular, are about US military intervention in Latin America and about los desaparecidos in countries such as Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. There is a strong duality in The Joshua Tree between a mythical America and a violent one, whether internationally or closer to home (the song 'Exit' is about gun violence, and apparently the line "The hands that build can also pull down" also comments on the dual nature of US interference abroad).

The language of the poems may at times be prosaic, but the impression is often prophetic and spiritual, even shamanistic. This is also very reminiscent of U2's (Bono's) lyrical approach. Bono often includes literary references in his songs, and this was definitely a factor in my affection for U2, especially given that I was falling in love with U2 and with the poetry of WB Yeats at the same time in my early teens. Here are some of the notable poetry references in U2 songs:

  • "Into the half-light" - from 'Bad' (The Unforgettable Fire), also a reference to 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' by Yeats
  • 'A Sort of Homecoming' (The Unforgettable Fire). The title of one of my favourite U2 songs is taken from the quotation "Poetry is a sort of homecoming" from Paul Celan's 'Meridian' speech. When I learned that Bono had been influenced by Celan's writings in this song, I went to find Celan in the library, meaning that U2 are directly responsible for introducing me to his work. Also in 'A Sort of Homecoming', Bono sings 'O come away, o come away' which is a likely reference to 'The Stolen Child' by Yeats.
  • "In the world a heart of darkness, a fire zone/where poets speak their heart then bleed for it/Jara sang his song, a weapon in the hands of love/You know his blood still cries from the ground" - from 'One Tree Hill' (The Joshua Tree). Victor Jara was a Chilean songwriter, poet and political activist who was murdered under the rule of Pinochet. His last lyric was 'Estadio Chile' and it was written just before his violent death in the Chile Stadium (which has been renamed after him.)
  • "See the stone set in your eyes" - from 'With Or Without You' (The Joshua Tree). This reminds me of "The stone's in the midst of all", from Yeats's 'Easter 1916', but I admit this may be a long shot on my part.
  • "In dreams begin responsibilities" - from 'Acrobat' (Achtung Baby). This is adapted from the epigraph to the Yeats collection Responsibilities.
  • "Hope and history don't rhyme" - from 'Peace on Earth' (All That You Can't Leave Behind), a song partly based on the Omagh bombing of 1998 by the so-called Real IRA. This line is adapted from a famous quotation in Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, a version of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Bono spoke here of his love for Heaney's work:  

There are plenty of other literary references in U2, but I suppose it comes down to this: Sunday's concert was one of the best of my life (the fact that we had hard-to-come-by standing tickets helped a lot), and The Joshua Tree has more than stood the test of time. It was lovely to see some great poetry projected on the screen for all to read, and to reflect on how both poetry and U2 have accompanied me, and often intersected, for a very long time. 

Photos: The Joshua Tree Tour - Twickenham, July 9, 2017. Taken by Clarissa Aykroyd

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dylan Thomas: 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'

Grenfell Tributes by ChiralJon. Used under Creative Commons license

The overwhelming tragedy of the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London on 14 June has made me think of Dylan Thomas's famous poem of the Blitz, 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'.

I hesitated a lot before posting this. Grenfell Tower is a massive human tragedy, where at least some of those who lost their lives were children. It is not like one of my more usual "something made me think of this poem" situations. I also hesitated because 'A Refusal to Mourn...' has always unsettled me. It's in the title, and certain lines. Thomas is plainly mourning, in his own way, and the title is paradoxical, but it unsettles. When I thought about it, though, I realised that this disturbed feeling was probably conjured deliberately by the writer and that in some ways it is the only normal reaction. After all, the violent death of a child (in particular) should be disorienting, disturbing and unsettling.

I have read various analyses of this poem over the years, and there is no consensus. 'A Refusal to Mourn...' is oblique, open to interpretation and mysterious. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of my thoughts about it come from this moment and this shocking event. But a great poem can do this. So here are a few thoughts:

The poem's structure reflects the confusion of grief. The first two stanzas, in particular, contain beautiful phrases, but they tumble over each other at a velocity suggesting desperation. There is something here, of the flurry of thoughts and the attempt to draw them into a clearer picture, which is reflective of shock. In the final two stanzas the speaker seems to try to gather his ideas into a slightly more straightfoward, elegiac conclusion.

The speaker's thoughts are of both life and death. "Fathering", "the last light breaking", "the round/Zion of the water bead" (this sounds like an image of the womb), "sow my salt seed/In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn"... Some of these images could be of life and death at the same time.

The speaker is commenting on the equality of all human beings. There can be no doubt that Grenfell, a disaster which occurred in a poor subsection of one of the richest areas in the country, was a tragedy arising at least in part out of inequality and its terrible effects. During the Blitz in World War II, which this poem remembers, many if not most of the children who died were from poor families, as they had fewer options in terms of evacuating to safer areas.

My interpretation might therefore be very much of this moment in time, but it seems to me that by keeping the child's identity indefinite, the interpretation is open for her to represent all human beings from all backgrounds, or at least all children who die violently. There are references to a variety of religious traditions (Judaism with "Zion" and "synagogue", "the stations of the breath" as a variation on the Catholic Stations of the Cross, "London's daughter...the dark veins of her mother" perhaps a reference to some pagan tradition.) "The mankind of her going" also opens this elegy up beyond a single human being.

The final line "After the first death, there is no other" has also inspired much analysis. Some think it's a reference to the resurrection, while others think it denies this possibility. I have always (even before recent events) had a sense that the child's death is meant to represent all deaths, and thus it is "the first death". I was reminded of the famous John Donne quotation from Meditation 17: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." When the equal importance of all human lives is forgotten, as it so often is, the conditions for various kinds of horror and disaster are far more likely to arise.

Here are a few of the reputable funds to which you could donate if you want to assist victims of the Grenfell disaster:

British Red Cross - London Fire Relief Fund

The Kensington & Chelsea Foundation

The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Poets and Spies at London's City Lit

City Lit, London, 1940

Earlier this year, I took an InDesign course for my work. It was at City Lit college in central London, near Holborn station. I hadn't thought much about the type of institution where I'd be brushing up my InDesign skills for a few weeks - but when I arrived for my first class, I was impressed at the range of classes taking place at the same time as mine, and also a little jealous of the people who were taking Basic Danish or Biblical Hebrew. The floor where my classroom was located seemed to have a good deal of painting and sculpture going on.

When I looked up further details about City Lit (mainly in the history section of their website) I discovered that they had originally been established in 1919 by the London County Council as a "literary institute", along with several others around the city. Essentially, these were non-vocational colleges (but not universities) where students could take humanities courses and the like, without committing to something like a degree program.

The website provides more details about the fascinating history of this institution, but I was very taken with the fact that their teachers and lecturers included the likes of Edith Sitwell, TS Eliot, Cecil Day-Lewis and Dylan Thomas, among others. When their new building opened in 1939, John Masefield (then Poet Laureate) did the honours.

The moral of the story is that in London, if you scratch just the tiniest bit beneath the surface, you'll probably receive disproportionate rewards, and they might include poetry. I also ran into a bit of synchronicity at this point. Around when I was taking the InDesign course, I was reading A Colder War, the second volume of a trilogy by spy novelist Charles Cumming. The trilogy features disgraced spy Thomas Kell, who desperately wants to "get back in the game" but has found himself with some time to kill. At one point, he thinks "of the long afternoons he had spent brushing up his Arabic at SOAS, the solo holidays in Lisbon and Beirut, the course he had taken at City Lit in twentieth-century Irish poetry." In other words, when all you think you're doing is taking a desktop publishing course, there are probably some bored spies just around the corner in the same building who hope that poetry might help to fill the slow hours. It also turns out that Thomas Kell enjoys reading Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level and that he especially likes the poem 'Postscript' (so do I).