Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams and Walt Whitman: 'O Me! O Life!'

Robin Williams in Canada, 2004. Photo by Darsie. Used under Creative Commons license

O ME! O LIFE! (Walt Whitman)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here - that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

By now everyone has heard about the tragic death of actor Robin Williams a couple of days ago. Comic actors are not usually my favourite actors, but nearly everyone loved Robin Williams, and for my generation he was an inevitable part of our lives. The fact that he took his own life feels particularly sad and hard to come to terms with.

In Dead Poets Society, Williams' character John Keating quotes Whitman's 'O Me! O Life!' in part. He prefaces it with one of my favourite quotations about poetry, by anyone: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion."

I first saw Dead Poets Society when I was 13 or 14 (a few years after it first came out) and it made a deep impression. I loved its passion and drama and I feel sure that it sent me at least a small step of the way along the road to becoming a poetry lover. I watched it again recently for the first time in years and I still enjoyed it. Dead Poets Society is often criticised for mixed messages and for a facile view of the humanities, even for being manipulative. The fact is, though, that all art is manipulative in some way, and the messages I got from Dead Poets Society were: love poetry, live life to the full, be an inspiring teacher if that's your vocation. Not bad things.

I like Whitman's poem because anyone can find common ground in it. Regardless of our choices in life, our beliefs, and so on, most of us find life challenging and often sad, most of us are often disappointed in ourselves. Here Whitman says - keep trying, contribute a verse. They are beautiful and helpful words. Many people will be thinking of them this week and wishing that Robin Williams could have found a way.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

P K Page's 'This Heavy Craft': "The Dream of Flight Persists"

Wings of the fallen by Garrette. Used under Creative Commons license

It can be difficult to know what to say about joy in the writer's vocation. The portrait is so often of the artist as tortured, and this is especially so in the case of poets, who are known to have particularly high levels of mental illness. (This phenomenon has been called the 'Sylvia Plath effect'.) Even where writers aren't tortured, there are so many jokes about how a writer will do anything to avoid writing that one really starts to wonder.


I remember P K Page reading 'This Heavy Craft' at the one reading of hers I was able to attend years ago in Victoria. Her clear voice made everything beautiful, not that this poem needed to become more beautiful. It is a curiously optimistic vision of a symbolic Icarus who survived the fall, even though "the wax has melted". The poet-as-Icarus pays tribute to the "bird" in her innermost self, her deepest imagination, who "while I'm asleep/unfolds its phantom wings/and practices". Despite the self-deprecating heaviness of the poem's title, and the description of the bird's wings as "phantom", this is optimism indeed. The bird also reminded me of the golden birds of Yeat's 'Sailing to Byzantium' and 'Byzantium', part of the legacy of art which outlasts human impermanence.

While not a wholehearted fan of shape poems, I also couldn't help noticing and enjoying the fact that 'This Heavy Craft' appears on the page in the shape of a feathered wing.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Poetry Jazz Café, Toronto

When I was in Toronto for a few days last month, my friend and I paid a visit to the Poetry Jazz Café in the eclectic Kensington Market neighbourhood. My friend is a Londoner too (a real one, unlike me) but she lived in Toronto for a while as a student and knows the city very well.

The Poetry Jazz Café is, I think, more jazz than poetry, but they also have spoken word/slam poetry events and a cool bar. For hungry poets, the day's menu featured this:

We very much enjoyed the ambiance, our cocktails and the music, as below. The band was Cruzao, playing jazz with a Cuban twist.

You can read about the inspiration behind the name here. "Poetry comes from sorrow and to be a poet one must be able to feel."

Photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Poetry International 2014: "It's Important That Poets Be Awake In Their Times"

Carolyn Forché giving the Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2014 at Southbank, London. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014

Poetry International, at London's Southbank, ran from Thursday 17 July to Monday 21 July. The festival was founded in 1967 by Ted Hughes and takes place every couple of years - in 2012 it was the amazing Poetry Parnassus.

On Thursday I went to the launch event, which featured the rather astonishing and diverse lineup of Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Anne Michaels (Canada), Kutti Revathi (India), Carolyn Forché (US), Mohammed El Deeb (Egypt), Robert Hass (US) and Ana Blandiana (Romania). Nikola Madzirov opened the reading and I was absolutely thrilled to see him: his collection of selected English translations, Remnants of Another Age, has left lines and images with me that I will never forget. (More on Madzirov in another blog post soon...) For the non-English language poets in this event, the translations were projected overhead while they read in their own language, and I found this worked well - you can absorb the meaning while also experiencing the sensory and emotional power of the original words. Madzirov reads beautifully with a kind of occasional tempo rubato and gestures which form an organic whole with the words. When he read 'Fast Is the Century', he went over to English for the last few (heart-stopping) lines. It was a thrill like a phone call from a country you've never visited.

Fast is the century.
Faster than the word.
If I were dead, everyone would have believed me
when I kept silent.

Anne Michaels read with heartfelt emotion from her Correspondences, which is an elegy for her father as well as remembrances of writers including Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Anna Akhmatova. It made me want to read more. Carolyn Forché was another poet who was really my reason for being at Poetry International and she read with a passion which I found both shy and forceful. Her poems included 'The Lightkeeper', 'The Ghost of Heaven' (about El Salvador, but a poem it took her decades to finally write) and another which I think was new. The other poets were also remarkable: Kutti Revathi read brave poems of the body, El Deeb brought us Arabic rap straight from the heart of the Arab Spring, Robert Hass read a lovely long poem in tribute to his friend Czeslaw Milosz, and Ana Blandiana's poems were both delicate and cutting. Afterwards I was able to meet Carolyn Forché, Nikola Madzirov and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books - all were really gracious and interesting. I knew Nikola and Neil a little already from social media and they both remembered me when I introduced myself, which was very nice.

On Friday I went to the Poetry Translation Centre's event, which was the launch of the anthology My Voice, commemorating the PTC's first ten years. The PTC puts on some of my very favourite poetry events. In terms of diversity and vibrancy, their audiences are second to none. Theirs are the events where I am as likely to find myself sitting next to an Iranian woman or a Somali man as I am to see people as Western, white and middle-class as myself. Their readings really reflect London's communities, and as Sarah Maguire explained, she started the PTC partly because of her passion for poetry from Arabic, Somali and other languages and partly because she wanted to help make people from other cultures feel at home in the UK. The poets reading either originals or translations included Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sudan), Reza Mohammadi (Afghanistan), Jo Shapcott and Mimi Khalvati, among others - an incredibly star-studded and international lineup. Like the anthology, the poems moved "from exile to ecstasy", and the former hit particularly hard - Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's 'Lamps' had me in tears. It was a wonderful event, and the anthology (which I hope to review soon) looks amazing.

During the weekend I went to two events, the first of which was the launch of Modern Poetry In Translation's new issue. MPT was founded by Ted Hughes with Daniel Weissbort and its association with Poetry International has been particularly close on many occasions. We heard German poet Christine Marendon reading poems of nature and introspection including 'Evening Primrose' with translator Ken Cockburn, and Hubert Moore read his translations of the mysterious Iranian poet Bavar Rastin. Again I was there mainly for Nikola Madzirov, who was reading with his translator Peggy Reid. Poems such as 'The Perfection of the Forgotten Ones' suggested to me that his recent work may be even better than previous poems. Afterwards I saw a few poetry acquaintances, including MPT's own Sasha Dugdale, talked with Nikola about how his poetry has become a best-seller in Spanish-speaking countries, and also spoke with Peggy Reid (who, typically for those who know Nikola, prefaced her praise of his wonderful work with "He's such a lovely person".)

My last event was the Poetry Society Annual Lecture, this year by Carolyn Forché on 'The Poet as Witness'. This is, of course, her area of speciality, but I think that many in attendance weren't very familiar with her anthologies, her own poetry, and her championing of the idea of "poetry of witness". Forché is quite a big deal in North America but I have gathered she isn't that well known over here (even in poetry circles). She spoke of the international poetry reading she went to in Libya, in 2012, after the death of the dictator, where "the posters covered up the bullet holes". One of the poems Forché read there was 'The Colonel', probably her most famous poem - she said that she had been reluctant to read it in Libya, as it was about El Salvador, but she later realised that the Libyans had interpreted it as being about their own experiences under Gaddafi. When she read it for us, the auditorium went gradually into an absolute pin-drop silence which was eerie. In poetry of witness, she said, "the mark of experience is burned into the poem, and regardless of content, the mark remains legible." Speaking of the tragic life stories and extraordinary poems of Miklós Radnóti and Georg Trakl, she described "poetry of witness" as more a mode of reading, not of writing - writers don't set out to be poets of witness, but their experiences allow others to find that mark of extreme experiences. This poetry, said Forché, is frequently marked by (among others) characteristics such as: the experience of the self as fragmented; the past as another country; addressing the dead, War and Death as personified figures; and recognition of the failure of language and words. Speaking about her new anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, she described how she had long thought poetry of witness to exist more in non-English traditions, but she found such marks of experience in many, if not most, English-language poets before the twentieth century, and in the war poets and others in the past hundred years. "It's important that poets be awake in their times," she said. I found the lecture very strong and moving, and I think it was particularly a revelation for those who didn't know her work.

So it was a lovely and inspiring few days of poetry events. And also, I got hugs from the finest Macedonian and Sudanese poets of their generations, and that's automatically a good weekend.

Rilke's French Rose Poems in Translation: XV

Here's another French Rose from Rilke, in my translation. Hopefully this means I am on a roll.

I (daringly?) went with "myriad chalice" for "innombrable calice". I know "myriad" can be an adjective, but I'm not sure if I went a step too far in grammatical terms - it just seemed to work well. Thoughts?

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


Alone, o abundant flower,
you make your own expanse;
you gaze at yourself in a mirror
of scent.

Your fragrance, like more petals,
surrounds your myriad chalice.
I grasp at you - you sprawl,
prodigious actress.

LES ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke)


Seule, ô abondante fleur,
tu crées ton propre espace;
tu te mires dans une glace

Ton parfum entoure comme d'autres pétales
ton innombrable calice.
Je te retiens, tu t'étales,
prodigieuse actrice.

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Rilke's French Rose Poems In Translation: XIV

Roses at Milner Gardens, Qualicum Beach, BC. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

On a very hot summer night in London, here's the latest (and rather appropriate) of my translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Roses poems from the French. The original is also below.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


Summer: for a few days, to be
a peer of the roses;
to breathe in what encircles
the blossoms of their souls.

To make of each dying one
the closest of friends,
and to outlive that sister
in other roses' absence.

LES ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke)


Eté: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.

Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidante,
et survivre à cette soeur

en d'autres roses absentes.

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Poetic Encounters in Victoria, BC

While back for a few weeks' visit to my hometown of Victoria, BC, I stopped in at Russell Books, which is an amazing and iconic used bookstore. It also happens to be where I had one of my first jobs after university, which was pretty good for a book lover without much work experience at the time.

I was searching the poetry section and decided to buy a small bilingual collection of Émile Nelligan's poems, partly because I am planning to try some more translations of his work. (You can read my translation of his 'Soir d'hiver', and some information about Nelligan's sad life, here.) Much to my surprise, when I looked inside the book, I found an inscription by Doug Beardsley. It was inscribed "Montreal, Quebec, at the Hotel Nelligan", and signed with dates both in 2006 and 2009, which added a little to the mystery. He had also made a few notes in the Preface. Doug Beardsley is a Victoria poet who was also an instructor at the University of Victoria until 2006 - and he taught the Canadian Poetry course which proved to be somewhat life-altering for me (both in introducing me to extraordinary Canadian poets, and in helping to open up modern and contemporary poetry to me.) Finding a book inscribed by him at my old workplace was sort of strange and wonderful. 

I also bought Karen Solie's Short Haul Engine, one of her older collections which she wrote while living in Victoria. I've browsed through it but am really looking forward to reading it more in-depth, especially in the light of her brilliant recent work.

Finally, I came across a tidbit in a local Victoria magazine regarding poet Rudyard Kipling. He visited Victoria in 1907 and commented to a reporter for the Times Colonist (which I think was called the Colonist or British Colonist then): "I am going to take a motor drive to see the beauties of the place. But I really don't see why I should move away from here. In Victoria, it is a waste of time to look for beauty. It is always with you."

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Great Canadian Identity Crisis: Karen Solie's 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'

The South Saskatchewan River at Empress, Alberta. Photo by Emdx

My impending visit home to Canada seems to have brought on one of my bouts of Canadian identity crisis and questioning why exactly I left at all. Canadian identity crises (or simply, THE GREAT CANADIAN IDENTITY CRISIS) are quite complicated. If you are Canadian you will know what I mean, and if you aren't, you won't. But you could try looking up "western alienation" and "the two solitudes", for starters. Those are just two aspects of The Great Canadian Identity Crisis, but they will give you some clues.

Karen Solie is becoming a key Canadian poet at high speed, it seems. Her new Selected Poems, The Living Option, which has been published by Bloodaxe Books specifically for the UK/international market, has been extremely well reviewed. Writing in the London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann said: "Introducing Karen Solie, I would adapt what Joseph Brodsky said some thirty years ago of the great Les Murray: 'It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.' Solie is Canadian [...] and, yes, she is the one by whom the language lives." Not bad at all. I seriously regret not seeing her at Poetry Parnassus, but maybe I'll catch her somewhere else someday.

Solie was recently interviewed for The Poetry Trust's Poetry Paper, along with other poets, about how landscapes and places affect their writing. She is from Saskatchewan and now lives in Ontario. "I've grown to love Toronto," she said. "It's a vibrant, crazy and often very warm city." However, she also lived for a time in my hometown of Victoria, BC, and said: "I had been living in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, writing my English PhD dissertation, when my resources ran out. Despite its beguiling and temperate Pacific character, Victoria requires an iron will from its residents and I did not have it." I have heard all sorts of things said about Victoria, both positive and negative (and I have said some of them myself), but this was a new one on me. I am still so intrigued by it that I sincerely I hope I can ask Solie what she meant, some day.

I have particularly enjoyed this poem of Solie's, 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'.


As a description of changing identity over a lifetime, this poem could hardly be better. Mysteriously, I also feel as though it is about Canada. (Is that "In time you've learned that to behave badly isn't/necessarily to behave out of character"?) This is the self as place and journey, which feels very appropriate for Canadians. I read it and I think about trying to avoid regrets, which is valuable in itself. And the final lines are beautiful:

A mist not unlike it walks the morning streets, comments on
the distinction of Ottawa from Hull, Buda
from Pest, what used to be Estuary from what used to be
Empress and the ferry that once ran between them.

Ottawa is separated from Hull only by a conjunction of rivers, but Ottawa is the country's capital city, in Ontario, and Hull is part of the French-speaking province of Quebec. As for Estuary, it is a ghost town in Saskatchewan close to the tiny village of Empress, Alberta, and the two are also separated by rivers. Understanding the geographical nature of identity: this is really Canadian.