Saturday, 27 April 2019

Tracy K Smith: 'My God, It's Full of Stars'





An exhibition about the work of Stanley Kubrick has just opened at the Design Museum in London and is getting rave reviews. I'm relatively unlikely to see this exhibition, given that I'm a Kubrick ignoramus (I do have an ambition to finally see 2001: A Space Odyssey from start to finish...). However, the opening of the exhibition reminded me that I've wanted to write about the poem 'My God, It's Full of Stars' by Tracy K Smith, for a while. (The phrase 'My God, it's full of stars!' appears in the book 2001 rather than in the film - and I actually have read the book!)

'My God, It's Full of Stars' appears in the 2011 collection Life on Mars, for which Tracy K Smith won the Pulitzer Prize. Smith has recently and deservedly become even more famous as the current US Poet Laureate, and her latest collection Wade in the Water was nominated in the UK for both the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot Prize. Having read both excellent collections, I have to say that I preferred Life on Mars, which is extraordinarily personal and expansive at one and the same time. I know that's a bit of a cliché, but it really applies here as the collection is partly an elegy for her father, who was a scientist and worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. So the collection looks from earth and to earth, at God and at humans, and features beautiful poems about David Bowie ("thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being"), about relationships, about cathedrals and space.

There's a funny and strange section in 'My God, It's Full of Stars' where Charlton Heston makes a cameo appearance ("Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in"). Heston wasn't in 2001, of course, so maybe he's stepped over from Planet of the Apes. But perhaps this is just another cameo; there's a sense in the poem of walking on and off stage, Smith's father lighting his pipe at the end of a section describing the enormity and complexity of space. Elsewhere, the final scenes of 2001 are shot and then "the costumes go back on their racks".

I find Tracy K Smith's work exceptionally well-written and moving, and a reader new to her work could do much worse than to start with Life on Mars, and perhaps with this poem in particular.



Photo: Nasa Unveils Celestial Fireworks as Official Hubble 25th Anniversary Image - Westerlund 2. Public domain - created by NASA and ESA (2015)

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Michael Hamburger Event and Questions of Translation


A couple of days ago I went to an event at the British Library, 'Poet in the Archives: Michael Hamburger', with discussions between Karen Leeder, Jen Calleja and Iain Galbraith.

I will immediately admit that my interest in Michael Hamburger is (so far) almost entirely related to his translations of Paul Celan's poems: in fact, for me, he is the voice of Paul Celan in English. I have also been impressed by others' translations (Felstiner, Joris, etc) but I first encountered Celan through the English words of Michael Hamburger when I was only about 18 years old, and that was inevitably a more powerful experience than I was even able to comprehend at the time. In a way, it was good that this event didn't involve a lot of discussion of the Celan translations - it was more about his own poetry, his criticism, his correspondence, and his general approaches to translation (he also worked on Rilke and Hölderin among others), and so it broadened my horizons.

Karen Leeder said: "He wrote his criticism with the voice of a poet" and that Hamburger was interested in translation as a mirror image rather than as an imitation - "he only translated what he felt he could understand." There was discussion of the peculiar musicality of his translations, and his love of letter-writing - he sometimes kept up intense correspondences with people he'd only met once or who had simply written to him with a question or observation. Iain Galbraith, who had known him personally, quoted Hamburger as having said "The poems that don't embarrass me are the ones that surprise me." Jen Calleja, who had been working on Hamburger's material in the British Library archives, read poems based on this exploration, some of them wittily based on subjects like disgruntled readers' corrections of his English equivalents.

On a different but related note, I have just read this Asymptote article by Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins about translation: https://www.asymptotejournal.com/special-feature/jen-calleja-sophie-collins-she-knows-too-much/

I wanted to share it because I have occasionally thought of writing something along the same lines on this blog, but this is much more informed and thorough than anything I could have written. In essence, while there's an obviously growing interest in poetry translation and that's fundamentally a good thing, it's also quite obvious that some potential or even tangible problems have arisen, along the lines of poets who are only fluent in English superseding the actual translators in collaborative translation, and related issues. This article is essential reading for anyone interested in current developments in the translation of international poetry into English.


Friday, 15 March 2019

In memory of WS Merwin, 1927-2019





WS Merwin, one of the great American poets of our time, has just died at the age of 91. I have always found his poems to be deceptively, effortlessly beautiful.

This may be a slightly strange observation, but in his photos you can see that Merwin had brilliant, light-filled eyes. His eyes looked very much the way his poems feel, to me.

Here are a few of my favourite Merwin poems.

VIXEN

NIGHT SINGING

THANKS



Photo: Tree by Martin Svedén. Used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, 14 March 2019

James Wright: 'The Journey'





Everyone with an interest in American poetry, or just poetry, seems to know the beautiful poem 'A Blessing' by James Wright. 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota' is another which I often see discussed, largely due to its mysterious conclusion. But a particular favourite of mine, though slightly less well known, is 'The Journey'.

The poem opens expansively, the Tuscan town of Anghiari "suddenly sweeping out" and stranding the speaker and his companion in the hills. The sudden revelation that "everything was now graying gold/With dust" is a little disquieting, or at least odd - normally we think of wind and heights blowing the dust away.

Everything shifts in the third stanza to the extreme focus on the spiderweb. And there's a continuing strangeness here, because the speaker describes the spider almost as though she is a beautiful woman - "the golden hair/Of daylight along her shoulders". (It is noteworthy that the speaker mentioned "we" earlier in the poem, possibly a spouse or lover, but after the turning point of the spiderweb, the poem rests on a very intimate first-person viewpoint.)

This poem is about life being surrounded by death. The spider, so alive - "poised" and "Free of the dust" - hangs at "the heart of the light", but surrounded by "cemeteries" of dust, and the debris of her own prey. It turns out that earlier in the poem, the dust - which remains ever-present for the rest of the poem - is a clue, because this is all about mortality and living with it. The speaker accepts the wind blowing the dust all over his body, and the ruins which surround him, and us. A bit like Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock...' poem, this ends on an ambiguous, perhaps faintly bitter note, calling into question the earlier sense of acceptance.



Photo: Tuscany by Carlos "Granchius" Bonini. Used under Creative Commons license

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Serhiy Zhadan: "Don't Stop, Just Write..."




Back in November I went to an event at the British Library where Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan was interviewed and read some of his poems. I actually went to several interesting poetry events between about September and December - a talk by the great Syrian poet Adonis, also at the British Library; a live reading with actors of Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, at Southbank; a couple of events remembering Ted Hughes and his ties to Modern Poetry In Translation and the poetry translation world in general; and others. But I was also in the midst of a very stressful time at work (not out of the woods for a while yet, I'm afraid) and so didn't write about these at the time.

What reminded me of Serhiy Zhadan this week was that I was reading Timothy Snyder's new book The Road to Unfreedom, which is largely about the incalculable effect that Russia has had on world events during the 2010s, and Zhadan is mentioned in this book. The incident he was involved in took place in 2014 during the Maidan protests around the country and the Ukrainian revolution, and can be read about here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/03/ukraines-best-known-poet-injured-in-protests 

The other thing that reminded me was reading this remarkable interview with Zhadan which has just appeared: https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/11022/everything-changed-ukraines-literary-star-serhiy-zhadan-on-5-years-since-euromaidan

In this interview he talks about how the war in Donbass has changed the country, how he feels about Russia and Russian literature, and so on. It's a good summation of his perceptive, strong but compassionate views. I thought his comments on whether writers should be seen as moral authorities were especially interesting: certainly a contrast to a lot of the claims I see on social media and elsewhere.

When I saw Zhadan at the British Library in November, I think I was one of the few people in the audience who wasn't a Ukrainian or Russian speaker (though I did recognise a few words). There was, of course, a translator. I took a few notes. Zhadan spoke about the importance of poetry in a country like Ukraine and how thousands might come to a poetry reading (I thought to myself: eat your heart out, poets in English-speaking countries, at least most of the time...). In Ukraine, he said, poetry is part of politics, civic life, and history. However, he also said that at times, writers speak about things they don't know enough about! "Writing about war goes deeper than politics," he said. "The war is setting the tone in Ukrainian literature, and war changes the intonation of literature." Zhadan is something of a rock star in Ukraine, and not just for his poetry: he's been involved in theatre and music and is currently a member of the ska band Zhadan and the Dogs.

I've been reading Zhadan's poetry, at least occasionally, for a few years, and it's always a delight for me to come to his poems. You can read his poems 'Stones' and 'A city where she ended up hiding', translated by Valzhyna Mort, here: https://pionline.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/two-poems-by-serhiy-zhadan-translated-by-valzhyna-mort/

And this poem, 'History of Culture at the Turn of This Century', is a favourite of mine: https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/5646/auto/0/HISTORY-OF-CULTURE-AT-THE-TURN-OF-THIS-CENTURY



Photo: Serhiy Zhadan, 2015, by Rafał Komorowski. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

New Poem Published: 'The Second Stain' in Canadian Holmes




It's not a poetry year (for me) without at least one Sherlock Holmes poem finding a home.

The latest to do this is my poem 'The Second Stain', after the Holmes (erm, Conan Doyle) story of the same title, and the scene portrayed in the Sidney Paget artwork above. It appears in the Winter 2018/2019 issue of the Sherlockian journal extraordinaire Canadian Holmes.

The journal is in print only, but I stuck the poem up on Twitter so you can have a look here: https://twitter.com/stoneandthestar/status/1096921020282388480

(Also, follow me on Twitter. Hint hint.)

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Poetry and TV: From Battlestar Galactica to The Little Drummer Girl




I recently finished watching all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica (the 2000s 'reboot' series - and yes, I am aware that it actually finished ten years ago. I'm also aware that streaming services are pure evil and that I have been watching too many box sets recently.) I'm not quite sure how I got started on this series; it is considered one of the best science fiction TV series ever made, but on the other hand, sci-fi is not usually my thing. However, Battlestar Galactica is really about politics, faith, human identity, the terrible challenges of leadership, conflicting loyalties, and a lot of other fascinating stuff, so it worked for me (as do films like Blade Runner, Inception and Arrival, and the works of Ursula Le Guin). It also turned out to have one of my favourite on-screen relationships of all time - William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell).

Anyway - in my defense for watching too much TV - I love a good poetry reference in the middle of an episode, and in Battlestar Galactica it happened during the episode 'A Disquiet Follows My Soul' (season 4), when an already bleak series has quickly become about ten times bleaker. Admiral Adama is heard reciting the first few lines of this poem by Emily Dickinson.


THERE IS A LANGUOR OF THE LIFE (Emily Dickinson)


There is a Languor of the Life
More imminent than Pain --
'Tis Pain's Successor -- When the Soul
Has suffered all it can --

A Drowsiness -- diffuses --
A Dimness like a Fog
Envelops Consciousness --
As Mists -- obliterate a Crag.

The Surgeon -- does not blanch -- at pain
His Habit -- is severe --
But tell him that it ceased to feel --
The Creature lying there --

And he will tell you -- skill is late --
A Mightier than He --
Has ministered before Him --
There's no Vitality.


I find it equally moving to imagine that some viewers will hear these words, have no idea where they're from and still be touched by them, while others will catch (or look up) the reference and appreciate the added dimension of intertextuality. Although only a few lines were quoted, the poem as a whole seemed to intersect with the show's themes in many ways.

I'm more used to finding poetry references in novels, short stories, or even non-fiction writing, but it occurred to me that I've come across several wonderful poet/poetry quotations or allusions in a few TV shows recently. In the most recent season of Elementary, the modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation which places Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in New York alongside Watson (Lucy Liu), Holmes quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: "When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused" (translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton). I thought this was a particularly nice touch because the original Holmes liked to quote Goethe, among others; surely he would have quoted Rilke as well, but that poet's work came a little late for Holmes's original moment in time.

A few spy shows I've watched have also contained intriguing poetry references. This is often also the case in spy novels, and it always seems appropriate because poetry can resemble a code (which does not necessarily mean that it is a code). In the recent TV miniseries adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré, the young actor Charlie (Florence Pugh) reads a Mahmoud Darwish poem as part of the (literally) theatrical love affair she's embarked on:


Did you dance with young angels
while you were dreaming? Did the butterfly
light you up when it burned with the eternal
light of the rose?

(translated from the Arabic by Omnia Amin and Rick London)


In Season 4 of The Bureau (Le bureau des légendes), an exceptional French espionage show, a book of poems by Robert Desnos makes a brief appearance. The surrealist poet Desnos, who perished in Terezín in 1945, was also involved in the Réseau AGIR, a French Resistance espionage network providing information on German bombing facilities. Desnos' work for them involved the creation of false identity papers.

I've also been watching Counterpart, a disturbing spy show about parallel worlds in Berlin (obviously inspired by, but not exactly about, the divided city of the Cold War). Rilke also makes an appearance here, when Howard Silk (JK Simmons) reads his poetry to his wife, who is in a coma:


You, you only exist.
We pass away, till at last,
our passing is so immense
that you arise: beautiful moment,
in all your suddenness...

(translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell)


In another scene, the children's poem 'On the Other Side of the Door' by Jeff Moss is quoted, in one of the most bone-chillingly inappropriately appropriate uses of poetry I've seen on screen:


On the other side of the door
I can be a different me
As smart and as brave, as funny or strong
As a person could want to be.


TV shows (like any other entertainment) are never without their flaws, but the genuine depth added and the respect for literature shown by these poetry references are something I truly appreciated and for which I'll continue to watch.


Monday, 31 December 2018

Derek Mahon: 'Mythistorema'




At the end of 2018, I leave you with 'Mythistorema' by Derek Mahon (this is actually a 2017 poem, but who cares?) Mahon has also, this year, released Against the Clock (Gallery Press), which I look forward to reading: he's one of my most admired poets.

The title of 'Mythistorema' merges "myth" and "history", and for readers of poetry it may suggest the title of a sequence by George Seferis. To me, this poem was immediately and most powerfully a callback to what may be Mahon's greatest poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford'. I then realised that a line from the Seferis sequence actually appears at the start of 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' ("Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels") - linking all of these poems together.

It's quite moving how the aging Mahon, resurrecting the opening image of the mine from 'A Disused Shed' into 'Mythistorema', climbs down into his own oeuvre and personal myths, his memory, and his life - then admitting as wryly as ever: "We try to grasp it but the past dies back/to a grainy line-up of old photographs." There was more pain and anger at the heart of 'A Disused Shed', which finally cries out against genocide, mass death and the failure of human endeavour. Here, Mahon seems to conclude more resignedly: "Now everyone/whispers together in the dim fields below".



Photo of asphodel by Ligurian Photoflora. Used under Creative Commons license