Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jorge Luis Borges and Poetry in Spanish

Jorge Luis Borges at L'Hôtel, Paris, 1969. Photo by José María 'Pepe' Fernández. Public domain

I made a list the other day and subsequently realised that it looked like a really stupid poem. One who perfected the art of using lists in poems, however, was the great Jorge Luis Borges, as in 'That One'.

THAT ONE (Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Srikanth Reddy) 

Quintessential Borges, always wandering in a labyrinth of mirrors and ephemeral walls, but also able to compress a life of shifting perspectives into a snapshot of intention.

I have spent more time speaking and reading Spanish this year than I have for the past fifteen-plus years. This has occasionally included reading Spanish poetry, both in the original and in translation - not only Borges, but Lorca, Machado, Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Octavio Paz, and various more contemporary poets. The curious discovery that I have made is that (at least for now) I seem to prefer Spanish-language poetry to French-language poetry. This is odd at least because my French is so much better than my Spanish - I can freely read French poetry without any accompanying translation, whereas in Spanish I'd have to look up at least some words and preferably look at a facing translation - but I suppose that's not all there is to it.

The English language reminds me of a Gothic cathedral with trapdoors, dead ends, endless staircases, secret entrances and exits, trompe-l'oeil and on and on. French reminds me of the flashing of a bright sharp knife. Spanish, with its rounded vowels and strong inclination towards rhyme, makes me think of drinking red wine. These are all rather facile comparisons, but maybe it's partly that I'll take wine over knives, for now.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

New Poem Published: 'Cairo'

Cairo from Al-Azhar Park, 2010. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd

A few days ago, Ink Sweat & Tears (who were also kind enough to publish one of my poems a week before, on National Poetry Day) published my poem 'Cairo'. You can read it here:

I wrote 'Cairo' in 2010, a few weeks after visiting the city in late August/early September. In fact, I started to write it while I was still in Cairo, but I only hammered the images together after returning to London. I have always liked this poem and so it was good to find a home for it.

'Cairo' is quite a personal poem. Everything in it reflects something of my experience in that terrifying, exhilarating city. I wonder if to the detached reader it reads as a pre- or post-revolution poem - as it turned out, we were there only a few months before the Arab Spring started - but it is probably too abstract and personal to partake of that at all. I am tempted to wonder if the poetic part of my brain saw something coming that the rest of me didn't, but that may be a step too far. It is essentially a poem about embracing the unknown, possibly a frightening unknown.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Alice Oswald Performs Tithonus: "As Soon As Dawn Appears..."

Susanne Nilsson, Flying at DawnUsed under Creative Commons license

In a literary world where words like "stunning", "powerful" and "unforgettable" get bandied about pretty freely, Alice Oswald's work deserves it more than most. It's safe to say that she is one of the most important English/British/English-language poets now working, and some would call her the most important.

On Thursday night I went to Southbank (the Purcell Room) to see Alice Oswald perform her new work, Tithonus. This was the second time I'd seen her and the first, about a year and a half ago, was a revelation as I was only slightly familiar with her work at that point and had no idea what kind of performer she was. It is more accurate to describe her appearances as "performances" - she recites by heart rather than reading, but "recital" doesn't exactly cover it. When I saw her at the T S Eliot Memorial Meeting, performing an excerpt from Memorial and shorter lyric poems, I was totally mesmerised and knew I had to read more, and hopefully see her again.

Following Oswald's radical reframing of the Iliad in Memorial, Tithonus is another look at a tragic story from Greek mythology. Tithonus was a Trojan who became the lover of the dawn. When she asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask that he stop aging. Eventually he became unimaginably ancient and the dawn locked him in a room, where he sat babbling to himself. In this version of the story, he meets the dawn at midsummer.

I bought my ticket for this event (part of the London Literature Festival) a while ago and it came at a good time in a fairly stressful week. By the time I got to the front of the bar queue, I'd had to listen to the annoying publishing types behind me alternately raving about how marvellous Alice Oswald was when they didn't see her at Hay, and "the horror" of a new novel by a famous rock star. At that point I was more than ready to sit in the dark and listen.

The performance lasted 46 minutes, which was the length of midsummer dawn, and the first five minutes were in near-complete darkness. Oswald was accompanied by Griselda Sanderson on the nyckelharpa, an unusual instrument which I may or may not have come across in the Nordic parts of my childhood. The lights on stage came up very gradually and the effect was beautifully and subtly done to resemble dawn light.

Oswald called Memorial "a trauma" and has said how difficult it was for her to perform it. Tithonus is plainly also about trauma, in part, and an enormous tension ran through the whole performance, counterpointed by the weirdly soothing nature of half-darkness and the sounds of the nyckelharpa. Oswald holds herself totally still while performing and never falters. This had a particularly shocking effect in the passages where Tithonus really lapses into a traumatised babbling ("behind that cloth another cloth behind that cloth another cloth and then another and then another cloth and then another..."). These frantic moments in the piece contrasted with long pauses and descriptions of dawn sounds and sights, along with Tithonus' visions of himself as a sort of dogged survivor in the natural world. These had both a delicate, accurate charm and an almost unbearable sadness.

    and getting accustomed to
surviving like a bramble very good
at growing anywhere you ought to
praise me for this trailing bloom this
must be the heart this is only a dream

It's hard to describe an experience like this and do it justice. I bought a copy of the limited edition pamphlet of Tithonus on sale at the event, and re-reading it allows me to relive it to a certain extent. I think that it is enormously impressive even if only experienced on the page, but the combined effect of the lighting, the music and especially Oswald's performance was overwhelming.

Oswald and Sanderson signed the pamphlet for me afterwards. Oswald looked tired and drained, although she was gracious, so I didn't ask her questions, just said "Thank you, it was amazing", to which she said "Good" and smiled. Her signature was a small diffident scrawl and she said "My signature is disappearing" a bit wryly. The signature might be self-effacing, and so is the poet, despite the almost frightening power of her performances: everything is given to the poem, when she recites. But this is a voice which, in its blend of tradition, avant-garde modernity and simply great art, is likely to outlast that of most contemporary poets.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

National Poetry Day 2014: Remember

Today, 2 October, is National Poetry Day.

I'm sure it's partly because it's a weekday (I think it's always a weekday), but it seems as though I never end up doing a whole lot on National Poetry Day. I'm still not sure if I will be attending any events tonight. However, I am wearing this top. (In case you wonder about the English, my friend who lives in Japan gave it to me. They have a deep love there for funny English on t-shirts.)

I may or may not be going to events later, but I'm delighted that I have a poem up today on the wonderful Ink Sweat & Tears, who are publishing poems for a few days on the 'Remember' theme. The poem is called 'Against Remembering' and you can read it here.

I find the 'Remember' theme quite difficult to get my head around, simply because virtually all poetry (possibly even more than other art forms) seems to deal with memory in one way or another. Presumably the theme was chosen to coincide with the 1914 centenary, but war poetry is far from being the only focus (though it is one focus): remembrance and memory are being interpreted in a wide variety of ways, including research on the nation's most-memorised poems (you can look at the #thinkofapoem hashtag on Twitter, or the work of The Poetry and Memory Project.)

Because of the breadth of the theme, I wasn't sure which other poems might be most suitable to highlight. When I thought of favourite poems, almost every single beloved poem I have ever had came to mind (and I have had many beloved poems), or else none came to mind.

Eventually, though, I thought I would post the below poems, which all deal with aspects of and approaches to memory. I thought almost right away of Edward Thomas, but again, it seems as though every one of his poems is a memory poem: sometimes about anticipating memory. This is just one of them.

Enjoy, and I hope you're having a great National Poetry Day.




The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same - this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

D H Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians': "Soft September..."

D H Lawrence in 1906


Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness,
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding
darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Soft September is upon us, and tomorrow (29 September) is slow, Sad Michaelmas. Weather-wise, it has been a fairly soft September, and "slow, sad" is a good evocation of the gradual drawing down of darkness, and the days when the dead leaves start to rustle against your ankles.

Lawrence wrote 'Bavarian Gentians' when he was ill and his early death was approaching. I have seen it described as the greatest poem of all time, by some reckonings. While I always seem to feel obliged to point out that I'm really not a fan of Lawrence (even when I like a few of his poems very much...), it is hard to escape this poem's power. The way it unites the natural beauty of the flowers with an overflowing, Keatsian description of their colour, leading into an erotically and morbidly charged descent into the underworld, evoked with long-drawn vowel sounds, is quite unforgettable. It's also quintessentially Lawrence.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal: "This Zero Hour of the Day"

London in 1938, at Tottenham Court Road. © George W Baker. Used under Creative Commons license

At this time of year I like to read Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal. Considered his greatest work by many, this book-length poem in 24 sections describes life in Europe, mainly in London, in the buildup to World War II. It's a poem of mounting tension and anxiety, but also a chronicle with MacNeice's characteristic light touch of his love affairs, his travels, and so on. It is his life in those months of late 1938, and it manages to be both superb poetry and a brilliant kind of reportage. It's completely personal as well as relevant and immediate in terms of what was happening in society and politics.

I see MacNeice as a kind of journalist - he's just so precise and readable. I can't recommend Autumn Journal too highly. I think it is quite unique amongst chronicles of a very momentous time, and it is both thrilling and daunting that his writing feels so relatable today.

Here is an excerpt from Autumn Journal - one of my favourite passages.

from AUTUMN JOURNAL (Louis MacNeice)


And when we go out into Piccadilly Circus
    They are selling and buying the late
Special editions snatched and read abruptly
    Beneath the electric signs as crude as Fate.
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
    Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
    Of which depends on somebody else's voice.
The cylinders are racing in the presses,
    The mines are laid,
The ribbon plumbs the fallen fathoms of Wall Street,
    And you and I are afraid.
To-day they were building in Oxford Street, the mortar
    Pleasant to smell,
But now it seems futility, imbecility,
    To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next. What will happen
    We ask and waste the question on the air;
Nelson is stone and Johnnie Walker moves his
    Legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square.
And in the Corner House the carpet-sweepers
    Advance between the tables after crumbs
Inexorably, like a tank battalion
    In answer to the drums.
In Tottenham Court Road the tarts and negroes
    Loiter beneath the lights
And the breeze gets colder as on so many other
    September nights.
A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
    Of leaves in Regent's Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
    Confidently bark.
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
    And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill
Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement
    And very likely will
Be used that way again. The bloody frontier
    Converges on our beds
Like jungle beaters closing in on their destined
    Trophy of pelts and heads.
And at this hour of the day it is no good saying
    'Take away this cup';
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic
    That now we should drink it up.
Nor can we hide our heads in the sands, the sands have
    Filtered away;
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
    Hour of the day.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Sean O'Brien's 'The Citizens' and Czeslaw Milosz's 'Dedication': Mirror Images

Ruins of St Casimir Church in Warsaw, Poland, 1945. Photographer unknown

This week, Sean O'Brien's poem 'The Citizens' appeared as the Griffin Poetry Prize poem of the week. You can read it here:


I am an admirer of Sean O'Brien's work (as well as having done a poetry workshop with him in London which was one of the most enjoyable I've attended.) His poetry is wry and Northern, chiseled and cold in imagery but not in feeling. Among contemporary British poets he seems to have a particularly strong feeling of place and history.

I had read 'The Citizens' before; it appears in O'Brien's collection November and I know that I appreciated it when reading the book. However, sometimes a poem really strikes you at a particular moment. In the case of this poem, perhaps it is the events surrounding my reading of it, in this dark year of 2014. When it came up on the Griffin Poetry Prize website, I re-read it several times, almost compulsively.

After reading the poem at least five times, I realised that it reminded me of another poem, which is this:

DEDICATION (Czeslaw Milosz)

I have meant to write about the great Polish poet Milosz for some time, but thus far I haven't succeeded. Honestly, the prospect intimidates me. Milosz is so monumental that I don't feel adequate to the task. But I appreciated the way that 'The Citizens' and 'Dedication' seemed to speak to each other. 'The Citizens' is undoubtedly a Milosz-ian poem.

There are images which reflect each other in the two poems: the rivers, the cities, and the potent emblems of death. There is also the keen sense of valediction and the impression that the speaker is trying almost desperately to explain himself. There is the sense of historical truth, even witness, in both poems. Beyond all that, there is also a dark ambiguity in each poem. In 'The Citizens', the speaker seems to represent a group which has committed genocide or at least acts of violence and oppression; he knows that this "[i]s what is meant by history", and acknowledges it both guiltily and confidently, with an air of justification ("What language? You had no language.") At the end of the poem, the speaker fears both that his people will not leave an acceptable legacy, and that they will be judged adversely - although "We fear that the fields of blue air at the world's end/Will be the only court we face" could indicate, more than a fear of judgment, an even greater dread that the universe might be godless.

'Dedication' is a poem I have spent some time puzzling over. I think it helps to know a bit about Milosz's complex life under totalitarian regimes and as a defector to the West, and the criticisms he faced at times regarding his political and religious views. To me it is a profoundly ambiguous poem, to the extent that I can't entirely tell if he speaks to an enemy or to a friend. I am not sure if the speaker can tell, either. Is the dead one (ones?) who the speaker addresses an oppressor, or a victim? Does the speaker address all oppressors and victims? "I put this book here for you, who once lived/So that you should visit us no more," he says in conclusion. Is this an attempt to exorcise a dark force (from his mind, more so than literally) - or a wish to no longer be haunted by the thought that his poetry did not necessarily "save/Nations or people", or even one particularly loved person? Is the speaker mourning the fact that his poetry couldn't stop conflicts between people who, under other circumstances, might live in peace and be truly good?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Charles Hamilton Sorley: 'When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead'

Poison gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. Photo taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade


When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped upon each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

In June, July and August, the world's nations have marked anniversaries of the start of World War I. So far, the horror show of 2014 has certainly proved a worthy successor to 1914. In recent months many have invoked the spectres of not just 1914 but also the 1930s. Time will tell exactly how this year will be remembered, but so far it's been both bewildering, and bang on track with the patterns and outworkings of history.

Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed at the age of 20 in 1915, when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. It seems that his work was extremely popular after his death but that he is now less known than some other World War I poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. It is very obvious, though, that he was extremely talented and that he would have gone on to write even greater poems. During his time at Oxford, Sorley had also studied in Germany before the start of the war, and his striking, moving sonnet 'To Germany' was recently discussed in the Guardian. 

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' was found in Sorley's kit after his death and it is thought to be his last poem. There is a kind of sotto voce air about it which is hugely powerful. It seems to move like a hushed and ghastly symphony. The many caesuras, or pauses in the lines, are like a muffled drum.

Sorley was plainly a realist, even a brutal one ("It is easy to be dead"), but there is also something in this sonnet that speaks to me of post-traumatic stress. Many of those who survived the wars didn't really survive, not as the healthy and reasonably happy people they were before. More is broken in wars than lives and lands, and the aftermath of so much trauma has been passed down through generations. The bleakness in this poem is extraordinary and chilling. Sadly, it makes me wonder how Sorley would have coped had he survived.