Saturday, 10 December 2011

"Her Fevered Smile By Night": Louise Imogen Guiney's 'The Lights of London'

THE LIGHTS OF LONDON (Louise Imogen Guiney)

The evenfall, so slow on hills, hath shot
Far down into the valley’s cold extreme,
Untimely midnight; spire and roof and stream
Like fleeing specters, shudder and are not.
The Hampstead hollies, from their sylvan plot
Yet cloudless, lean to watch as in a dream,
From chaos climb with many a sudden gleam,
London, one moment fallen and forgot.

Her booths begin to flare; and gases bright
Prick door and window; all her streets obscure
Sparkle and swarm with nothing true nor sure,
Full as a marsh of mist and winking light;
Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure
Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night.

I have a view from my current flat in south London that I never thought I'd have in this city. It looks out into a small park, which is a blessing just for the glimpse of trees and greenery; but beyond are almost all the major landmarks of the London skyline. Battersea Power Station is proudly front and centre; Big Ben and Westminster distant but clear, a small curve of the London Eye, the elegant, futuristic towers of the City. A friend pointed out one day that if you know where to look, you can even see the dome of the National Gallery, and Nelson's column.

I often prefer London by night. Especially if I have had a chance to watch a magnificent sunset first, which is surprisingly often the case. The City is like a huge space station, complete with bright red twinkles on the highest points, and the near-complete spikey Shard, even rising well above the lovable Gherkin. Big Ben's moon face is pale and watchful, and I can never quite believe that's what I'm looking at from my window.

Those London bridge walks, too; those delight me by day, but thrill me by night. I love emerging from Embankment station and seeing what colours are washing over the National Theatre that night. Off in the distance, the Oxo Tower and the magnificent spotlit St Paul's. The best view is from Waterloo Bridge. It gives those striking views both down to the City and to Westminster, and allows a view of the beautiful Hungerford Bridge, too.

Louise Imogen Guiney's sonnet 'The Lights of London' was unfamiliar to me, as was the poet - a turn-of-the-century American woman who also lived in England and was known for both poetry and criticism, now mostly lost to time. This poem struck me with its London truth. When I read it I can so vividly see nineteenth-century London and the gradual starring of its nights with the lighting of the gaslamps. A few years ago I went to see U2 at Wembley, and when they played 'Moment of Surrender' as the magnificent finale, all the lights were turned out and we all held up our lit mobile phones. Although it was so simple, it was one of the most beautiful moments of a show mostly filled with a very impressive light show. I imagine London in this poem "turning on" at night in much the same way.

This poet understood London skies, I think...those hazy, ever-changing, heartbreaking skies. And "Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure/Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night" - yes, that is London, to the very core.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

MacLeish's 'You, Andrew Marvell': The Fall of Vast Empires

YOU, ANDREW MARVELL (Archibald MacLeish)

The above link will take you through to 'You, Andrew Marvell' on the Poetry Foundation website, as well as other poems and biographical information about MacLeish.

I think that 'You, Andrew Marvell' - which I could probably rank amongst my favourite poems - was another random anthology-browsing discovery; not sure, though. I was a bit puzzled for years by the title, though I'd read Marvell by then. Marvell's 'The Garden' is definitely a favourite poem, and I would like to write about it another time.

Eventually I realised, or had it pointed out to me (probably the latter - I'm often quite slow on the uptake) that it was a reference to Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', the best pickup artist poem ever written by a long shot. The following lines from the Marvell poem are especially notable:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
[...] But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

'To His Coy Mistress' is very funny, and very clever, and weirdly erotic; but it is also sobering. Whether or not you're after something more profound than the speaker, time is hurrying on.

'You, Andrew Marvell' is no kind of love poem - it is about the vast empires that Marvell alluded to, and their eventual fall and decay. The poem has a racing, incantatory energy which has sometimes been criticized as repetitive, but to me it makes the poem. I see the speaker on a beach, with a vision in his mind of night's shadow falling over the turning earth. But he sees more than nightfall; he sees empires being swept under. The places that he name-checks were once world powers, and now are entirely gone, or are only weak copies of their former glory.

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

MacLeish was American, and I picture the speaker on a beach in the Hamptons of Long Island, or perhaps Florida. The shadow has already passed over the westernmost parts of Europe; now it looms over the sea and advances toward the coast of America. What really makes this poem special, after all the forward momentum, is the deliberate breath drawn in the split last stanza:

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on...

Is it simply to draw breath? Is it fear, is it wonder?

I thought of this poem today partly because I hadn't read it for a while and I love it; but also, 2011 has surely been a year to reflect upon the fall of empires. There have been few years like it in my lifetime.

I took the above picture in Cairo in August/September 2010, at the gates of the Egyptian Museum. Only a few months later the country was flung into upheaval with the Egyptian Revolution - outside those very gates, and occasionally inside - and the growing impetus of the Arab Spring. Recently I saw a photo from 2010 of an African-Arab summit where the leaders of Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all stood together in the front row. Now, all have fallen and one is dead.

Other "empires" have been shaken; Japan, one of the largest economies in the world, after an appalling disaster which killed tens of thousands; the financial powers, through economic crisis and protest movements. This has been a momentous year. What will 2012, now so close, bring?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

'I Am!' - John Clare

I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest - that I loved the best -
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.

I particularly love the last stanza of this poem, although I think John Clare was dreaming of some lonely spot in England, not Antarctica.

Interestingly, Clare wrote about "the living sea of waking dreams" (and "shipwreck", sadly). As I said previously - a universal, often unconscious symbol.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sea Breezes in the City: Claude McKay's 'Subway Wind' and the Poetry of the Ocean

SUBWAY WIND (Claude McKay)

The above link will take you through to the poem 'Subway Wind' by Claude McKay, on the Poetry Foundation website.

When you grow up near the sea, how can you not continue to dream of it forever? Admittedly, the sea of my childhood and my dreams is not the one depicted in the poem, or the one in the picture above, which was taken on a trip to Okinawa, Japan a year ago. In the Pacific Northwest, the sea is about ten degrees year-round (I think - at any rate, it is extremely cold. I've been swimming in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so I speak from personal experience). It booms and echoes and sometimes crashes over the sea-wall during the occasional "marine bomb" windstorms. On the days which strike the perfect balance of wind and fine weather, windsurfers skim the waves like birds with fluorescent wings. Sometimes the sunlight glancing off the water is so bright that they are almost lost in it.

Most importantly: if you grow up on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, the sea is everywhere. I used to orient myself by it in the city; away from the sea, toward the sea. It was certainly more meaningful than north and south. My parents' house is a five-minute walk from the seafront. My favourite cafe, by Ogden Point, was so close to the water it was practically on it, and there was a dive shop on the ground floor. Some days you can smell the salt. There were so many mornings when I woke up to the sound of the foghorn; melancholy, but also pleasant and reassuring, at least if you didn't have to go much anywhere.

Then you move away, and the sea isn't everywhere any more. I lived in Dublin for three years and given that it is a port city, I did not take enough advantage of the proximity of the sea. I had to make an effort to go out to Sandymount or Howth, or down the coast to Brittas Bay, and it didn't happen nearly often enough. It was accessible, but not "everywhere" to the same extent as it was on Vancouver Island. In London, the sea is too far away for everyday. Much too far away. The closest I usually get is occasionally standing on Westminster Bridge, watching an influx of gulls, hearing their bitter cries and perhaps a sharp sudden sea-smell. All that will really give the landlocked sea-lover is a sudden pang.

Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet who spent much of his life in the United States battling racism, wrote beautifully of these longings in 'Subway Wind'. He describes "captive wind that moans for fields and seas"; a wind that, like everyone in the subway, is trying to get to somewhere that it loves better than the dark and haunted underground. Sometimes, on the London Underground, you can see it in people's faces. They have the still face and the far-off stare, and you know that they are somewhere else. Perhaps by the sea.

I've also been reading Derek Walcott, the great poet of St Lucia, and though his work is resonant with the complexities of history and colonialism, it is particularly resonant with the sea. It is literally present in so many of his poems, and where the poems step away from the shore and are landlocked, it still intrudes as metaphor:

I watch the huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn
like a heaving sea without crests, [...]
all this before the rain scarily pours from the burst,
sodden canvas of the sky like a hopeless sail,
gusting in sheets and hazing the hills completely
as if the whole valley were a hull outriding the gale
and the woods were not trees but waves of a running sea.

(taken from 'White Egrets III')

You would hardly know that the poem was about a valley, and not about the sea. But the sea is so vast and inclusive and overpowering that if it was a part of your childhood, it will echo through your psyche forever.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner': Coleridge Goes To Antarctica and Gets Back In Time to Ruin One Out of Three Wedding Guests' Day

From THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

And now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong;
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.

Listen, stranger! Mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice mast-high came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is possibly Samuel Taylor Coleridge's most famous work, although personally I probably still prefer 'Frost at Midnight' and especially 'Kubla Khan'. This is only a very brief excerpt from the very long original poem, which appeared in Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. It has variously been interpreted as a parable about the sanctity of nature and all living things, a Christian allegory, or simply a great story which warns the reader not to randomly kill an albatross or stop for an Ancient Mariner while en route to a wedding.

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' may also have taken some inspiration from some of the earliest Antarctic exploration of the eighteenth century, including the voyages of Captain James Cook through the Pacific Ocean into the Antarctic Circle. Coleridge obviously never went near the Antarctic, but "ice mast-high...As green as emerald" is pretty spot-on. The picture which I have posted above is of Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance, which was trapped in the Antarctic pack ice in 1915 - leading to the failure of the expedition, but even greater acts of heroism and the safe return of all of Shackleton's men. It could be an illustration for this passage from the 'Ancient Mariner'.

I have Antarctic dreams and have had them for several years now. Not dreams while I'm asleep, usually - but sometimes it feels like a vast white expanse, translucent ice castles and heroic beard-encrusted men wandering amongst penguins are all a constant part of my mental landscape. It has actually been well over ten years since I first read Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita and that was when my long walk into the ice fields of this southern desert - for Antarctica is considered a desert - began. I picked up the book a bit sceptically, intrigued because it was shelved under "travel" and at the time I was reading any and all travel books. I did think there was a pretty good chance that it would be boring. How much can you say about ice?

I was completely captivated by Wheeler's account of her trips to Antarctica, the eccentric characters she met at McMurdo Sound, her South Pole journey, her time at Scott's hut. She writes with humour and charisma but also offers moving descriptions of the peace and serenity she found there: a "certainty" which she calls "something that put everything else - everything that wasn't Antarctica - in true perspective." She continues: "I felt as if I was realigning my vision of the world through the long lens of a telescope. It emanated from a sense of harmony." I have not yet been to Antarctica, but I have had very short sojourns in the Moroccan Sahara and the Western Desert in Australia - as well as a part of the Okanagan in British Columbia which I believe is considered a desert ecosystem. The sense of peace is almost overwhelming. I remember that as an experiment, during my overnight with a friend in the Sahara, in a Berber camp, I made the experiment of trying to worry. Usually this is something that I find all too easy. Here, I was unable to do it. I felt as though the top of my head had opened up and the worries were floating away into the darkness. I imagine that Antarctica would be similar - but on the flip side.

I chase this particular fascination in various ways. Antarctica also fits in well with my hero complex, although I will probably never stop debating whether Scott was a hero or a selfish fool, or both. But who can forget the words of Oates, one of his companions who met the same death: "I am just going outside and may be some time"? Currently I'm reading The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, also one of Scott's men. Shackleton trumps Scott, with his extraordinary voyage in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the saving of all his men (many of whom then went off to die in the war.) I recently saw a wonderful performance by LAMDA Drama School students of Terra Nova, about Scott's expedition and his relationships with his wife and with Amundsen - very moving. I have been revelling in the BBC's new series Frozen Planet, with some of the most incredible footage ever seen of penguins soaring in a graceful but slightly ridiculous manner through the air to belly-flop on the ice; killer whales and their frightening phalanx manoeuvres to create a wave that will wash a poor seal to its eventual death; the incredible, perspective-defying walls of ice. Frozen Planet is also about the Arctic, which has a more wonderful variety of animal life, including wolves, my favourites. But Antarctica is - Antarctica. There is no other place like it on earth: hostile, overwhelming, blindingly beautiful.

Whether or not I ever go there - and I hope that some day I will - I know that for me Antarctica is above all a kind of spiritual landscape. My friends have grown used to me posting "I'm moving to Antarctica" on my Facebook status updates. In a sense, that's not usually a good thing. It means I want to run away, that life is overwhelming, that people in particular are exhausting and selfish and I'd prefer the company of penguins, scary whales, and ice. But at the very least it comforts me to know that it is there; another place, perhaps even more beautiful than the Sahara, where I would find myself completely unable to worry.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Vernon Watkins' 'Foal': Nature and Spiritual Beauty in a Welsh Landscape

FOAL (Vernon Watkins)

Darkness is not dark, nor sunlight the light of the sun
But a double journey of insistent silver hooves.
Light wakes in the foal's blind eyes as lightning illuminates corn
With a rustle of fine-eared grass, where a starling shivers.

And whoever watches a foal sees two images,
Delicate, circling, born, the spirit with blind eyes leaping
And the left spirit, vanished, yet here, the vessel of ages
Clay-cold, blue, laid low by her great wide belly the hill.

See him break that circle, stooping to drink, to suck
His mother, vaulted with a beautiful hero's back
Arched under the singing mane,
Shaped to her shining, pricked into awareness
By the swinging dug, amazed by the movement of suns;
His blue fellow has run again down into grass,
And he slips from that mother to the boundless horizons of air,
Looking for that other, the foal no longer there.

But perhaps
In the darkness under the tufted thyme and downtrodden winds,
In the darkness under the violet's roots, in the darkness of the pitcher's music,
In the uttermost darkness of a vase
There is still the print of fingers, the shadow of waters.
And under the dry, curled parchment of the soil there is always a little foal

So the whole morning he runs here, fulfilling the track
Of so many suns; vanishing the mole's way, moving
Into mole's mysteries under the zodiac,
Racing, stopping in the circle. Startled he stands
Dazzled, where darkness is green, where the sunlight is black,
While his mother, grazing, is moving away
From the lagging star of those stars, the unrisen wonder
In the path of the dead, fallen from the sun in her hooves,
And eluding the dead hands, begging him to play.

© The Estate of Vernon Watkins. Used by kind permission of Gwen Watkins.

For this entry I'd like to specially thank Gwen Watkins for giving me permission to reproduce one of her late husband's poems, and also John Rhys Thomas for his assistance. The painting is by Stubbs, another horsey favourite.

I think that I encountered Vernon Watkins' 'Foal' at one of those particularly impressionable moments which came quite often between the ages of 10 and 20 in particular - or perhaps I should say 7 and 24... I think that my artistic interests since then have been mainly an extension of everything that came before. When I was 18 or 19 I was studying modern British poetry in one of my classes at university, and while this was not one of the poems we studied, it was in the Oxford anthology that we were using.

I have loved horses for a very, very long time, particularly since reading Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind when quite young. I was the quintessential horse-obsessed little girl, reading everything I could lay my hands on, writing bad poetry, and riding for several years until my studies and other aspects of life became more demanding. I am pretty sure that this poem came particularly to my notice during my browsing because it was about a foal. Vernon Watkins was a completely unfamiliar name to me. But I loved the poem so much that I ended up reading it to the class during a session where we all chose a poem to share. I've been reading Watkins on and off ever since.

Vernon Watkins is best known today for having been a close friend of Dylan Thomas, not for his own poetry. What is less well known is the fact that Thomas described Watkins as "the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English." Despite their friendship, they seem to have been two utterly different people: Thomas was a pure sensualist in both life and poetry, while Watkins was a deeply religious man with a stable and happy family life, influenced by the Symbolists and his Christian faith. Watkins' poems are pure and almost naive by comparison with those of Dylan Thomas. Notably, Thomas was supposed to be the best man at Watkins' wedding but failed to show up. At the time of Watkins' death, he was a strong candidate for the next British Poet Laureate. Sadly, he was only 61 when he died, and perhaps if he had lived longer and become the Poet Laureate he would be better known to the current generation. However, it is good to know that a New Selected Poems has been published in recent years by Carcanet and is available on this link.

I love Wales, although I have mainly travelled in Snowdonia, and Watkins was from South Wales (the Gower Peninsula). Gwen Watkins said of this poem: "We lived on the Gower cliffs for most of our married life, and at that time the wild ponies ran about the cliffs all the year round, so that in the spring there were many foals. Vernon knew every inch of Gower, and all its flowers, birds and animals." Watkins obviously had a profound love and reverence for the Welsh landscape. There are passages in his poems which crash across the reader's sensibilities like a wave on a headland:

Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
My country is here. I am foal and violet. Hawthorn breaks from my hands.

(taken from 'Taliesin in Gower')

In other poems, colours and animal images create a powerful tapestry-like impression:

The mound of dust is nearer, white of mute dust that dies
In the soundfall's great light, the music in the eyes,
Transfiguring whiteness into shadows gone,
Utterly secret. I know you, black swan.

(taken from 'Music of Colours: White Blossom')

In his poems the animals and flowers are more than nature; they symbolize spiritual truths. I remember reading about 'Foal' and its companion poem 'The Mare', that Watkins had an interest in Plato's theory of the ideal form, whereby everything in the material world is only an echo or copy of a purer, perfect form on a spiritual plane. This could partly account for the description in 'Foal' of the "left spirit" and the "blue fellow" of the very real little foal who runs through the poem. The whispering image of "the print of fingers, the shadow of waters" also makes me think of Genesis and the early moment of creation, as though God has left his signature: "there was darkness upon the surface of the watery deep" (Genesis 1:2).

Essentially, however, this is a poem that I still find deeply mysterious and beautiful, which I love no less because interpretation somewhat eludes me. In many respects there is no other animal poem which quite compares with it, for me. The movements of the foal - leaping, startling, sleeping - are marvellously observed. Almost fifteen years after first reading the poem, there are still lines in it which haunt me and which remain, enchantingly, just out of reach. Sometimes I think that the shadowy foal refers to a dead twin; sometimes it is the Platonic ideal; sometimes it seems like the beautiful dreams that can wash through both our sleep and our waking hours, and which poetry brings us a little bit closer to touching.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Shakespeare's "When In Disgrace": Or, Why I Don't Get Invited To That Many Parties

SONNET XXIX (William Shakespeare)

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Trying to remember a first introduction to Shakespeare is bound to be tricky. I think that there may have been a book of adaptations for children from the library, at some point, but I don't remember it setting me alight with enthusiasm. I have the faintest memory of my parents taking us to a showing of Laurence Olivier's version of Henry V when I was very young. Apparently I loved it, but I really don't remember.

Junior high school is where most of us were thrown in the deep end with Shakespeare, at least in Canada: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (the former for me), and some sonnets. I fell in love with Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and with Kenneth Branagh, as did all the grade 9 girls. I then went on to study Hamlet at least three times, but that was later. Seeing it in the West End with Jude Law a couple of years ago, I realised that I still knew Hamlet nearly off by heart and was mouthing the words along with the actors.

But returning to junior high: in grade 8, I had Mr Bradley as an English teacher. Mr Bradley was loud. He liked to bellow. Across the hallway was another teacher who liked to screech, so it was an interesting duet, at times. I enjoyed Mr Bradley's class. In general, I think that I was very fortunate to have English teachers who may not have reached great heights of inspiration, but who encouraged my writing and created a stimulating environment for all of us.

At some point in the course of my semester with Mr Bradley - I think it was only one semester, not an entire year - we had to memorize a poem to recite to the class. I don't remember a great deal of the other students' choices. I am fairly sure, though, that someone chose Jenny Joseph's 'Warning': "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple..." Although I like the poem, at the time this really was not my cup of tea. I would probably have gravitated toward the Romantics, maybe a bit of Yeats, and Shakespeare. I chose Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX.

I doubt that my delivery was anything spectacular, but I do specifically remember that Mr Bradley was very pleased by my choice. (I didn't try to be a teacher's pet, but apparently I was a natural.) He said of Sonnet XXIX, and I quote: "That's a poem that you will have with you for the rest of your life."

Well, Mr turns out that you were absolutely right. Twenty years have gone by, and I still know the poem off by heart, effortlessly. I have recited it in some really odd settings, just because. One of my party tricks is reciting it at lightning speed. Perhaps this is why I don't get invited to that many parties. But I'll always have Sonnet XXIX.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Louis MacNeice's 'Snow': A Poem About Being Alive

SNOW (Louis MacNeice)

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

© The Estate of Louis MacNeice. Taken from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber. Used by permission.

Louis MacNeice famously described his ideal characteristics for a (male) poet as follows: "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions." I have to admit that these words, along with MacNeice's admirably strong jawline and brooding gaze (see the above picture), sent me off into a reverie about Manly Men who are also poets. The cover of his Collected Poems suggests that he also looked very very fine in a fedora hat. But I digress.
MacNeice certainly was a poet who had a grasp of both the seen and the unseen. Many writers and poets lean strongly in one direction or the other, and write either with a powerful physicality, or an intense vision of the intangible. It is surprisingly rare to really achieve both. MacNeice's poems are vividly sensual, as well as insightful and varied in their emotional landscape.
'Snow' is a poem about the nature of reality, about the way things are, and about the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. It is a poem with an intense duality, showing the physical world as marvelous and bizarre, while also invoking what lies beyond the physical world. It is a poem about poetry, because poetry in its fullest sense is also a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.
This poem reminds me of the work of James Joyce, another Irishman - particularly A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Ulysses. I preferred A Portrait of the Artist, finding it more accessible than Ulysses but still a remarkably effective portrayal of what it is like to be alive - the maze of thoughts and emotions, the waves of sensual impressions. With 'Snow', MacNeice is doing something similar. It is a poem about being alive. There are moments when the beauty and strangeness of what we see or hear catches at the heart and leaves a indelible impression that can last for a lifetime. This is the moment when we realise that "World is suddener than we fancy it."
As I read this poem, I can see the roses inside flaring brilliantly against the snow outside, perhaps caught in a sudden gleam from the firelight. I can taste the sweet-sour tangerine, feel the pips in my mouth, hear the small bursts and ripples from the fire. The physical intensity of this poem is second to none. It reminds me of the brief moments when I have moved out of the seashell interiors of the mind into a realm of pure sensation: at a very loud gig, drinking wine on an empty stomach and drowning in sound and light; watching sunrise over Uluru; riding a camel by moonlight into the Sahara and sensing the moment when the texture of the sand changed under its feet; running across a monumental Munich square at night in a thunderstorm. These moments don't come very often for me, but I never forget them: all part of "the drunkenness of things being various." 
And yet, there is much more to 'Snow' - this is where the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious comes in. I have read interpretations of this poem which suggest that the snow and the roses are distinctively Irish symbols - after all, James Joyce described the fall of the snow at the end of 'The Dead'. This is all possible, but what really stands out to me is that MacNeice understands how separate and yet how united things which are apparently so very different can be. 
"There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses", he writes. "Between" is a very ambiguous word. A wall can stand between two people, but so can a bridge. A window can separate, but it also joins, because you can see through it. The snow and the roses have come together, but they will never touch. This is a paradox, and it is part of the mystery of poetry. Disparate elements come together and maintain their own separate identities, but also unite to create something entirely new and extraordinary, and images from the unconscious swim to the surface to join with a more tangible reality.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

"What Is Lost, What Remains": Lynda Hull's 'At Thirty'

AT THIRTY (Lynda Hull)

The above link will take you to Lynda Hull's 'At Thirty', as well as a biography and other poems, at, an excellent resource for poems and poets. I'd also like to include this link on the Poetry Foundation website to her 'Rivers Into Seas', one of my favourites - written for a friend who had just died, and the last poem Hull completed only weeks before her own untimely death.

I started reading Lynda Hull only recently, when a colleague brought in one of her poems to be considered for inclusion in an anthology we are working on. I was impressed and decided to seek out some more of her work, and I've been browsing her Collected Poems ever since. Hull's poetry is genuinely gritty, not always one of my preferences in poetry or literature generally, I admit. She creates deeply personal scenes of translucent cities, flowing water, streets where it is always night, and the beauty of cracked plaster and prematurely aged faces. Music is a frequent theme of her poems, and her style is distinctly musical.

'At Thirty' is unusual for being far shorter than most of Hull's poems, which tend to run riverine for pages. I chose it for its resonance in my own life, given that I'm now just a couple of years past "at thirty". Hull's short life was far different from my own, though. She was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1954, and ran away from home at 16, having just been awarded a scholarship to Princeton University. During the next ten years she married a Chinese immigrant and lived in various locations around North America. She struggled with drug addiction, a theme which also recurs in her poems. In the 1980s, she began studying and writing poetry seriously, and married the poet David Wojahn. Tragically, she died in a car accident in 1994, aged only 39.

None of this bears much resemblance to my life. "Automats & damp streets", perhaps, and "alien skies"; I do live in London, and before that, Dublin. But there is much more to this poem than the specific difficulties of one woman's life; even more than the beauty and hardness of New York.

Personally, I have found that at thirty (and beyond) I have had time to gain some perspective on my life so far - I've always found that it takes several years to look back and have any type of realistic perspective on a certain time period in life. "Whole years I knew only nights", Hull writes; regardless of the details, any young night owl will recognise something in this, at least for a few years here and there. Her images of unfocused longing ("the heart's/racketing flywheel stuttering I want, I want") are also familiar. The twenties are not much easier than the teens; harder in some ways, because you're almost equally confused, but have many more responsibilities, and haven't had enough time to really understand why others behave the way they do and why you react the way you do.

The poem concludes:

...behind me facades gleam with pigeons

folding iridescent wings. Their voices echo
in my voice naming what is lost, what remains.

By thirty, almost everyone has experienced loss - sometimes a lot of it. You finally realise that losing people is something that will happen over and over again: by death, by misunderstanding, by circumstances that one or both of you can't reconcile. In the twenties, the dangers may have more to do with inexperience and impulsiveness; in the thirties the risk seems to be of hardening into resignation or anger. At thirty you begin to have a clearer picture of what has already happened to you and the kind of person that you have allowed yourself to become with your set of circumstances. The question is, what will you do with that knowledge?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to talk about Facebook

My objective for this blog is nothing less than world domination by great poetry. Well, perhaps a bit less, but it would be lovely if people were inspired to seek out even more poems by these poets and others, and to weave them into their own lives.

So, to that end...I have inevitably created a Facebook page to support this blog: The Stone and the Star Facebook Page

If you're a Facebook user, and would like to support the dissemination of poetry (and, er, this blog), please do "like" the page, recommend it to your friends, and so on and so forth.

It would be more appropriate if I were a Twitter user, but I thought I'd throw in this quotation from T S Eliot's 'Burnt Norton', which does seem very appropriate for this social-networking century (and my London life).

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

'Macavity, the Mystery Cat': Sherlock Holmes, T S Eliot and...Cats


The above link will take you through to a very amusing video recording of former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen reciting 'Macavity'. From this page you can also access a text version. It is courtesy of the BBC, who included the poem as part of their 'Off By Heart' competition. If you have trouble accessing the BBC website, another link to the poem's text can be found here on the Guardian website.

T S Eliot, the author of 'Macavity' and so many other extraordinary poems, is a huge subject in himself and one that I'd like to return to another time. He is not an original choice for most revered poet, but I would probably have to give him the position in my literary life that I gave to W B Yeats ten or fifteen years ago. And not only was he the author of such groundbreaking, erudite and moving meditations on spiritual stagnation and growth, the nature of modern society and the passage of time as 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock', The Waste Land and Four Quartets - but he also wrote fun and hilarious poems about cats, collected as Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The collection was later adapted into the musical Cats. Achieving that level of diversity is definitely living the dream, in poetic terms.

The Practical Cats poems were plainly written by a poet who knew and understood cats, as well as having a host of funny literary and historical references at his fingertips. In 'The Naming of Cats', he writes:

I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

He then goes on to suggest names such as Coricopat and Bombalurina - as well, of course, as the cat's everyday name, and the "Effanineffable/Deep and inscrutable singular Name" that only it knows. A few poems feature dogs, usually Pekes meeting some terrible fate. The poem called 'Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles Together With Some Account of the Participation of the Pugs and the Poms, and the Intervention of the Great Rumpuscat" makes me laugh out loud. My mother tells me that when she and my father lived in England in the early 1970s, they had a landlady who had several cats ranging from the adorable to the psychotic. When my parents moved out of that house, they gave the landlady a parting gift of the Practical Cats poems. She was later overheard in her sitting room reading them aloud and with great delight to a friend.

'Macavity, the Mystery Cat' is a special poem for me because it reflects Eliot's admiration for Sherlock Holmes. He was enough of a fan that his play Murder in the Cathedral adapted a passage from the Sherlock Holmes story 'The Musgrave Ritual' to the extent that it was nearly plagiarism. Macavity, "the Napoleon of Crime", is also Professor Moriarty, Holmes's arch-enemy. There are references to at least two or three specific Sherlock Holmes stories in the poem, and the image of a cat mastermind of evil "doing complicated long division sums" while his henchmen do his awful bidding is quite wonderful. Cats are very good at being masterminds of evil, except that they spend too much time napping. I have friends who have a cat that would look perfect in a tiny Darth Vader outfit (complete with tiny ears and an extension for the tail), but that's another story.

As for Sherlock Holmes, he and Dr Watson and the host of characters brought to life by Arthur Conan Doyle in an unforgettable London are important to me for so many reasons. Holmes entered my life when I was young, reading the stories ('The Speckled Band' scared me to pieces) and watching the incomparable Jeremy Brett on TV. When I was a teenager and even more obsessed, I dreamed of visiting London and seeing the places in the stories. I did that in my late teens, and swore I'd move to London some day. Well, here I am.

It really is no exaggeration to say that if you trace the idea back to its source, Holmes is probably at least 50% of the reason why I ended up in London. I still love him for the sarcastic, cold, passionate character that he is, and Watson for his loyalty and bravery, but even if I'd lost all interest in the stories for themselves, I would love them forever just because they brought me to this city.

Monday, 31 October 2011

O'Connell Bridge, Louis MacNeice and Poetic Echoes

I'm doing a couple of unusual things in this entry: keeping it (relatively) short, and including one of my own poems. Shock horror!

I've been reading Louis MacNeice, who was Anglo-Irish - or an Irishman who spent much of his life in England, or who turned his back on Ireland - depending who you ask. I came across his poem 'O'Connell Bridge', which you can read on this link:


I had an odd feeling when I read this poem which I could not quite explain. Shortly thereafter I realised that it reminded me of a poem which I had written just after moving to London from Dublin, in 2005. I have been reading MacNeice a little bit since university, but I am nearly certain that I had never read 'O'Connell Bridge' before, and certainly not before 2005.

When I wrote my poem, 'Past', I was still sorting out my last year in Dublin both mentally and emotionally, which explains why the content is not the happiest. In any case - my poem was partly inspired by a wind-tossed glimpse of the Liffey river from O'Connell Bridge one night in Dublin, and it seemed to echo some of the images in MacNeice's poem to a surprising extent. Is it just me? You can make up your mind by reading my poem, below. I apologise in advance for the fact that it is definitely not MacNeice.

I have occasionally noticed that certain places (in particular), when taken as poetic subjects, produce similar images from different poets at different times. I don't know if it is coincidence, or a slight intersection of style from poets whose work may have some things in common; or if it is something deeper than that - innate in the place and in the areas of the brain and heart which handle poetry.

PAST (Clarissa Aykroyd)

And when I am years or more beyond
I will still dream the Liffey rising
to drown me, to drink from my mouth.
Those nights I lie outstretched
on O'Connell Bridge, shadow path through metal light.
My friends, the others, walk over, through me,
earth bulges then like sickness
and I roll to meet the river,
sea-smelling, soft mouth gaping
in a green pelt. I could touch its back.
But without hands, will without flesh,
always the Liffey drinks me dry
and the rain gathers in my throat's hollow.
The struggle to waking, the feeling
of tired old August moonlight on me,
the terrible breath bubbling from me.

© Clarissa Aykroyd, 2011. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Friday, 28 October 2011

"Oblique Light": Derek Mahon's 'Courtyards in Delft'


                                          — Pieter de Hooch, 1659

(for Gordon Woods)

Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile —
Immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
Water tap, that broom and wooden pail
To keep it so. House-proud, the wives
Of artisans pursue their thrifty lives
Among scrubbed yards, modest but adequate.
Foliage is sparse, and clings; no breeze
Ruffles the trim composure of those trees.

No spinet-playing emblematic of
The harmonies and disharmonies of love,
No lewd fish, no fruit, no wide-eyed bird
About to fly its cage while a virgin
Listens to her seducer, mars the chaste
Perfection of the thing and the thing made.
Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste.
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.

That girl with her back to us who waits
For her man to come home for his tea
Will wait till the paint disintegrates
And ruined dikes admit the esurient sea;
Yet this is life too, and the cracked
Outhouse door a verifiable fact
As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
Railings that front the houses opposite.

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of war
On parched veldt and fields of rainswept gorse.

© Derek Mahon, 2011. Taken from New Collected Poems, published by The Gallery Press. Used by permission of the publishers.

By the time I was ten, and certainly by the time I had turned 20, my loving parents had dragged me through a great many of Europe's finest art galleries. I can only thank them, because this left me with exactly two choices: to hate art and to never set foot in another art gallery again if I could help it, or to love art and keep seeking it out for the rest of my life. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and I chose the latter. Given that I have ten left thumbs when it comes to anything like drawing or painting, my interest in the visual arts is purely second-hand (and, I admit, mostly confined to European art at least 150 years old), but at least I can appreciate it and I know what I like when I see it.

I think that the relationship between poetry and the visual arts is an uneasy one. It is difficult to convey the visceral impact of a great work of art using the written word, and I don't think that most paintings could incorporate the subtleties of a finely crafted poem. An outstanding exception is Derek Mahon's 'Courtyards in Delft'. It was inspired by the above painting by Pieter de Hooch, which hangs in London's National Gallery.

I racked my brains trying to remember when I first encountered Derek Mahon. Oddly enough, I think that his poem 'Ecclesiastes" appeared in an anthology which I used in my Canadian high school, but I don't remember studying it specifically. I probably started reading him more extensively when I lived in Ireland. I know that just before I moved from Ireland to England, I bought a copy of his new collection Harbour Lights, and by then I had already read at least some of his work. At any rate, somewhere over the years many of his poems got under my skin: the classics 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' and 'The Mayo Tao', as well as personal favourites such as 'Kinsale' and 'The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush'. He is one of the great Northern Irish poets of the latter half of the 20th century, along with Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. I have a theory that these Northern Irish poets and others are particularly memorable because they marry the Irish sense of mysticism to a more British formalism, but I'm not sure how far I would want to extend that idea.

I find 'Courtyards in Delft' particularly moving because it combines a loving (and slightly ironic) description of the painting with a more personal perspective, which could be very evocative even for someone who has not seen the painting. In his description of "Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile—/Immaculate masonry", he succintly captures the clarity and serenity of the Dutch Golden Age of painting, which also included the likes of Vermeer, van Ruisdael and Hobbema. Humorously, he then notes the lack of suggestive symbols which are often included in paintings of the era, hinting at adultery, scorned love and drunken revelry: "We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin." One could argue that the painting is just a little too serene. In the next stanza, however, he points out:

Yet this is life too, and the cracked
Outhouse door a verifiable fact
As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
Railings that front the houses opposite.

There surely are moments in life when we feel serene and at peace, and when we perceive the beauty and even the holiness of everyday objects and situations. By his use of the word "mnemonic", suggesting an aid to memory, Mahon moves into the realm of his own childhood memories.

The concluding stanza of 'Courtyards in Delft' is for me one of the most touching that I have encountered in literature. Amazingly, at one and the same time it extends the description of the painting, touches on Mahon's own experiences, and reminds me of my own childhood. He describes sensory memories, the fall of light, the wonder that a child feels at seeing "the ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon". This reminded me of the summers I spent at my grandmother's house in Finland: looking through the different panes of the stained glass window at a world in red, or yellow, or green; the smooth-rough feeling of cobblestones under my bare feet; the dusk at midnight.

Mahon, like so many of us who felt somewhat isolated and different, was "a strange child with a taste for verse" (or literature generally, in my would be more accurate to say that I am now a strange child with a taste for verse.) The "hard-nosed companions" of his childhood in Northern Ireland were probably dreaming of a bitter local struggle that has never entirely ended, but the feelings that Mahon describes are universal.

I often go to look at this painting when I visit the National Gallery. I am not sure if it is the painting that leads me to read the poem, or the poem that brings me to the painting. Probably the latter, a little more. It is just another example of how one great experience in the arts will inevitably lead me on to another.

In fact, I believe that great art can be a catalyst for many of life's most essential experiences. There will always be those who suggest that if you spend a lot of time with books, you're not really living life, and that one of the proofs of their own (apparently) exciting lives is that they never crack open a book. To quote Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory: this is a notion, and a rather sucky one at that. Although I know that I am an unrepentant snob in this area, I feel that if you have no interest in literature, you should just own it, and you should also recognise that you are missing out on an important part of the human experience. At least in part, literature and the arts have led me to live in other countries, to travel, and to meet people with whom I would never otherwise have crossed paths. In many of these areas, there may have been even more crucial motives, but so often the arts are the impetus which set things in motion.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ted Hughes's 'The Thought Fox': The Wild Comes To My Doorstep


The above link will take you to both an audio recording and a readable version of 'The Thought Fox' on the Poetry Archive website. The Poetry Archive ( contains many audio recordings of great poems, including others by Ted Hughes.

We've established that London is the greatest city in the world (a friend agreed with me the other day that it's best compared to addictive and illegal substances, but that's another story.) However, it does have its downsides, one of which is that London dwellers tend to feel cut off from nature. The parks are magnificent, but unless you manage to spend a lot of time in Richmond Park - and I have still only been there once - you are likely to see a little less greenery than you should, and a lot less animal life. On my way to work on the Victoria line the other day, I met two delightful floppy-eared individuals - some kind of spaniel. I gave one of them the tiniest scratch behind the ears and was instantly confronted with swooning brown eyes and a full body lean against my legs. It was lovely and I felt a bit sad when I had to get off at Victoria. It says something when even a tiny bit of animal contact makes my day.

As always, though, London will mysteriously place something that you really need right on your doorstep. I lived in West London for five years and occasionally heard the rather terrifying scream of a fox somewhere outside my window, but that and one brief glimpse of a fox heading purposefully somewhere one morning was about it for me. Now I live in inner-city South London, and one of the most wonderful surprises of my new neighbourhood has been the regular fox sightings.

I don't know how many there are near my building, but there have to be more than just a couple. Certainly, I have seen two at a time on more than one occasion, and I am sure there are more. I always see them in the late evening, when I'm hurrying home from somewhere or other. I hope to see them and often I get a strong sense that I will see a fox - then it crosses my path, sometimes only a couple of metres away. I am sure it is confirmation bias, but it does seem occasionally as though I just know and they just know.

I have been an animal lover for a very long time and foxes have a special place in my heart for a few reasons. The sandy-whiskered gentleman of Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddleduck gave me the creeps when I was small. A favourite book by Garry Kilworth called Hunter's Moon, in the vein of Watership Down, created a fascination in me for urban foxes. Now I have them living only a stone's throw away. On the night of the worst August riots in London, I was leaning out my window looking at the smoke rising from Clapham Junction, and saw a fox trotting calmly across the street in my eerily quiet area. It was strangely reassuring. When I see them as I walk home at night, they usually pause and give me a long look: something like "you move first - I was here before you." They are wild, bold and indifferent and it always gives me a thrill.

Ted Hughes's nature poetry is incomparable. Many or even most of his poems touch on animal life and the wild in some way. He seems to have had an instinctive understanding of how wild animals live their lives with innate purpose, separate from humans, unaffected by them in the normal scheme of things, but giving them delight. He also understood how memories of the wild can restore hope and energy in the sometimes soul-sapping urban environment. Other poets have recognised this: in 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', W B Yeats wrote:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Ted Hughes, however, went one better than this in his monumental poem 'The Horses':

In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing the curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.

'The Thought Fox' is a poem about the creative process: the mystery of it and the poem's inception from a combination of patience and inspiration. But it is also a poem about a fox; appropriately, a very beautiful and sly poem. The delicate animal movement of the fox, its precision and sensory perfection, comes across marvellously in the lines:

Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow...

The fox is "concentratedly/Coming about its own business", which is in this case also the poet's business of writing a poem. This is a wonderful description of the intent nature of the wild animal, its lack of interest in anything except the instincts which drive it - rather like the instincts of an artist caught up in creation.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

"A Size Larger Than Seeing": P K Page and West Coast Memories


The above link will take you to P K Page's 'After Rain', a few of her other poems and some biographical information, from the University of Toronto Libraries website's section on Canadian poetry (

Victoria, on Vancouver Island, was a beautiful place to grow up. I didn't fully realise it until I left, and probably not even for a few years then. I regularly get people telling me that I'm crazy because I left British Columbia, and especially the Island, to live in London. Well - Londoners tell me I'm crazy; Islanders, when I go back home, remind me incessantly that it's the most beautiful place on earth and tell me how much I must miss it. I do miss it, of course; I miss fresh air, the ever-present ocean, the parks and flowers, some of the most striking scenery in the world (the Olympic Mountains painted across the horizon on the Strait of Juan de Fuca) - the list goes on. Also "of course", I had to leave eventually, and I am not sorry that I ended up in London. But I wish that I could go back more often, most importantly to see my family and friends. I took the above picture on a visit home this summer (June 2011).

Reading P K Page's poems brings back a flood of memories from Canada. I discovered her in a summer Canadian poetry class at university, and simultaneously discovered that contemporary poetry was quite a wonderful world. I remember doing a presentation on 'Cook's Mountains', a brilliant description of how language and names alter our perception: "instantly they altered to become/the sum of shape and name." I somewhat irrelevantly raised the point that images in the poem reminded me very much of a scene in Watership Down, but Doug Beardsley, the instructor and a poet in his own right, seemed to like it. And I remember being captivated by 'Stories of Snow', one of the greatest Canadian poems. Page was born in England but moved to Canada as a small child and lived there for most of her life, so she was certainly Canadian. However, she also lived with her diplomat husband in other countries including Australia and Brazil. 'Stories of Snow' beautifully describes how people with one set of experiences, or in one environment - in this case, the tropics - fill in their emotional landscape by dreaming of places that are very different. Although I'm not sure where Page lived when she wrote that poem, a friend pointed out to me that there was something very West Coast about these lines:

And stories of this kind are often told
in countries where great flowers bar the roads
with reds and blues which seal the route to snow...

Smug West Coasters do love it when the cherry blossoms, tulips and daffodils flower magnificently in the spring, and they can call their relatives out East, who are still snowbound.

I believe it was in 2000 when I went one evening to Victoria's James Bay Inn to hear P K Page read. My mother, also a fan, came with me. Page was a beautiful and stately lady - she would then have been about 85. I was one of a queue of people who politely lined up to ask her if she could read a particular poem. I told her how much my Canadian poetry class had loved 'Stories of Snow' and asked if she could read it, but sadly she didn't have a copy with her. I had also loved 'After Rain', so asked her if she could read that instead. When she got up to read her poems, she graciously but laughingly told us that she'd had to significantly rearrange her program because she'd had so many requests. I remember that she read 'Poor Bird', and the relish with which she delivered the line "Poor bird, he is obsessed!". And she did read 'After Rain'. I remember so vividly the turn of her head and the brightness of her eyes as she read: "O choir him, birds, and let him come to rest/within this beauty as one rests in love". Page died last year at the age of 93. I wish that she had made it to 100, as so many senior citizens living in Victoria do.

'After Rain' also reminds me of the West Coast simply on its own: a garden drowned in chlorophyll, and Page delighting in the lacy creations of the snails all over her cabbages. It is a wet climate, and the outdoors can drip seemingly for days after a day or six of heavy downpours. The poem's sharp but delicate imagery, its ornate but pure tone, are typical of Page's best work. The lines "Keep my heart a size/larger than seeing" have echoed in my mind for many years now.


I realised that I didn't quite say what I wanted to say about Celan in my last entry, but I will probably have to return to him. It occurred to me that his abstract but extraordinarily precise images are somehow like electrodes placed on the reader's emotional centres, to stimulate wonder and fear and grief. Then, when I was tracing some more information about Celan, I found out that he underwent electroshock therapy for his severe depression. That was quite unsettling.

I also learned that Celan and P K Page were both born on November 23; Page in 1916, and Celan in 1920. It is strange to think that had he lived, I could potentially have met Celan, as I did Page. I am not sure if Celan influenced Page (more likely than the other way around, given his much greater fame), but I have thought that if his life had been less ravaged by tragedy, there might have been some more similarities between their work. There is something that seems to link them for me, as well as the coincidence of their birthdays; something in the images that they choose. They were certainly both in love with flowers, and birds, and images of minerals, and broken glass, and the changing perspective of the eye.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

"There, A Feeling": Coming Home to Paul Celan

The above link will take you through to 'Homecoming' on the Poetry Foundation website (, as well as other information about Celan and more of his poems.

Writing about Paul Celan is difficult without sounding either trite or pretentious. It is important to know that he was a Jew, born in 1920 in a German-speaking enclave of Romania; that his parents were deported while he was away from home and that they died in the Holocaust. He spent time in labour camps himself. After the war he lived mainly in Paris, until his suicide by drowning in the Seine in 1970.

These are the very barest facts of his life. They can explain the guilt over his parents’ death and the anguish that haunted him, as well as his preoccupation with the fate of the Jewish people. However, I believe that his work is unique in the highly personal nature of its symbols, which translate mysteriously into something potentially universal.

My introduction to Celan was typical for me; in art, one thing always leads to another. I first read him when I was 17 or 18. I was a huge U2 fan at the time and one of my favourite songs was ‘A Sort of Homecoming’, from their beautiful early-80s album The Unforgettable Fire. Reading a book which described the stories behind U2’s songs, I discovered that “Poetry is a sort of homecoming” was a phrase taken from the poet Paul Celan, and that Bono had been reading his poems when he wrote that song.

I was curious enough to look for Celan in my university library. My memories of that early encounter are not very distinct, but I was definitely a bit puzzled. Among others, I read the famous ‘Death Fugue’ and was struck by its power. Obviously, I associated ‘Homecoming’ with the U2 song, although I didn’t realise for years that “Poetry is a sort of homecoming” was taken from Celan’s Meridian speech. I immediately realised that some of the images (the snow and the white flag, especially) echoed the imagery used by U2 in their lyrics, videos and artwork.

At some later point I bought Michael Hamburger’s translations. From time to time over the years I read some of the poems, but found most of them extremely difficult to grasp. Last year I started reading Celan again more in-depth, around when I went to a performance in London by the Michael Nyman Band of Nyman’s bleak settings of some of the poems. As the occasion was an anniversary of Celan’s birth, there were also readings and discussions of his poetry, by guests including A S Byatt.

I decided that this was the moment to explore Celan more deeply. Gradually I realised that the way to gain a better understanding of his work was to learn a little more about his life and his approach to poetry, and simply to sit with the poems and read them a great deal. It sounds facile, but once I had been reading more of the poems for a while, they started to make a lot more sense.

Certain images recur in Celan: the rose, the eye, hands, fragmentation, crystals, plants...a strange collection. When I read him I see images in my mind: green plants wreathing a doorway, white waves on a white beach, a beam of light broken up by turning blades. A childhood dream-thought of a star shining behind my wall now makes me think of Celan. Particularly with his later poems, the temptation is to call them “hermetic”; sealed, impossible for an outsider to understand. Celan loathed the term “hermetic” to describe his poetry. He called his poems “messages in a bottle”. While there was a meaning specific to him, anyone could discover their own personal meaning in them. I believe that it is the kind of art which gives a glimpse of varieties of experience. We know that certain images were specific to Celan’s experience. We also know that the reader relates the images to his or her own experience and finds personal meaning in them. Finally, certain images act as an unconscious trigger for certain feelings, which may seem completely unrelated in literal terms to the imagery. I am not sure yet if these are universal feelings or if they are very personal for each individual reader. However, this process is what I think of when he writes in ‘Homecoming’:

There: a feeling,
blown across by the ice wind
attaching its dove- its snow-
coloured cloth as a flag.

In our mind’s eye we see the snow, and the flag; we also feel something which is related but separate. To me, this is a poem about dislocation and the search for identity, but I can imagine that Celan may have been thinking of something else – or exactly the same thing – and different readers may have a different – or identical – experience.  

There is a lot of distress and confusion in Celan’s poems. He sounds as though he is stammering. Words are broken and reformed unexpectedly. Along with the anguish there is hope, invoking images of growth, upward movement and birth. In one of my favourite poems, ‘In Prague’, he describes a violent and transcendent death and rebirth specifically associated with his Jewish identity:

ground into sperm
ran through the hourglass
through which we swam, two dreams now, chiming
against time, in the squares.

I wish that I could say something particularly illuminating about Celan, but I realise that I still have a very long way to go. George Steiner wrote in a review of Michael Hamburger’s translations of Celan: “Let him enter your life. At risk. Knowing that he will change it.” This is not an exaggeration. Celan’s work is truly unique, and the reader who takes the long gradual journey into the Celanworld will find that their way of seeing has been altered forever.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dark London: Toby Martinez de las Rivas's 'Man Praying, King's Cross, 34°'

MAN PRAYING, KING'S CROSS, 34° (Toby Martinez de las Rivas)

I will rise in this heat and rod myself south,
muscular forearms with their black guard hairs
shoving beneath the elbow-cuffs of my blue shirt
confidently, only cut by the brown leather band
of my watch ticking like a banked departure board.
People drain around me like the tide receding
around a sandbank, or like grains of sand dragged
very beautifully but helplessly into the offing:
a boy with chipped black fingernails and hair
swept from his eyes, smeared black Chloé eyeliner:
a pregnant woman like the Santissima Trinidad,
straining serenely windward, all her sails billowing.
In caelo, in caelo I see all these forms surrendering
themselves to my angel posture, clenched fingers
forming four perfect scarp-and-tarns, two thumbs,
the thumb-knuckles pressed up against my lips,
head bowed, knees on the floor of gum and muck
among throstling bodies going down into the floodlit
dark, soaring of fahrenheit, everything burning like
hellfire, beautiful. Bermondsey, Angel, Deptford.
I will rise in this oven's ferocity like bread, leaven.

© Toby Martinez de las Rivas, 2009. Taken from Faber New Poets 2. Used by permission of the author.

In his great book London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd (no relation) describes the city as having a "dark secret life" and adds: "Darkness is of the city's essence; it partakes of its true identity; in a literal sense London is possessed by darkness." Ackroyd is the city's truest biographer that I have encountered so far, because he understands that it is a hidden city and that the shadows are everywhere. Other writers whose descriptions of London have impressed me, such as Christopher Fowler in his unique Bryant and May mysteries, partake of a similar vision. Peter Ackroyd is a champion of psychogeography, or the study of how urban environment can perpetuate patterns of emotion and behaviour in a population, even across generations. To me, this is a very valuable way of looking at London and trying to come to grips with its darkness.
Anyone who has lived long enough in London will have experienced the moments when darkness takes hold and something sweeps through; aggression, madness, or simply grief. I moved to London in July 2005, a few weeks after the 7/7 bombs, and it was in the air, creating an unusual tension behind the matter-of-factness so stoically maintained by Londoners. I recently felt it during the August riots of this year - although I didn't witness any of the riots firsthand, I was not too far away from some affected areas, and I have seldom felt so threatened by the city.
London is a delphic city - it can change with stunning quickness, and it is also ambiguous. Its darkness can be alluring. The Underground is an almost daily nuisance for me, but I still feel a sense of mystery hanging about it; passageways which lead you back to where you began, tunnels that seem permanently unused, the knowledge of lost and abandoned stations. Sometimes it is a fusion of the symbolic and the literal. Anyone who has run up the escalator at Angel - the longest in the Underground system - may recognise that it feels like more than an escalator run; with a name like that and the upward sweep, it suggests transcendence.
The Poems on the Underground campaign has brought poetry to a wider commuting audience, and of course the Underground has inspired its own poetry. Seamus Heaney has written at least a couple of brilliant poems inspired by it. In 'The Underground', he sees himself and his wife as Orpheus and Eurydice: "all attention/For your step following and damned if I look back." In 'District and Circle', partly inspired by a London recently touched by terrorism, he describes "a window mirror-backed/By blasted weeping rock-walls./Flicker-lit." These poems see the Underground as a true underworld.
A few years ago, on the night when mayor Boris Johnson banned drinking on London transport, I felt the darkness sweep through the Underground. Waiting for a Hammersmith and City line train at King's Cross/St Pancras, my friends and I watched one pull up, saw the doors slide open and then heard a howling, moaning din emerge from within and saw what seemed to be every drunk in London screaming with delight, smashing bottles and beating the doors with sticks. We turned tail and headed for the buses, of course. There was nothing funny about this experience. There was something about it that was pure darkness.
The young English poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas (who very kindly gave me permission to reproduce his poem) combines the urban and the medieval in his poems. There is a strong sense everywhere of history and liturgy, creating a mysterious resonance. In 'Man Praying, King's Cross, 34°' I believe that he has also captured the darkness and mystery of London, its events and memories which go both forward and backward in history. Martinez de las Rivas said of this poem that it was inspired precisely by a man on his knees praying in the very middle of King's Cross, surrounded by a tide of people: "I found the stillness and concentration of his posture fascinating and unexpected in that place...In the following days, I began to think of the underground as underworld, and sketched out a sort of localised eschatology where this man's entrance into the underground would be akin to physical death." Once again, the Underground is both more than literal reality, and more than symbol.
The poem is also ambiguous. What is the man praying for? Is it something benign, or something terrible? When he sees "everything burning like/hellfire, beautiful", it is at the very least sinister. There is a sense that the heat could cause madness or violence. Martinez de las Rivas said that this poem was written a year or two before 7/7, and that in retrospect it felt like a "forward memory"; the bombers set out on their short deadly journeys from King's Cross. I also thought of the terrible King's Cross fire of 1987, which killed 31 people. Its cause is still something of a mystery.
The uttering of the station names at the end of this powerful poem - "Bermondsey, Angel, Deptford" - is like ritual words in a prayer or an incantation. London's names and places have a great deal of symbolic power, and like Peter Ackroyd, I suspect that the city's nature is primarily dark.