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.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Wordsworth's 'Upon Westminster Bridge': London as Sacred Force of Nature


Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I have lived in London for more than six years and I have come to think of it as the relationship you can't leave. As infuriating, exhausting and frightening as it can be, it is the only city out of the three I have lived in for which I have a grand passion. Many of my fellow Londoners (both those who have adopted it, like me, or those who have lived here for much or all of their lives) agree that it is a city which brings out the best and worst in its inhabitants. London will either be the making of you, or it will shatter you - there is very little middle ground. The variety of experience available here is hard to match. It is the most protean of cities and that is what makes it so exciting.

The cultural life is one of London's biggest draws, and personally I think that it would be difficult to really enjoy life in the city without live music, art, poetry, and other pastimes - the very best available, whatever your preferred genre - on a fairly regular basis. There are other antidotes to the stresses of big city life. I love the parks - there are so many in London and each has its own very distinct character. I have also realised for several years that walking across one of the Thames bridges is a pretty sure cure for a bad day, or it will at least make things a little better. On a good day, it can easily be the highlight. Waterloo Bridge is one of the still points of the turning world: sweeping views west toward Westminster and the London Eye, east toward the glittering towers of commerce and St Paul's in the City. I also love Millenium Bridge, where I had one of my most wonderful London moments before I even moved to the city: Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre to my right, St Paul's to the left, the curve of the Thames and Tower Bridge ahead, and incandescent contrails all across the clear sky.

Wordsworth famously chose Westminster Bridge. I have to admit that Wordsworth has never been one of my favourites - in fact, I had a bit of a dislike for him when I was younger, finding him somewhat twee (or whatever Canadian equivalent I would have used.) My brother used to annoy me by reciting the opening lines of 'It is a Beauteous Evening'. By the time he reached "The holy time is quiet as a Nun," I would probably have thrown something at him. However, I am no longer the ultra-critical teenager I was, and I do recognise Wordsworth as a great Romantic - although I still prefer Keats and Coleridge.

Wordsworth was a master of the pastoral, of course, and what I love in this poem is that he sees the city as a force of nature - which in a sense it truly is - and a beautiful one. I have yet to see London lying under this kind of dawn quiet, and in the 21st century it would be a lot harder to find. The closest I have come is an early morning departure for some airport or other. But even Wordsworth, prophet of the Lake District and some of the most awe-inspiring British landscapes, says "Earth has not anything to show more fair...Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour valley, rock or hill". I am more likely to walk across Waterloo Bridge at dusk than Westminster Bridge at dawn, and I wonder how Wordsworth would have felt about the changes to London over two hundred years. However, this poem still resonates with a sense of the sacred in an urban setting, a moment of transcendent peace in "the mighty heart."

Thursday, 6 October 2011

"Those Mingled Seas": W B Yeats's 'At Algeciras - A Meditation Upon Death'


The heron-billed pale cattle-birds
That feed on some foul parasite
Of the Moroccan flocks and herds
Cross the narrow Straits to light
In the rich midnight of the garden trees
Till the dawn break upon those mingled seas.

Often at evening when a boy
Would I carry to a friend—
Hoping more substantial joy
Did an older mind commend—
Not such as are in Newton’s metaphor,
But actual shells of Rosses’ level shore.

Greater glory in the sun,
An evening chill in the air,
Bid imagination run
Much on the Great Questioner;
What He can question, what if questioned I
Can with a fitting confidence reply.

November 1928

Memory suggests that Yeats was my first favourite poet, or at least the first to hit obsession-level with me. When I looked at my bookshelf in my parents’ house this summer on a visit home, I was surprised at just how many Yeatsian books I’d collected (though that collection was still quite a bit smaller than those for Sherlock Holmes and Arthurian legend). Certainly from something like 18 to 23 he would have held the top spot. I’m not sure what the catalyst was, but a slim old paperback of Selected Poems definitely played a role.

Yeats was Anglo-Irish, and so to a certain extent am I. My time in Dublin felt a bit like a quest for my roots, but what I ultimately discovered was that I wasn’t Irish at all. I love the Irish but don’t feel particularly at home in Ireland. When I was writing about Jonathan Swift (another Anglo-Irishman) a few years ago, I was astonished to discover how closely I identified with his love-hate relationship with Ireland. Yeats had some of that too.

Some experiences are unquestionably a chapter of their own with a definite beginning and end, and my Irish experience falls into that category. I wonder if Yeats may be a part of that closed chapter as well, because he was one of the elements which drew me to Ireland. I no longer consider him my favourite poet – though he still ranks high on my list. Reading him has more past than present significance for me these days, and I also find his self-absorption a little harder to take than I used to. All that said,’s Yeats. I can’t imagine him not being a part of my life, and I have never questioned his poetic genius.

Many of my favourite Yeats poems are the obvious: ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Easter 1916’. Then there are the less obvious choices: ‘High Talk’, ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, ‘Meru’, and also ‘At Algeciras’.

Yeats’s poems are highly personal and normally demand some knowledge of his life. When Yeats wrote ‘At Algeciras’ he had been very ill and had come close to dying. The first stanza, while describing a beautiful vision of transcendent light and herons in the Spanish gardens, also suggests the ever-present nearness of death. Only the “narrow Straits” lie between life and death. In the second stanza, Yeats remembers the seashore of his childhood. Rosses Point, near Sligo in the west of Ireland, is a very different landscape from Algeciras. However, the seashore is the same all over the world in that it inspires reflection and brings back visceral memories for those who grew up nearby. Every seashore that I’ve visited has been different, but all are familiar. All tend to inspire a sense of my own smallness, but also of freedom.

I particularly love the last stanza. Uniquely, Yeats sees God as the “Great Questioner” and asks himself “what if questioned I/Can with a fitting confidence reply.” The approach of death leads people to meditate on their lives and accomplishments, but Yeats seems to be acknowledging the role of personal responsibility as well, and the concept of answering to someone greater than himself. He had already published a collection titled Responsibilities which opens with the epigraph ”In dreams begin responsilbility”, from an “Old Play”.

It is worth mentioning that today is National Poetry Day in the UK – although, of course, every day should be Poetry Day.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Sharper Lens

The tear, half,
the sharper lens, movable,
brings the images home to you.

-'An Eye, Open' (Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger)

Perhaps it's the ubiquitousness of blogging in the 21st century; perhaps it's the fact that I can't stop posting poetry quotations on Facebook; or the fact that I simply don't write enough these days; but the idea occurred to me some time ago that I would like to start a blog to post some of my favourite poems (written by others, not least at this point) and to share my ideas about them. As Sherlock Holmes once (or possibly more than once) said: "We can but try - the motto of the firm."

I am open to suggestions, of course. I may at some point post some of my own poetry, but have concerns about copyright (more about that later) and would like to try to 'publish' some of my poems before choosing to 'self-publish.' I imagine that I might not stick rigidly to the poem/discussion format, but I also imagine that poetry will be the central theme.

I don't remember reading much poetry as a child, and thus am still a bit lost when it comes to the world of children's poetry, although there is some marvellous work out there, and my current job demands that I look at it on a fairly regular basis. This has been an education in itself; but my "eureka" moments regarding poetry, and especially modern poetry, came mainly during my studies at university. A modern British poetry class was especially good, introducing me to the likes of Vernon Watkins and Louis Macneice, among many others. A cynical attempt to dash off my Canadian literature requirement in the minimum amount of time possible led me to a summer course in Canadian poetry and the delights of P K Page, Al Purdy - who came and spoke to my class and filled the room with his humorous and overwhelming presence - Irving Layton, and others. W B Yeats was one of the many people, living or dead, who led me to live in Ireland for a few years. Now in London, I have an embarrassment of riches at my doorstep where poetry is concerned. Again, the living and the dead are both abundantly represented.

I do have one outstanding concern: the issue of copyright. I'm likely to post some work by poets who are out of copyright (more than 70 years dead) and will probably start with a couple of those. However...most of the poets whose work I particularly love have not been dead for more than 70 years, or are still with us. And though I know that most people merrily post away where copyrighted work is concerned, I'm not entirely happy with that. This may mean dashing off emails to various publishers ask if I can please please please post a particular poem, but I can't help wondering if I'm going to make myself look like an idiot in the process. I suppose it might provide a bright spot in the Rights department's day: "Can you believe this? This dear sweet over-honest poetry lover asked if she can use this poem in her blog... If only she hadn't I have to say no." Well, I will cross that bridge when I come to it, probably after a bit of Yeats and Hardy to start out.

Enjoy, comment, suggest, and above all, please seek out more work by these poets. If I recommend them, obviously they are well worth reading...