Monday, 28 January 2013
Tonight I thought I would do something a little out of the ordinary and find a poem about London that wasn't somehow about gloom, dreadful night, loneliness, anxiety, and other such dark poetic truths. (Although this is really just part of my ongoing procrastination exercise in putting off some entries that I really NEED to write.)
Anyway, the Mark Ford London: A History In Verse anthology provided me with this entertaining piece, 'A New Song of the Spring Garden' by Austin Dobson (1840-1921). The Spring Gardens or Vauxhall Gardens, at Vauxhall and Kennington, were once one of the wonders of London from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries. (As they closed in 1859, the poet's dates make me think that he was harking back to a past time already and invoking an earlier style.) The architecture was Rococo and there were hot air balloon ascents, musicians, fireworks, and a great many people flirting. The above illustration shows the area, and the extent of its magnificence, in the 1750s.
It is very hard to imagine all of this today. I know the area around Vauxhall bus station well - since I moved to south London I have spent a lot of time there, on my way to and from different parts of my life: work, worship, walks along the Thames. When about two weeks ago a helicopter struck a crane and plummeted to the ground at Vauxhall, killing the pilot and one man on the ground, the shock was greater because I consider it one of my neighbourhoods and could picture everything too easily - I was in bed when the accident happened, but it really is little more than "down the road", and at least one friend of a friend was there when it happened.
At any rate, all that is left of the Spring Gardens is a very scrubby little park, overlooked by trains, council flats and MI6. There is a small city farm there and sometimes I've walked past little girls taking riding lessons, which is a pleasant thing to see in the middle of London. But it's hardly the world of this poem. Although, Vauxhall is now quite renowned for its raucous nightclubs - the poem's content does suggest that this is a tradition that may have started some time ago.
Oh, and I have no idea what a "cit" is. Anyone?
A NEW SONG OF THE SPRING GARDEN (Austin Dobson)
Come hither ye gallants, come hither ye maids,
To the trim gravelled walks, to shady arcades.
Come hither, come hither, the nightingales call; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall! Vauxhall!
Come hither, ye cits, from your Lothbury hives!
Come hither, ye husbands, and look to your wives!
For the sparks are as thick as the leaves in the Mall; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall! Vauxhall!
Here the 'prentice from Aldgate may ogle a Toast!
Here his Worship must elbow the knight of the post!
For the wicket is free to the great and the small; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall! Vauxhall!
Here Betty may flaunt in her mistress's sack!
Here Trip wear his master's brocade on his back!
Here a hussy may ride, and a rogue take the wall; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall! Vauxhall!
Here Beauty may grant, here Valour may ask!
Here the plainest may pass for a Belle (in a mask!)
Here a domino covers the short and the tall; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall! Vauxhall!
'Tis a type of the world, with its drums and its din;
'Tis a type of the world, for when you come in
You are loth to go out; like the world 'tis a ball; -
Sing Tantarara, - Vauxhall, Vauxhall!
Monday, 21 January 2013
Frost photo © David Stevens. Used by permission.
It has been snowing in London, and around the UK, on and off for a few days now. Yesterday I watched flakes pouring past my window for hours on end. (I wasn't feeling well and other commitments had already been scuppered, so I wasn't about to actually go out in it.) There is likely to be more on the way, here or elsewhere, and with more snow will come more of the disruption that visits a country which seems utterly unprepared for snow but still gets it on a semi-regular basis.
Anyway, with the coming of the cold came thoughts about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'. It is one of my favourite poems by a Romantic poet - perhaps simply one of my favourite poems - and has attached itself to my life in various ways over the years. Recently it took on a little more significance after I saw the cottage where Coleridge wrote the poem, in Somerset, which I wrote about here.
It also reminds me of one of the first English classes I took at university. I was young, only seventeen (which seems even younger to me now) and it was a second-year class, so most of the students were at least two or three years older than me. I remember feeling nervous for the first while and hoping I wasn't going to get told I didn't belong there (a fear I occasionally experience when I feel out of my depth.) However, I also remember the kindness of the professor, whose name now escapes me (only my terrible memory is to blame) but who was from Northern Ireland, I think. His demeanour made it easier to ease into an unfamiliar environment. When I asked about the image of the "film which fluttered on the grate", which told me very little, he explained that this was a vestige of a bygone age and that it was the soot in the fireplace, which was also supposed to be the omen of the coming of a stranger. Strange how I remember that, when other details of studying the poem have gone.
'Frost at Midnight' is, to me, purely poetic in an unselfconscious way. "The Frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind" and "the trances of the blast" have a perfection about them that I have found equalled almost nowhere else in poetry, of any era. Coleridge's focus on his sleeping child, and his hope that the child will perceive in nature the "eternal language" of God, are also deeply moving.
Here, then, is the poem:
FROST AT MIDNIGHT (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
Thursday, 17 January 2013
As I'm still feeling a bit preoccupied with all things T S Eliot Prize-related, I thought I might post an entry or two or three on poems or collections from past years which made a particularly strong impression on me. I'm not good on detail, so it's often the case that I remember more of an impression or a feeling from such an event, rather than specific poems or moments. If I do remember a moment vividly, it was something powerful.
I realised that Robin Robertson (who I am not obsessed with!!) has been responsible for a couple of these moments in my personal T S Eliot Prize history. One was at the 2006/2007 readings, when he was nominated for Swithering. I remember being quite taken by the long poem on Actaeon and Diana which he read; the rather bleak Scots accent, and the poem's lines cutting like knives.
Even more impressive was hearing Robertson read 'At Roane Head', at the 2010/2011 readings in the Royal Festival Hall. This poem had already won the 2009 Forward Prize for best single poem, which is a great honour. It also formed part of his T S Eliot Prize-nominated collection The Wrecking Light.
I won't describe the poem, particularly: it is self-explanatory when you read it. It would probably suffice to say that it is mythic, unpleasant, and unforgettable. The imagery, as is often the case with Robertson's poems, is taut and sharp: many cutting, percussive words which interweave into something flowing, like the drag of pebbles on a seashore.
What I remember is the extreme, tense silence in the Royal Festival Hall as he read the final lines unhurriedly, almost flatly. It was a silence so complete, in a hall full of people, that it was slightly frightening.
You can read 'At Roane Head' on this link:
AT ROANE HEAD (Robin Robertson)
And this is a video of Robertson reading the poem:
Monday, 14 January 2013
On Sunday night, I attended the T S Eliot Prize readings for the best 2012 poetry collection, at the Royal Festival Hall on London's Southbank. Apparently there were over 2000 in attendance.
I thought that this year's lineup was exceptional, and I will write more about that, and about the evening. First, though, I started to reflect on my own history (such as it is) with the T S Eliot Prize. It turns out that I have now attended the readings five times, in my seven and a half years in London. This will be the twentieth time that the prize has been awarded.
The first two readings which I attended were in 2007 and 2008, and they were still at the Bloomsbury Theatre, which meant that attendance would have been around 500. Three years ago, the T S Eliot Prize took an enormous leap forward when it took over the Royal Festival Hall for the readings, and (so far) they have been there ever since. I'm not sure what happened in the interim; poetry became much more fashionable, or the 2011 reading with Seamus Heaney in attendance gave the event a big push...or something. I have mixed feelings about the change. Basically it is a wonderful thing for poetry, but those first two times at the Bloomsbury felt like something truly unique and special, as though I'd been admitted to an exclusive club. (I realise that saying this won't help with the niche/ivory tower reputation of poetry consumption, but it's still true.) This was even though at the time I didn't quite realise how significant the T S Eliot Prize was. Many consider it to be the world's most important poetry prize.
My first T S Eliot Prize reading was in January 2007, for the 2006 collections. This was the year that Seamus Heaney won for District and Circle, but sadly he couldn't be in attendance as he had just suffered a minor stroke. I remember being quite disappointed by that (and worried!), but I have since managed to see him read three times; once when his collection Human Chain was released, once for the 2010 prize (when he was beaten by Derek Walcott's White Egrets, one of my favourite collections by anyone ever), and once at Poetry Parnassus in 2012.
I certainly have a few piercing memories of the evening, though, one of which is of Sean O'Brien reading Eliot's 'Marina' ("What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands..."). I wasn't very familiar with the poem at the time and it has since become one of my favourite poems. I will never forget that moment. It was either the same year or the following year, also at the Bloomsbury, that I realised that Valerie Eliot (T S Eliot's widow) was sitting in the row right behind me. I managed to not to stare at her like a ninny, but I definitely quivered a bit.
Last year I felt that the event was dominated by the controversy over Aurum's sponsorship of the prize, and I didn't think that the list of nominees was so outstanding. At least, the readings didn't make as much of an impression on me as they sometimes have. My personal choice for the winner would have been David Harsent for Night - I find his work quite amazing - but the winner was John Burnside. It was a good shortlist, but perhaps not great.
This year, however, the lineup wasn't just outstanding - it was really exceptional, perhaps the best I have experienced. (Although I hesitate to say that when two years ago both Heaney and Walcott were on the list.) I was already familiar with a few of the collections, but a few more in particular were revelations to me in the course of the evening.
Carol Ann Duffy introduced the readings, and as is traditional, she read a poem by Eliot. It was at this point that she paid tribute to Valerie Eliot, who died a few months ago, and who did so much for the Prize, and for Eliot's legacy and poetry in general. The poem chosen was 'Dedication To My Wife', most appropriately, and it was a very moving moment.
The host was poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, who to me always seems just on the verge of losing the plot and then turns out to be terribly funny after all. I particularly enjoyed "I realised that I'm wearing the same shirt as I did at last year's readings, but I've changed my trousers. And that's like modern poetry. Continuity and change," as well as his comment that the readings from each poet would last about eight minutes "and they'll feel like longer, but in a good way."
The shortlist was as follows:
Gillian Clarke - Ice
Sean Borodale - Bee Journal
Julia Copus - The World's Two Smallest Humans
Jorie Graham - PLACE
Simon Armitage - The Death of King Arthur
Kathleen Jamie - The Overhaul
Jacob Polley - The Havocs
Deryn Rees-Jones - Burying the Wren
Paul Farley - The Dark Film
Sharon Olds - Stag's Leap
In brief: Gillian Clarke's images of snow and cold and myth build instant and complex ice palaces in my mind. Sean Borodale's bee poems (these seem to be fashionable in recent years) were tasty and evocative and he also had pretty great cheekbones. Julia Copus read a poem about her brothers which just about had me in tears. Jorie Graham couldn't be present to read but her publisher did a very credible job with her long lines and amazing stream-of-consciousness - at the end of 'Lull', I felt as though I'd been hypnotized and was waiting to be woken with a snap of the fingers. Simon Armitage gave a forceful reading of his adopted Arthurian tale, as well as a great argument for its modern relevance. Kathleen Jamie's nature poems, especially her small charming flower poem, were pretty much flawless. Jacob Polley gained the only spontaneous applause of the evening for the creepy 'Langley Lane' and I think he may have been the people's choice. Deryn Rees-Jones read her long and disturbing 'Dogwoman' sequence with incredible conviction and cumulative force. Paul Farley was fascinating and funny - I especially love 'Google Earth', and the poem about the Queen got the biggest laugh. Finally, Sharon Olds had everyone dumbstruck with the honesty and precision of her poems about divorce.
I managed to get several books signed afterwards, which was great. Chatting with Simon Armitage about Arthuriana was lovely. Paul Farley was definitely a bit hammered by the time I got to him, and thanked me with intense sincerity for coming. I said jokingly "you must be a bit tired of signing all these books." He looked me straight in the eye: "NO! NO, I AM NOT TIRED OF IT." I then realised that, a bit ominously, he had signed my copy "Clarissa's best love to Paul Farley" (at least I think that's what it says.)
I also bumped into George Szirtes and his wife Clarissa (yes!) - it was great to see them again so soon after George's reading in London in December, and to chat briefly. I'm sure I must have walked past a few dozen (if not a few hundred) well-known poets and bloggers, but I definitely recognised Daljit Nagra. And when I was getting my books signed, I realised that I was standing ten feet from Robin Robertson. I have had a creepy fascination with Robin Robertson ever since I worked for the publishing house where he is an editor, and our paths do seem to cross with mysterious regularity. (Stalker!)
As this post goes to press (or whatever), it has been announced that Sharon Olds is this year's winner. I'm very happy to hear it - she was probably my first choice. But honestly, on a list that strong pretty much anyone could have won and there could have been few complaints. I'm hoping for another T S Eliot Prize as impressive in a year's time.
Friday, 11 January 2013
"He looks on English things impatiently, but also as a lover might look upon his beloved for the last time. He seems always conscious that a world is coming to an end, though he never says so, it is his tone and it is the tone of his poems; which has taken us fifty years to hear." (P J Kavanagh)
"He is the father of us all." (Ted Hughes)
Last night I went to see The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, a play at Islington's Almeida Theatre about World War I poet Edward Thomas (Pip Carter), his great friends and poets Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley) and Eleanor Farjeon (Pandora Colin), and his wife Helen Thomas (Hattie Morahan). It was written by Nick Dear and directed by Richard Eyre. The play is just ending its world premiere run in London, and it has been extremely well reviewed. I found it to be one of the most powerful and moving plays I have seen in the last few years.
I think the first poem I read by Thomas was probably 'Rain', and probably some years ago. While beautifully written, it remains one of the most suicidally depressing poems I have ever read, and it didn't exactly encourage me to read on in his body of work. However, his name is one which recurs the more you delve into English and British poetry. Witness the quotation from Ted Hughes, above. Many great poets, including the likes of Dylan Thomas, Auden, and Heaney, cite him as an enormous influence, or even a catalyst for their own writing. At the same time, he is not exactly a household name, although I think he is now being studied for GCSEs or A-levels (unfortunately, this may not endear him to a future generation of young readers.)
I booked my ticket for The Dark Earth and the Light Sky several weeks ago, when I realised that it was a) about poetry and poets, and b) was likely to sell out because of how well it has been received and because the Almeida is a small theatre. I gradually, started reading a few more of his poems, and discovered that my initial impressions of him were very limited and rather inaccurate. I had seen him as a poet very much of his time, and mainly pastoral. (I also knew that while he was considered a "war poet", and he died in the war, his poems weren't mostly about the war.)
What I found when I actually bothered to read the poems properly was that Thomas was indeed heavily influenced by the pastoral, and in many ways his language was of its time. However, the shifting perspectives and emotions, the dreamlike blurring of times and places - these are all very modern, very powerful, and sometimes rather shocking. You may start reading one of his poems thinking that it's a nice but slightly depressing piece about the countryside; only to end up gasping for breath, sucker punched by a daring but accurate emotional shift, or a perceptive leap which you would never have thought of but which rings entirely true.
The words "extreme vision" came into my mind when I read some of his poems. He pushes the possibilities of what I would call the "alternative seeing" that poets possess, to their uttermost limits. English poet and critic John Lehmann called it an "intensity of vision" which outstripped that of most of his contemporaries. He chose to write with a vocabulary and apparatus of maps and places. Robert Macfarlane wrote: "To Thomas, paths connected real places but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self. These traverses - between the conceptual, the spectral and the personal - occur often without signage in his writing, and are among its most characteristic events."
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky also employed shifting perspectives. We don't hear much of Thomas's own interior dialogue, except when he addresses the mysterious "other man" who seems to have governed some of his most important decisions. We see Thomas through the eyes of his passionate wife Helen, who loved him unconditionally and was nearly destroyed by the coldness and animosity which were part of his ongoing depression. These scenes were often painful to watch, as was the confrontation between Helen Thomas and Robert Frost, who felt that Helen had betrayed her husband's memory in her frank memoirs. Frost mainly saw Thomas as a remarkable poetic talent, but also reflected on his depression and said: "He didn't want to die, but he didn't want to not die." The shape of their friendship was carefully depicted in only a relatively small number of scenes. I was astonished by how much of the play involved discussion of the craft of poetry. Thomas, consumed by self-loathing, was convinced he couldn't write; Frost encouraged him by pointing to his remarkable nascent talent, and describing poetry as essential, more important than the patriotism engendered by the war, "a momentary stay against confusion." Meanwhile, Eleanor Farjeon nursed an unrequited (?) crush on Thomas and delighted the audience with her vivacity. The interactions between these individuals and Thomas, and their direct addresses to the audience about the man they knew, build up a more complete, rounded picture of a poet who still remains elusive in many ways.
Thomas constantly looked back to pre-industrial times, and found himself trapped between a desire for the pastoral ("I remember when there was lavender on Lavender Hill," he says to his uncomprehending father) and a drive to become engaged with the real world, to prove himself worthy of England, to become "a conscious Englishman." This was what led him to enlist, at least in part. The scene where Helen and Eleanor go through Thomas's effects after his death at Arras in 1917 had me and, I think, much of the audience in tears.
The staging was very bare, but effective. One of the reviews I read suggested that in many respects this was a play that shouldn't have worked particularly well, certainly in structural terms, but worked extraordinarily well.
At the end of the play, Thomas steps forward and speaks this poem.
LIGHTS OUT (Edward Thomas)
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
Sunday, 6 January 2013
At the end of December a friend and I spent a few days in the West Country - mainly Devon, with a quick foray into Cornwall and Somerset. Reports that Devon was an entirely underwater county proved to be more or less unfounded, and although there was definitely quite a lot of rain, there were also many sunny intervals. Most importantly, Dartmoor featured some satisfyingly foggy moments.
Dartmoor has probably been on my must-visit list ever since I read Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (a long time ago) and the only slightly less-known story 'Silver Blaze', both of which feature a fairly well-known detective named Sherlock Holmes. I would be at least mildly interested in visiting almost every place I have ever come across in a book; even if they are not terribly exciting places in themselves, the literary associations will add and add and add to them. If the place is beautiful and wonderful in itself, though, few things could be more wonderful.
Approaching Dartmoor by train with Sir Henry, Dr Watson describes what he sees in vivid terms: "Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a gray, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream." Later, as they approach Baskerville Hall by carriage:
We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. (from The Hound of the Baskervilles)
My friend, less enthused by Holmesiana than I am and a little tired of driving, still drove me obligingly all over the moor, and the above descriptions were exactly what I found. At one point we plunged into a cloud; later, in a moment of madness, I braved the wind and rain and ran up the eerie and beautiful Haytor. Here is a picture:
I was struck by how utterly vast Dartmoor seemed. Its skies were wider than I imagined; maybe it's partly that TV screens make it small, but I felt that I had to go there to really understand. Although we did not drive all around its edge, I had a very strange feeling that the moor was larger inside its boundaries than ordinary physical dimensions would permit, and that I had passed into a place which was utterly detached from the soft and lovely countryside around it.
On a more poetic note, the West Country held more poetry associations than I had imagined. In Lynmouth, we found Shelley's Hotel, although this may or may not have been the exact building where Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young bride stayed during their honeymoon. I was even more fascinated by the Coleridge associations. We had lunch in Porlock, a beautiful town on the north coast which yielded a sinister Person from Porlock, who disturbed the drugged-up and dream-haunted Samuel Taylor Coleridge and prevented him from giving us the fullest possible account of 'Kubla Khan'. Near the Quantock Hills, we stopped briefly at the Coleridge Cottage, where he wrote 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', among others. Here is a picture:
We based ourselves in a flat kindly lent by a colleague, in a very small town called Hatherleigh. I discovered that this was the birthplace (or at least place of baptism) of Jasper Mayne, a clergyman, translator and poet who lived in the seventeenth century. This rather fascinating poem, 'Time', is his:
TIME (Jasper Mayne)