Monday, 25 November 2013

Miklós Radnóti: 'Letter To My Wife' - Poetry of Witness From the Grave

The poetry of Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944) is so beautiful, so pure and devastating, that it could take the breath from your lungs or break your heart. The poems and the story behind them are, in terms of "poetry of witness", the ultimate voice of the voiceless and murdered, crying from the ground.

He was a Hungarian Jewish poet who during his life struggled against the obstacles placed in his way due to his ethnic background. Radnóti worked as a translator and tutor, and wrote poetry which received little attention in his lifetime. His passion for his wife Fanni is evident from his poems. In 1943 he converted to Catholicism, but this of course made no difference to how he was viewed as a Jew.

Radnóti was made to serve hard labour in the 1940s, until he was eventually shot on a forced march, already in a weakened condition. After the war, his body and those of others were exhumed from a mass grave. In his overcoat, there was a small notebook which contained his final poems. They are now considered some of the finest Hungarian poetry, and world poetry, ever written. Only someone quite remarkable, both in talent and in spirit, could have written such poems in very extreme circumstances, knowing that he was probably facing death.

It is a good time to read Radnóti's poems, if "good" is the right word. In the past ten days or so, a photo appeared on the internet which showed his poems being burned by neo-fascist extremists in Hungary. A statue commemorating the place of his death was also driven into and destroyed. The latter incident may have been an accident, though the circumstances are unclear, but the book-burning certainly wasn't.

I think it's important for these incidents not to go unnoticed, and such happenings in Hungary and elsewhere are not receiving a great deal of media attention. You can read other articles at Melville House and at The Missing Slate. I first heard about this from Hungarian-born British poet and translator George Szirtes, whose excellent blog often draws attention to Hungarian issues.

Here, finally, is one of the poems, 'Letter to my wife' - one of those final poems and beloved by many. It is impossible to read this without being deeply moved. It is incredible on a purely aesthetic basis, as poetry, and it is a testimony which should be listened to.

LETTER TO MY WIFE (Miklós Radnóti, translated by Stephen Capus)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Saison Poetry Library Open Day: Poetry in Performance

With permission of The Saison Poetry Library

A week ago I went to this year's Open Day for the Saison Poetry Library at London's Southbank.

The theme was Poetry in Performance, and the organisers brought together some fascinating strands of that theme: not just the concept of poetry readings, but permutations such as poetry as music (focusing on the work of Leonard Cohen), historic recordings of Tennyson and Browning (here referred to as "The Victorians: Those Gods of Slam"), automatic writing, books and poetry as art, actors reading poems...the list goes on.

The displays made a great space for browsing, leafing, listening and enjoying. I signed the Seamus Heaney book of condolences, pored over a wonderful-looking long poem from 1981 called Fox Running by Ken Smith, and marvelled at the very crackly recording of Tennyson reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Although no recordings of Gerard Manley Hopkins were ever made, librarian Chris McCabe pointed out in his writeup: "Hopkins' art was led by his instinct and an inversely atavistic desire to listen to what poetry from the future might sound like. Through listening to himself he was expressing all that he strongly felt that poetry could be." In the section on Comedian Poets, digital co-ordinator Chrissy Williams noted: "It's often prompted by deliberately boisterous or comical performers, but we've heard distinguished poet Geoffrey Hill's banter between poems drawing hearty laughter in the past."

There was also a very interesting section on the ghazal, the great Persian/Arabic/Indian form, which has arrived in the West through writers such as Adrienne Rich, W S Merwin, Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati, and stayed closer to its origins in the work of the great twentieth-century Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Finally, I saw collections and books which pushed the poetry-as-visual-art to its utmost limits, bringing in daring reflections on censorship and design.

In the evening, there were readings by Claire Crowther, Charlotte Higgins and Linus Slug: Insect Librarian, all of which were adventurous with the poetry-in-performance concept, whether sonically, or in terms of theme or style.

I'm already looking forward to next year's Open Day. Here are a few photos:


Ron King, ‘Alphabeta Concertina’ (Circle Press, 2007), with permission of The Saison Poetry Library

Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck, ‘Dust to Dust’ (Ambeck, 2012), with permission of The Saison Poetry Library

With permission of The Saison Poetry Library

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Arabic Literature (in English): Translating Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Last week I went to one of the Poetry Translation Centre's collaborative translation workshops, where we translated one of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's mesmerizing, labyrinthine poems - with the poet himself present.

I wrote about the experience for M Lynx Qualey's blog Arabic Literature (in English), which is known to be an absolutely essential resource for people interested in just that. If you click on the "poetry" tag, it will bring up a wealth of interesting stories about the translation of Arabic-language poetry.

You can read my writeup about the workshop here:

Here's a excerpt:

"The translator who had produced the literal English version, Samuel Wilder, had selected a sequence of poems from which Saddiq had deduced that he was a) a bit of a romantic and b) possibly interested in Sufism, which is a huge influence on Sudanese poetry and was especially evident in these poems. The other poems were shorter, had charming details about butterflies, and while also complex were probably a little more straightforward. So, naturally, the group chose to go for the long, extremely difficult poem…"

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Moose': Nature, Childhood and Memory

Cow Moose Drinking From Pond, Alaska. Used under Creative Commons license

By most reckonings, Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet (and a great one), but she spent some of her early childhood in New Scotia and described her ancestry as "three-quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander". The influence of such early memories can be enormous. This poem, 'The Moose', seems to me an especially strong evocation of Canada and the natural world, and of certain aspects of childhood.

THE MOOSE (Elizabeth Bishop)

I have never been to Canada's Maritime provinces, including those described in this poem, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The farthest east I have been is, I think, the town of Montmagny in Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence River east of Quebec City. Strangely, some of the poem's initial details seem more reminiscent of the Nordic countries, to me: the herring, the "clapboard farmhouses" and "twin silver birches". The "impenetrable wood" of New Brunswick is more familiar - there's a lot of that, all over Canada.

The coach-trip nature of the poem is quintessentially North American. The lines are quite short and there is a flick/flick/flick effect to many of the images:

One stop at Bass River.   
Then the Economies—
Lower, Middle, Upper;  
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth  
out after supper.

I have remembered, since childhood, catching glimpses of certain people and places on car, bus or train journeys and thinking: what is their life like, what is that place like? That person who I've just flicked past has a life and thoughts as full and complex as mine. These thoughts have always been a bit overwhelming, and usually not to be clung to for too long.

There is a blurring of place here which is both reassuring and disorienting. The child overhears her grandparents "talking the way they talked/in the old featherbed", which has a lulling effect (she doesn't fully understand the seriousness of the conversation, so it remains reassuring): she could be back at home, not on the bus. But the sudden appearance of the moose, while beautiful, is also jarring.

The moose is a reminder that nature will intrude anywhere it wants to; so far, the passengers have been cocooned in the bus, observing the natural world but not participating it, even able to imagine, half-asleep, that they're at home. The moose is enormous, ugly and beautiful at the same time, and it stops the bus. This poem is certainly a tribute to the animal world and to the Maritime provinces, but it seems to me that the moose could also represent the anarchic nature of artistic inspiration - or more broadly, it is the kind of event which is uncontrollable and which sets more things in motion than are evident at the time.

Bishop reportedly said that it took her 20 years to finish this poem. Childhood memories can sometimes be incomprehensibly enormous - like the moose. You never know what you will remember, and what you will forget. I have memories from the age of five, at least, which are extremely vivid, and it is not unusual for them to involve animals and the natural world. Other memories - which, when reminded of, I think I should have remembered - seem to have gotten lost, or at least buried.

In an unrelated-yet-related way, I realised the other day that I still remembered the Finnish word for moose - hirvi. Why I should remember this, when I either never knew or have long forgotten other (probably more useful) words, is beyond me. It's certainly true that a lot of my meager Finnish is child-Finnish - a lot of animal words, and food words. There's more there than I give credit for, I suppose.

The moose/hirvi thought may have been triggered by looking at some photos of the animal sculptures of Jussi Mäntynen, which for some other inexplicable reason I was doing recently. They are as beautiful and touching as I remembered. The art gallery in Turku features a small room containing many of his pieces. There was always something magical about it, for me. It was like an animal treasure house.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

John Peck's 'A Twenty-Fourth Poem About Horses': "Ambassador From the Eldest Kingdom..."

Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Escuestre, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

Horses are one of my long/longer/longest obsessions, one which sometimes goes nearly dormant, but which has been with me more than twenty-five years and will certainly never go away entirely. It's certainly in resurgence at the moment - I've done particularly well in the last few years, with visits to the Royal School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain; Royal Ascot, and both Olympic and Paralympic dressage last year; a long overdue visit to the famous Olympia show coming up in December (where I will see my friends from Jerez again), and so on.


I came across this lovely and powerful horse poem very recently. The title and epigraph make reference to the ninth/tenth-century Chinese poet Li Ho, whose twenty-three poems on horses I have yet to read.

Curiously, 'A Twenty-fourth Poem About Horses' reminded me of Archibald MacLeish's 'You, Andrew Marvell'. This has something to do with the forward momentum and rush of the poem, along with references to the rise and fall of great empires. Here, the horse is a physical presence both calm and violent, a metaphor for human endeavour, for accomplishments and atrocities. I think that there is a realisation that the role of the horse in history has not been fully acknowledged or explained, and that people make unwise assumptions about the survival of species both animal and human, and about what they should do with the powers that they so blithely and unthinkingly harness.