Wednesday, 17 December 2014

'North Sea' by Sidney Keyes: Looking Eastward




Spiekeroog XXVII by daniel.stark. Used under Creative Commons license


Here, as the end of the year approaches, is a chilly poem about Germany - or, quite possibly, looking across into Germany from England - by Sidney Keyes. I will soon be heading for Germany, and it seemed a wintry poem anyway.

I am sure that in 2015 I will continue to post poems by Sidney Keyes, but you may expect to see a lot by Keith Douglas. He will, rather sadly, be out of copyright then.



NORTH SEA (Sidney Keyes)


The evening thickens. Figures like a frieze
Cross the sea's face, their cold unlifted heads
Disdainful of the wind that pulls their hair.
The brown light lies across the harbour wall.

And eastward looking, eastward wondering
I meet the eyes of Heine's ghost, who saw
His failure in the grey forsaken waves
At Rulenstein one autumn. And between
Rises the shape in more than memory
Of Düsseldorf, the ringing, the river-enfolding
City that brought such sorrow on us both.

                                                           October 1942.

 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Nomination for the 2016 Pushcart Prize



It was great to hear recently from Muse-Pie Press that they had nominated my poem 'Wicklow Mountains After Rain' (which appeared in their short-poem publication Shot Glass Journal) for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.

This follows their nomination, last year, of one of my poems for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. I'm very flattered, and obviously it's once again motivation to get working...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer and Paul Celan at the Royal Academy



In recent weeks I've been reading Paul Celan again. I move in and out of the Celanian moments in my life (when I say "moments", these can last for weeks or months). I don't find it possible to read Celan all the time - I get tired and sad if I go on for too long, though his work can also be very clarifying in the right proportion. I have never been able to forget the comment by Michael Hamburger, one of Celan's most dedicated translators: "From the first my engagement with the work of Celan had been difficult and sporadic. Had it become a full-time occupation and specialisation, it could have driven me into suicide, as it did his friend and interpreter Peter Szondi."

Anyway, I have been reading John Felstiner's wonderful translations, and I have also finally started reading Felstiner's biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. I'm also about to dip (or dive) into Pierre Joris's new translations of Celan's later works, Breathturn into Timestead. But I came back to Celan this time most notably through the Anselm Kiefer exhibition currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, which will end in a few days.

For someone (me) who is mostly drawn to art created one hundred years ago or more, Kiefer's work seemed a bit alien and intimidating. In a post-World War II Germany he created controversial works touching provocatively on Nazi symbolism, and has otherwise explored the threads of German history, its influences, and its own influence on the world. Many of his works are massive in size, overwhelming. My way in, and my main reason for going to the exhibition, was the influence of Paul Celan's works.

Kiefer has many artworks directly inspired by Celan's poems and several of them were in the exhibition. The paintings Margarete and Sulamith, directly inspired by 'Deathfugue', appeared side by side. Next to them, on the wall, was John Felstiner's translation in full of 'Deathfugue' - this translation is particularly famous for how it daringly and effectively weaves lines of the original German in with the English translation. I was glad to see other people reading the poem attentively.


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers


I really loved For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night, among others. One of the "lead book" works, Black Flakes, I also found especially striking:



Anselm Kiefer, Black Flakes. Private collection, c/o Museum Kuppersmuhle fur Moderne Kunst. Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe/copyright Anselm Kiefer



This painting is embedded with an enormous lead book and it features lines from the poem 'Black Flakes', a particularly heart-wrenching poem Celan wrote after the loss of his mother, from which he never recovered.


Autumn bled all away, Mother, snow burned me through:
I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found - oh the summer's breath,
it was like you.
Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.

(translation by John Felstiner)


I find it difficult to write about visual art, and you will find far more thorough reviews of the exhibition elsewhere. But there were a couple of things I thought particularly worth noting.

The size of many of these works is such that it has a very immersive effect. With works such as Black Flakes, I had a feeling that Kiefer had directly transferred the broken, scratchy, beautiful images in his mind directly onto the canvas. I find it very interesting to think about the pictures in others' minds, and I have sometimes asked people to describe how they "see" their consciousness, the mind's eye, the film inside your head, however you want to describe it. Mine is a mix of constant palimpsest film-reels, often with music or with words faintly (or clearly) heard, sometimes with the written words themselves. Perhaps nothing unusual, but I have a feeling that this is different for everyone. These works were so enveloping that I seemed to be seeing behind the artist's eyes. This was an especially fascinating impression because of my feeling that Celan's poems are transferring the images in his mind directly onto the page, in a way that few other poems achieve.

The other thing is that some of Kiefer's works produced a strange aural impression on me. The gallery wasn't empty and it was far from silent in there, but when I looked at some of the canvases, including the Celan works, I seemed to hear a rustling. I don't know why and I wouldn't say it necessarily represented anything, but it is very unusual for me to have aural impressions when I look at works of art. I had a confused feeling that the rustling I "heard" was something to do with the sounds of silence.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

"Blaze Like Meteors": Interstellar and Dylan Thomas



Star Trails Over NASA by Zach Dischner. Used under Creative Commons license


A few days ago I went to see the new film Interstellar. I'm an enthusiast of Christopher Nolan's films (those that I've seen, which isn't all of them - but Inception is one of my favourite films and The Prestige is wonderful).  

Interstellar is a great big space epic with many nods to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with a gentle approach to the human stories within it, which keeps it intimate. Matthew McConaughey was particularly good. I have to admit that the last half-hour lost me a bit. I'm all for metaphysical Hollywood with a philosophical side, but it just got a bit too weird for me in the final stages. I am still not sure if I ever saw 2001 in its entirety; I remember my family watching it on TV many, many years ago when the ending would have been past my bedtime. And although I was partly beguiled and partly horrified by HAL the computer ("I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going"...and then he sings 'Daisy') I don't think the rest of the film fascinated me that much. Anyway, I later asked my parents what actually happened at the end of the film and as I recall, the answer was "Oh, they just sort of go on out into the universe". I have my doubts as to how well anyone in my family handles space films, arty films, or generally films with weird endings.

Interstellar has made it onto this poetry blog because of Dylan Thomas's 'Do not go gentle into that good night', which features prominently in the film.


DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT (Dylan Thomas)


On several occasions in the course of the film, the enigmatic Professor Brand of NASA recites lines from this great poem, and it makes another appearance very near the end. I'm not going to give anything away, but depending on the context, the poem becomes either inspiring or rather ominous. To me, Interstellar was in large part about survival - the survival (or not) of the human race, of course, but also: what makes life worth living? What happens to people when they are forced to survive (as in 'outlive') someone they love? Just how far (morally and/or physically) will humans go to survive?

The onward rush of the poem has always seemed to me both joyful and catastrophic, and at the same time, the villanelle form gives it a circling/returning quality. Rather mysteriously, and along with some of the language of the poem, these qualities make it remarkably suited to the theme of space travel - a hurtling rush to the stars, and a sense of being caught in orbit.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.



Friday, 21 November 2014

My Translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Song'




I translated this French poem by Rainer Maria Rilke some time ago. It isn't a very ambitious translation, but I found it to be such a beautiful poem that I didn't want to mess around with it too much - just be faithful to it (yes, I know it's a poem, not a relationship).

You can find the original French poem after the translation.

(For anyone who might wonder or care, I promise I'm going to get back to my translations of the Rose poems very soon.)



SONG (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from French by Clarissa Aykroyd)


You, to whom I don't confide
my long wakeful nights,
You, who leave me so gently tired,
cradling me to sleep;
You, who hide your sleeplessness from me,
tell me, can we endure
this transcending thirst
without giving in?

Remember how lovers 
are startled by a lie
at the hour of confession.

You alone can enter my pure solitude.
You become all things; you are a murmur
or an airy scent.
Between my arms, the void streams with loss.
It never held you back, and it's surely by that grace
that I hold you forever.



CHANSON


Toi, à qui je ne confie pas
mes longues nuits sans repos,
Toi qui me rends si tendrement las,
me berçant comme un berceau;
Toi qui me caches tes insomnies,
dis, si nous supportions
cette soif qui nous magnifie,
sans abandon?

Car rappelle-toi les amants,
comme le mensonge les surprend
à l’heure des confessions.

Toi seule, tu fais partie de ma solitude pure.
Tu te transformes en tout: tu es ce murmure
ou ce parfum aérien.
Entre mes bras: quel abîme qui s’abreuve de pertes.
Ils ne t’ont point retenue, et c’est grâce à cela, certes,
qu'à jamais je te tiens.



Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Adam Zagajewski's 'Don't Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve': Clinging to Lucidity



Soap Bubble by Mike Haller. Used under Creative Commons license


I've been blogging for more than three years now, which may or may not be longer than expected. One thing is certain: very few things get easier with the passage of time, whatever people may tell you - if you're like me and motivation, momentum and good habits aren't your strong points, anyway.

I have recently been wondering what The Stone and the Star is for and whether it needs to change, whether or not I should continue, whether I should dial back on the Facebook and Twitter aspects and just blog, whether I should concentrate on having 800+ Twitter followers and not worry much about the blog...etc. The fact remains that while sometimes blogging feels more like a chore than like a release, it started all this (whatever "all this" is) and in my mind, the blog still seems to be framed as one of the core points of my creative life. The other social media aspects are more peripheral.

I was reaching for a poem which might articulate some of what I've been thinking about and I came to Adam Zagajewski's 'Don't Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve'.


DON'T ALLOW THE LUCID MOMENT TO DISSOLVE (Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski)


In this poem, the "lucid moment" is about reaching our full potential - "the level of ourselves" and "[t]he stature of a man...notched/high up on a white door". When in conclusion Zagajewski says "On a hard dry substance/you have to engrave the truth", it certainly calls poetry and writing to mind; perhaps also the visual arts, carved like Michelangelo's painful and glorious statues; or music, inscribed on the page and written in sound on air.

Beyond these, so much that is important happens because people hold on to and make a record of lucid moments. The Bible writers and prophets, whether you believe their inspiration was divine or otherwise, certainly saw the crucial necessity of recording the lucid moment. Great scientists, explorers, human rights activists and others have glimpsed and reached for them repeatedly. The "lucid moments" become a kind of ladder, or a series of lights on the roadway ('lucid' comes from the Latin for 'light'). And while blogging about poetry isn't a great deal, it can also be a small way to hold onto and to reach forward with lucidity.



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Long Weekend of Paris and Poetry



Ten days ago I went to Paris for a long weekend. I think it was my sixth visit (between the age of seven and, er, now), but my first in a few years, and Paris is never not worth visiting. I was with a friend from London and we also met up with one of my good friends who lives in the south of France, and one of her Parisian friends. Over the course of four days there was much amazing food, speaking French, wandering and taking photos, a wonderful visit to the Louvre, bookshops, a ramble round the base of the Eiffel Tower (the queue was too long to go up), and more.

There were, of course, poetic moments. I had thought to make a Paul Celan pilgrimage to his grave (in the outskirts of Paris) and maybe his last address on Avenue Emile Zola, and the Pont Mirabeau, but in the end I just wasn't in the mood for the sadness - and I would have been reluctant to drag my friend along. The Celanian pilgrimage is still on my list to do another time, though. But as always, there were the bookshops in St-Michel, especially my favourite, Gibert Jeune. Their 'livres poche' section is to die for. I bought poetry collections by Paul Eluard, René Char and André Breton (after my recent post about liking Spanish poetry more than French poetry...I felt this was a good time to act). I could easily have gone crazy in their poetry section, and I slightly wish I had, but honestly I have more than enough French poetry at home to keep going for a while.

We also went to the lovely Shakespeare & Company, where a pianist played jazz upstairs and we squeezed through the narrow aisles packed with books. I was a little unnerved to see A Cypress Walk, the correspondence between Alun Lewis and Freda Aykroyd (my great-aunt), displayed in the war poetry section. (I still haven't read it....) 



 And there was Walt Whitman, in French, outside the shop...




In the Île de la Cité, I came across Edmond Fleg, who I didn't know. All I have learned so far is that he was a Jewish French writer who wrote much work, including poetry, closely based on the Bible and his Jewish beliefs. I'd like to learn more.



We were staying in Montparnasse, for which my mother had given me a few tips from her student days in the '60s. The hotel was pleasant and there was an amazing crêperie where we feasted a couple of times. Also notable, of course, was the Montparnasse cemetery, across the road from our hotel. We walked through shortly before collecting our bags on the last day to go to Gare du Nord, and I wanted to see Baudelaire's grave. As I craned my neck to find the exact spot, having only a rough idea from the cemetery map, a middle-aged man walked by smoking a little cigar, smiled, and wordlessly gestured at the grave of the Baudelaire family.



And of course, there were many other places and moments with their own poetry. I love Paris. It is a city that wears the darkness lightly.




 Photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jorge Luis Borges and Poetry in Spanish



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


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


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


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

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

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



Tuesday, 14 October 2014

New Poem Published: 'Cairo'



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


A few days ago, Ink Sweat & Tears (who were also kind enough to publish one of my poems a week before, on National Poetry Day) published my poem 'Cairo'. You can read it here: http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=7467

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

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


Sunday, 12 October 2014

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



Susanne Nilsson, Flying at DawnUsed under Creative Commons license


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Thursday, 2 October 2014

National Poetry Day 2014: Remember


Today, 2 October, is National Poetry Day.

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




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

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

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

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

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


EARLIEST MEMORY (Sharon Olds)


REMEMBERING CARRIGSKEEWAUN (Michael Longley)



THE LONG SMALL ROOM (Edward Thomas)


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

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

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

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


Sunday, 28 September 2014

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


D H Lawrence in 1906


BAVARIAN GENTIANS (D H Lawrence)


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

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

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


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

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


Sunday, 14 September 2014

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



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



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

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

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


from AUTUMN JOURNAL (Louis MacNeice)


V

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

Monday, 8 September 2014

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




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


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


THE CITIZENS (Sean O'Brien)


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

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

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


DEDICATION (Czeslaw Milosz)


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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

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



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



WHEN YOU SEE MILLIONS OF THE MOUTHLESS DEAD (Charles Hamilton Sorley)


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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams and Walt Whitman: 'O Me! O Life!'



Robin Williams in Canada, 2004. Photo by Darsie. Used under Creative Commons license



O ME! O LIFE! (Walt Whitman)


Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?


                                       Answer.
That you are here - that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.


By now everyone has heard about the tragic death of actor Robin Williams a couple of days ago. Comic actors are not usually my favourite actors, but nearly everyone loved Robin Williams, and for my generation he was an inevitable part of our lives. The fact that he took his own life feels particularly sad and hard to come to terms with.

In Dead Poets Society, Williams' character John Keating quotes Whitman's 'O Me! O Life!' in part. He prefaces it with one of my favourite quotations about poetry, by anyone: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion."

I first saw Dead Poets Society when I was 13 or 14 (a few years after it first came out) and it made a deep impression. I loved its passion and drama and I feel sure that it sent me at least a small step of the way along the road to becoming a poetry lover. I watched it again recently for the first time in years and I still enjoyed it. Dead Poets Society is often criticised for mixed messages and for a facile view of the humanities, even for being manipulative. The fact is, though, that all art is manipulative in some way, and the messages I got from Dead Poets Society were: love poetry, live life to the full, be an inspiring teacher if that's your vocation. Not bad things.

I like Whitman's poem because anyone can find common ground in it. Regardless of our choices in life, our beliefs, and so on, most of us find life challenging and often sad, most of us are often disappointed in ourselves. Here Whitman says - keep trying, contribute a verse. They are beautiful and helpful words. Many people will be thinking of them this week and wishing that Robin Williams could have found a way.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

P K Page's 'This Heavy Craft': "The Dream of Flight Persists"



Wings of the fallen by Garrette. Used under Creative Commons license



It can be difficult to know what to say about joy in the writer's vocation. The portrait is so often of the artist as tortured, and this is especially so in the case of poets, who are known to have particularly high levels of mental illness. (This phenomenon has been called the 'Sylvia Plath effect'.) Even where writers aren't tortured, there are so many jokes about how a writer will do anything to avoid writing that one really starts to wonder.


THIS HEAVY CRAFT (P K Page)


I remember P K Page reading 'This Heavy Craft' at the one reading of hers I was able to attend years ago in Victoria. Her clear voice made everything beautiful, not that this poem needed to become more beautiful. It is a curiously optimistic vision of a symbolic Icarus who survived the fall, even though "the wax has melted". The poet-as-Icarus pays tribute to the "bird" in her innermost self, her deepest imagination, who "while I'm asleep/unfolds its phantom wings/and practices". Despite the self-deprecating heaviness of the poem's title, and the description of the bird's wings as "phantom", this is optimism indeed. The bird also reminded me of the golden birds of Yeat's 'Sailing to Byzantium' and 'Byzantium', part of the legacy of art which outlasts human impermanence.

While not a wholehearted fan of shape poems, I also couldn't help noticing and enjoying the fact that 'This Heavy Craft' appears on the page in the shape of a feathered wing.


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Poetry Jazz Café, Toronto



When I was in Toronto for a few days last month, my friend and I paid a visit to the Poetry Jazz Café in the eclectic Kensington Market neighbourhood. My friend is a Londoner too (a real one, unlike me) but she lived in Toronto for a while as a student and knows the city very well.



The Poetry Jazz Café is, I think, more jazz than poetry, but they also have spoken word/slam poetry events and a cool bar. For hungry poets, the day's menu featured this:



We very much enjoyed the ambiance, our cocktails and the music, as below. The band was Cruzao, playing jazz with a Cuban twist.





You can read about the inspiration behind the name here. "Poetry comes from sorrow and to be a poet one must be able to feel."


Photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Poetry International 2014: "It's Important That Poets Be Awake In Their Times"




Carolyn Forché giving the Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2014 at Southbank, London. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014


Poetry International, at London's Southbank, ran from Thursday 17 July to Monday 21 July. The festival was founded in 1967 by Ted Hughes and takes place every couple of years - in 2012 it was the amazing Poetry Parnassus.

On Thursday I went to the launch event, which featured the rather astonishing and diverse lineup of Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Anne Michaels (Canada), Kutti Revathi (India), Carolyn Forché (US), Mohammed El Deeb (Egypt), Robert Hass (US) and Ana Blandiana (Romania). Nikola Madzirov opened the reading and I was absolutely thrilled to see him: his collection of selected English translations, Remnants of Another Age, has left lines and images with me that I will never forget. (More on Madzirov in another blog post soon...) For the non-English language poets in this event, the translations were projected overhead while they read in their own language, and I found this worked well - you can absorb the meaning while also experiencing the sensory and emotional power of the original words. Madzirov reads beautifully with a kind of occasional tempo rubato and gestures which form an organic whole with the words. When he read 'Fast Is the Century', he went over to English for the last few (heart-stopping) lines. It was a thrill like a phone call from a country you've never visited.


Fast is the century.
Faster than the word.
If I were dead, everyone would have believed me
when I kept silent.


Anne Michaels read with heartfelt emotion from her Correspondences, which is an elegy for her father as well as remembrances of writers including Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Anna Akhmatova. It made me want to read more. Carolyn Forché was another poet who was really my reason for being at Poetry International and she read with a passion which I found both shy and forceful. Her poems included 'The Lightkeeper', 'The Ghost of Heaven' (about El Salvador, but a poem it took her decades to finally write) and another which I think was new. The other poets were also remarkable: Kutti Revathi read brave poems of the body, El Deeb brought us Arabic rap straight from the heart of the Arab Spring, Robert Hass read a lovely long poem in tribute to his friend Czeslaw Milosz, and Ana Blandiana's poems were both delicate and cutting. Afterwards I was able to meet Carolyn Forché, Nikola Madzirov and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books - all were really gracious and interesting. I knew Nikola and Neil a little already from social media and they both remembered me when I introduced myself, which was very nice.

On Friday I went to the Poetry Translation Centre's event, which was the launch of the anthology My Voice, commemorating the PTC's first ten years. The PTC puts on some of my very favourite poetry events. In terms of diversity and vibrancy, their audiences are second to none. Theirs are the events where I am as likely to find myself sitting next to an Iranian woman or a Somali man as I am to see people as Western, white and middle-class as myself. Their readings really reflect London's communities, and as Sarah Maguire explained, she started the PTC partly because of her passion for poetry from Arabic, Somali and other languages and partly because she wanted to help make people from other cultures feel at home in the UK. The poets reading either originals or translations included Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sudan), Reza Mohammadi (Afghanistan), Jo Shapcott and Mimi Khalvati, among others - an incredibly star-studded and international lineup. Like the anthology, the poems moved "from exile to ecstasy", and the former hit particularly hard - Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's 'Lamps' had me in tears. It was a wonderful event, and the anthology (which I hope to review soon) looks amazing.

During the weekend I went to two events, the first of which was the launch of Modern Poetry In Translation's new issue. MPT was founded by Ted Hughes with Daniel Weissbort and its association with Poetry International has been particularly close on many occasions. We heard German poet Christine Marendon reading poems of nature and introspection including 'Evening Primrose' with translator Ken Cockburn, and Hubert Moore read his translations of the mysterious Iranian poet Bavar Rastin. Again I was there mainly for Nikola Madzirov, who was reading with his translator Peggy Reid. Poems such as 'The Perfection of the Forgotten Ones' suggested to me that his recent work may be even better than previous poems. Afterwards I saw a few poetry acquaintances, including MPT's own Sasha Dugdale, talked with Nikola about how his poetry has become a best-seller in Spanish-speaking countries, and also spoke with Peggy Reid (who, typically for those who know Nikola, prefaced her praise of his wonderful work with "He's such a lovely person".)

My last event was the Poetry Society Annual Lecture, this year by Carolyn Forché on 'The Poet as Witness'. This is, of course, her area of speciality, but I think that many in attendance weren't very familiar with her anthologies, her own poetry, and her championing of the idea of "poetry of witness". Forché is quite a big deal in North America but I have gathered she isn't that well known over here (even in poetry circles). She spoke of the international poetry reading she went to in Libya, in 2012, after the death of the dictator, where "the posters covered up the bullet holes". One of the poems Forché read there was 'The Colonel', probably her most famous poem - she said that she had been reluctant to read it in Libya, as it was about El Salvador, but she later realised that the Libyans had interpreted it as being about their own experiences under Gaddafi. When she read it for us, the auditorium went gradually into an absolute pin-drop silence which was eerie. In poetry of witness, she said, "the mark of experience is burned into the poem, and regardless of content, the mark remains legible." Speaking of the tragic life stories and extraordinary poems of Miklós Radnóti and Georg Trakl, she described "poetry of witness" as more a mode of reading, not of writing - writers don't set out to be poets of witness, but their experiences allow others to find that mark of extreme experiences. This poetry, said Forché, is frequently marked by (among others) characteristics such as: the experience of the self as fragmented; the past as another country; addressing the dead, War and Death as personified figures; and recognition of the failure of language and words. Speaking about her new anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, she described how she had long thought poetry of witness to exist more in non-English traditions, but she found such marks of experience in many, if not most, English-language poets before the twentieth century, and in the war poets and others in the past hundred years. "It's important that poets be awake in their times," she said. I found the lecture very strong and moving, and I think it was particularly a revelation for those who didn't know her work.

So it was a lovely and inspiring few days of poetry events. And also, I got hugs from the finest Macedonian and Sudanese poets of their generations, and that's automatically a good weekend.


Rilke's French Rose Poems in Translation: XV


Here's another French Rose from Rilke, in my translation. Hopefully this means I am on a roll.

I (daringly?) went with "myriad chalice" for "innombrable calice". I know "myriad" can be an adjective, but I'm not sure if I went a step too far in grammatical terms - it just seemed to work well. Thoughts?


THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


XV

Alone, o abundant flower,
you make your own expanse;
you gaze at yourself in a mirror
of scent.

Your fragrance, like more petals,
surrounds your myriad chalice.
I grasp at you - you sprawl,
prodigious actress.



LES ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke)


XV

Seule, ô abondante fleur,
tu crées ton propre espace;
tu te mires dans une glace
d'odeur.

Ton parfum entoure comme d'autres pétales
ton innombrable calice.
Je te retiens, tu t'étales,
prodigieuse actrice.



Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Rilke's French Rose Poems In Translation: XIV



Roses at Milner Gardens, Qualicum Beach, BC. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.




On a very hot summer night in London, here's the latest (and rather appropriate) of my translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Roses poems from the French. The original is also below.


THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)


XIV

Summer: for a few days, to be
a peer of the roses;
to breathe in what encircles
the blossoms of their souls.

To make of each dying one
the closest of friends,
and to outlive that sister
in other roses' absence.



LES ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke)


XIV

Eté: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.

Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidante,
et survivre à cette soeur

en d'autres roses absentes.



Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Poetic Encounters in Victoria, BC



While back for a few weeks' visit to my hometown of Victoria, BC, I stopped in at Russell Books, which is an amazing and iconic used bookstore. It also happens to be where I had one of my first jobs after university, which was pretty good for a book lover without much work experience at the time.

I was searching the poetry section and decided to buy a small bilingual collection of Émile Nelligan's poems, partly because I am planning to try some more translations of his work. (You can read my translation of his 'Soir d'hiver', and some information about Nelligan's sad life, here.) Much to my surprise, when I looked inside the book, I found an inscription by Doug Beardsley. It was inscribed "Montreal, Quebec, at the Hotel Nelligan", and signed with dates both in 2006 and 2009, which added a little to the mystery. He had also made a few notes in the Preface. Doug Beardsley is a Victoria poet who was also an instructor at the University of Victoria until 2006 - and he taught the Canadian Poetry course which proved to be somewhat life-altering for me (both in introducing me to extraordinary Canadian poets, and in helping to open up modern and contemporary poetry to me.) Finding a book inscribed by him at my old workplace was sort of strange and wonderful. 

I also bought Karen Solie's Short Haul Engine, one of her older collections which she wrote while living in Victoria. I've browsed through it but am really looking forward to reading it more in-depth, especially in the light of her brilliant recent work.

Finally, I came across a tidbit in a local Victoria magazine regarding poet Rudyard Kipling. He visited Victoria in 1907 and commented to a reporter for the Times Colonist (which I think was called the Colonist or British Colonist then): "I am going to take a motor drive to see the beauties of the place. But I really don't see why I should move away from here. In Victoria, it is a waste of time to look for beauty. It is always with you."


Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Great Canadian Identity Crisis: Karen Solie's 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'



The South Saskatchewan River at Empress, Alberta. Photo by Emdx


My impending visit home to Canada seems to have brought on one of my bouts of Canadian identity crisis and questioning why exactly I left at all. Canadian identity crises (or simply, THE GREAT CANADIAN IDENTITY CRISIS) are quite complicated. If you are Canadian you will know what I mean, and if you aren't, you won't. But you could try looking up "western alienation" and "the two solitudes", for starters. Those are just two aspects of The Great Canadian Identity Crisis, but they will give you some clues.

Karen Solie is becoming a key Canadian poet at high speed, it seems. Her new Selected Poems, The Living Option, which has been published by Bloodaxe Books specifically for the UK/international market, has been extremely well reviewed. Writing in the London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann said: "Introducing Karen Solie, I would adapt what Joseph Brodsky said some thirty years ago of the great Les Murray: 'It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.' Solie is Canadian [...] and, yes, she is the one by whom the language lives." Not bad at all. I seriously regret not seeing her at Poetry Parnassus, but maybe I'll catch her somewhere else someday.

Solie was recently interviewed for The Poetry Trust's Poetry Paper, along with other poets, about how landscapes and places affect their writing. She is from Saskatchewan and now lives in Ontario. "I've grown to love Toronto," she said. "It's a vibrant, crazy and often very warm city." However, she also lived for a time in my hometown of Victoria, BC, and said: "I had been living in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, writing my English PhD dissertation, when my resources ran out. Despite its beguiling and temperate Pacific character, Victoria requires an iron will from its residents and I did not have it." I have heard all sorts of things said about Victoria, both positive and negative (and I have said some of them myself), but this was a new one on me. I am still so intrigued by it that I sincerely I hope I can ask Solie what she meant, some day.

I have particularly enjoyed this poem of Solie's, 'All That Is Certain Is Night Lasts Longer Than the Day'.


ALL THAT IS CERTAIN IS NIGHT LASTS LONGER THAN THE DAY (Karen Solie)


As a description of changing identity over a lifetime, this poem could hardly be better. Mysteriously, I also feel as though it is about Canada. (Is that "In time you've learned that to behave badly isn't/necessarily to behave out of character"?) This is the self as place and journey, which feels very appropriate for Canadians. I read it and I think about trying to avoid regrets, which is valuable in itself. And the final lines are beautiful:


A mist not unlike it walks the morning streets, comments on
the distinction of Ottawa from Hull, Buda
from Pest, what used to be Estuary from what used to be
Empress and the ferry that once ran between them.


Ottawa is separated from Hull only by a conjunction of rivers, but Ottawa is the country's capital city, in Ontario, and Hull is part of the French-speaking province of Quebec. As for Estuary, it is a ghost town in Saskatchewan close to the tiny village of Empress, Alberta, and the two are also separated by rivers. Understanding the geographical nature of identity: this is really Canadian.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Keith Douglas: "Well, I Am Thinking This May Be My Last Summer..."



British soldiers near Bayeux, Normandy on 11 June 1944. Photo by Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. Used under IWM Non-Commercial Licence


Keith Douglas died 70 years ago today, on 9 June 1944. The fact that this anniversary closely follows that of the D-Day Normandy invasion is of course no coincidence. Douglas had survived the battles of North Africa (including an incident where he stole a truck and against orders drove to the front at El Alamein) and D-Day itself on 6 June 1944, only to be killed by mortar fire near Bayeux a few days later.

After reading Douglas's poems and letters, it feels particularly strange to me that his life just stopped so suddenly. That's especially the impression when looking at the 'Recipients of letters' section of Keith Douglas: The Letters (edited by Desmond Graham, Carcanet, 2000. Any quotations from letters are taken from this volume.) Douglas's mother died in the 1980s, his girlfriends died in the 1990s, but his life (and poems, and letters) just stopped in 1944; and it seems especially strange and sad for one so full of life. He was only 24. The incredibly tragic thing is that countless families had similar experiences of losing children, spouses and others during the World Wars.

I read Douglas's letters a while ago and found myself mostly caught between laughter and a desire to give him a slap. He was not exactly a reliable boyfriend and was engaged in a lot of dramatic on-off relationships. Some of his poems, or earlier drafts, appear in the letters, but he gives relatively little commentary on his actual poetic technique. This is why you will tend to see the same passages quoted on Douglas's approach, including this one: "[M]y object (and I don't give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in a line. [...] I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present" (page 295 of The Letters).

Rather less frequently quoted are comments such as: "I have actually written another poem. Great stuff. I've only shown it to Hamo Sassoon who said 'Ugh! Strange and awkward', and a Canadian who read it without asking and said nothing" (page 68. Hamo Sassoon was Siegfried Sassoon's nephew). As well as being funny, this does provide some insight into Douglas's wry personality, and so do many of the other letters. He was a rather contradictory character, tough and romantic - I suspect this was partly down to genuine complexity, and partly down to being a very young man whose personality was still developing.

Possibly most entertaining of all is the letter he wrote to a girlfriend in which he suggests a comprehensive makeover: "You could look (to use your favourite word), marvellous, if you would only wear the right clothes for your figure and colouring. I would hesitate to tell you in a way because you would be surrounded with boys in no time and forget all about me. [...] In your thin dress you are skinny and unhappy-looking. Go in for checks and autumn sort of woven scarves and you would be the best of yourself, and attractive. [...] Chris don't be offended by all this, but I would love you to look as nice as I know you could" (page 51). In at least one other letter Douglas mentioned an interest in clothing design - as well as art, horses, ballet, water-polo and pretty much anything else you can think of. The existence of Keith 'Colour Me Beautiful' Douglas is perhaps something that has escaped the notice of many enthusiasts of World War II poetry, but he obviously liked girls so much that he wanted them to look good. It all made me laugh and also made me sadder about his early loss. He was already an incredible poet and a talented artist, and he wanted to try everything, if only he'd had the chance. In his last poem, the prophetic 'On a Return from Egypt', he wrote: "...time, time is all I lacked".

Clive James, the Australian broadcaster, critic and poet who has recently talked about his terminal illness, was filmed a few weeks ago reading and discussing Douglas's poem 'Canoe', around the release of the anthology Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. You can watch the video here:



'Canoe' begins: "Well, I am thinking this may be my last summer..." It is a breezy enough opening that you might assume he is just saying goodbye to a summer girlfriend - until you realise that this is yet another of Douglas's many poems about what he saw as his imminent death. Douglas, who often seems consciously light-hearted in his letters, was also very preoccupied with his own end, which may just have been a symptom of those deathly times. He was quite a headstrong young man, though, and one wonders if his fatalism and his expectation that he wouldn't survive may have made him that much more reckless, and that much more likely to lose his life. 'Canoe' is in any case a very touching poem.

Douglas will be out of copyright next year, so I expect to write about and post many of his poems then. It is just like my sadness about Sidney Keyes; both could be alive today if it weren't for the war.