Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poems for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Auschwitz - Camp after liberation (www.auschwitz.org)

27 January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is 70 years today since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Commemoration events planned this year are particularly extensive, as 70 years is one of the last major anniversaries when a significant number of survivors may still be alive. I think that this may also be considered a potentially dangerous tipping point, when the events of the war become a really distant memory and newer generations may be less and less interested or aware. World events would seem to indicate that in some respects the tipping point has already been reached.

I just wanted to share a few poems and past blog posts which tie into International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

Two poets particularly close to my heart are Paul Celan and Miklós Radnóti. Paul Celan, a German-speaking Jew from Bukovina, lost his parents in the Holocaust and was also interned in a labour camp. He died by suicide in 1970, never able to leave the trauma of his experiences behind. I wrote about Celan's poem 'With a Variable Key', and some reflections on my visit to Auschwitz, here.

Miklós Radnóti was a Hungarian Jew who died on a forced march in 1944. I wrote here about his life and his beautiful poem 'Letter to my wife', published after his death.

Szilárd Borbély, a Hungarian poet who died in 2014, was also the author of The Dispossessed. I was thinking of his poem 'The Matyó Embroidery'. This is a very powerful and distressing poem. The first time I read it, I must say that I started to feel a sense of panic about halfway through when I realised where it was going. I suppose that it should have been obvious where it was going, but the poem's carefully constructed narrative shape makes the whole experience of reading it especially overwhelming.

Finally, Geoffrey Hill's 'September Song' is a short and very sad poem about a child victim of the Holocaust.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

'The Marvel' by Keith Douglas: Ways of Seeing

Wave Curl by Simon Turkas. Used under Creative Commons license

THE MARVEL (Keith Douglas)

A baron of the sea, the great tropic
swordfish, spreadeagled on the thirsty deck
where sailors killed him, in the bright Pacific

yielded to the sharp enquiring blade
the eye which guided him and found his prey
in the dim country where he was a lord;

which is an instrument forged in semi-darkness
yet taken from the corpse of this strong traveller
becomes a powerful enlarging glass

reflecting the unusual sun's heat.
With it a sailor writes on the hot wood
the name of a harlot in his last port.

For it is one most curious device
of many, kept by the interesting waves - 
and I suppose the querulous soft voice

of mariners who rotted into ghosts
digested by the gluttonous tides
could recount many. Let them be your hosts

and take you where their forgotten ships lie
with fishes going over the tall masts - 
all this emerges from the burning eye.

And to engrave that word the sun goes through
with the power of the sea,
writing her name and a marvel too.

                             Linney Head, Wales, [May] 1941

 In 1991, Seamus Heaney gave a lecture on Keith Douglas at Poets House in New York. Not only that, but you can listen to a full recording of the lecture here. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I nearly fell over when I discovered this recording - one of my most beloved poets speaking about one of my other most beloved (and much less famous) poets...

Early in the lecture, Heaney reads 'The Marvel' and calls it a poem "which seems to arrive from nowhere". After reading it he says "It has a certain Noli me tangere stride to it... It just walks in." I love that, and what a compliment! He also comments on the tension in the poem between the intellectual and the visceral, between aristocracy and brutality, which is very Douglas. The whole lecture is wonderful and if you appreciate Heaney, or Douglas, or especially both, you must listen to it.

My own take on this poem is that it's another riff on Douglas's obsession with seeing. I suppose that ways of seeing are the currency of poets. A poet is always looking for an alternative angle. But the array of angles and perspectives in 'The Marvel' is dizzying. In the space of a few lines, Douglas sees (most literally) through the eye of the great fish hunting its prey; through the written word and the implications of the sailor using the eye as a magnifying glass to write the "harlot's" name on the deck; through the eye of the sun itself and the power of the natural world; through the gaze of the drowned at "fishes going over the tall masts"... There is something hallucinatory but also very concrete about it.

This may be a strange comparison but when I re-read the poem this time I was suddenly reminded of Las Meninas, the painting by the great Diego Velázquez. The subjects of the poem and the painting may have nothing in common, but they are both masterpieces about physical and spiritual angles on vision, and the relationships between the viewer and the viewed. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

'My Father Carries Me Across a Field' by George Szirtes: Journey of Memory

The Darkening Sky of the First Night - Gustave Doré, for Dante's Divine Comedy

I have come to think that all poetry, and I suppose all art, is about memory. I don't see how it can be otherwise.

The Hungarian-British poet George Szirtes wrote the poem 'My father carries me across a field' as part of a sequence called 'My Fathers' in the collection Reel, which won the 2005 TS Eliot Prize. Much of Reel, the title of which deals with the film-reel of memory, is bound up with recollections of childhood. 'My Fathers', the title of the sequence, signals the brokenness, multiplicity and (in some respects) inconsistency of memory.

You can read 'My father carries me across a field' on the link below, from the Poetry International website. I also recommend that you watch the accompanying video, where Szirtes discusses the experiences which gave rise to the poem and then reads it.


In its most literal sense, this poem is about Szirtes's family leaving Hungary at the time of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, when he was a child. Written in terza rima, one of the poet's favourite forms, the poem seems to me to evoke Dante not only in form but in content ("Spirits everywhere are drifting over blasted/Terrain"). It is many years since I read the Divine Comedy, but the whole poem and this image in particular reminded me of Dante; I am not sure if this is a general impression, or a specific reference (conscious or unconscious).

Besides Dante, in my opinion, the real poetic presence in this poem is Theodore Roethke. "We go where we have to go", says the narrator looking back on his child-self, and this seems a direct reference to 'The Waking': "I learn by going where I have to go." I also felt that there was something of Roethke's 'In a Dark Time', although this is less clear to me.

Certainly, 'My father carries me across a field' feels like an account of a psychological journey as well as a physical one, and this is very Roethke-esque. "My instinct about memory is that it is half imagination," says Szirtes in the video interview, and this is a poem where an adult narrator with an enormous knowledge of literature and a whole life's experience looks back on a very intense, disorienting moment in childhood. The poem is a snapshot which also becomes a palimpsest - adult knowledge and emotion placed over childhood knowledge (for example, the books of A A Milne, the only English literature which he had read up until that time) and emotion. It feels true, and it is true, but it is not necessarily an entirely accurate (in the strictest sense) account of what happened.

While the poem is a revisiting of what must have been a fairly traumatic childhood experience, it is clearly also a way of accommodating and dealing with the experience. Art is a space in which we can deal with trauma. I found the final lines particularly telling in this regard:

[...] We have no function

In this place but keep moving, without sound,
Lost figures who leave only a blank page
Behind them, and the dark and frozen ground

They pass across as they might cross a stage.

This is the moment when the camera pans away, and quite sharply. The moment is both dramatised intensely, and depersonalised, in a sense. The narrator suddenly moves from "we" to "them" and "they", both placing the figures of the poem on a dramatic world stage, and moving away towards the person he has become.

This is a poem which I find both unsettling and beautiful and which seems to evoke so much of the turmoil of Europe - and the world - in decades past, and now.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

'Prayer Before Birth' by Louis MacNeice: "I Am Not Yet Born..."

Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) on Barbed Wire by See-ming Lee. Used under Creative Commons license

In another dark week for the world, I was thinking of Louis MacNeice's 'Prayer Before Birth', which you can read on the link below - or even listen to MacNeice himself reading it to you, in the rather stentorian tones of the time.

This was, among other things, an anti-fascism poem reflecting the fears of the 1930s and 40s, but I think MacNeice would have recognised that in the future, old horrors might take on only somewhat new faces.


Friday, 2 January 2015

'Words' by Keith Douglas: "Turning in the Lightest of Cages"

The Axis retreat and the Tunisian campaign 1942-1943: A goatherd tending his flock watches the arrival of the Eighth Army transport at Wadi Zem Zem after an Axis attempt to make a stand there had been defeated. Image used under IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The fact that the work of World War II poet Keith Douglas is now out of copyright (he died in 1944) represents something of a milestone for me personally. I started this blog in late 2011 and I developed a passion for Douglas's work around early 2012. At that point it occurred to me that it would be another three years until his work would be out of copyright and I could freely reproduce it without permission. Early on I did inquire of Faber as to whether I could reproduce one of his poems, but they told me that the copyright was controlled by Douglas's friend JC Hall. Shortly after that I learned that JC Hall had died, and it all seemed a bit too complicated to pursue. I have occasionally linked to his poems online but there are not many places I can do that.

What I'm trying to say is that I didn't know if the blog would last long enough for me to post Douglas's poems - but here we are. I suppose that this is both happy and sad for me. I'm giving readers fair warning that you will read plenty of poems by Douglas in the near future - but he shouldn't have died in 1944. He was only 24 and he could have still been alive today. How many poets, and people, could we say that of who died senselessly in the 20th century?

In the summer, I wrote at some length here about Douglas, on the anniversary of his death. As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of him. The diamond edges of his poems contrast sharply with the scattered, fickle young man he seemed to be in his life, but I think that particularly in the last couple of years he was digging deep, reaching toward self-knowledge. I also think that he was always a perfectionist.

This poem, 'Words', was written after Douglas was wounded at Wadi Zem Zem and while he was recuperating. It shows a keener degree of humility than we might expect from Douglas. Not that it's a false humility - he knows that words are "instruments" which for the most part he uses skilfully, but "sometimes they escape forever". To me it feels more abstract than many of his poems, but still concrete, although with a lightness. The metaphorical web of this poem is very beautiful, and it really is a web. Douglas builds something airy, with "hollow birds' bones" and "the lightest of cages": the poem, in fact, is the cage and at the ending we are uncertain whether the words have escaped or whether they remain before us. Both, perhaps.

WORDS (Keith Douglas)

Words are my instruments but not my servants;
by the white pillar of a prince I lie in wait
for them. In what the hour or the minute invents,
in a web formally meshed or inchoate,
these fritillaries are come upon, trapped:
hot-coloured, or the cold scarabs a thousand years
old, found in cerements and unwrapped.
The catch and the ways of catching are diverse.
For instance this stooping man, the bones of whose face are
like the hollow birds' bones, is a trap for words.
And the pockmarked house bleached by the glare
whose insides war has dried out like gourds
attracts words. There are those who capture them
in hundreds, keep them prisoners in black
bottles, release them at exercise and clap them back.
But I keep words only a breath of time
turning in the lightest of cages - uncover
and let them go: sometimes they escape for ever.

                                             El Ballah [General Hospital] 1943