Saturday, 21 March 2015

Poetry Is Everywhere (Like Spies and Sherlock Holmes)

Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Amidst being sick on and off in February and early March, a welcome trip to Barcelona, and all the vicissitudes of life which have contributed to not writing in here much lately, I've started reading novels again. Not that I ever stopped. I seriously doubt I'll ever hit the several-books-a-week levels of my childhood again, but I don't read as much as I used to, and that's particularly true when it comes to novels. Poetry takes up a lot of my headspace, and besides that, I haven't lately come across a lot of novels that I badly want to read. (Often, when I read prose these days, it's non-fiction about travel or current affairs, and often far more interesting than the average contemporary novel.)

Having immersed myself in a few novels recently, I was reminded that they can have a kind of calming effect on me that poems don't necessarily have. Of course, individual poems can be reassuring and uplifting, if that is their aim. But poetry has a couple of attributes which make it rather more stimulating than calming: it tends to be emotionally high-keyed, and in any case, reading various poems requires a constant sort of changing of emotional gears. Even a thrilling novel, with many twists and turns, is more like floating down the same river for a long period of time, rather than leaping from the river to the ocean to the mountaintop.

I couldn't get away from poets while immersing myself in various novels, even if I'd wanted to. Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a superb novel about the French Revolution, accompanied me for a few weeks. One of its hundreds of characters was Louis de Saint-Just, a leader of the Revolution, who fell along with Robespierre. He was also the author of the epic poem Organt and the novel often makes reference to his status as a poet.

I have also been catching up on Laurie R King's series about Mary Russell and her partner, Sherlock Holmes - yes, you read that correctly. These rather wonderful books (although they vary considerably in quality, as series fiction often does) constitute my favourite Holmes stories by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although it's fair to say that in Holmesian terms they are rather iconoclastic. I was three books behind, although one of the three has just been released. Pirate King, a rather silly episode in Holmes and Russell's careers based on The Pirates of Penzance, rose in my estimation when I realised that it featured the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa as a major character. Russell comments on Pessoa, in a letter to Holmes: "He carries about him an air of distinction, as if his mind is on Greater Things than translating for a moving picture crew. (He is a poet, which you might have guessed.)" Garment of Shadows, which follows on directly from Pirate King, didn't contain much about poets in the story, but the title is taken from the work of a Persian-Arabic poet, Ebn El Roumi (who, as far as I can tell, isn't the same as the much more famous Rumi who wrote a few hundred years later):

...the breath of Chitane
Blows the sands in smoky whirls
And blinds my steed.
And I, blinded as I ride,
Long for the night to come,
The night with its garment of shadows
And eyes of stars.

Finally I have moved on to the new novel, Dreaming Spies, which I haven't finished yet. Poetry features very prominently here. The title is a pun on Matthew Arnold's "city of dreaming spires" (Oxford), and there are other references to Arnold's work. The chapters have epigraphs in haiku form, and above all, a priceless book of poetry by the great Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho plays a key role in the novel. I'd really recommend that anyone interested in this series starts with the first and best book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but all the poetic references in these three latest have added a lot to my enjoyment.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I finally went to the wonderful exhibition at Museum of London which has been on for some months, and also attended a discussion by the curators. This week, the title of that Laurie King novel about Sherlock Holmes, Dreaming Spies, was a keyhole opening which my mind's eye peered through to see that poetry (and poets), Sherlock Holmes and spies have something in common: they're everywhere. Holmes, to me, is something in the way of a guardian spirit of London, always somewhere in the back of my mind as I move through the city. While travelling on the Underground, I sometimes try to guess who in my vicinity might be working as a spy. And then I remembered two favourite quotations. One is from the great American poet Anne Sexton: "A writer is essentially a spy./Dear love, I am that girl." The other is from Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz, who was in part quoting a Polish critic: "The one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense."

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