Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Sidney Keyes: 'Neutrality'

Battersea Park. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

'Neutrality' is a particularly interesting poem from one normally considered a war poet. Sidney Keyes called it "one of the poems for which I have - I can't tell you why - genuine affection."

NEUTRALITY (Sidney Keyes)

Here not the flags, the rhythmic
Feet of returning legions; nor at household shrines
The small tears' offering, the postcards
Treasured for years, nor the names cut in brass.
Here not the lowered voices.
Not the drum.

Only at suppertime, rain slanting
Among our orchards, printing its coded
But peaceful messages across our pavements.
Only the cryptic swift performing
His ordered evolutions through our sky.
Only the growing.

And in the night, the secret voices
Of summer, the progression
Of hours without suspense, without surprise.
Only the moon beholds us, even the hunting owl
May watch us without malice.
Without envy.

We are no cowards, we are pictures
Of ordinary people, as you once were.
Blame not nor pity us; we are the people
Who laugh in dreams before the ramping boar
Appears, before the loved one's death.
We are your hope.

                                                                      16 July 1941.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Poet in Cleary Garden - 18-19 June

This weekend, 18-19 June 2016, I will be in Cleary Garden, City of London as their poet-in-residence  in association with the Poetry School, and as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

The address is: Cleary Garden, Huggin Hill, City of London, EC4V 4HQ

I expect to be there around 11 AM-3 PM on both Saturday and Sunday (though it could possibly be more like 11:30-2, especially depending on the weather!) If you stop by, you may get a personal or group poetry reading, a handwritten poem, or a chat about poetry and gardens...

There will be many other wonderful poets-in-residence around London this weekend, and you can find a full list here.

Cleary Garden, London, 2016. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Poetry in Our Kind of Traitor: Unreal Cities

I recently saw Our Kind of Traitor, the new film based on the 2010 novel by John le Carré. A story about the Russian mafia and corruption in the highest levels of British society, it may not sound like anything particularly out of the ordinary - but although this was not my favourite le Carré book nor film, it was still very good (in both forms) and it does have the vivid, ironic writing and the complex ambiguity of his other works. The film is visually beautiful and has some excellent performances, especially the tour de force by Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the Russian money launderer Dima.

In the novel, the protagonist Perry Makepiece is a teacher of English literature, and there are references to poetry, but it isn't necessarily his main area of expertise. In the film, he has become specifically a teacher of  'poetics', which he also describes as "so boring" (to a Russian, who predictably tells him that poetry isn't boring. He then adds that it's only boring "when it's put under a microscope.") I had to wonder if Perry became a poetry instructor for the film, rather than just an English literature expert, because to many people poetry would suggest a particularly high level of detachment from reality. Alternately, he could be a poetry instructor because of poetry's peculiar insights into the nature of reality. In one scene, Perry is giving a lecture on TS Eliot's The Waste Land, quoting some of my favourite lines:

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The film also ends on a rather beautiful visual reference to these lines. In the lecture room, however, when Perry goes on to 'Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,' the camera lingers on the bored faces of the students. In his lecture, Perry speaks of the "corrupt listless societies" described by both Dante and Eliot, populated by "lost souls". His wife Gail points out to him that the Russian vory recruit "people who are disillusioned with their lives and have lost their way." 

The irony is that Perry's life shifts from the unreality of the poetry lecture room to a cascading hierarchy of power games and violence (often referenced with games such as tennis, chess, and even children's hide-and-seek), the secret world of the spies, and the unreal cities of London's chrome and glass to Switzerland's beautiful sterile music-box towns, which hide uglier realities (or unrealities.) Nothing in le Carré's works is entirely free of corruption or ambiguity. Criminals and traitors on both sides show deep, sincere love for their families. Loyalty comes in unexpected forms. Everything slides away and resists definition. The MI6 agent Hector makes reference at one point to the Polish philosopher Kolakowski and his stern definitions of good and evil, but the film suggests that things are not always so black and white.

This isn't the first novel or film from le Carré to feature poetry quite prominently: The Russia House quotes poets including Boris Pasternak, Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke, and Our Game alludes to Osip Mandelstam. Smiley, his most famous character, is fascinated by the German poets. I think John le Carré understands how poetry hangs in the balance between realities and unrealities, and how - as in the best poetry, or simply the best writing - people and situations can be both intensely metaphorical, and intensely real-world.