Thursday, 29 December 2016

Richard Adams and the Rabbit World of Literature

Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down and other novels for children and adults, died on 24 December. He was 96 years old.

In a year where celebrity deaths seemed nonstop, his passing was overshadowed moments after it was announced, by the death of actress Carrie Fisher, who sadly was only 60. But it was particularly hard to hear that Richard Adams was gone, given the importance of Watership Down in my life.

As a child I loved talking-animal books, a genre which seems to have gone thoroughly out of fashion (for anyone older than picture book age, at least). It was inevitable that I would read Watership Down. My first attempt was when I was seven or eight and I didn't get very far. I found the style a bit heavy and the action a little too frightening, and abandoned it. When I picked it up again I think I was ten or eleven, and I was hopelessly lost in the best possible way. I followed Hazel, Fiver and their friends out of the Sandleford warren and never looked back.

Many books have moved me, but I think there are only a few (another important one being The Lord of the Rings) which on repeated readings have proved so emotionally overwhelming that they leave me physically drained. I read and re-read Watership Down with cold shivers, with the complete disappearance of the world around me, in tears. Again and again I seemed to find myself physically in the midst of scenes - 'racing through the ochre light' of a thunderstorm ahead of a murderous gang of thugs, trying to save my friend from the deadly snare, staring awestruck at the enormous, silent movement of clouds over the downs. I have finished it and started it again immediately. I have read it several times in a year, although not for quite a few years, I admit. Despite that, its words and images are always within me. My visualisations of the book play through my head sometimes, or I hear the words, or read them behind my eyes.

Watership Down can be read as a really great adventure story blending the fantasy of anthropomorphic animals and their society with accurate details about the natural life of the rabbits and the English countryside they move through. It also has elements of allegory, particularly about the dangers of totalitarian rule. I have, however, read many beautifully written adventure stories, or allegories about fascism (I was even younger when I read Orwell's Animal Farm). What makes Watership Down unique is the way it subtly draws the reader into a literary world. It contains so many literary references that reading it is a remarkable education.

The book is famous for its epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which range from Xenophon to the Bible to Joseph Campbell to Jane Austen to Dostoevsky to WH Auden - and many others. In subsequent years, every time I have come across one of these quotations within the work of literature it was taken from, I feel a kind of time-shock and I am in Watership Down again. I discovered the World War II poet Sidney Keyes through one of these epigraphs, and he has become one of my favourites. Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Hurt Hawks' also came to me in this way. But the epigraphs are far from being the only references. Within the text itself, Richard Adams compares the adventures of the rabbits to those of Odysseus. The poem recited by Silverweed, the eerie rabbit-poet who appears in one of the book's most sinister passages, contains the phrase 'the heart of light, the silence', which is a quotation from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. (The blunt Bigwig refers to Silverweed as 'that lop-eared nitwit of a poet'.) There are glancing references to Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, to 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, to the Psalms, and more.

Watership Down has thus been a kind of slow-release of literature into my bloodstream throughout my life. I have finally realised that this, more than anything else, has made it so important to me. It has created echoes everywhere and has accustomed me to walking through a world where I see and hear literature in everything. It seems that this is how Richard Adams saw the world, or at least how he wanted his readers to see it. I am used to carrying quotations and stories and references and poems with me wherever I go, seeing and hearing them everywhere. And because of this book, I know that it's ok to do so. Some of us see the world in this way, and it enriches us. It makes life a little easier and a little more beautiful. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of things, to see cause and effect, and to act with compassion and understanding. It shows me that understanding my connections to literature is a way of understanding connections to the world around me.

I don't think Watership Down, which first appeared in 1972, would be published now. If it were, it would be in a massively butchered form. The style would not pass an editorial team today. It would be viewed as too dense and difficult, too prescriptive of the pantheon of literature, too paternalistic. Most books aimed at adults today don't have a tenth of the complexity and beauty of Watership Down. But despite that complexity, it is also far less didactic than many books published now, which tend to hit the reader over the head with a dumbed-down style and a painfully obvious worldview. Richard Adams wrote this book at a time when authors still allowed their convictions and principles to imbue their writing, but not to overwhelm it. This is rare today, but it's good to know that so many people still love his work.

Goodbye and thank you, Richard Adams.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Paterson: How a Poet Lives in the World

I went to see the film Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch) this weekend. I think this film was a double rarity: it was not only a film about a poet, but the poet was a fictional character who is unlikely to ever become famous. In that regard it was very different from the beautiful Bright Star, which is about Keats and probably my favourite poetry film (not that I have many contenders.)

Paterson is a very quiet story about a man named Paterson (Adam Driver) who works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is also the title of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams, about the same city, and William Carlos Williams is the one real poet who gets quite a lot of time in the film. The film's Paterson goes to work and has a peaceful, loving relationship with his girlfriend (wife?) Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani). He writes poetry when he can and Laura encourages him, particularly as she is also artistic. There is also a dog, Marvin, who I must say was a consummate actor.

This is the quietest of films, and the plot twist - if it can be called a plot twist - was very obvious. The poetry was just ok (which is probably realistic). What made the film beautiful to me was the way in which it depicted a poet's perceptions of the world and the way they move through it. A poet is both more absent and more present in the world than other people, and Adam Driver's lovely performance depicted this perfectly. There was an interior-ness to the camerawork which was wonderful. We seemed to be seeing through the poet's eyes, in the way that poets notice certain things, pattern their worlds, and encounter situations in a way that seems to be almost synchronicity but is probably a form of confirmation bias leading to writing. All of this was done very perceptively through subtle camera angles. The moments of actual poetic creation, or the moments on the cusp of creation, also had a layered/surreal feel which contrasted with the other scenes.

Paterson isn't a perfect film but I thought that this portrayal of a artist's mind and the artistic process was quite rare and beautiful, and that it was worth seeing for those aspects alone.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Brighton Poem-A-Thon Raises £30K For Refugees

Sarah Howe at the Brighton Poem-A-Thon, December 2016

On Sunday 11 December, poets performed at a ten-hour Poem-A-Thom in Brighton to raise money for refugee support organisations, including the Refugee Council and The School Bus Project. Similar events have taken place around the UK in the past year.

I went down to Brighton for the day (not to read, just to attend). It was my first time back in Brighton in nearly 20 years - my first and only visit was also during my first trip to England. After wandering on the seaside and the pier for a few hours on an incredibly beautiful, calm and sunny day, I headed for the Komedia club where the event was taking place. Some of the readers during my time at the event were Ruth Valentine, Camilla Lambert, Sarah Hesketh, Sasha Dugdale, Edin Suljic, Sarah Howe and Grace Nichols. There were many others throughout the day. The poets read a bit of everything, from their own work to Vasko Popa, Nikola Madzirov, Mary Oliver (an exceptionally popular choice) and Louis MacNeice. There were also a silent auction and poetry book sale, and a warmly supportive atmosphere.

In the end, through fundraising by the readers and donations on the day, over £30,000 was raised - an amazing total. You can still donate here, though I believe the fundraiser is closing soon and you'll have to be quick: 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2016, and Publication in Salon of the Refused

Over on his Rogue Strands blog, poet and blogger Matthew Stewart recently presented his always-hotly-anticipated list of the Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2016. He was kind enough to include The Stone and the Star for the second year, commenting that it's "fast becoming a stalwart of the UK poetry blogging scene." The other blogs on the list are almost all on my list to read regularly or at least occasionally, and the few I didn't previously know all look good.

On the publication front, my poem 'The Big Forest' has just appeared in Salon of the Refused, a home for poems which had been refused at least four times by journals or competitions ('The Big Forest' had been rejected five times, as far as I can tell). Unsurprisingly, the quality of these poems and poets is high, and (in my opinion) often more interesting than what typically appears in the journals... If you have poems which have been refused multiple times but which you still believe in, do check out Salon of the Refused.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Climbing, Robert Graves' 'Welsh Incident', And...

Canadian Rockies. Photo by Bernard Spragg (public domain) 

I have been reading the book Echoes: One Climber's Hard Road to Freedom by Nick Bullock. He is a climber from Staffordshire whose blog is also very much worth reading. Nick Bullock first came to my attention when I read an article in the Guardian about a bear attack in the Canadian Rockies involving him and another climber. Both climbers survived and Bullock wrote a gripping account on his blog.

I followed Bullock on Twitter and when, slightly to my surprise, he followed me back, I discovered that he was also a poetry enthusiast. We had an exchange one day when he tweeted that he had just climbed a route called The Wrecking Light and I asked if it was named after the book by Robin Robertson. He said yes, it was his current poetry reading and the name suited the route. I also thought it a wonderful name for a line on a mountain.

Climbing and poetry often seem to intersect, particularly in the Midlands and north - the British regions which have produced a lot of climbers. Helen Mort, from Sheffield and Derbyshire, recently released a good collection called No Map Could Show Them, many of whose poems are about women in climbing and mountaineering. When I went to one of her readings, she described how writing a poem could be like climbing a route, or vice versa.

Early on in the book Echoes, I was led off on a Sebaldean (I wish) train of thought which, I suppose, was also something like writing a poem or climbing a route. Bullock was describing how at one point in his life he had lived near the Welsh towns of Porthmadog and Criccieth, both of which I visited when I travelled around Snowdonia in 2002. I'm not sure what took me to Criccieth - all I remember is that I had to go one or two stops farther on the train than I otherwise would have, and that all I really did was look at the castle ruins, and then leave. But anyway, while reading the book, I was suddenly reminded not only of my brief visit, but also of the poem 'Welsh Incident' by Robert Graves, which I find both funny and slightly sinister.

By the way, while this blog post was still in draft form, my temporary title for it was 'Nick Bullock/Welsh Incident/weirdness'. That should tell you something about how my mind works, in case this post didn't already illustrate it.