Friday, 15 March 2019
WS Merwin, one of the great American poets of our time, has just died at the age of 91. I have always found his poems to be deceptively, effortlessly beautiful.
This may be a slightly strange observation, but in his photos you can see that Merwin had brilliant, light-filled eyes. His eyes looked very much the way his poems feel, to me.
Here are a few of my favourite Merwin poems.
Photo: Tree by Martin Svedén. Used under Creative Commons license
Thursday, 14 March 2019
Everyone with an interest in American poetry, or just poetry, seems to know the beautiful poem 'A Blessing' by James Wright. 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota' is another which I often see discussed, largely due to its mysterious conclusion. But a particular favourite of mine, though slightly less well known, is 'The Journey'.
The poem opens expansively, the Tuscan town of Anghiari "suddenly sweeping out" and stranding the speaker and his companion in the hills. The sudden revelation that "everything was now graying gold/With dust" is a little disquieting, or at least odd - normally we think of wind and heights blowing the dust away.
Everything shifts in the third stanza to the extreme focus on the spiderweb. And there's a continuing strangeness here, because the speaker describes the spider almost as though she is a beautiful woman - "the golden hair/Of daylight along her shoulders". (It is noteworthy that the speaker mentioned "we" earlier in the poem, possibly a spouse or lover, but after the turning point of the spiderweb, the poem rests on a very intimate first-person viewpoint.)
This poem is about life being surrounded by death. The spider, so alive - "poised" and "Free of the dust" - hangs at "the heart of the light", but surrounded by "cemeteries" of dust, and the debris of her own prey. It turns out that earlier in the poem, the dust - which remains ever-present for the rest of the poem - is a clue, because this is all about mortality and living with it. The speaker accepts the wind blowing the dust all over his body, and the ruins which surround him, and us. A bit like Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock...' poem, this ends on an ambiguous, perhaps faintly bitter note, calling into question the earlier sense of acceptance.
Photo: Tuscany by Carlos "Granchius" Bonini. Used under Creative Commons license
Sunday, 3 March 2019
Back in November I went to an event at the British Library where Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan was interviewed and read some of his poems. I actually went to several interesting poetry events between about September and December - a talk by the great Syrian poet Adonis, also at the British Library; a live reading with actors of Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, at Southbank; a couple of events remembering Ted Hughes and his ties to Modern Poetry In Translation and the poetry translation world in general; and others. But I was also in the midst of a very stressful time at work (not out of the woods for a while yet, I'm afraid) and so didn't write about these at the time.
What reminded me of Serhiy Zhadan this week was that I was reading Timothy Snyder's new book The Road to Unfreedom, which is largely about the incalculable effect that Russia has had on world events during the 2010s, and Zhadan is mentioned in this book. The incident he was involved in took place in 2014 during the Maidan protests around the country and the Ukrainian revolution, and can be read about here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/03/ukraines-best-known-poet-injured-in-protests
The other thing that reminded me was reading this remarkable interview with Zhadan which has just appeared: https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/11022/everything-changed-ukraines-literary-star-serhiy-zhadan-on-5-years-since-euromaidan
In this interview he talks about how the war in Donbass has changed the country, how he feels about Russia and Russian literature, and so on. It's a good summation of his perceptive, strong but compassionate views. I thought his comments on whether writers should be seen as moral authorities were especially interesting: certainly a contrast to a lot of the claims I see on social media and elsewhere.
When I saw Zhadan at the British Library in November, I think I was one of the few people in the audience who wasn't a Ukrainian or Russian speaker (though I did recognise a few words). There was, of course, a translator. I took a few notes. Zhadan spoke about the importance of poetry in a country like Ukraine and how thousands might come to a poetry reading (I thought to myself: eat your heart out, poets in English-speaking countries, at least most of the time...). In Ukraine, he said, poetry is part of politics, civic life, and history. However, he also said that at times, writers speak about things they don't know enough about! "Writing about war goes deeper than politics," he said. "The war is setting the tone in Ukrainian literature, and war changes the intonation of literature." Zhadan is something of a rock star in Ukraine, and not just for his poetry: he's been involved in theatre and music and is currently a member of the ska band Zhadan and the Dogs.
I've been reading Zhadan's poetry, at least occasionally, for a few years, and it's always a delight for me to come to his poems. You can read his poems 'Stones' and 'A city where she ended up hiding', translated by Valzhyna Mort, here: https://pionline.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/two-poems-by-serhiy-zhadan-translated-by-valzhyna-mort/
And this poem, 'History of Culture at the Turn of This Century', is a favourite of mine: https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poem/5646/auto/0/0/Serhiy-Zhadan/History-of-Culture-at-the-Turn-of-This-Century/en/tile
Photo: Serhiy Zhadan, 2015, by Rafał Komorowski. Used under Creative Commons license