Saturday 22 December 2012

George Szirtes 'In The Land of the Giants' - Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden

Last Saturday I spent a very pleasant hour and a half In The Land of the Giants, which on this occasion was the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, for the launch of George Szirtes's new collection of poems for children.

I know George very slightly and I was quite charmed that he remembered me. The atmosphere of the reading was just very peaceful and lovely and I think we all found it to be an oasis from bad news, end-of-year madness, and so on. The poems were interspersed with guitar music and singing from Andy Kirkham, which included classics and originals and a bit of everything. There were children in the audience, who were obviously pretty enraptured, and I thought it was important that they were there.

Here are a few more photos, all of which are by Habie Schwarz:

I wasn't sure which of the wonderful poems in this varied book to include here. The subject matter ranges widely; some are fantastic for younger children, some are probably more to be appreciated by parents. There is also a selection of translations from the Hungarian, by Ottó Orbán and Zoltán Zelk, among others. I loved 'The Lost Sock Mystery', which references MI5 and which by a happy coincidence I first read online while rolling socks and watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Alec Guinness. However, this poem is one that I found particularly haunting and truthful.


Space comes out at night
When stars look far away
And clouds stray
Across the moon
Like shadows on a silver tray

Space grows thick at night
When you're sure it's there
Not like in the daytime
When the sheer blank air
Is simply light
In flight

Space is when you know
That earth is not alone
That like other planets
It is a spinning stone

And you grow dizzy with the thought
Turning in your sleep
Which too is made of space
Dense and dark and deep.

And far beyond your dreams
Beyond their weightless mass,
Spin molecules and stars,
And fires and streams of gas

That wake to winter dark
In our spinning ark,
And you, small flickering spark,
You make your mark.

Poem © George Szirtes. Photos © Habie Schwarz. Used by permission.

Thursday 20 December 2012

'Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel' at the Battersea Arts Centre

Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel photo by Peter Dibden Photography

I went tonight to a poetry performance at Battersea Arts Centre called Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel. I had pre-booked my ticket, but I was on my way home from a Pilates class and I have to admit that it crossed my mind to skip it, especially when the bus was late and I wondered if I would be on time. I was on time, in the end, although I'm not sure how much it would have mattered.

I don't want to give too much away, although I think the performance is only running for a couple more days. I will say that when you walk into the venue to collect your ticket, and they tell you to go sit on the red and white stripey chair around the corner "until he's ready to come and get you", you know that something interesting is going to happen.

There was a door that had to be opened and a choice to be made; a bit ominously, Bluebeard and The Merchant of Venice both came to mind, but the experience was far warmer and more beautiful than this might have suggested. There was also a glass of port (or a cup of tea). Poems are read to you - directly to you. The room is full of ephemera, old postcards, typewriters, random scribbled notes, a box of Yorkshire Tea. There is music.

It was all rather magical. I'm a bit at a loss as to how to describe it, especially without giving everything away, but even if I described it in minutest detail I couldn't really convey the sense of comfort and nostalgia. It was certainly one of the most unique poetry experiences I have ever had, if not one of the most unique experiences full stop. One of the poems contained an apology, too. I really liked that. It was like the apology you've waited for forever, from someone you used to care about, that you didn't think would ever come.

Here is a link to the event on the Battersea Arts Centre website, although it will probably expire shortly:

Originally from the United States, the artist, Ryan Van Winkle, is currently Poet in Residence at Edinburgh City Libraries and has also been the Scottish Poetry Library's Reader in Residence. Here is his website:

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Sara Teasdale's 'Winter Stars': "Above Another City's Lights..."

This image is the Evening Star, from the Moon and Stars series by the Czech Art Nouveau painter and designer, Alphonse Mucha. I really love Mucha's work, as the whole Art Nouveau aesthetic appeals to me and I'm generally keen on the more refined versions of poster art.

WINTER STARS (Sara Teasdale)

I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit's wings -
I bore my sorrow heavily.

But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.

From windows in my father's house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city's lights.

Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world's heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American poet who was critically acclaimed in her time and won the first Columbia Poetry Prize in 1918, a prize which later became the Pulitzer. Born in Missouri, she moved to New York City after publishing a few collections, and also married, but unhappily. She committed suicide a few years after her marriage ended in divorce.

I found this poem in a selection of winter-themed poems on the Poetry Foundation website, and related to it, as Orion has some significance for me. It is the one constellation that I can unfailingly recognise, and it reminds me particularly of getting out of the car at my parents' house when I was growing up, and seeing it stretched across the night sky directly above me ("Above another city's lights"). The stars were quite visible in Victoria, BC, though not to the extent that I've seen in the countryside or in the desert.

I have used Orion as a kind of signpost when I have travelled to various places; even if it's at an odd angle, it gives me something to anchor myself to. Unfortunately I can't do that in London. Due to the light pollution (and other forms of pollution, I suppose) there are only a few stars visible on even the clearest of nights. As much as I love the BBC Sherlock series, there was a moment in 'The Great Game' which made me wince; as Sherlock and John walk by the Vauxhall train arches, they look up and see the sky absolutely strewn with the brightest stars. This is simply impossible - it was the kind of sky I would expect to see only well away from a large city. I miss the stars, and when I see them brightly visible in some other place, I realise how much I have missed them.

I don't know exactly when this poem was written, but the reference to "young blood flowing beyond the sea" would indicate that it is a World War I poem. Today, almost a hundred years on, we still live in difficult times, and the poem could be contemporary in the feelings it expresses, if not in style.

Sunday 16 December 2012

"The Heart of London Beating Warm": John Davidson's 'London''

This painting is by Canaletto, who lived in London in the 1740s and 50s. I am not a huge fan, but his almost photographic ability can be amazing.

I walked across Waterloo Bridge at about 5:30 yesterday evening, when of course it was pitch dark. The illuminated dome of St Paul's, the City skyscrapers, the National Theatre in blood red and all the other sights of the Thames were quite extraordinary. It remains my favourite place for a view up and down the river, by day or by night.

Here is another wonderful (and out of copyright!) London poem cribbed from the pages of Mark Ford's anthology London: A History In Verse. John Davidson's dates are 1857 to 1909, although I do not know the exact date of this poem. The imagery of London's many voices become a single voice, or heartbeat, seems to recur in the work of so many poets.

LONDON (John Davidson)

Athwart the sky a lowly sigh
From west to east the sweet wind carried;
The sun stood still on Primrose Hill;
His light in all the city tarried:
The clouds on viewless columns bloomed
Like smouldering lilies unconsumed.

Oh sweetheart, see! how shadowy,
Of some occult magician's rearing,
Or swung in space of heaven's grace
Dissolving, dimly reappearing,
Afloat upon ethereal tides
St. Paul's above the city rides!

A rumour broke through the thin smoke
Enwreathing abbey, tower, and palace,
The parks, the squares, the thoroughfares,
The million-peopled lanes and alleys,
An ever-muttering prisoned storm,
The heart of London beating warm.

"Blessed Rage for Order": Wallace Stevens, Balancing Inner and Outer Worlds


Storm over the Keys, photo by Jim Lukach. Used under Creative Commons license

Poetry is not nearly so impenetrable as many believe; but in general it requires some effort, and some poetry more than other poetry. The work of the iconic modern American poet Wallace Stevens has no doubt defeated more than a few readers in its time. I remember coming across 'Anecdote of a Jar' in university and I distinctly recall a feeling of bewilderment and irritation. I couldn't decide if I liked it, and I couldn't quite figure out what he was getting at. But my response was not indifferent.

I don't yet feel capable of writing much about Stevens's overall body of work and I'm not sure if I ever will. It is safe to say, though, that he was constantly preoccupied with the ways in which perception shapes reality - or is reality - and vice versa. Titles of his poems include 'Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is', 'What We See Is What We Think', 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird', and 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'. I find many of his poems rather maze-like; you're not sure whether to begin at the beginning or to work back from the conclusion. But you want to try. At least I do.

A few months ago, I read this fascinating article from the New Yorker, "What Mitt Romney Might Learn From Wallace Stevens". Of course, this was published in the run-up to the US presidential election, although I would say its intent is only partly political. Stevens was conservative in politics and life, a wealthy businessman who likely seemed practical and even boring to many. But he wrote poetry which was deeply imaginative, abstract and philosophical. I like the concluding words of the article: "Stevens believed that the best in the world (which he called 'poetry') came forward when we allowed the imagination to roam free. But ever the realist, he saw that the shore - a firm, real, substantial shore - was a place it continually 'returned' to to rejuvenate itself."

I think that I am intrigued by Wallace Stevens, and loved this article, in part because I am fascinated by people who are able to live both in the "real world" (the corporeal world, anyway) and the inner world of imagination. I am always impressed by those who can get a lot done in the real world. I don't feel I am one of them, although some who know me might disagree; maybe it's a question of perception (again!). It's too easy to get trapped in my own mind, or to go exploring in some realm that others can't know or understand. Others, to the opposite extreme, are so engaged with the "real world" that their inner life is neglected or nearly non-existent. Wallace Stevens seems to have done both to an amazing degree, and he certainly has my admiration for that. At the very least, he must have been a lot more organised than I am.


In 'The Idea of Order at Key West', Stevens describes a Muse-like woman singing by the sea, and he suggests that she creates or at least shapes the world around her as she sings.

[...] It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.

Alongside "Ramon Fernandez", a symbolic figure who may be a politically engaged critic known to Stevens, the poet describes a "blessed rage for order" which gives meaning and purpose to all that he sees around him. This is a world that in a sense becomes teleological through art.

The "rage for order" resonates with me because art can indeed be a way to chart a path through chaos. Those who know me well know that I don't like "drama" in the real world; any time it has touched me closely, it tends to be destructive and to blow my inner world into fragments, meaning that I have an even harder time than usual functioning in the outer world. I have realised that the arts are important to me because they are a way to access and explore "drama" - powerful and sometimes destructive human emotions - in a controlled environment. I think that this was partly what Stevens was getting at. The title of this blog, from Rilke, is The Stone and the Star, and I think it revolves around similar dichotomies; inner and outer worlds, restrictions and freedom, reality and imagination.

On a lighter note, I did want to point out that the American progressive-metal band Queensrÿche took the title of one of their early albums, Rage for Order, from this poem. I think Queensrÿche at their best did a pretty good job with the inner/outer worlds thing, actually. They're certainly strong on the wailing vocals and searing guitars, but their lyrics often provide searing social commentary and philosophical musings. Here is a live video of them playing 'Walk in the Shadows', from Rage for Order:

By the way, in case anyone is wondering...I really do like this kind of music in a largely non-ironic way. It's the influence of my brother, who is another English major - not all English majors are into Leonard Cohen, let's put it that way. I think that this further illustrates one of the points of this entry, actually. In general, I use poetry to go farther into the inner world; music, on the other hand, takes me out of my head and farther into a sensory "real world". (Although I'd be lying if I said it wasn't yet another form of escapism.)

Sunday 9 December 2012

Pre-Raphaelites and Poetry at Tate Britain

This painting is Love Among the Ruins by my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones. It is based on the poem of the same title by Robert Browning, which can be found on the link below. The painting and the poem both set up a striking contrast between the monumental achievements of the powerful, now crumbling, and the inexorable strength of love and the "plenty and perfection" of natural life:

LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (Robert Browning)

I went this afternoon with a friend to the current exhibition at London's Tate Britain, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which included this painting among others. I've been to a few different Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the past ten years, and as much as I enjoyed this one, I think that my favourite is still the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2003, which was based on Andrew Lloyd-Webber's personal was absolutely amazing. (I was living in Dublin at the time and was just visiting London, but it was more than worth flying over for.) I also especially liked the Waterhouse exhibition a few years ago, also at the Royal Academy.

The current exhibition grouped the works of art more or less by theme: Nature, History, Religion, Beauty, Mythology. My Pre-Raphaelite preference is very much for Mythology, so I wouldn't have minded seeing some more of those, especially as Burne-Jones is pre-eminent in such themes. It was especially exciting to see those that were new to me, though. I developed a love of Pre-Raphaelite art in large part because of Burne-Jones's affinity for Arthurian themes. This exhibition included two of Burne-Jones's tapestries on the Grail Quest - rather wonderfully, they were on loan from Jimmy Page's personal collection. Burne-Jones, Arthuriana and Led Zeppelin - it doesn't get much better.

Others have described the details and the unofficial membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood far better than I could, but I can say why I personally love the art. It is both romantic and formal, neither of which I would entirely want to do without. The women portrayed, while obviously highly idealised, are also powerful, sensual and intelligent. I can't help thinking that ideals of female beauty have gone backwards. These women are not childlike or androgynous, for example.

The movement was also very highly...integrated, if that is the right word. The Pre-Raphaelites were not only painters, or only visual artists; they had a whole design ethic, and some of the decorative material, furniture, etc associated with the movement appeared as well. There was a beautiful clavichord with an incredibly lovely painting by Burne-Jones inside.

From my current perspective, one of the most interesting points was the fact that poetry was so highly integrated into Pre-Raphaelite art. It genuinely seemed as though half the paintings had some poetic inspiration: Dante, Tennyson, poems by their own contemporaries and so forth. There was an early edition of Tennyson's Poems on display, open to the first lines of 'The Lady of Shalott', and an early edition of Christina Rossetti's poems as well. This was a time when poetic achievement was innate in the art of a nation.

I also discovered that I don't much like William Holman Hunt. Burne-Jones's remote and beautiful myths, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's remarkable women, carried the exhibition for me, and that was much as it should be.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Isaac Rosenberg's 'Fleet Street', London Life and Keith Douglas

FLEET STREET (Isaac Rosenberg)

From north and south, from east and west,
Here in one shrieking vortex meet
These streams of life, made manifest
Along the shaking quivering street.
Its pulse and heart that throbs and glows
As if strife were its repose.

I shut my ear to such rude sounds
As reach a harsh discordant note,
Till, melting into what surrounds,
My soul doth with the current float;
And from the turmoil and the strife
Wakes all the melody of life.

The stony buildings blindly stare
Unconscious of the crime within,
While man returns his fellow's glare
The secrets of his soul to win.
And each man passes from his place,
None heed. A shadow leaves such trace.

The above poem is another gem which I discovered in the pages of Mark Ford's London poetry anthology. The photograph of Fleet Street is from 1904.

It seems that Isaac Rosenberg did not write only war poems in his too-short life. There are a few reasons why this poem spoke to me, I think. I worked at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane a few years ago, and I love that part of London - although the impression given by this poem is more one that I would associate with somewhere like Oxford Circus. The media has left Fleet Street behind and it's mostly legal and other business today, which is probably where "The stony buildings blindly stare/Unconscious of the crime within" comes in. It is quieter than it used to be, anyway - although that is all relative, since we are now in 2012 rather than the early years of the twentieth century. I loved Fleet Street, Temple Bar and the City for the glimpses they gave me of the past, rather than their modern bustle.

I caught a glimpse of why Rosenberg is one of Keith Douglas's spiritual ancestors, too, and why Douglas wrote "Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying". Far more so than Wilfred Owen, for example. In both, there is an almost cold detachment which veils a great depth of emotion, a faint irony, and a constant awareness of the presence of death. Compare the final lines of 'Fleet Street' to the final stanza of Douglas's 'How to Kill':

The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(from 'How to Kill', Keith Douglas)

Thursday 29 November 2012

Adam Zagajewski's 'Vita Contemplativa': "In Dark Waters, In Brightness"

Berlin, Museuminsel, 1956. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-41736-0005 / CC-BY-SA

It's perhaps two or three years since I started reading Adam Zagajewski's work. He is originally from Lwów in Poland, which inspired one of his most beautiful poems, 'To Go To Lvov'. From a country and a generation which produced many remarkable poets, he is outstanding.

I am distantly fascinated by Poland. So far I have only visited Krakow for a weekend, but it did not disappoint me. Among its other mysteries, the city carried faint echoes of the weeks I spent every summer in Finland as a child. I suppose this is some Baltic commonality, something in the air. I really love what I have read of Polish literature. The Poles seem to be both philosophical and passionate, which appeals to me a good deal. I remember years ago in Dublin, when I and a friend met some Polish sailors on board their ship in the docklands. I mentioned that I loved Joseph Conrad, although our conversation was mainly about the Bible. When we took our leave, one of the sailors kissed my hand.


The narrator of this poem is in Berlin, reflecting on the quiet moment in history where he seems to find himself. I have also been to Berlin; "dark waters" and "black buildings", indeed. I suppose that the references to Greek statuary are from the Pergamon Museum. Zagajewski, or his narrator, says with what seems to me some irony, "So this is the vita contemplativa...So this is it." Like philosophers before him, he contrasts the contemplative life with the active life, and obviously doesn't find peace. The contrast between "tranquility" and "taut attention" suggests that he knows this is just a suspended moment in time. After all, how often and for how long has peace reigned in Europe, or in the world of humans?

I'm haunted by the final line of 'Vita Contemplativa': "We dwell in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness." There is no one who can fail to find something resonant in those words, in their life.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

In Memoriam: Poetry for Paul Celan and Keith Douglas

Photo of Paul Celan's grave by Martin Ottman. Used under Creative Commons license

I have friends who are very drawn to the ambiance of graveyards, but while I tend to find them interesting and moving, I don't feel the same pull. I probably never had quite the degree of morbidness (morbidity?) required. When I have visited graveyards, I have had experiences both intriguing and difficult, and so it's an area which I handle with some care.

Very rarely, I have felt drawn to visit a cemetery specifically to see the gravesite of a person who I admire and perhaps to leave some tribute there. I've only identified three people for certain (those who are not my own relatives, that is) for whom I have felt this was something I really wanted to do. The first was Fryderyk Chopin, the great Polish-French composer, and I did visit his grave a few years ago at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and left flowers. I was one of many, of course; the grave hardly needed the white roses which I carefully placed to one side. By then it had been something in my mind to do for at least ten years, so I was glad that I was finally able to go. I think Chopin was very important for me in my teens - when I discovered him and found that I was able to play some of his music, especially the Nocturnes, I wanted to play little else, slightly to my teacher's frustration. It also had something to do with the fact that he died young.

More recently, I have thought that I would like to visit the graves of Paul Celan and Keith Douglas. Both are also buried in France: Paul Celan at Thiais, near Paris (pictured above), and Keith Douglas at the Tilly-sur-Seules war cemetery near Bayeux, close to where he died. Again, I can't quite explain it. Both died prematurely and both have meant a lot to me, that's all I can say for certain.

Poetry dedicated to other poets is a difficult area. I have made tiny attempts and have found so far that it is hard to write anything except pastiche. I suppose it is likely that there will be an element of tribute to the poet's style, but a direct emotional reaction is perhaps the best thing to strive for. A very few such poems have become famous in their own right. One is W H Auden's great poem 'In Memory of W B Yeats', which I would like to write about on its own one of these days. It might help me to get over some of my Auden issues (yes...I have Auden issues.) But I think that degree of achievement is rare.

I have found poems dedicated to both Paul Celan and Keith Douglas, and you can find them on the links below (although the Keith Douglas poem is, I think, only an excerpt from a longer work).



'In Memoriam Paul Celan' is directly inspired by Celan's own 'In Memoriam Paul Eluard', written for the great French surrealist poet.

Lay those words into the dead man's grave
which he spoke in order to live.
Pillow his head amid them,
let him feel
the tongues of longing,
the tongs.

(from 'In Memoriam Paul Eluard', translated by Michael Hamburger)

Hirsch's poem also contains many references to Celan's works: "beheaded tulips" from 'Chanson of a Lady in the Shade', "clawed and handled" from the darkness of 'Tenebrae', and so forth. I like the poem; I feel that the images are beautifully woven together and it is moving, but at the same time it's perhaps a little close to pastiche for my taste.

In some respects I prefer Tim Kendall's 'At Keith Douglas's Grave', and I want to read the whole poem now. I relate very much to the feelings of inadequacy and sadness in the few lines that I have read: "I/bring nothing and my eyelids itch." There is a trueness to the feelings there and I would like to go and see if I feel something similar in the same place.

Sunday 25 November 2012

More of Rilke's Roses in Translation: It's Not Getting Any Easier

I'm still tinkering with translation from French of Rilke's Roses poems. Number V has bested me for now, so here's number VI. And no, it's not getting any easier. A bit more practise would probably help...

I have played merry hell with the order of the ideas, though not, I hope, with the ideas themselves. Please feel free to criticise.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from French by Clarissa Aykroyd)


One rose alone is every rose,
one, but manifold meaning:
perfect and irreplaceable,
framed by words of being.

How could we ever speak
without the rose,
of sweet interludes in constant farewell,
or of our hopes?

(Original French)


Une rose seule, c'est toutes les roses
et celle-ci: l'irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.

Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012

Sunday 18 November 2012

Yeats's 'Stream and Sun at Glendalough' and MacNeice's Autumn Journal: Optimistic Sunlight

Glendalough photo by Sean MacEntee. Used under Creative Commons license


Through intricate motions ran
Stream and gliding sun
And all my heart seemed gay:
Some stupid thing that I had done
Made my attention stray.

Repentance keeps my heart impure;
But what am I that dare
Fancy that I can
Better conduct myself or have more
Sense than a common man?

What motion of the sun or stream
Or eyelid shot the gleam
That pierced my body through?
What made me live like these that seem
Self-born, born anew?

Glendalough is one of Ireland's most famous sites, a glacial valley in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, featuring beautiful lakes and the remains of an early medieval monastic settlement. I went there on my first visit to Ireland fifteen years ago, but didn't return in the three years I actually lived in Ireland, although I did visit the Wicklow Mountains again a couple of times and once swam in an almost equally beautiful mountain lake.

When I visited Glendalough with my parents, brother and cousins, it was a misty day and while this added a good deal to the Irish atmosphere, it wasn't very reminiscent of the "stream and sun" of this Yeats poem. My memories of it are fairly vague, but I remember mist and characteristic round towers, and our cousin driving rather fast along the narrow country roads.

This is a deceptively simple-looking poem which isn't simply about a quiet moment in nature. Unsurprisingly for Yeats, he is asking himself questions about the relationship between his inner self and the outer world, and about the conflict between self-development and self-forgiveness. Yeats was also very preoccupied by the relationship between creator and created thing, and "self-born" seems to raise some spiritual question which hangs in the air unanswered.

I admit, though, that I don't love this poem for the details - more for the overall impression that it leaves. It is a poem that often goes through my head, at least certain lines, like a strain of music and leaves something beautiful and optimistic behind. The poem itself is "the gleam/That pierced my body through".

I have been reading Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal, which only gets better and better the more time I spend with it. Its pre-World War II setting seems remarkably familiar in 2012. The final lines reminded me of 'Stream and Sun at Glendalough'. They seem to come from the same impulse of optimism breaking through doubts, difficulties and questions.

To-night we sleep
On the banks of Rubicon - the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.

(from Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice)

Thursday 15 November 2012

Thomas Wyatt's 'Whoso List to Hunt', Hilary Mantel, and Sharon Olds


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
'Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'

I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the Booker-winning novel of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, which has recently been followed by a Booker-winning sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I'm always late to the party; Wolf Hall appeared in 2009 and I have only just read it. I had heard about it before but I have never been very interested in the Tudors (too most of English history, actually) and suspected that it would be either too heavy, or too commercial and romance-novelish. Most historical novels fall into one of those categories, for me.

As it turns out, Wolf Hall is the most enthralling novel that I have read in a very long time and I cannot wait to read Bring Up the Bodies. I always had great difficulty in seeing Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and their entourage as anything but symbols, and not terribly interesting ones at that; caricatures, if anything (just how many jokes about the six wives are there?). But the novel's dense and intimate prose drew me in almost instantly. First appearing as a determined boy with a touching fondness for small dogs, fleeing from an abusive father, in adulthood Cromwell rises to become Henry's closest advisor: '"Sometimes it is a solace to me," Henry says, "not to have to talk and talk. You were born to understand me, perhaps."' Henry and Anne remain somewhat remote, though fascinating, but Cromwell emerges as a brutally intelligent man with an eye to the arc of history and the ability to make its details come about:

...[H]e is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn't. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before. (from Wolf Hall)

Wolf Hall also evokes the extreme religious turmoil of the times, where Catholics and "bible men" tangle violently and the fall of the powerful is especially terrible. Cardinal Wolsey is a fabulously vivid character: "If you had interrupted him every night for ten years, and sat sulking and scowling at him on each occasion, you would still be his honoured guest." Wolsey, once Henry's Chancellor, did not succeed in securing the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon and went into a kind of exile as a result, dying soon afterward. As for Thomas More, I've disliked him ever since reading Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time and also since my research for a project on William Tyndale, the great Bible translator, who was one of More's mortal enemies and is one of my heroes. I was gratified to find him a self-righteous, sadistic and insinuating character, but his final downfall comes with a surprising dignity. Mantel doesn't make judgments about her characters; she leaves us to decide for ourselves.

Thomas Wyatt, author of 'Whoso List to Hunt', also appears in Wolf Hall. His relationship with Anne Boleyn remains rather ambiguous, as the poem suggests. It is considered virtually certain that the poem is about Wyatt's love for Anne Boleyn. This poem has fascinated me for a long time. It is an exquisitely written tangle of emotional and erotic exhaustion, its central hunting metaphor drawing in a whirlwind of associations: lines such as "in a net I seek to hold the wind" and "wild for to hold, though I seem tame" could refer to the almost hopeless pursuit, or to an act of passion and possession. It is strange and beautiful and the poet's desperation clearly comes across.

Rather fortuitously - I think - I just received the latest Poetry Book Society Choice, which is Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap. A remarkable contemporary American poet, Sharon Olds is best known for writing about relationships with extraordinary frankness, honesty and precision. This latest collection is about the end of her thirty-year marriage, when her husband left her for another woman.

I had been thinking about 'Whoso List to Hunt' because of reading Wolf Hall and the title poem, at least, of Stag's Leap seemed to join with it in a wonderful synchronicity.

...When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it's I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver.

(from 'Stag's Leap')

Later in the same poem, Olds shows a graciousness I very much doubt I would have under the circumstances:

...Oh leap,
leap! Careful of the rocks! Does the old
vow have to wish him happiness
in his new life, even sexual
joy? I fear so, at first, when I still
can't tell us apart.

(from 'Stag's Leap')

I feel that there is a direct line between 'Whoso List to Hunt' and this poem; in both poems, around the metaphor of the hunt and the fleeing deer, there is an enormity of desire and pain.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Jim Newcombe's 'Crepuscular Canticle': "A Covenant With The Things Of This World"


Today's entry and poem have been contributed by Jim Newcombe.

Jim and I worked together on transcripts for the Royal Courts about five years ago, and discovered a common love of poetry. We still see each other once in a while at poetry and art events or exchange messages about dire or sublime moments in our poetic lives.

Probably the most Byronic individual I know, Jim also manages to be somewhat Blakean, Wordsworthian and Hughesian. His Facebook updates make a day at work sound like The Canterbury Tales and a night on the town sound like Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Jim is also a published poet and he has contributed this beautiful and rather Derek Mahonian poem, 'Crepuscular Canticle', along with his comments on the poem's genesis and thoughts on the state of modern poetry and art.

The following poem evokes an evening of having the house to myself, and hence it's a celebration of solitude, even privacy. Although the tone of the poem is contented, it nevertheless carries, perhaps only for its author, a tiny note of retrospective disquietude, in that it remembers a time when I lived with my daughter. Her mother and I separated when the little one was only a year old, so the fleeting evocation of her by her absence in this poem stings me a little now, four years after it was written, because it remembers a time that can never be recalled in life. I miss her clambering over me in the mornings, for instance, after she'd woken up and I'd rescued her from her cot in the adjacent room, crying out of fear or loneliness or imaginary monsters: things that can make grown-ups weep. But to say it can never be recalled in life is only to say what is true for all parents: we witness a swift evolution, all natural beauty being brief, each phase supplanting the former, and the older we get, the swifter our own evolutions seem to be. The physicists say time is relative, and tempus fugit becomes truer the older one gets. Still, the poem is written in the present tense, and I'm imposing subsequent autobiography where none exists in the text. All that aside, the poem needs no explanation.


I pour another drink and dim the lights,
once more salting your absence with solitude
as you drive from London on your way to Bath.

Into my tumbler of Havana rum
plonked icecubes snap and echo against glass
and bob like seals. Against the slatted window

the lamplight's yolky yellow glow fuses with
cobalt noon haze, the gentle sound outside
of splintery ringlets in the puddled rain;

the sodium glare of the PC screen
lunar, uninspiring. I pour big slugs, let
my mood with dark liquid diffuse, expand.

"Be thou mindful to entertain strangers..."
The pale flicker of a pirouetting moth
tripping the light fantastic. Enter, Erato.

Taking the Gregorian Chant as my cantata
then Górecki's Third Symphony, these ghostly airs
invoke an ambience of sacred ritual.

This territory's limits are my freedom -
the double bed, the steep and creaking stair.
We who can count our blessings have so much.

The book in hand, the empty glass refilled
and the long, clockwork zeroes of the day
are smoke-rings dissolved in resinous air.

I lift a tiny outfit and inhale
the biscuit and warm dust of baby-smell
by the scent of which her absence is appeased.

Tonight I celebrate nothing more besides
a book, a drink, a lamp, the here and now -
a covenant with the things of this world.

As can be seen, the poem is written in unrhymed pentameters, the tone open, intimate. Whether reading or writing verse I have a general preference for metrical form; on the eye and on the ear it merges into a mathematical and musical nexus and writes itself more indelibly into the memory and the central nervous system. It connects us with something ancient, with the drum rhythms of our first tribal societies, the beating of the mother's heart in the womb, and as a consequence I'm unhappy about how much contemporary verse has lost this affinity with song and ceremonial structuring. If I peruse a book by an unknown author and my page-skim finds no metrical structure or craftsmanship I very quickly lose interest and put the book back on the shelf. Poetry is more than a string of images. Like Robert Frost, the first thing I do is look for the rhymes, though admitting this will make me no friends. Barely any contemporary magazine which publishes poetry prints anything that doesn't sound, to my fraught and biased ear, anecdotal, homogenous, slipshod, pedestrian. I haven't read a competition-winning poem in my lifetime that has meant anything to me. This is not to claim that I myself can produce the work I'd like to read. As Chaucer wrote, "The lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne."

I dislike drafting poems on computers, not least for what they've done to my vision. I dislike being sedentary in general and will take standing over sitting, being outdoors over being indoors, motion over stillness. Admitting this as an obscure writer is like a sculptor saying he hates stone, except that really a poem is an oral thing to be committed to memory - what Yeats called "a mouthful of air" - and is as potentially inert as any script before actors enhance its drama, or as inert as a Haydn score before the musicians conjure magnificent music seemingly out of nowhere.

"Execution is the chariot of genius," said Blake, and works of genius hover above the age; they contain their age more than their age contains them. We have this 'democratic' notion nowadays, post-Dadaism, that we are all artists and that we can prove this with the absolute minimum effort of execution. Someone will scrawl with an agitated hand a five-minute doodle - not worth the cognomen of a tabloid cartoon (this is not to denigrate cartoonists) - and have the audacity to proclaim themselves an artist.

To claim that art which reflects modern life in its superficial and commercial aspects is meaningful and vital seems to me a diminishment of the potential of what was once the best synthesis for our humanity. To have made screen prints of tinned beans may have been to do something new, but that doesn't mean it was of indispensable value. Making a mass-produced product of a mass-produced product is merely a debasing irony and serves no enlightening cultural edifice. Admittedly, it may not claim to. Indeed, much of modern art with its ironic distancing makes barely any claims at all. "It doesn't mean anything," the self-styled artist will say, or "it means what you want it to mean" - statements which are risible evasions. Likewise, for anyone to state that representational art no longer is worthwhile because photography has rendered it pointless, or because the Old Masters excelled in it, is the sidestep of a swindler and a charlatan. A true painter who feels impelled to paint the fish on her plate is impelled to do so to record the subject with her feeling inward nature. Replicating a disintegrative worldview neither imbues the artist with a gift of vision nor enlightens anybody else; it merely retches a void stomach.

Nobody needs the vacuity of our age mirrored to them in post-modernist irony, unless as a satirical integration, which is better done by comedians. What we need, I believe, is someone possessed of an uplifting and transforming vision. Compare the works of art commissioned by the Medici to those authorized by Saatchi to see how far we have fallen. The name of Saatchi is a corrosive on modern culture; theirs is a deeply cynical enterprise, as fraudulent as any promulgated by today's bankers, as equally spiritless and philistine. There are also the followers of Francis Bacon (not the great Elizabethan, but the twentieth-century painter whose vision of humanity was a sudden spasm of tormented flesh) who submit that accidents have value, who find virtue in error. I can think of no great master of whom this could be said. Nothing was left to chance; the mastery and control was itself attained through aemulatio. The coarser brushstrokes of Titian and Rembrandt don't betray a lack of finish; they are a deliberate counter to the technical culmination of Michelangelo, Raphael and Correggio. Man may believe he has killed God, but the work of great artists is a homage to the original act of creation. Today's iconoclasts - though they would not admit it - suffer from the Oedipus complex, the past masters being giants of unkillable paternity. Why should a public pay heed to an art that displays not even the merit and discipline of craftsmanship? When someone picks up a guitar, it's not unreasonable to expect they can play chords. All this finds a parallel in contemporary poetry.

Anyhow, I shall stop this diatribe before I start to sound reactionary. Suffice it to say, in poetic terms I go along with Coleridge when he said that the strength of the genie comes from his having been confined in a bottle. I realize the danger of sounding my resistance while displaying here a quiet and unassuming offering of my own, since some will interpret a note of afflatus in what accompanies it, as though my own efforts are a reckoning of some sort. If I fail to reach "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation" - as inevitably I do - then interpret my stance more as a baptist in the wilderness anticipating one who is to come.

Jim Newcombe lived in the heart of the Midlands before migrating to London in 2006, where he can be found on ragged evenings wandering Soho, believing a poet requires liquid purification to compensate for the unyielding tensions of an unstable muse. He works for a legal firm for his beer and bread, the formality of the profession veiling the shambolic life of a writer. He has had work published in Staple, Poetry Nottingham, Tears in the Fence, The Bohemian Aesthetic, Shot Glass Journal, The Poetry Box, Mobius and The Recusant.

Poem and essay © Jim Newcombe, 2012

"Poetry Is Everywhere; It Just Needs Editing"

Ladybird photo © Gabrielle Warr, 2012

This entry is a shameless plug for my newly published poem, 'Northern Line', which appears on the Ink Sweat & Tears blog/e-zine on this link:
When I posted the link to the poem on my Facebook page the other day, my artist friend Gabrielle Warr sent me the above picture, which of course went perfectly with the poem. So I asked her if I could add it to this entry and she agreed.
'Northern Line' is my contribution to the mythology of the London Underground. It is also based on something that really happened to me and which later, in my head and heart, became something greater and stranger than the actual event.
I would like to write a whole series of poems on the Underground. It could happen some day.
As for the quotation which gave this entry its title, it is from American poet James Tate.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Derek Walcott's 'Sea Grapes': Homeward Bound through Classical Surf


SEA GRAPES (Derek Walcott)

I have written a little about Derek Walcott before, and my feeling that among living poets he has perhaps the greatest ability to unite the personal and the epic. 'Sea Grapes' is an outstanding example. Its theme reminded me irresistibly of the lyrics of Sting's song 'History Will Teach Us Nothing':

Our written history is a catalogue of crime
The sordid and the powerful, the architects of time
The mother of invention, the oppression of the mild
The constant fear of scarcity, aggression as its child

Hardly an exact parallel - maybe it's just the vibe that is similar. Still, 'Sea Grapes' could be saying that while "the classics can console", in historical and even personal terms we don't necessarily learn anything from them except for the fact that patterns repeat themselves again and again.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility will
never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore now
wriggling on his sandals to walk home...

The strange thing about this poem for me, though, is the fact that it seems to have a double meaning. One meaning is about the lessons of Homer's Odyssey and other such tales, and the necessary limitations of those lessons. This is the intellectual meaning, I think. (It also reminds me that I know very little about the classics such as Homer.) But the other meaning is emotional and I am not sure if it is implicit in the poem or if I have projected it onto the words. For me, it is a poem about homesickness.

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home...

I have never been to the Caribbean - my closest encounter yet is from a couple of visits to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, when I swam in the Caribbean Sea. But when reading it, I see that almost blinding light striking off waves in constant refracted motion, and the "exhausted surf" beating up onto the shore, creating a dragging, percussive yet soothing rush of pebbles. While I have seen and heard these in different parts of the world, I associate these images most with the sea off Victoria on Vancouver Island, where I grew up. (I took this photo in June, on the ferry between the mainland and Vancouver Island.)

Thus, this becomes for me a poem with an almost educational dimension, alongside the equally or more important emotional dimension. It's a poem which is both intellectual and state-of-mind, and that may be the best of all.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Edinburgh: The Scottish Poetry Library and Robert Fergusson

Last weekend I went to Edinburgh for a friend's wedding. It was a Spanish-Scottish wedding and both kilts and flamenco dresses were featured, which was pretty great.

On the Friday afternoon after I arrived, I walked up the Royal Mile under a startling blue sky and went to the Scottish Poetry Library. Here are a few pictures I took:

Nearby there was a monument to the eighteenth-century Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson. An important influence on Robert Burns, he wrote poems including the Edinburgh masterpiece Auld Reikie, before his tragic death at the age of 24.

Finally, here is a completely gratuitous picture of the Sherlock Holmes statue near Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's birthplace, which has recently been restored to its place.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' and Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus

This painting is Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus, painted in 1601. It is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, and I saw it when I visited Rome with a friend three years ago.

By then, the painting had already held a great deal of personal significance for me for close to fifteen years. In my last year of high school, when I was sixteen years old, I took a course called Western Civilization, which (oddly enough) was based on the TV series and book Civilisation by British historian Kenneth Clark. I had never before taken a class which gave me such a good overview of the course of Western history over the last two thousand years, particularly in terms of religion, literature, art, architecture and music, and how they related to the events of history. I discovered Caravaggio and this painting through that class, as well as the paintings of JMW Turner, and Bernini's Apollo and Daphne statue, which we also saw in Rome. It was definitely a pivotal moment for me.

Seeing the painting in real life was a very moving experience. It is an incredibly powerful work, and it depicts an extremely crucial moment in one of my favourite Biblical books, the Acts of the Apostles. I'm always glad to not be disappointed when I see something like a work of art that I have waited to see for many years.

I have been thinking about the intersection between visual art and poetry: the places where they meet, or art inspired by poetry, or poetry inspired by art. I haven't reached many conclusions yet, except that the two mediums do two very different things and so it is hard to do one inspired by the other. Art is more immediate and visceral; poetry is subtle, cumulative and chronological - and even by saying that I am aware that I am simplifying far too much.

I tried to write a poem about this painting years ago, when I was about twenty. I doubt it was more than semi-successful. When I lived in Dublin and was discovering the wonderful art of Jack Yeats, W B Yeat's brother, I wrote a few poems inspired by his paintings, particularly For the Road and The Singing Horseman, both of which are in the National Gallery in Dublin. For the Road came out quite well, The Singing Horseman somewhat less so. I have a poster of his There Is No Night, which I used to go look at in the Hugh Lane Gallery. I love it but it has always bewildered me in some way I can't explain. I tried to write a poem about it - in fact, I tried on and off for at least a few years. I never really succeeded, which is still a source of frustration for me.

This is the poem 'In Santa Maria del Popolo', by Thom Gunn. Again, at this point of intersection between art and poetry, I am left uncertain. It is a rather analytical poem, more about Caravaggio's intentions and the poet's somewhat cynical questions, than about the painting itself, or the scene it depicts.


Thursday 25 October 2012

D H Lawrence's 'Shadows': "I Am In the Hands of the Unknown God"

I have never been a big fan of D H Lawrence, but that has more to do with the fact that I had to study Love Among the Haystacks in my first year of university than with anything else. I was unimpressed by the gender stereotypes and the professor's comment that little girls adored horses because they were a boyfriend substitute. (I was still riding at the time.)

Anyway, this inspiring poem has gone a long way towards rehabilitating Lawrence for me. It is also perfect for the time of year.

The painting is another John Atkinson Grimshaw, Figure in the Moonlight.

SHADOWS (D H Lawrence)

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

"Archetypal Dreams": Anne Wilkinson's 'TV Hockey' and the Canadian Obsession

I took this picture in 2009, at the World Hockey Championships in Bern, Switzerland. It was during the gold medal game between Canada and Russia, one of the most classic rivalries in hockey history. Canada lost, but it was still a great game (said the Canadian, graciously.)

It is not really possible to describe to people of most nationalities - except for the Finns, the Swedes, the Russians, the Czechs, and a handful of other nations - what hockey represents to Canadians. For one thing, in most countries you have to call it "ice hockey", and if you're Canadian, that just doesn't seem right. What the English call "hockey" is not hockey, for one thing - it is grass hockey or field hockey.

Most of the teams of the NHL (the confusingly named National Hockey League, the world's number one professional ice hockey league) are now in the United States, with a relatively small number left in Canada, but most Canadians are of the opinion that Americans just do not get it. Some years ago, American TV channels trialled a way to get the tiny black puck to show up better: every time a player shot it at speed down the ice, it left a little fiery trail on the screen, like a miniature comet. It was absolutely ridiculous and Canadians were amused no end. But I've been told by the English as well that they find the play (and the puck) very hard to follow. I was completely bewildered by this when I first heard it. I think that the eye muscles of a Canadian simply develop in such a way that you have no problem following play in the average game, although occasionally the action moves so fast that you don't quite know what is happening - but that's all part of the excitement.

I believe that every single Canadian grows up with hockey at least to a certain extent and it seeps into your personality whether you are aware of it or not. I have very early memories of our old black and white TV, with a rotary channel dial that had to be held in place by (appropriately) black hockey stick tape. The jumpy, joyous theme music for Hockey Night In Canada sometimes races through my head unbidden - I must have heard it played thousands of times. My brother, Lucas Aykroyd, played hockey for several years like most Canadian boys do. He didn't go on to become a hockey player, but he is now a sports journalist and a leading world expert on hockey. Something like it was bound to happen.

I realised after I moved away that I was more Canadian than I previously thought. Given that I have one European parent and grew up going to Europe regularly - and also perhaps because I was the kind of child who doubted her own ability to "fit in" - I always felt at least semi-European while growing up. Having now lived in England and previously Ireland for many years (well, it's sort of Europe...) I feel more Canadian than I did before. I suppose this is all inevitable. But I certainly have a rosy nostalgia around hockey that I never thought I would have. I love the rare opportunities I get to watch the game, especially when my brother has given me tickets to see the Worlds. I thrilled to the gold medal game from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where a lightning-fast goal from the Canadian star Sidney Crosby sealed the game in overtime against the Americans. (Apparently the entire country exploded at that moment, particularly in Vancouver.) Perceptively, an English commentator said: "To understand what this game means to Canadians, you have to imagine the World Cup final, with England as one of the teams, at Wembley Stadium." I don't think he could have put it much better.

Hockey poetry seems like an unlikely concept, but it is out there and some of it is quite good. In his poem 'Hockey Players', the great Canadian poet Al Purdy called it 'this combination of ballet and murder'. Michael Ondaatje and other poets have also explored the area.

TV HOCKEY (Anne Wilkinson)

I wasn't too familiar with Anne Wilkinson, although her name is ranked alongside that of Dorothy Livesay and P K Page, both Canadian legends. However, this poem really captured me. I realised that there was something about its sensory details and the shape of its movements that struck very deep. This is what I mean about hockey seeping into the personality of every Canadian; it's there even if you hardly think of it. The players do indeed "brood in boxes" and "stumble from their cages", and then they become birds - it is one of the fastest team sports in the world and I find football (soccer!) slow and hard to watch in comparison.

This poem, with its multitude of natural images including the "little black moon" of the puck, seems to invoke a primal spiritual ceremony or the movements of animals in the wild. And yet, if you are familiar with the sport, it is very recognizably about hockey. I love the way that it is familiar, but still casts a new and strange light on something that we Canadians think we know so well.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi at the Mosaic Rooms: "The Jewels of Minutes and Hours"

Leave that glass of memory to memory -
       let its essence transmute all these nights into gold

Leave the voice of Ali Farka Toure
       through the silvered light of that room,
       a room inlaid with the jewels of minutes and hours

- Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, from 'Garden Statues'

The work of Arabic-language Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi burst into my life earlier this year when I saw a link posted somewhere to the poem 'Small Fox'. A small poem, like its title, but also like a perfect flower or a striking piece of jewellery. Browsing through other poems on the Poetry Translation Centre website, which has been working with him for some years now, I found poems about love and longing, Sudanese history, the imprint of the Nile on Africa, the artistic legacies of Sudan alongside those of other civilisations, and many other subjects. Although I would love to read the poems in the original Arabic (and definitely can't), I was amazed at the delicate flow of images, the emotional integrity and the intricate detail that they presented.

I heard Al-Raddi read at Poetry Parnassus this summer and it was a big highlight. He also very graciously signed my chapbook of his poems in translation. He is currently in the UK for a residency at London's Petrie Museum, where he has been working on a series of poems relating to their ancient Sudanese artifacts. He has been a legendary poet in Sudan for many years and held an influential position at the Al-Sudani newspaper as cultural editor before losing his job for political reasons. His life and work is a reflection of the fact that writing poetry can be a controversial, volatile and dangerous act in certain parts of the world. The fact that he is a pre-eminent poet in a country like Sudan, where poetry is the number one art form, is also an indication of his stature in African literature.

This week I went to an evening of Al-Raddi's work at the Mosaic Rooms, an institute for the promotion of Arab-world arts and culture. It was chaired by Sarah Maguire, the founder and director of the Poetry Translation Centre and an acclaimed poet, who has translated many of Al-Raddi's poems. It was a great evening in an intimate space - Tower House on the corner of the Cromwell Road, which also happens to be the building which formerly housed LAMDA, my employers (although before my time) - and we were surrounded by the lovely crystalline-organic paintings of the Moroccan painter Yamou, who is currently featured in an exhibition there. It was also great to see such a diverse crowd; English and Sudanese poetry enthusiasts were both well represented, among others.

The evening fell into three main parts: Al-Raddi and Sarah Maguire reading some of his older poems in the original and in translation; a discussion with Joanna Oyediran, the Sudan Programme Officer at the Open Society Initiative for East Africa; and the reading of some of the poems that have resulted from Al-Raddi's Petrie Museum residence. Among others, we heard the poem 'In the Company of Michelangelo', which was inspired by one of Al-Raddi's earlier visits to the UK and exhibitions of Michelangelo's work which he saw here - it beautifully evokes the universality of the great artist's vision: "I left you radiant,/resplendent,/wherever your throne sets down".

The discussion with Joanna Oyediran touched on the recent creation of South Sudan and its implications for regional and African politics and art. I was very struck by her description of a map of Sudan where South Sudan had been painted out as though it didn't exist and had never existed. Al-Raddi's work sits at a challenging crossroads; he writes in Arabic but is an African poet, and Sudan is a recently fragmented country which has struggled repeatedly with civil war and rulership by oppressive governments. The poems from the Petrie residence were fascinating, but Al-Raddi declined to tell us exactly which pieces in the museum they referred to; apparently the poems are still works-in-progress, and all will be revealed in time. I also really enjoyed the lively question and answer session at the end, and Al-Raddi's comments on the importance of translation, which as he pointed out equips the poet with different skills and a different style in their approach to poetry. He said that "attempting to write a poem is like embarking on an adventure", and that this was the spirit in which he'd approached the Petrie residence.

Here are a couple of photos from the evening, courtesy of the Mosaic Rooms. First, Sarah Maguire and Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading:

And the panel discussion:

This was a wonderful evening and I look forward to further exploring the haunting and complex work of this African poet.

Photos © The Mosaic Rooms

Thursday 11 October 2012

Paul Celan on London's Mapesbury Road

I have just started reading Homage to Paul Celan, a collection of essays, translations, poems and miscellania about Celan, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and G C Waldrep. Kaminsky's introduction begins: "If there is a country named Celania - as Julia Kristeva once proposed - its holy texts are filled with doubt, and they overcome this doubt almost successfully, with words of wrenching, uncompromised beauty." Pretty irresistible.

It's a couple of years now since I went to the Celan/Poetry after the Holocaust evening at Southbank, with readings by A S Byatt (among others) and musical settings of some of the poems by the Michael Nyman Band. Around the same time, the Saison Poetry Library had an exhibition about Celan's poem 'Mapesbury Road' but unfortunately I missed this. Mapesbury Road, in Kilburn, is closer to where I used to live in west London but it is not somewhere I ever went. Celan visited his aunt, a Holocaust survivor, there in 1968. There is also a glancing reference to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the attempted murder of the West German student leader Rudi Dutschke, both around the same time in 1968.

The poem can be found on the BBC link below, although sadly the radio episode can't be accessed any more. It is a short poem which balances between violence and tenderness, and pivots around stillness. All in a few brief lines.


At work one day some months ago, I took a book order over the phone which was to an address on Mapesbury Road. I was quite transported when the customer gave me their address. So much so, that apparently I neglected to put the book in the envelope. The customer very politely told me a few days later that they had received an empty envelope in the post. This was a lesson to me to not let poetry annihilate practicality in my life. (It was also funny.)

I have not been reading Celan so much recently and I know I have to pace myself with him, but I think Homage to Paul Celan may inspire me to go back yet again.