Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Isaac Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches' - War Poetry and War Horse


The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German -
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life;
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

I'm no expert on World War II poets but I am probably a tiny bit closer to it than with the World War I poets, being anywhere from interested in to obsessed with The Big Three of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis. The World War I poets are, by and large, more famous: Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and others. They have individual poems that touch me but but their vision doesn't speak to me to the same extent as those of Douglas and Keyes.

I'm not sure if I had heard of Isaac Rosenberg before I read Keith Douglas's remarkable 'Desert Flowers'. I think it's likely that I had come across his name, but I don't remember. In 'Desert Flowers', Douglas wryly says: "Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying". It is a touching moment in the poem where the poet's everyday voice seems to break through. Rosenberg was a Londoner of Lithuanian Jewish parentage, who died in France in 1918. He was opposed to killing and to the war, but enlisted primarily to provide financial support for his mother. He was also an artist and painted the self-portrait above.

I don't know what Douglas meant when he spoke to Rosenberg - whether he referred to something specific in one of Rosenberg's poems, or if it was homage to his overall vision. I haven't read that much by Rosenberg yet. 'Break of Day in the Trenches' is his most famous poem - some feel that it is the single greatest poem of the war - and its opening lines are totally enthralling: "The darkness crumbles away - /It is the same old druid Time as ever." If only it were not about something as terrible as the war. It is a beautiful and skilful poem, with its subtle references to the rat who doesn't care about the national divisions that led to the war, and the heartbreaking bravado of the dust-whitened poppy tucked behind the young soldier's ear. It makes me want to read more of Rosenberg.

I thought of this poem partly because I'd been reading Douglas - and 'Desert Flowers' is forever burned on my mind - but also because I went to see the new film War Horse on the weekend. I loved the horse actors, who were superb, and so were some of the humans; it was impressively filmed, and Benedict Cumberbatch was in it, which never hurts. It could have been better, though. It was perhaps a bit too sentimental and glossy, though I realise that it was a film at least partly aimed at a younger audience and it wasn't going to be a full-on war movie. It did convey something of how terrible World War I was. Scenes from the trenches, and a cavalry charge (swords and all - tragic and ridiculous) cut down by machine guns... But it was sanitized, and as much as some of the scenes shocked by their power of suggestion, I couldn't help thinking that the reality was a million times worse than anything depicted. I do unreservedly recommend the play, which is still running in London's West End and I think now in America - the giant horse puppets had a magic I've never seen elsewhere on stage.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Al Purdy, Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, and Canada: "A Country That No Man Can Comprehend"

Preface and Last Poem, HER GATES BOTH EAST AND WEST (Al Purdy)

The above link will take you through to a page on the website of Harbour Publishing, Al Purdy's publishers. It contains the preface to his Collected Poems and a 'last poem', 'Her Gates Both East And West'.

The painting is The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson, a great Canadian painter. It was completed in 1917, not long before Thomson's death. He died under mysterious circumstances in Algonquin Park, Ontario - his canoe was found floating empty and his body discovered over a week later. Thomson was the principal inspiration for the Group of Seven, who are remembered alongside his name and art. Along with Thomson, these seven - Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A Y Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J E H Macdonald, and Frederick Varley - left an extraordinary legacy to Canadian art. They celebrated the country's grandiose, cutting mountainscapes, its astonishing colours and contrasts, and its vastness. While they were principally based in Ontario, they also travelled and found inspiration from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and even in the Arctic.

At the end of 2011, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London hosted a wonderful exhibition of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Of course, every Canadian art lover in town headed down to see it, including myself; but it was great to see so many Londoners curious about what Canadian art had to offer. I suspect a lot were thinking "not much". It was amazing to see so many of these great paintings together, though I was struck by homesickness and also had the inevitable "The rest of the world doesn't know what they're missing, eh?" conversation with another ex-pat. The exhibition was very well reviewed by the media and was a success. But the comment I was happiest to hear was overheard from a surprised-sounding art lover in the Lawren Harris room. Surrounded by monolithic, glowing, semi-deified icebergs and lakes, she said: "I've never seen anything like this before." Coming from hard-to-impress Londoners, that kind of comment is quite something.

I think that Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven go well with Al Purdy's poems. In so many respects, Purdy is the great voice of modern Canadian poetry. His poems are funny, irreverent and a bit rude; they celebrate Canada's vastness and beauty and tell us not to worry about that silly quest for national identity we're so hung up on. This is Canada - massive, diverse, harsh, lovely, self-celebrating but self-deprecating.

I heard Al Purdy read twice and met him once, probably in the space of about a year - maybe two years before he died in 2000. He came to read and chat with my modern Canadian poetry class. He was very tall and had a foghorn voice and an enormous personality. I was obviously being a bolshie 18 (19?)-year-old intellectual that day because I asked him how he could explain placing D H Lawrence's poetry ahead of Yeats's - he cited both of them as massive influences but loved Lawrence the most. (At the time, I was a total Yeats devotee.) He boomed "I'd have a hell of a time explaining it!" and then, as I recall, fixed his piercing eyes on me and recited a bit of Lawrence. There wasn't much I could say in response to that. Some months later, I went to one of Purdy's readings at the university. I remember he had an auditorium-full of students and others howling with laughter as he read some of his best-loved poems:

Now I am a sensitive man
so I say to him mildly as hell
"You shouldn'ta knocked over that good beer
with them beautiful flowers in it"

(from 'At the Quinte Hotel')

Purdy is funny on the page, but hearing him read was unforgettable. It's such a loss that he is no longer around to read his own poems, as they're not quite the same coming from anyone else.

Purdy lived and travelled all over Canada, though his later years were spent in Sidney, BC, just outside of my hometown of Victoria. Much of his inspiration seems to have come from Ontario, and from the Arctic, but it appears that he touched down almost everywhere. He hears the same voice everywhere, something which holds the country together:

you can hear soft wind blowing
among tall fir trees on Vancouver Island
it is the same wind we knew
whispering along Côte des Neiges
on the island of Montreal
when we were lovers and had no money

(from 'A Handful of Earth')

I love the range and sweep of 'Her Gates Both East and West'. Purdy calls Canada "a country that no man can comprehend", and I think I know what he means. It's too big, it's too empty, its people are diverse but distinctly Canadian; it boggles the mind as much as it seduces. People in Europe sometimes ask why I've only been to Toronto a couple of times, given that it's the country's major city. I explain that I grew up almost a five-hour plane flight away. Then they understand a little more, but unless they have been to Canada (or at least North America) they don't really understand. From the UK, five hours would take you beyond Turkey. Flying that far and still being in the same country is hard to understand if you come from a small nation. I still can't help laughing when I overhear comments like "France and Germany are SO BIG!". Er, really?

I've travelled in Canada; fairly large parts of British Columbia, quite a lot of Alberta, bits of Ontario and Quebec. Is that really all? A lot of it was a very long time ago, too. It still takes in a lot of sights and memories. I think of the west coast of Vancouver Island, endless sand and ocean at Long Beach, world's end. The Rocky Mountains, lakes a blue you can't believe, postcard scenes beyond anything the human mind could imagine. The top of the CN Tower at night in November - COLD. Seeing the house where my father grew up in Westmount, Montreal. Flying home from Europe for a visit, watching hours and hours of rock and ice and snow unfolding beneath me and marvelling at it. The ferry between the mainland and Vancouver Island - the islands, the calm, the beautiful horizons. Road trips where you fall asleep and wake up hours later and the landscape has hardly changed, because it's just so big, and so far.

Unsurprisingly, I probably didn't really appreciate Canada until I left. People tell me how fortunate I was to grow up there, how beautiful it is, and wonder how I could have left. I tell them there was a big wide world waiting out there, and I love London, and I love Europe. But Canada was a special place to grow up. It is unusual to grow up in a city and still feel so close to nature, and in Canada you can easily do that, especially somewhere like Victoria or Vancouver. I miss the familiar mountains, their shapes and names, their changeable yet constant nature, colours shifting from day to day, sometimes disappearing behind cloudcover. I miss the sea and I miss knowing that not far away are lakes and forests. I miss knowing that I could be in a car for hours and there would be just an endless pour of dark green trees past my window and it would hardly change for hours. When I was younger, I found that a bit boring. I now know how wrong I was. Constant and exciting and magnificent, Canada is - not boring.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Copyright: is there any point in trying?

Holmes glanced up at my gasp. "What is it, Watson?" he asked sharply.

"Holmes," I cried, "it is a copyright violation. How horrible!"

Well, maybe not. And yet, and yet...copyright can be such a fraught, complex and even emotive area that Holmes himself might have felt inclined to turn his ginormous brain to its perusal.

I suppose that my decision to be hyper-conscientious about this blog has sort of become the "hook" for the whole thing - although I am not too sure anyone besides myself has actually noticed. Essentially, I'm not that worried about becoming the target of a massive lawsuit if I post a poem in its entirety without permission; it's more to do with some moral feelings surrounding the issue, combined with sympathy for the poets. I've posted one of my own poems (so far) in its entirety on this site and I don't particularly want people just taking it for their own use and without properly crediting it (if anyone wanted to do that, which is dubious.) I am treating this blog a little bit more like a magazine, I guess. It cuts down on spontaneity as I end up planning the entries somewhat more than I otherwise might, but that's sort of how my mind works anyway; things tick over in the background for a while and then emerge relatively formed. Spontaneity was never my strong suit.

Asking for permission has been interesting so far. Of course, I have posted some out of copyright poems - easy. As I think I mentioned at the outset, though, the majority of my current favourite poets actually do fall into that area where they've died but won't be out of copyright for another 5 to 50 years. That's what you get for preferring the greats of modern poetry. I've often been able to link to the poem I want on a site where permissions have cleared; Poetry Foundation, Poets.org and Poetry Archive have been particularly amazing resources for this. But sometimes poets have virtually no online presence of this sort. Or the poem I wanted can't be found online at all, or only without permissions having been cleared.

I've had an interesting variety of responses. One or two publishers have turned me down but have been very nice about it. A few publishers and agents have happily granted me permission but wanted to be sure that I had the most up-to-date version of the poem (in the case of Derek Mahon, this was noteworthy as he tends to revise his poems a lot) and that I knew it was a once-off, and that I credited the poem properly. This is all very correct, and I think that they took the pragmatic view that at least I was asking and perhaps it was a little free publicity for that author's Collected Poems or some such. One poet gave me permission directly, and so did an executor of an estate; both of these were very kind and also gave me some very interesting comments which I incorporated into the entry. Then there was Faber and the T S Eliot incident.

I had written to Faber asking whether I could reproduce Eliot's 'Marina', a favourite poem which also reminds me of home. I honestly didn't hold out a lot of hope, as Eliot is...well, Eliot...and I thought Faber was likely to keep a fairly tight grip on things generally. The automatic email I received in reply told me to expect at least a couple of months' wait, which is perfectly reasonable for a busy permissions department.

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about The Waste Land, in which I quoted some lines. Coincidentally (I think), Faber permissions got back to me a few days later. Politely, they told me that they were not able to grant permission to reproduce Eliot's poems electronically. However, they also told me that they had noticed my entry on The Waste Land and that I should take down all the quotations that I had used. This amounted to about 20 lines of a 400-lines-plus poem.

I was nonplussed and thought maybe they'd misunderstood and hadn't looked at the entry, and thought I had simply reproduced the whole thing or a huge portion thereof. I wrote back slightly acerbically commenting that I wasn't aware of any prohibition against quoting. The response (which sounded slightly apologetic) was that this was the publisher's decision and they had to ask me to remove the quotes. I didn't write back again.

From a little bit of subsequent online research I learned that the Eliot estate is pretty draconian. And no, they don't want you even quoting Eliot - anywhere - without permission. Not even a few lines at 5 or 10% of the poem. As you can see, I haven't taken the lines down. I think that if Faber pursues this it will really indicate that they don't have much else to do (which I doubt), and furthermore I don't feel that they are in the right legally - there are actual laws governing this sort of thing, though I admit it can be a somewhat gray area. It's completely right and acceptable for a publisher or estate to insist that they maintain control over the reproduction of entire poems or very large portions, but this hardly fell into that category. I had also provided a link to the Poetry Archive, where the poem actually is reproduced in its entirety, by permission.

I just couldn't help feeling that it was more than a little ungracious of them to respond to my query about another poem by not only saying that they didn't want me to reproduce 'Marina' - perfectly reasonable - but that I had to take down every tiny Eliot quote I'd ever used. I am a blogger and I am certainly not doing this for profit - and I was trying to do things the right way by the legal standards. While I do feel (a bit) for the publishing Emmas who get stuck with trying to enforce these decisions made by other people, I don't think that it was a particularly appropriate occasion to slap someone on the wrist. As I've said, I don't feel they are in the legal right to insist on this, and I had also directed people to a source where permissions were cleared. (The response I'd had from Faber said something about my quotations being accessible to the whole world and their dog - ok, maybe not those exact words - but failed to address the fact that I'd directed readers to a permissions-cleared online source which was also accessible to the whole world and their dog.) A large part of the intention of copyright protection is to not deprive the artist or the estate of their rightful income. What I'd done did not fall under that heading. In fact, the whole point was to direct people to the entire work, encouraging them to do so by my own enthusiasm for the poem, and by quoting a few of its irresistible lines. It is also a fact that there are numerous online sites where Eliot's poems are reproduced in their entirety without permissions clearance, and in many cases Faber does not appear to have insisted on their removal.

I suppose this is the moment to admit that I'm not sure where I am going with all this. I was a bit annoyed, but it's no big deal. I'm not planning to change my overall approach; quoting within reason and the usual norms of "fair use", linking to legal sources, sometimes approaching a publisher, agent, executor or poet and seeing how I get on. I feel better about this approach than I would about any other, and I think that it has worked reasonably well so far. I completely understand how difficult an area this can be - which is why I've taken the trouble of going down this road. I guess I'm also hoping that those who control the copyright will be reasonable in return. I don't expect everyone to grant me permission, at all. However, expecting them to be reasonable is something else again.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Desert Flowers and Death as Familiar: The Poetry of Keith Douglas

I had a coup de foudre moment when I first read Keith Douglas, which was a little less than a year ago. This is something that never happens to me in real life: I believe in meaningful coincidences, which makes me see them everywhere, but I don't believe in love at first sight, which makes me unlikely to ever experience it.

Love at first sight does occasionally happen to me in the arts, although it used to be a more common experience when I was a bit younger. Douglas was handsome and died young, but it was his diamond-cut, hard poetry of clarity which turned my head around. I had a glimmer of it when I read 'Actors waiting in the wings of Europe', but 'Desert Flowers' punched me in the stomach. I remember feeling my heart clench up and having to draw a deep breath.

Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.

(from 'Desert Flowers')

I think that my reaction to Douglas had to do with the familiar seen through a different prism, which is partly what he was writing about in 'Desert Flowers', as above. Simply put, I had the sense that he saw things in much the same way as I do. He understood how unique and lonely it can be to see differently. I don't always feel like this about my favourite poets, writers, artists or musicians. Sometimes they give me a glimpse of something completely different. In Douglas's case, it was the familiar presented through the new, which can be particularly powerful. It was like finding someone inside my head who I didn't know had been there all along.

Douglas was born in 1920 and studied at Oxford, where he became noted for his poetry by the time he was 18. He fought as a tanker in the North African battles of World War II, including El Alamein; his memoir Alamein to Zem Zem describes these campaigns in clear visceral detail. Douglas survived North Africa and then died in Normandy on 9 June 1944, a few days after taking part in the D-Day invasion.

He was only 24 when he died. His poetry doesn't even need the softening effect of "very accomplished for his age"; he already had a fully realised vision and we can only wonder what his more mature work would have brought. In his poems he comes across as cool to the point of coldness, visionary to the point of prophetic, and highly conscious of his own death, which he seems to have anticipated for several years. I wouldn't call it "premonition" - I don't know what to call it. He knew he was going to die and he was very serene about it, or put up a convincing semblance of it. The images of death in his poetry are calm, lucid and shocking:

[...] there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.

(from 'Cairo Jag', 1943)

I see my feet like stones
underwater. The logical little fish
converge and nip the flesh
imagining I am one of the dead.

(from 'Mersa')

Shortly before he took part in the invasion of Normandy, he wrote:

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

(from 'On a Return From Egypt')

He was dead not long afterward. There is something detached about Douglas, as well. I don't think he wanted to die, but the depth of emotion behind his words remains at a certain remove. 'On a Return From Egypt' also gave me a shock as the image I've quoted above was echoed to a certain extent in a poem I wrote about Cairo, before I started reading Douglas. Not a poem about death, but still, one about embracing the unfamiliar and frightening:

[...] O City
that stalks and devours, I have seen my fate
and grasped its hand. I have sat
by the deathly river and tasted night.
I have touched the face
and kissed the lips behind the mask.

(from my poem 'Cairo')

Douglas had several relationships with women from different countries. One of his lovers was a Chinese woman, Yingcheng, about whom he wrote:

but alas, Cheng, I cannot tell why,
today I touched a mask stretched on the stone-

hard face of death.

(from 'The Prisoner')

This is frankly pretty disturbing. He later wrote a poem addressed to the four significant girlfriends he had, wherein he described them as "four poisons", yet still seems to have loved them very much; not a good recipe for a successful relationship. I don't think that Douglas would have been an easy man to be involved with, as much as he ticks the boxes of Manly Man and Great Poet. His father's departure when he was eight years old seems to have done a good deal of damage. His poetry reveals much by what it does not reveal.

I would have liked to reproduce 'Desert Flowers' here if possible, but Douglas's executor J C Hall has recently died and I was totally unsure how to go about trying to get permission (Faber was not helpful). Not many of his poems seem to have been reproduced online by permission. So I include here a link to 'How to Kill', a very unsettling poem and possibly his most famous. It is not my favourite of his poems (although I like it, I have too many definite favourites) but it is a good place to start.

HOW TO KILL (Keith Douglas)

I don't know what else to say about Douglas. I have a bit of a dead poet crush on him; I feel sure that we could at least have had a good conversation and that we would have understood each other. Strange to feel that way about a poet who died very young and whose life couldn't possibly have been more different from mine, but I think that those who are given the same vision tend to recognise each other.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Dark Poetry of Spain

In December, I spent two weeks in Andalucia, Spain with a friend. In terms of sheer well-rounded pleasure it was among the best holidays I've had. Years of living on chilly northern islands have definitely convinced me that there are advantages to chasing the winter sun. Here, it wasn't exactly hot (except for some particularly pleasant hours in the sun), but it was mild to warm and there were blue skies for at least part and often all of every day.

We stayed in Jerez de la Frontera, a little over an hour by train from Seville. It proved to be a perfect base - a lovely, friendly town well placed for day trips elsewhere; not too big and not too small; and home to the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, where I spent several happy hours both at a show and on a training day, watching exquisite dancing horses and handsome caballeros. It really does not get much better. Elsewhere, we wandered Seville's ornate shopping streets; sat by the vast blue reaches of water on Cadiz's shores; had one of the best meals I've ever had on holiday, a stunningly artistic selection of tapas, in Puerto de Santa Maria; admired the vistas from Arcos de la Frontera, a medieval dream of a town; and drank a lot of delicious coffee.

I hadn't previously spent a lot of time in Spain, although I speak the language up to a point (I was pleased at how much I was able to use it on holiday, and how well I was generally able to get by) and have had some excellent friendships with Spanish people. I had already spent a week in Mallorca, but although there are flashes of Spanish culture, it is pretty touristy and you don't always know where you are. In 2010 I spent a few days in Madrid and a day trip to Toledo, and loved both. Madrid's Prado is hands down one of the finest art galleries I have ever visited, and I finally caught a tantalizing glimpse of the mystery of Velazquez's Las Meninas. Madrid is monumental but beguiling, dark but fun-loving - definitely a city I could revisit any time. And Toledo, a gemlike town, is truly the stuff of fantasy.

It may have been mere holiday-fuelled musings, but I concluded that Spain was probably where I'd chose to live if I had to go somewhere in southern Europe. I love the south of France but it is somehow a bit too Mediterranean for my taste. Italy is enchanting and rich and beautiful but I don't feel at all at home there or with the people. Spain has something in common with both but perhaps there is a little more darkness and solemnity, which has a certain appeal. Ted Hughes wrote of Sylvia Plath's reaction to the country:

Spain frightened you. Spain
Where I felt at home. The blood-raw light,
The oiled anchovy faces, the African
Black edges to everything, frightened you.
Your schooling had somehow neglected Spain.
The wrought-iron grille, death and the Arab drum.

(from 'You Hated Spain', Birthday Letters)

I know that my experience of Spain is still fairly limited, but this seems pretty accurate: especially "Black edges to everything." The Spanish friend who took me to Madrid refused to go to the Prado with me; with a shudder, she said "Oh, I hate Spanish art...it's so dark." It's hard to argue with her "dark" assessment.

I knew that Spain had a rich literature, most of it not very familiar to me. But I was really delighted to find that they love and honour their poets. In Seville especially, and in other towns too, I came across many plaques dedicated specifically to poets. This one is dedicated to José María Blanco White - "a life dedicated to fighting intolerance." He moved to England and wrote a sonnet, 'Night and Death' (in English), which was dedicated to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and has achieved some fame.

I certainly realised that I don't know very much about Spanish poetry. I bought a book of Antonio Machado's poems, which seems beautiful, but reading poetry in Spanish is bound to be a slow project for me.

Federico García Lorca is one of the greats, and an Andalucian as well. From dipping into his poems a little, they immediately seem profoundly Spanish with their imagery of death, horses, idealised women, winding roads through dry landscapes, and music - this is a deeply and passionately musical nation. This poem, 'Romance Sonambulo', chilled me to the bone with its morbid imagery and references to the Civil War - a tragic event which ultimately caused his death, as with so many others. You can find it on this link both in English translation and in the original Spanish:

ROMANCE SONAMBULO (Federico Garcia Lorca)

I'm glad that Spain loves its poets. Another good reason to return and try to uncover a little more of the mystery.

Friday, 13 January 2012

ReJoyce! James Is Out of Copyright


April 16. Away! Away!

The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. They are held out to say: We are alone - come. And the voices say with them: We are your kinsmen. And the air is thick with their company as they call to me, their kinsman, making ready to go, shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.

April 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

April 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

James Joyce's work has now been in the public domain for two weeks, as it is 70 years since his death. According to this blog post from the New Yorker, this is one in the eye for Stephen Joyce, the author's grandson, who tried to keep a stranglehold on Joyce's estate and frankly sounds like a terrifying and insecure control freak of the type I have occasionally encountered. *cough cough*

The blog post mentions Stephen Joyce's interference in the 2004 Bloomsday celebrations. I'm pretty sure that 2004 was the year I saw more of Bloomsday than any other, and it seems everyone managed to have fun anyway. I remember O'Connell Street thronging with Dubliners, and some sort of strange and fascinating performance art by the Spike - there was a replacement Nelson's Column with a living Nelson on top, and Stephen Dedalus (or Joyce himself?) hanging precariously from a crane. Or something to that effect. It was a rather dreamlike example of the unfailing Irish habit of lateral thinking (ie. thinking outside the box 24/7). I kind of miss that.

Anyway, I thought that I would celebrate by posting a short excerpt from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It would have to be my favourite Joyce book. I read Ulysses just before I moved to Dublin, which was interesting, but a bit of a mistake - simply because I would have recognised a lot more had I waited to read it after I'd lived in Dublin for a year or two. I'd like to return to it, but even having read it before (now about ten years ago), it's a little daunting. I studied Portrait in university and it was something of a revelation. More abstract than Dubliners, it kept two feet on the ground to a certain extent and offered a fascinating and accessible insight into human consciousness. That is a book I would like to reread, more than the others. I've never read Finnegan's Wake. I mean, have you?

Joyce apparently wrote poetry too. A quick glance suggested to me that it wasn't up to much. But if I'm to stick rigidly to the format of this blog (which wasn't really the idea), you could argue that the above is prose poetry. It is certainly unforgettable. "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead..."

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

"O City city": T S Eliot's The Waste Land

T S Eliot and THE WASTE LAND at The Poetry Archive

This link will take you to an excellent T S Eliot page at The Poetry Archive, featuring biographical information, the entire text of The Waste Land (broken down into its various sections) and other poems including 'Journey of the Magi' and extracts from Four Quartets.

There is also an entire recording of Eliot reading The Waste Land. I have to admit, though, that I'd probably rather listen to Viggo Mortensen reading it on Faber's Waste Land app for iPad - if I had an iPad, and I'm probably not going to buy one just for that.

If you are reading this entry and have not yet read The Waste Land, I can't urge you too strongly to read it. Complex, yes, long, yes, intensely referential and rather confusing, yes. It is also a profound, beautiful, organic and skilfully integrated poem with some of the most resonant lines in all of English literature. The reader who sits with it and returns to it over the years will find that reading it is like swimming in the collective poetic unconscious.

I took the above picture near City Hall some months ago. Tonight, as I was thinking about writing this entry, it occurred to me that it would be a good illustration for Eliot's fragmented and layered vision of London in The Waste Land. A little later, I noticed that one of the London pages that I've "liked" on Facebook was featuring an almost identical photograph. It was one of those odd London moments that happen so constantly that they're almost a commonplace.

It's hard to walk around London, particularly the more historic areas, without having Waste Land moments. London is Unreal City, after all:

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.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

Of course, this is also Dante, one of the guardian spirits and governing principles of the poem. Dante saw the Inferno; Eliot saw London Bridge; I tend to see the outside of Victoria Station (and just possibly the inside). A couple of days ago I posted the following quotation from The Waste Land on my Facebook status - just because:

'This music crept by me upon the waters'
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city [...]

(from 'Part III: The Fire Sermon')

Last night I was on my way to the Globe Theatre to meet a friend for a Shakespeare/Globe event, decided that the easiest station to get out at was Mansion House on the District Line, stepped out of the station and found myself on Queen Victoria Street. I've been in the City many times, and nearby, but on Queen Victoria Street perhaps only once or twice before. It was another strange London moment, and a Waste Land moment.

I was reading The Waste Land today and came across these lines:

[...] I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

I had a sudden flashback to Watership Down, for a great many years one of my favourite books, if not my favourite. I'd probably still count it as such, though I haven't read it for several years. I read it so many times particularly between the ages of about 12 and 18 that I have a lot of it very nearly memorized. I was fairly sure that "the heart of light, the silence" was echoed in one of the poems contained in the book. Sure enough:

O take me with you, dropping behind the woods,
Far away, to the heart of light, the silence.
For I am ready to give you my breath, my life,
The shining circle of the sun, the sun and the rabbit.

(from Watership Down)

I realised over the years that there are so many literary references - some of them only faint and glancing - in Watership Down that the pleasure of reading it is only increased by having a wide literary frame of reference. Reading The Waste Land is very similar. It both references - the Bible, Dante, the Grail Quest, Shakespeare, Verlaine, The Golden Bough, and many other sources and incidents - and is referred to. I have heard echoes of The Waste Land in so many of my favourite authors. As well as Richard Adams, I can think of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Ende, and Susan Cooper, among others. It is such an extraordinary and pervasive work that it seems to have seeped consciously or unconsciously into the works of countless writers. I am not sure that there is another modern poetic work to equal it in this respect or in its sheer catastrophic, fragmented, disorienting power. Although published in 1922, it is surely a suitable epitaph for the entire 20th century:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

Friday, 6 January 2012

John Milton - 'On His Blindness'


When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

John Milton is best known for Paradise Lost, but this poem is also well known and is certainly my favourite of his works - possibly one of my favourite poems by anyone.

Milton, a poet of the 17th century, found himself completely blind by his late forties; and from the evidence of this poem, sadly frustrated, as this impairment left him very limited. He had to dictate his writing to assistants, one of whom was the great metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell.

In this sonnet, Milton refers to Jesus' parable of the talents, found at Matthew 25:14-30. Milton obviously feared that he was becoming like the servant who deliberately hid his talent, rather than using it and making it grow. While the talents in this parable were actually monetary units, and could represent various gifts, opportunities or useful abilities, many artists and interpreters have seen them literally as "talents."

Milton, a devout man, obviously found himself in a difficult position. He didn't want to make excuses for himself, but he also saw that his blindness had left him severely limited. This poem also reminds me of the apostle Paul's comments on his friend Epaphroditus, who was "longing to see all of you and is depressed because you heard he had fallen sick." (Philippians 2:26). Epaphroditus evidently felt that he couldn't do all that he felt he should be doing, and that his weakness had left him somehow exposed.

'On His Blindness' offers the response: "They also serve who only stand and wait." Sometimes there is little else that we can do but hold on. It doesn't mean that we are worth any less, or that we are any less loved.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Michael Longley's 'Snow Water': Tea, Glorious Tea

SNOW WATER (Michael Longley)

The above link will take you through to Michael Longley's 'Snow Water' on the Poetry Archive website, as well as several of his other poems and biographical information.

Tea, the subject of 'Snow Water', feels like a subject as vast as time. Its devotees know that it is not just a hot drink; it is an art, and for some, a quasi-religion. Sydney Smith, a clergyman of the 18th and 19th centuries, was quoted as saying "Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea." I first came across this quotation at the British Library, on a lovely map of the world showing how tea was harvested and enjoyed on every continent (well, most of them). It was actually an odd sort of propaganda poster for wartime. Darkly, it noted regarding the Sahara Desert: "Sahara Desert. No water for tea."

I'm a sort of devo-tea (ahem): I love tea and have sampled many varieties, and friends and colleagues have commented on my enthusiasm. On the other hand, I do not much care about the exact temperature of the water or exactly how long the teabag should stay in or anything like that. (In fact, I now have a rather low habit of making it in the mug.) I would mainly like it to be hot and to taste tea-like. I admit, though, that it can be particularly fabulous if made with extreme correctness and served in just the proper way (bone china...cucumber sandwiches...). Also, when I first lived in England, I really did not understand the concept of Jaffa Cakes. I was ready to file them away along with mushy peas as an impenetrable English mystery. Until I tried eating one with a simultaneous sip of tea. Bliss!

The above picture was taken a year ago in Okinawa, Japan, in a beautiful palace tea-room, overlooking an extraordinary little Japanese garden with miniature palm trees. The biscuits were perhaps of even greater importance in Okinawa, since apparently they have been essential to Okinawan culture for centuries (an empire founded upon biscuits?). But Japan might be the ultimate nation of tea-lovers, though China and India would no doubt argue with that. I particularly love flavoured black teas, and Japanese tea-makers do those beautifully. There really is a tradition that snow water makes the finest tea, which I think is Chinese. And there actually is a blend called Eyebrows of Longevity.

Coffee is better on the Continent, of course; but in this part of the world, if you want great tea, stick with England. The English can still get terribly, terribly excited about a good cuppa, and I seem to be pretty English in that respect myself. (I blame my ancestry, and, surprisingly, my Finnish mother, who drinks vast quantities. She apparently picked up the habit while living in England.)

I just came back from a holiday in Spain with a friend, and we drank copious amounts of beautiful coffee. But to furnish our rented apartment and to avoid mediocre Lipton, we brought a good-sized box of Yorkshire Tea, and consumed nearly all of it in the space of two weeks. I think that says it all.

My Spanish holiday and Spanish poets are very much on my mind, but I have realised that Spanish poetry is mostly an unknown (and marvelous-looking) land to me, and I need to explore a bit more before writing about it.