Saturday, 25 February 2012

Beowulf through Seamus Heaney: "Fate goes ever as fate must"

Excerpt from BEOWULF (trans. Seamus Heaney)

The above link contains an excerpt from the opening of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, as well as an interview with Heaney on the work.

I should probably admit that I don't think I have read Beowulf from start to finish, even Seamus Heaney's translation, which was published in 1999 and was hugely successful. It has, however, intertwined with my life in various ways and I have read large sections of it, and I promise that I will sit down and read it from cover to cover one of these days...

I have been a Tolkien aficionado for a long time, and in some of his works he made liberal use of the typical alliterative style of Old English poetry, as well as its heroic, violent subject matter. I remember my brother studying the work, presumably when he was in high school, and recording a home-made radio play of the confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel's mother (impressive high-pitched screeches). Later, I studied portions of it in translation, and later looked a little bit at the original language in university. My Medieval Studies professor (a cool young guy who referred to Charlemagne as "Big Chuck") had a grasp of Old English and read from it to us. I have to admit that there is something about Old English that I find very stirring (for more information, see my long obsessions with heroes, medievalism, and yes...Manly Men.)

The first time I visited England was in 1997, with my family, while I was at university. This was before the new British Library had been built, and the manuscripts now displayed in the BL could be viewed in the British Museum. The British Museum, and particularly the manuscript displays, were a dream come true for me, but my brother and I were very disappointed that Beowulf and (I think) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were both not on display when we were in London. Of course, these ancient and precious manuscripts are not constantly on display, as the displays are rotated periodically for restoration work and presumably to give the manuscripts a rest from the light. I have subsequently seen Beowulf several times, though, and I am always pleased if I happen to be at the British Library and find that it is on display.

One of the things that makes this work so extraordinary is that the original exists in only this single manuscript, dating back to the late tenth or early eleventh century. The history of its ownership has been traced back to the sixteenth century. I just find it amazing that it survived. There is something about old manuscripts which thrills me deeply - it is as though the authors, or at least transcribers who lived a lot closer to the time of the authors, are standing there and speaking to me face to face, hundreds or thousands of years falling away.

Seamus Heaney seems like the perfect poet to tackle Beowulf - his language is consistently resonant, internally rhythmic, deeply tied to history and ancestry, aware of the metaphoric and psychological power in nature and in man-made objects. As an Irish poet, he is also well placed to bring out the conflict and the dance between paganism and Christianity (overseen by the dark, constant shadow of fate or "wyrd") which runs throughout the poem and which also weaves through the history of the British Isles.

Beowulf is essential for anyone interested in the development of the English language - pick up the bilingual edition translated by Heaney, and thrill to the familiar words and phrases which occasionally leap out of what seems to be a forest of Germanic words. It is also a gem of the so-called "Dark Ages", an insight into the mind of medieval man, and an artifact which tells anyone who is a native English speaker or from a northern European background a little bit about where they came from.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

W B Yeats - 'High Talk' (and Facial Hair)


Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.
Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.
All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

I do not have much to say tonight, being comprehensively brain-dead. But I wanted to post this relatively little-known poem by Yeats, which has been one of my favourites for a good fifteen years or so. Wonderful and toweringly strange...

As well, this gives me an opportunity to post a rare picture of the young Yeats in his relatively little-known beard phase.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Carolyn Forché, 'Travel Papers' and Poetry of Witness

The child asked if the bones in the wall
Belonged to the lights in the tunnel
Yes, I said, and the stars nailed shut his heaven

-Carolyn Forché, 'Curfew'

I started reading American poet Carolyn Forché's work only a few months ago and already cannot remember how I came across it (not a good indication for my memory). I think it is possible that I was browsing through poems about travel on the Poetry Foundation website and came across 'Travel Papers'. It is also possible that I saw her cited as a poet influenced by Paul Celan; or that I was tracing the term often associated with her work, 'poetry of witness'; or something else.

My discovery of Forché brought a sense of real excitement which comes only occasionally in my artistic experiences. I can describe this only with difficulty, but I suppose it is a combination of wonder and shock. Compassionate, tender, horrific, luminous, bleak; all of these words come to mind. Her most famous poem is 'The Colonel', which is representative of her subject matter if not so much of her style. It is a shocking piece about an encounter which Forché had during her time with Amnesty International in El Salvador, during the civil war. Apparently it is a kind of "found poem"; her publisher came upon it among her notes and thought that it was a completed poem, and they made the decision to publish it as such.

Many of Forché's poems describe atrocities, crimes against humanity, trauma and its aftermath. 'The Garden Shukkei-En' is about Hiroshima; 'Letter to a City Under Siege' is about the siege of Sarajevo; and there are many other examples. She has also edited Against Forgetting, a seminal anthology of poems by and about those who suffered through the terrible events of the twentieth century and survived or died. In an interview with Bloodaxe Books, one of her publishers, she commented on this area of poetics: "I read the poems for the mark of this extremity, for its impress, rather than for positions advocated or subjects addressed. I was interested in the legibility, in the poetry, of this experience, and also in the realm of the social, between the institutions of the state (and politics) and the private life of citizens. This is 'poetry of witness'."

This, to me, is a particularly compassionate, enlightening and useful approach to political poetry. It is not so much politics as testimony, as it encompasses a variety of experiences, even though these may conflict in terms of their political viewpoint. Such poems remind the reader that events which disfigure the world and its people have happened, continue to happen, and continue to affect us after they are apparently over. So far, I have read a fairly small number of Forché's poems, but it is very noticeable that they frequently see through the eyes of women and children, who constituted the majority of the twentieth century's war victims. It is always the innocent who suffer the most. This makes me think of the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes: "And I myself returned that I might see all the acts of oppression that are being done under the sun, and, look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, so that they had no comforter." (Ecclesiastes 4:1).

TRAVEL PAPERS (Carolyn Forché)

'Travel Papers', which can be found on the above link, is a more restful poem about travel, memory, and the death of a friend; but it is also haunted by the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. It was published only a year ago and was written for Daniel Simko, a Slovak poet who emigrated with his family to the US after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He died in 2004 at the age of 45. He wrote in English, as he was relatively young when he left his home country. Simko and Forché had a long friendship involving much travel and collaboration.

'Travel Papers' caught my eye in part because of its opening line: "By boat to Seurasaari...". Seurasaari is an island just outside the Finnish capital of Helsinki, famous as a beautiful park, for its collection of historic buildings, and for its red squirrels. My mother is from Finland and we spent part of every summer there visiting my grandmother in Turku, until she died in 1995. In the subsequent 17 years I've only been back once, a trip which did include a quick visit to Helsinki and Seurasaari.

(Incidentally, the painting which I have included with this entry is by the extraordinary Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. It depicts Lake Keitele, which is in another part of Finland, but seemed to go nicely with this entry anyway. The painting is now in the National Gallery in London, where it has been hugely popular, and this blog can't convey its uniquely glowing quality. Gallen-Kallela is much less well known than he deserves to be - this painting, as lovely as it is, is far from being one of his greatest. However, this year a number of European galleries including the Musée d'Orsay in Paris will host an unprecedented exhibition of his work, which is a very good sign.)

A few lines in, Forché seems to make reference to the Biblical account of Elijah, who fled from Queen Jezebel and spoke with God on the mountainside: "And after the fire a still small voice." (1 Kings 19:12, KJV). The still small voice - the voice of God - is sometimes used by artists to represent the motivation for their artistic drive.

Still voice. Fire that is no fire.
Ahead years unknown to be lived -

Images flicker past as through the window of a car or train. Snapshots of violent death juxtaposed with the serenity of nature are appropriate for the work and preoccupations of both poets. The birch trees recur again and again, like a repeated theme in a piece of music. The sense of elegy throughout, particularly toward the end, is piercing. I found these lines, about the aftermath of shock on hearing of a loved one's death, to be familiar:

Hours after your death you seemed
everywhere at once like the swifts at twilight.
Now your moments are clouds
in a photograph of swifts.

I can certainly hear echoes of Paul Celan, one of the greatest "poets of witness", in the direct address to the you and the intertwined words. Some lines came back to me through this poem:

I am still writing with your hand,
as you stand in your still-there of lighted words.

(from 'Travel Papers')

I see you, you pick them with
my new, my
everyman's hands, you put them
into the Bright-Once-More which no one
needs to weep or to name.

(Paul Celan, from 'The Bright Stones')

I look forward to reading more of Forché's work and will try to seek out the Against Forgetting anthology, as well. I think that what she is trying to do in the realm of poetics is something essential.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: Evoking a Pastoral England

from THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (Kenneth Grahame)

Poor Ratty did his best, by degrees, to explain things; but how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another's benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce at second-hand the magic of the Seafarer's hundred reminiscences? Even to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing. It is not surprising, then, that he failed to convey to the Mole any clear idea of what he had been through that day.
To the Mole this much was plain: the fit, or attack, had passed away, and had left him sane again, though shaken and cast down by the reaction. But he seemed to have lost all interest for the time in the things that went to make up his daily life, as well as in all pleasant forecastings of the altered days and doings that the changing season was surely bringing.
Casually, then, and with seeming indifference, the Mole turned his talk to the harvest that was being gathered in, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves. He talked of the reddening apples around, of the browning nuts, of jams and preserves and the distilling of cordials; till by easy stages such as these he reached midwinter, its hearty joys and its snug home life, and then he became simply lyrical.
By degrees the Rat began to sit up and to join in. His dull eye brightened, and he lost some of his listening air.
Presently the tactful Mole slipped away and returned with a pencil and a few half-sheets of paper, which he placed on the table at his friend's elbow.

`It's quite a long time since you did any poetry,' he remarked. `You might have a try at it this evening, instead of -- well, brooding over things so much. I've an idea that you'll feel a lot better when you've got something jotted down -- if it's only just the rhymes.'

The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room, and when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows is, to me, one of the greatest works of English literature ever published - and not just among those written for children. Published in 1908, it evokes the classic elements of an England that now only exists in out-of-the-way places and brief glimpses; an England of rowboats, riverbank picnics, dark forests, wealthy eccentrics, and a faint mysticism of panpipes and mythological gods.

My parents bought me the edition of The Wind in the Willows pictured above, and I have very happy memories of my father reading it to me as a child. It was one of the books that made me dream of England, though I've found my way much closer to the England (or London, really) of Sherlock Holmes than the England of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad.

In the above passage, Ratty has almost been seduced away from his riverside home by the hypnotic descriptions of a seafaring, world-wandering Sea Rat. I love how the Mole - a very practical sort - brings him back to reality by lovingly describing the details of the English countryside, and then by handing him some writing elements and encouraging him to get back to writing poetry. The bohemian Rat and the down-to-earth Mole have a bit of a Holmes-Watson partnership going on, which I think was picked up on even by some of the illustrators. I'm not aware that Holmes ever wrote poetry - it seems a bit out of character - but he did quote it from time to time.

It has been a long time since I have really read this book. I should return to it soon, and perhaps venture out into the countryside again, where I will remember that I live in a Wind in the Willows England as well as a Holmes England.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

William McGonagall: Poetry So Bad It's Awesome, From the Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah

THE FAMOUS TAY WHALE (William McGonagall)

’Twas in the month of December, and in the year 1883,
That a monster whale came to Dundee,
Resolved for a few days to sport and play,
And devour the small fishes in the silvery Tay.

So the monster whale did sport and play
Among the innocent little fishes in the beautiful Tay,
Until he was seen by some men one day,
And they resolved to catch him without delay.

When it came to be known a whale was seen in the Tay,
Some men began to talk and to say,
We must try and catch this monster of a whale,
So come on, brave boys, and never say fail.

Then the people together in crowds did run,
Resolved to capture the whale and to have some fun!
So small boats were launched on the silvery Tay,
While the monster of the deep did sport and play.

Oh! it was a most fearful and beautiful sight,
To see it lashing the water with its tail all its might,
And making the water ascend like a shower of hail,
With one lash of its ugly and mighty tail.

Then the water did descend on the men in the boats,
Which wet their trousers and also their coats;
But it only made them the more determined to catch the whale,
But the whale shook at them his tail.

Then the whale began to puff and to blow,
While the men and the boats after him did go,
Armed well with harpoons for the fray,
Which they fired at him without dismay.

And they laughed and grinned just like wild baboons,
While they fired at him their sharp harpoons:
But when struck with the harpoons he dived below,
Which filled his pursuers’ hearts with woe:

Because they guessed they had lost a prize,
Which caused the tears to well up in their eyes;
And in that their anticipations were only right,
Because he sped on to Stonehaven with all his might:

And was first seen by the crew of a Gourdon fishing boat,
Which they thought was a big coble upturned afloat;
But when they drew near they saw it was a whale,
So they resolved to tow it ashore without fail.

So they got a rope from each boat tied round his tail,
And landed their burden at Stonehaven without fail;
And when the people saw it their voices they did raise,
Declaring that the brave fishermen deserved great praise.

And my opinion is that God sent the whale in time of need,
No matter what other people may think or what is their creed;
I know fishermen in general are often very poor,
And God in His goodness sent it to drive poverty from their door.

So Mr John Wood has bought it for two hundred and twenty-six pound,
And has brought it to Dundee all safe and all sound;
Which measures 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail,
So I advise the people far and near to see it without fail.

Then hurrah! for the mighty monster whale,
Which has got 17 feet 4 inches from tip to tip of a tail!
Which can be seen for a sixpence or a shilling,
That is to say, if the people all are willing.

There are those in my life who feel that I spend too much time reading dark and depressing poetry. While I don't think that I really incline strongly toward the dark and depressing, it may simply be the case that a lot of the finest poetry ever written falls into those categories. But we all need a break occasionally, and there are days when Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath are just going to make things worse, despite their brilliance.

William McGonagall, a Scottish 19th-century poet, is impossible not to love. He appears to have been convinced that the muse of poetry had a serious thing for him, and he wrote and toured from his fifties onwards. He once walked fifty miles to see Queen Victoria and was turned away. He also took on the splendid title of "Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah", although it is likely that a prankster's hoax led him to think that he had really been awarded this probably fictitious honour.

His most famous poem is 'The Tay Bridge Disaster', and it is laugh-out-loud-worthy indeed, but I feel a little bad doing so as the Tay Bridge Disaster was actually a rather awful event resulting in a large loss of life. So instead I have posted 'The Famous Tay Whale', another classic about the Firth of Tay in Scotland.

McGonagall's clunking rhythms and his insistence on including statistics and utterly un-poetic language make him completely memorable and pretty wonderful. It's bad, but it's also terribly funny. I would rather read McGonagall than most poetry written with actual humorous intent.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sylvia Plath and 'Ariel': "And I Am the Arrow"

49 years ago, on 11 February 1963, poet Sylvia Plath was found dead in her London flat. It had previously been the home of W B Yeats, which had pleased Plath when she moved in a few months earlier. The circumstances of her suicide at the age of 30 are well known. Her marriage to Ted Hughes had come to a painful end, she was suffering from severe depression, living alone with their two small children, and it was one of the coldest winters on record in the UK.

I had not read much of Plath until very recently, or at least not while paying much attention. 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' had popped up from time to time over the years, as they are considered such iconic poems, and I didn't care for either of them. Especially 'Daddy'. I didn't understand Plath's fixation on Holocaust themes and her demonizing of a dead father who was not actually a Nazi. I just found it tedious, melodramatic, and unpleasant.

I think I may have had a bit of an early reaction against Sylvia Plath because of the ever-present suggestion that, as a girl and now as a woman, I should love her work and should not enjoy Ted Hughes's, because of their terrible history. Perhaps it was more than a suggestion; I may have had a faint niggling feeling that I was letting down the side by preferring Hughes to Plath. Apparently this is one of those literary areas where you are supposed to pick a side. I've enjoyed Hughes's poetry for years - though not all of it, by a long shot - and just could not be bothered to come back to Plath. To be honest, because of the trappings and because of my own teenage experiences, she made me think of extreme political correctness and a particular brand of feminism.

I grew up on the West Coast of Canada, one of the most politically correct regions of an extremely politically correct country, and in my late teens I attended what may very well be the most politically correct university in the world. As fond as I am of my university and as good as my experiences there generally were, I don't count it as a plus that they had an "ombudsperson" rather than an ombudsman, and that my brother was once told by the university paper that the CD review he'd written was excellent but that the word "craftsmanlike" had to be replaced by "craftspersonlike". (Every European who I've shared this story with has laughed in disbelief, which is interesting in itself. To be fair, some people from other parts of Canada have laughed, too.) Gender-specific language? Tut tut.

I was left with an impression of this type of feminism as a question of PC gone crazy, of semantics, of the inevitable person in every class who would rant on about the patriarchy, phallic symbols and oppression. I don't happen to believe that any of this is useful and that making silly changes to words is going to make a difference to people's attitudes. I have never understood what good it does to characterize 50% of the human race as cruel and oppressive due to their gender, when it would be better to address the questions of why human beings generally have a hard time treating each other decently, honestly and respectfully, and why so many people (a majority being men, throughout history - but both genders are implicated) are obsessed with seeking out an imbalance of power and abusing it. Surely equal, healthy and happy relationships (of any kind) are more desirable than just telling men why they are wrong.

To a certain extent, I understand why Plath was adopted as a feminist icon. She had a disastrous relationship with a man whose subsequent lover also eventually committed suicide, and who ultimately became a poster boy for male oppressiveness. I may not be a big fan of 'Daddy', but its rage and power is undeniable. Many of her poems bristle with anger and pain and the agonizing desire to be heard, to have a voice. But I doubt that she considered herself a feminist, or purely one, as some seem to want to characterize her. Not everything in her poetry is about fighting against male dominance, or about rejecting the roles imposed upon her. She was also suffering from mental illness, in a very debilitating manner, and this was the case even before she met Hughes. The language of her poems invests the world around her with hostility and agony. Colours and sounds seem to trouble her greatly, and there is a traumatized focus on physical details in so many of her poems. This is an area which I find interesting (although painful), more so than the feminist angle.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

(from 'Tulips')

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair.

(from 'The Moon and the Yew Tree')

Sylvia Plath was a woman and person in her own right, not just a woman whose life went very wrong in large part because of a man. It doesn't seem fair to imply that she would have had nothing to write about had Ted Hughes (or another man) not treated her badly, or had she not been raised as a traditional American girl and found herself caught between conflicting impulses and attitudes as a creative woman and a strong personality at a time when societal attitudes were shifting. I think that she was more talented than her circumstances.

I decided to start reading Plath more closely because of a recent encounter with the poem 'Ariel', which can be found on this link:

ARIEL (Sylvia Plath)

At least in its most literal sense, the poem is about Plath riding her horse Ariel. It is a rush of giddy images, of exaggerated sensual details which work perfectly in the context of the poem. It is about pure feeling moving to something on a more transcendent level - release from physical constraints and mental or emotional burdens. Poet and critic A Alvarez, who was also friends with Sylvia Plath, commented: "You are made to feel the horse's physical presence, but not to see it. The detail is all inward. It is as though the horse itself were an emotional state." To me, despite its somewhat catastrophic imagery, this is a rare example in Plath's poetry of the physical world being invested with something exultant and joyful, rather than anger and suffering.

And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

(from 'Ariel')

I love this poem, and it is enough to make me want to explore Plath further. I have wondered why my literary preferences - certainly in the realm of poetry - seem to be heavily weighted toward male rather than female writers. The subjects of my blog posts so far are enough to reveal that - there have hardly been any women. I have yet to determine whether this is more than coincidence. Perhaps I really have just been brainwashed by the patriarchy and all those dead white guys. Perhaps I'm looking for the male perspective, given that I am a woman with a pretty good sense of my own identity (thus not feeling the need for a lot of help with female identity) and that the majority of my friends are female. Perhaps I prefer the male voice for some reason I have not identified (though the example of Ted Hughes is surely enough to make me look very cautiously at the whole Manly Man thing). Or perhaps it is just a numbers game, since until recently men have had a lot more opportunities - and in many areas this is still how it is. In any case, I feel that I have something to gain from reading Sylvia Plath.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

'The Darkling Thrush': Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Thomas Hardy


I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

It is snowing in London again, and no doubt even more in other counties and countries. I had thought of posting some snowy poem to go along with the cold weather. Although this is not quite a snowy poem, it is at least wintry and beautiful. It was first published at the turn of the nineteenth century, and so it is usually reprinted as a New Year (or Old Year) poem - I noticed that several poetry blogs reproduced it around the end of the year.

I have a sad Thomas Hardy tale to tell. When I was no more than about twelve years old, my brother cruelly handed me Jude the Obscure and told me to read it. He wasn't normally a cruel brother, so I think that he may actually have wanted to share a book with me that he had enjoyed (or at least, there were definitely some passages in it that he had found funny.) Somehow I read it from cover to cover. And I hated it. I hated it so much that there were no words for my hatred. I found it boring, depressing, stupid, and...stupid. I cited it as my most hated book for many years. I was thoroughly Hardy-complexed and didn't want to look at another word he had written.

I think that I read 'The Darkling Thrush' when I was 16 or 17. I may even have studied it in grade 12, though I am not sure about that. It was certainly the poem that opened Hardy up to me again. I still didn't want to look at his prose, despite tentative suggestions that the likes of Far From the Madding Crowd might be just the thing to cure my malaise. I didn't want to know. But the poem was wonderful. Pessimistic, yes - but amazingly evocative and beautiful. I can see the bleak grey-brown landscape, hear the thrush's brave and glorious song, and feel the poet trying so hard to find some optimism against all his inclinations.

I encountered more of Hardy's poems in university - 'The Convergence of the Twain', 'During Wind and Rain', 'The Sunshade' - and either loved or liked all of them. I filed Hardy strictly under "awesome poetry, dire prose" for many, many years. Only about two years ago, I finally made myself read Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I had to acknowledge that it was engrossing and brilliantly written, but it was also highly melodramatic, and I loathed every single character, for different reasons. So my feelings about Hardy's prose are still mixed. But I love the poetry, and this poem in particular.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

W S Graham's 'The Night City': London Is My Open Book

On Saturday I went to a poetry workshop on "Megacities and the Grotesque", led by poet and performance artist Siddhartha Bose. I think the most valuable thing that I took away from it for my own writing was how to work on speaking through the voices of others, something I haven't done very much. I might yet get something from the beggar in Hammersmith who snarls at everyone and recently called me a "#&%* posh girl". We spent a good deal of time discussing London and its possibilities; read New York poems by Lorca, Whitman and Walcott; and Siddhartha read to us from his shambolic beatbox of a poem, 'Shoreditch Serenade'.

Cities tend to inspire me when I write poetry myself. I've written quite a few poems about different aspects of London, and when I travel to other cities they often inspire some work. I've found that my poems tend to start out being about a place or a city, and later become a meditation on something I'm preoccupied with or struggling with. This is the city as mirror - Derek Walcott has done this quite wonderfully. Much as World War II bombs and Roman ruins sometimes come to light in the City of London during roadworks and the like, different cities uncover different aspects of my self.

We were asked if possible to bring city poems to read. One of the ones that I read was 'The Night City' by W S Graham, which can be found on this link:


I first read this poem some months ago and loved it right away. It instantly spoke to so much of what fascinates me about London, and it reminded me of my own first visit. I was 17 or 18 and travelling with my parents and brother. London had been an essential part of my mental and emotional landscape for years, and I was especially obsessed with Sherlock Holmes at the time (still am) and wanted to walk in his footsteps. London was everything I wanted, and when I arrived there in the flesh, I found that it was still everything I wanted. I'd probably dreamed about moving there even before that, but visiting the city solidified that dream. I later wrote a poem about that first afternoon, being overwhelmed by the sight of one great monument after another, and simply by being there. I remember that it contained the line about standing on Trafalgar Square, staring around awestruck: "Completion. This is it."

Graham arrives in the midst of a Turner painting (the above painting is Turner's depiction of the Houses of Parliament on fire - he didn't paint London a great deal.)

Unmet at Euston in a dream
Of London under Turner's steam

London is his "golden city", where he meets T S Eliot, and Holmes, and John Donne, and others. (Graham actually did meet Eliot in London - Eliot championed his poems and Faber became Graham's publisher.) I had to look up Paul Potts - interestingly, he was a modern poet who came originally from British Columbia, my home province. He wandered the dark streets of Soho, not bathing nearly often enough. I have not tracked down any of his poems yet, but would like to. It seems that both London and Canada claim him.

The poem stops on a dark, quiet note. The City is always empty when its workers have gone home. The speaker is still surrounded by the echoes of history and literature - the Great Fire, the Plague - and finds himself "In the stopped works of a watch"; both in time, and out of it. This is a feeling that I frequently have in London.

It is often good to be pushed out of your comfort zone by literature and art, but I admit that this poem is very much one of "my poems"; it describes my vision of London. I have always seen places, and London particularly, through the lens of literature and art. I think that this is my way of both participating and protecting myself. London, as well as being Unreal City and a literary dreamland, is also harsh and tough and violent. I keep my eyes open for the threatening elements, but imagining that I am in a book or a poem - that carries me through, in so many ways.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Louis MacNeice's 'Entirely': Some Days You Just Want Art to Calm You Down

I finished work early today, and when my errands were done I found myself first at the National Portrait Gallery, wandering amidst the artists and politicians and explorers and looking for the Isaac Rosenberg self-portrait which I included in my last entry. It's in storage, but if it comes out I might see it some day. My eventual port of call was the Turners in the National Gallery - my feet often seem to lead me there. I had the obligatory conversation in front of Rain, Steam and Speed, above, about the hare running in front of the train. Some day I'll set off the alarm pointing it out. Although I have known about the hare for a long time (the NG kind of spells it out for you by mentioning it in the blurb), I always see something in that painting I haven't seen before.

I had Rosenberg's lines on my mind and felt a bit overwhelmed. There is something about a poem like 'Break of Day in the Trenches' which brings me to the overall experience from the very personal - that is, one man's perspective makes me think about all the individual experiences, which is a very large-scale tragedy. So I couldn't think about that for much longer. I finally found my way to this poem by Louis MacNeice, 'Entirely'.

ENTIRELY (Louis MacNeice)

I don't have a great deal to say about this poem, but I love its truthfulness, and how succintly memorable it is, and how practical. Poetry can be very practical, especially because of its capacity for extreme accuracy, and it strikes me that MacNeice was a practical sort except when he was entangled in disastrous relationships or alcoholism (which seems to have been a lot of the time.) He just says it like it is in this poem, but very elegantly. I'm not sure he and I would have entirely agreed that "in brute reality there is no/Road that is right entirely", but I know what he means. Human nature is such that almost everything has ambiguity attached to it, and something difficult will accompany even the best decision, and you'll never quite say what you wanted to say:

And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.

I also like the fact that he acknowledges: "Or again we might be merely/Bored" if things were simpler. But the question is moot, as he points out, so he is not going to worry about it too much.

MacNeice's poems tend to calm me down, much as my favourite paintings tend to do. I always feel better (even if I was already feeling fantastic) when I've had time to wander through a gallery, like today. Often that is just what we need from art.