Monday 30 April 2012

Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art': "The Art of Losing Isn't Hard to Master..."

Photo by Wojtek Mejor. Used under Creative Commons license

I went to register at my new local library tonight (hurrah!) and some time after coming home realised that I couldn't find my mobile phone. I thought that I had left it at the library, which probably isn't the worst place to leave a mobile, but it's never good. Of course, after a couple of minutes of panic, I found it on my bed buried under a pile of stuff. Great relief.

I feel lately as though I have been trying to lose things, or coming close to losing them, or thinking that I have lost them. Usually not major things. Still, whatever it is, I tend to struggle between panic and annoyance and irritation with myself. "How could I be so stupid?" applies even if it's a pair of gloves from Primark. And yet, I very seldom seem to succeed in actually losing things. They are there when I go back, or they turn out to have been at home all along.

ONE ART (Elizabeth Bishop)

I think that Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful 'One Art' is so beloved because there is no question that we can all relate. It is a supremely simple yet subtle poem that builds from the commonplace and faintly funny to the despairing. "So many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

Finally, though, the poet arrives at the loss of the loved one. It would be so much simpler if the loss of objects and things - ranging from the inconsequential to the priceless - could prepare us for the loss of people, but it doesn't. I learned yesterday that an old family friend had died at the age of 103. Hardly a surprise, but still - loss.

And there are many ways to lose someone. The loss of the living can be the most painful. Sometimes it is totally inevitable, sometimes it is for the best, but always, always it leaves me feeling something on the sliding scale between tedious and tragic. It will never be less, that is certain.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Poetry Parnassus, Katharine Kilalea and 'Hennecker's Ditch'

Poetry Parnassus is coming to London this summer, for a glorious week starting on 26 June, mostly at the Southbank Centre. It's all part of the Cultural Olympiad surrounding the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. I feel a bit like "forget the sports - bring on the culture." I'm a Canadian, so the Winter Olympics are more my cup of tea, and sport is frankly pretty disillusioning these days; will an entire weightlifting team or two get disqualified for steroid use? (As well as my disinterest in nationalism, which seems to be what it's mainly about, there is the fact that Canadians never quite recovered from the disgrace of Ben Johnson being stripped of his gold medal for 100 metres at the Seoul Olympics. I was eight or nine years old and like everyone else there, will never forget it...)

But an entire week of international poetry celebrations - now that is exciting. I've bought a few tickets for events and may buy more, and there are a lot of free events, too. Wole Soyinka and Seamus Heaney appearing at the same event; a Poetry Factory and Edible Poetry; Ted Hughes translated into French, Greek and Turkish; a Word From Africa event to finish off the festival with African poetry, music and performance; and that's only a few of the events. It is set to be the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK, and I presume one of the largest ever in the world. I think that the presence of so many international poets, whose first language is not English, will be particularly important in proving that poetry is an incredibly living and powerful art form.

Poets from most of the Olympic countries will be represented at Poetry Parnassus, due to an unprecedented manifesto to bring poetic representatives from as many countries as possible. I was delighted to learn that Katharine Kilalea will be representing South Africa. She is a young poet (my age or a little younger, I think) who has lived in the UK for several years. I heard her read a few years ago at a Penned in the Margins event at Aubin & Wills in Notting Hill and she kindly signed her collection, One Eye'd Leigh, for me. I remember her as one of the most mesmerising poetry readers that I have heard. It's not quite accurate to say that she read, because if I remember correctly, she recited all of her poems by heart.

One of Kilalea's poems, 'Hennecker's Ditch', can be found on this link from a Carcanet Press blog (her publishers):

HENNECKER'S DITCH (Katharine Kilalea)

There is also an interesting commentary on the poem, which I remember as 'Dear Circus'. I won't attempt to add my own, as my analysis hat is not currently on (this is where I miss being a literature student). I do remember that it struck me as being very Waste Land, and when I asked her about this afterwards she confirmed the impression. I will never forget Kilalea's recital of the poem. She looked no more than 22, had her leg in a cast and kept her eyes fixed on her audience while leaning a little crazily on a crutch. It was pretty hypnotic. The poem itself is wonderful and evocative.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Adrienne Rich's 'I Dream I'm the Death of Orpheus': "A Woman With a Certain Mission"

Adrienne Rich, one of the outstanding American poets of the twentieth century and a feminist icon, recently died in California at the age of 82. Many bloggers posted tributes and many articles appeared, but I decided to hold off until I found a poem that I wanted to write a little bit about. I admire what I have read of Rich's work, but that has not been a great deal, so far. 'Diving Into the Wreck', about myth and psychological exploration and identity, is an amazing poem.

I came across this poem, 'I Dream I'm the Death of Orpheus', while looking through articles on Rich and collections of poems, and it really made an impact on me. The Poetry Archive also has a recording of her reading the poem.


To give the mythological context (which I wasn't very familiar with, so apologies to those who are), Orpheus (of Orpheus and Euridyce fame) died at the hands of the Maenads, frenzied female worshipers of Dionysus. The stories seem to vary, saying that he angered the Maenads by turning from the exclusive worship of Dionysus, or that he had forsaken the love of women after the death of Eurydice. In any case, the story has obvious totemic power in turning the tables on traditional male oppression of women. The above painting is by Pre-Raphaelite painter John Waterhouse, of the discovery of Orpheus's head by nymphs after his death. Ursula Le Guin has also written an interesting poem, 'The Maenads'.

In 'I Dream I'm the Death of Orpheus', Rich invokes both mythology and modernity; her Maenad figure is driving the poet's body in a black Rolls-Royce, and she has "contacts among Hell's Angels". The language suggests that this woman is caught in a spiral of both power and uncertainty; she certainly feels her own strength, "in the prime of life", but she repeats such phrases as though to reassure herself. The figure of the male poet seems like something she has killed within herself, in "these underground streets", to set herself free, but will she resurrect him "to walk backward against the wind/on the wrong side of the mirror"? What will destroy her and what will liberate her? This questions all arise through an edgy, paranoid night-time vision, the Maenads of ancient Greece meeting something like the Chicago Mob.

Adrienne Rich was a great poet and will be much missed.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Jack Prelutsky's 'Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face': I Finally Discover Children's Poetry

I took the above picture at the Saison Poetry Library at London's Southbank Centre, which includes a children's poetry section.

It would be an understatement to say that I grew up with books. I don't have a great many pre-reading memories, because I was three years old when I started to read. However, everyone in my family was pretty much a prose enthusiast. Famous poetry was around here and there, and I dipped curiously into my mother's old volumes of Eliot and Auden, but didn't get very far for a long time (when confronted with The Waste Land at a relatively young age, that's not surprising.) My brother and I got through scores of novels.

We started taking music lessons through the Orff Approach (incorporating a lot of percussion and play) when we were quite young, and later moved on to other instruments, so that was where we started with our love of music and rhythm. (My brother and I still both love classical music, but we REALLY love our Def Leppard and Van Halen, which our parents have been remarkably tolerant of, especially our classical-music enthusiast father). But poetry didn't make a great impact. Of course, poems and songs pop here and there in children's stories. There were moments in The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and The Hobbit. I also enjoyed Edward Lear, though I'm not sure I ever made it all the way into his surreal world, and some of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems were wonderful. Still, we concentrated on novels (favouring the epic and medieval), and poetry didn't enter into it a great deal. I started reading Yeats fairly seriously when I was 14 or 15, and my poetic fate was gradually sealed after that.

It is only in very recent years that I have really learned about the wider world of children's poetry. I worked for a major children's publisher for a while, and although they mainly published fiction, there was the occasional book of poetry. Gradually, I started to become more familiar with some names in children's poetry. For the past two years, I have worked on publications for LAMDA Examinations, who offer exams in speaking verse and prose (among others) to the public. Part of my work involves developing the next round of anthologies for use in exams, and as a result I've read through copious amounts of children's poetry. At the mid and higher levels the poetry is more adult-level, but at the younger levels - well, there are a great many poems about cats, the sea, witches, dogs, wind, school, cats, and, er...cats. Still, although the subjects may seem more limited, there can be a pretty wonderful variety. The colleague with whom I've worked on developing the anthology is an expert on children's poetry, so she had more suggestions than we knew what to do with.

It's been a nice kind of education. Until now I never knew much about the children's poems of Jack Prelutsky, Ken Nesbitt, Grace Nichols, Dionne Brand, Roger McGough or Brian Patten. Some of these poets write for adults as well, of course. Children's poetry tends toward the humorous, and that's still not one of my preferred areas for poetry, so perhaps that had something to do with my relative disinterest when I was young. It is an art all its own, though - that is obvious. People who think writing for children is easy are so very, very wrong, and poetry is no different.

I've particularly enjoyed discovering Jack Prelutsky, who was named the first US Children's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. He is extremely funny and has an incredible ear for poetry which flows smoothly and bounces off the tongue. Here is one of his best poems, 'Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face'.

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

I recently saw this on a list of the greatest poems of all time - a list which was definitely rather US-centric, but still, an interesting and worthy choice...

Sunday 15 April 2012

Derek Walcott's 'A Far Cry From Africa': "How Can I Turn From Africa and Live?"

Photo of Kenya by Ai@ce . Used under Creative Commons license

Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead
with faults and all, I cried.

-Derek Walcott, 'Sea Canes'

I am in awe of Derek Walcott. I cannot think of another living poet who unites the personal and the epic so magnificently, and among the recently dead, perhaps only Czesław Miłosz. I have only started coming to grips with Walcott's work fairly recently and I am so excited that I still have so much to discover from his poetry. I attended the 2011 T S Eliot Prize readings where Walcott was nominated for White Egrets, and the only thing to regret about the evening was that he was not there in person to read. Although I hedged my bets and picked an alternative as well, I thought he was the most likely winner and I turned out to be right.

This link goes to 'A Far Cry From Africa' on the website:


This much-studied poem draws on historical fact and on Walcott's own emotional ties to his roots. He is a Caribbean poet, from St Lucia, but his racial origins are mixed, from both Africa and Europe. The poem refers to the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya, and its imagery and language are, overall, controversial and charged. Walcott faces up to acts of violence committed by both Europeans and Africans, and the justifications and rationalisations of both sides. Through the human and animal violence, the beauty of Africa breaks through:

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.

The final cry, "How can I turn from Africa and live?", enshrines the agony of those who feel torn by their backgrounds. Walcott's deep love for the Caribbean shines through in so many of his poems, as well, which adds another strand to the complexity. One of my friends in London who is mixed race - her mother is from Barbados, and her father is English (at least partly of German/Jewish origin) - has mentioned to me how irritating she finds it that Barack Obama is generally referred to as black, when he is actually mixed race. She says that this just adds to the confusion experienced by people of mixed heritage, and although not able to understand through personal experience, I can see what she means.

I recently re-read The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley, one of the most extraordinary travel/memoir books I have ever read. Toward the end of the book, the final lines of 'A Far Cry From Africa' are quoted. Hartley is of English parentage but he grew up in East Africa and has continued to make his home there. The book describes his experiences working for Reuters, covering the carnage in Rwanda and Somalia, among other places, so much of it is harrowing in the extreme. It also details the breakneck, unbalanced and adrenalized lifestyle of "stringers" such as Hartley and his colleagues. He spent years recovering from the lifestyle and from the terrible things he had witnessed and experienced. I have had the slightly unnerving feeling while reading The Zanzibar Chest that I was trying to live an extremely different life, vicariously. The book also weaves in accounts of his father's life and that of his father's friend Peter Davey, particularly in Yemen.

Africa is still something of a mystery to me. It hasn't usually been top of my travel list, but it is climbing. I have a number of friends and acquaintances from various African countries, mostly including the French-speaking African countries of Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Congo, and others. So far, although I have set foot on the African continent, it has only been to Morocco and Egypt, which are part of the Arab world and thus in a different universe from sub-Saharan Africa.

I admit that I am fairly Euro-centric. I have mostly travelled in the West, and all my ancestry is northern European, pretty much. Even when visiting Morocco and Egypt, I had the sense that I stood on the edge of something vast - the rest of the world - which of course I knew about, but which was still largely unknown to me. I think that this is why it is so valuable to step out of one's comfort zone, and I hope to do that more in future. Although you may read about them and watch the news, countries very different from the place of your own upbringing are another world entirely until you go to see for yourself. I was recently speaking with an African friend about what it was like in le pays. Her words were "C'est l'ambiance totale." I thought that this was such a wonderful expression, though I am not certain how to translate it - "total atmosphere"? She essentially said that people there are closer to the essentials of life - they have to struggle more for work, and food, and water - and that they leap into every experience whole-heartedly and passionately as a result. I think that in the West we are cut off from much of this kind of life experience, and our complications lie much in the areas of materialism and poor mental health.

Derek Walcott takes us into the experience of those with a more varied perspective than my own, and this is so valuable. He writes in "the English tongue I love", but his work ranges across several continents. This is poetry that does everything poetry should, and even more, I think.

Friday 13 April 2012

Titanic and Thomas Hardy's 'The Convergence of the Twain'


(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")


           In a solitude of the sea
           Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


           Steel chambers, late the pyres
           Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


           Over the mirrors meant
           To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


           Jewels in joy designed
           To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


           Dim moon-eyed fishes near
           Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...

           Well: while was fashioning
           This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


           Prepared a sinister mate
           For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

           And as the smart ship grew
           In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


           Alien they seemed to be;
           No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,


           Or sign that they were bent
           By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,


           Till the Spinner of the Years
           Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

The Titanic sank on the night of 14-15 April 1912, one hundred years ago. The rush has already started this weekend, it appears, so I thought I would make my stunningly unoriginal blog post on the subject now.

It seems that Titanic will never die, although she has been gone for a century and she took more than 1500 lives with her. I suppose it was such a dramatic and instructive event that it was fated to become one of the bywords of a century which was soon to hold tragedies considerably more massive in scale. Fallen beauty and power; man against nature; human loss; hubris...all of these hold our attention.

I will admit straight out that I loved the film with Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. Yes, there was an unlikely romance and some pretty cheesy dialogue, but the ship's magnificence and the terror of its sinking were so convincingly portrayed that I couldn't help being moved. It did give a glimpse of the individual stories as well as the magnitude of the overall disaster.

'The Convergence of the Twain', published a few years after the disaster, was one of the poems that brought me into the presence of Thomas Hardy as a great poet. The whole poem has a surreal, grotesque, almost gleeful quality which is very unnerving, particularly the idea that the iceberg was formed as the ship's "sinister mate". Hardy questioned the idea of a traditional God, but as can be seen from this poem, he certainly believed in some kind of "Immanent Will", whatever its exact nature. 'The Convergence of the Twain' suggests a belief in a divine force within nature - but not a particularly benign one.

Thursday 12 April 2012

G K Chesterton's 'The Old Song': "A Livid Sky On London..."

THE OLD SONG (G K Chesterton)

A livid sky on London
And like the iron steeds that rear
A shock of engines halted
And I knew the end was near:
And something said that far away, over the hills and far away
There came a crawling thunder and the end of all things here.
For London Bridge is broken down, broken down, broken down,
As digging lets the daylight on the sunken streets of yore,
The lightning looked on London town, the broken bridge of London town.
The ending of a broken road where men shall go no more.

I saw the kings of London town,
The kings that buy and sell,
That built it up with penny loaves
And penny lies as well:

And where the streets were paved with gold the shrivelled paper
shone for gold,
The scorching light of promises that pave the streets of hell.
For penny loaves will melt away, melt away, melt away,
Mock the men that haggled in the grain they did not grow;
With hungry faces in the gate, a hundred thousand in the gate,
A thunder-flash on London and the finding of the foe.
I heard the hundred pin-makers
Slow down their racking din,
Till in the stillness men could hear
The dropping of the pin:
And somewhere men without the wall, beneath the wood, without
the wall,
Had found the place where London ends and England can begin.
For pins and needles bend and break, bend and break, bend and break,
Faster than the breaking spears or the bending of the bow,
Of pagents pale in thunder-light, 'twixt thunderload and thunderlight,
The Hundreds marching on the hills in the wars of long ago.

I saw great Cobbett riding,
The horseman of the shires;
And his face was red with judgement
And a light of Luddite fires:
And south to Sussex and the sea the lights leapt up for liberty,
The trumpet of the yeomanry, the hammer of the squires;
For bars of iron rust away, rust away, rust away,
Rend before the hammer and the horseman riding in,
Crying that all men at the last, and at the worst and at the last,
Have found the place where England ends and England can begin.

His horse-hoofs go before you
Far beyond your bursting tyres;
And time is bridged behind him
And our sons are with our sires.
A trailing meteor on the Downs he rides above the rotting towns,
The Horseman of Apocalypse, the Rider of the Shires.
For London Bridge is broken down, broken down, broken down;
Blow the horn of Huntington from Scotland to the sea --
...Only flash of thunder-light, a flying dream of thunder-light,
Had shown under the shattered sky a people that were free.

One of my friends, another London enthusiast, introduced me to this poem a year or two ago. I haven't so far found much information about its genesis, or the precise nature of its political thrust and message. William Cobbett, appearing in this poem as a sort of Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, was a journalist and campaigner of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, fighting for Parliamentary reform and the rights of the poor, so I suppose it is along those lines. For me, inevitably, it conjured some scenes of the August 2011 riots in London - which raises even more political and social questions.

In any case, the poem's imagery is fantastically powerful, and quintessentially London: chaotic and apocalyptic, at one and the same time reeling with sensory detail and with metaphoric, archetypal resonances. My kind of poem, pretty much.

I took the above photo from the window of the penthouse in Stockwell, now part of my past. It still feels a bit sad to have given up that billion-pound view. However, when I walk out the front door of my new home and look to the right, I see Battersea Power Station looming so large and so close that it looks like it might pounce. A sight I love to see, obviously. I realised some time ago that while life really doesn't replace, it frequently offers compensation.

Friday 6 April 2012

Thomas Hardy's 'During Wind and Rain': Another Cheerful Hardy Moment


They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is my last night in my current flat. As I've said to a few people, I kind of checked out mentally at least a month ago, if not more (annoying new management, etc etc.) But there is always a wrench when I move, and I need to say "goodbye" (even aloud) when I finally close the door on the empty flat. And I will miss the view over all of London very, very much - I am unlikely to ever live in a place with such a view again. I am looking forward to the new place, though. Fresh starts can be good.

The above poem is partly about moving house, which is why it occurred to me. It is also a memento mori poem; typical Hardy. Not exactly cheerful... But still, it was another of the poems that convinced me that I could love Hardy as a poet, at least, even if warming up to his prose took a lot longer (and still hasn't quite happened.)

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Osip Mandelstam's 'Notre Dame': "To Make Grim Bulk a Thing of Beauty"

NOTRE DAME (Osip Mandelstam, translated by A Z Foreman)

Where foreign clans were tried in Roman court
The basilica stands. First in delight
Like early Adam, stretching nerves, the light
Groined archway bunches muscle out for sport.

But things outside betray the secret plan:
A pact of arch and buttress here forestalls
A burly mass from flattening the walls
In deadlock with the bold vault's battering ram.

A well-turned maze. Primeval wood and stone.
The Gothic spirit's rational abyss.
Egyptian brawn and Christian timidness.
Reed next to oak. The plumb-line takes the throne.

But, stronghold Notre Dame, the more acutely
I studied your great ribs' monstrosity,
The more I thought: a time shall come for me
To likewise make grim bulk a thing of beauty.

Translation © A Z Foreman. Used by permission. Taken from

I'm probably not ready to write anything about Osip Mandelstam. I am sure that his name has circled around the edges of my consciousness occasionally, for years - it is certainly iconic. His influence upon so many poets and artists has been immense. Mandelstam's name shows up in Paul Celan's work, which probably caught my interest recently.

In Brest, before hoops of flame,
in the tent where the tiger leapt,
there, Finite, I heard you sing,
there I saw you, Mandelstam.

(from 'Afternoon with Circus and Citadel', Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger)

Mandelstam died quite young, because of his creative work; specifically, a famous poem targeting Stalin, The Stalin Epigram. He was born in Poland of Jewish parents but grew up in Russia. Dedicating many years of his life to Symbolist and Acmeist poetry, he became increasingly open about his opposition to Stalin's totalitarian government. He was exiled and eventually died in one of the Soviet Union's labour camps.

I love the above picture, which shows Mandelstam on the left, with his friends and fellow poets Chukovsky, Livshits and Annenkov, in 1914. Their faces betray passion and self-confidence. They could not possibly be more vivid, even filmic. It's as though they are still alive.

I thought the above poem was superb, also being an admirer of the Gothic magnificence of Notre Dame in Paris. I wondered if the final lines ("a time shall come for me/To likewise make grim bulk a thing of beauty") referred to the fact that Mandelstam bore witness to oppressive rulership and wanted to produce something transformative from his experiences. However, the poem was published in 1912, before the Bolsheviks took power - so I'm probably completely off. Still, I wonder if there is something prophetic about the words of the poem, looking ahead to the brave and tragic events of his life. Poetry certainly ventures into that territory, more so than most forms of art.