Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Paul Celan, Ursula Le Guin, and the Rose

This work of art is by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish Art Nouveau designer and artist who was known for his stylised depictions of roses.

For some time, my subconscious mind has been working on a connection between Ursula Le Guin, the great American writer of science fiction and fantasy, and Paul Celan, who needs little introduction on this poetry blog. The connection came through a short story by Le Guin from the 1970s called 'The Diary of the Rose', which appears in a collection titled The Compass Rose. The story is about a totalitarian society where an obedient and repressed "psychoscopist" named Rosa works on patients who are apparently mentally ill, but who are plainly just considered a liberal or democratic threat by the government. She is assigned to a patient named Flores Sorde, which may be transliterated as "deaf flowers", or perhaps more accurately in the context of the story, "muffled" or "voiceless" flowers.

In the world of this story, psychoscopists are able to use sophisticated equipment to literally see the innermost workings of a patient's mind, as visual images. In the complex, multi-layered mind of Flores Sorde, she sees a vivid image of a rose.

I have never seen any psychoscopic realisation, not even a drug-induced hallucination, so fine and vivid as that rose. The shadows of one petal on another, the velvety damp texture of the petals, the pink color full of sunlight, the yellow central crown - I am sure the scent was there if the apparatus had olfactory pickup - it wasn't like a mentifact but a real thing rooted in the earth, alive and growing, the strong thorny stem beneath it. (from 'The Diary of the Rose')

Flores Sorde is showing something to Rosa that she vitally needs to know. She sees it, but the breakthrough is not enough to save either of them.

In the poems of Paul Celan, images of plants and growing things recur, and especially the rose. One of his most famous collections is called Die Niemandsrose, or The No-One's Rose. This title is taken from a poem called 'Psalm', which may be found (among others) in translation by John Felstiner, on this link (scroll down almost to the bottom to find this poem in particular):

PSALM (Paul Celan)

(The link is on the New York Times website and seems to be giving some trouble: if you can't access it, I suggest doing a search for "Paul Celan", "Psalm" and "John Felstiner" and you should be able to find the link and access it that way.)

Through this story by Ursula Le Guin, I understood something about what Celan was doing. His poems are abstract and surreal, so often, but what we are "seeing" when we read his poems is a direct projection, from his tortured mind, of the rose. Which is, of course, much more than a rose.

Poetry is so often about access: more direct than in so many other art forms, and that is why it takes us closer to the truth. Le Guin's 'The Diary of the Rose', and Celan's 'Psalm', and other of Celan's poems, are in part about access to the mind and heart - its dangers and its revelatory blessings. I don't know if Le Guin (who is also a poet) has read Celan, but it doesn't even matter. The connection is there and is entirely real, in any case.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Stanley Kunitz's 'Halley's Comet': The Night Sky and Memory

This link will take you to 'Halley's Comet' by Stanley Kunitz on the Poetry Foundation website. Many of his other poems, and biographical information, are also included.

HALLEY'S COMET (Stanley Kunitz)

I was simply going to post a link to this on my Facebook page which supports this blog, with a brief comment, but I thought that it might be worth a short blog post in itself.

The poem struck me because of its powerful evocation of childhood memories. The poet's memories are of a different nature from mine; a teacher in 1986 would probably not have told her class that if Halley's Comet "wandered off its course/and smashed into the earth/there'd be no school tomorrow." I was six years old when both Challenger and Chernobyl happened, as well; there was plenty of disaster going around then, already. I don't personally remember this, but my mother tells me that after the Challenger disaster, I came home from school and said to her that my young teacher had cried. As for the aftermath of Chernobyl, when we went to Finland as usual that summer, we were told to be more careful than usual about what we ate from the garden and so forth. Around when my Finnish grandmother died of cancer in 1995, other friends in that part of Finland were also being diagnosed with cancer or dying of it; it's hard not to wonder if there were connections to the disaster years earlier, although if the winds had blown otherwise, Finland might have been slapped even harder by radioactive fallout than it was.

The address to Kunitz's father, however, is something more than memory. His father died by suicide before he was born, and this presence who he never met constantly haunts his poems.

In my case, I remember seeing Halley's Comet in 1986, or maybe not seeing it. My father, mother, brother and I went out to the golf course in my hometown of Victoria, BC, which was the favoured star-gazing locale in town as it was a patch of exceptional darkness by night. We looked and looked and to this day we are not sure if we saw the comet. I think perhaps there were too many other faint and whirling stars that night to be certain. My parents are pretty sure that we did see it, and I suspect our gazes crossed it at least. Whatever really happened, it is a good memory. Years later, in 1997, we had an extraordinary view of the Hale-Bopp comet every night for weeks, immediately outside our front door practically every night (and outside a lot of people's front doors, I guess.)

The night sky is not one of my greatest fascinations, though it's perhaps just because I haven't sufficiently opened myself to it or because I have always lived in cities. The stars were much more visible where I grew up, although it is a (small) city too, but in London you really don't see much of them. I have been awestruck by the night sky in the deserts of Morocco and Australia, and even in the small desert ecosystem of the Okanagan in British Columbia. But mainly, this poem makes me think of the complex and interwoven nature of memory. Things which happened, things which didn't happen, inconclusive events, events which seem unrelated but are in fact intimately related, loss and emotion, things which have remained, lack of resolution and the eternal desire to find it.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Tomas Tranströmer Meets the Ska Spies in Brixton

A few months ago, I went with a friend who was in town for a few days to the Tomas Tranströmer event at the British Library. This wasn't just a simple poetry reading or discussion of Tranströmer's poetry; the poet himself was there. After suffering a stroke over twenty years ago, he has severely impaired speech and mobility and thus cannot read his own work. But being in the same small room with the 2011 Nobel Prize winner, celebrating his poetry - that was very special. There was discussion of his work, readings in Swedish and English, some of his favourite classical music, and a few poems set to music. The tickets were inexpensive, as they tend to be for such cultural events in London, and it was a pretty unique experience.

One of the poems that was read in both Swedish and English was 'C Major'.

C MAJOR (Tomas Tranströmer)

Krister Henriksson, who has played Wallander in the TV series based on Henning Mankell's books, was reading the poems in Swedish. As he read this particular work, the tone of his voice sort of...turned upward with an inflection that I vaguely recognise, perhaps as I'm half Scandinavian (although my Scandinavian parent is Finnish, and Finland is a somewhat different proposition from the other Nordic countries.) His voice definitely took on a humorous tone, but still in a restrained and slightly formal way - slightly self-conscious ("I know I'm being funny. Ha!"). At that moment, isolated chuckles rippled out around the room, obviously from the Swedes or fluent Swedish speakers. Some of the chuckles were pretty prolonged. When the poem was read in English, I was a little bemused. There was perhaps a gaiety and slight self-deprecation about it, but it was hardly a thigh-slapper. I sensed that this was a moment when something was lost in translation. I later described the poem (a bad idea, I know) and the reaction to my mother. She suggested that the Swedes were chuckling because "behind turned-up collars everyone was smiling." I thought that the narrator saw his neighbours in this way because he was so happy that he saw everyone else as equally happy, but she thought it had something to do with them being amused because, well, the narrator was being a bit silly, walking on air and all. I don't consider myself highly Scandinavian, but I spent a lot of time there as a child, and it's an influence, of course. When my mother described why she thought the poem got this reaction, my Scandinavian senses switched on again, and there was something there that I recognised.

My friend and I didn't feel that the evening was over after the Tranströmer event finished, so - as you do - we headed down to Brixton for some live music at Hootanannys. This is a famous live venue in south London - or just in London - and I'd been there a handful of times. They specialise in reggae and ska and they also serve some pretty decent food. The clientele is, to say the least, remarkably varied and bizarre. We had to fend off some pretty weird men. I think the most normal thing anyone said to us was "My friend used to work for the CIA" (or possibly "works for the CIA". I nearly said "Really? I love spies!" but fortunately bit my tongue just in time - saying that would probably have been a big mistake.) The spy theme continued when the hyperactive ska band on stage first played their own version of the Inspector Gadget theme, followed by a song which went "Double-double-double-double-double-O-SEVEN!" It was strange. And it was a true London night out: the contrasts will either finish you right off, or they will provide you with some of the most fun you have had all year.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Georg Trakl's 'Decline' and Earle Birney's 'David': "O My Brother We Climb..."

DECLINE (Georg Trakl - translation by Leif Hendrik)

(to Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Over the white pond
The wild birds have drawn away.
An icy wind sheers from our stars at evening.

Over our graves
The shattered brow of night inclines.
Under the oaks we rock in a silver skiff.

The white walls of the city resound continually.
Under arches of thorn
O my brother we climb, blind clock hands toward midnight.


(An Karl Borromaeus Heinrich)

Über den weissen Weiher
Sind die wilden Vögel fortgezogen.
Am Abend weht von unseren Sternen ein eisiger Wind.

Über unsere Gräber
Beugt sich die zerbrochene Stirne der Nacht.
Unter Eichen schaukeln wir auf einem silbernen Kahn.

Immer klingen die weissen Mauern der Stadt.
Unter Dornenbogen
O mein Bruder klimmen wir blinde Zeiger gen Mitternacht.

Translation from German © Leif Hendrik, 2012. Used by permission.

I'd like to thank Leif Hendrik for letting me use his translation, which also appears on his excellent Nordic Mountain blog, along with other translations and literary discussion. I have included Georg Trakl's original poem in German, for anyone who knows German, or who would like to try comparing.

I have only read a few of Georg Trakl's poems, so far, but the despair and darkness that radiates from them is palpable almost immediately. He was an Austrian poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clearly influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and he lived haunted by mental illness and drug addiction. Traumatized by experiences in World War I, he died in Krakow of a drug overdose which may or may not have been deliberate.

I read 'Decline' and froze when I came to the last line: "O my brother we climb, blind clock hands toward midnight." The implied dialogue between the dead young men in this poem is almost unbearable. This is the terribly sad scenario which the sensitive imagine when they have left the gravesites of their loved ones.

I realised that the poem was making me think of the fate of some who pursue extreme mountaineering. Perhaps this was because I read it just a few days after the recent disaster on the Mont Blanc massif. Nine died in an avalanche on the notorious Mont Maudit, and shortly afterwards, two more climbers died after being stranded in bad weather. I have been deeply fascinated by extreme mountain climbing for years - apparently, a combination of having read James Ramsey Ullman's Banner In the Sky, a novel for children based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn, when I was young; and much later, reading Joe Simpson's gut-wrenching Touching the Void, and then moving on to his other books, including The Beckoning Silence, and works by other mountain writers. It's so far from what I've experienced personally, but the visceral nature of these books and the experiences they describe transports me completely outside of myself. It's the ultimate in living vicariously. You begin to understand the dangerous philosophy that these men (and sometimes women) pursue - of living so close to death that you feel more and more alive.

Images in 'Decline' must have made me think of climbing. The icy wind, the radiant stars; and "Over our graves/The shattered brow of night inclines" conjures up a stark image of the European mountains' great north faces leaning over their dead. "The white walls of the city resound continually": this could be an image of avalanche. And finally, the twin hands of the clock climbing towards zero hour; a climb, but a deathly one.

I think that this intense association which came at me out of the poem also had to do with the fact that I'd just read Earle Birney's famous Canadian poem 'David'. Here is a link to the poem, reproduced on the University of Toronto Libraries' website:

DAVID (Earle Birney)

In a sense, these poems couldn't be much more different. 'David' is lengthy, and specific, while Tralk's poem haunts and implies and stays just out of reach in a few lines. 'David' conjures up a sense of striving and freedom and love of nature and intense friendship between two young men, and then ends it in a shattering, devastating experience. The terrible climax of the poem (or the end of the climax, you might say) is the only thing not really spelled out, hinting at the extreme trauma suffered by the narrator. There are lines here which could almost echo Trakl, at least in their horrified intensity - if not 'Decline' specifically, then perhaps another poem:

[...] At last through the fanged
And blinding seracs I slid to the milky wrangling
Falls at the glacier's snout, through the rocks piled huge
On the humped moraine, and into the spectral larches,
Alone. By the glooming lake I sank and chilled
My mouth but I could not rest and stumbled still
To the valley, losing my way in the ragged marsh.
I was glad of the mire that covered the stains, on my ripped
Boots, of his blood, but panic was on me, the reek
Of the bog, the purple glimmer of toadstools obscene
In the twilight. [...]
I suppose that this entry is more about the connections that I make while reading poetry than about one poem or the other, in the end; but the train of thought seemed worth following, and I wondered again if the loss of life so often risked in these endeavours is worth it.
The photograph at the top of this entry was taken by me at the famous Eiger Window on the Eigerwand, the mountain's legendary north face. My brother and I took a train trip up to the Jungfrau a few years ago, and I lived one of my dreams, of seeing the Eiger and even setting foot on (in?) it. Looking out of that window was a sobering experience - it was like being in a low-flying airplane, and it's only about halfway up the face. It was unforgettable.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Rudyard Kipling's 'The Way Through the Woods': Is There a Road?


They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods ...
But there is no road through the woods.

I took the above picture on a visit home to Canada (not this year's visit, but the year before.) Not quite the English woods that Kipling was no doubt describing, but it seemed right for the poem, anyway.

I reminded myself of this poem when I was writing my last entry on Conan Doyle and mentioned Kipling. As I mentioned, I'm not a big fan of Kipling, but there is something that I really love and that touches me intensely, about this poem. I suppose that it could bear a variety of interpretations, but I really don't see it as a poem about ghosts. I do believe that places can carry imprints of past events, but mainly (for me) this is a poem about memory. In 'The Way Through the Woods' it could be either ancestral memory, or distant childhood memory - "They shut the road through the woods/Seventy years ago." It reminds me that Kipling was one of those writers (and simply one of those human beings) whose life spanned particularly changeable times; his dates are 1865-1936.

The poem also made me think of certain childhood memories, particularly visiting my grandmother in Finland, until she died when I was fifteen. I know very well that she is gone and that huge changes have taken place in the house and the woods and the roads where I used to walk. I've even seen some of them. But I also know that there are memories which are as vivid as present reality and that nothing can ever change those. "There is no road through the woods" - but there is, still.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Dear Sir Arthur...Holmes Will Never Leave You Alone

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July, 1930. Due to the recent BBC Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the Robert Downey Jr films, interest in Doyle's work is probably at something like a 25-year high, if not a 50-year high or more. I thought it was especially marvellous that the Benedict fanbase and the Undershaw Preservation Trust got together to save Doyle's house in Hindhead, Surrey. (In fact, I was so delighted about this that one day I found myself with a friend in a Save Undershaw flash mob on Trafalgar Square, holding up BBC Sherlock DVDs and immortalized in photographs for eternity.)

It's quite possible, though, that Doyle would be a bit miffed at all the hoopla still surrounding his most famous character - an eccentric cocaine addict currently making waves as a "high-functioning sociopath". Doyle felt that his historical novels such as The White Company, and his later interest in spiritualism, were the legacies that he should leave to the world. He even tried to chuck Holmes off a high waterfall (I've been to the Reichenbach Falls - it's no joke) and ultimately didn't succeed. The fact is, though, that Doyle was by far at his best when he wasn't taking his writing too seriously; he was just that kind of writer. The Holmes stories, The Lost World, Brigadier Gerard, the horror-ish penny dreadful type stories - this is where he really shone.

I of course am utterly charmed by all the Holmes obsession floating around these days. RDJ is surprisingly entertaining (and Jude Law is a pretty cute Watson), Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and their modern London are utterly fantastic, and I'm very glad that the all-time-greatest Holmes, Jeremy Brett, seems to have gained new fans and to be back on the radar. I've written before about how extremely formative Holmes has been in my life - he's probably the number one reason I ended up in London, if you trace it back.

Doyle was a poet, as well, but of a rather hearty Victorian/Edwardian variety which can't match up to Kipling (and I say that though I'm not a big Kipling fan.) I liked his poem 'Retrospect' but I think that has a lot to do with the references to courage and duty. I'm an admirer of those kinds of traditional values. Doyle was a real British gentleman in every respect you can think of.

I tend to think that Doyle's poetic talents lay more in the realm of clever doggerel. In 1912, critic Arthur Guiterman wrote the following poem both in criticism of and homage to Doyle:

Gentle Sir Conan, I'll venture that few have been
Half as prodigiously lucky as you have been.
Fortune, the flirt! has been wondrously kind to you,
Ever beneficent, sweet, and refined to you.
Doomed though you seemed --
One might swear without perjury--
Doomed to the practice of physic and surgery,
Yet, growing weary of pills and physicianing,
Off to the Arctic you packed, expeditioning.
Roving and dreaming, Ambition that heady sin,
Gave you a spirit too restless for medicine;
That, I presume, as Romance is the quest of us,

Made you an Author -- the same as the rest of us.

Ah, but the rest of us clamor distressfully,
"How do you manage the game so successfully?
Tell us, disclose to us how under Heaven you
Squeeze from that inkpot so splendid a revenue!"
Then, when you'd published your volume that vindicates
England's South African raid (or the Syndicate's),
Pleading that Britain's extreme bellicosity
Wasn't (as most of us think) an atrocity --
Straightway they gave you a cross with a chain on it--
(Oh, what an honor! I could not attain to it,
Not if I lived to the age of Methusalem!)--
Made you a Knight of St. John of Jerusalem!

Faith! as a teller of tales you've the trick with you!

Still there's a bone I've been longing to pick with you:
Holmes is your hero of drama and serial;
All of us know where you dug the material
Whence he was molded -- 'tis almost a platitude;
Yet your detective, in shameless ingratitude--
Sherlock your sleuthhound with motives ulterior
Sneers at Poe's "Dupin" as "very inferior!"
Labels Gaboriau's clever "Lecoq," indeed,
Merely "a bungler," a creature to mock, indeed!
This, when your plots and your methods in story owe
More than a trifle to Poe and Gaboriau,
Sets all the Muses of Helicon sorrowing.
Borrow, Sir Knight, but be decent in borrowing!

Still let us own that your bent is a cheery one,
Little you've written to bore or to weary one,
Plenty that's slovenly, nothing with harm in it.
Much with abundance of vigor and charm in it.
Give me detectives with brains analytical
Rather than weaklings with morals mephitical --
Stories of battles and man's intrepidity
Rather than wails of neurotic morbidity!
Give me adventures and fierce dinotheriums
Rather than Hewlett's ecstatic deliriums!
Frankly, Sir Conan, some hours I've eased with you
And, on the whole, I am pretty well pleased with you.

Doyle, good man, came back with the following:


Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
“Where are the limits of human stupidity?”
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because “in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe’s Dupin as very ‘inferior’.”
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I’ve praised to satiety
Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But is it not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation’s crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
The doll and its maker are never identical.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Poetry Parnassus on Sunday: Turkish 'Hawk In The Rain', Odessa to Kazakhstan, Translated Wonders and Word From Africa

The above picture is the 'World Record' desk in the Saison Poetry Library, where poets had in the course of the week signed their names and hand-written copies of their poems for posterity.

My first Poetry Parnassus event on Sunday was the Ted Hughes Celebration, featuring Christopher Reid, Simon Armitage, David Constantine, Helen Constantine and a Turkish translator whose name I have regrettably forgotten (anyone remember?). I especially loved hearing 'The Hawk in the Rain' in Turkish: the percussive syllables seemed to work really well for that poem. There was much discussion of Ted Hughes's work on Modern Poetry in Translation, which David and Helen Constantine have been editing, and this was a bit beyond my scope but translation was obviously a strong focus of Poetry Parnassus so it was all interesting. I enjoyed hearing Paul Eluard's poem 'Poisson' (Fish) in the original French and then in Hughes's translation. The discussion about Hughes's translation of Ferenc Juhász's 'The Boy Changed Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets' was totally fascinating; he didn't know Hungarian, but somehow just knew that a previous translation was inadequate, and made his own (again...without knowledge of Hungarian!) which is considered masterful. (Is this hubris, or prophetic poetic vision? Given that we're talking about Ted Hughes, it could easily be either or both).

Before the start of this session, I spoke briefly with Akerke Mussabekova, who was Kazakhstan's poet at the festival and the youngest poetic delegate, and who I'd also met on Friday night when she arrived for Continental Shift with Carmela from Poet in the City, who had recognised me from Poet in the City events (Carmela, I'm very impressed that you remembered me!!). Akerke Mussabekova was a beautiful and tiny woman, a little shy but obviously happy to be there, and judging from her poem in the World Record anthology which accompanies the festival, she is a very talented poet.

After this, the Maintenant reading was drawing to a close in the Clore Ballroom just around when I got there, and I had just bought Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing In Odessa when I realised (completely by coincidence) that he was taking the stage. I sat in the audience and listened in wonder as he read like a wild-eyed sing-song Russo-Ukrainian-American Yeats x 1000. I looked around and saw quite a few others with eyes popping out of their heads and jaws slightly agape. Afterwards, Kaminsky signed the book for me. He had a very warm presence about him.

Subsequently, I caught some or more of the Banipal, Modern Poetry in Translation and Poetry Translation Centre readings. The latter, in particular, really amazed me. Sarah Maguire quite correctly and bravely stated that the white-middle-class-ivory-tower air of poetry in Britain doesn't reflect the vital nature of poetry around the world, and she and others with the Poetry Translation Centre have worked hard to bring African, Middle Eastern and Central Asian poets to a wider audience. Reza Mohammadi's poems totally transfixed me - he writes in Dari (modern Persian) and is originally from Afghanistan. His delivery transported me to somewhere much more remote and magical than the Clore Ballroom (although it was pretty good this past week) - he had the intense eyes and precise yet sweeping gestures of a prophet. It was thrilling to hear the Eritrean poet Ribka Sibhatu, and I was especially excited about the poems of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi from Sudan, which are exquisitely beautiful. He was also kind enough to sign the chapbook of his poems after the session. We learned that due to current unrest in Sudan, many of his friends have been arrested and if he were in the country, he would probably be in prison as well. It was another sobering reminder of what poets and their ilk may go through in other countries.

Word From Africa was a wonderful conclusion to the festival. Earlier in the week, in the Saison Poetry Library, I had stood a few feet away while a distinguished older African poet recited his poem for a video recording, in French - it was a lovely moment. I found out on Sunday night that this was Paul Dakeyo, who read some more of his work, and who is an African poetic legend from Cameroon. His poems were incredibly beautiful and moving and it was wonderful that I could appreciate the French.

Paul Dakeyo reading during Word From Africa:

There were poets from various African countries, and the Bajan-British poet Dorothea Smartt (pictured above with Paul Dakeyo), and poets of African extraction who'd grown up in Britain, and so on - it gave a fantastic variety to the mix. I was joined by some friends and had a drink with them, so I'm afraid we were a bit distracted at this point, and later we went out to find a pub showing the Spain-Italy Euro 2012 final (which was good fun, though football is not my thing - how Canadian am I?). But we returned in the end for some Afro-Caribbean music by a funky little band (whose name also escapes me - anyone?). There were relatively few poetry/music survivors around at that point, and some of us were very bad dancers, but it was great fun. I longed to see Seamus Heaney suddenly appear and start grooving in front of the stage. I can imagine it happened...

There were too many highlights to name from Poetry Parnassus. As well as some of those I've mentioned, I was delighted to meet Simon Armitage on one of the staircases and to thank him for the hard work he'd done to get this event together. He seemed pleased and said that they were all planning to collapse at the end of the day. Simon, thank you again, and to everyone involved and especially the poets.

This was one of my cultural highlights of my London years and in terms of where my poetry appreciation is at, I don't think it could have come at a better time. I have lots of reading and writing to do!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Poetry Parnassus on Friday and Saturday: Lost Geographers, Shifting Continents, Poetic Emergencies and Revolution

Poetry Parnassus, this past week at London's Southbank Centre, was a really extraordinary experience and one which I wish hadn't come to an end quite so soon. I took in a good many events, but I wish that I could have somehow gone to even more, or all of them...

On Friday, I spent about half the day at the festival. My first event was the Geography For The Lost workshop with Bulgaria's Kapka Kassabova. I'd chosen this because poetry of travel and place is one of my chief enthusiasms and the prime inspiration for a lot of my own writing. I wanted to find different ways to approach this kind of writing, and the workshop was really stimulating. We read a variety of poems and approached travel poetry as descriptions of place, as reflections of relationships, and so on. It was encouraging to see what a variety of people had joined this small workshop, too - maybe unsurprisingly given its nature, between us we'd been born on or lived on virtually every continent.

The star event of Poetry Parnassus was in the evening - Continental Shift, featuring the following poets:

Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
Seamus Heaney (Ireland)
Bill Manhire (New Zealand)
Kay Ryan (USA)
Jo Shapcott (UK)
Kim Hyesoon (South Korea)
Togara Muzanenhamo (Zimbabwe)

This was an incredible lineup. I had seen Seamus Heaney a couple of times before, but he is a delightful reader and he always seems to choose different poems. I found his reading of the Song of Amergin, and 'I Am Raftery' in Irish, really moving, as were his own 'Two Lorries' and 'A Peacock's Feather'. Wole Soyinka had an incredible presence and body of work, only disturbed by the fact that his own mobile phone went off during one of his poems; a pretty hilarious moment. (He muttered something like "Oh my God, if this is who I think it is...") Seeing two such elder statesmen of poetry (sorry for the cliche, but what else can you call these two Nobel Prize winners?) at the same event was very exciting. As well, I was totally disturbed and fascinated by Kim Hyesoon, especially 'The Sublime Kitchen'. Bill Manhire's 'Erebus Voices', about the Air New Zealand/Mt Erebus disaster, made me cry. Togara Muzanenhamo was, I think, a late addition, but superb. He had undergone an odyssey, as two years previously he'd not been able to get a visa for the UK, and for this event his visa had only come through at the last minute. Such experiences weren't uncommon for a good few of the poets at Poetry Parnassus, I think, and apparently some failed to get a visa, again.

Seamus Heaney at Continental Shift:

On Saturday morning I went to Bill Manhire's workshop about memory exercises, which was fruitful. A few meaningful coincidences, too; he made reference to Wallace Stevens's 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which I hadn't been very familiar with previously but had read just a couple of days before the festival. I then caught some of the free readings in the Clore Ballroom, sponsored by various publishers and journals. I loved the poem by Zambia's Kayo Chingonyi about cassette tapes - great for those of us over a certain age - and it was lovely to hear George Szirtes read 'Mapping the Delta', and to meet him briefly. (Another coincidence: on Sunday, at Poetry Review's stand where they had a free Lucky Dip, I picked up a copy of 'Mapping the Delta', to my delight.)

I also paid a visit to the Emergency Poet, which was so nice. Deborah Alma invites patients into her old ambulance, asks questions such as "Do you enjoy walking by the sea and how often do you get to do it?", "Are there any types of poetry you are allergic to?" and "What books would be on your desert island list?", and then makes suitable poetic prescriptions. I got an excerpt from T S Eliot's 'East Coker', and Wendell Berry's 'The Peace of Wild Things', both of which were quite spot-on to ease my nervous disposition. Deborah Alma also works with dementia patients using poetry, so I felt that there was a serious intent behind the fun.

The Emergency Poet's ambulance:

A little later, there was another amazing event, 'They Won't Take Me Alive: Women and Revolution'. This was a panel and reading, featuring Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua), Chiranan Pitpreecha (Thailand), and Farah Didi (Maldives). All have in one way or another been politically involved and used poetry to bring attention to the issues of their countries and the personal impact of oppression, war and loss. Again, I was really struck by how powerfully meaningful poetry is in such countries, and how even writing poetry can be a brave, dangerous act. Amanda Hopkinson read poetry by Alaide Foppa, who was "disappeared" in Guatemala in the 1980s. When 'Exile' was read, many people in the room were in tears, including myself.

I then had a quick drink with a friend, and we discussed Eliot and Pound while overlooking the Thames, and then I called it a day for poetry. I'll write about Sunday at Poetry Parnassus shortly, but must call it a night, now!