Thursday, 29 November 2012

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In Memoriam: Poetry for Paul Celan and Keith Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 November 2012

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

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

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

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


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

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

(Original French)


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

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

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2012

Sunday, 18 November 2012

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

Glendalough photo by Sean MacEntee. Used under Creative Commons license


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from 'Stag's Leap')

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

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

(from 'Stag's Leap')

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

Saturday, 10 November 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem and essay © Jim Newcombe, 2012

"Poetry Is Everywhere; It Just Needs Editing"

Ladybird photo © Gabrielle Warr, 2012

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

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

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


SEA GRAPES (Derek Walcott)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for home...

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

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

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Edinburgh: The Scottish Poetry Library and Robert Fergusson

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

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

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

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