Saturday, 22 December 2012

George Szirtes 'In The Land of the Giants' - Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden

Last Saturday I spent a very pleasant hour and a half In The Land of the Giants, which on this occasion was the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, for the launch of George Szirtes's new collection of poems for children.

I know George very slightly and I was quite charmed that he remembered me. The atmosphere of the reading was just very peaceful and lovely and I think we all found it to be an oasis from bad news, end-of-year madness, and so on. The poems were interspersed with guitar music and singing from Andy Kirkham, which included classics and originals and a bit of everything. There were children in the audience, who were obviously pretty enraptured, and I thought it was important that they were there.

Here are a few more photos, all of which are by Habie Schwarz:

I wasn't sure which of the wonderful poems in this varied book to include here. The subject matter ranges widely; some are fantastic for younger children, some are probably more to be appreciated by parents. There is also a selection of translations from the Hungarian, by Ottó Orbán and Zoltán Zelk, among others. I loved 'The Lost Sock Mystery', which references MI5 and which by a happy coincidence I first read online while rolling socks and watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Alec Guinness. However, this poem is one that I found particularly haunting and truthful.


Space comes out at night
When stars look far away
And clouds stray
Across the moon
Like shadows on a silver tray

Space grows thick at night
When you're sure it's there
Not like in the daytime
When the sheer blank air
Is simply light
In flight

Space is when you know
That earth is not alone
That like other planets
It is a spinning stone

And you grow dizzy with the thought
Turning in your sleep
Which too is made of space
Dense and dark and deep.

And far beyond your dreams
Beyond their weightless mass,
Spin molecules and stars,
And fires and streams of gas

That wake to winter dark
In our spinning ark,
And you, small flickering spark,
You make your mark.

Poem © George Szirtes. Photos © Habie Schwarz. Used by permission.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

'Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel' at the Battersea Arts Centre

Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel photo by Peter Dibden Photography

I went tonight to a poetry performance at Battersea Arts Centre called Red, Like Our Room Used To Feel. I had pre-booked my ticket, but I was on my way home from a Pilates class and I have to admit that it crossed my mind to skip it, especially when the bus was late and I wondered if I would be on time. I was on time, in the end, although I'm not sure how much it would have mattered.

I don't want to give too much away, although I think the performance is only running for a couple more days. I will say that when you walk into the venue to collect your ticket, and they tell you to go sit on the red and white stripey chair around the corner "until he's ready to come and get you", you know that something interesting is going to happen.

There was a door that had to be opened and a choice to be made; a bit ominously, Bluebeard and The Merchant of Venice both came to mind, but the experience was far warmer and more beautiful than this might have suggested. There was also a glass of port (or a cup of tea). Poems are read to you - directly to you. The room is full of ephemera, old postcards, typewriters, random scribbled notes, a box of Yorkshire Tea. There is music.

It was all rather magical. I'm a bit at a loss as to how to describe it, especially without giving everything away, but even if I described it in minutest detail I couldn't really convey the sense of comfort and nostalgia. It was certainly one of the most unique poetry experiences I have ever had, if not one of the most unique experiences full stop. One of the poems contained an apology, too. I really liked that. It was like the apology you've waited for forever, from someone you used to care about, that you didn't think would ever come.

Here is a link to the event on the Battersea Arts Centre website, although it will probably expire shortly:

Originally from the United States, the artist, Ryan Van Winkle, is currently Poet in Residence at Edinburgh City Libraries and has also been the Scottish Poetry Library's Reader in Residence. Here is his website:

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sara Teasdale's 'Winter Stars': "Above Another City's Lights..."

This image is the Evening Star, from the Moon and Stars series by the Czech Art Nouveau painter and designer, Alphonse Mucha. I really love Mucha's work, as the whole Art Nouveau aesthetic appeals to me and I'm generally keen on the more refined versions of poster art.

WINTER STARS (Sara Teasdale)

I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit's wings -
I bore my sorrow heavily.

But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.

From windows in my father's house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city's lights.

Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world's heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American poet who was critically acclaimed in her time and won the first Columbia Poetry Prize in 1918, a prize which later became the Pulitzer. Born in Missouri, she moved to New York City after publishing a few collections, and also married, but unhappily. She committed suicide a few years after her marriage ended in divorce.

I found this poem in a selection of winter-themed poems on the Poetry Foundation website, and related to it, as Orion has some significance for me. It is the one constellation that I can unfailingly recognise, and it reminds me particularly of getting out of the car at my parents' house when I was growing up, and seeing it stretched across the night sky directly above me ("Above another city's lights"). The stars were quite visible in Victoria, BC, though not to the extent that I've seen in the countryside or in the desert.

I have used Orion as a kind of signpost when I have travelled to various places; even if it's at an odd angle, it gives me something to anchor myself to. Unfortunately I can't do that in London. Due to the light pollution (and other forms of pollution, I suppose) there are only a few stars visible on even the clearest of nights. As much as I love the BBC Sherlock series, there was a moment in 'The Great Game' which made me wince; as Sherlock and John walk by the Vauxhall train arches, they look up and see the sky absolutely strewn with the brightest stars. This is simply impossible - it was the kind of sky I would expect to see only well away from a large city. I miss the stars, and when I see them brightly visible in some other place, I realise how much I have missed them.

I don't know exactly when this poem was written, but the reference to "young blood flowing beyond the sea" would indicate that it is a World War I poem. Today, almost a hundred years on, we still live in difficult times, and the poem could be contemporary in the feelings it expresses, if not in style.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

"The Heart of London Beating Warm": John Davidson's 'London''

This painting is by Canaletto, who lived in London in the 1740s and 50s. I am not a huge fan, but his almost photographic ability can be amazing.

I walked across Waterloo Bridge at about 5:30 yesterday evening, when of course it was pitch dark. The illuminated dome of St Paul's, the City skyscrapers, the National Theatre in blood red and all the other sights of the Thames were quite extraordinary. It remains my favourite place for a view up and down the river, by day or by night.

Here is another wonderful (and out of copyright!) London poem cribbed from the pages of Mark Ford's anthology London: A History In Verse. John Davidson's dates are 1857 to 1909, although I do not know the exact date of this poem. The imagery of London's many voices become a single voice, or heartbeat, seems to recur in the work of so many poets.

LONDON (John Davidson)

Athwart the sky a lowly sigh
From west to east the sweet wind carried;
The sun stood still on Primrose Hill;
His light in all the city tarried:
The clouds on viewless columns bloomed
Like smouldering lilies unconsumed.

Oh sweetheart, see! how shadowy,
Of some occult magician's rearing,
Or swung in space of heaven's grace
Dissolving, dimly reappearing,
Afloat upon ethereal tides
St. Paul's above the city rides!

A rumour broke through the thin smoke
Enwreathing abbey, tower, and palace,
The parks, the squares, the thoroughfares,
The million-peopled lanes and alleys,
An ever-muttering prisoned storm,
The heart of London beating warm.

"Blessed Rage for Order": Wallace Stevens, Balancing Inner and Outer Worlds


Storm over the Keys, photo by Jim Lukach. Used under Creative Commons license

Poetry is not nearly so impenetrable as many believe; but in general it requires some effort, and some poetry more than other poetry. The work of the iconic modern American poet Wallace Stevens has no doubt defeated more than a few readers in its time. I remember coming across 'Anecdote of a Jar' in university and I distinctly recall a feeling of bewilderment and irritation. I couldn't decide if I liked it, and I couldn't quite figure out what he was getting at. But my response was not indifferent.

I don't yet feel capable of writing much about Stevens's overall body of work and I'm not sure if I ever will. It is safe to say, though, that he was constantly preoccupied with the ways in which perception shapes reality - or is reality - and vice versa. Titles of his poems include 'Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is', 'What We See Is What We Think', 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird', and 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself'. I find many of his poems rather maze-like; you're not sure whether to begin at the beginning or to work back from the conclusion. But you want to try. At least I do.

A few months ago, I read this fascinating article from the New Yorker, "What Mitt Romney Might Learn From Wallace Stevens". Of course, this was published in the run-up to the US presidential election, although I would say its intent is only partly political. Stevens was conservative in politics and life, a wealthy businessman who likely seemed practical and even boring to many. But he wrote poetry which was deeply imaginative, abstract and philosophical. I like the concluding words of the article: "Stevens believed that the best in the world (which he called 'poetry') came forward when we allowed the imagination to roam free. But ever the realist, he saw that the shore - a firm, real, substantial shore - was a place it continually 'returned' to to rejuvenate itself."

I think that I am intrigued by Wallace Stevens, and loved this article, in part because I am fascinated by people who are able to live both in the "real world" (the corporeal world, anyway) and the inner world of imagination. I am always impressed by those who can get a lot done in the real world. I don't feel I am one of them, although some who know me might disagree; maybe it's a question of perception (again!). It's too easy to get trapped in my own mind, or to go exploring in some realm that others can't know or understand. Others, to the opposite extreme, are so engaged with the "real world" that their inner life is neglected or nearly non-existent. Wallace Stevens seems to have done both to an amazing degree, and he certainly has my admiration for that. At the very least, he must have been a lot more organised than I am.


In 'The Idea of Order at Key West', Stevens describes a Muse-like woman singing by the sea, and he suggests that she creates or at least shapes the world around her as she sings.

[...] It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.

Alongside "Ramon Fernandez", a symbolic figure who may be a politically engaged critic known to Stevens, the poet describes a "blessed rage for order" which gives meaning and purpose to all that he sees around him. This is a world that in a sense becomes teleological through art.

The "rage for order" resonates with me because art can indeed be a way to chart a path through chaos. Those who know me well know that I don't like "drama" in the real world; any time it has touched me closely, it tends to be destructive and to blow my inner world into fragments, meaning that I have an even harder time than usual functioning in the outer world. I have realised that the arts are important to me because they are a way to access and explore "drama" - powerful and sometimes destructive human emotions - in a controlled environment. I think that this was partly what Stevens was getting at. The title of this blog, from Rilke, is The Stone and the Star, and I think it revolves around similar dichotomies; inner and outer worlds, restrictions and freedom, reality and imagination.

On a lighter note, I did want to point out that the American progressive-metal band Queensrÿche took the title of one of their early albums, Rage for Order, from this poem. I think Queensrÿche at their best did a pretty good job with the inner/outer worlds thing, actually. They're certainly strong on the wailing vocals and searing guitars, but their lyrics often provide searing social commentary and philosophical musings. Here is a live video of them playing 'Walk in the Shadows', from Rage for Order:

By the way, in case anyone is wondering...I really do like this kind of music in a largely non-ironic way. It's the influence of my brother, who is another English major - not all English majors are into Leonard Cohen, let's put it that way. I think that this further illustrates one of the points of this entry, actually. In general, I use poetry to go farther into the inner world; music, on the other hand, takes me out of my head and farther into a sensory "real world". (Although I'd be lying if I said it wasn't yet another form of escapism.)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Pre-Raphaelites and Poetry at Tate Britain

This painting is Love Among the Ruins by my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones. It is based on the poem of the same title by Robert Browning, which can be found on the link below. The painting and the poem both set up a striking contrast between the monumental achievements of the powerful, now crumbling, and the inexorable strength of love and the "plenty and perfection" of natural life:

LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (Robert Browning)

I went this afternoon with a friend to the current exhibition at London's Tate Britain, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which included this painting among others. I've been to a few different Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the past ten years, and as much as I enjoyed this one, I think that my favourite is still the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2003, which was based on Andrew Lloyd-Webber's personal was absolutely amazing. (I was living in Dublin at the time and was just visiting London, but it was more than worth flying over for.) I also especially liked the Waterhouse exhibition a few years ago, also at the Royal Academy.

The current exhibition grouped the works of art more or less by theme: Nature, History, Religion, Beauty, Mythology. My Pre-Raphaelite preference is very much for Mythology, so I wouldn't have minded seeing some more of those, especially as Burne-Jones is pre-eminent in such themes. It was especially exciting to see those that were new to me, though. I developed a love of Pre-Raphaelite art in large part because of Burne-Jones's affinity for Arthurian themes. This exhibition included two of Burne-Jones's tapestries on the Grail Quest - rather wonderfully, they were on loan from Jimmy Page's personal collection. Burne-Jones, Arthuriana and Led Zeppelin - it doesn't get much better.

Others have described the details and the unofficial membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood far better than I could, but I can say why I personally love the art. It is both romantic and formal, neither of which I would entirely want to do without. The women portrayed, while obviously highly idealised, are also powerful, sensual and intelligent. I can't help thinking that ideals of female beauty have gone backwards. These women are not childlike or androgynous, for example.

The movement was also very highly...integrated, if that is the right word. The Pre-Raphaelites were not only painters, or only visual artists; they had a whole design ethic, and some of the decorative material, furniture, etc associated with the movement appeared as well. There was a beautiful clavichord with an incredibly lovely painting by Burne-Jones inside.

From my current perspective, one of the most interesting points was the fact that poetry was so highly integrated into Pre-Raphaelite art. It genuinely seemed as though half the paintings had some poetic inspiration: Dante, Tennyson, poems by their own contemporaries and so forth. There was an early edition of Tennyson's Poems on display, open to the first lines of 'The Lady of Shalott', and an early edition of Christina Rossetti's poems as well. This was a time when poetic achievement was innate in the art of a nation.

I also discovered that I don't much like William Holman Hunt. Burne-Jones's remote and beautiful myths, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's remarkable women, carried the exhibition for me, and that was much as it should be.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Isaac Rosenberg's 'Fleet Street', London Life and Keith Douglas

FLEET STREET (Isaac Rosenberg)

From north and south, from east and west,
Here in one shrieking vortex meet
These streams of life, made manifest
Along the shaking quivering street.
Its pulse and heart that throbs and glows
As if strife were its repose.

I shut my ear to such rude sounds
As reach a harsh discordant note,
Till, melting into what surrounds,
My soul doth with the current float;
And from the turmoil and the strife
Wakes all the melody of life.

The stony buildings blindly stare
Unconscious of the crime within,
While man returns his fellow's glare
The secrets of his soul to win.
And each man passes from his place,
None heed. A shadow leaves such trace.

The above poem is another gem which I discovered in the pages of Mark Ford's London poetry anthology. The photograph of Fleet Street is from 1904.

It seems that Isaac Rosenberg did not write only war poems in his too-short life. There are a few reasons why this poem spoke to me, I think. I worked at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane a few years ago, and I love that part of London - although the impression given by this poem is more one that I would associate with somewhere like Oxford Circus. The media has left Fleet Street behind and it's mostly legal and other business today, which is probably where "The stony buildings blindly stare/Unconscious of the crime within" comes in. It is quieter than it used to be, anyway - although that is all relative, since we are now in 2012 rather than the early years of the twentieth century. I loved Fleet Street, Temple Bar and the City for the glimpses they gave me of the past, rather than their modern bustle.

I caught a glimpse of why Rosenberg is one of Keith Douglas's spiritual ancestors, too, and why Douglas wrote "Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying". Far more so than Wilfred Owen, for example. In both, there is an almost cold detachment which veils a great depth of emotion, a faint irony, and a constant awareness of the presence of death. Compare the final lines of 'Fleet Street' to the final stanza of Douglas's 'How to Kill':

The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(from 'How to Kill', Keith Douglas)