Saturday, 23 February 2013

'On Spies': Ben Jonson, James Bond, John Le Carré...

ON SPIES (Ben Jonson)

Spies, you are lights in state, but of base stuff,
Who, when you've burnt yourselves down to the snuff,
Stink and are thrown away. End fair enough.

I've just received my copy of the Skyfall DVD in the post, and I am looking forward to once again watching the delectable Daniel Craig as James Bond, doing insane things on the London Underground - and scary things happening at MI6 (pictured above, and not far from where I live), as well as M (Judi Dench) reciting Tennyson's 'Ulysses'. Rather awesome.

I have a peculiar fascination with spies. Sometimes it's just an idle habit of sitting on the tube and wondering who might be one. (I tend to fix on those who look like they're out of a John Le Carré novel, but it's more likely to be someone I would never think of.) It's not much to do with James Bond. As much as I love Daniel Craig, he's the only Bond I have taken much of an interest in; the violence and womanizing aren't really my thing, and most of the Bonds have not appealed to me anyway. (The fact that the suaver Bonds have done so little for me reminds of the fact that I only really like "suave" when it comes in the form of 1980s-era Bryan Ferry.)

I started reading John Le Carré when I was fairly young, probably 13 or 14, which was when I discovered The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, probably on my father's recommendation. I loved it - I have a vivid memory of sitting in the sunlight on one of the outside staircases at my junior high school, warm in the sunshine but taken by the book to somewhere cold, threatening, ambiguous and paranoid. I read quite a lot of Le Carré for some years, then less again for several more years, and I have been reading him again more seriously for the past six years or so.

I have managed to see Le Carré three times in London, which is pretty great considering he does not make many appearances. Once he gave a talk and reading at Southbank; once he read at World Book Night, transforming Trafalgar Square into the Brandenburg Gate; and I also saw him at the premiere of the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, with the stars. Surprisingly, I came to his great Karla Trilogy - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People - very late, only starting about two and a half years ago. I would now rank them among my favourite books. Among Le Carré's other works, I've also really loved A Small Town in Germany, Absolute Friends and The Constant Gardener, among others. I tend to be weak on detail and intrigue and have to reread to figure out what's going on, but the atmosphere and characters are always incomparable.

There are some obsessions which hit on a level which is subconscious, or even unconscious, and I've felt for some time that this is one of those. I have a hard time explaining it. The real world of spydom sounds dark, amoral (or immoral) and sad. Le Carré certainly explores this. His characters tend to be unglamorous (the glamorous ones are highly suspect), stressed, clinging to the Secret Service because anything else seems equally unpalatable, and with sad, confused personal lives. George Smiley, a fat little spy, is a perfect example of this; he struggles to bring loyalty and morality into a world where such things tend to be either useless or dangerous. Smiley is curiously lovable. I was moved by this quotation from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible." When I watched Alec Guinness playing him in the BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries (I now consider it one of my favourite shows and performances) I realised that on some level I relate to him, which was unnerving. (I'm still trying to work that one out.) I loved the recent film as well, with some of my favourite actors, but the miniseries was particularly wonderful and faithful.

John Le Carré is an amazing writer with an extraordinary turn of phrase ("And now it was pouring with rain, Smiley was soaked to the skin and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London"), so my fascination has much to do with that, and the Englishness of it all ("Control hated everywhere except Surrey, the Circus, and Lords cricket ground"). But I know that I'm always intrigued by the placing of ordinary people in extreme and morally ambiguous situations. Plus, throw in a healthy dose of paranoia and I am utterly enthralled.

There does seem to be a lack of spy-themed poetry. If anyone can point me to some, I'd be delighted. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a contemporary of Shakespeare, is best known as a playwright, and this epigraph 'On Spies' seems almost as though it could be spoken by a character in a play who is frustrated by clandestine operations and statecraft. It is an old and generally dishonourable profession.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

"How do poems grow? They grow out of your life"

I've had a couple of poems published in the latest issue of Shot Glass Journal, an American journal produced by Muse Pie Press and specialising in short-form poetry. (They also published me last year.) You can find my poems on this link:

'Krakow' was written about four and a half years ago, after my visit to the city, and 'Battersea Park, December' is only a couple of months old. The photograph above was partial inspiration.

I think the two poems work quite well as a pair, as they are both poems about place and displacement, in different ways.

The quotation "How do poems grow? They grow out of your life" is from American poet Robert Penn Warren.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Wallace Stevens's 'The Snow Man': "One Must Have a Mind of Winter..."

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Winter (1902)

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow...

-Wallace Stevens, 'The Snow Man'

The line "One must have a mind of winter" has been running through my mind a good deal lately. I take this as one of the signs of midwinter (or late-winter, I hope) madness. It's true that I shouldn't have much to complain about; it's not even snowing in London right now and the evidence very much suggests that I would be ill-adapted for a winter in eastern Canada or New England. (And if I ever go to Antarctica, I will have to wrap up very well.) But still, the dark and cold are driving me a bit bonkers. I will jump for joy on the day when I leave work at 5:30 PM and it is noticeably a bit lighter outside.

'The Snow Man' is a particularly serene poem, to an almost disturbing extent. It seems to show some sort of Zen annihilation of the self at work. It is, at any rate, exceptionally evocative, and it conjures up images just like the one in the painting by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, above.

THE SNOW MAN (Wallace Stevens)

Monday, 11 February 2013

Persian Poetry: The Bodleian Library...and a Yellow Stocking

At the beginning of January, I spent the day in Oxford with a visiting friend. I have been to Oxford several times - a few times as a tourist, and also for work - but it is always worth re-visiting. We took a tour of the Bodleian Library which involved malfunctioning headsets and (more excitingly) an unusual surprise visit to the Radcliffe Camera. (It is very round, and I got into trouble for taking a flash picture.) Also, my German friend spotted a German actor (famous in Germany) who happened to be in the beautiful Divinity School at the same moment when we were there. This was pretty funny because of course I would never have known who he was.

We also went to the free Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond exhibition, which will run until April 2013. This is a display of Persian manuscripts from the 11th century onward, with a strong focus on poetry. My friend was interested in this because she has been learning Iranian; I was interested because of the poetry. The poets featured included the world-famous (and popular in modern times) Rumi and Hafiz, and I enjoyed seeing how outstandingly important poetry has been in Persian culture: probably the pre-eminent art form.

This came back to me again when, a few weeks ago, I went to one of the Poetry Translation Centre's translation workshops. At these workshops, poets, writers, linguists and others get together to attempt what is best described as translation by committee, of a poet from Africa, Asia or Latin America, who may not have been previously translated into English.

It turns out that translation by committee is not nearly as terrible as it sounds. It is quite a lot of fun and the results can be excellent. The starting point is a very literal translation into English - a sort of interlinear - because it would be difficult to get a group of people together who all speak the original language and all have translation-related skills. (There is at least one person there who speaks the language, though, and hopefully a few.)

In this workshop we translated two poems by Masoud Ahmadi, a contemporary Iranian poet who like many poets from the Middle East and Central Asia has been viewed as a political threat and even imprisoned. His poems have much of the delicacy and lush romantic imagery that I associate with poems from this part of the world.

We first translated a poem called 'This Craving and this Me', and then 'The Yellow Stocking', which I preferred. The discussions included a certain amount of agonizing over a Persian flower with incredibly symbolic weight which doesn't have a name in English (it's not really a dandelion and that's very unromantic anyway); the fact that "blessed" turns out to be the best English equivalent for a word literally translated as "damned" which can be both affectionate and somewhat pejorative; and the very important detail that a stocking can introduce erotic tension, but a sock never can.


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

"It's Him" - Poetry For Richard III

Violent death on the battlefield is still a part of life in 2013, and sadly, when it hits the headlines it tends to be either young soldiers or civilians. This week a man who died on the battlefield is in the headlines once again. This time, though, the death took place hundreds of years ago, and the man was a king.

In September 2012, historians, archaeologists and enthusiasts working on a dig in Leicester announced that they had found a skeleton, in the ruins of Greyfriars church, which might be that of Richard III. The skeleton showed signs of scoliosis and of battle injuries which matched contemporary descriptions of Richard and his fate. On Monday of this week, at a press conference, it was announced that the remains were thought "beyond reasonable doubt" to be Richard's. The identification was partly based on a DNA comparison with a Canadian who is a descendant of Richard's sister.

It is startling to have a story like this in the news, and to see the excitement it has generated. Some say that this could shed major light on our perceptions of Richard III; others say it will make no difference at all. Personally, my investment in Richard, his life and his fate have everything to do with Josephine Tey's great novel The Daughter of Time, in which a detective redeems him from the charge of having murdered the Princes in the Tower. The novel's historical validity is not accepted by everyone, but it certainly convinced me at a fairly young age. The fact that I very much want Richard to not have been the murderer of the Princes is probably a good indication that I should never be a historian; I'm not exactly free from emotional bias. Still, as fascinating as this discovery is, it's unlikely to definitively solve that old mystery. (However, nothing will ever induce me to like Thomas More, who did a later hatchet job on Richard's reputation, and who was also an enemy of William Tyndale.)

I have written a poem for Richard III and for the reactions the discovery has inspired, and here it is.


-On the identification of Richard III's remains in Leicester, February 2013

That morning, words fell in flurries.
"It's him." A friend's text message,
headlines of here and now: "It's him."
Murmurs, flickers in the crowd. Cheers,
as though they glimpsed one still alive.
The king is dead, long dead, but lives.

Five hundred years and more.
Footfalls, hoofbeats, hum of cars
masked the quiet tick of bones in earth.
Now, noise and light, and the king's face,
but the king is dead. Only the eyeless skull,
the smooth curve of the spine's river.

Who would not try to speak
for the voiceless dead? We strain
to hear words on the thin pained lips,
to see light in the painted eyes.
We try to hold the fragments. But time forbids,
expectant mother, secret-keeper still.

Poem © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Anthony Wilson's Riddance: Useful Poems About Illness

Riddance, Anthony Wilson (2012, Worple Press)

Poetry of health and sickness is not an area which I have yet explored much. Recently I have been reading Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability, which revolves in part around her experience of cancer. It is an area which holds a lot of possibilities for close exploration of the links between mind and body, between the individual and society...but I think it's something I naturally shy away from, a little.

In my teens and early twenties in particular, a number of friends and family members died of cancer. While I also  have a lot of happy memories from this time in my life, there frequently seems to be something grey and bleak hovering about, and I definitely have some blanks in my memories which are not where I would have expected them to be. These years of sickness and death amongst those we loved culminated in my father's diagnosis with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, more than ten years ago now. This was a great shock and felt like a bad continuation of a pattern that was becoming set in stone. Thankfully, after some months of radiotherapy, he was declared completely clear of the illness, which has not returned.

It was partly because of the experiences of those around me that I turned to Anthony Wilson's collection Riddance with so much interest. The poems revolve around his own experience of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which time-wise seems to have followed a similar trajectory to my father's - around the start of the calendar year and into autumn.

Sharon Olds, winner of the 2012 T S Eliot Prize, was recently quoted as saying "I want a poem to be useful", and this came back to me as I read the poems in Riddance. This is a collection which could genuinely be useful to those confronted with serious illness - either those who are ill, or those who care about them. I have realised that when someone you loves becomes sick, it is very difficult - but very important - to think first about what would be most useful and helpful to them, not to you. The first words that spring to mind could be useful to you but might be not at all useful to the sufferer. A poem such as 'What Not to Say' confronts this: "I couldn't care which website you visited/explaining it really clearly./And you could try not calling me brave./Invite me to dinner. Offer me water."

As I read Riddance, I felt as though I was walking through rooms in a house. (I believe that I came across a similar metaphor in another review of the collection, though I can't now remember where.) Some of the rooms have good lighting; some are dark; some invite you to stay, and some are less inviting. They are not necessarily chronological, though they all connect in some way to the central theme - even the poems which conclude the book and seem unrelated to the theme of illness and recovery. Anthony Wilson says in his introduction that these "are an attempt to recover and celebrate all that seems most essential and affirming about the act of living." Among these, I particularly liked 'We Introverts' (well, I would): "We protect the silence at our core/with perfectly improvised chatter/and long to be home."

The shifting perspectives of the various poems particularly interested me. We get a sense of how Anthony related to his illness: as personalities to be addressed ('Tumour', 'Wart'), as something which connects him in a variety of ways to the (forwards and backwards) passage of time ('The Other Life', 'November'), and so on. I found the play of perspectives particularly subtle in this poem.

MAN IN A FLEECE (Anthony Wilson)

I disappear into grey folds,
its soft creases of flesh
which match my own.

I turn up the collar
and shuffle to the shops
for milk, the paper I will not read.

Next to you in the queue
I could be anyone,
someone fit, a jogger.

I stroke my second skin.
It catches the light in beads
which ripple up then down my arms.

The fact that an observer is likely to think that the narrator is healthy - or to not think about it at all - is both sad and hopeful. I know from experience that it can be too easy to perceive someone who is seriously ill purely in terms of their illness, almost as though they were the illness. In this poem, the speaker seems to escape and to be trapped, at one and the same time. The "beads/which ripple up then down my arm" made me think of both dewdrops, and tears; hope, and sadness.

I also found the long poem 'All Lives, All Dances, All is Loud' very moving - this was written for Anthony's friend Lucy Mason, who died of lung cancer. This poem confronts ideas of the narrative of a person's life - including illness, and more than illness - in a very personal and touching way.

Riddance is fine poetry on its own merits, and I think it also fills a need both emotionally and practically, in the difficult area of poetry about illness.

Anthony Wilson is a poet and writing tutor, and a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter. He has held writing residencies at The Times Educational Supplement, The Poetry Trust, Tate Britain and The Poetry Society. He is co-editor of The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998) and editor of Creativity in Primary Education (Learning Matters, 2005). Worple Press has published two previous collections: NOWHERE BETTER THAN THIS and FULL STRETCH: POEMS 1996-2006.

His website can be found here:

The Worple Press website can be found here:

Poem © Anthony Wilson, 2012. Author photo by Chris Parker. Used by permission.