Sunday, 30 March 2014

David Morley's The Gypsy and the Poet: "Worlds Move Underfoot..."

The Gypsy and the Poet by David Morley. Carcanet Press (2013)
David Morley's most recent collection, The Gypsy and the Poet, reflects his background in ecology and his Romany heritage, but it is also a unique tribute to one of the most celebrated poets of the English countryside, John Clare. Many of the poems make up an ongoing dialogue between Clare and a mysterious Gypsy named Wisdom Smith.
Wisdom Smith appears briefly in John Clare's notebooks, and Morley uses this as a starting point for a series of playful, joyous sonnets made up of springy, alliterative verse which occasionally turns sombre (as when Clare says "Were poems children/I should stamp their lives out" and Wisdom Smith responds "Then do not make them", in 'My Children'.) I found myself wondering if Wisdom Smith was simply another aspect of Clare's complex personality (or is Clare another aspect of Wisdom Smith?) and if the sequence was a sort of Yeatsian dialogue of self and soul. This is particularly the case towards the end of the collection, as Clare descends into madness and the corporeal reality of the two figures' encounters becomes more doubtful. I think the poems can be read either as real encounters or as aspects of one personality, but in any case, the two characters have much to teach each other. Each sees the world at an angle that the other finds challenging, and so they bring each other to new understandings, even if it's through banter and mockery:
'I do not read, brother,' states Wisdom smiling,
'for I will not bother with Mystery.
Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?'
(from 'Worlds')
Wisdom Smith gets Clare to live in the moment, in the natural world; Clare gets him to look more seriously at poetry.
'Poetry is in season,' laughs John. 'Rooms woven from wound wood
are like rooms of woven words.' Wisdom looks at Clare - hard.
'Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,' smiles the Gypsy.
'You are wrong,' dances Clare. 'Everything. Everything is poetry.'
(from 'Bender')
The poems are highlighted by English and Romany epigraphs, which heighten the impression of a dialogue between two cultures, both at home in the natural world, but in different ways.
The book is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are the John Clare and Wisdom Smith sonnets. The central section is made up of a variety of nature poems, including pieces which became part of the Slow Art Trail in Strid Wood, poems based on birdsong and painted on bird boxes, and shape poems. I am not really a fan of shape poems in general, but I saw all the poems in this section as a kind of extension of John Clare's (and David Morley's) notebooks and his observations about his life in the natural world. These poems are a record of what is happening around us, often unperceived, and they go a long way to show us how complex and intertwined the natural world is. Two poems, 'Fight' and 'Ballad of the Moon, Moon' are based on Lorca and his rich, strange perceptions of the Gypsy world.
The Gypsy and the Poet is a book to be taken out and read in the fields or the forest, but if this isn't possible, it can at least take the reader there in imagination and provide new insights into our relationship with the natural world and with other cultures, all wrapped up in some very colourful, distinctive and haunting verse.
BARDEN TOWER (David Morley)
I have heard a tourist claim this view
as though she had bought it at cost -
an expensive mirror. Unseen and ornately
ivy throws its ropes across the leaf-litter
shifting a forest's massive furniture;
the moss robes veil the thrones
of fallen oaks; trees flare with lichen;
Autumn smashes rainbows across
the woodland floor. You may never
have seen these trees more brilliantly
than when you turned your eyes
to that hunting lodge and sensed the light
kindle a million leaf mirrors.
In his woods near Lake Tuusula
Jean Sibelius shaped symphonies
from the speech of trees; firs bowed
violins while his swans sailed, keening.
Before his death a solitary swan
veered over and made him her own.
I am close to you who once shared this view.
This is not my sky, my flight, my words. This is not a mirror.
                                                     Walking from Embsay back to Barden Bridge
Poem © David Morley, 2013. Artwork © Peter Blegvad. Used by permission.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

In Print: Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and The Gathering Poem

Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1874.

I've recently had a couple of poems (or lines, as you'll see) published in print, which is a special thrill undiminished by all the amazing things poetry is doing on the Internet these days.

Some time ago I entered the second Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Contest, and while I didn't win anything, my poem was selected as one of a number of entries to appear in a collection, Pre-Raphaelite Poetry II. It is a poem called 'Merlin' which I wrote when I was about 21 and which was based on The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones - which also happens to be the painting which I chose as the logo for this blog. My Arthurian obsession, which has since receded somewhat, was still at its peak then. I feel as though things have come full circle with the publication of this poem. You can read more about the collection and buy it here.

The other publication, though my contribution was small, is quite exciting. In 2013, Irish tourism institutions organised The Gathering, a year-long celebration of Irish culture in Ireland which also encouraged those with Irish roots, or a love of Ireland, to visit the country. I am not doing particularly well in that respect these days because although I have a partly Irish background and used to live there, I haven't visited for several years. However, I was interested to learn of The Gathering Poem, an initiative to create a poem "about Ireland and by the people of Ireland" by collecting contributions of lines of poetry and then editing them into a single poem. I submitted a few lines and to my delight, two lines were among those chosen. While there were thousands of submissions, the final poem was only fifty lines long and there were fewer than forty contributors, so it was quite an honour to be chosen. It has now been published in a beautiful little book, which also includes other selected lines, comments about the project and so on, and you can buy it on the website. Only a few months before his death, Seamus Heaney called the idea of The Gathering Poem "a vision with vision". It's nice to have given something back to Ireland, especially in poetry form.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Going Into the Room: Turner, Mahon, MacNeice

JMW Turner, The Wreck Buoy, 1807 (reworked 1849)

Last weekend I went to the Turner and the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I've seen a lot of Turner paintings and quite a few exhibitions, but this was really great, and got better as it went along. There were some of the great paintings which permanently reside in the London galleries, such as The Fighting Temeraire and Snow Storm, but there were also equally amazing oil paintings from galleries elsewhere in the UK and the US; paintings of shipwrecks; delicate watercolours and quick sketches which were exquisite; and a whole range which showcased both Turner's genius in different mediums and styles, and also all the ways in which the sea inspired him.

As I looked at these amazing works by a painter who I love, I felt a very welcome lifting of stress, though it also came with some heightened emotion. It was quite a cleansing feeling. The news has been particularly dark in the past couple of months; constant rolling coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, and the weirdly blank (because they have no news) coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, have all been mentally wearing, as well as the ongoing nightmares of Syria and other places. These events can be distressing even if we are only exposed to them through the media and are not, for now, caught up in the middle of them. The world is a difficult place to live in at this time. I have been reading Mark 13, where Jesus and his apostles discussed "the sign when all these things are to come to a conclusion" (Mark 13:4). "Moreover, when you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not be alarmed; these things must take place, but the end is not yet," said Jesus (Mark 13:7), pointing to conflicts and other "pangs of distress" that would afflict humanity. My strong belief that the increasingly acute world events of the past 100 years are an indication of coming changes, and that things won't always be this way, is incredibly encouraging. But these are still difficult times.

The arts can also have a therapeutic effect in stressful times, and I felt it at the Turner exhibition. I came to a realisation, too. Here it is:

Poetry is like going into a room. When you write it, or when you read it, you go into the room, and you try to work things out. The room could be the size of the whole world, or the size of your heart, or anything in between. You could open the windows and let in floods of light, or it could be completely dark and closed. You could break down the walls, or they could be transparent. There might be one other person there, or crowds, or no one. There could be blank walls, or great artwork, or something utterly unexpected. Perhaps you will feel better, or less confused, or perhaps more confused. But whatever happens, there is always a room, and you go in, and try to work things out.

Along with this, I thought of two poems. One is 'Everything Is Going to Be All Right' by Derek Mahon. Here's a video of him reading it:

The other is 'Order to View' by Louis MacNeice, one of Derek Mahon's greatest influences.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Encounters: Joseph Brodsky, Valentina Polukhina and Daniel Weissbort

Joseph Brodsky c. 1973, University of Michigan. Photographer unknown

Today was UNESCO World Poetry Day, which doesn't really mean all that much because every day can be World Poetry Day, but I still approve of a day officially for poetry. A good time was had by all poetry folks on social media, for sure, and some were able to go to special readings and other events marking the occasion.

I wanted to share an anecdote which I suppose has something to do with poetry's reach. I recently wrote here about the poetry reading that I went to featuring Clare Pollard, Fleur Adcock and Michael Symmons Roberts. After that reading I was able to chat with David Harsent and his wife, the actress Julia Watson - I had a good reason to do so, as they have LAMDA connections and helped us with some matters relating to development of a new publication. They were lovely and it was a great pleasure particularly as David Harsent is one of my favourite poets.

Before the reading, though, I had an equally interesting encounter. I was hanging about sipping my glass of wine and trying to look nonchalant when I realised that I was inadvertently (well, sort of) eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between a Russian lady and a gentleman. They were talking about Joseph Brodsky and the Russian lady was recalling moments from interviews she'd conducted with John Le Carré and Derek Walcott about Brodsky (and other matters, apparently - there was some discussion of Derek Walcott's cat.) I was slightly agog, particularly given that John Le Carré and Walcott are two of my literary heroes. So by the time I admitted to them that I was completely eavesdropping, and the gentleman wandered off, I was able to slip into a few minutes of conversation with this interesting lady. I asked her about her writing and work and she told me that she had written many books about Brodsky. She then mentioned that her husband was the late Daniel Weissbort. I was a bit dumbfounded - Daniel Weissbort died only a few months ago and I had read many tribute articles and obituaries. He was the founder of Modern Poetry in Translation, along with Ted Hughes. She herself was Valentina Polukhina, not only a Brodsky expert but a major scholar and advocate of Russian literature for English speaking audiences. I told her that I didn't know a lot about Brodsky but that I adored Mandelstam, and she said "The advantage of Mandelstam is that he has been translated by many different people, so you have a lot of choice." I also told her, quite sincerely, that I would rather read Modern Poetry in Translation than most journals dedicated to contemporary English-language poetry, and she seemed happy about that. When we introduced ourselves, she said to me that the name Clarissa was also found in Russia, but that it was considered quite aristocratic.

It was a lovely, striking encounter. A couple of days ago, the fantastic lyrikline website of international poetry in translation shared a blog post with readings by Brodsky - they shared a number of great poets reading their work, leading up to World Poetry Day. His reading of his poems in the original Russian is absolutely hypnotic. Also, I wanted to highlight these selections from his 'Part of Speech', which was translated by Daniel Weissbort.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Michael Symmons Roberts: "Antarctica Is Sleeping Now..."

Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman's Cottage, 1906. Art Institute of Chicago.

A few days ago I went to a poetry reading in Notting Hill which featured Clare Pollard, Fleur Adcock and Michael Symmons Roberts. Pollard read from her powerful versions of Ovid, Fleur Adcock was funny, sharp and touching, but I admit I had come mainly to hear Michael Symmons Roberts. His collection Drysalter, which has won the Forward Prize and the Costa Poetry Prize as well as being nominated for the T S Eliot Prize, is among my favourites of recent years. It features 150 poems of 15 lines each - they have been called "super-sonnets". The poems are technically very impressive, but mainly I found that they pack an enormous emotional punch. Some images made me draw a sharp breath:

Then one day the world drops into your hands
like a bruised fruit, a-buzz with what you take
for wasps but is in truth all human life.

(from 'Something and Nothing')

O pilot cast as smithereens, navigator lost
in pine straw. God of rescue, withhold not.
O come. We are waiting for our future.

(from 'Orison')

It is a very interwoven collection: certain images and themes return, grow, expand, turn in upon each other - the Hotel Splendide, personified darkness, booths, psalmists, prayers. Drysalter is just a very powerful, solid collection with few if any weak poems.

I asked Michael Symmons Roberts afterwards if it would be ok to reproduce one of the poems here and he kindly agreed. Among others, he read a poem called 'Antarctica'. I knew the poem already from reading the collection - it was pretty much a predictable instant favourite because of my obsession. It also reminded me quite acutely of P K Page's great 'Stories of Snow', one of a relatively few poems which have been truly life-altering for me. This had to do with the images and juxtaposition in both poems of ice and snow with flowers and tropical landscapes, but I think there is also a sense in both poems that we try to complete something missing within ourselves through mental and emotional leaps originating in places and needs which may be hermetic - sealed off - even to ourselves. At the end of the poem - which, curiously, feels almost like a beginning - the mysterious inhabitants of this "alter-Antarctica" attempt to read the future. I see this as an attempt at greater self-knowledge, to get closer to the beautiful and maddening paradoxes that we create for ourselves, even unconsciously.

Symmons Roberts mentioned that his family had a fascination with Antarctica and that they had discovered a distant family connection to the McMurdo who travelled on the HMS Terror and gave his name to Antarctica's McMurdo Sound and other landmarks. Readers of this blog will probably already know that I'm obsessed with Antarctica, and they might know that my family has its own distant, degrees-of-separation connection; my grandparents knew Kathleen Shackleton, the artist sister of Ernest Shackleton, and we own her portrait of my grandfather. So I sort of understood that, too.


Is sleeping now, its bright fields intercut with suburbs,
ordered rows of clapboard homes, pin-sharp backyards
all ablaze with jasmine and magnolia.

Its citizens are freer than the rest of us,
living off starfruit from the ice forests, bleached quails
that ripen in the milk-orange groves.

No one sleeps alone here, and only fishermen dream
of wax-white orcas, blind and red-eyed, circling
under ice-sheets swept by katabatic winds.

Of course, this is not true Antarctica, where clutches
of tough scientists cross dates off charts. No,
this is alter-Antarctica, home to sibling-selves.

Once a month they send a greyhound to the brink,
where ice peters into water. Then the dog pelts back.
The time it takes gives them a reading of the future.

'Antarctica' © Michael Symmons Roberts, 2013. Taken from Drysalter, published by Cape Poetry (Random House Group). Used by permission.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Vasko Popa: "A Universe Passing Through a Universe"

Plaque at Vasko Popa's house in Belgrade.

I started reading Serbian poet Vasko Popa's poems late last year, and my rather unacademic commentary on his work is that it has absolutely blown my mind. I may have encountered him before, particularly since his poem 'Belgrade' ("White bone among the clouds/Bone of our bones") has appeared in recent years as one of London's Poems on the Underground. He was largely new to me, though, and I was swept into a world of Serbian folk mythology and historical archetypes, surreal and disturbing parables and games, and sardonic, funny commentaries on human nature.

Ted Hughes was a huge fan of Popa, and in a famous introduction to Popa's work, he commented: "It is the Universal Language behind language, and when the poetic texture of the verbal code has been cancelled (as it must be in translation, though throughout this volume [Anne Pennington's] translations seem to me extraordinary in poetic rightness and freshness) we are left with solid hieroglyphic objects and events, meaningful in a direct way, simultaneously earthen and spiritual, plain-statement and visionary." This is a very good point of entry into Popa's work, and it says much about why I'm becoming so obsessed with Eastern European poetry; the way in which it can be both corporeal and spiritual, prosaic and mystic, is absolutely remarkable to me.

Vasko Popa's most famous translator is Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, but so far I've mostly read Anne Pennington's highly regarded translations. You can read her translation of 'The Little Box' here:

THE LITTLE BOX (Vasko Popa, translated by Anne Pennington)

And here you can listen to Popa reading his poem 'Poetry Reading for the Gastarbeiters' in the original Serbian, although you will need to track down the English translation elsewhere - perhaps in the collection published by Anvil Press Poetry.