Sunday, 28 September 2014

D H Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians': "Soft September..."

D H Lawrence in 1906


Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness,
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding
darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Soft September is upon us, and tomorrow (29 September) is slow, Sad Michaelmas. Weather-wise, it has been a fairly soft September, and "slow, sad" is a good evocation of the gradual drawing down of darkness, and the days when the dead leaves start to rustle against your ankles.

Lawrence wrote 'Bavarian Gentians' when he was ill and his early death was approaching. I have seen it described as the greatest poem of all time, by some reckonings. While I always seem to feel obliged to point out that I'm really not a fan of Lawrence (even when I like a few of his poems very much...), it is hard to escape this poem's power. The way it unites the natural beauty of the flowers with an overflowing, Keatsian description of their colour, leading into an erotically and morbidly charged descent into the underworld, evoked with long-drawn vowel sounds, is quite unforgettable. It's also quintessentially Lawrence.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal: "This Zero Hour of the Day"

London in 1938, at Tottenham Court Road. © George W Baker. Used under Creative Commons license

At this time of year I like to read Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal. Considered his greatest work by many, this book-length poem in 24 sections describes life in Europe, mainly in London, in the buildup to World War II. It's a poem of mounting tension and anxiety, but also a chronicle with MacNeice's characteristic light touch of his love affairs, his travels, and so on. It is his life in those months of late 1938, and it manages to be both superb poetry and a brilliant kind of reportage. It's completely personal as well as relevant and immediate in terms of what was happening in society and politics.

I see MacNeice as a kind of journalist - he's just so precise and readable. I can't recommend Autumn Journal too highly. I think it is quite unique amongst chronicles of a very momentous time, and it is both thrilling and daunting that his writing feels so relatable today.

Here is an excerpt from Autumn Journal - one of my favourite passages.

from AUTUMN JOURNAL (Louis MacNeice)


And when we go out into Piccadilly Circus
    They are selling and buying the late
Special editions snatched and read abruptly
    Beneath the electric signs as crude as Fate.
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
    Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
    Of which depends on somebody else's voice.
The cylinders are racing in the presses,
    The mines are laid,
The ribbon plumbs the fallen fathoms of Wall Street,
    And you and I are afraid.
To-day they were building in Oxford Street, the mortar
    Pleasant to smell,
But now it seems futility, imbecility,
    To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next. What will happen
    We ask and waste the question on the air;
Nelson is stone and Johnnie Walker moves his
    Legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square.
And in the Corner House the carpet-sweepers
    Advance between the tables after crumbs
Inexorably, like a tank battalion
    In answer to the drums.
In Tottenham Court Road the tarts and negroes
    Loiter beneath the lights
And the breeze gets colder as on so many other
    September nights.
A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
    Of leaves in Regent's Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
    Confidently bark.
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
    And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill
Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement
    And very likely will
Be used that way again. The bloody frontier
    Converges on our beds
Like jungle beaters closing in on their destined
    Trophy of pelts and heads.
And at this hour of the day it is no good saying
    'Take away this cup';
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic
    That now we should drink it up.
Nor can we hide our heads in the sands, the sands have
    Filtered away;
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
    Hour of the day.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Sean O'Brien's 'The Citizens' and Czeslaw Milosz's 'Dedication': Mirror Images

Ruins of St Casimir Church in Warsaw, Poland, 1945. Photographer unknown

This week, Sean O'Brien's poem 'The Citizens' appeared as the Griffin Poetry Prize poem of the week. You can read it here:


I am an admirer of Sean O'Brien's work (as well as having done a poetry workshop with him in London which was one of the most enjoyable I've attended.) His poetry is wry and Northern, chiseled and cold in imagery but not in feeling. Among contemporary British poets he seems to have a particularly strong feeling of place and history.

I had read 'The Citizens' before; it appears in O'Brien's collection November and I know that I appreciated it when reading the book. However, sometimes a poem really strikes you at a particular moment. In the case of this poem, perhaps it is the events surrounding my reading of it, in this dark year of 2014. When it came up on the Griffin Poetry Prize website, I re-read it several times, almost compulsively.

After reading the poem at least five times, I realised that it reminded me of another poem, which is this:

DEDICATION (Czeslaw Milosz)

I have meant to write about the great Polish poet Milosz for some time, but thus far I haven't succeeded. Honestly, the prospect intimidates me. Milosz is so monumental that I don't feel adequate to the task. But I appreciated the way that 'The Citizens' and 'Dedication' seemed to speak to each other. 'The Citizens' is undoubtedly a Milosz-ian poem.

There are images which reflect each other in the two poems: the rivers, the cities, and the potent emblems of death. There is also the keen sense of valediction and the impression that the speaker is trying almost desperately to explain himself. There is the sense of historical truth, even witness, in both poems. Beyond all that, there is also a dark ambiguity in each poem. In 'The Citizens', the speaker seems to represent a group which has committed genocide or at least acts of violence and oppression; he knows that this "[i]s what is meant by history", and acknowledges it both guiltily and confidently, with an air of justification ("What language? You had no language.") At the end of the poem, the speaker fears both that his people will not leave an acceptable legacy, and that they will be judged adversely - although "We fear that the fields of blue air at the world's end/Will be the only court we face" could indicate, more than a fear of judgment, an even greater dread that the universe might be godless.

'Dedication' is a poem I have spent some time puzzling over. I think it helps to know a bit about Milosz's complex life under totalitarian regimes and as a defector to the West, and the criticisms he faced at times regarding his political and religious views. To me it is a profoundly ambiguous poem, to the extent that I can't entirely tell if he speaks to an enemy or to a friend. I am not sure if the speaker can tell, either. Is the dead one (ones?) who the speaker addresses an oppressor, or a victim? Does the speaker address all oppressors and victims? "I put this book here for you, who once lived/So that you should visit us no more," he says in conclusion. Is this an attempt to exorcise a dark force (from his mind, more so than literally) - or a wish to no longer be haunted by the thought that his poetry did not necessarily "save/Nations or people", or even one particularly loved person? Is the speaker mourning the fact that his poetry couldn't stop conflicts between people who, under other circumstances, might live in peace and be truly good?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Charles Hamilton Sorley: 'When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead'

Poison gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. Photo taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade


When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped upon each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

In June, July and August, the world's nations have marked anniversaries of the start of World War I. So far, the horror show of 2014 has certainly proved a worthy successor to 1914. In recent months many have invoked the spectres of not just 1914 but also the 1930s. Time will tell exactly how this year will be remembered, but so far it's been both bewildering, and bang on track with the patterns and outworkings of history.

Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed at the age of 20 in 1915, when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. It seems that his work was extremely popular after his death but that he is now less known than some other World War I poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. It is very obvious, though, that he was extremely talented and that he would have gone on to write even greater poems. During his time at Oxford, Sorley had also studied in Germany before the start of the war, and his striking, moving sonnet 'To Germany' was recently discussed in the Guardian. 

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' was found in Sorley's kit after his death and it is thought to be his last poem. There is a kind of sotto voce air about it which is hugely powerful. It seems to move like a hushed and ghastly symphony. The many caesuras, or pauses in the lines, are like a muffled drum.

Sorley was plainly a realist, even a brutal one ("It is easy to be dead"), but there is also something in this sonnet that speaks to me of post-traumatic stress. Many of those who survived the wars didn't really survive, not as the healthy and reasonably happy people they were before. More is broken in wars than lives and lands, and the aftermath of so much trauma has been passed down through generations. The bleakness in this poem is extraordinary and chilling. Sadly, it makes me wonder how Sorley would have coped had he survived.