Thursday, 29 December 2016

Richard Adams and the Rabbit World of Literature

Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down and other novels for children and adults, died on 24 December. He was 96 years old.

In a year where celebrity deaths seemed nonstop, his passing was overshadowed moments after it was announced, by the death of actress Carrie Fisher, who sadly was only 60. But it was particularly hard to hear that Richard Adams was gone, given the importance of Watership Down in my life.

As a child I loved talking-animal books, a genre which seems to have gone thoroughly out of fashion (for anyone older than picture book age, at least). It was inevitable that I would read Watership Down. My first attempt was when I was seven or eight and I didn't get very far. I found the style a bit heavy and the action a little too frightening, and abandoned it. When I picked it up again I think I was ten or eleven, and I was hopelessly lost in the best possible way. I followed Hazel, Fiver and their friends out of the Sandleford warren and never looked back.

Many books have moved me, but I think there are only a few (another important one being The Lord of the Rings) which on repeated readings have proved so emotionally overwhelming that they leave me physically drained. I read and re-read Watership Down with cold shivers, with the complete disappearance of the world around me, in tears. Again and again I seemed to find myself physically in the midst of scenes - 'racing through the ochre light' of a thunderstorm ahead of a murderous gang of thugs, trying to save my friend from the deadly snare, staring awestruck at the enormous, silent movement of clouds over the downs. I have finished it and started it again immediately. I have read it several times in a year, although not for quite a few years, I admit. Despite that, its words and images are always within me. My visualisations of the book play through my head sometimes, or I hear the words, or read them behind my eyes.

Watership Down can be read as a really great adventure story blending the fantasy of anthropomorphic animals and their society with accurate details about the natural life of the rabbits and the English countryside they move through. It also has elements of allegory, particularly about the dangers of totalitarian rule. I have, however, read many beautifully written adventure stories, or allegories about fascism (I was even younger when I read Orwell's Animal Farm). What makes Watership Down unique is the way it subtly draws the reader into a literary world. It contains so many literary references that reading it is a remarkable education.

The book is famous for its epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which range from Xenophon to the Bible to Joseph Campbell to Jane Austen to Dostoevsky to WH Auden - and many others. In subsequent years, every time I have come across one of these quotations within the work of literature it was taken from, I feel a kind of time-shock and I am in Watership Down again. I discovered the World War II poet Sidney Keyes through one of these epigraphs, and he has become one of my favourites. Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Hurt Hawks' also came to me in this way. But the epigraphs are far from being the only references. Within the text itself, Richard Adams compares the adventures of the rabbits to those of Odysseus. The poem recited by Silverweed, the eerie rabbit-poet who appears in one of the book's most sinister passages, contains the phrase 'the heart of light, the silence', which is a quotation from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. (The blunt Bigwig refers to Silverweed as 'that lop-eared nitwit of a poet'.) There are glancing references to Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, to 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, to the Psalms, and more.

Watership Down has thus been a kind of slow-release of literature into my bloodstream throughout my life. I have finally realised that this, more than anything else, has made it so important to me. It has created echoes everywhere and has accustomed me to walking through a world where I see and hear literature in everything. It seems that this is how Richard Adams saw the world, or at least how he wanted his readers to see it. I am used to carrying quotations and stories and references and poems with me wherever I go, seeing and hearing them everywhere. And because of this book, I know that it's ok to do so. Some of us see the world in this way, and it enriches us. It makes life a little easier and a little more beautiful. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of things, to see cause and effect, and to act with compassion and understanding. It shows me that understanding my connections to literature is a way of understanding connections to the world around me.

I don't think Watership Down, which first appeared in 1972, would be published now. If it were, it would be in a massively butchered form. The style would not pass an editorial team today. It would be viewed as too dense and difficult, too prescriptive of the pantheon of literature, too paternalistic. Most books aimed at adults today don't have a tenth of the complexity and beauty of Watership Down. But despite that complexity, it is also far less didactic than many books published now, which tend to hit the reader over the head with a dumbed-down style and a painfully obvious worldview. Richard Adams wrote this book at a time when authors still allowed their convictions and principles to imbue their writing, but not to overwhelm it. This is rare today, but it's good to know that so many people still love his work.

Goodbye and thank you, Richard Adams.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Paterson: How a Poet Lives in the World

I went to see the film Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch) this weekend. I think this film was a double rarity: it was not only a film about a poet, but the poet was a fictional character who is unlikely to ever become famous. In that regard it was very different from the beautiful Bright Star, which is about Keats and probably my favourite poetry film (not that I have many contenders.)

Paterson is a very quiet story about a man named Paterson (Adam Driver) who works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is also the title of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams, about the same city, and William Carlos Williams is the one real poet who gets quite a lot of time in the film. The film's Paterson goes to work and has a peaceful, loving relationship with his girlfriend (wife?) Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani). He writes poetry when he can and Laura encourages him, particularly as she is also artistic. There is also a dog, Marvin, who I must say was a consummate actor.

This is the quietest of films, and the plot twist - if it can be called a plot twist - was very obvious. The poetry was just ok (which is probably realistic). What made the film beautiful to me was the way in which it depicted a poet's perceptions of the world and the way they move through it. A poet is both more absent and more present in the world than other people, and Adam Driver's lovely performance depicted this perfectly. There was an interior-ness to the camerawork which was wonderful. We seemed to be seeing through the poet's eyes, in the way that poets notice certain things, pattern their worlds, and encounter situations in a way that seems to be almost synchronicity but is probably a form of confirmation bias leading to writing. All of this was done very perceptively through subtle camera angles. The moments of actual poetic creation, or the moments on the cusp of creation, also had a layered/surreal feel which contrasted with the other scenes.

Paterson isn't a perfect film but I thought that this portrayal of a artist's mind and the artistic process was quite rare and beautiful, and that it was worth seeing for those aspects alone.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Brighton Poem-A-Thon Raises £30K For Refugees

Sarah Howe at the Brighton Poem-A-Thon, December 2016

On Sunday 11 December, poets performed at a ten-hour Poem-A-Thom in Brighton to raise money for refugee support organisations, including the Refugee Council and The School Bus Project. Similar events have taken place around the UK in the past year.

I went down to Brighton for the day (not to read, just to attend). It was my first time back in Brighton in nearly 20 years - my first and only visit was also during my first trip to England. After wandering on the seaside and the pier for a few hours on an incredibly beautiful, calm and sunny day, I headed for the Komedia club where the event was taking place. Some of the readers during my time at the event were Ruth Valentine, Camilla Lambert, Sarah Hesketh, Sasha Dugdale, Edin Suljic, Sarah Howe and Grace Nichols. There were many others throughout the day. The poets read a bit of everything, from their own work to Vasko Popa, Nikola Madzirov, Mary Oliver (an exceptionally popular choice) and Louis MacNeice. There were also a silent auction and poetry book sale, and a warmly supportive atmosphere.

In the end, through fundraising by the readers and donations on the day, over £30,000 was raised - an amazing total. You can still donate here, though I believe the fundraiser is closing soon and you'll have to be quick: 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2016, and Publication in Salon of the Refused

Over on his Rogue Strands blog, poet and blogger Matthew Stewart recently presented his always-hotly-anticipated list of the Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2016. He was kind enough to include The Stone and the Star for the second year, commenting that it's "fast becoming a stalwart of the UK poetry blogging scene." The other blogs on the list are almost all on my list to read regularly or at least occasionally, and the few I didn't previously know all look good.

On the publication front, my poem 'The Big Forest' has just appeared in Salon of the Refused, a home for poems which had been refused at least four times by journals or competitions ('The Big Forest' had been rejected five times, as far as I can tell). Unsurprisingly, the quality of these poems and poets is high, and (in my opinion) often more interesting than what typically appears in the journals... If you have poems which have been refused multiple times but which you still believe in, do check out Salon of the Refused.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Climbing, Robert Graves' 'Welsh Incident', And...

Canadian Rockies. Photo by Bernard Spragg (public domain) 

I have been reading the book Echoes: One Climber's Hard Road to Freedom by Nick Bullock. He is a climber from Staffordshire whose blog is also very much worth reading. Nick Bullock first came to my attention when I read an article in the Guardian about a bear attack in the Canadian Rockies involving him and another climber. Both climbers survived and Bullock wrote a gripping account on his blog.

I followed Bullock on Twitter and when, slightly to my surprise, he followed me back, I discovered that he was also a poetry enthusiast. We had an exchange one day when he tweeted that he had just climbed a route called The Wrecking Light and I asked if it was named after the book by Robin Robertson. He said yes, it was his current poetry reading and the name suited the route. I also thought it a wonderful name for a line on a mountain.

Climbing and poetry often seem to intersect, particularly in the Midlands and north - the British regions which have produced a lot of climbers. Helen Mort, from Sheffield and Derbyshire, recently released a good collection called No Map Could Show Them, many of whose poems are about women in climbing and mountaineering. When I went to one of her readings, she described how writing a poem could be like climbing a route, or vice versa.

Early on in the book Echoes, I was led off on a Sebaldean (I wish) train of thought which, I suppose, was also something like writing a poem or climbing a route. Bullock was describing how at one point in his life he had lived near the Welsh towns of Porthmadog and Criccieth, both of which I visited when I travelled around Snowdonia in 2002. I'm not sure what took me to Criccieth - all I remember is that I had to go one or two stops farther on the train than I otherwise would have, and that all I really did was look at the castle ruins, and then leave. But anyway, while reading the book, I was suddenly reminded not only of my brief visit, but also of the poem 'Welsh Incident' by Robert Graves, which I find both funny and slightly sinister.

By the way, while this blog post was still in draft form, my temporary title for it was 'Nick Bullock/Welsh Incident/weirdness'. That should tell you something about how my mind works, in case this post didn't already illustrate it.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Vanguard #2 Poetry Anthology

In May of this year I read at Vanguard Readings, a monthly series (currently at the Peckham Pelican in south London) featuring sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes both. These evenings are organised by Richard Skinner (novelist, poet and director of Faber Academy) and they have a friendly, non-hierarchical and varied vibe.

I was then delighted to be included in #2 Poetry Anthology, published by Vanguard Editions and featuring poets who have appeared at Vanguard. I'm in exceptionally good company in this anthology, with poets such as Catherine Ayres, Ian Duhig, Victoria Kennefick, Charles Lauder Jr, Kim Moore, Dan O'Brien, Rebecca Perry, Tara Skurtu, Kelley Swain and Tamar Yoseloff, among many others.

To find out which poem of mine is included you will have to buy the anthology, but I can tell you that it is one of my Sherlock Holmes poems.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Keith Douglas: 'The House'

Mysterious door by Scott Wylie. Used under Creative Commons license

This poem by Keith Douglas, 'The House', haunts me from time to time. It sometimes comes to mind when I think of houses associated with my childhood and the movement of memory within them, although it really functions on a more symbolic level.

It has the shifting personas and (il)logical leaps of a dream, but 'The House' seems to be mainly about the mysterious workings of imagination, what can impede it, and the at least occasional fear of every artist that creativity is departing, perhaps for good. In this respect, I think it may share a common theme with 'The God Abandons Antony' by CP Cavafy.

There is also a touch of TS Eliot in the disembodied voices and shadows. A copy of the poem exists in which Eliot had made marginal notes.

THE HOUSE (Keith Douglas)

I am a pillar of this house
of which it seems the whole is glass
likewise transparent to the touch
for men like weightless shadows march
ignorantly in at the bright portico
or through a wall serenely go
unnoticing: myself am like a mouse
and carefully inspect all those that pass.

I am the pillar about which
like a conjured spectacle, such
amazing walls and floors appeared
as in the house that devils made.
Yet this queer magnificence 
shows not to many, its defence
not being walls but in the property 
that it is thin as air and hard to see.

I am the pillar and again the one
walking a perpetual up-and-down
scrutinizing all these
substances, shadows on their ways
crowding or evacuating the place.
At times a voice singing, or a face
may seem suspended in the cunning air;
a voice by itself, a face traversing the stair
alone, like a mask of narrow porcelain.
These I introduce but lose again
which are of the imagination, or of air,
being in relation to the house, actually there
yet unreal till I meet with one
who has that creative stone
to turn alive, to turn all alive:
prospecting this is all the care I have.

In order of appearance chosen by chance
whether to speak, to sing, to play, or dance
to my mute invisible audience
many have performed here and gone hence.
Some have resided in the house a time
the best rooms were theirs, also for them
scents and decorations were introduced
and other visitors were refused.
But when for weeks, months no one came near
an unpleasant prompting of suspicious fear 
sent me climbing up to inspect the high
attic, where I made a curious discovery.
In this room which I had not entered for months
among the old pictures and bowls for hyacinths
and other refuse, I discovered the body
conventionally arranged, of a young lady
whom I admit I knew once, but had heard
declined in another country and there died.

Here's the strange fact, for here she lies.
If I but raise them my incredulous eyes
discern her, fairer now than when she lived
because on death her obscure beauty thrived;
the eyes turned to fine stones, the hair to flexible
gold, her flesh to the most natural marble,
until she's the most permanent thing
in this impermanent building
and to remove her I must use
some supernatural device
it seems: for I am forced to say
she arrived in a miraculous way.
I never studied such things; it will need a wiser
practitioner than me to exorcize her
but till the heart is dust and the gold head
disintegrates, I shall never hear the tread
of the visitors at whom I cannot guess,
the beautiful strangers, coming to my house.

                                                             Wickwar, Glos., 1941

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Open Eye: Five Years in Blogland

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, October 2016

Open one eye only - 
the horizon is in the closed eye.

-Nikola Madzirov

As of October, I have been blogging fairly regularly for over five years. It feels like longer, which may or may not be a good thing. This blog has, at various times, been a release, an obligation, a handshake, and a door. Here you can read my first blog post ever, which may give some indication as to why I chose the quote above. (Although it's only a partial indication, because the quote came to mind when I took the photo above - a piece of found art.)

I can see from early blog posts that I had a slightly more rigid approach in mind; or not rigid, exactly, but more of a template. Discuss a poem and then open it up to touch aspects of my life; or pick something in my life, write about it and then draw it down to a poem. This works quite well, and at times I still use this template, more or less. Perhaps I should use it more often - in terms of close reading, there are other blogs out there that put mine to shame.

But over the course of a few years, one of the things I have discovered in myself is a general interest in poetry as a concept - what it touches and what is touched by it - in other words, everything. I am quite capable of finding a particular poet's work, or a particular school of work (tellingly, I saw this referred to as 'factions' on Twitter today) uninteresting or unlikeable in a personal, aesthetic or moral sense. In terms of the part that this work or idea plays in poetry, however, it is always interesting - the breadth of poetry as a concept, and what it can come into contact with. And in this sense, the metaphor of the eye is especially important. Poetry is everywhere, so I have to keep my eyes open for it - except it doesn't just happen through the eye; it's every way in which we experience our self, other people and the world, every way in which we come into contact with the things within ourselves and the things outside of ourselves.

It has also been fascinating to see how my tastes have developed and which poets or poems I write about. Poets such as Yeats, Celan, MacNeice, Eliot and Keith Douglas come and go, except they never really go because even if I were never to read another word of their work, at this point they can never leave me. (As for Celan, I don't get tired of him - I just get tired.) But in this regard, the most essential thing is the fact that I have embraced poetry in translation. Poetry-wise, if one thing over the past five years has influenced not only my reading choices and my own writing, but my life in general - this is it. In the early stages of this blog, I was still very hesitant about reading poetry in translation. In this aspect and the progress I have made, I also owe a lot to Paul Celan, because he was there right at the beginning.

And then, over five years I have also come a long way with my own poetry, met some amazing people, and discovered a lot about what I love about the poetry world, and what I don't love. But that is another story and shall be told another time, as Michael Ende wrote in The Neverending Story.

If you are a reader, and especially if you are a regular reader, thank you so much for coming with me. When I started blogging, I wasn't sure if I even needed readers - but as it turns out, I really do.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Portugal: Poetry = Emotion, Motion

Before my week in Senegal (which you can read about here) I spent a week in Portugal, a country which was also new to me. I had friends to visit in a couple of different cities, so a few days in Lisbon were followed by a few days farther north in Coimbra.

Lisbon has an extremely dramatic setting on the Tagus estuary, amazing beaches and many different and fascinating areas, but it felt a little elusive. It was, as well, a city with the feeling of a chessboard or a game board. Of course I cannot explain this, but it may be some feeling left by the patterns of the huge mosaic world map in Belem, or the landmarks such as the castle above the city and the Belem tower, which seemed like iconic game pieces. It could also be some historic impression. One of my main discoveries was that the Portuguese, who I did know had explored widely, went absolutely everywhere in the age of exploration - and I do mean everywhere. When I arrived in Senegal I found that, of course, they had been among the first there from Europe, and the nearby Cape Verde was colonised by the Portuguese. You end up mentally consulting a world map a lot while in Portugal. It is pre-eminently a maritime nation, a small country which had an enormous impact on world history, and one with a very long coastline.

Poetry is an important part of Portuguese culture. When I was flying to Lisbon on TAP Portugal, I noticed that the in-flight magazine had more mentions of poetry and poets than I have probably ever seen before in an in-flight magazine (I watch out for these things). Everywhere in Lisbon I found traces of poetry, which so far have left me with more questions than answers.

Then there was Fernando Pessoa, who for many embodies Lisbon. This great writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote under heteronyms, which were personas rather than pseudonyms: this adds to the impression of Lisbon as a many-faced or many-masked city. Pessoa has a couple of statues dedicated to him, quite close to each other, which in itself I found unusual. Yes, that is me in the photo with the first statue (doing my best poet-face), outside some of the cafes he frequented. The second and stranger statue is outside his birthplace.

Coimbra was my next stop in Portugal. This ultra-historic city has a famous university with an extraordinary library (populated by bats), a beautiful old town centre and nearby Roman ruins. I didn't have a lot of time to explore its poetry, but Luís de Camões, the sixteenth century poet who is considered Portugal's Shakespeare or Dante, may have been born in Coimbra and definitely attended the university.

And then there were the cork poetry bookmarks. Portugal is famous for its cork production and you can buy all sorts of things in this versatile material. Shopping for souvenirs in Coimbra, I found a cork box of chocolates which also detached into three literary bookmarks. Obviously this was a must-buy.

I had to look up Queiroz. As well as realist novels and short stories, this great 19th-century writer wrote prose poems and translated Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines into Portuguese.

Of course, there is another world of contemporary Portuguese poetry. I can always do some reading, and maybe I'll discover more of it on a future visit.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

National Poetry Day 2016: Messages

Today is National Poetry Day. I seldom manage to do much for this occasion, but, well, I'm thinking poetry. There are many events taking place around the UK, which you can discover by visiting the website, or just with a bit of online browsing.

This year's theme is 'Messages'. This is once again a theme which could encompass every poem, but these two seemed appropriate. Enjoy!


THE LIGHTKEEPER (Carolyn Forché)

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Senegal and Poetry: 'Continent of the Spirit'

Joal-Fadiouth, Senegal - September 2016. All photos by Clarissa Aykroyd

I recently returned from two trips in one - Portugal and Senegal. This combination raised a few eyebrows, but it made perfect sense: Portugal was to visit friends and sightsee, and Senegal was for a friend's wedding. The flight from Lisbon to Dakar is only about three and a half hours, so when I found out my friend was getting married, it was hard not to start planning an epic trip.

I spent just over a week in each country, and I will write about both halves of the trip (over the course of at least two blog posts). Senegal has been a little more on my mind since I returned. It was my first time in both countries, but for someone who has travelled all over Western and Northern Europe, and to parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Portugal was always going to feel much more familiar. Technically I had been to Africa before, but Morocco and Egypt are part of the Arab world. This was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dakar was heat, humidity, white light and dust; the vast Atlantic; chaos of taxis; pockets of pleasant but oddly faceless Western comfort; horses and carts; beautiful colonial buildings with difficult histories; an outdoor bar in the middle of the night with very loud music, incredible rain and a raging electrical storm; friendly but relatively reserved people. It was a total immersion: everything about such a destination engages all the senses, and it's difficult to think about anything else while you're there, except the fact of being there. The wedding was French-Senegalese (or more accurately, French-Swedish-Australian-Senegalese), over three days, and trips involving weddings always have their own heightened intensity, although everything went beautifully. My friends' friends looked after us (me, the bride's family and other friends) extremely well and ferried the sweaty foreigners around with great kindness and patience. And while I didn't have a lot of time on the trip itself to explore the literature in-depth, I was left in no doubt that Senegal had a lot of poetry.

My poetic Senegalese journey started the moment I landed at Léopold Sédar Senghor airport - not that the airport was poetic (it really wasn't), but Senghor was a renowned poet as well as the first president of Senegal. Senghor was not only a member of the Académie française, who preside over matters relating to the French language and award prestigious literary prizes; he was also one of the founders of négritude, the cultural movement which promoted a unified concept of black identity around the world, as well as anti-colonialism. As well as Senghor, prominent proponents of négritude included the poet Aimé Césaire of Martinique, and the French Guyanese poet Léon Damas. You can read some of Senghor's poetry in translation here. The poems reflect both his international vision and his love of Senegal (the latter is especially powerful in 'Night in Sine'.)

During a couple of days outside of Dakar, we went to Joal-Fadiouth, a beautiful and unusual community where Joal on the mainland is linked to the village of Fadiouth on an island of clam shells. I was stunned by the shallow, radiant water around the island, where the inhabitants seemed at times to be walking on water. The walks on the bridges connecting the islands (there was also a "cemetery island"), with a huge sky and a breeze lifting off the water, were among my most wonderful moments in Senegal. Senghor was born at Joal, and I found this quotation over the entrance to a restaurant where we had lunch:

"We do not inherit the earth from our parents - we borrow it from our children."

A day or two before that, visiting the historic Ile de Gorée, we explored its history as a transportation point in the slave trade, and I came across this:

[He who said to you "Gorée is an island"
This one was a liar
This island is not an island
It is the continent of the spirit]

I was a bit surprised, to put it mildly, to find a poem on a historic Senegalese island written by a Canadian poet (and a memorial stone put in place by our former prime minister Jean Chrétien). It also made me curious about the Maison Africaine de la Poésie.

In the 'House of the Slaves' at Gorée I also found this poem:

(I would have quite liked to translate this, but this post would have taken a lot longer to appear.) I always appreciate it when poetry appears as a form of memorial.

As it turns out, the new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation has just appeared. Entitled One Thousand Suns, it has a focus on African poets. At least one Senegalese poet, Mama Seck Mbacké, will feature. I can't wait to receive my copy...

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Rilke's French Rose Poems In Translation - XVIII

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Here's the latest in my very slow-to-appear series of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Rose poems, from French. The original is below the translation.

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


You share all things that move us.
But we are unaware of your changes.
We could only read your pages
in the form of a hundred butterflies.

Some of you are like dictionaries;
those who pluck them
just want to re-read them.
As for me, I love rose-letters.



Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.

Il y en a d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Alice Oswald: Falling Awake

Leaf by daBinsi. Used under Creative Commons license

A couple of weeks ago I went to the launch of Alice Oswald's new collection, Falling Awake, at Southbank. A collection of mostly nature poems, it is also a book of high-level anxiety, with a tick tick tick of paranoia throughout. "It's as if the whole book is a kind of parking meter," said Oswald, noting that all of the poems are in some way about time. The reading, as always with her appearances, was not actually a reading, but a hypnotised/hypnotic recital.

Nature poetry can be really dull - well, this applies to any subject for poetry, but perhaps it has been my misfortune to read a lot of really dull nature poetry. Alice Oswald is never dull, not just because of the paranoia (which I have also noticed in her earlier work), but because her work partakes of a kind of super-perception. In April I went to an event celebrating Christopher Logue's War Music, a version of Homer's Iliad. Along with classicist Bettany Hughes, Alice Oswald was one of the speakers, on the basis of her own Memorial, which is another groundbreaking version of the Iliad. In the course of the discussion, Oswald mentioned that when she read the Iliad in the original ancient Greek, there was a sense that she was not just reading a powerful description of a river, or a battle, or a leaf - but that she was actually seeing these things directly, through a kind of periscope into another time and another mode of perception. I would describe her own work in a similar way; this super-perception makes me think of the title of Wallace Stevens' poem 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.' It is also like the moment when out of the corner of your eye, you see a face in the crowd of someone you thought you had lost - in a way which is more than imagination, a physical shock strikes you, and then you realise it wasn't them, after all.

Reaching this level of intensity through the power of the written word is unusual even in poetry - amongst the poets I love who succeed, I would name Oswald, Paul Celan and Vasko Popa, and the latter two I can read only in translation. There are others, but even with the greatest of writers, I think this is rare. I think it helps enormously to be a writer who can recall the extraordinary intensity of childhood experience (not all writers can), and through a combination of effort and unconscious reach, perceive adult experience in this way, as well.

Here are a few poems from Falling Awake:


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Louis MacNeice: 'Wolves'

Waves by maxine raynal. Used under Creative Commons license

I haven't been writing a lot about Louis MacNeice lately, but he very often comes to mind at times of drama and tragedy on the world stage - Autumn Journal is one that I have re-read a lot. I posted his poem 'Prayer Before Birth' here, in January 2015, in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

MacNeice, who I think of as a journalist of poetry, has that quality of reassurance when you read him - for me, it's like watching a terrible event unfold on the news, but your favourite newscaster is covering it in a calm, measured fashion. It doesn't take away the horror, but it does make it a little easier to process.

This week I thought of MacNeice's short poem 'Wolves', which you can read here:

'Wolves' was written in the mid-1930s, like many of MacNeice's great poems. Thursday's atrocity in Nice may have given it an extra charge, based on the seaside imagery. Essentially, though, I find it quite a difficult poem to grasp firmly. On one hand, the speaker wants to be a person who lives in the moment, with the joys and difficulties that this brings; on the other hand, he knows that this means burying his head in the sand. Presumably this was a very difficult balancing act in the 1930s. It is now, too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

New Poem Published in The Level Crossing

B738 by Bernal Saborio. Used under Creative Commons license

Dedalus Press, the well-known Dublin publishers specialising in Irish and international poetry, recently published the first issue of a new journal, The Level Crossing. I was honoured to have my poem 'The air outside American airports' published in the journal's Poetry of Place feature. It was one of 14 poems published in this feature, out of more than 900 submissions.

In another life, which is also this life, I lived in Dublin for a few years and worked in the United Airlines call centre. I felt as though I were living a double life, where I worked an unglamorous job and then flew off regularly on holiday, mostly in business class, to destinations including New York, Chicago, Sydney and Tokyo. I also commuted through the US a lot, especially travelling back to see my family on the West Coast of Canada.

'The air outside American airports' arose out of that part of my life. I wrote it when I was still living in Dublin and working at that job - probably about eleven years ago. The way in which it was chosen out of the poems I submitted, to come home to Dublin, is mysterious and beautiful to me.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

My Translation of Emile Nelligan's 'The Ship of Gold' ('Le Vaisseau d'or')

I recently translated the French-Canadian poet Emile Nelligan's 'Le Vaisseau d'or' ('The Ship of Gold'), and here it is. The original French poem is below the translation.

You can read my translation of Nelligan's 'Soir d'hiver' ('Winter Night') here, and some more details about his life. I find him quite difficult to translate. His poems tend to have a sort of high-strung edge which is hard to convey without going over the top. I did try, but the rhyme scheme also eluded me - or it would have involved contortions I was unwilling to enter into.

The final line of this poem has haunted me for a long time.

THE SHIP OF GOLD (Emile Nelligan, translated from the French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

It was a great Ship, of solid gold,
Its masts reached up from sea to sky.
Love's Venus, wild-haired and bare-skinned,
Sprawled on the prow, in the heady sun.

But then came a night when it struck a reef
In the trickster Sea, where sirens sing.
And fiercely wrecked, its tilted hull
Drowned in the Gulf's unrelenting grave.

It was a Ship of Gold, whose melting sides
Showed treasures that the cruel sailors,
Disgust, Hate and Madness, ripped apart.

What is left after the brief storm?
What of my heart, the deserted ship?
Alas! It foundered in the Dream's abyss!


Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif :
Ses mats touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues ;
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève ?
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté ?
Hélas ! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve !

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Friday, 1 July 2016

Geoffrey Hill, 1932-2016

Shadows, Severn Valley by Kumweni. Used under Creative Commons license

We learned today that the English poet Geoffrey Hill died yesterday, on 30 June 2016.

Many will have something more insightful to say about Geoffrey Hill today or in the days to come. I am a long way from being an expert on his work, though I have read some of it. It always seemed to me that his work would demand the same level of engagement as, say, Paul Celan's (one of Hill's influences.) But I haven't gone there yet.

In a quiet way, Geoffrey Hill bestrode the literary world like a colossus. It was like being alive at the same time as TS Eliot. From reading other tributes today, I would say that it is a little difficult to talk about his death without sounding superstitious. This may have something to do with the times we live in, and the questions about the United Kingdom and about identity that many are asking themselves. It also has something to do with the fact that hearing of his death is like turning around and noticing that Stonehenge has vanished without trace.

There is a sort of Geoffrey Hill thing that happens, at times. It is a feeling like being watched, then realising that an enormous mountain is looming over you. It could also be the feeling just before the avalanche hits you.

Here are a few poems to read today.




Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Sidney Keyes: 'Neutrality'

Battersea Park. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

'Neutrality' is a particularly interesting poem from one normally considered a war poet. Sidney Keyes called it "one of the poems for which I have - I can't tell you why - genuine affection."

NEUTRALITY (Sidney Keyes)

Here not the flags, the rhythmic
Feet of returning legions; nor at household shrines
The small tears' offering, the postcards
Treasured for years, nor the names cut in brass.
Here not the lowered voices.
Not the drum.

Only at suppertime, rain slanting
Among our orchards, printing its coded
But peaceful messages across our pavements.
Only the cryptic swift performing
His ordered evolutions through our sky.
Only the growing.

And in the night, the secret voices
Of summer, the progression
Of hours without suspense, without surprise.
Only the moon beholds us, even the hunting owl
May watch us without malice.
Without envy.

We are no cowards, we are pictures
Of ordinary people, as you once were.
Blame not nor pity us; we are the people
Who laugh in dreams before the ramping boar
Appears, before the loved one's death.
We are your hope.

                                                                      16 July 1941.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Poet in Cleary Garden - 18-19 June

This weekend, 18-19 June 2016, I will be in Cleary Garden, City of London as their poet-in-residence  in association with the Poetry School, and as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

The address is: Cleary Garden, Huggin Hill, City of London, EC4V 4HQ

I expect to be there around 11 AM-3 PM on both Saturday and Sunday (though it could possibly be more like 11:30-2, especially depending on the weather!) If you stop by, you may get a personal or group poetry reading, a handwritten poem, or a chat about poetry and gardens...

There will be many other wonderful poets-in-residence around London this weekend, and you can find a full list here.

Cleary Garden, London, 2016. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Poetry in Our Kind of Traitor: Unreal Cities

I recently saw Our Kind of Traitor, the new film based on the 2010 novel by John le Carré. A story about the Russian mafia and corruption in the highest levels of British society, it may not sound like anything particularly out of the ordinary - but although this was not my favourite le Carré book nor film, it was still very good (in both forms) and it does have the vivid, ironic writing and the complex ambiguity of his other works. The film is visually beautiful and has some excellent performances, especially the tour de force by Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the Russian money launderer Dima.

In the novel, the protagonist Perry Makepiece is a teacher of English literature, and there are references to poetry, but it isn't necessarily his main area of expertise. In the film, he has become specifically a teacher of  'poetics', which he also describes as "so boring" (to a Russian, who predictably tells him that poetry isn't boring. He then adds that it's only boring "when it's put under a microscope.") I had to wonder if Perry became a poetry instructor for the film, rather than just an English literature expert, because to many people poetry would suggest a particularly high level of detachment from reality. Alternately, he could be a poetry instructor because of poetry's peculiar insights into the nature of reality. In one scene, Perry is giving a lecture on TS Eliot's The Waste Land, quoting some of my favourite lines:

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

The film also ends on a rather beautiful visual reference to these lines. In the lecture room, however, when Perry goes on to 'Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,' the camera lingers on the bored faces of the students. In his lecture, Perry speaks of the "corrupt listless societies" described by both Dante and Eliot, populated by "lost souls". His wife Gail points out to him that the Russian vory recruit "people who are disillusioned with their lives and have lost their way." 

The irony is that Perry's life shifts from the unreality of the poetry lecture room to a cascading hierarchy of power games and violence (often referenced with games such as tennis, chess, and even children's hide-and-seek), the secret world of the spies, and the unreal cities of London's chrome and glass to Switzerland's beautiful sterile music-box towns, which hide uglier realities (or unrealities.) Nothing in le Carré's works is entirely free of corruption or ambiguity. Criminals and traitors on both sides show deep, sincere love for their families. Loyalty comes in unexpected forms. Everything slides away and resists definition. The MI6 agent Hector makes reference at one point to the Polish philosopher Kolakowski and his stern definitions of good and evil, but the film suggests that things are not always so black and white.

This isn't the first novel or film from le Carré to feature poetry quite prominently: The Russia House quotes poets including Boris Pasternak, Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke, and Our Game alludes to Osip Mandelstam. Smiley, his most famous character, is fascinated by the German poets. I think John le Carré understands how poetry hangs in the balance between realities and unrealities, and how - as in the best poetry, or simply the best writing - people and situations can be both intensely metaphorical, and intensely real-world.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Alberto de Lacerda at the Poetry Library

The Poetry Library at London's Southbank Centre recently had an exhibition about Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda and his relationship with London.

Alberto de Lacerda lived in many countries in his lifetime, but London was his greatest love and he lived here for years, also working as a BBC presenter. His friends and colleagues included Edith Sitwell, TS Eliot, Alec Guinness, Christopher Middleton and many others.

His work was new to me, but from the handwritten manuscripts and short poems displayed at this exhibition, it was extremely beautiful, personal but with the breadth of the light and the sky. Southbank was one of his spiritual homes, and apparently he was living a lonely existence in Battersea (my area) when he died in 2007 at the age of 78.

Looking at the exhibition, I felt as though I were shaking hands with this poet across years, or as though he were someone I could have smiled at or chatted with on one of my many visits to Southbank. There is something special about writers who loved the places you love.

Here are some photos from the exhibition:

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Return of Poet In a Garden

This year I will once again be a poet in a garden, as part of a residency program from London Open Garden Squares Weekend and the Poetry School. The Open Garden Squares weekend takes place on 18-19 June 2016.

I will be resident in Cleary Gardens, an extremely historic site in the City of London near Mansion House. Much like last year, the plan is to write some poems and probably do some readings in the garden on the weekend...but I don't have details yet about readings and other activities. Watch this space...

Here are a few photos from the garden:

Sunday, 22 May 2016

50 Years of Modern Poetry In Translation

Founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, Modern Poetry in Translation has led the way in bringing the poetry of non-English-language cultures to readers of English, and in fostering connections and collaborations between poets, translators and readers from different countries.

When I started seriously reading poetry in translation a few years ago - and even translating a little myself - I realised that it was a much broader field than I'd imagined; not just in terms of languages and styles explored, but in terms of starting points, end results and journeys. Poets can (in the traditional way) translate directly from the chosen poet/language. They can also create a poem from a literal translation (without knowing the original language). They can translate alone, in groups, with or without the original poet. They can translate closely, striving to maintain accuracy and form, or they can create loose "versions" which are more like completely new poems taking inspiration from the originals. They can also delve into film-poems and other multimedia. Of course, there can be controversy over these varying methods, but they all have their validity, and this diversity means that any poet, translator or reader can find their place. I also feel strongly that they should find a place, even if it's just an occasional corner; the frequent lack of interest about international poetry and poetry in translation in English-speaking literary circles is sometimes depressing.

This kind of diversity has also been reflected in the various events and projects organised by Modern Poetry in Translation for their anniversary. They have released Centres of Cataclysm (Bloodaxe, 2016), an anthology of work from across MPT's history, edited by current editor Sasha Dugdale and previous editors David and Helen Constantine. They also held launches and events in various places, including the London launch of the anthology on 5 May at King's College Chapel, and two 'study days' in Cambridge and Oxford.

I was fortunate enough to attend the King's College launch, and the Oxford study day on 14 May. At the King's College launch, readers and those present included Carol Hughes (Ted Hughes' widow), actor David Bradley (who read Hughes' translation of 'The Boy Changed Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets' by Ferenc Juhasz), Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, Ingeborg Bachmann's brother Heinz Bachmann, Ruth Padel, Frances Leviston, and many others. The moment that hit me particularly hard was Helen Constantine reading Ingeborg Bachmann's 'Days in White' (translated by Daniel Huws):

There on the horizon,
brilliant in its destruction,
I'm aware of my fabulous continent
that dismissed me
in a shroud.

The Oxford study day on 14 May, at Queen's College, was a feast. I was able to catch up with some new and old poetry friends during the many tea and coffee breaks. We started the day with a couple of workshops, having been given a few to choose from. My first workshop was about translating from German, with German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig and translator/scholar Karen Leeder. Ulrike Almut Sandig's poems were fascinating - we watched a film-poem of her collaboration with New Zealand poet Hinemoana Baker, and heard/watched her perform her poem 'The fairy tale of Schlauraffenland', a weird, beguiling, disturbing game-show-set work about contemporary Germany and the refugee crisis. My own problem with trying to translate from a literal translation was that, although I don't speak German, I do have an inkling of it, and thus I felt a bit over-tied to the original without it being really useful (if that makes any sense at all...) Ulrike Almut Sandig and Karen Leeder spoke about the visual dimension of poetry, how 'mistakes' in translation can be part of the aesthetic (or, in the film-poem, geographical mistakes on an inflatable globe of the world), and how orientation in the poem and in translation involves both gathering and losing (like the inflatable globes being chased and taken by the wind...) When confronted with very culturally specific idioms or concepts, the poet may need to find an equivalent in their own culture, or go for the meaning, or go for the sound. Translating is so often about choice and compromise.

The French workshop with Stephen Romer was of the greatest interest to me because I actually can translate directly from French. He explored the different types of writing in French poetry and their difficulty or ease of translation into English. For example, the poetry of Verlaine, Hugo and Baudelaire tends to have a smooth, orchestrated, soft sound which translates with difficulty (although anything is possible...) Poets such as Gautier and Corbière featured a more staccato sound with more to "grab on to" in order to "English" the poem. These were invaluable tips and suggestions for finding poems which will translate well. We then worked to translate poems by writers such as Jean Follain and Valérie Rouzeau, and I made some discoveries both in terms of approaches and in wanting to look more deeply into these wonderful writers.

Lunch was in a magnificent hall in the college, in good company, and then there was a launch and discussion of Centres of Cataclysm and translation. The readers and speakers included Sasha Dugdale, David and Helen Constantine, Karen Leeder, Nikola Madzirov, Pascale Petit and Ulrike Almut Sandig. Pascale Petit read her fascinating response 'At the Gate of Secrets' to 'The Boy Changed Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets', while Ulrike Almut Sandig's poem about the Holocaust and the translation by Karen Leeder were particularly moving for everyone, including the readers themselves. This was followed by a session on Playing Brecht, where David Constantine and Tom Kuhn discussed the translation of Bertolt Brecht. Composer Dominic Muldowney, actor Claire Brown and director Di Trevis ran us through a fascinating rehearsal/staging of a Brecht song.

The final session was a launch of the new microsite dedicated to the first issue of MPT. This is an elegantly presented resource featuring extraordinary poems by the likes of Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa, Miroslav Holub and Yehuda Amichai. Karen Leeder spoke about Ingeborg Bachmann, who appeared in MPT 3 (there were no women poets in the first two issues) and the importance of highly literal translations in the earlier editions. Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov read a wonderful poem written in tribute to Vasko Popa, which was a particularly awesome moment for me as Madzirov and Popa are two of my favourite poets. Vasko Popa, a Serbian, was a Yugoslavian poet because of the times he lived in, while Madzirov was coming of age when Yugoslavia was coming apart; thus, he said, there was a distance between them, but "there was something that brought us closer - it was the darkness" and the way Popa's use of mythology and symbolism was like "looking through the darkness and seeing the shapes of souls and objects." Madzirov, while (to me) a more tender and less potentially frightening poet than Popa, is a worthy successor. Ulrike Almut Sandig spoke about refugee movements and their parallels/reflections in changes of language, also reading a tribute to German-Icelandic writer Helga Maria Novak.

This was a really rich, warm occasion which I was delighted to be part of. I didn't get many great photos, but here are a few:

Ulrike Almut Sandig and Karen Leeder

David Constantine

Nikola Madzirov

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Shakespeare 400: Jim Newcombe on the Bard

Illustration by Jim Newcombe

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. (It may also be his birthday, but that remains a matter of tradition rather than confirmed fact.) The multi-talented poet and essayist Jim Newcombe has kindly contributed this piece on the Bard.


on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death

The marriage of sound and sense, always in crucial harmony in great poetry, seems to find effortless articulation in Shakespeare, who produced so many times what other poets pursue with butterfly nets all their lives.  I have spent much time over the years wondering how so much indelible music and meaning can be enclosed within his “rough music”, often within the collocation of a few syllables.  The impression one has of his lines is not usually that they have been dwelt upon with meticulous deliberation, but rather that they are made “in the quick forge and working-house of thought.”  Perhaps it is this proximity to living speech, of workaday locutions shot through with the light of wise insight and lively expression, that in part gives his work its endurance. 

Homer, Dante and Goethe are reckoned to be the only authors of comparable stature.  One of the things which makes Shakespeare the genius loci of our language, and what sets him apart from those giants, is an unparalleled gift for metaphor, or what he – the term “metaphor” not having been created in his day – would beautifully evoke as “a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”  This might be said to be the beating heart of any definition of poetry: protean material that transfigures into something weirdly iridescent or luminous.

Yet the work of Shakespeare has not been irrefutably lauded throughout time.  Both Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw voiced their objections to him.  When Wordsworth, writing of the sonnet form, wrote “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart” Robert Browning wrote in response: “If so, the less Shakespeare he.”  Some of the plays have been bowdlerized:  John Dryden, for instance, reworked King Lear, the play which Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare’s greatest critic (and arguably the world’s), could not bring himself to watch for its harrowing finale.

Shakespeare’s friendly rival Ben Jonson, who gently mocked Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek,” wished Shakespeare had curbed his exuberance:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand’… He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped … His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too.”  Shakespeare’s ebullience and fecundity would have seemed excessive to the measured restraint of the classicist Jonson.

Yet Shakespeare is a sun that shines above the other English peaks of Milton, Wordsworth and Blake.  When in Paradise Lost Milton writes of being “imparadised within each other’s arms” the verb is a coinage of Shakespearean genius, more powerfully suggestive than saying “in the paradise of…”  Milton’s work often smells of the lamp and of the archaic majesty of the Ivory Tower: it can be starchy, glacial, monumental, remote, whereas Shakespeare’s is blood-warm, sprightly, inclusive and expansive in its dance, expressing knowledge not just of the court but of the inn and the marketplace, indeed of the whole soiled rabble of humanity itself, like no other writer.  He knows how language works and he is powerfully susceptible, in a super-sensitive way, to the network of duplicitous meanings arising from the taproots of etymology.  He is also aware, long before the age of critical theory, of what writers should be wary of in language: “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical.”

The work of Shakespeare at its best stands rock-sure, foot-firm, and embodies the Socratic trinity of truth, beauty and goodness.  The goodness here is not moral in a didactic sense; there is no moral imperative proffered from the corpus; rather the goodness is one of a fulsome honest portrayal of our complex humanity.  When mere advice comes it is nevertheless wise, even in the mouth of Polonius; but such ethical equations as do arise come implicitly from the circumstances of characters coming into moral collision and the veracity of their actions and wills being tested, as in Measure for Measure, where the virtuous Isabella, who is soon to enter a nunnery, is blackmailed by the strict Lord Angelo to have sex with him in order to save the life of her brother, who is to be executed for having impregnated his lover prior to marriage:


…were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'ld yield
My body up to shame.


Then must your brother die.


And 'twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.

Like many others, I didn’t immediately warm to our studies of Shakespeare while at school.  It wasn’t until I read Hamlet that I felt my innermost psychology had been X-rayed and laid bare.  I have seen various productions of the play, including as a groundling in The Globe and at The Minack Theatre in Porthcurno near Land’s End, “swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean”.  I still, however, have never seen, nor ever expect to see, the Hamlet in my head which so impressed me as a nihilistic nineteen-year-old with its titanic articulation.  I still, when prompted and made amenable in my cups, regale people with passages from it, since I believe, as the ancients did, that poetry should be learnt by heart and chanted or sung aloud. 

In Hamlet as elsewhere Shakespeare seems to be transfixed by adultery and incest.  When he writes “O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” the line, rammed with plosives, almost has to be spat out, his disgust snaking into a sibilance and hissance of fricatives before rounding on the powerful compression of a transferred epithet.  Here words themselves almost become incestuous and lascivious, and as so often in Shakespeare it is as if language is viewing itself in a mirror.  There is in him, as perhaps in all of us, a moral dilemma or crux between reason and animal physicality:  “Die for adultery? No. The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive …”

One thing I have noticed time and again, though which, given the volume of academic study devoted to Shakespeare, must have been commented on before, is his liking for a kind of ring-shaped figure of speech to suggest avaricious craving or augmenting bounty: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm;” “an autumn ‘twas / That grew the more by reaping;” “The cloyed will, – / That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub / Both filled and running;” “Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.”  It is this figure of speech, this serpentine circularity of metaphor, which we find in the description of Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;

and in Juliet:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

It is as if the whole world of nature, politics and the carnal appetite of mankind were a burgeoning richness that is fulfilled by its own generosity or else a monstrous orgy of surfeit which needs constant feeding and finds only momentary and spasmodic appeasement, if at all, in the flux and continuation of its addictions.  The figure of speech resembles the serpent with the tale in its mouth or the gullet of Erysichthon.  In the end it is expressive of the frantic deadlock between Eros and Thanatos, endlessly devouring and regenerating: “being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness / To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding.” 

Images of abundancy and repletion seem consonant with the author’s own seminal prodigiousness:

...those that feed grow full, as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.

Where is the presence of Eros in Wordsworth?  It seems peculiarly absent.  It is powerfully present in the bawdy poetry of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, indeed with such ribaldry that it is a wonder the Victorians didn’t bury his poetry altogether. 

There are passages of sexual revulsion and jealousy in Cymbeline, in A Winter’s Tale and King Lear.  Tempting though it might be to descend into unscholarly speculation about his attitude to his wife living in Stratford while he made his living in London, if we are to ascribe autobiography to passages in the plays then this would by extension make him culpable of murder and regicide and so much besides.  How autobiographical are the sonnets?  Sonnet 129 nails within its frantic rhythms possibly the best and wisest expression of desire expressed in poetry, which is conceivably the culmination of his dwelling bitterly on the sexual triad alluded to in sonnets 133, 134 and 144, where the dark mistress, it would seem, has slept with the ambiguous and sexually ambivalent young man, “the master-mistress of my passion.”

It is tempting to wonder whether the self-loathing expressed in the sonnets, the fixation with promiscuity, is what finds tortured expression in Othello, unpleasant in its dramatic greatness:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my wak'd wrath.

Tantalising, yes, but in the end futile to give weight or credence to such speculations, though I cannot altogether agree with those who believe that Shakespeare’s greatness merely came of his having to produce plays regularly for his livelihood, for surely genius transcends the workshop and the hireling.  Dramatis personæ no doubt afforded him considerable licence, for it is one thing to put the words “I dare damnation” into the mouth of a character, quite another to speak them of yourself.  In terms of autobiography or even authorship, it is enough to know that it was the man from Stratford who wrote the plays: we know this not only because there are country puns in the plays and names for flora and fauna which are distinct to his geographic origin but because there isn’t a shred of sensible evidence to suggest that somebody else penned them.  He not only wrote plays but acted in them: we know he played the ghost of Hamlet’s father (this is perhaps telling, as is the fact that Shakespeare’s only son, who was to die aged eleven, was named Hamnet).  Also Ben Jonson would certainly have had something to say about it if Shakespeare was anyone other than he claimed to be.  The anti-Stratfordian conspiracies are built on quicksand.  Of autobiography it has been remarked that if ever we detect the real man within the plays then it is surely within these tender lines:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…

I don’t know what writers can usefully learn from Shakespeare: he is so vast, so varied, his tracks melt when we try to map his whereabouts.  Again Samuel Johnson says it best: “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.”

In this short essay I have attempted to concentrate on a very small corner of a very vast field.  I would like finally to express gratitude to the two men, Heminge and Condell, who first collected the plays into the First Folio, rescuing them from the Elizabethan disdain for plays as reading material and therefore saving them from oblivion, for the English language became planetary in the wake of the publication of the plays.  I like Heminge and Condell all the more that their enterprise was “without ambition either of self-profit or fame, only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare.”

Nobody in the English tongue has before or since quite matched him. That our greatest playwright should also be our greatest poet is an extraordinary phenomenon; that a species could evolve to produce the work of Shakespeare at all is awe-inspiring.  He is, for my money, the authorial mirror in which humanity’s innermost being is even now most accurately and fully reflected.  I salute him on his 400th anniversary for making a rich world richer still.

Jim Newcombe
London, April 2016