Sunday, 17 December 2017

My Recommended Poetry Websites

As I may have mentioned in past years, I'm not much for end-of-the-year lists: other people do them  better, my mind doesn't really work that way, I spent much of 2017 reading spy novels (all actual excuses for me this year.)

However, I thought I'd share some of my go-to poetry and poetry in translation websites, where you can find the finest and most varied poetry and work around poetry. Many of these are probably obvious already if you read my blog, they're also probably obvious even if you don't read my blog, and I've left out a lot (call this a small sampling rather than a list). But anyway, all of these come highly recommended and if you don't already know them, they will expand your poetry world.

As further proof of my laziness, I won't recommend blogs specifically, but will instead point out to Matthew Stewart's list at the Rogue Strands blog:

Poetry websites

Poetry Foundation
Poetry Archive
Forward Arts Foundation
And Other Poems
Ink Sweat & Tears

Poetry in translation websites

Modern Poetry in Translation
Poetry Translation Centre
Poems Found In Translation
Words Without Borders

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Iraj Ziayi: 'Tehran letter'

I recently went to my first Poetry Translation Centre workshop in a while, where we translated a couple of poems by the Persian poet Iraj Ziayi (using a literal translation by Alireza Abiz, who was also present, as a starting point). He is known as "the poet of objects", often imbuing inanimate things with an unusual charge of meaning in his poems.

One of the poems in particular, 'Tehran letter', affected me deeply. It accomplished what honestly I'd probably like to do in all of my own poems: in a brief format (14 lines) it evokes the emotions and memories that cling to a place, and a non-linear sense of time. The intimacy of translation - and in a Poetry Translation Centre workshop every line is carefully debated, discussed and decided on, with an expert in the original language present - immersed us in the poem and its mysterious approach to time.

By the end of the poem, I realised that it reminded me of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, perhaps 'Burnt Norton' in particular. "If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable": in 'Tehran letter', "they came and killed and burnt" is a reference, well-known to Iranian readers, to the 13th-century Mongol invasion. To me, there was a kind of agitation in the postman's repeated return to number 49, even if it's to seek birdsong (also reminiscent of 'Burnt Norton': "Quick, said the bird, find them, find them/ Round the corner..."), a sad sense of a broken automaton. The poem is beautifully constructed and deeply poignant, but the way the central image of a letter exists and un-exists, writes and unwrites itself, is also disturbing. It seems to spool in a motion that suggests both the "river-that-isn't", and a kind of eternal Mobius strip (as another workshop member said), even a trap.

As well as the final translation of 'Tehran letter', do read the 'About this poem' section, describing the meanings that we explored - some of them nearly impossible to translate without a considerable loss of the original meaning. Translation, especially of poetry, really is a joy and a sadness.

Photo: Glassware and Ceramics Museum by reibai. Used under Creative Commons license 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Robert Bridges: 'London Snow'

snow in london by myrealnameispete. Used under Creative Commons license

When cold weather comes, I often think of Robert Bridges's 'London Snow'. The fact is, though, that recent London winters have been mild (I think the last really cold and fairly snowy one was 2012-2013) and this poem just hasn't seemed as appropriate. But today (yesterday? and maybe again today) it did snow, substantially. I was out and about in it for a while, but didn't get a chance to visit a park, which would have been a good idea; it usually sticks for longer there. We had big fat flake snow, wet snow, rain, more big fat flakes... When I walked down the road later to my favourite local coffee shop, the large, airy flakes fell and I had a moment of...whatever snow conjures. Motion, stillness in motion, nostalgia (something I indulge in far too much these days).

The languid movement of the poem is exceptional in conveying the coming of snow, the gentle swing through the poem's lines of the present participles - "flying", "settling", "lying", "hushing". After the snowfall, the language becomes brisker and more descriptive, but still conveying the transformative nature of snow ("the solemn air," "crystal manna".) I also like how the poem describes the conflict between fallen snow's stillness and beauty, and the struggle of human beings in a big city who need to clear the snow away and get on with their lives.

LONDON SNOW (Robert Bridges)

When men were all asleep the snow came flying, 
In large white flakes falling on the city brown, 
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying, 
      Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town; 
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing; 
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down: 
      Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing; 
Hiding difference, making unevenness even, 
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing. 
      All night it fell, and when full inches seven 
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness, 
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven; 
      And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness 
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare: 
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness; 
      The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air; 
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling, 
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare. 
      Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling, 
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze 
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing; 
      Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees; 
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder, 
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’ 
      With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder, 
Following along the white deserted way, 
A country company long dispersed asunder: 
      When now already the sun, in pale display 
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below 
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day. 
      For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow; 
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number, 
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go: 
      But even for them awhile no cares encumber 
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken, 
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber 
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Rogue Strands 'Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2017'

On his blog Rogue Strands, Matthew Stewart's list of Best UK Poetry Blogs of each year is definitely one of the most interesting end-of-year lists to look forward to in the poetry world.

Matthew was kind enough to once again include The Stone and the Star on his recently published Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2017 list. (I was also pleased by his comment that my blog is "international in scope and range".) His blog, and all of those included, are musts for regular blog reading or at least for occasional browsing.

In other news, the Poetry Translation Centre published my recent tribute to their founder Sarah Maguire on their website, and you can read it here

Thursday, 23 November 2017

In memory of Sarah Maguire, 1957-2017

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and Sarah Maguire at Dove Cottage

Sarah Maguire, an outstanding London poet and the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, died at the beginning of November. She had been ill for a few years.

I think it would be presumptuous to say that Sarah and I were friends. We were, however, good acquaintances who were always very happy to see each other and chat at poetry events. The first time I saw her read and briefly met her was at the 2007 TS Eliot Prize readings, when her collection The Pomegranates of Kandahar was nominated (that was when the TS Eliot was still at the small Bloomsbury Theatre). In 2012 I was deeply impressed by the Poetry Translation Centre readings at Poetry Parnassus on London's Southbank, and I started attending the PTC's translation workshops shortly after that, usually a few times per year. This was how I got to know Sarah.

Sarah Maguire was a wonderful poet, one who I feel was very under-recognised. Her poems aren't flashy or zeigeisty, but they are models of restraint and precise concision. She was exceptionally good at conveying emotion obliquely. I find that her poems often seem dispassionate on the surface but they prove to have an emotional depth without falseness. There are excellent poems in all of her collections but out of Spilt Milk (1991), The Invisible Mender (1997), The Florist's At Midnight (2001) and The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007), I'd especially recommend The Pomegranates of Kandahar, with its memorable poems about London, the Middle East, and gardens (three of her great loves).

Sarah is almost certainly going to be best remembered for her work with the Poetry Translation Centre. The only sadness in this is that it overshadowed her own work and, from what she said to me, probably didn't leave her enough space to write her own poetry. But it's hard to overstate how important the PTC has been in bringing foreign and non-English-language writers into the consciousness of English-speaking poets and readers (even a little). Sarah had been to Palestine and Yemen under the aegis of the British Council and this awakened her interest in poetry from these countries and from others, often with exceptionally rich poetic traditions, but also often portrayed in the media exclusively as countries of war and turmoil (she had a particular love for Somalian poetry).

I have realised that the PTC has been very important to me personally as a poet and a (tentative) translator. The PTC workshops, where all that was required from participants was an ability to make a contribution, opened up new vistas for me particularly with Arabic-language and Persian-language poetry. It gave me confidence that I had an ear for translation and it also helped me to value the contributions of others (an average PTC workshop might include SOAS students, linguists, poets and others). Sarah didn't speak the languages which the PTC translates from, but she was passionate about ensuring that the poems were translated as carefully as possible. Beyond the poems translated in the workshops, many exceptional poets came on board to assist with the PTC's translation pamphlets and books. It always struck me that everyone involved was very self-effacing. Perhaps most importantly, without the PTC, it's unlikely that English-speaking audience would even have the opportunity to know of and read truly great poets such as Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sudan) and Hadraawi (Somalia).

Sarah Maguire was someone who truly appreciated and respected other cultures, and who also saw people from other countries just as they are - people, fellow humans, equals, with respect and no condescension. All this is rarer than it should be. Myself, I always found Sarah to be extremely personal and kind. They were only small things, but she was truly appreciative when I wrote about the PTC on my blog, when I expressed enthusiasm for Arabic poetry, when I got one of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's poems into an anthology I was editing, or when I asked if I could write about one of her own poems on my blog. At times, these encounters were when she was suffering from personal losses or when she was very ill. Even though I knew about her illness, it was a great shock to learn that she had died, far too young. She will be missed so much by friends, poets and colleagues from a wide variety of cultures.

Here are a few of Sarah's own poems:

Almost the Equinox
The Florist's At Midnight
Spilt Milk

And a couple of poems which she co-translated:

Garden Statues (Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, translated by Sabry Hafez and Sarah Maguire)
The Schoolchildren (Pedro Serrano, translated by Gwen MacKeith and Sarah Maguire)

Here, finally, is her lecture Singing About the Dark Times: Poetry and Conflict.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Keep My Words Forever: Mandelstam at Pushkin House

London's Russian cultural centre Pushkin House is currently running a programme about Russian poetry in exile, to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Along with information about their 101st km Further Everywhere pavilion on Bloomsbury Square (until 10 November) you can also find the programme of poetry events here. There are still a few events to go.

On 19 October I went to see the film Keep My Words Forever (directed by Roma Liberov, in Russian with English subtitles), about the life of Osip Mandelstam. The film combined puppetry, animation using cutouts and other effects, and documentary filming. I wasn't totally sure how this was going to work but it turned out to be an extremely moving film, capturing Mandelstam's often manic energy and its disintegration into illness and depression after years of persecution. As the director said, particularly with the use of puppets, it felt as though there was a short period of adjustment needed while watching and then viewers start to see the people in the puppets. This was exactly how it was, for me. The translations used were by a wide variety of Mandelstam's many translators.

Speaking after the film, Roma Liberov referred to the Russian Revolution and what followed as "interrupted history - a social experiment" (which reminded me of when I saw Russian poet Maria Stepanova some years ago and she spoke of decades of "frozen history"). Liberov pointed out that poets in Russia died for the right to write outside of the propaganda machine, and that Mandelstam died principally because people in the literary establishment didn't like him and decided to ensure his downfall. (The latter was an interesting point because it is often assumed that he died specifically because of the 'Stalin Epigram', but Mandelstam didn't particularly consider himself a political poet and his views were more complex than that.) He was hard to capture in the film, said Liberov, but I felt there was success up to a point. I thought Keep My Words Forever was a beautiful and appropriate title. Osip Mandelstam's wife Nadezhda memorised his work and ensured that it was preserved (her story is completely extraordinary in itself) and there we were hearing his words nearly 80 years after the poet died. I wondered how Mandelstam would feel if he could know that.

In the lobby at Pushkin House, film clips with photos of Mandelstam and his handwriting were playing, and a recording of his voice. Liberov said that while it is often difficult to know at which speed old recordings should be played, this one had been listened to by Mandelstam's friend Korney Chukovsky (himself a famous Russian children's poet and literary critic) and that Chukovsky had confirmed at which speed his friend's voice sounded right to him.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A Report from Poetry International (London) 2017

Joy Harjo at Poetry International, October 2017

Ted Hughes founded the Poetry International festival in 1967, and its 50th anniversary celebration was on 14-15 October at Southbank Centre in London, where it all started.

I had hoped to attend more events at this year's Poetry International, but I've been very busy lately and couldn't manage to plan a whole weekend of poetry events; I still made it to a few, though. There was a particular focus this year on disappearing languages, and the first event I went to was called Seven Thousand Words for Human: Endangered Poetry. Translator and poet Stephen Watts asked "Is poetry an endangered language?" and pointed out that translation can either be colonising, or have a bringing-in effect. Joy Harjo, a Native American of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, read in her indigenous language and said "Part of coming home is the language." There were also wonderful readings by Nick Makoha and others from a variety of languages under threat, such as Luganda and Sardinian.

The Modern Poetry in Translation event on Saturday evening was partly to say goodbye to Sasha Dugdale as its editor - she is handing on the role to Clare Pollard. Sasha has done an incredible job in extending the reach of MPT during her years with the journal. There were amazing readings by the Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji, whose work I first discovered a few years ago now, and his translator Stephen Watts, who also read some of his own poetry.

On Sunday, the World Poetry Summit featured Joy Harjo (US), Sjón (Iceland), Yang Lian (China), Anne Carson (Canada), Claudia Rankine (US), Vahni Capildeo (Trinidad) and Arundhathi Subramaniam (India). Choman Hardi should have been there and at other events, but couldn't get out of Kurdistan due to the ongoing crisis there. We did hear recordings of her poems. All of the readers were excellent, but I was particularly moved by Joy Harjo singing her extraordinary poem 'Equinox' and by Claudia Rankine's contrasting readings from Citizen and Don't Let Me Be Lonely (the former sombre, the latter more hopeful.)

Coincidentally, at the World Poetry Summit I found myself sitting next to Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese, who I already knew a little and who is one of the world's foremost translators of contemporary Polish poetry. It was good to catch up, and after the readings we went to the Poetry Library's open day, which this year focused on the theme 'A Universal Language'.

Photos by Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017

Sunday, 1 October 2017

New Poems Published in Shot Glass Journal

Shot Glass Journal has published three of my recent poems, 'Lisbon', 'Dakar' and 'Kingdom'. You can read them here:

These all came out of trips I took in 2016 - 'Kingdom' was written after a trip to Finland, and I travelled to Portugal and Senegal a few months later.

I had thought to myself that perhaps one poem was more about the place, perhaps another was about the emotional state generated by it: but in fact, the two are often indivisible for me.

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd: Lisbon, 2016

Thursday, 28 September 2017

National Poetry Day: Osip Mandelstam's 'The Twilight of Freedom'

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme for 2017 is 'Freedom'.

For this year's theme, the poem I have chosen is by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: 'The Twilight of Freedom' (translated by Clarence Brown and WS Merwin).

This is one of Mandelstam's earlier poems, from his collection Stone (1913). "O sun, judge, people, desolate/are the years into which you are rising!" he writes - presciently, considering that the regime had not yet arrived under which he would eventually die (in 1938, in a transit camp, after years of persecution).

The lines "In the deepening twilight the earth swims into the nets/and the sun can't be seen" made me think of Isaiah 25:7. Mandelstam urges courage, but with a keen, sad understanding of the extent to which the world has drifted from what it should be, in humanity's insatiable quest for power.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

A Salt Wind: Cross Currents in Polish & British Poetry

A few days ago, I went to a launch event at Ognisko Polskie in Knightsbridge for the online publication of A Salt Wind - a series of commentaries and poetic responses to each other's work by Polish and British poets. Unsurprisingly, this was a project of the great Modern Poetry in Translation.

Poets working on the project, some of whom read at the launch event along with translators, included Jahcek Dehnel, Tara Bergin, Vahni Capildeo, Ruth Padel, David Harsent, George Szirtes, Alice Oswald, and Krystyna Dąbrowska. They responded to the work of poets including Philip Larkin, Czesław Miłosz and Leopold Staff, among others. You can read the original poems and responses here: 

There was a lot to like about this project, but I was intrigued by the fact that every response was very different: some poets wrote commentaries, some wrote poems or translations, some did both. The openness of the project was intended as a response to recent rises in xenophobic attacks and hate speech in the UK and, indeed, in other countries. In the light of recent events in the UK, many of these attacks have targeted Polish people.

This year when I've gone to poetry events, they've usually been translation-related: poetry-wise, this is what gets me out of the house. It's no coincidence. In a world not characterised by its selflessness, translation does a pretty good job - it's hard work, it's often not well paid or recognised, and few people read poetry, let alone poetry in translation. I've found this reflected in the poetry-in-translation communities, which (it seems to me) are less noted for their egos and drama than other parts of the literary world, including the poetry world.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Rosemary Tonks: 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas'

Tonight I thought I would share the deliciously cynical 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' by the late Rosemary Tonks.

Rosemary Tonks had an unusual life, and if you wish, you can find plenty of more or less judgmental commentary about it online. Setting aside the details of her life, I've found 'The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas' absolutely delightful from the very first time I read it. It is evocative of London in the '50s or '60s, but anyone who has lived in London for a decent length of time will still recognise many of the details: "My café-nerves are breaking me/With black, exhausting information" is a little too reminiscent of my own life when I don't sleep enough and drink too much caffeine.

It appears that in this poem, the speaker has an unbearably annoying and rather creepy flatmate or romantic partner: this, too, is London. ("He wants to make me think his thoughts/And they will be enormous, dull...") Tonks also takes aim at, well...annoying people. But in particular, she takes aim at annoying artistic types. I love it when she writes "And their idea of literature!/The idiotic cut of the stanzas". This reminded me irresistibly of a terribly stupid discussion I witnessed online wherein poets (apparently) discussed whether or not the first letters of all lines in a poem should or shouldn't be capitalised. According to a shocking number of them, capitalising the first letters of all lines in a poem was no longer a valid artistic choice (although a large number of remarkably gifted living poets, ranging from Sean O'Brien to Sasha Dugdale, do it on at least a semi-regular basis). Apparently this should have gone out with the first half of the twentieth century and some considered it "distracting". Given that probably 90% of poetry in the history of the world has featured capitalised first letters of all lines (since it's only recently that this has ceased to be a universal convention) it really made me wonder if they'd ever read anything good.

Rosemary Tonks was a brilliant poet with a remarkably distinct voice, and I do recommend her poetry if you're looking for well-crafted, so-spot-on-it-hurts observation of human nature. And I, too, like going alone to the "taciturn, luxurious" cinema.

Photo: End of an era by Nic McPhee. Used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Louis MacNeice: 'To Posterity'

Louis MacNeice, in his occasional guise of near-prophet, published the poem 'To Posterity' in his 1957 collection Visitations.

'To Posterity' is an unusual poem to dedicate to, well, posterity - although MacNeice only had a few more years to live in 1957. The use of the word "media" was surely less common then (or perhaps used a bit differently) but it gives the poem an unmistakably technological air, although it is also pastoral, with its longing for green grass, blue sky, and other simple, fundamental elements of nature.

Succintly - and with a strangely prescient air - MacNeice touches on the issues which trouble us today: are technology and social media cutting us off from each other and from nature? Are they rearranging the connections our brains (and our hearts, perhaps) are capable of making? (It is only fair to point out that similar concerns arose during the advent of radio and television.)

The use of the words "seized up" hit me particularly hard: that's the kind of thing we say when our phones, tablets and laptops freeze or die, but here MacNeice applies it to books themselves. If he saw where we are today, he might not be so surprised. But perhaps MacNeice would also be happy to know that books have not actually seized up, and that the death of the paper book and the triumph of the e-book have so far been much exaggerated.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Benjamin Fondane Update

In case you thought this was just a lot of big talk, I actually did pick up Benjamin Fondane's Le mal des fantômes in Paris a few months ago and I've now translated a few of his poems. I'm looking at translating a few more and seeing if I can find a suitable home for them somewhere. (I feel more trepidation over sending out translations than over sending out original work, but that's another story.) 

In the meantime, I thought I'd share this interesting excerpt from a 1985 interview with EM Cioran, who knew both Fondane and Paul Celan. It confirmed my readings of their respective work. (The interview was with Leonard Schwartz and appears in the recent selection of Fondane's work in English translation, Cinepoems and Others, published by New York Review Books, 2016).

Leonard Schwartz: Do you see any sort of connection between Paul Celan and Fondane?

EM Cioran: I knew both Fondane and Paul Celan well, and I suppose it is true that they had something in common. They came from almost the same geographic area in Romania: Bukovina and Moldavia are provinces that border on each other. Both were Jewish poets and both had an intellectual curiosity which is not absolutely normal in a poet. But they were very different as men. Fondane had an immense presence; all became enlivened around him; we were very pleased to hear him speak. Around Celan one felt a kind of uneasiness. As I've told you before, Celan was so susceptible, so vulnerable: Everything hurt him... With Celan one always had to be on guard. He was a wounded man, in the metaphysical and psychological sense of the word, and that was why one felt so uneasy. Whereas Fondane was the contrary: You felt you didn't have to supervise yourself.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Recent (Sherlock Holmes) Poem Publications

I still write poems on other subjects (I promise) but my recent poetry publications have been of the Sherlock Holmes variety.

In late June my poem 'Beekeeper' (which first appeared in The Ofi Press Magazine) was reprinted in Canadian Holmes. This is the journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto, one of Canada's pre-eminent Sherlockian societies. I was a member for several years, during which time I published several reviews and essays in Canadian Holmes - including an essay written when I was in junior high and attempting to prove that Sherlock Holmes was a Canadian. Canadian Holmes also printed a poem I wrote in tribute to Jeremy Brett (my favourite Sherlock Holmes actor, and probably my favourite actor full stop) after his death in 1995. I was 16 and it was either my first poetry publication or one of the first. This was my first publication in Canadian Holmes for something like 15 years, so it's nice to be back.

In early July, Ink Sweat & Tears published my poem 'Watson on Dartmoor', which strictly speaking is a Watson poem rather than a Holmes poem. Watson, a romantic soul, seems quite overwhelmed by the eerie atmosphere of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles. But if I'm honest, this poem is mainly me being Watson. I visited Dartmoor a few years ago - it was December, and it was just like the descriptions in the Hound, but more so. It truly feels like a world part of but separate from our own, and so it can never be fully captured.

Image: I Looked Out Across the Melancholy Downs (Sidney Paget, from The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hokusai at the British Museum

The Great Wave of Kanagawa. Hokusai, 1831

About ten days ago, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (until 13 August, but check ticket availability if you're interested in going).

Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the greatest Japanese artists of the creatively rich Edo period (1603-1868), is best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of a beautiful series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The exhibition featured many of these famous prints but it also highlighted the unusual European influence in many of his works and the extraordinary range of his art. I saw cherry blossoms whose petals were so soft and multifoliate that I wanted to touch them, birds that seemed photographic but with a hyper-real beauty, swirling dragons, sharply defined bridges and lakes like something out of Tolkien, wry and delicate self-portraits.

Hokusai was also very close to the poetry world. He provided illustrations for poems, and depicted poets, in the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry and One Hundred Poems Explained By the Nurse. In this particularly beautiful example, Poet traveling in the snow, the rider may be the Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu; 712-70), one of the greatest figures of Chinese literature. It's suggested that he could also be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who was famous for writing poems about snow.

Hokusai's work became more and more extraordinary in the last years of his life. In the final room, looking at the paintings on silk from the two years before he died, I found myself struggling to breathe, then in tears. I saw a dragon with desperate human eyes emerging from rain clouds, diving ducks transforming beneath the surface, a joyous tiger bounding upwards through the snow. Shortly before his death, Hokusai reportedly said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five years, then I could become a real painter."

Thursday, 13 July 2017

U2 and Poetry: The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour

U2's current world tour is, unusually, not to promote a new album - it's for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and they are playing this album in its entirety, along with other songs before and after. I saw them last Sunday at Twickenham Stadium in London. It was a remarkable show for many reasons, not least of which was the screening of poems on the stage backdrop just before the show actually started.

I have a long history with U2, which sort of started close to 30 years ago when my brother bought The Joshua Tree. But it really started a few years later when I bought War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire and later their other albums, when I was about 14. Those albums feature very prominently in my mental and emotional timeline from my early teens. I discovered those albums for myself, and the obsession was like falling in love. My relationship with The Joshua Tree is probably a bit harder to define, as I first encountered it through my brother and through the radio when I was younger. I was always impressed, but I also regarded the album with a slightly detached sense of awe which I've never quite shaken. I think it's their best record, but I'm not quite as closely bonded to it as I am to albums like War and Unforgettable Fire. I'm perhaps closer to its individual songs than I am to The Joshua Tree as a whole.

Before seeing U2 play on Sunday, I was already aware that they were scrolling poems on the big screen during the intermission between the opening act and the start of the main show. There was a fair amount of media coverage in Canada when one of the poems chosen was by Canadian poet laureate George Elliott Clarke. However, most (if not all) of the other poems chosen are by Americans, and it seems that different poems have been used at different shows. The poems that I saw were:

Elizabeth Alexander - 'Praise Song for the Day'. This poem was read at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Walt Whitman - a selection from Leaves of Grass

Sherman Alexie - 'The Powwow at the End of the World' 

Robinson Jeffers - 'Juan Higera Creek' 

James Dickey - 'The Strength of Fields'

Shirley Geok-lin Lim - 'Learning to Love America'  (this is actually the poem's full title, although it said 'Learning to Love' on the screen).

Pedro Pietri - 'Puerto Rican Obituary' (I didn't get a picture of this one, as the show was starting just as the poem finished...)

This U2 website has detailed more of the poems which were included on other shows (or perhaps I missed others when my friend and I were wandering around after the opening act.) Many of these poems will also be available to read online:

Personally, I was especially surprised and happy to see the Robinson Jeffers poem 'Juan Higera Creek'. Jeffers has been a bit of a well-kept secret for a long time, but in the current socio-political-environmental climate he seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. I also love the James Dickey poem, 'The Strength of Fields'.

I don't know who was involved in selecting the poems, but to accompany (or precede) The Joshua Tree, they seemed to me exceptionally well chosen. In them, I saw the following which I also find in The Joshua Tree:

A variety of voices and experiences, including those of minorities and immigrants. The poems are by Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, among others. U2 composed The Joshua Tree in part because they'd fallen in love with America, and as Irish musicians they were well aware of their country's close links to America and of the huge numbers of Americans who are descended from Irish immigrants.

American landscapes. The landscapes of The Joshua Tree are dual (at least), as in poetry's landscapes. When U2 played 'Where the Streets Have No Name' ("I'll show you a place high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name"), the huge backdrop screen sent us flying along an American desert highway. The song was also partly inspired by Bono's humanitarian work in Ethiopia and by the divisions in Northern Ireland when he was growing up; finally, it seems to be about the speaker's spiritual quest (continued in 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. There seems to be something of this in 'The Strength of Fields'.) But the imagery of the album's lyrics often evoke idealised American landscapes, especially in the song 'In God's Country'. These poems also travel all over a real and figurative America.

Stories of oppression. 'Puerto Rican Obituary' came out of Pedro Pietri's experiences in advocating for civil rights along with fellow Puerto Ricans in America, and it tells a series of tragic stories. The songs 'Bullet the Blue Sky' and 'Mothers of the Disappeared', in particular, are about US military intervention in Latin America and about los desaparecidos in countries such as Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. There is a strong duality in The Joshua Tree between a mythical America and a violent one, whether internationally or closer to home (the song 'Exit' is about gun violence, and apparently the line "The hands that build can also pull down" also comments on the dual nature of US interference abroad).

The language of the poems may at times be prosaic, but the impression is often prophetic and spiritual, even shamanistic. This is also very reminiscent of U2's (Bono's) lyrical approach. Bono often includes literary references in his songs, and this was definitely a factor in my affection for U2, especially given that I was falling in love with U2 and with the poetry of WB Yeats at the same time in my early teens. Here are some of the notable poetry references in U2 songs:

  • "Into the half-light" - from 'Bad' (The Unforgettable Fire), also a reference to 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' by Yeats
  • 'A Sort of Homecoming' (The Unforgettable Fire). The title of one of my favourite U2 songs is taken from the quotation "Poetry is a sort of homecoming" from Paul Celan's 'Meridian' speech. When I learned that Bono had been influenced by Celan's writings in this song, I went to find Celan in the library, meaning that U2 are directly responsible for introducing me to his work. Also in 'A Sort of Homecoming', Bono sings 'O come away, o come away' which is a likely reference to 'The Stolen Child' by Yeats.
  • "In the world a heart of darkness, a fire zone/where poets speak their heart then bleed for it/Jara sang his song, a weapon in the hands of love/You know his blood still cries from the ground" - from 'One Tree Hill' (The Joshua Tree). Victor Jara was a Chilean songwriter, poet and political activist who was murdered under the rule of Pinochet. His last lyric was 'Estadio Chile' and it was written just before his violent death in the Chile Stadium (which has been renamed after him.)
  • "See the stone set in your eyes" - from 'With Or Without You' (The Joshua Tree). This reminds me of "The stone's in the midst of all", from Yeats's 'Easter 1916', but I admit this may be a long shot on my part.
  • "In dreams begin responsibilities" - from 'Acrobat' (Achtung Baby). This is adapted from the epigraph to the Yeats collection Responsibilities.
  • "Hope and history don't rhyme" - from 'Peace on Earth' (All That You Can't Leave Behind), a song partly based on the Omagh bombing of 1998 by the so-called Real IRA. This line is adapted from a famous quotation in Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, a version of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Bono spoke here of his love for Heaney's work:  

There are plenty of other literary references in U2, but I suppose it comes down to this: Sunday's concert was one of the best of my life (the fact that we had hard-to-come-by standing tickets helped a lot), and The Joshua Tree has more than stood the test of time. It was lovely to see some great poetry projected on the screen for all to read, and to reflect on how both poetry and U2 have accompanied me, and often intersected, for a very long time. 

Photos: The Joshua Tree Tour - Twickenham, July 9, 2017. Taken by Clarissa Aykroyd

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dylan Thomas: 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'

Grenfell Tributes by ChiralJon. Used under Creative Commons license

The overwhelming tragedy of the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London on 14 June has made me think of Dylan Thomas's famous poem of the Blitz, 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'.

I hesitated a lot before posting this. Grenfell Tower is a massive human tragedy, where at least some of those who lost their lives were children. It is not like one of my more usual "something made me think of this poem" situations. I also hesitated because 'A Refusal to Mourn...' has always unsettled me. It's in the title, and certain lines. Thomas is plainly mourning, in his own way, and the title is paradoxical, but it unsettles. When I thought about it, though, I realised that this disturbed feeling was probably conjured deliberately by the writer and that in some ways it is the only normal reaction. After all, the violent death of a child (in particular) should be disorienting, disturbing and unsettling.

I have read various analyses of this poem over the years, and there is no consensus. 'A Refusal to Mourn...' is oblique, open to interpretation and mysterious. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of my thoughts about it come from this moment and this shocking event. But a great poem can do this. So here are a few thoughts:

The poem's structure reflects the confusion of grief. The first two stanzas, in particular, contain beautiful phrases, but they tumble over each other at a velocity suggesting desperation. There is something here, of the flurry of thoughts and the attempt to draw them into a clearer picture, which is reflective of shock. In the final two stanzas the speaker seems to try to gather his ideas into a slightly more straightfoward, elegiac conclusion.

The speaker's thoughts are of both life and death. "Fathering", "the last light breaking", "the round/Zion of the water bead" (this sounds like an image of the womb), "sow my salt seed/In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn"... Some of these images could be of life and death at the same time.

The speaker is commenting on the equality of all human beings. There can be no doubt that Grenfell, a disaster which occurred in a poor subsection of one of the richest areas in the country, was a tragedy arising at least in part out of inequality and its terrible effects. During the Blitz in World War II, which this poem remembers, many if not most of the children who died were from poor families, as they had fewer options in terms of evacuating to safer areas.

My interpretation might therefore be very much of this moment in time, but it seems to me that by keeping the child's identity indefinite, the interpretation is open for her to represent all human beings from all backgrounds, or at least all children who die violently. There are references to a variety of religious traditions (Judaism with "Zion" and "synagogue", "the stations of the breath" as a variation on the Catholic Stations of the Cross, "London's daughter...the dark veins of her mother" perhaps a reference to some pagan tradition.) "The mankind of her going" also opens this elegy up beyond a single human being.

The final line "After the first death, there is no other" has also inspired much analysis. Some think it's a reference to the resurrection, while others think it denies this possibility. I have always (even before recent events) had a sense that the child's death is meant to represent all deaths, and thus it is "the first death". I was reminded of the famous John Donne quotation from Meditation 17: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." When the equal importance of all human lives is forgotten, as it so often is, the conditions for various kinds of horror and disaster are far more likely to arise.

Here are a few of the reputable funds to which you could donate if you want to assist victims of the Grenfell disaster:

British Red Cross - London Fire Relief Fund

The Kensington & Chelsea Foundation

The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Poets and Spies at London's City Lit

City Lit, London, 1940

Earlier this year, I took an InDesign course for my work. It was at City Lit college in central London, near Holborn station. I hadn't thought much about the type of institution where I'd be brushing up my InDesign skills for a few weeks - but when I arrived for my first class, I was impressed at the range of classes taking place at the same time as mine, and also a little jealous of the people who were taking Basic Danish or Biblical Hebrew. The floor where my classroom was located seemed to have a good deal of painting and sculpture going on.

When I looked up further details about City Lit (mainly in the history section of their website) I discovered that they had originally been established in 1919 by the London County Council as a "literary institute", along with several others around the city. Essentially, these were non-vocational colleges (but not universities) where students could take humanities courses and the like, without committing to something like a degree program.

The website provides more details about the fascinating history of this institution, but I was very taken with the fact that their teachers and lecturers included the likes of Edith Sitwell, TS Eliot, Cecil Day-Lewis and Dylan Thomas, among others. When their new building opened in 1939, John Masefield (then Poet Laureate) did the honours.

The moral of the story is that in London, if you scratch just the tiniest bit beneath the surface, you'll probably receive disproportionate rewards, and they might include poetry. I also ran into a bit of synchronicity at this point. Around when I was taking the InDesign course, I was reading A Colder War, the second volume of a trilogy by spy novelist Charles Cumming. The trilogy features disgraced spy Thomas Kell, who desperately wants to "get back in the game" but has found himself with some time to kill. At one point, he thinks "of the long afternoons he had spent brushing up his Arabic at SOAS, the solo holidays in Lisbon and Beirut, the course he had taken at City Lit in twentieth-century Irish poetry." In other words, when all you think you're doing is taking a desktop publishing course, there are probably some bored spies just around the corner in the same building who hope that poetry might help to fill the slow hours. It also turns out that Thomas Kell enjoys reading Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level and that he especially likes the poem 'Postscript' (so do I).

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

John Drinkwater's 'Moonlit Apples'

Harald Sohlberg, From Værvågen (1921)

MOONLIT APPLES (John Drinkwater)

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
   A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
   Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams;
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams,
   And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
   On moon-washed apples of wonder.

I rediscovered this poem the other day, in part thanks to the serene First Known When Lost blog. More than just a simple poem of nature or pastoral beauty, 'Moonlit Apples' seems to me a kind of ode to interconnectedness, almost a microcosm of environmentalism. The apples are at the top of the house, the moonlight touches them, they now resemble "deep-sea apples of green". The apples, mysteriously, partake of the moon, and thus also partake of the sea. Everything affects everything else.

The swaying rhythm of the poem, and the countdown of syllables per line in each stanza, also evoke the "deep-sea light" on the apples, the stillness that is never entirely still. There's a silver-green peace about it which belies the fact that it shows a hyper-real vision of the apples. It's sort of hallucinogenic and soothing at the same time.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

In Paris with Paul Celan (and the usual suspects)

A couple of weeks ago - only a few days after returning from a three-week visit to Canada - I went to Paris for the weekend. This year the IIHF World Championship (ie. ice hockey) was in Paris and Cologne, and I was there to meet up with my brother Lucas, who writes articles for the IIHF website.

Paris is one of my adored cities, and every visit there is different. It was strange to be going to a couple of hockey games while there (this time I got to see Slovenia-Belarus and Canada-Switzerland. Canada managed to lose to Switzerland!). At the same time, there always seem to be some common threads, often involving food, art and books. It is Paris, after all.

Besides spending time with my brother, my mission on this particular trip was to go to the Gibert Jeune bookshop on Place St-Michel and to find a few French poetry books. I was looking for Benjamin Fondane's Le mal des fantômes in particular, and possibly something by Yves Bonnefoy and Guy Goffette. This mission was accomplished in a matter of minutes when I found all of the above, but then I also ended up buying a French Sherlock Holmes pastiche (Einstein et Sherlock Holmes) by Alexis Lecaye. These things happen.

On the Sunday, my brother and were walking in the Marais (and, incidentally, avoiding the passation de pouvoir of the new president Emmanuel Macron, which would no doubt have been interesting to see but all the security was a bit off-putting.) On Rue Rambuteau, we stopped in at Les Cahiers de Colette (Colette's Notebooks), a lovely and distinctly intellectual bookshop. I'd say intellectual even by French standards - I find that in France there tends to be an underlying assumption of a certain intellectual level, which is perhaps one reason why some publishers tend not to include blurbs on their books. Editions Gallimard, who published a couple of my poetry purchases, is one of these. They just know you want to buy Yves Bonnefoy and Guy Goffette.

Anyway, in Les Cahiers de Colette I also saw these:

The second photo shows a reproduction of one of Paul Celan's letters. In the montage of faces, his jumped out at me right away. (Of course I recognised Beckett and Kafka, and found that Paul Eluard and André Breton were there too. There are others I feel sure I should know - feel free to identify them!)

I always feel close to Celan, somehow, even when I'm not actively reading him. It is about 20 years since I first read his work, and the writers I encountered in my teenage years have tended to have a particularly strong effect on me. I started reading him more actively about seven years ago, when I was also undergoing some particularly intense moments, so I think that Celan was really sealed into my life. But in Paris, I feel a little closer to him. As well as the knowledge that he walked those streets, there's a feeling that he is more remembered there.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker: Poetry Takes Flight

There are times when I'm not reading a great deal of poetry (or, less than at some other times) but it still finds its way into my life. (It always does that.) A recent example was when I read the book Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker.

Flying isn't particularly my favourite subject to read about. I fly at least a couple of times a year, usually more, but have struggled with it for years to the extent that each flight is anywhere from uncomfortable to a major ordeal. Oddly enough, this was partly what impelled me to read Skyfaring. The description attracted me: an experienced pilot evokes the perspective shifts, the emotional challenges and rewards, the friendships and unusual messages, and the pure beauty of flying.

I really wasn't disappointed with the book and I would certainly recommend it for a nervous flyer, at least one who can bear the thought of reading about the experience they dread. There is such an air of wonder and serenity about it that it had a noticeably calming effect on me (and yes, I did read parts of it on long plane flights a few weeks ago, between London and the west coast of Canada.) The writing is exquisite. I particularly enjoyed some of Vanhoenacker's descriptions of night flying (not my favourite time to be flying, due to a weird psychological cocktail of reasons.) Such as this:

In the high night...are many phenomena we cannot see so clearly, if we see them at all, when the sun is up. There are nameless ships of cloud that seem to sail best under a bright moon. There are vast lobes of lightning, flashbulbing out from deep within the grey matter of distant equatorial thunderstorms, while on the windowpanes St Elmo's fire, a kind of static that appears in startling bursts of flat blue veins, flickers like Prufrock's 'nerves in patterns on a screen'.

And...there's the other reason why I enjoyed Skyfaring. It opens with, as epigraph, the latter half of one of the poems in Derek Walcott's Midsummer sequence, a poem that actually is about flying (and landing):

It comes too fast, this shelving sense of home -
canes rushing the wing, a fence; a world that stands still as
the trundling tires keep shaking and shaking the heart.

Vanhoenacker obviously has a rich appreciation for literature: as well as Walcott and TS Eliot, Philip Levine, Robert Frost, 'Dark Night of the Soul' by St John of the Cross, all appear along with other poems and poets. A book well worth reading, then; but it did make me think that to enjoy flying, you really have to be a pilot - or at least sitting in business class.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Benjamin Fondane: My Translation of 'Fallen Snow'

My latest poetic obsession is Benjamin Fondane, and it looks as though it could be a serious one. Here's the story - followed by my translation of his poem 'Fallen Snow'.

In March, I went to London Book Fair for about a day and a half. It was for work, and I attended talks on digital advancements, browsed the full-colour book publishers, and met work contacts. I also had a bit of time to just wander round. One of the things that fascinates me about book trade fairs - and it's something you get to experience if you're there as a visitor with a certain amount of freedom, rather than working as an exhibitor - is the sheer breadth of what falls under "book". These days there's a lot of talk about "content" (which is kind of fascinating and annoying at the same time), but even beyond digital media, exhibitors at LBF range from the immense trade publishers (Penguin Random House, etc) all the way to publishers in the most niche areas imaginable (someone had a stand dedicated exclusively to a book about a certain financial establishment's fraudulent acts. It was giving off a bit of a creepy vibe and a lot of people were eyeing it nervously.)

Poland was the market focus this year, and generally I love wandering around the international publishers. While I was doing so, this caught my eye over at Romania's stand:

A few thoughts went through my mind: "Beautiful lines", "Presumably a poet", and "What a wonderful face he has." I looked at the name: Benjamin Fondane (or Fundoianu in Romanian), which told me nothing, not that I could recall. I only had a minute to spare, so I took this photo as an aide-memoire and then moved on.

I looked up Benjamin Fondane later. It turned out that the Romanians at LBF were focusing their exhibition on Fondane in 2017, and I wished I'd asked someone there about him. As far as Fondane's life, I recommend the Wikipedia entry, which has to be one of the most comprehensive I have ever read about anybody (or about a non-English-language poet, certainly).

The barest essentials of his life are this: He was born in Romanian Moldavia in 1898, a Jewish Romanian poet, critic and philosopher who eventually moved to Paris and who also worked in film and theatre. His philosophy was strongly influenced by the Russian existential philosopher Lev Shestov, and although he was associated with the Surrealists, he later distanced himself from them. He was an accomplished poet, writing in both Romanian and French. Fondane's wide circle of friends and associates included philosopher Emil Cioran and sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz where, along with so many others, he was murdered in a gas chamber.

The impression I received from his biography was one of great vitality, energy and curiosity - in fact, one of those lives that seem impossible to snuff out. When I started looking up his French poems, I had an experience which is rarer to me than you might think. I have read quite a few poets who send me off into raptures (and a lot more who don't, at all). But it's rare for me to read even poetry in English where I have a "love at first sight" experience. It usually takes a little longer. Fondane wrote in French, and while I am fluent in French and have read a lot of French literature, I have to work harder (and listen harder) with it. The "love at first sight" seldom, if ever, happens to me with French literature. And yet, pretty much the second I started reading Fondane's poetry - in French, not in translation - it happened. I knew right away that I had to try translating his poems.

Fondane hasn't been very widely translated into English. He is much more famous in France. The New York Review of Books has recently released a couple of volumes with English translations of some of his poems, and of some of his philosophical essays (the latter under the wonderful title Existential Monday). But I expect, in the next while, to be doing some work on his poems. When I started reading them, I heard his voice so powerfully that I knew I could translate his work. The hearing of the voice (so to speak) is, to me, the strongest indication that I should try to translate a certain poet.

Here's my translation of 'Fallen Snow' ('Neige tombée'), followed by the original poem. And, please watch this space.


Fallen snow, fallen snow in the century
far, far from me, in the night of my sixteenth year.
Have I forgotten you, strange and savage youth –
hardly more real than the sixteenth century?

Sweet twilight! Are you there in the corner of my room?
Clear wood fire, is that you burnishing my skin?
Yes, the seasons have passed; ah yes, the Decembers
roll their hollow wheels on the cobblestones.

Fallen snow! Remember! You were travelling in a book.
Bright young girls came in, tasting of salt –
dead since then, since my desire was drunk!
Who would have thought that only it would last?

Sweet twilight! Later on the quays, the piers,
so many times we wept our farewells!
Yes, you still rest on those young shoulders,
stubborn heart, like wine turned old.

Fallen snow! In the hearth, now, other kindling
is burning! But it’s still the same song.
Truly – I wished in vain, for a kiss from your mouths,
to go down to Hell and pay the cruel ransom.

Sweet twilight! The snow has fallen. This is the century,
the wind, time and savage blood.
Far, far from me: where are you, my sixteenth year,
hardly more real than the sixteenth century?

Benjamin Fondane, 1943 (translated by Clarissa Aykroyd)

Neige tombée

Neige tombée, neige tombée dans le siècle
loin, loin de moi,dans la nuit de ma seizième année.
T'ai-je oubliée, jeunesse étrange et mutinée -
à peine plus réelle que le seizième siècle?

Doux crépuscule! Es-tu là dans un coin de ma chambre?
Clair feu de bois, est-ce toi qui ambres ma peau?
Oui, les saisons ont passés; eh oui, les Décembres
roulent sur les pavés le creux de leurs cerceaux.

Neige tombée! Souviens-toi! Tu voyageais dans un livre.
Vives, des jeunes filles entraient, au goût de sel
- mortes depuis que mon désir était ivre!
Qu'il eût pensé que lui seul resterait éternel?

Doux crépuscule! Plus tard sur les quais, les môles,
tant de fois ont sangloté nos adieux !
Oui, tu t'appuies encore sur ces fraîches épaules
coeur têtu pareil au vin devenu vieux.

Neige tombée! Dans l'âtre, à présent, d'autres bûches
flambent! Mais c'est la même chanson.
Vrai!, j'ai voulu en vain pour un baiser de vos bouches
descendre aux Enfers et payer la dure rançon.

Doux crépuscule! La neige est tombée. C'est le siècle,
c'est le vent, c'est le temps et le sang mutiné.
Loin, loin de moi: où es-tu ma seizième année -
à peine plus réelle que le seizième siècle?

Translation  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017