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