Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Helen Dunmore: 'Convolvulus'

Helen Dunmore (left), 2014. Photo by summonedbyfells. Used under Creative Common license

Helen Dunmore, the British poet and novelist who died last year at the age of 64, recently won not only the 2017 Costa Poetry award for her final poetry collection Inside the Wave, but also the overall Costa Book of the Year award.

So far I've read relatively few poems from Inside the Wave or her other works, which probably makes this post a little premature. From what I have read, though, her poems seem to me balanced, spare but vivid, a personal voice aware of the wider world. I was somewhat reminded of the poetry of Sarah Maguire, who also died last year at around the same age. I'm also looking forward to reading Dunmore's novel Exposure and perhaps others.

Dunmore's poem 'Convolvulus', published in 2004, is one that I read recently and have often thought of since. In the symbology of flowers, the convolvulus can represent extinguished hopes and death. It is also a plant which can act as a weed and choke out others. The poem thus becomes a thought-provoking and disturbing meditation on hope (a flower that continues to bloom), but also the permanence of death and the repeated dashing of hopes throughout human history. The flower is resilient: this is both a source of optimism and despair. "Crushed, they breathe out their honey, and slowly/come back to themselves in the balm of the night". Humans cannot regain life or hope so easily, certainly not in the face of violence.

It is very telling that the speaker first says "where we say bombs, there will be nothing/until we turn to reconstruction" (the war will stop, the ceasefire will hold) but later acknowledges "Where we say bombs, there will be bombs". The poem ends with the recurring threat of violence in "the shadow of planes" over the sea, which reminded me irresistibly of how I felt when I saw the first plane after 9/11, days later, over a beach near my home on Vancouver Island.

'Convolvulus' reminded me of 'Desert Flowers' by Keith Douglas, a favourite poem: these two poems share the themes of war and the ambiguity of the flower imagery. I also thought that both Douglas and Dunmore seem curiously outside of time. Douglas has dated relatively little considering that he was writing in the 1930s and '40s, and Dunmore seems unlikely to become dated in any kind of hurry.

Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has just written a touching tribute to Helen Dunmore which you can read here:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Philip Levine: 'The Second Going'

On the list of poems which have haunted me and refuse to leave, this is a recent addition: 'The Second Going' by Philip Levine.

Philip Levine, who was the US Poet Laureate in 2011-2012, died in 2015 at the age of 87. This poem appeared in 2017 in The Golden Shovel, an anthology in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks (who was also a US Poet Laureate, and the first African-American woman to receive that honour.) The "golden shovel" poetic form was devised by Terrance Hayes and it uses each word of a line of poetry, in order, to form the last word of each line in the new poem. The line which inspired 'The Second Going', "The only sanity is a cup of tea", appears in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'Boy Breaking Glass'.

'The Second Going' is a beautiful example of one of my own favourite poetic "forms" (if it can be called that): the very short poem. In just eight lines, this poem says so much.

My own reading of it is rather dark. I see this as an end-of-life poem, which it may literally have been for Philip Levine, as he died in 2015 and the poem must have been commissioned for the 2017 anthology. Even the poem's shape, appearing as a descending staircase, suggests an ending. The poem's opening, "Again the/day begins", has a weariness about it, and "mercy" (in the final line) is a word I identify with assisted death or, at least, death after an exhausting illness. A sad poem, then, but also an illuminating one, like the strange clarity that can come after being awake for "long nights & absent dawns".

Photo: 'night' by Steve Johnson. Used under Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

In memory of Ursula Le Guin, 1929-2018

The novelist, essayist and poet Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago, on 22 January. She was 88.

There are so many things I could say about Le Guin. I remember seeing A Wizard of Earthsea in the library when I was young, and being a little frightened by the cover art. Later, I remember reading it on a long train trip in Finland, perhaps at the age of nine or ten. I also remember a certain remote, awed feeling about her name. Ursula Le Guin: it was like one of the characters in her books, perhaps a powerful and beautiful queen, and I think I suspected for a long time that it was a pen name.

Unlike with Watership Down, or even to a certain extent with Tolkien, I don't remember any coup de foudre moment with Le Guin's writing. My brother and I loved the first two Earthsea books - I think for some time we were especially keen on The Tombs of Atuan - but we found The Farthest Shore dull. Much later, I've realised it's one of her most beautiful and profound books. That says something about my relationship with Le Guin's writing: her books have been a part of my life for a very long time, indeed for most of it, but it was more of a slow burn.

It would be incorrect to say that I loved everything I ever read by Le Guin (and I haven't read all of her work, which gives me some relief now that she is gone). I love much of it, and admire all of it. She has been around for most of my artistic/literary/life development, but my awareness of her work has expanded gradually over the years. I enjoyed fantasy literature in childhood, so Earthsea was the logical place to begin. I'm not sure when I became aware that she was probably even more famous as a science fiction writer, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, among others. I suspect that for a long time, I was guilty of doing what she eventually taught me not to do: I pigeonholed her as a sci-fi/fantasy writer, as good as I knew her to be. In recent years I have realised that she was one of the greatest writers of our time - full stop. I now think of her as having left us one of the finest bodies of work from the 20th and 21st centuries. She was the author of magnificent literature, who happened to be working mainly in speculative fiction, and who was so often marginalised for it (and often for her gender, too) when her genius should have been shouted from the rooftops.

Genre fiction often gets shoved aside as mere entertainment. Le Guin's work was entertaining, but I never went to her other worlds merely to be entertained. I went to Earthsea or Anarres or the Western Shore or Orsinia in order to think, to meditate, to explore, to shake things loose in my mind. Her sense of humour is underrated and frequently present, but really, a profound seriousness runs through her writing and it demands that readers approach it seriously. In the days following her death, I've read many superb articles by people who knew her and/or were deeply influenced by her work. Many people have, one way or another, claimed her ideas on feminism, gender, politics and so forth. I have no desire to claim her ideas; in fact, I know that she and I would have disagreed on many things. But although she was a writer whose convictions shine through strongly, even overtly at times, in all of her writing, I found a freedom within her books as well. Her books didn't try to force agreement, which many less subtle and powerful writers have done, especially in recent years. They did, however, call on me to engage deeply with the text and to use my mind, to think about agreement, disagreement, compromise, changing one's mind or holding fast to one's convictions. She also treasured love and the small things which make up a life and its relationships.

As otherworldly as her writing is, there's also something extremely tangible and tactile about it. Even in her prose, her craft held many lessons for poets, in its spareness and meticulous choice of every word. She is not a writer for whom I would use the word "effortless". The craftwork in her writing is extremely evident, as it would be when looking at a beautiful piece of pottery, or a painstakingly worked statue. Many of her characters do such work, or jobs which are seemingly humble. She showed respect for all of it. Some years ago I visited Okinawa, and my friends bought me a stunningly beautiful pottery mug, dark-glazed, depicting a fish. It is pure Le Guin (and so was that world of Okinawa, its little islands, grey winds, bright waves and dark palms). When I still lived in my hometown of Victoria, Canada, I would sometimes see the work of sculptor Maarten Schaddelee, who carved flowing dolphins, sea creatures and waves, often out of highly polished wood. These too were "Le Guin" works of art to me. And it's appropriate that they came from either side of the Pacific Rim, because Le Guin lived in Portland, Oregon for much of her life, after growing up in California. There is a definite Pacific Northwest and West Coast air to so much of her work, which also brought me closer to it.

I have sometimes been known to say that I'm a bit under-read when it comes to the Great American Novel. Well, Ursula Le Guin was the great American novelist. It doesn't have to be a man or the author of Gravity's Rainbow or Portnoy's Complaint. When the writing is this good, when the thoughts are this expansive, the great American novelist can and should be a woman writing science fiction and fantasy. Like so many of her readers, I am deeply sad that she is gone, but slightly comforted that I haven't read all of her work yet - including much of her poetry, which many consider underrated. She could no longer work on another novel in the last few years, but she still had poetry. In one of the many articles written in the last few days, Zoë Carpenter, who had known her, wrote: "She told me it was important that I read her poems in order to understand her current preoccupations, her attempt to 'report from the frontier' of old age." I'll reread her novels and will move on gratefully to the poetry while I remember this extraordinary woman.

Photo of Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch (Oregon State University). Used under Creative Commons License

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.