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

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Rilke's French Rose Poems in Translation - XVI and XVII

Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd - Red Cross Garden, London, 2015

I'm finally back to translating Rainer Maria Rilke's Roses poems from French. It's been over a year and a half since the last translations, so apologies are due to all my French translation fans. (I know you're out there.)

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


Let's not speak of you. You are ineffable
by your very nature.
Other flowers adorn the table
that you transfigure.

We put you in a simple vase
and everything changes:
it might be the same phrase,
but now an angel sings.


It's you who prepare within yourself,
more than yourself, your quintessence.
That which comes from you, that unsettling rush,
is your dance.

Each petal consents
and in the wind
takes a few fragrant steps

O music of eyes,
by them enclosed,
you become mysterious



Ne parlons pas de toi. Tu es ineffable
selon ta nature.
D'autres fleurs ornent la table
que tu transfigures.

On te met dans un simple vase - ,
voici que tout change:
c'est peut-être la même phrase,
mais chantée par un ange.


C'est toi qui prépares en toi
plus que toi, ton ultime essence.
Ce qui sort de toi, ce troublant émoi,
c'est ta danse.

Chaque pétale consent
et fait dans le vent
quelques pas odorants

O musique des yeux,
toute entourée d'eux,
tu deviens au milieu

Translations  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2016

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Keith Douglas: 'Mersa'

Mersa Matruh by David Holt. Used under Creative Commons license

MERSA (Keith Douglas)

This blue halfcircle of sea
moving transparently
on sand as pale as salt
was Cleopatra's hotel:

here is a guesthouse built
and broken utterly, since.
An amorous modern prince
lived in this scoured shell.

Now from the skeletal town
the cherry skinned soldiers stroll down
to undress to idle on the white beach.
Up there, the immensely long road goes by

to Tripoli: the wind and dust reach 
the secrets of the whole 
poor town whose masks would still
deceive a passer-by;

faces with sightless doors
for eyes, with cracks like tears
oozing at corners. A dead tank alone
leans where the gossips stood.

I see my feet like stones
underwater. The logical little fish
converge and nip the flesh
imagining I am one of the dead.

                                        [after October 1942]

Apparently it was on this day (26 March) in 1944 that Keith Douglas sent 'Mersa' to Betty Jesse, who was the assistant of Tambimuttu, editor of Poetry (London). Betty Jesse was also one of Douglas's girlfriends, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has read about his complicated love life.

Mersa is Mersa Matruh in Egypt, not far from El Alamein and another key location in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. It has also been a popular beach resort for a long time. This concise poem seems to describe an out-of-season resort, but details emerge gradually to show that the war has ravaged this town: it is 'skeletal' and 'A dead tank alone/leans where the gossips stood'.

As is sadly so often the case in Douglas's poems, 'Mersa' ends with a portrait of the artist as a dead man. The brilliance of the final stanza is in how much it says with so few words. Douglas sees his feet like 'stones underwater': he is like an ancient statue lost in a Mediterranean harbour, already becoming part of history. The 'logical' fish see him as edible, 'one of the dead'. Douglas is logical, too, but as with the clear water of the port, there is always more beneath the surface.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 - Anthology and Launch

Old Glasses by Manos. Used under Creative Commons license

I'm very pleased to say that one of my poems was chosen to appear in Eyewear Publishing's Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 anthology. You can order the anthology here and read some more details about how it came about:

There will be a launch and reading for the anthology on Sunday, 20 March at 3 PM in London, at the Camden Eye pub (2 Kentish Town Road, NW1 9NX) and everyone who would like to come is invited. You can find the relevant Facebook event here:

or find information on the Eyewear website here:

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Wojciech Bonowicz, Polish Poetry and the Secret Agent

Wojciech Bonowicz, 2013. Used under Creative Commons license

A little while ago I came across sixteen extraordinary short poems by the Polish poet Wojciech Bonowicz, on the Jacket2 website. You can read them here:

I met Wojciech Bonowicz a few years ago at a launch event for a new issue of Modern Poetry In Translation which had a focus on Polish poetry. After the event I was talking to Sasha Dugdale (MPT's editor), Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese (translator of contemporary Polish poetry) and Bonowicz. I was having a slightly embarrassing self-disclosure moment and decided to share my personal difficulty with Central and Eastern European poetry. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I love Polish poetry, I really love it, and poetry from other parts of Central and Eastern Europe too. But sometimes I feel like I can never truly understand it, you know? Even as compared to poetry from other parts of the world, Polish poetry seems particularly "coded" to me and it almost seems as though because I'm not from that background, I didn't grow up with those particular references and that historical frame of reference, it's just not possible to understand that code, besides the extra layer of difficulties imposed by not speaking the language and therefore only being able to access it in translation. Can I ever really understand it??? 

Poets and translators: (looking faintly amused) Oh, well, you know, you're here, and you appreciate the poetry. So basically, you're doing fine.

Me: Oh. Well, okay then.

When I told this story to some friends later, rather as a bit of a laugh against myself, one of them suggested that this was a slightly evasive answer. It might have been, but I think it's more likely that they didn't want to discourage me. When a new face shows up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at a poetry-in-translation event and confesses that poetry from a certain part of the world poses a particular challenge for her, you probably don't want to say "yes, you're right - you are never going to understand poetry from this cultural milieu." I have actually found that the organisations, journals and individuals who work with poetry translation are a particularly welcoming bunch. Poetry is already a niche area in the English-speaking world, and translated poetry is a niche within a niche. If you just show up and act polite and interested, they will embrace you. 

What is interesting, though, is that late last year I read this post on the blog of Hungarian-British poet George Szirtes, on the poetry of Eastern Europe:

It was based on a lecture he had given on Eastern European poetry, rather more on great figures of the 20th century such as Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa and Miroslav Holub than on contemporary poets. The poets and poems mentioned are obviously very much worth checking out, but there are also some really interesting comments, especially in light of my own conclusions about poetry from this part of the world. I found this particularly interesting: 

'As to differences, the nations of Eastern Europe did not suffer from post-colonial guilt though they had (and have) yet to deal with war guilt. The first years after the war the pressure of officially approved socialist realism - often traditional in form - meant that 'unofficial' art and poetry was best expressed through modernism: no formal prosody, no rhyme, disposable punctuation or capitalism, no ornate metaphors, no declamatory first-person singular. The freedoms offered by surrealism also offered complex ways of addressing politics. This encouraged a belief in codes, in secret complicities, in a common energy.' (George Szirtes)

I should mention at this point that as far as I can tell - and not surprisingly - contemporary Polish poets are generally quite careful to point out that as great as these figures are, poetry has moved on from Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski and the other poets who usually come to mind when Polish poetry is mentioned. As far as I can tell, reading only in translation, there is also an astonishing variety of poetic voices from Poland. It's a little too easy even for those with a keen interest in international poetry to make sweeping statements about 'Polish poetry' or 'Arabic poetry' or whatever it might be. 

The sixteen poems which I linked to by Wojciech Bonowicz, above, were actually published as part of a feature on the poet Tadeusz Różewicz and his legacy. They are small, intimate poems without pretentiousness, with a keen awareness of life's spiritual dimension, and with a sense of universality rather than the often limited perspective of the English lyric poem's 'I'. I hope that description isn't too facile, because it has something to do with why my brain lights up so much when I read much international poetry in translation. I can feel it happening. It seems somehow to encompass more than what I so often find in English-language poetry - and that's even with the codes and the surrealism. In an editorial for that issue of MPT, Wojciech Bonowicz wrote the following, which I love: 

'The presented four poets have one more feature in common: they favour conciseness, the construction of elliptical poems similar to maths equations with multiple unknown quantities. In recent Polish poetry being elliptical means being credible. Being elliptical counteracts the dominant culture of the obvious; it subverts well-rounded sentences falsifying reality by alleviating its conflicts and pushing beyond its circumference that which is dark and mysterious. The poet - from this vantage point - is one who opposes the fossilization of language, one who attends to its fissures. In this way the poet remains a secret agent of elusive sense.' (Wojciech Bonowicz)

Here are two more very interesting articles about modern Polish poetry in translation:

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Joy Harjo: 'She Had Some Horses'

Joy Harjo (photo by Joy Harjo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mvskoke (Creek) Nation poet Joy Harjo recently won the Wallace Stevens Award, which is awarded by the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors for 'outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry'. I was pleased when I saw this news, because the famous poem 'She Had Some Horses' had made a great impression on me from the moment I read it.

I recommend the Poetry Foundation article on Joy Harjo, and the other fine poems by her that can be found there. Harjo writes out of a deep source of Native American identity, but 'She Had Some Horses' is also about female identity and it may have come to mind this week because of International Women's Day.

I am painfully aware that (as a woman and a writer) I read and write about a lot more male poets than female poets, and I would quite like to remedy that (although at the same time, I don't feel apologetic about who I do or don't read...) The fact that I'm aware of it indicates that I know there is a lack there. And 'She Had Some Horses' reminds me beautifully and painfully how disparate, but formative and profound, all the experiences and relationships are that are part of being a woman. It is one of those poems for which I would like to thank the poet.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

New Poems Published in Shot Glass Journal

Cambridge, July 2015. Photo by Clarissa Aykroyd

I recently had a few new poems published in the short-form poetry journal Shot Glass Journal, and you can read them here:

'Fryderyk Chopin and the Meaning of Space' was inspired partly by a documentary, and partly by a commission. Some months ago I was in Canada and one night I watched a documentary about Chopin - my favourite composer - with my father. In the course of the documentary it was mentioned that Chopin alluded to the mathematician Urbain Le Verrier in one of his letters. It was 1846 and Le Verrier had predicted the discovery of Neptune. Around this time I also had to write a poem about 'space' - in any of its meanings - for an upcoming reading with The Quiet Compere. This poem was the end result.

'Cambridge' came out of my visit to the city in July - and a piano I stumbled across - and 'Mise en scene' arose from work around my garden residency last summer.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Gwendolyn MacEwen and the "Poem": 'Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear'

Dark & Stormy Night 2 by Ken McMillan.Used under Creative Commons license. 

One of Canada's great poets, Gwendolyn MacEwen was associated with other key Canadian literary figures such as Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood. She died at the age of 46 but left her incisive, mysterious, beautifully written poems.

'Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear' is a favourite of mine, and it goes out to anyone who doubts the motives of artists, or indeed anyone who writes just because they want to be a "Poet". It's not about a title or an act, says MacEwen - it's something much bigger.

I love the humorous-angry tone of the poem which gives way, in the final lines, to the unfathomable darkness which is both the source and the conclusion of art. The ending of the poem stops me in my tracks.