Sunday, 28 September 2014

D H Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians': "Soft September..."

D H Lawrence in 1906


Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness,
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding
darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Soft September is upon us, and tomorrow (29 September) is slow, Sad Michaelmas. Weather-wise, it has been a fairly soft September, and "slow, sad" is a good evocation of the gradual drawing down of darkness, and the days when the dead leaves start to rustle against your ankles.

Lawrence wrote 'Bavarian Gentians' when he was ill and his early death was approaching. I have seen it described as the greatest poem of all time, by some reckonings. While I always seem to feel obliged to point out that I'm really not a fan of Lawrence (even when I like a few of his poems very much...), it is hard to escape this poem's power. The way it unites the natural beauty of the flowers with an overflowing, Keatsian description of their colour, leading into an erotically and morbidly charged descent into the underworld, evoked with long-drawn vowel sounds, is quite unforgettable. It's also quintessentially Lawrence.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal: "This Zero Hour of the Day"

London in 1938, at Tottenham Court Road. © George W Baker. Used under Creative Commons license

At this time of year I like to read Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal. Considered his greatest work by many, this book-length poem in 24 sections describes life in Europe, mainly in London, in the buildup to World War II. It's a poem of mounting tension and anxiety, but also a chronicle with MacNeice's characteristic light touch of his love affairs, his travels, and so on. It is his life in those months of late 1938, and it manages to be both superb poetry and a brilliant kind of reportage. It's completely personal as well as relevant and immediate in terms of what was happening in society and politics.

I see MacNeice as a kind of journalist - he's just so precise and readable. I can't recommend Autumn Journal too highly. I think it is quite unique amongst chronicles of a very momentous time, and it is both thrilling and daunting that his writing feels so relatable today.

Here is an excerpt from Autumn Journal - one of my favourite passages.

from AUTUMN JOURNAL (Louis MacNeice)


And when we go out into Piccadilly Circus
    They are selling and buying the late
Special editions snatched and read abruptly
    Beneath the electric signs as crude as Fate.
And the individual, powerless, has to exert the
    Powers of will and choice
And choose between enormous evils, either
    Of which depends on somebody else's voice.
The cylinders are racing in the presses,
    The mines are laid,
The ribbon plumbs the fallen fathoms of Wall Street,
    And you and I are afraid.
To-day they were building in Oxford Street, the mortar
    Pleasant to smell,
But now it seems futility, imbecility,
    To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next. What will happen
    We ask and waste the question on the air;
Nelson is stone and Johnnie Walker moves his
    Legs like a cretin over Trafalgar Square.
And in the Corner House the carpet-sweepers
    Advance between the tables after crumbs
Inexorably, like a tank battalion
    In answer to the drums.
In Tottenham Court Road the tarts and negroes
    Loiter beneath the lights
And the breeze gets colder as on so many other
    September nights.
A smell of French bread in Charlotte Street, a rustle
    Of leaves in Regent's Park
And suddenly from the Zoo I hear a sea-lion
    Confidently bark.
And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
    And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill
Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement
    And very likely will
Be used that way again. The bloody frontier
    Converges on our beds
Like jungle beaters closing in on their destined
    Trophy of pelts and heads.
And at this hour of the day it is no good saying
    'Take away this cup';
Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic
    That now we should drink it up.
Nor can we hide our heads in the sands, the sands have
    Filtered away;
Nothing remains but rock at this hour, this zero
    Hour of the day.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Sean O'Brien's 'The Citizens' and Czeslaw Milosz's 'Dedication': Mirror Images

Ruins of St Casimir Church in Warsaw, Poland, 1945. Photographer unknown

This week, Sean O'Brien's poem 'The Citizens' appeared as the Griffin Poetry Prize poem of the week. You can read it here:


I am an admirer of Sean O'Brien's work (as well as having done a poetry workshop with him in London which was one of the most enjoyable I've attended.) His poetry is wry and Northern, chiseled and cold in imagery but not in feeling. Among contemporary British poets he seems to have a particularly strong feeling of place and history.

I had read 'The Citizens' before; it appears in O'Brien's collection November and I know that I appreciated it when reading the book. However, sometimes a poem really strikes you at a particular moment. In the case of this poem, perhaps it is the events surrounding my reading of it, in this dark year of 2014. When it came up on the Griffin Poetry Prize website, I re-read it several times, almost compulsively.

After reading the poem at least five times, I realised that it reminded me of another poem, which is this:

DEDICATION (Czeslaw Milosz)

I have meant to write about the great Polish poet Milosz for some time, but thus far I haven't succeeded. Honestly, the prospect intimidates me. Milosz is so monumental that I don't feel adequate to the task. But I appreciated the way that 'The Citizens' and 'Dedication' seemed to speak to each other. 'The Citizens' is undoubtedly a Milosz-ian poem.

There are images which reflect each other in the two poems: the rivers, the cities, and the potent emblems of death. There is also the keen sense of valediction and the impression that the speaker is trying almost desperately to explain himself. There is the sense of historical truth, even witness, in both poems. Beyond all that, there is also a dark ambiguity in each poem. In 'The Citizens', the speaker seems to represent a group which has committed genocide or at least acts of violence and oppression; he knows that this "[i]s what is meant by history", and acknowledges it both guiltily and confidently, with an air of justification ("What language? You had no language.") At the end of the poem, the speaker fears both that his people will not leave an acceptable legacy, and that they will be judged adversely - although "We fear that the fields of blue air at the world's end/Will be the only court we face" could indicate, more than a fear of judgment, an even greater dread that the universe might be godless.

'Dedication' is a poem I have spent some time puzzling over. I think it helps to know a bit about Milosz's complex life under totalitarian regimes and as a defector to the West, and the criticisms he faced at times regarding his political and religious views. To me it is a profoundly ambiguous poem, to the extent that I can't entirely tell if he speaks to an enemy or to a friend. I am not sure if the speaker can tell, either. Is the dead one (ones?) who the speaker addresses an oppressor, or a victim? Does the speaker address all oppressors and victims? "I put this book here for you, who once lived/So that you should visit us no more," he says in conclusion. Is this an attempt to exorcise a dark force (from his mind, more so than literally) - or a wish to no longer be haunted by the thought that his poetry did not necessarily "save/Nations or people", or even one particularly loved person? Is the speaker mourning the fact that his poetry couldn't stop conflicts between people who, under other circumstances, might live in peace and be truly good?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Charles Hamilton Sorley: 'When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead'

Poison gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. Photo taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade


When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped upon each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

In June, July and August, the world's nations have marked anniversaries of the start of World War I. So far, the horror show of 2014 has certainly proved a worthy successor to 1914. In recent months many have invoked the spectres of not just 1914 but also the 1930s. Time will tell exactly how this year will be remembered, but so far it's been both bewildering, and bang on track with the patterns and outworkings of history.

Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed at the age of 20 in 1915, when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. It seems that his work was extremely popular after his death but that he is now less known than some other World War I poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. It is very obvious, though, that he was extremely talented and that he would have gone on to write even greater poems. During his time at Oxford, Sorley had also studied in Germany before the start of the war, and his striking, moving sonnet 'To Germany' was recently discussed in the Guardian. 

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' was found in Sorley's kit after his death and it is thought to be his last poem. There is a kind of sotto voce air about it which is hugely powerful. It seems to move like a hushed and ghastly symphony. The many caesuras, or pauses in the lines, are like a muffled drum.

Sorley was plainly a realist, even a brutal one ("It is easy to be dead"), but there is also something in this sonnet that speaks to me of post-traumatic stress. Many of those who survived the wars didn't really survive, not as the healthy and reasonably happy people they were before. More is broken in wars than lives and lands, and the aftermath of so much trauma has been passed down through generations. The bleakness in this poem is extraordinary and chilling. Sadly, it makes me wonder how Sorley would have coped had he survived.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams and Walt Whitman: 'O Me! O Life!'

Robin Williams in Canada, 2004. Photo by Darsie. Used under Creative Commons license

O ME! O LIFE! (Walt Whitman)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here - that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

By now everyone has heard about the tragic death of actor Robin Williams a couple of days ago. Comic actors are not usually my favourite actors, but nearly everyone loved Robin Williams, and for my generation he was an inevitable part of our lives. The fact that he took his own life feels particularly sad and hard to come to terms with.

In Dead Poets Society, Williams' character John Keating quotes Whitman's 'O Me! O Life!' in part. He prefaces it with one of my favourite quotations about poetry, by anyone: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion."

I first saw Dead Poets Society when I was 13 or 14 (a few years after it first came out) and it made a deep impression. I loved its passion and drama and I feel sure that it sent me at least a small step of the way along the road to becoming a poetry lover. I watched it again recently for the first time in years and I still enjoyed it. Dead Poets Society is often criticised for mixed messages and for a facile view of the humanities, even for being manipulative. The fact is, though, that all art is manipulative in some way, and the messages I got from Dead Poets Society were: love poetry, live life to the full, be an inspiring teacher if that's your vocation. Not bad things.

I like Whitman's poem because anyone can find common ground in it. Regardless of our choices in life, our beliefs, and so on, most of us find life challenging and often sad, most of us are often disappointed in ourselves. Here Whitman says - keep trying, contribute a verse. They are beautiful and helpful words. Many people will be thinking of them this week and wishing that Robin Williams could have found a way.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

P K Page's 'This Heavy Craft': "The Dream of Flight Persists"

Wings of the fallen by Garrette. Used under Creative Commons license

It can be difficult to know what to say about joy in the writer's vocation. The portrait is so often of the artist as tortured, and this is especially so in the case of poets, who are known to have particularly high levels of mental illness. (This phenomenon has been called the 'Sylvia Plath effect'.) Even where writers aren't tortured, there are so many jokes about how a writer will do anything to avoid writing that one really starts to wonder.


I remember P K Page reading 'This Heavy Craft' at the one reading of hers I was able to attend years ago in Victoria. Her clear voice made everything beautiful, not that this poem needed to become more beautiful. It is a curiously optimistic vision of a symbolic Icarus who survived the fall, even though "the wax has melted". The poet-as-Icarus pays tribute to the "bird" in her innermost self, her deepest imagination, who "while I'm asleep/unfolds its phantom wings/and practices". Despite the self-deprecating heaviness of the poem's title, and the description of the bird's wings as "phantom", this is optimism indeed. The bird also reminded me of the golden birds of Yeat's 'Sailing to Byzantium' and 'Byzantium', part of the legacy of art which outlasts human impermanence.

While not a wholehearted fan of shape poems, I also couldn't help noticing and enjoying the fact that 'This Heavy Craft' appears on the page in the shape of a feathered wing.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Poetry Jazz Café, Toronto

When I was in Toronto for a few days last month, my friend and I paid a visit to the Poetry Jazz Café in the eclectic Kensington Market neighbourhood. My friend is a Londoner too (a real one, unlike me) but she lived in Toronto for a while as a student and knows the city very well.

The Poetry Jazz Café is, I think, more jazz than poetry, but they also have spoken word/slam poetry events and a cool bar. For hungry poets, the day's menu featured this:

We very much enjoyed the ambiance, our cocktails and the music, as below. The band was Cruzao, playing jazz with a Cuban twist.

You can read about the inspiration behind the name here. "Poetry comes from sorrow and to be a poet one must be able to feel."

Photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Poetry International 2014: "It's Important That Poets Be Awake In Their Times"

Carolyn Forché giving the Poetry Society Annual Lecture 2014 at Southbank, London. Photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2014

Poetry International, at London's Southbank, ran from Thursday 17 July to Monday 21 July. The festival was founded in 1967 by Ted Hughes and takes place every couple of years - in 2012 it was the amazing Poetry Parnassus.

On Thursday I went to the launch event, which featured the rather astonishing and diverse lineup of Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Anne Michaels (Canada), Kutti Revathi (India), Carolyn Forché (US), Mohammed El Deeb (Egypt), Robert Hass (US) and Ana Blandiana (Romania). Nikola Madzirov opened the reading and I was absolutely thrilled to see him: his collection of selected English translations, Remnants of Another Age, has left lines and images with me that I will never forget. (More on Madzirov in another blog post soon...) For the non-English language poets in this event, the translations were projected overhead while they read in their own language, and I found this worked well - you can absorb the meaning while also experiencing the sensory and emotional power of the original words. Madzirov reads beautifully with a kind of occasional tempo rubato and gestures which form an organic whole with the words. When he read 'Fast Is the Century', he went over to English for the last few (heart-stopping) lines. It was a thrill like a phone call from a country you've never visited.

Fast is the century.
Faster than the word.
If I were dead, everyone would have believed me
when I kept silent.

Anne Michaels read with heartfelt emotion from her Correspondences, which is an elegy for her father as well as remembrances of writers including Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Anna Akhmatova. It made me want to read more. Carolyn Forché was another poet who was really my reason for being at Poetry International and she read with a passion which I found both shy and forceful. Her poems included 'The Lightkeeper', 'The Ghost of Heaven' (about El Salvador, but a poem it took her decades to finally write) and another which I think was new. The other poets were also remarkable: Kutti Revathi read brave poems of the body, El Deeb brought us Arabic rap straight from the heart of the Arab Spring, Robert Hass read a lovely long poem in tribute to his friend Czeslaw Milosz, and Ana Blandiana's poems were both delicate and cutting. Afterwards I was able to meet Carolyn Forché, Nikola Madzirov and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books - all were really gracious and interesting. I knew Nikola and Neil a little already from social media and they both remembered me when I introduced myself, which was very nice.

On Friday I went to the Poetry Translation Centre's event, which was the launch of the anthology My Voice, commemorating the PTC's first ten years. The PTC puts on some of my very favourite poetry events. In terms of diversity and vibrancy, their audiences are second to none. Theirs are the events where I am as likely to find myself sitting next to an Iranian woman or a Somali man as I am to see people as Western, white and middle-class as myself. Their readings really reflect London's communities, and as Sarah Maguire explained, she started the PTC partly because of her passion for poetry from Arabic, Somali and other languages and partly because she wanted to help make people from other cultures feel at home in the UK. The poets reading either originals or translations included Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (Sudan), Reza Mohammadi (Afghanistan), Jo Shapcott and Mimi Khalvati, among others - an incredibly star-studded and international lineup. Like the anthology, the poems moved "from exile to ecstasy", and the former hit particularly hard - Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's 'Lamps' had me in tears. It was a wonderful event, and the anthology (which I hope to review soon) looks amazing.

During the weekend I went to two events, the first of which was the launch of Modern Poetry In Translation's new issue. MPT was founded by Ted Hughes with Daniel Weissbort and its association with Poetry International has been particularly close on many occasions. We heard German poet Christine Marendon reading poems of nature and introspection including 'Evening Primrose' with translator Ken Cockburn, and Hubert Moore read his translations of the mysterious Iranian poet Bavar Rastin. Again I was there mainly for Nikola Madzirov, who was reading with his translator Peggy Reid. Poems such as 'The Perfection of the Forgotten Ones' suggested to me that his recent work may be even better than previous poems. Afterwards I saw a few poetry acquaintances, including MPT's own Sasha Dugdale, talked with Nikola about how his poetry has become a best-seller in Spanish-speaking countries, and also spoke with Peggy Reid (who, typically for those who know Nikola, prefaced her praise of his wonderful work with "He's such a lovely person".)

My last event was the Poetry Society Annual Lecture, this year by Carolyn Forché on 'The Poet as Witness'. This is, of course, her area of speciality, but I think that many in attendance weren't very familiar with her anthologies, her own poetry, and her championing of the idea of "poetry of witness". Forché is quite a big deal in North America but I have gathered she isn't that well known over here (even in poetry circles). She spoke of the international poetry reading she went to in Libya, in 2012, after the death of the dictator, where "the posters covered up the bullet holes". One of the poems Forché read there was 'The Colonel', probably her most famous poem - she said that she had been reluctant to read it in Libya, as it was about El Salvador, but she later realised that the Libyans had interpreted it as being about their own experiences under Gaddafi. When she read it for us, the auditorium went gradually into an absolute pin-drop silence which was eerie. In poetry of witness, she said, "the mark of experience is burned into the poem, and regardless of content, the mark remains legible." Speaking of the tragic life stories and extraordinary poems of Miklós Radnóti and Georg Trakl, she described "poetry of witness" as more a mode of reading, not of writing - writers don't set out to be poets of witness, but their experiences allow others to find that mark of extreme experiences. This poetry, said Forché, is frequently marked by (among others) characteristics such as: the experience of the self as fragmented; the past as another country; addressing the dead, War and Death as personified figures; and recognition of the failure of language and words. Speaking about her new anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, she described how she had long thought poetry of witness to exist more in non-English traditions, but she found such marks of experience in many, if not most, English-language poets before the twentieth century, and in the war poets and others in the past hundred years. "It's important that poets be awake in their times," she said. I found the lecture very strong and moving, and I think it was particularly a revelation for those who didn't know her work.

So it was a lovely and inspiring few days of poetry events. And also, I got hugs from the finest Macedonian and Sudanese poets of their generations, and that's automatically a good weekend.