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: http://www.musepiepress.com/shotglass/clarissa_aykroyd1.html

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: http://modernpoetryintranslation.com/a-salt-wind/ 

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.