Writing poems to the tune of Sibelius (circa 1990)

This has been a very busy week and blogging time has been hard to find. At work we are gathering and discussing plans for the 3000-word A2 essays on T S Eliot, West and Fitzgerald – don’t let anyone give you any nonsense about how easy A levels are! But the other evening was spent at Holy Trinity in Sloane Square (not a usual haunt of mine) at my daughter’s school concert. The final piece they played was Sibelius’ Karelia Suite and it set me thinking about a poetic project I embarked on in the 1980s.

It’s with awed admiration as well as a good deal hilarity that I remember setting out to write a sequence of poems – one each month – based on the 7 symphonies of Sibelius. In my wholly untutored way, what I found in the music was a fluidity of movement – one section seamlessly linked to the next – that I wanted to echo in verse. I failed badly, I think, and perhaps only more recently have I found ways to achieve something like it. I also wanted a diaristic quality to the poems, recording and responding to events as they occurred in my own life through the period set. Perhaps not so sadly, I’m not sure I could now lay my hands on the full typescript. Only one of the ‘symphonies’ survived to be published in my first collection Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990): see https://martyncrucefix.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=68&action=edit

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It was the extraordinary Fourth Symphony (1911):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._4_(Sibelius)

Listen to it here: 

And here’s Wikipedia on it: Many commentators have heard in the symphony evidence of struggle or despair. Harold Truscott writes, “This work … is full of a foreboding which is probably the unconscious result of … the sensing of an atmosphere which was to explode in 1914 into a world war.” Sibelius also had recently endured terrors in his personal life: in 1908, in Berlin, he had a cancerous tumour removed from his throat. Timothy Day writes that “the operation was successful, but he lived for many years in constant fear of the tumour recurring, and from 1908 to 1913 the shadow of death lay over his life.” Other critics have heard bleakness in the work: one early Finnish critic, Elmer Diktonius, dubbed the work the Barkbröd symphony, referring to the famine in the previous century during which starving Scandinavians had had to eat bark bread to survive.

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The seven months were (I think) through the winter; so the fourth was probably linked with December and my partner had had a scare with a breast lump. The music’s dark, stark, exploratory qualities all found correlatives in what was going on around me. References to Betjeman and Larkin in section 1, allude to that BBC Monitor programme (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTdDS05x6d0) which I had been using to teach Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings around the same time. My partner’s grandparents had also recently died. In section 3, the reference to Ainola is to Sibelius’s beloved retreat beside Lake Tuusula in Finland, named after his wife: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ainola

So – in lieu of anything more fresh, here’s the 4 part poem – with all its faults – long, thin and astringent . . .

Barkbrod

1.

It is the rawness

of my own throat

that forebodes.

So little else has

been altered, yet

everything’s realigned

as if from without.

My peasant-thoughts

mix bitter bark

with dull flour

to eke life out.

They recognise

the violent-sudden

clarification

of their strength,

its cropped boundary.

Breath shortens.

Sweet Betjeman,

black-eyed Larkin:

these two dead men

alive on a screen

to discuss poetry,

the intimacies

of panic and pain.

And a malignancy

in the songbird’s

weak throat severs

the transference

from hand to hand.

The grandparents

of my young bride

pass along these

pallid, frost-blue

roses on bone-china.

Whether shelved or

to hand, they chill me:

their stark reaction

to our modish

wisdom, our shallow

unquestionable

optimism . . .

Take up the bitterness

of this bread,

brush every crumb

towards the sink

and douse your plate.

Baptise and scour

each blue-ice rose.

2.

The first peculiarities of this year’s

snowlight break up the bedroom glass.

There’s a crackle of news in the kitchen.

All is well. Yet the difficulty is this:

to convey information which is true,

while avoiding fear which is unnecessary,

yet maintain hope which is essential.

In a mess of sensual pleasure and death

it rose obediently to hand as I soaped

my breasts, in my left, quite low down.

Unmistakable. How long have I nursed

this featureless clod over my heart?

Water gems and drains from my feet.

The radio chuckles at my trembling.

3.

What remains to be done

but retire into some

Ainola of the mind,

glimpsed down a track

of snow, pine, a refuge

still as a blown flute.

I wake at night thirsty

and from the window,

across tangled gardens,

a yellow light burns,

sketching the grid

of dull-bricked walls.

But I sink to sleep

still unresolved

whether this midnight’s

oil is some illness,

vocation, compassion,

or the absentmindedness

we fearfully deny.

Your thinned hair now

combed neatly back

behind fleshy ears.

And how is the throat?

Nervy artist’s hands

flutter about the chin.

Those pale eyes of yours

gaze hard at my room,

at this ceiling’s rose

across my shoulders.

I guess you’re slow to be

moved, yet once begun

a relentless nature

like time or weather.

It’s a gaze to outlast

any physique: this slip

of a thing, your strength.

4.

This clod in my breast

wears a tight

black neckerchief.

 

It must be evil

that I think of it

as a child . . .

 

Dark nights running

I dream of him

rapping gently

 

against the door

 – our bedroom door –

till I answer.

So she speaks

as we journey south

out of London,

through the suburbs’

assembled brambled

tussocky plots,

bright washing

collecting the sun

as it drops

long shadows

to meet us both

on the allotments.

Vitality sickens me

with fierce envy

and the why? why?

Across the carriage

a brash student

absently rearranges

his big thighs.

Two powerful hands

murder the fruit

he cleanly eats.

I let him in

over the threshold.

These backs of houses

so ordinary

that reassurance

ought to flow

from them. Yet

we both move here

as an illustration,

a shadow,

quite regardless:

of how a charming boy

will come to the door

from without,

how you bend to him

just as he’s hulking

through transformation

into a killer

in our bedroom

who bolts you upright,

over and over,

screaming unrestrained

beside me.

Helen Mort’s ‘Division Street’ wins Aldeburgh First Collection Prize

The winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014 – one of the most long-established poetry awards in the UK – was announced at the opening of the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Friday 7th November. The judges were Imtiaz Dharker, Robert Seatter (Chair) and Anthony Wilson. Here, Anthony Wilson assembles the competitors on his own blog: http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2014/11/08/the-fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014/

The prize went to Helen Mort, Division Street (Chatto, 2013): http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014-ndash-winner-announced/

And here’s the review I did of the book a few months back for Poetry London:

Mort’s first collection has been much anticipated (no-one else has been five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award!) and Chatto have snapped her up but given her a rather ugly cover with its chalk-board script and rotated image of police confronting striking miners in 1984. Michael Symmons Roberts identifies the bedrock of the book as “the north of England” and the semiology of Division Street means the reader anticipates something more politically engaged than the poems deliver: this is not Heaney’s North, a bit more North of Boston. The north is often setting if not subject, but it is a place almost too recognisable where a girl learns “the name / for artificial hills, the bridge / where a man was felled by bricks / in the strike” (‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’). She might learn to dance, but sniggers at the teacher’s pretentious “parr-durr-shat” (‘Miss Heath’). A man grows old “in the same bungalow for thirty years / and dreams of digging his way out” (‘Fur’). A stage comedian gets a more lively balladic treatment which suggests a more resilient culture amongst the “empty works” and “braziers / that vanished thirty years ago” but the juke box still dates from 1971(‘Stainless Steven’).

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The risk is regional cliché here and I’m not sure this is really Mort’s true subject. The miners’ strike is dealt with via a re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave by conceptual artist, Jeremy Deller, in 2001. Mort’s desire to write about it is important but the sequence of poems is more an exploration of good old class guilt as the narrator leaves the “Calow WMC” to study in Cambridge, a place where she “cannot learn the tune”. The resonating image is of a different “picket line/ . . . crossed” into a “gilded College gate, / a better supermarket” (‘Scab’). This is why Mort’s epigraph is from Stevenson’s doppelganger novel about the “profound duplicity” of life, but both writers are less concerned with political divisions than personal. Much of Division Street is given over to explorations of the self’s development. The finely-tuned sequence, ‘North of Everywhere’, treats location as psychological landscape where the heart can be let “go on ahead of me”, where “silences become the better part of us”. Such questing is transmuted to a mother gazing at a group of deer, “on pound-coin-coloured hooves”. They are something she denies seeing, though the daughter also finds them, “closer / than before [. . .] their eyes, like hers” (‘Deer’). There is a recurring sense that “doors to other worlds exist” (‘Lowedges’). However much a narrator likens herself to her dogs, she is different:

one night I’ll set off past the meadow, down

behind the beck, beyond the blunt profile of Silver Howe

and nobody will call me back.

‘The Dogs’

Mort’s love of landscape is profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus, as well as image of, the process of self-exploration. She boldly plays on her own name in ‘The French for Death’, fantasising of a “girl / who takes the worst route home, pauses // at the mouths of alleyways, or kisses / strangers”. But this transgressive trouble-maker is not so prominent elsewhere where a more compromised, tentative identity emerges. ‘The Girl Next Door’ becomes a haunting double who seems to co-opt the narrator’s weakening identity. ‘The Year of the Ostrich’ wittily suggests a new astrological sign for those of us with “unlikely grace, / who hide our heads, or bear the weight / of wings that will not lift us”. Mort is always good at animals and while jogging she sees a fox, supple, slinking, sly, always about to vanish: “And what she sees she cannot tell, / but what she knows of distances, / and doesn’t say, I know as well” (‘Fox Miles’).

We find and define ourselves against others and Mort does this through romantic love, mostly its loss. “I turned to ask you something and you’d gone” (‘Fagan’s’) is a recurring sentiment. The title poem itself refers to the place where “You brought me [. . .] to break it off”, though in this case it is the other whose “head-down walk” we see, passing pubs in whose windows can be seen “nothing but your own reflection”. Pessimistically, ‘End’ suggests that “Death is // the shape / beneath romance” but the hauntings a writer sustains through such poems as these, though they do not revive the love, at least reinvigorate the lover and persuade that such deaths may only be “le petit mort”.

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Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’ (October 1961)

With the death of Acker Bilk yesterday, the following post suggested itself. A West Country boy like myself (‘Acker’ is Somerset slang for mate) he died in Bath Royal United Hospital, these days an unfortunate, frequent haunt of my parents. Bernard Stanley Bilk was born in Pensford, Somerset, in January, 1929, the son of a Methodist lay preacher. His mother played the organ in the local chapel. After a spell working at the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol, he went off to do his National Service in Egypt where he learned to play the clarinet and formed a band known as the Original Egyptian Stompers.

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He always retained his affection for Pensford and never lost his Somerset accent. At one time he employed a road manager, Alan Cutler, known as Adge, who would go on to find success with scrumpy and western outfit, The Wurzels. 

The brief passage that follows is another section from sketchy autobiographical writings hidden away in my files. My earlier post (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/14/telstar-august-1962/)

came from the same source. Perhaps there will be more . . .

Play this as you read:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsKTG30g3mw

On the radio a breathy clarinet with a lilting gentle melody climbing up and then immediately returning to a low sustained note like a human voice, deep, quivering, the melody so pure and simple there should be words. I try to put words to it.

That reedy, woody voice backed by a simple marking of time on string bass. As it rises a second time, thin violins accompany it as the notes leap up an octave to something like a cry set loose in a vast open space and the whole is bathed in the solitary, brooding mood that the title of the record hits with precision.

An unknown figure exactly as we all are unknown figures, this time walking beside the ocean, the flat, undramatic waters rolling in, chilled and colourless but for the warm tones of the artist himself, humble and quiet, even at the last hesitating before a defiant little spirited flurry and only then sidling away, the music diminishing into a flat horizon, no big finish.

It is nothing like you might have expected when you see the player on the grey television screen, the gimmicky bowler hat, silk waistcoat and jazzer’s goatie beard.

Dad explains the idea of a ‘gimmick’ to me: something you might adopt – an object, a voice, a look – in order to draw attention to yourself. Why would you do that?