In the Fire-Frost Morning

To wish everybody a peaceful Christmas and to apologise for my absence from blogging in recent weeks, I hope you will enjoy this poem from Hilary Davies’ new collection Exile and Kingdom (Enitharmon Press, 2016). Though I don’t share her faith, I do share her hope, though too often the world seems determined to test both faith and hope.

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In the Fire-Frost Morning

In the fire-frost morning the geese drive south

Trailing hosannas over the estuaries

And the beasts on the clockhouse stir.

From Tottenham Hale to Hackney Downs

The trumpets of day sound

And the gulls swarm up like heralds

Over the sleepers. ‘Awake! Awake!’

Throw open your skylights, thrust your heads to see:

Horseshoe thicket is afire with dawn

And the waters of Spring Hill teem.

Doors, dance. Fill the houses with praises.

God’s promise blazes in the reedbeds,

Bursting over the winter willows and sallows

All the way down to waiting Walthamstow.

 

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The Poetry of Peter Huchel #2

This is the second blog posting arising from my work over the last year or so on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (and in my previous blog) I have been gathering information about his life and times. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament. Quotations from the poems in this blog are from my own translations.

Huchel divorced in 1946 and married Monica Rosental in 1953. In his work at the journal Sind und Form he was always determined to maintain editorial freedom and the publication had an international outlook with contributions from Aragon, Bloch, Brecht (two special issues), Camus, Eluard, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Marcuse, Neruda, Russell, Sartre, Yevtuchenko and Zweig. Inevitably he came into conflict with the authorities and came under immense pressure to conform. He resisted them for 13 years – in part because of the determined support of Brecht. Brecht’s death in 1956 left Huchel more exposed. He was asked to resign his editorship, refused and so compelled the East German government publicly to force his resignation. A year after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel was banished at the age of 59 to effective house arrest in Wilhelmshorst. The poem ‘Hubertsweg’ vividly portrays this period of his life, from 1962 to 1971, living in isolation and under Stasi surveillance:

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And at night

the roaring at the keyholes.

The fury of stems

splitting the earth.

And come morning

light roots out the dark.

Pine trees rake the mist from windowpanes.

 

He stands down there,

wretched as stale tobacco smoke,

my neighbour, my shadow

right on my heels as I leave the house.

Yawning sullenly

in flurries of rain from the bare trees,

he tinkers today with the rusty chicken wire.

What’s in it for him, scribing investigations

in his blue octavo book, my friends’ car numbers,

keeping watch on this hardly vulnerable street

for contraband,

forbidden books,

scraps for the belly,

stached in a coat lining.

A single twig to stoke the feeble fire.

 

Only his second collection of poems, Chausseen, Chausseen (‘Roads, Roads’) appeared in 1962. In defiance of the GDR authorities, he published it in the West. It was much praised – in the author’s absence. Henry Beissel has described the leanness and density of these new free verse poems: “images are more insistent on turning concreteness into code; sadness emanates from a sense of the inevitability of loss and from a world bent on self-destruction”.

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Fuse-wires

of withered leaves

glint on the wall.

Salt-white air.

The flight of cranes,

arrowheads of autumn,

 

In bright boughs

the hour’s pulse subsides.

Spiders deploy

their rims and spokes,

veils of dead brides.

 

Huchel’s images from nature are left to speak for themselves; his is often an impersonal, Symbolist poetry of a haunted and pessimistic kind. There is stoic survival and brutishness reflected in the curbed, elliptical, briefly allusive verse. Yet the poems remain marvellous acts of observation; the weather seems forever cold, wintry, foggy:

 

Estates,

disordered,

dust across the ground,

the heirs dead.

And grim skies,

grey cellars

of fogbanks.

The cold breathes

in echoing colonnades.

 

Huchel applied for an exit visa for himself, his wife and son on numerous occasions. He was supported by an internationally orchestrated campaign and eventually in 1971 the Ulbricht government granted his release. He lived first in Rome, then in a borrowed house near Freiburg in West Germany. Gezählte Tage (‘Numbered Days’)  appeared in 1972, the title suggesting the counted days of Huchel’s years under house arrest, his poems recording them, marking them, but also a residual sense of them actually counting towards something, his legacy as a poet, his final release. But like many GDR artists who moved to the West, Huchel was equivocal about what he found there. Because the GDR had failed to bring about a truly democratic and socialist society did not mean that Huchel had given up his ideals and the West’s materialism, egotism and faithless profiteering were repellent to him.

 

Beside the whitewashed wall

a monk clambers up steps,

sweat trickling from his brows.

 

Everything fades in light and heat,

the rough ochre of walls,

the fragile, scant moss on stones,

the spare green by the river.

The bellringer walks in ripped canvas shoes,

soon midday will sound.

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The medieval bridge at Subiaco, Italy

Huchel’s religious beliefs are difficult to pin down but certainly the poems of Gezählte Tage show a modern wasteland not confined to the East, a spiritual emptiness where, as in ‘Subiaco’, set in Italy, Pilate’s bowl stands emptied of water so the accumulation of guilt cannot be washed away. Nature still provides some recourse but not much of one. Huchel’s gloom is partly determined by his own nature, partly his background, political persecution, his divorce from his Brandenburg homeland. He often uses deliberate anachronism to make a point as well as Shakespearean and fairy tale motifs to evoke a lost time, a lost race, a golden age gone – with which he bears witness to his time. ‘Middleham Castle’ – where Richard III spent some of his youth – is a major poem in which Shakspeare’s tyrant lives on through the centuries as an image of oppressive power:

 

His foot is worm-eaten.

Gloucester walks to the stables,

the flagstones groaning.

The mastiffs lower their heads

anticipating the whip.

 

We are his servants,

we go in fear of his blade,

though his skull,

picked clean by so many winters,

lies deep in the ground.

 

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Ian McKellen as Richard III

In Huchel’s brief years in the West he was lauded and awarded literary prizes but this was just another form of exile. His final book Die Neunte Stunde (‘The Ninth Hour’) appeared in 1979. It is a book almost exclusively of elegy and lament; the ninth hour is the hour of despair, the hour in which Christ is said to have died on the Cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Huchel himself died in 1981, aged 78. I think I hear something of his more personal voice, attuned to the natural world but gifted only a tragic place in history, compelled to labour against the odds, in the unnamed peasant who Huchel has narrate ‘Middleham Castle’:

 

Familiar with the ways of great forests –

the year streaked with the jays’ colours,

painful brightness of frosted boughs,

the winter hair of deer stuck to bark,

fawns huddled together at evening,

warming themselves in the cloud of their breathing –

up the gorse-clad hill with rope and horses

I haul tree trunks to Middleham Castle.

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The Poetry of Peter Huchel #1

I have been working off and on over the last year on translating the third collection by the German poet, Peter Huchel. I hope to complete this for publication in the next few months and here (over this and my next blog post) I have been gathering information about his life and times. I’ve found people know of his work but not in much detail. In a working life that saw him through some of the most traumatic events of European history, Huchel published only 4 collections of poetry in 1948, 1963, 1972 and 1979. Throughout his career the substance of much of his work is his vivid observation of the natural world, moving gradually towards a usually brief, free verse form, a withdrawal from the personal and a steadily darkening vision which comes to be dominated by elegy and lament.

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Peter Huchel was born Hellmut Huchel in 1903 in Lichterfelde (now part of Berlin). As a result of his mother’s ill health he was taken from the city to grow up on his grandfather’s farm at Alt-Langewisch, in the Brandenburg countryside near Potsdam. Huchel himself later argued “it is precisely the experiences of childhood, roughly between the ages of five and ten, that exercise a decisive influence in later years” (acceptance speech for the 1974 Literature Prize of the Free Masons). If this period was something of an idyll then it was shattered dramatically and forever by the death of the eleven year old boy’s grandfather and the outbreak of war in Europe.

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After defeat and his country’s humiliation at Versailles, Huchel, now 17 years old, took part in the conservative Kapp-Putsch against the Weimar Republic in 1920 which was fuelled by a resentment against the German government for signing up to the punishing conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In the fighting associated with the failed coup, Huchel was wounded and it was during his recovery in hospital that his sympathies for socialism and Marxism fully developed.

From 1923 to 1926, Huchel studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiberg and Vienna. Though always temperamentally an outsider, these were years of political, economic and artistic ferment (though ultimately something Huchel would react against) and in the final years of the 1920s he travelled to France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Turkey. In 1930, he changed his first name to Peter. His early poems were being written and published from 1924 onwards and were already strongly marked by the atmosphere and landscape of Brandenburg. He appeared out of step with the times, writing nature lyrics, using conventional metre and rhyme, though the natural landscapes he portrayed were far from pastoral. The rural world he grew up in was providing ways of articulating concerns about the shortcomings of the world about him: his close observations of Nature showed her as a harsh mistress and the poverty and suffering of Huchel’s Brandenburg peasants were both very real and politically charged.

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Working as an editorial assistant for Die Literarische Welt by 1932, Huchel’s poems won a prize and his first manuscript was accepted for publication under the title Der Knabenteich (‘The Boy’s Pond’). In 1934, Huchel married Dora Lassel but with the rise of Hitler in 1933, Die Literarische Welt ceased publication and Huchel withdrew his book partly for political reasons. He fled to Romania for a while and was deeply troubled that the Nazi’s liked his work, reading into it as they did a version of the blood and soil nationalism they hoped to foster. A few of his poems were published but by 1936 he was refusing permission and he did not publish a new poem during the rest of Hitler’s rule. Instead, he withdrew to the Brandenburg countryside but was eventually drafted in 1941, ending the war in a Russian prisoner of war camp.

With the fall of the Third Reich, Huchel enthusiastically shared the democratic and socialist optimism of many of his compatriots about the reconstruction of Eastern Germany offering a vision of freedom and equality to all. He began working for East German radio, published his first collection, Gedichte (‘Poems’), in 1948 and in 1949 became editor of the influential poetry magazine Sind und Form (Sense and Form’). Huchel’s poems were applauded both for their craft and evident socialist undercurrents though he did not satisfy some who demanded much more explicit support for the German Democratic experiment. Huchel’s dark rural landscapes offered at best equivocal support for the socialist regime and his instinctively conservative harking back to childhood and the natural world (rather than the modern revolutionary transformations of human society) were rightly seen by many as falling far short of the expected unquestioning celebration of the GDR’s project.

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Here’s Huchel’s ‘The Polish Reaper’ – from this period – as translated by Michael Hamburger. Compared to Huchel’s later work, there is an exclamatory and ‘poetic’ quality to many of these lines (despite being nominally spoken by a migrant worker in Germany). Also the political content is more explicit in the fields mowed but not owned, the poor conditions of the workers and the rather hefty symbolism of the returning eastwards to a red dawn!

 

Do not cry, golden-eyed frog,

in the pond’s weedy water.

Like a great conch

the night sky roars.

Its roaring calls me home.

 

My scythe shouldered

I walk down the bright main road,

Dogs howling round me,

past the smithy’s grime

where darkly the anvil sleeps.

 

Down by the outwork

poplars are drifting

in the moon’s milky light.

Still the meadows exhale heat

in the crickets’ screeching.

 

O fire of the earth,

my heart holds a different glow.

Field after field I mowed,

not one blade was my own.

 

Blow, autumn gales!

On the bare boards of lofts

hungry sleepers awaken.

Not alone I walk

down the bright main road.

 

At the rim of night

the stars glitter

like grain on the threshing-floor,

where I go home to the eastern country,

into morning’s red light.

 

I’ll continue Peter Huchel’s life story in my next post.

Beyond Caravaggio and an old ekphrastic poem

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Two things dove-tailing this week . . . My thoughts way ahead of time about ekphrastic poems (poems stimulated by visual art) in relation to the workshop I am scheduled to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February 2017. The particular exhibition was in the news this last week as they will be showing, amongst many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. Also I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery a couple of days ago. There, though the numbers of Carravaggios per square metre of wall space is relatively low, much of what’s on display by those who came under his influence is well worth seeing.

At the end of the 16th century Caravaggio brought an almost photographic precision to painting, mixing elements of still life with portraits and religious subjects. His people are caught (again almost photographically) in realistic seeming mid-gesture, twisting, stooping, hands wide or aloft. Then there’s the light: powerful light sources cast illumination and correspondingly deep shadows across the figures, darkening the brows of a face, across a hand at a card game, on exposed flesh. One of the ‘followers’ turns out to be Gerrit van Honthorst whose towering ‘Christ before the High Priest’ is displayed in the final room. As I came across it I had one of those moments of recognition. The picture has been in the National Gallery collection for many years and it provided the (ekphrastic) stimulation for one of my earliest poems.

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The poem eventually appeared in my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as Dannie Abse chose to include it in the plush, coffee-table anthology called Voices in the Gallery (Tate Gallery Publications) he edited 1986 with Joan, his wife and art historian. For a wannabe poet with no book yet it was a dizzying moment – a not-to-be repeated moment – being sandwiched between Zbigniew Herbert, W. H. Auden and Thomas Hardy! Year later I got Dannie to sign my original copy of it.

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The voice in my poem is naïve and unknowing, an art historian ignoramus (close to the autobiographical truth). But he looks hard, starting with a bewildered rationalism as he tries to get to grips with the stylised, stiff religious images of the “early galleries”. He understands he’s nothing more than one of the “casual visitors” who prefer to gaze at something familiar, the “recognisable gesture”, the more simply realistic and identifiable images contained in later works. But gradually he recognises the thorough-going empiricism of “dimension, distance and the need for accuracy” has its own limits (I still like the dig against my own gender’s devotion of facts, though the portrayal of the too submissive female partner I’d not let through these days).

The Expressionistic distortions of Van Gogh (“inconsistent with the camera”) begin to appeal to him as he understands the impossibility of a truly objective view (“eyes jaundiced / only with being human and limited”) which – he seems to be on a circular walk round the National Gallery – then allows him to re-assess the earlier images. With the passage of time and the loss of religious faith (I was sure of it then, back in the 1980s), these pictures also openly admit their distortions. Their “dogma is laughable now, or / almost so”. They obviously possess no camera-like claim to objectivity or all-inclusiveness. Rather they now seem to him to admit “in all self-consciousness, / other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame”. It’s at that point the image of Honthorst’s ‘Christ before the High Priest’ comes to mind. It seemed to me then an image that was interesting and powerful at least as much for what lies just out of sight as for what the casual visitor can see plainly.

Years later, in different poetic modes, I’m still intrigued by what lies just beyond our reach – the Daoist’s uncarved block of wood – still think it has as much power as what we plainly see. Here’s the old poem in full:

 

At The National Gallery

 

What am I to do with these angels’ wings,

with the literalness of these gaping heavens

and haloes in the early galleries?

No-one believes them. Beyond meaning,

they are absurd – mannered and posed figures

as unlikely as the nude’s fig-leaf, the wooden

gestures of saints staring straight through you:

uncomfortable attitudes, seeming content

with their fantasies of transfiguration and myth.

 

Yet casual visitors walk right past. They’re drawn

to quotidian scenes, the scruffy breeches, old hats

in later pictures where they scribble notes,

trying to capture the vanishing feelings

of viewing these captured moments

of vanishing things – the recognisable gesture

at an execution, on the river, in the boudoir.

And I with them, yet always end uncomfortably

tracing holiday strolls through Canaletto’s

Venice or impatient somehow with men

who explain to their quiet partners about

dimension, distance and the need for accuracy.

 

But Van Gogh’s crippled chair confounds them,

restores a sense of things perceived in ways

inconsistent with the camera, eyes jaundiced

only with being human and limited which is

other than the capture of fleeting things,

the stunned insect, and like verse that must

struggle to avoid its final stop: another fairy-tale

though there are no haloes, no heaven here.

And I go back to those old pictures to find

their appeal, uncovered, is the honesty, almost

innocence, time has forced upon them,

for what was then dogma is laughable now, or

almost so. Uncameralike, their contentment admits,

rather asserts in all self-consciousness,

other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame:

 

like the one candle, illuminating a room,

the gleaming tabletop, across which one detailed,

serious face confronts another, unnaturally

bound in by a darkness in which we make out

nothing, yet know someone moves inches beyond

vision, rising, strained forward and demanding:

Give me some light, I say, lights! Now! A taper!

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How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 2

This is the second posting on a metrical exercise on iambics. I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks, contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – this began with an iambic monometer and grew into an iambic tetrameter as detailed in my previous posting.

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Starting from the tetrameter again, the poem will now grow some more . . . This is where I got to last time:

 

Because I hope to speak to her

I walk again along the way,

the path beside the old canal,

where children play and mothers come,

where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path,

here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day,

where users lean and drift, ascend

above the clouds and steeple cock.

 

From this pretty regular iambic tetrameter, grow on further lines while at the same time lengthened these lines to iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line). New material indicated in italics:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk

again along this way, the path beside

the old canal where children play and mothers

come, where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path. It’s strewn

with wrappers torn from sweets, with needles dropped

another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock.

Its glint I glimpse where water stands, its gold

a coin, a drowned, two-headed coin she tossed.

A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wings

slapping the surface like a window smashed.

 

I’ve slightly re-jigged line 2 here and feel the need to punctuate more heavily with the lengthening lines. The di-syllabic “mothers” again presents an issue at line 3 – I’ve made the same choice here as before, not breaking the word, allowing 11 syllables in line 3, shortening line 4 to 9 syllables. “Slapping” – given the sudden violence of the bird’s flight – I have allowed to stand as a reversed, trochaic foot opening line 12. I’m now thinking of the narrator as a mother (though as easily a father) who has come to a place remembered as visited with a daughter, now more grown up. The coin toss image seems to allude to some life-chance or choice and the inclusion in the poem – in the narrator’s observations – of the discarded needles probably tells its own story.

 

Beyond the pentameter lies the less common reaches of the hexameter or alexandrine – six iambic feet per line:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again

along the path, this way beside the old canal

where children play and mothers come, thistles

bloom into purple knots that grey and drift across

the path strewn here with wrappers torn from sweets, needles

dropped on another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. Its glint

I glimpse where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned

two-headed coin she tossed. A bird is panicked from

the reeds, its wings beat the water like a window

smashed. If I stand inside the door and gaze across

the pews towards the brightly coloured glass of saints

and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun, her robe is blue, her arms are full.

 

The lengthened line now begins to drag a little and is feeling rather clumsy here (it would need more work if I wanted to go with this) but as a reader I think of the slow, rather mournful walk of what now seems to be the possibly bereaved narrator. In line 3 the two syllables of “thistles” again ought to be broken across the line break – this time I cut the preceding word (“where”) to give more of a jolt to this threatening word so line 3 ends with a trochaic foot – “come” and “thist-” forming a spondee. Line 4 opens with a trochee too. The word “needles” presents the same problem at the end of line 5 – this I’ve re-jigged as above (though it does not read well to my ear at the moment). But I guess I’m happier to disrupt the predominant iambic by this stage – partly because it’s clearer to me now that this poem has a dark edge to it – but also because the longer lines give (maybe they need?) the chance of more variation. Line 10 has also been altered a little, “slapping” is replaced by the stronger monosyllable “beat”. The unexpected leap into the church interior seemed a good idea – a change of scene – and an intuitive link to the smashed rippling of the canal water, reminding the narrator of stained-glass. The image of Madonna and child is maybe too obvious but actually feels right for both writer (me) and the narrator (definitely now a mother of a child lost somehow). It’s also more acceptable as the church steeple had already been alluded to in the poem.

 

I’m now going to take this as far as the iambic heptameter line or fourteener:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again along

the way, this path beside the old canal, where children play

and mothers come and thistles bloom in purple knots that grey

and drift across the path. It’s strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. I glimpse its glint

where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned two-headed coin

she tossed. A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wing-beats break

the water like a window smashed. I stand inside the door

and gaze across the pews towards the brightly coloured glass

of saints and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun. Her robe is blue, her arms are full of blood,

the red of ribbons, red of nails, the red of every month.

It’s her I think I need to find. Beyond the traffic noise,

I cross the bridge. A narrow boat is gliding down below,

its brightly painted tubs, its name a girl’s, I watch it pass

into the dark, a stink of smoke, a swirl, a wink of light.

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That the Madonna’s arms are full of blood surprised me but probably I am echoing those earlier thoughts of veins and needles. The repetitions of “red” felt quite bold, I think following the maturing of the narrator’s daughter. I grew up near the Kennet and Avon canal and still walk there often watching the narrow boats pass. Many of them are carefully decorated by their owners and this was coming to mind at the end though I still think this is a very urban part of the canal network. Obviously the passing boat, with its girl’s name, reminds the mother of her daughter (I guess we still don’t know exactly what happened to her) and though there is something positive in the painted colours of the boat (echoing the coloured windows in church I now realize), its passing into the tunnel is ominous and the fragmenting of the lines (these long lines are good for this) suggest a dissolving or passing away.

I don’t know how this reads yet as a poem and it’s certainly to raw and new to think which of these forms suit it best (if any). But it’s not a poem or a place I might have entered into without the use of this very methodical exercise. It’s worth a try, I think, and whatever the results, it’ll set you thinking about line lengths generally and patterned rhythm or metre more specifically – essential tools of the poet at any stage.

How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 1

I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks. I have been contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – from little monometers great fourteeners may grow!

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The first dab of culture in the experimental petri dish is the simplest of forms, the iambic monometer. If you want to join in with this, it hardly matters what you come up with (and I certainly make no claims for what follows) partly because the exercise is also exploring Glyn Maxwell’s claim that using form will propel the poet towards “words you didn’t expect, matter you never chose, resonances that crept up around you” (from On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)). Michael Donaghy often suggested something similar: “Like good poets whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines, I’m in it for the discovery. If writing poems were merely a matter of bulldozing ahead with what you’d already made up in your mind to say I’d have long ago given it up for something more dignified” (from ‘My Report Card’ – 2000).

 

Because

I hope

To speak

To her

I walk

Again

Along

The way

The path

Beside

The old

Canal

 

Here I’m more concerned with choosing regular iambs than making much sense. The hesitating movement of the short lines works quite well.  In the Poetry School sessions we looked at Robert Herrick’s famous poem in this metre, ‘Upon His Departure Hence’, as well as one by Karen McCarthy Woolf (‘Mort-Dieu’). Both poems use the curbed tentativeness of the metre to reflect on mortality – almost as if the form offered a safe form, a containment of (too) powerful emotion.

Now re-organise the same material as a dimeter. This will involve the composition (if that’s quite the word) of further lines simply to complete the form and this will take you into unexpected territory perhaps . . .

 

Because I hope

To speak to her

I walk again

Along the way

 

The path beside

the old canal

where children play

and mothers come

 

The dimeter remains a very brief line (I don’t feel much need for punctuation yet) but here the short reach of each line gives some urgency to the narrator’s hoping to speak to “her”. The reader (as much as the writer at this stage) is wondering who both narrator and hoped-for interlocutor is. The extra material begins to suggest maternal possibilities, partners, other children . . . The “again” of line 3 is also interesting – a recurrent search. Why can’t she be found. What is this need to speak to her? Why come to this location?

Now re-organise further to make a trimeter:

 

Because I hope to speak

to her I walk again

along the way, the path

beside the old canal,

 

where children play and mothers

come, where thistles bloom

in purple knots that grey

and drift across the path.

 

It feels natural to want to punctuate these lines now with their greater complexity and greater risk of ambiguity. The three beat lines perhaps begin to evoke the pacing of the walker? There is an issue with the 5th line in which (keeping to a strict iambic metre) the word “mothers” ought to be broken across the line break. I’ve decided to allow an extra syllable into line 5, so ending it with a feminine, weak, seventh syllable. Line 6 I’ve therefore left with one syllable short. It’s happenstance but I like the extra dwelling of a reader’s attention on “mothers” (I begin to think the “she’ is a mother, or the narrator may be a mother searching for a female child). The shortening of line 6 which refers to “thistles” also feels right; it introduces a spiky, perhaps threatening image and the shortened line creates an uneasy feel. These undoubtedly ‘fortuitous’ developments are just the sort of thing the poet has a veto over – we decide whether they stand or need to be revised further. Here, I let them stand.

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Next stage is an iambic tetrameter – four iambs per line:

 

Because I hope to speak to her

I walk again along the way,

the path beside the old canal,

where children play and mothers come,

where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path,

here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day,

where users lean and drift, ascend

above the clouds and steeple cock.

 

Woah! No – I don’t know where this is heading . . . The longer length of line now begins to give a more conversational feel. This four beat line (either with accentual-syllabic or plain stress metre) is probably the most common in English verse. I think of it (and the good old iambic pentameter) as sort of neutral spots on the metrical continuum – neither too tightly bound nor loosely adrift). The greying of the thistles now seems to allude to aging (of the narrator?), certainly to time passing, time on her mind. The sweet wrappers make a clear gesture towards childhood; the discarded needles strike a far more ominous note (if a bit clichéd). Is the narrator seeking a child, no longer a child, has she become involved with drug abuse?

 

If you want to see this poem developing into an iambic pentameter – and find out (with me) what the poem is really about – I’ll post the remainder of this blog on Monday.

Lots of Poetry, Too Little Cake

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Last Saturday I attended one of the half-yearly poetry events in Palmers Green, north London. These are always very good evenings, these days full of music as well as poetry as the Helios Consort of recorders play before and after the interval. Kevin Crossley-Holland was reading (a superb poet, as well as all his other literary achievements) as was Sarah Westcott (recently published by Pavilion – having just won the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition) and Katherine Gallagher, launching her new Arc collection – about which someone called Crucefix has blurbed:

This new collection is bejewelled throughout with haiku-like moments of vivid observation. Her delighted responses – in particular to the natural world – serve to peel away the film of familiarity through which we usually gaze. Yet Gallagher combines such excited observation with a quality of restraint, a respect for what she encounters in a process of self-creation – “from myself into myself” as her epigraph from Rose Auslander puts it. Sequences about her Australian mother and the loss of her brother are imbued with this same gift: life is celebrated in poems that never forget our mortality: “This is time we have underlined, / remembering what we’ve done, where we’re going” (‘Quotidian’).

On the following morning I was taking part in the Bloomsbury Festival, talking about the art of translation with Chris Campbell, Literary Manager, Royal Court Theatre and Gregory Thompson, Creative Entrepreneur in Residence at UCL. Chaired by Geraldine Brodie, Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation at UCL, the talk – in the very comfortable, wood-panelled surroundings of the Churchill Room, Goodenough College, London House, Mecklenburgh Square, London – was really wide-ranging from Gregory’s experiences of directing Shakespeare in the Indian sub-continent and the kind of cultural translation that takes place on such occasions to Chris’s translations of drama texts to and from the French and French-Canadian. One issue there is the translation of comic references such as cricket allusions or types of motor cars (I think he suggested a Vauxhall Cavalier equivalent in a French cultural context would be a Renault 21). I thought there was quite a bit of common ground when I was explaining how I fell into translation through the need to stand up and declaim/read/perform translations which I felt did not really convince in English. This is how I began the idea that I might try to translate Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy many, many years ago – I could not find a version that read well aloud. I still regard that as a key test.

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This idea that poetry ought to be read aloud is common enough in most writing workshops but I do wonder how many people really adhere to it. This came up again with my third engagement of the busy weekend – teaching my first session for the Poetry School on ‘music and metre’ on Monday evening. As I explained to the class, formal verse is not especially my thing but it is also an area I have had to teach on various occasions. I kicked off by reading James Fenton’s powerful poem ‘Tiananmen’ – see below – and Auden’s observations about the benefits of form:

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The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

I love the swipe at “manly independence” there. Not very surprisingly, this observation is quoted by Stephen Fry in his The Ode Less Travelled (Hutchinson, 2005) which also suggests modern poetry, because of its abandonment of formal constraints is now “laughably easy” to write. Elsewhere Fry describes most contemporary poetry as suffering from anaemia; it’s a lifeless trickle, rhetorically listless . . . Fry doesn’t mind setting himself up like this – and tucked away in the book you’ll also find his appreciation of Whitman, Anne Carson, Denise Riley and many others.

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I told the class, having spoken to a fair number of poets recently about form, that they’d be surprised (or maybe not) how few published poets would confidently declare their own grasp of metrical matters. On the night, we didn’t get along as fast as I’d anticipated – there was good discussion, especially of the areas of inevitably uncertainty in scanning a poem etc – it’s like jazz?? – so I’m looking forward to picking up the themes again next Monday evening with Tony Harrison, Wordsworth, Stevens, Elizabeth Jennings . . .

Now I’m feeling a bit poetry-ed out. Coffee and cake are required . . . after this:

 

Tiananmen – James Fenton

Tianamen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Tiananmen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

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James Fenton