Guillemot Press book launch (November 2017)

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Last Saturday I packed my bags for a brief stopover in Devon. The train from Paddington retraced my steps (no – that’s not right; what do you say?) – re-rolled its wheels along the same route I’d travelled a couple of weeks ago to the Torbay Poetry Festival. But instead of changing at Newton Abbot, I stayed on board and we swerved inland and skirted the southern edge of Dartmoor to Plymouth, then further west to Bodmin. I was met at Bodmin Parkway by Luke Thompson who runs the Guillemot Press. Guillemot is barely a couple of years old but is already building a great reputation for the outstanding quality of its books. Luke and his partner Sarah are the driving forces behind the press and it is based in Cornwall with strong links to Falmouth University. We drove across an already dark Bodmin moor to the village of Altarnun where Luke was launching three new Guillemot titles at the Terre Verte Gallery, run by Richard Sharland.

Besides my own O. at the Edge of the Gorge, the books being launched were Nic Stringer’s first, A Day That You Happen to Know, and Andrew McNeillie’s new collection, Making Ends Meet. Both my own and Nic’s book are examples of Guillemot’s interest in combining poetry and illustration (if that’s the right word for images which respond to and add to the text rather than being merely illustrative). The two artists were at the event as well and it was wonderful to meet up and chat with Phyllida Bluemel who created the images to accompany my crown of sonnets. Her delicate, analytical yet natural images – produced only from a reading of the poems, no input from me – seem to me extraordinarily apt and, having learned of her background in philosophy as much as fine art, I’m not surprised. She and I have discussed the shaping of the whole book on the Guillemot blog.

Nic read first. Her poem, ‘Laocoon in the Vatican’, describes an image of human agony as a father defends himself and his sons from attack by serpents:

 

Chest curving towards his gods,

he speaks of what lies beneath devotion, where wrestler

is the same as family. But in the end he is a man

petrified [. . .]

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‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ is more of an Arctic landscape poem: “In Disko Bay the growlers and the bergy bits / crack their knuckles”. ‘Sisters’ is a fascinating 10 part sequence of poems dedicated to three Medieval Christian female mystics, ending with this exquisite lyric:

 

Like the Earth

I have given up

everything but God

 

will find a hole

to fall towards

turning without a body

 

to sleep

separating self

from silence

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Nic’s work is various and intriguing – her Guillemot image-maker is Lucy Kerr, whose enigmatic, colourful images are almost visual riddles – and I’m looking forward to reading the whole book more slowly.

Before I read my sequence straight through without additional comments, I explained its form: a crown of 14 sonnets – the final line of each poem repeated as the opening line of the next; the opening and closing lines of the whole sequence also meant to be the same. I wanted the connectivity this creates – though the connections in this case are approximate – deliberately so, as I wanted to suggest a forward movement or progression of understanding. Much of the detail of the poem is of landscape – the Marche region of Italy – bees, buzzards, hunting dogs, trees, thistles, Classical ruins put to more modern use, hilltop villages, church towers, rocky hillsides, deep gorges. The O. of the title is an Orpheus figure, the singer, or poet. There is no narrative to the sequence, but it does allude to Orpheus’ journey to the underworld in search of Eurydice and his loss of her when he looks back. That sense of loss also explains allusions to Dante’s Paradiso, Book 16, where he refers to the ancient towns of Luni and Urbesaglia, for him, vivid images of transience.

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After the interval, Andrew McNeillie read from his collection. Andrew is both a poet and an editor at OUP, Archipelago magazine and he runs Clutag PressMaking Ends Meet is a full collection of almost 100 pages, including a new version of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. At the other end of the scale, Andrew threw us an opening, squiby couplet titled ‘A Poet: 21st century: “A redundant lighthouse-keeper / striking a match in a storm”. One such match illuminating the darkness is his sonnet ‘I see Orion’, moving from a vivid evocation of star-gazing on a cold night in March to reflections on natural beauty and the passage of time. That same sense of summation, or the counting of blessings, was evident in the title poem too, which evokes an earlier time of easy creativity:

 

The early worm

already turning in a bird’s gut

like the one thought in my head

of lines to set and bait to put

a poem on my plate by evening.

 

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And you could feel the whole audience warm to Andrew’s ‘Lunch with Seamus’, recording a meeting between the poet and Clutag editor, both “uncertain how lunch might pass”. But it passes well, the poem portraying a warmth and closeness, a shared love of poetry, the intimacy drawing from Heaney something of a confession:

 

‘I got the Nobel Prize too soon,’ he said.

‘It nearly did for me, you know, the fame.

It stops the clock and steals your time’

 

The poem is full of delicate allusions to Heaney’s work, the final lines affirming a real meeting of minds as well as echoing Heaney’s own parting from the ghost of James Joyce at the end of ‘Station Island’:

 

We parted and I watched him disappear

As if I’d dreamt the whole affair

But knowing I hadn’t. I’d seen the man.

 

This three-book launch was a marvellously affirmative evening about the power of poetry too. Our heads full of images, and words, natural landscape, the material, the spiritual, distant Italian sunshine and rocky Irish coastlines, I drove with friends through the November rainy darkness back to the town of Tavistock, perched on the edge of Dartmoor itself. And there was still time enough to eat and raise a glass of wine.

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Freshness of Words – George Herbert and Anna Akhmatova

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Last week, having seen Armando Ianucci’s film The Death of Stalin with its atmosphere of murder, fear, mutual suspicion and double-talk, I was sent back to Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Anna Akhmatova, Anna of All the Russias (2005). From there I moved on to Akhmatova’s work, where I found the opening lines of a poem she wrote in June 1915. Here are two versions – the first from Judith Hemschemeyer; the second (more version-y) from D.M. Thomas:

 

For us to lose freshness of words and simplicity of feeling,

Isn’t it the same as for a painter to lose—sight [. . .]

 

Freshness of words, simplicity of emotions,

If we lost these, would it not be as though

Blindness had stricken Fra Angelico [. . .]

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Pinball that I am, this sent me off to notes I made a while ago on John Drury’s book about George Herbert, Music at Midnight (2013). Drury suggests that Herbert’s evident love of language is more apparent than real because of his ceaseless drive towards a linguistic simplicity (just the kind of simplicity of expression that Akhmatova sought and is praised for). Herbert wanted words to correspond to the truths of experience – an idea that has got very obscured in our post-modern age, but one that most poets still doggedly adhere to. So, in the opening stanza of ‘Jordan II’, Herbert confesses:

 

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,

Such was their lustre, they did so excel,

That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention,

My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,

Curling with metaphors a plain intention,

Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

 

The superficial glitter of such mistaken language is obvious and clinched by Herbert’s concluding mercantile image. The 3rd stanza of the poem identifies the problem: “So did I weave my self into the sense”. Language becomes a mode of self-display (a “long pretence”) rather than an effort to express the truth of the self’s relationship with experience (in Herbert’s case this is always the experience of God, but I don’t think that invalidates any lessons for writers then or now).

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Herbert was drawing on Francis Bacon’s ideas in The Advancement of Learning (1620), where he argues that theological debate (ie. discourse, language) has achieved little other than obfuscation. Herbert follows this in ‘Divinity’ where “curious questions and divisions” have done nothing but “jagged” (ie. slashed and shredded) the metaphorical, seamless coat of Christ. Herbert’s poems are, in deliberate contrast, a sustained search for lucidity and truth (though both he and Bacon were happy to conceed that when it comes to God, man is only likely to approach a “broken” sort of knowledge).

In fact, Bacon distinguishes two types of knowledge. Most everyday knowledge consists of our knowing about – a transitive knowledge with a direct object. This – as Herbert’s market metaphor suggests – is always liable to slide towards an accumulative or acquisitive relation with the world (a delusory relation encouraged and denied us in 2017 by the ubiquity of Google and such apparently easy and limitless sources of knowledge). In Bacon’s memorable phrase, such continued acquisition of transitive knowledge leads to “ventosity and swelling”.

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Both he and Herbert knew what is needed as a corrective. Bacon: “This corrective spice, the mixture whereof maketh Knowledge so sovereign, is Charity”. The latter word is from the King James Version of The Bible – in the original Greek, the word is agape. As Drury beautifully says, Herbert always preferred to use the “warmer monosyllable” ‘love’. In this case (and in contrast to eros), love is a form of knowing without a direct object and without the temptation to either acquisitiveness or to the weaving in or promotion of self. This yields an attitude of restraint and delicacy, an attitude that Drury finds in Herbert’s poems: “he had the capacity to treat the recalcitrant matter of human life with a firm yet light touch. There is control and letting-be, the devising of frames for experience which lets it speak for itself while making it something manageable and, whether morally or poetically, elegant”.

Drury argues that, as preacher too, Herbert was consistent in eschewing the dominating style of many others for a more “two-way” approach. He rejected the conventional view of preaching in which power lies with the preacher and preferred a kind of communion with his parishioners which approached something more like prayer. In preaching, the clergyman is active, even hyperactive, the hearers, cowed, instructed (possibly bored). In prayer, what happens is more “communal, a traffic between minister and people, all together waiting on God”.

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By implication, I’m sure there are two types of poetry here as well. One is flamboyant, rhetorical, draws attention to itself, hence draws attention to the poet who is very active, even hyperactive, keen to show learning and skills, making a splash on the page – the reader’s response is mostly to stand back and admire (or become bored). The other type of poem draws the reader into something resembling the community of prayer, both writer and reader in a state of alert passivity, a form of attendance. So, Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer I’ lists images of prayer itself from a multitude of perspectives, full of vigorous relish and un-churchy energy. The whole sonnet is one sentence, rushing across line breaks and quatrains:

 

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise [. . .]

 

The 4th line quoted here (balanced around the caesura) captures the role of prayer (and I would argue poetry) as go-between, conduit, glue between the height of heaven and the fallen state of man – the former leaning sympathetically down, ready to dine upon the ordinary, the latter aspiring to something above it. The four final phrases of the concluding couplet are remarkable for their speed, for their testing of the elasticity of the reader’s imagination (the ‘land of spices’ perhaps the least successful of the images), and for the extraordinary understatement of the two last words.

 

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.

 

What the poem has done is prepare the ground for a phrase which might have struck the reader as a inadequate vagueness, but in fact reads as a fullness, a plenitude which encompasses all that has gone before and gestures towards more, the entire creation. ‘Understood’ has also been broken free of its moorings to suggest far more than an intellectual grasp – perhaps a literal under-standing or underpinning of our place in creation – and to imply the intransitive reach of agape in action.

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Joseph Brodsky (who met Anna Akhmatova in the early 1960s) believed that poetry accelerates our minds; here, the reader does not need to share Herbert’s religious views to experience the graceful acceleration and opening of our mind by the poem. The poem as prayer is, as Simone Weil thought, a state of “absolutely unmixed attention”, a rich mindfulness. Akhmatova’s early work has just this sort of attentiveness, though its subject (rather, its object) is eros and what she records are the contradictions and extra-conventional struggles of an individual woman. After 1917, with poems starting to be included in White Flock, still not losing their “freshness” and “simplicity”, it is agape that begins to displace eros as she faces not just her own suffering but the horrifying dismantling of Russia itself:

 

So many times . . . Soldiers, play on,

And I will look for my house,

I’ll recognise it by its sloping roof,

Its everlasting ivy.

 

But someone has carried it off,

Taken it to another town,

Or torn from my memory forever

The road that leads there . . .

 

The sound of the bagpipes dies down,

Snow flies, like cherry blossoms . . .

And it’s obvious nobody knows

That the white house is gone.

(‘The White House’ – tr. Hemschemeyer)