Grenfell Tower Poems

 

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Several things coinciding . . . my last-but-one blog had Helen Mort wondering if cliché was an acceptable response to a vast and alien landscape (the Arctic) before which “linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary”. Then, in the recent PN Review (May/June 2018 – No 241), there is a terrific essay by Kei Miller in which he is proposing a different kind of noise to more traditional English poetics which he characterises by using a passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day. Englishness, he argues, lies in a “lack of obvious drama or spectacle [. . .] a sense of restraint”; there is no need “to shout it”, there is a desire to avoid “unseemly demonstrativeness”. Miller goes on to explain how he found, in Grace Nichol’s 1982 collection, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, a far noisier, more playful, more liberated and liberating kind of voice, in contrast to the (still) prevailing “critical landscape [and] reviewing discourse that continues to heap accolades and praise onto poets for their restraint and their subtlety and their quietness, not stopping nearly enough to think how such praise can be racially loaded”.

651354Then I have been reading poems for Grenfell Tower (The Onslaught Press) and picking away at some link between the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath. This struck me particularly as, in the Grenfell anthology, there are well-know poets alongside others less well-known, plus some who felt impelled to write as a direct result of the catastrophe. I felt many of the more well-known names struggled to find a sufficient voice for this appalling event, often sounding too careful, overly subtle, perhaps too concerned with Mort’s “linguistic originality”. Does such a devastating, large scale, well publicised event require a different kind of voice from poets?

I hope it’s not invidious to make comments on poetic success or failure in an anthology intended to draw attention to the human victims and survivors of the fire (and through its sales to raise money for the Grenfell Foundation). The editor, Rip Bulkley, writes about compiling the anthology here.  But the struggle of artists to respond to such events is worth considering because it reflects how we might respond, or find it hard to respond, or find words for our responses. MP David Lammy’s Foreword to the book says that the Grenfell Tower fire exposes a tale of two cities – one with a voice, another without. Or rather, those in power continue to be deaf “to Grenfell’s voices and voices like them”. So this anthology is just one of many efforts to speak out, encouraging its readers to listen and “bear witness” and perhaps –  as Kei Miller suggests in a different context – such work needs greater volume and less quiet restraint. This is certainly reflected in the frequency with which bold repetitions and rough balladic forms are used in these poems and there is chanting too – less liturgical, more Whitehall demo, more football terrace.

imagesThe difficulties of addressing such a subject are expressed by Joan Michelson’s contribution which announces and extinguishes itself in the same moment: “This is the letter to the Tower / that I cannot write”. One of the best poems which does display evident ‘literary’ qualities is Steven Waling’s ‘Fred Engels in the Gallery Café’. It cleverly splices several voices or narratives together, one of these being quotes from Engels’ 1844 The Condition of the Working Class in England. Other fragments used allude to gentrification and the wealth gap in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Other poems, like Pat Winslow’s ‘Souad’s Moon’, focus on the presence of refugees in the Tower, or the role of the profit-motive in the disaster (‘High-Rise’ by Al McClimens), or the presence of an establishment cover-up after the event (Tom McColl’s ‘The Bunker’).

untitled 2But more often than not, these poets opt for more tangential routes to expression. Other disasters – such as Nero watching Rome burn, the 1666 Fire of London, the bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Aberfan disaster – prove ways in for Abigail Elizabeth Rowland, Neil Reeder, Margaret Beston and Mike Jenkins. The naivety and innocence of a child’s eye is another common device. Andrew Dixon’s ‘Storytime’ takes this approach, the child’s language and vision allowing simple but nevertheless powerful statements: “Mama don’t be afraid. Do you / want us to pray? I know what / to say. We’re both in a rocket / and we’re going away.” Finola Scott does the same with a Glasgow accent, a child staring from her own tower block home: “she peers doon at hir building, wunners / Whit’s cladding?’ A young life cut off before its full development by the fire is also the theme of two poems that refer to the death of Khadija Saye. She was a photographer who died in the blaze, whose work had been exhibited in Britain’s Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Michael Rosen’s contribution again uses childlike simplicity and obsessive repetition – as much representing a struggle to comprehend as the gnawing of realised grief:

 

In London W11

a school.

In the school

a room.

In the room

a chair.

A chair that is empty.

A chair that waits.

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Of course, there are also poems that take a more direct approach. The role of the firefighters recurs. Christine Barton’s poem is spoken by a local teacher, remembering Fire Brigade visits to her school and the tragic irony of their trying to rescue those same schoolchildren on the night of the fire. Andre Rostant – whose steelband practiced in the shadow of Grenfell Tower – addresses the fire-men as ‘The Heroes on the Stair’. And Ricky Nuttall was one of those men. A biographical note says he has been writing for many years, “as a coping mechanism for life and an expression of self”. We can be sure he would never have wished such an occasion to write about. He does so with devastating directness and authenticity about the facts of PTSD:

 

The silence of death

My smoke-stained hair

A hole in my soul

That will never repair

 

The feeling of failure

And pride that combine

To leave me confused

And abused in my mind

 

My lips wet with tears

I am lost    There’s no plan

Emotionally ruined

One broken man

 

It’s no surprise that – as a politically engaged, punk performance poet – Attila the Stockbroker gets the tone and noise level right. Most of his poem ventriloquises the uncaring voices of the Royal Borough’s council with his direct, angry protest against ‘Keeping Up Appearances’:

 

. . . it’s time to refurbish your building.

Not with fire doors, sprinklers and care

But with cladding to make it look nicer

So the rich can pretend you’re not there.
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Perhaps the most powerful poem here is by Nick Moss. He grew up in Liverpool but now lives in London. In the light of Kei Miller asking for a noisier, less restrained poetic sound, it’s interesting that Moss’ biog note tells us he performs regularly and continues to write because “if we keep shouting, eventually we’ll hear each other.” I don’t know if ‘Minimising Disruption’ is especially autobiographical, though it sounds like it (an earlier version of the poem can be found here). In it, memories of Ladbroke Grove music shops move on to song lyrics on the subject of murderers. Then Moss describes Grenfell, directly:

 

There are ‘Missing’ posters plastered all round Ladbroke grove.

The faces of the missing who are not-yet-officially-dead

 

The poem is powerful partly because it manages to tear its gaze away from the blackened stub of the Grenfell Tower to achieve some historical perspective, not to calm and reassure but to stoke the anger it so evidently feels. The poem recalls other, older song lyrics and then a comment made by John La Rose about the New Cross fire in 1981:

 

‘an unparalleled act of barbaric violence

against the black community’.

 

I guess history teaches us to be wary

Of words like ‘unparalleled’.
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However you read/judge the poems I’ve discussed and whether or not you think such a devastating, large scale, well publicised event as Grenfell requires a different kind of poetic voice, please buy a copy of this anthology – as I have said, all proceeds go to the Grenfell Foundation. Go straight to: The Onslaught Press or Amazon

PS. Myra Schneider, one of the poets included in this anthology has linked me to a later poem she wrote on this subject, published here.

 

 

Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

Hesperus Press are just about to publish Will Stone’s eminently readable and wonderfully grounded translation of a contemporary account of Friedrich Holderlin’s madness. This is a long essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger, written in Rome during the winter of 1827/8. It’s an astonishing and very moving document for those interested in German Romantic and Modern poetry or in early accounts of mental illness or – as I am aware is my own case – for those who will instantly recognise, in these brilliant and detailed observations, some of the behavioural elements of what we now loosely refer to as dementia.

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Holderlinturm

The essay first appeared in 1831, ironically only a year after its author’s death, though still a dozen years before its subject’s demise. Stone’s excellent introduction tells us that Waiblinger was an up-and-coming poet of the 1820s, “a rebel, a wayward fellow and a liberal maverick”. He studied at the same Protestant seminary (the ‘Tubinger Stift’) where Holderlin had studied from 1788 with Schelling and Hegel (imagine that team on University Challenge). But by 1806, the older poet had been confined to his tower in Tubingen (the ‘Holderlinturm’) because considered incurably mad. Waiblinger began visiting him in the summer of 1822. For four years, he saw Holderlin close-up, walking with him, trying to talk with him and enduring some pretty wild-sounding piano playing too.

41+WrUaV5pL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Waiblinger was a real Holderlin fan. The older poet’s novel, Hyperion, had appeared in 1822 (I review a recent translation of it here) and the younger man found it “saturated with spirit: a fervent fully glowing soul swells there” He was swept away: “Holderlin shakes me to the core. I find in him an eternally rich form of sustenance”. The mad poet in his tower was not often amenable to being visited, but Waiblinger, for some reason, proved an exception: “This lunatic, sitting at the window [. . .] is far closer to me”, the young man wrote, “than the thousands out there who are said to be sane”. Stone makes it clear that Waiblinger not only admired Hyperion but voiced the need for Holderlin’s other poetry to be re-published. Gradually, having fallen into obscurity, “his special hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism” eventually started to attract new admirers including Nietzsche, Schumann, Brahms, Rilke, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan.

Initially, Waiblinger seems to have intended to document: “It is not my place to offer some profound psychological insight, but rather to limit the quest to simple observation, a modest character sketch”. Filling in Holderlin’s earlier years he notes the uniqueness of his work in his “enthusiasm for Greek antiquity” which “left [its] mark on the tonality of his own creations” and led to a sense “of discontentment with the land of his birth”. This kind of sentiment dominates Hyperion and Waiblinger (sounding a bit prissily patriotic here) finds it elicits in him “a certain repugnance”. Waiblinger also reminds us of Holderlin’s doomed affair with the already-married Susette Gontard (the model for the Diotima figure in the poems and Hyperion). He sees the termination of the affair as the main contributory factor in Holderlin’s decline: “The coddled youth, lulled by the sweet intoxication of this love entanglement, was suddenly pitched back into bitter reality”. From here on, Holderlin was to carry “a fracture in his heart”, a wound barely transformed in Hyperion which Waiblinger reads as documenting “an unnatural struggle against destiny, a wounded mawkishness, a black melancholy and an ill-fated perverseness [that] cleaves a path into madness”.

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Wilhelm Waiblinger

No doubt the end of the affair did deeply affect Holderlin, but Waiblinger’s drawing a direct line from it to the ‘Holderlinturm’ is probably a bit simplistic. Sheltered from the “bitter reality” outside the tower, Holderlin continued to write letters in prose and verse. Given the period, it’s not surprising to hear Waiblinger describe the mockery of locals who caught Holderlin out walking – and good to hear that the old poet responded with mud and stones thrown at his attackers. Yet his behaviour was often like that of a small child: “When he leaves the house, they have to remind him in advance to wash and groom himself, for his hands are habitually soiled from spending half the day tearing up grass”. This tearing up grass seems to have been a common occupation as does, while out walking, flapping his handkerchief against fence posts. All the while, “he talks incessantly to himself, questioning and responding, sometimes yes sometimes no, and often both at the same time”.

One of Holderlin’s other occupations in his madness was re-reading his own Hyperion. He would read aloud, exclaiming “Wonderful, wonderful!” then go on, pausing only to remark, “You see gracious sir, a comma!” In true Romantic style, Waiblinger notices that the mad poet is more calm and more lucid in the open air: “he spoke to himself less [. . .] I was convinced this unceasing monologue with himself was nothing more than the disequilibrium of thought and his inability to gain significant purchase on any object”. For those who have witnessed a relative or friend suffering from dementia, this is a familiar thought and familiar also, perhaps, is the recourse to the phrase “It’s of no consequence to me” which Waiblinger heard repeatedly from the chattering Holderlin.

Playing a piano still gave him some pleasure it seems, beginning in childish simplicity, playing the same theme over and over hundreds of times. On other occasions, almost in spasmodic fits, he’d race across the keyboard, his long, uncut fingernails making an “unpleasant clattering sound”! He would also sing with great pathos – though not in any identifiable language. Holderlin’s family had completely abandoned him in his madness, but Waiblinger records him writing to his mother in the style of a child, “who cannot write in a fully developed way or sustain a thought”.

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Friedrich Holderlin

In fact, Waiblinger suggests that Holderlin’s difficulties lay in mental weakness rather than full-blown insanity. He is “incapable of holding a thought, of giving it clarity, of following it and linking it to another by way of analogy and thus to articulate a distant idea in a regular consistent sequence”. He has another go at describing what he imagines must be going on: “He wishes to affirm something, but since reality [. . .] does not concern him, he refuses it at the same moment, for his spirit is a realm which sustains only fog and what is feigned”. This is partly evident because of Holderlin’s habit (in his madness) of thinking out loud, so Waiblinger believes he can hear a thought being consumed even in the moment of its conception. In the grip of such fluidity and terrifying fog, Holderlin then would shake his head and cry out ‘No, no!’ and begin “firing out words without meaning or any signification, as if his spirit, in a sense overstretched by such a drawn-out thought, could restore itself only by having his mouth issue words which bore no relation to any of it”. Holderlin retreats from his own incoherence into the comfort of sheer random association.

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Will Stone

The results are inevitable for the patient and (again recognisably) yield up a fierce, walled-in, self-involvement. Waiblinger describes a “complete lack of participation in and interest for any events outside himself”, and this, alongside an “incapacity to wish to grasp, recognise, understand, to allow in another individuality other than his own”, means there is no possibility of rational communication with the patient. And such solitude – experienced from the inside – results in such boredom that “he needs to speak to himself”, though lacking the ability to follow one thing with anything coherent, the result is “diabolical confusion” and mere “gibberish”. So it’s with some surprise that we find Waiblinger ending his essay with any thought at all of Holderlin’s recovery. He admits it’s unlikely – but does allow himself (surely consoling himself) with imagining an occasional “momentary restoration”, though even this might only be brief, perhaps no more than a fleeting prelude to the moment of death.

But perhaps such imagined lucid moments are less than consoling to those who spend time observing such distress. Leafing through his papers, Waiblinger says he discovered a quite terrifying phrase. Holderlin at one moment had scrawled down, “Now for the first time I understand humankind, because I dwell far from it and in solitude”. It is almost unbearably moving to imagine such flashes of conscious insight coming to the old poet in the midst of so much mental confusion and perceptual fragmentation. What Waiblinger here describes feels bang up to date and yet must be as old as the hills. Will Stone has done an important job in bringing this essay into English.