The French Alps, a Scottish island, a breezy, autumnal lake in the USA . . . These all came back to mind* as I read Jack Underwood’s just-published essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ (Poetry Review, Winter 2017). To be clear, I am sympathetic to the general drift of his argument, his interest in language and epistemology and his enthusiasm for poetry as contributing a necessary part of our understanding of the world. But Underwood is too disparaging about language (it’s most of what we’ve got) and this leads to his own imprecision with it (because words don’t yield the whole truth doesn’t mean we should use them carelessly). I wish he’d given better examples of what he is urging poets to pursue (so I’ve included one below) and I’m horrified that he recommends vague, woolly raptures (fog and smudge) to poets rather than genuine provisionality and uncertainty reflected in language that is sceptically self-aware.
Starting from a remembered childhood scene, Underwood argues, as his title suggests, that poetry is an area of discourse which both highlights and thrives on epistemological uncertainty. Such uncertainties arise firstly from “the innate inaccuracy of language as a system that cannot catch or hold onto anything securely”. In a postmodern world, this hardly makes headlines, but the hyperbolic expression is too much, given that language gets me through most of my days reasonably well; it has to be grasping something. A second uncertainty arises from the poet’s raw material – particularly the “gunk of unconscious activity” – all of which is subjective and unstable because any meaning/knowledge is actually a concept only associated with human perception and not something corresponding to a universe existent apart from human perception. Hence, in the end, Underwood argues, “all of meaning and knowledge is apprehended, expressed and configured unstably [. . .] a shoal of jellyfish”.
Except that mostly it is not. Surprisingly for a poet, Underwood doesn’t take the potency of language seriously enough, in particular the way the words we use have the habit of becoming idolatrous (in the sense used by Owen Barfield); they can determine how we see, think and feel. Here’s a pretty, remembered scene of my own: in the French Alps above the Trois Vallees, the woven steel cables of chair lifts hang quite still during the night and the cold air seals them in icy sheaths. Come morning, when the engines whir into action at either end of the lifts, the cables suddenly tense and jump, brought to life, and in doing so they shuck off their icy jackets. The frozen moisture cracks, fragments and detaches from the cables. Down it falls into the snow to print a strange hieroglyphic language in a neat line up the mountainside, looking something like this:
I bet the locals have a word for this modern phenomenon. But from above, it looks like a language in which nothing is cursive (and life tends to the cursive, is always diverging from the linear). This icy steel cable language is – I’d suggest and Underwood would agree – like much of our everyday language use, mostly false. Yet it does possess a certain utilitarian precision, enough to perform its functions within broad criteria. But if our wish is to be more precise, to say something difficult to grasp, a more unusual observation, something more emotionally cursive, then we have to choose our words more carefully, put them together in a different sort of way: we have to unsettle them, bend them, occasionally find new ones, revive old ones in new contexts.
Surprisingly, Underwood’s response to this difficulty is to recommend poets use language which is “foggier” than we might ordinarily use, or language that has been calculatedly blurred or aspires to a kind of “smudging”. This simply doesn’t square with most people’s feelings about poetry which is that it tends to clarify experience rather than ‘smudge’ it. The truth is that we need to respond to language’s limits by working harder with language not neglecting it. Underwood would do well to read Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), which passionately argues against the loss of regional, place-specific language, a loss which means we are progressively perceiving natural landscapes in fewer dimensions, slipping into an ever more abstract, narrow, linear understanding of experience. Macfarlane argues that “Language deficit leads to attention deficit” and perhaps Underwood would agree but Macfarlane grasps that we do not liberate ourselves from the tyranny of language by using it vaguely, but ever more precisely. In Landmarks, he is concerned that the Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 deletes heron, ivy, kingfisher, pasture and willow among many other words considered irrelevant in reflecting the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. The word blackberry has been replaced by Blackberry.
And this is no narrow Cambridge academic’s concern. Macfarlane also tells the story of the proposed building of a vast wind farm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis in 2004: 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat excavated and displaced. The debate centred around “the perceived nature and worth of the moor”. Proponents discussed it as a “wasteland”, a “wilderness”, a “vast, dead place”. Opponents – including 80% of the island’s inhabitants – argued for the fecund particularity of the moor. Tellingly, part of the defence was lexical in the shape of a Gaelic ‘Peat Glossary’ – hundreds of words describing the subtle features and moods of what is clearly no “dead place” at all. Macfarlane links this “Counter-Desecration Handbook” to poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig but it also reminds me of Blake’s insight: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”.
Underwood and I would agree that the man who sees only a “green thing” is suffering a lack of poetry – a limitation or failure of perception which is also a failure of linguistic precision. I think of it as an example of that icy steel cable language in the French Alps which falls (or more dangerously is handed down – this is where politics enters the debate) from on high, from some remote, cold place, handed down into our lives and so it begins to determine how we see the world. I share Underwood’s sense of urgency and importance that it is for those who concern ourselves with language and try to scrutinize our relations to the other, to others, to ourselves, to re-double our efforts to make further brief, individual Counter-Desecration Handbooks, to tell what we see as the truths of our lives as accurately as possible. Whatever form they may take, let’s call the resulting texts ‘poems’ and take inspiration finally from a marvellous one by the American poet, David Ferry.
Here, Ferry’s poem can also act as an illustration of several of Underwood’s comments about poetry. He suggests poems convey meanings beyond the “sharper constraints” of everyday language. By “sharper” he surely means narrower and more meanly delimited and Ferry’s poem illustrates that a quite different sharpness (a vividness from the cleansing of the doors of perception) is something poetry does well and yields pleasure for the reader. The poem doesn’t contradict Underwood’s suggestion that we know when we are reading poetry because of its formal qualities, its frequent use of metaphor, its preference for connotation as opposed to denotation. Our acquaintance with the poem certainly sets us “wondering” (Underwood’s rather foggy word) about what we are reading and it suggests and explicitly discusses “a resistance to finality in language”. I don’t think Underwood’s own examples help illustrate his point; I think Ferry’s poem does, confirming how poetry can be the “prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown” (Underwood).
Ferry’s original poetry has long flourished in the shadow of his translation work but his collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the National Book Award. In the UK, his selected poems are published as On This Side of the River (Waywiser Press, 2012). In fluidly, cursively, yet precise language, ‘Lake Water’ brilliantly conveys Ferry’s attentiveness to the world’s presence without losing a sense of the provisional nature of both self and other, the root inscrutabilities of experience (one of Underwood’s main points). There is a pressure exerted in favour of clarity and truth to both inner and outer worlds.
Ferry kicks off with specificity: “a summer afternoon in October”, the narrator gazing at a lake. The opening 20 lines, even as they evoke the light, the shimmer of water, the trees, engage in continual re-interpretations via similes (“As if it were a shimmering of heat”; “as if the air / Had entirely given itself over to summer”) and revisions (“Or rather”; “Or from”) until, in the final lines of this opening passage, paradox seems the only way to encapsulate the experience: “The light / Is moving and not moving upon the water”.
The second section of ‘Lake Water’ reaffirms this process, the perception of the lake “compelling with sweet oblivious / Authority alterations in light and shadow”. Earlier the water had evoked “something infantile [. . .] a baby at the breast” but now – in a progress from innocence to experience – the slapping of the water is “decidedly sexual”. The lake water, at one with the whole process of perceiving it, has become “an origination of life”. The lake surface is “like a page” or “like an idea for a poem not yet written”, or equivocally the “surface of the page is like lake water” before a mark has been made on it. What seeks to be written down is elusive partly as the result of the ambivalent gifts of time: “all my language about the lake [. . . ] erased with the changing of the breeze”.
Ferry saves a poignant twist for the final 6 lines which record a death-bed scene; he watches his wife – distinguished literary scholar, Anne Ferry – who died in 2006. After the moment of her passing, her face is “as untelling” as the lake, “unreadable”, though Ferry clings to and at once denies a last hope: “Her mouth was open as if she had something to say; / But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech”. For all their elegance and plain-speaking, Ferry’s best poems are marvellously unstable, bravely eschewing the linear, poignantly facing up to the limits of the faulty equipment we are given to grasp the world. Elsewhere, Ferry gently devastates with the idea that “death lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning”. Other poets might advocate fogs and smudge, or be reduced to silence, or rip language to shreds, or resort to an icy words, the dead counters of the pre-conceived at this, but Ferry’s provisional songs instruct, console and are to be much admired.
In what follows I am mostly summarising Auden’s own discussion of Frost, written in the late 1940s. But I am adding thoughts of my own as well (in the light of teaching Frost) and it would be prudent to make sure you have read Auden’s essay alongside this post.
Auden’s essay, ‘Robert Frost’, can be found in The Dyer’s Hand (Faber, 1963) and it starts with a distinction between what a poem says and what the poet says. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends with the statement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This is clearly the urn speaking and voicing a predilection for the kind of art “from which the evils and problems of this life”, argues Auden, have been “deliberately excluded” (p. 337). The Urn is such a piece of art, defining its own beauty in the act of excluding the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (alluded to in its own third stanza). Yet Keats’ main narrative voice does not subscribe to such a view and the possibilities of these ironic distances between poet, narrative speaker and dramatic characters (even if only an old urn) are things we should take into any reading of Robert Frost.
But Frost is not an Urn Poet, seeking beauty at all costs; Auden links such a desire with the figure of Shakespeare’s Ariel. The Ariel poet wants a poem to be “a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play” which gives the reader delight in so far as it contrasts with our true existence in history, with our “insoluble problems and inescapable suffering” (p. 338). Taking an unprepossessing extract from George Peele, Auden characterises the Ariel poem as tending towards anonymous generalities, a verbal contraption such that, if we try to explain what pleasure it gives us, “one finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of caesuras etc”. Ariel has no passions – his earthly paradise is beautiful but not very earthly in truth, and nothing of consequence can happen there. An anthology edited by Ariel runs the risk of delivering mere narrowness and a monotony (or even absence) of feeling. Auden refers us to Virgil’s Eclogues, and poets like Campion, Herrick and Mallarme (I’d add other assorted Surrealists, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery). In being turned away from historical reality, there is inevitably a narcissistic quality to Ariel poems (p. 340). Damning with faint praise, Auden notes Ariel’s worst fault is a minor one, a self-regarding triviality.
In contrast, Frost is a Prospero Poet. To explain, Auden quotes Dr Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. The Prospero poem should provide us with “some kind of revelation about our life”; it will act so as to “free us from self-enchantment and deception” (p. 338). In order to do this, the Prospero poet must introduce into the poem “the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly”, in other words Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”. Frost’s poems are recognisably of this type and they seem to derive from “an experience which preceded any words and without which the poem could not have come into being”. Rather than Ariel’s narrow focus on the beauty of the constituent verbal elements, these are now regarded as “subordinate in importance to the truth of what [the poem] says” (p. 340). Auden nominates Wordsworth as the English poet who, more than any other, has the least element of Ariel, a preponderance of Prospero. Wordsworth’s earthiness, directness of address and simplicity of language can reach peculiar, bathetic extremes, as in ‘The Thorn:
This thorn you on your left espy;
And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry,
I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
Yet, of ‘Mending Wall, Frost has said that he “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above”. In Frost’s poem there are only two words with more than two syllables. This is evidence of Frost’s Prospero-like quality as Auden defines it. But the risk of such simplicity and directness – lodging any validity it possesses in the poem’s relation to truth – is that, in failing, the poet offends not merely against triviality but against truth itself. The poem may be false and a reader might conclude, “This poem should not have been written” (p. 341).
Auden is, of course, dealing with extremes here and he admits most poetry presents a blend or tension of Ariel and Prospero qualities. But, considering a poet’s output, it is possible (and useful) to say that he or she is dominated by one or the other. So Auden describes Frost’s Prospero-like language: “The music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible . . . he rarely employs metaphors . . yet he manages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety of emotion and experience” (p. 342). This achievement is because Frost’s diction is that “of a mature mind, fully awake, and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream or of uncontrollable passion”. The reader will often be aware of strong, even violent, emotions lying behind what is actually said, but the saying “is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity”. So Frost’s poems are quiet on the surface which readers find inviting or, if more superficially read, boring. But the drama is real enough and, once entered into, not uncommonly, in Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, potentially “terrifying”.
Auden goes on to make observations about some of Frost’s themes. ‘Two Look at Two’ is a “miraculous exception” in Frost’s general presentation of man’s relationship with Nature since the couple observing the buck and the doe seem to be rewarded with a sympathetic response. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”. In fact, this conclusion may seem less exceptional if we pay attention to the “As if” and – just as in Keats’ Urn – find a difference between the poet’s intention and the Ariel-like urge towards an ideal or paradisal ending to the poem (the couple’s love is returned only in their own rosy-tinted perception). More typically, Frost’s Nature is better represented by the “great buck” of ‘The Most of It’ which emerges from a lake, alien and indifferent to the human desire for “counter-love”.
This sense of cosmic indifference to the human draws from Frost his often expressed admiration of stoic courage, the ability to keep on keeping on. This, Auden points out, is the significance of Frost’s frequently deserted dwellings. In Europe, such an image might suggest “injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human pride”. But in Frost, such ruins are rather “an image of human heroism, of a defence in the narrow pass against hopeless odds” (p. 345). Auden’s point is that Frost’s poetry looks forwards rather than backwards, nostalgia is not a common note; more usual, and more distinctively American, is “the ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a discovery or a new start” (p. 349). This is why Frost lauds work and labour so much. His highest virtue is the self-respect that comes from taking pride in something achieved.
Baptiste – the French-Canadian axe-maker in ‘The Axe-Helve – is such a man and also a Prospero-like artist:
He showed me that the lines of a good helve
Were native to the grain before the knife
Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves
Put on it from without. And there its strength lay [. . .]
An Ariel axe-helve would look beautiful – but be wholly useless for the task. Frost said: “Art should follow the lines in nature [. . .] False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves”. Unreliably narrated by a stiffly condescending New England Yankee farmer, the poem in fact favours Baptiste’s pragmatic art (which is Frost’s too). The same effect is heard in ‘Mending Wall’ in which the arrogant, mischievous narrative voice makes no headway against his less educated neighbour’s refrain: “Good fences make good neighbours”.
The narrator of ‘The Wood Pile’ is similarly undermined by his own poem. There is an Ariel-like restlessness about him. His curiosity has an aimless, insatiable quality as if the mixed nature of what lies before him is not enough. Having decided to return home, he changes his mind: “No, I will go farther – and we shall see”. What he eventually finds is an image reflective of his own failing: a wood pile, carefully and laboriously constructed and then abandoned in a restless search for novelty. Seemingly un-selfaware, he criticises the man who “lived in turning to fresh tasks” and could “so forget his handiwork”.
It’s in ‘Birches’ that Frost most clearly engages with the contrasting desires of Ariel and Prospero. Climbing the tree “Toward heaven” is Ariel’s desire to “get away from earth a while”. This is contrasted to the earlier passage in the poem in which “Truth” breaks into the narrative, describing the irreversible damaged an ice storm can do to a birch tree: “they never right themselves”. It is Frost’s choice to take a third way, to be “a swinger of birches”, achieving a balance or sequence of both heavenward and earthward motion. If this sounds like an equal balance, it is misleading since – as Auden argued – the scale is unmistakably tipped in Frost’s case towards Prospero. I don’t sense any irony in the declaration of ‘Birches’: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.
They come from conversations overheard or taken part in, sights, sounds and the other senses, recall, reading, when alone or in company. Poems drop into the growing matrix of all we’ve felt and known. For those who write, it goes on all day long. But only a few land propitiously and work their way into what lies beneath to root and grow. The best of them find earth particularly suited to the nature of the seed and Jacqueline Saphra’s introduction to the highly ekphrastic A Bargain with the Light (Hercules Press, 2017) records just such a moment.
This exquisitely produced little book also contains a discussion of the model and photographer, Lee Miller, by the academic, Patricia Allmer. Miller emerges from this as a multitude; as object, agent, speaker, spoken of, product and producer – in Allmer’s words a “key female icon of the twentieth century”. And so, in 2016, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’, Saphra was stopped “in her tracks” by a nude photograph of Miller, taken by her father. Saphra explains: “How could I not be drawn to this extraordinary, wounded woman [. . .] with her huge capacity for creativity, her beauty, her restlessness?” It can take only a moment for both the drawer and the drawn to discover in each other a mutual compatibility.
The poems that arose from Saphra’s fascination with Lee Miller take the form of an heroic crown of sonnets. The form incorporates repeats and revisitings as well as replicating, in its constituent short forms, the brief instantaneous moment of the taken photograph. By coincidence, I’ve used a less strict form of the crown of sonnets recently and, in search of a propulsive, forward movement within the sequence opted not to repeat lines verbatim and also to cut the fifteenth sonnet which repeats many lines once more. But Saphra adheres to the form pretty tightly and in doing so reflects the remarkable recurrences in Miller’s life. Though she finds some evidence of maturation and progress, her chosen form argues against this. The penultimate sonnet declares: “you’re still the same girl who trembled / in the snow wearing only silence”.
This reference is to one of the earliest images of Miller, taken by her father – as a stark naked 7 year old, standing in 2 feet of snow in her home town, Poughkeepsie. It’s an appalling image, but Saphra’s verse derives from it two elements that will recur: the (definitely creepy) power of the father and the fact that Miller is hiding in full (full frontal) sight. ‘Darkroom Lessons’ addresses another naked image of Miller, again taken by her father. But now she is a 20 year old woman. She turns her head aside as if she’s just been struck. For Saphra:
You turn and strike a pose.
Once more, you look beyond. This time your face
in profile signals absence. Your skin glows [. . .]
Miller’s nakedness demands she hide herself and the gaze from which she hides . . .
again: the father, tucked behind the lens
sharing his expertise. This is how it starts:
with naked lines and curves; it ends
with lessons in the darkroom. This is art.
The euphemistic “lessons in the darkroom” allude to the fact that Miller was sexually abused in childhood – though by a neighbour, rather than her father.
By the 1930s Miller had reached Paris, her naked body now proving an inspiration to artists like Man Ray. But Saphra’s poems indicate that while still an object, Miller is becoming more of an agent too: “This is your chance / to know his secrets, so you play his game”. In her compliance, Miller learned much from Man Ray. ‘The Art of Control’ responds to a watershed moment, a self-portrait image from around 1930: “You steal his eye and take both sides: / In front, behind: the seer and the seen”. The poem concludes (quietly, plainly as ever) marking Miller’s bid for an independence and freedom (as woman and artist) that perhaps seemed unlikely:
No deal to cut, no tacit threat, no flesh:
Sweetly, you make your bargain with the light,
The only safe transaction. You took this.
Here is your face. Simple. Nothing amiss.
The sonnet crown demands that this concluding line is repeated as the first line of the subsequent poem. The risk that we might read the line too simplistically and optimistically is reduced when we hear much the same words re-applied to Miller’s 1944 photograph of a French woman accused of collaboration with the Nazis – her head shaved: “Here is your face, simple, nothing amiss”. As in this instance, as the sequence unfolds, more of the sonnets are in the voice of Miller herself. This technical shift marks the artist’s growing self confidence and one of Saphra’s suggestions is evidently that, having suffered much in her youth, she is able to confront head-on the suffering of others. And hence take a great photograph.
So Miller’s image, ‘The Burgermeister’s daughter’ is of a Nazi woman who has poisoned herself. To take the image, Miller must have got very close. So too with the frightening ‘Beaten SS prison guard’, his goggling eyes and smashed, bloodstained face filling the frame. Miller took it on a visit to the Buchenwald Camp. Saphra makes Miller speak of it:
I learned how to escape. How well I hid,
how close I dared to stand. I fix my focus
inches from his face, his eyes clear, the blood
congealing on his skin. If there’s disgust,
I channel it, and if there’s fear, I know
how to burn it, use it for fuel.
The sonnet sequence does not unfold strictly chronologically. In the midst of Miller’s war years, there’s a poem in response to an image of a 6 year old Miller with her mother; then there’s another of the whole Miller family in 1911. The strategy here maybe be (reflecting the repetition of the crown form) to suggest how much of the little (abused) girl remained within the confident, female war photographer. But it does give rise to some arid repetition. In one poem Miller tells us “I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed” and in the other we are again reminded, “You learned how to escape. How well you hid”.
But how far Miller must have come is suggested by one of the strangest of the images here, the 1943 ‘US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves’. The white uniformed, virginal nurse stands comically surrounded by grasping rubber gloves arrayed on sort of hat-stands to dry. Her figure is grotesquely dwarfed by the grasping and groping that goes on around her. Miller speaks in Saphra’s poem, reflecting on her own inner turmoil:
Where are the doctors? When will they begin
to make it better? I watch and wait
as if they’ll find a cure for this malaise,
as if the storm inside can be erased.
Though elsewhere, Miller’s voice rings out much more defiantly (“I’ll crash in, braced / to win, dig for mercy, shoot for grace”) it’s the still-troubled “girl who trembled / in the snow” we are left with in sonnet 14. If Miller truly is Allmer’s “female icon” then she is – in Saphra’s treatment of her – one achieving only a pyrrhic victory in the twentieth century gender battles: “You square your shoulders, soldier on”. Yet the poems are all the more moving because of this. The poet’s profound identification with Miller, her deployment of ekphrastic techniques and her clever use of the crown form make for a very satisfying read. It goes without saying that Hercules Press’ production and design is stunning. This is a little book to treasure or – as it’s getting close to Christmas – to give.
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 [. . .]
‘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
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.
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 Press. Making 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.
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.
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 [. . .]
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).
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”.
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”.
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.
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:
The 11am train out of Paddington is so packed that I expect to see Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor between carriages – disgruntled at the discomfort of his position, if more gruntled at the clear evidence of the underfunding of public transport. I usually choose the Quiet Carriage to varying degrees of success and on this occasion, from Reading to Swindon, I have the pleasure of eavesdropping on a phone conversation in a language I do not know. A contemporary version of Frost’s the sound of sense – though I’m not sure I make much sense of the sounds themselves, half of it murmuring like love-talk, the other staccato as a list of shopping. Maybe that’s just what it is!
Anyway, I have work to do – correcting replies I’m giving to an email interview to be published by South Bank Poetry in the next couple of weeks. I’ve already prepared the reading I’m giving on the Saturday night, so I don’t bother thinking about that. Getting off the train 3½ hours later, I meet up with Maggie Butt who is still recovering from running the recent Poem-a-Thon in support of the Enfield Refugee Fund. Possibly, I think, she’s reeling less from the sheer effort involved as from the whole event’s astonishing success, raising something like £14000 in one day. We walk along the breezy promenade at Torquay to the Livermead Cliff Hotel which is the focus of the Torbay Poetry Festival. It turns out they are not expecting me until the following day but with some juggling of rooms I’m soon ensconced and ready for some poetry.
I had arrived in time to hear Myra Schneider and Alasdair Paterson reading. But Myra was unwell and absent, so her poems and little emailed introductions were beautifully read by Mimi Khalvati and Danielle Hope. I know Myra’s work well and it is often very location specific, so it was a strange feeling having north London brought so vividly before me when, just outside the expansive windows, the English Channel was rolling in towards the beach. Alasdair (amongst many other things) runs the Uncut Poetry series in Exeter, so he is both in-comer and relative local to the south west. With the kind of Scottish burr that in itself draws attention to the sound of any poem it is applied to, he read in a quiet, level voice. Especially memorable was a poem with a surrealist and Chinese slant, presenting a kind of bureaucratic Confucianism, managing to convey both a satirical edge and a rather joyful sense of freedom.
Early evening on the Friday, Kathy Miles read her poems layered with myth, history and personal experience. And Matthew Barnard, who is published by Eyewear, read several poems about visits – or maybe residence – on the Isle of Skye. One of the great recommendations of this little poetry festival (run by Patricia Oxley, who also edits Acumen, and her committee) is indeed its small scale. It means guests and readers are always in touching and chatting distance of each other. Someone who is a regular attendee described it to me as more like a house party and it certainly has that sense of a bunch of people meeting up in an endless, delightful carousel of combinations and re-combinations. Maybe all I mean is that it is very friendly!
The first half of Friday evening’s reading was given by the urbane, witty and clever Duncan Forbes. One of his poems expressed the concern, shared by so many of us who work with language, about the number of words that seem to be dropping out of common usage. So many of these are associated with the natural world, the weather, earth and landscape. Duncan was smart and engaging on the subject but interestingly a number of his more recent poems seem to tone down the wit and word-play in order to focus on landscape – in one instance a gloriously evoked Portuguese setting. Mimi Khalvati’s work is well known and tends to provoke praise such as ‘lush’ and ‘graceful’ which is true enough though she also has a quiet almost metaphysical wit of her own. She read a poem from the just published Hippocrates Society anthology of the heart:
Old tramping grounds are bruises to the heart.
Go visit them at dusk when belisha beacons,
reflected in dark windows, flash and dart
like fireflies [. . .]
We were expecting Storm Brian on the Saturday and being just metres from the water’s edge it was awaited with some trepidation. But living up to its rather un-tempestlike name, Brian blew only in brief gusts, ruffling Torbay into rather poetic white horses rather than anything more dangerous. It seemed appropriate that the main event of the morning was a celebration of Cornish poet Charles Causley. This was coordinated by John Miles and included members of The Causely Trust and the poet’s biographer, Laurence Green. We heard about Causley’s childhood, the early death of his father, his war experiences in the navy, then his years teaching at the same school he attended. A curious life of great rootedness and sense of locale, combined with his sense of the ocean always at his doorstep and the possibility of travel. Perhaps the highlight of the session was an unaccompanied singing of Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters’ by Roy Cameron. I’ve known some of the poems for ages, but the event made me want to go back and reread them. I always remember something Causley wrote, echoing Frost’s ideas about ulteriority, that poems are always about something else and that’s why they are so hard to write.
If Patrica Oxley sets the organisational tone for the Festival, it is her husband William who sets the sociability quotient. This is also reflected in his most recent publication, On and Off Parnassus (Rockingham Press), a collection of anecdotes, or Oxley-dotes, which has been described as giving readers “a finely judged mixture of anecdote and nuanced memoir”. William’s encounter with a much larger-than-expected tiger cub proved entertaining. Alongside him Maggie Butt read from her recent collection, Degrees of Twilight, taking us from a trip to Cuba to her very moving response to Dylan Thomas:
Why not go gentle into that good night
like drifting into sleep from sun-soaked day,
remembering the brightness of the light?
Penelope Shuttle had judged the Festival poetry competition this year and she announced the winners at an event later on Saturday afternoon. The winner was Cheryl Pearson with the poem, ‘The Fishwife’. My reading was before the dinner and the wine began to flow. I read almost wholly from my new book. I veered off plan by including a poem included in the new Hippocrates anthology. It seemed appropriate to place it after another poem about my daughter a few years ago – the first was about visiting a church and extinguishing somebody else’s candle and the heart poem about watching her, for the first time, riding a fairground carousel alone: anxious moments that yielded up thoughts for this father at least about the paradoxes of closeness and distance as children become more and more themselves:
Regretfully I could not hang around long on the Sunday morning as I had to get back into London for a reading with Tim Ades and Caroline Maldonado (dear reader, my life is not usually so literarily busy, far from it). Sadly then, I had to miss Penny Shuttle’s main reading as well as work from Alwyn Marriage, Shanta Acharya and Isabel Bermudez. On the return train, I read and loved Penny’s most recent book, Will You Walk a Little Faster? (Bloodaxe Books). And – in the light of the TS Eliot shortlist which had been released over the weekend – I was left wondering why she was not on it. Her work is always so sharp, surprising, endlessly experimenting, touching, visionary, down to earth, above all immensely human. These are not things I could say about all the shortlisted books. Ah, literary prizes, the delight of the few chosen publishers everywhere. And while I’m busy complaining, why is Nick Makoha’s powerful book not on the list? But enough bitching – the Torbay Poetry Festival is remarkable for a number of things, but especially its inclusive and friendly tone. Stay with that.