How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

A Boat..._quicksand cover

With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

images

For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

00014096-390x540

Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

md7773056273

Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

download
Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

daodejing

A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

images
Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

Inner Emigres – Heaney and Huchel

Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful . . .

heany_profile

In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.

Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”

seferisbio
George Seferis

Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in The Redress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.

The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over.  His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.

huchel
Peter Huchel

But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.

It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.

imgres

Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:

 

With evening, friends close in,

the shadows of hills.

Slowly they press across the threshold,

darkening the salt,

darkening the bread

and strike up conversation with my silence.

 

Outside in the maple

the wind stirs:

my sister, the rainwater

in the chalky trough,

imprisoned,

gazes up at the clouds.

 

Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.

north

 

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:

huchel3

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”.

48935464-red-brick-wall-background-with-dry-withered-ivy-leaves-plants

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.

269285_4f92e840dfee5ec5e313ce224dfb8064_large
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.

 

richard-iii-5-940x460
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.

76799569

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.

huchel

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.

brand-c-eu-komm

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.

12106280_641080319366623_520747277_n

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.

imgres

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.

The Bow-Wow Shop’s Aspects of Orpheus

Bow Wow Shop Orpheus Poster_v2

Last week I was pleased to be involved in the first of the on-line journal Bow-Wow Shop’s evening events in Clapham. Its focus was the figure of Orpheus: What is it about the story of Orpheus and his pursuit of his dead wife, Eurydice, into the underworld that has so inspired generations of artists, writers and composers?

Editor of The Bow-Wow Shop, poet and Independent arts and culture journalist, Michael Glover organises and he programmed a terrific mix of material. Ann Wroe’s 2011 book, Orpheus: the song of life (Cape), explores the roots of the Orphic story and traces its many manifestations through Classical to modern times. I was lucky enough to read with her at an event at Lauderdale House a couple of years ago. In Clapham she was in conversation with Marius Kociejowski. I was there on the strength of my 2012 translations of Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon Press). Providing musical illustrations of the power of the Orpheus story were mezzo-soprano Lita Manners and guitarist Paul Thomas. There was also an exhibition of prints by Tom de Freston, creator of OE, a graphic novel on the Orpheus material.

imgres

Lita and Paul performed extracts for Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), songs by Vaughn-Williams and from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Marius interviewed Ann though she needed little prompting to discuss several aspects of what is a wonderfully original book. Rilke’s inspired writing of the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) form a thread through the book but she steered clear of that and concentrated more on the first evidence of the myth in the 6th BCE: a painting in black figure on a Greek vase, pictured with a huge lyre that almost seems part of him. Already at that early stage he is called ‘famous’. A 13th century BCE Cretan vase perhaps images him, again with the super-sized lyre (denoting divine powers, his music powerful even over inanimate objects birds, trees). Elsewhere he seems imaged as a bird himself – the power of song and music so strong that he must take on the attributes of a bird-god.

imgres

Perhaps even further back, Ann suggested, the figure is based on fertility myths, perhaps of Indian origin. His wife Eurydice likewise is linked to the figure of Persephone, the whole narrative in its original forms reflecting ideas of the seasons, death and re-birth of the earth, the crops. But there remains something irresolvable about the Orpheus myth – this polyvalent quality is one of the reasons for its productive quality in terms of inspiring artists. We kept recurring to the question: why must Orpheus turn as he is leading Eurydice out of the Underworld? The story contains its own tragedy. Ann suggested one interpretation might be to do with the fact the Eurydice represents the mystery of the natural world, or perhaps of knowledge/speech about the natural world, and that must necessarily remain hidden. Such a thing is the remit of the Gods alone. Orpheus must leave the Underworld empty-handed.

images

I spoke about Rilke in 1921, settling into the Château de Muzot in the Swiss Valais. How he liked to walk in the garden with its orchards and roses in full bloom, a landscape often evoked in the sonnet sequence which eventually arrived. He later declared that in the month of February 1922, he ‘could do nothing but submit, purely and obediently, to the dictation of [an] inner impulse’. In an extraordinary inspirational period, between the 2nd and 5th of that month, most of the 26 sonnets of Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus were written. He then polished off the ten year old sequence of the Duino Elegies. Between the 15th and the 23rd, Rilke went on to complete the 29 poems of Part Two.

Perrcy Bysshe Shelley wrote a longish fragment on the myth in 1820:

 

His [song]

Is clothed in sweetest sounds and varying words

Of poesy. Unlike all human works,

It never slackens, and through every change

Wisdom and beauty and the power divine

Of mighty poesy together dwell,

Mingling in sweet accord.

 

Here, as often, Orpheus is an image of the (male) artist/poet as well as being an image of our desire to find or create order or harmony in the world about us.

Rilke’s inspired poems brim with optimism and confidence about the role of poetry. In contrast, but more typical of the growing 20th century gloom, perhaps with intimations of a second world war, 15 years later – Auden’s brief 1937 poem ‘Orpheus’ is mired in uncertainty, asking “What does the song hope for?” Is it to be “bewildered and happy” – a sort of ecstatic but unthinking bliss? Or is it to discover “the knowledge of life”? No answer is given. The poem ends: “What will the wish, what will the dance do?” This is the Auden who doubts the power of poetry – it makes nothing happen – in his Elegy to Yeats.

And more like Auden than Rilke, the 20th century tended to take a more sceptical view of the myth – giving a more powerful voice to the traditionally passive Eurydice – more critical of Orpheus as careless, self-centred, weak. For example, in 1917 – 4 years before Rilke arrived in his chateau, H.D.’s Eurydice was condemning Orpheus:

 

for your arrogance

and your ruthlessness

I have lost the earth

and the flowers of the earth

 

Such radical revisions come also from more explicitly feminist poets like the American, Alta:

 

all the male poets write of orpheus

as if they look back & expect

to find me walking patiently

behind them, they claim I fell into hell

damn them, I say.

I stand in my own pain

& sing my own song

fullsizerender-11-360x348

Carol Ann Duffy’s revision (in her 1999 book The World’s Wife) gives Eurydice both poem title and narrative perspective. Her Orpheus is:

 

the kind of a man

who follows her round

writing poems, hovers about

while she reads them,

calls her his Muse,

and once sulked for a night and a day

because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.

 

She saves herself from having to accompany Orpheus back to the upper world by offering to listen to his poem again. Orpheus, seduced and flattered, turns. “I waved once and was gone” she comments.

imgres

In this context Rilke’s take on the myth is (not surprisingly) very traditional and brimming with confidence in the role of the poet and patriarchal sidelining of Eurydice. So Rilke’s interest lies with the world and the underworld, life and death. He is more like Shelley who set his fragmentary poem after the loss of E and it’s coming through that experience that seems to add power to his song. Rilke is interested in the idea of transition. Orpheus tries to recover Eurydice; he moves from life, into death and then back again. This fluidity, the courage and a readiness to renew ourselves, to be risked in the absorption with something other, to be translated from one realm to another, to come and go, to be and not to be is what draws Rilke to the myth.

This is also Don Paterson’s thinking behind his versions of the Sonnets in Orpheus (Faber, 2006). He argues Man is unique in having foreknowledge of his own death, meaning we act as if we are already dead, or historical. This means that we construct life as an authentic and intelligible narrative, a life with meaning, but it is death that drives the plot of our life. This is one of Paterson’s key ideas and he refers to it as our ‘ghost-hood’. So we are like Orpheus: we too have descended to the land of the shades and then returned to the present moment – our condition is therefore existentially transgressive, riven, divided.

It’s the singing of the Orphic artist that addresses and bridges such divisions. This explains Rilke’s interest in the Orpheus myth: its narrative is a metaphor for the longed-for transit or communion between the realms of life and death. He possesses the desired ability to inspire the renovation of human perception that can initiate a more comprehensive, joyful and celebratory experience of life. One of the things most people know of Rilke is his exhortation to praise. Praise is a form of secular prayer for Rilke and it demands a renovation of conventional language through Orpheus’ song – as also noted by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound:

 

Language is a perpetual Orphic song,

Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng

Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were

imgres

Orpheus’ singing as a way to think about the language of poetry can clearly be seen in Rilke’s celebratory sonnets about the garden at Muzot. Here’s my translation of sonnet I  13:

 

Pear and plump apple and gooseberry,

banana . . . all of these have something to say

of life and death to the tongue . . . I guess . . .

Read it in the expression on a child’s face

 

as she tastes them. It comes from far off.

Slowly, does speechlessness fill your mouth?

In place of words, a flood of discovery

from the flesh of fruit, astonished, free.

 

Try to express what it is we call ‘apple’.

This sweet one with its gathering intensity

rising so quietly – even as you taste it –

 

becomes transparent, wakeful, ready,

ambiguous, sunny, earthy, native.

O experience, touch, pleasure, prodigal!

 

Rilke’s vigorous and self-conscious mutations of the sonnet form create a variety of rhyme schemes, line lengths, iambic and dactylic pulses. David Constantine has described this as suitably fitting forms for the figure of Orpheus because he is himself a figure of transition, fluency and mystery.

234203

Forthcoming Bow-Wow Shop events in Clapham will focus on the work of Edward Lear and Gabriel Garcia Lorca.

What Have I Been Reading: October – December 2015

Up-dated December 2015

imgres

Terry Gifford’s Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes is a fantastic summing up of where Hughes’ reputation now is, including articles by various hands on Hughes and animals, Plath, myth, feminism (it’s complicated) and a clear account of the poet’s fascination with Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate.

imgres

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love – a book I’ve intended to read for decades and though I baulk at much of it still  I love her focus on the visions taking place in “an ordinary, household light”, her vivid descriptions and tentative, undogmatic prose. She also boldly talks of Christ as our mother: “Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.”

imgres

Few poets can travel such distances with such ease and brevity as Penelope Shuttle. I saw her read at the recent Second Light Festival in London and picked up her Templar Poetry chapbook, In the Snowy Air. It belies it’s rather Xmas-y title by being rather a hymn to London (with occasional snow showers) including the Shard, the Walbrook, the British Library and even Waitrose in Balham.

imgres

Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom for Torture has been edited by Dorothy Yamamoto in support of the Freedom from Torture charity and includes work by Gillian Allnutt, Alison Brackenbury, David Constantine, Carrie Etter, Vicki Feaver, Pippa Little and Susan Wicks.

 

Up-dated November 2015

With the cold weather coming, Yves Bonnefoy’s 1991 Beginning and End of Snow(Bucknell University Press, 2012) is an exquisite read in Emily Grosholz’s translation, including an original essay by the poet on ‘Snow in French and English’.

31MuDc9AUxL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m convinced Bonnefoy’s response to snow is not a million miles distant from the Daoist idea of the uncarved block and Rudolph G Wagner’s second magnificent volume on Wang Bi’s A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing is full of insights through its literal readings of the 81 chapters. I have been comparing his readings with my own new versions before going to press in the next few weeks.

images

Bertolt Brecht: Love Poems (Norton, 2015) is the first instalment in David Constantine and Tom Kuhn’s project to translate anew Brecht’s complete poems. Ranging from the delicate, literary, erotic and plainly pornographic, here’s yet more evidence (should we need it) of Brecht’s breadth as a poet. The Introduction also reveals that Brecht refused to award any prizes in a poetry competition he was asked to judge – because none of the poems successfully communicated anything of any value to anybody, they were all of no use.

51c3fActf1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Maggie Butt’s new collection is published by The London Magazine and contains work from the period in which she also published the themed books Ally Pally Prison Camp(Oversteps, 2011) and Sancti-Clandestini – Undercover Saints (Ward-Wood, 2012). Though miscellaneous in nature, it is time that dominates this book – historical time in a variety of European locations and personal time in several moving elegies and acts of remembrance.

imgres

KG Confidential: a festschrift for Katherine Gallagher is a wonderful tribute to one of the great movers and shakers in poetry (in London and in her native Australia and in translation from the French). These tributes of poems or prose include contributions from Liz Berry, Jane Duran, Kate Foley, Mimi Khalvati and Les Murray.

File 22-11-2015, 12 37 53

Up-dated October 2015

Alan Brownjohn’s new book is full of excellent poems, several of which (a few decades ago) would have been designated ‘secret narratives’. The title poem, ‘A Bottle’, is a strange noir thriller set in some undefined coastal region, an enigma of messages, relationships, landscape and murder. Always surprising; no let up in vigour and inventiveness.

imgres

Kate Foley’s ‘The Don’t Touch Garden’ (Arachne Press) is a treatment of adoption to rival Jackie Kay’s ‘The Adoption Papers’. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” the old joke says, “I am my mother after all”. But which one? Brilliantly focused and carefully sequenced, these poems provide a thrilling and moving account of the processes by which any of us – adopted or not – become who we are.

imgres

Agenda’s ‘Family Histories’ issue has poems from Tony Curtis, Claire Crowther, Sean Street, Peter McDonald, Sheenagh Pugh, Maitreyabandhu and Danielle Hope, an interview with Robin Robertson and reviews of Abse, Hugo Williams, Sebastian Barker, Bryce, Liardet, McVety and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain.

imgres

The new issue of Stand  has tributes to the late John Silkin from John Matthias and Anne Stevenson. I remember seeing Silkin selling Stand in the late 1970s on the campus at Lancaster University. This issue also has new poems from Muldoon, Mort, Valerie Jack, Sam Gardiner and (even) Martyn Crucefix.

imgres

What Have I Been Reading: July – September 2015

Up-dated September 2015

Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”

imgres

That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).

9781570623950_l

Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.

imgres

I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.

imgres

Updated August 2015

John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer),  is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).

imgres

I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.

41KocAt6ntL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.

imgres

On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.

images

Up-dated July 2015

I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.

imgres

Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.

imgres

Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.

imgres

Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.

imgres

What Have I Been Reading: April – June 2015

Up-dated June 2015

I’ve taken a while getting through the almost 500 pages of Ian Bostridge’s fascinating musical, artistic, poetical, historical, political discussion of Schubert’s Winter Journey.Taking Wilhelm Muller’s poem sequence Die Winterreise, Schubert re-organised it (otherwise changing little) to produce his own Winterreise and, discussing this process and his own performances of the piece over many years, Bostridge touches on Kant, Goethe, Darwin, Friedrich, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aristotle’sMeteorology among others. The Muller text would make an interesting translation project.

imgres

An earlier post about the abecedary form lead several people to ask me whether I’d read Inger Christensen’s 1981 sequence alphabet. Well I have now and it is just stunning. Based on the Fibonacci sequence and moving from A to N in alphabetical sequence too, Christensen writes fluid, Whitmanesque passages, laying aside ‘either/or’ for ‘and’, page after page of which reminds me of Rilke at his most passionate. This is a brilliant translation too by Susanna Nied. Christensen is a writer I need to explore more.

imgres

A few weeks ago I blogged on Lee Harwood’s work which I was also discovering for the first time. Since then I have read Selected Poems published by Shearsman; and I have the Collected Poems waiting for the summer holidays too.

imgres

Sue Boyle is a poet I have followed since working with her as a tutor for the Poetry School. She has now published, Safe Passage, a first collection with Oversteps Books and I recommend it (though I confess to also being one of the blurbists on the back cover, where I quote one of her most interesting lines: “in seizing the unexpected lies the art”).

imgres

Updated May 2015

I’m still working through Robert Crawford’s magnificent biography of young Eliot up to The Waste Land. An almost day by day account of his youth, school and college days, Paris, Laforgue, Pound and Vivien Haigh-Wood. Particularly good on Eliot’s philosophical reading and development which I’m loving.

imgres

Mimi Khalvati’s The Weather Wheel consists wholly of 16-line poems – stretched sonnets or irregular ghazals – which seem able to encompass almost any mood, topic or subject matter. Particularly impressive is her desire to draw from the most ordinary of events lines which often soar to the complexly emotional and the (frankly) spiritual.

imgres

I’m also back re-reading Hughes because it looks like we’ll be teaching this from September onwards – surprisingly not something I have done (except one or two isolated poems). I first read many of these poems at Lancaster University in the late 1970s and nowadays many of these early poems read like objects of nature themselves: fixed as in granite, awe-inspiring, part of the mental landscape I have lived in for years.

images

As my most recent blog recounts, I have been also re-reading Transtromer’s work.

2Q==

imgres

Up-dated April 2015

I’ve been reading two impressive contributions to the growing field of eco-poetics. Frances Presley’s halse for hazel is a visually pleasing book from Shearsman (illustrations by Irma Irsara) and the poems encompass geographical, linguistic, political and environmental issues without strain.

imgres

Jacqueline Gabbitas’ Small Grass gives grass a voice and runs with the idea with charm, cleverness and power: “From where I lie, I see man walking, / his legs sheathed in green, // I strop my edges. Soon, they’ll cut through / fabric, the tissue beneath”.

imgres

I’ve not always been an enthusiastic reader of John Fuller’s work but the recent The Dice Cup is a book of prose poem sequences full of his characteristic erudition, wit and observation.

thumbnailgenerator

Lee Harwood is a poet who I’ve known of for years without really having read him much. I’d had him down as an English Ashbery/O’Hara and maybe I thought I ought to just go straight to the source. But Enitharmon’s The Orchid Boat is wonderful; full of fluid, sensuous, intelligent poems that twist and turn and take the reader by surprise. Not as flip as O’Hara, not as self-regarding as Ashbery.

imgres 

I confess to having a contribution in it but, apart from that, Tony Fraser’s new issue of Shearsman (103/4) is full of delightful things from the likes of Zoe Skoulding , James Byrne, Rupert Loydell and Kate Miller, plus translations of Virgil, Ponge and Jansma.

imgres

What Have I Been Reading: December 2014 – March 2015

Up-dated March 2015

Too little poetry-reading time recently has meant I’ve been thinking a lot about two texts we are using for A level coursework at the moment:

Tennessee Williams’ first great success, the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie, seems to strike chords in most modern teenagers and contains one of my favourite quotes: “I know I seem dreamy”, Tom says to Jim the Gentleman Caller, “but inside – well, I’m boiling!”

images

This is being read alongside Sylvia Plath’s only completed novel, The Bell Jar. Plath divides students every time – poetry or prose – my one observation is that with repeated teaching the book thins rather than deepens.

images

I’ve eventually got to read Colette Bryce’s recent new book, many of the poems about her childhood in Derry: short, focused, honest and managing memorable things within a very narrow linguistic palette.

imgres

Anna Robinson’s new collection also works within a narrowed range of language choices. She produces strange folk-tale-like poems, which keep rubbing their eyes, not sure whether what they are seeing is contemporary London or some mythic rural past. Mysterious poetry.

imgres

I’ve been dipping again into The Book of Love and Loss, eds., Rosie Bailey and June Hall (Belgrave Press, Bath, 2014), in part because I am reading from it at the end of next month at Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

imgres

Blake Morrsion’s Shingle Street is his first full collection since 1987 and while there are flashes of the poet I once admired (I thought Dark Glasseswas very good) the book is full of rather dull thoughts – nature, ageing – and language that fails to lift off the page.

imgres

Up-dated February 2015

Jonathan Edwards’ Costa Poetry prize-winning first collection from Seren is as accessible and diverting as the front cover would suggest and any poet inspired to write by the Simpsons is OK with me. Whether the jokes, caricaturing, a rather sit-comy stories survive repeated reading is something I’m still debating.

imgres

Rose Auslander’s minimalist gems are hewn out of the silences associated with her suffering in the ghetto in Czernowitz (and influenced by her friendship with Paul Celan). I am pleased to be reviewing this refreshed collection from Arc for a future Poetry London alongside Volker Braun’sRubble Flora – see below .

imgres

Peter Robinson’s most recent Shearsman collection continues his lyric exploration of the profundities to be found just beneath the surface of the everyday.

imgres

Mario Petrucci’s Crib from Enitharmon extends his experiments under the influence of Black Mountain. Poems sometimes stunning and economical, at others too self-consciously aware of language as an object (blocking the reader’s view). There’s certainly not much else like this around British poetry at the moment.

imgres

Emily Berry’s poems don’t attend much to Glyn Maxwell’s concerns with the tension between black ink and white space (see:https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/08/13/the-art-of-the-line-break/). The poetry is in the connections or lack of them and therefore leans to the surreal, with some palpable hits and other dead passages.

imgres

Up-dated January 2015

Patricia McCarthy’s chunky Agenda issue on The Great War is full of fascinating original poetry, translations and essays on French, German and Italian war poetry and reconsiderations of Edward Thomas, David Jones and Ivor Gurney among others.

agenda_-_requiem_the_great_war

Josh Ekroy has been appearing on prize lists all over the place recently and his debut collection from Nine Arches Press is full of engaged, disturbing poems, capable of dealing with militarism and warfare:

imgres

I’ve been reading George Oppen’s work via Louise Gluck’s admiration for him; I’m still working on it . . . .

41vxLKUGC3L._UY250_

Debra Albery, an American friend who works at Warren Wilson, recommended this book of new poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt, full of the natural scenery of Vermont and fascinatingly eschewing all punctuation (like WS Merwin) to track the little manoeuvring negotiations of mind with world:

51z+jK085gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Wislawa Szymborska’s chatty, deceptively easy-listening poems in this 2010 translation make poetry writing look easy and able to encompass almost any topic:

71ceuvjjSJL

Up-dated December 2014

Nathan Hamilton’s big baggy collection of new poetry from Bloodaxe:672e5f96e2707467131a6f685241870c

Christine Keneally’s comprehensive review of contemporary ideas on the evolution of language:m000463281_sc7

Martha Kapos’ powerful new collection from Enitharmon:Kapos_Likeness_cover_final.indd

Brilliant selected poems from German poet Volker Braun, translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine (Seagull Books):Layout 1

Pascale Petit’s powerful and strangely lit memorial to her father (Seren):

Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.

wings-snakes-satan-artwork-gustave-dore-paradise-lost-john-milton-1030x1280-wallpaper_www-paperhi-com_21

Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.

IMG_0125

In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.

images

The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.

imgres

Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).

sonnets_to_orpheus

In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.

imgres

Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).

daodejing