From 1st March 2019, I am planning to post a series of new poems on my blog on a daily basis and, if you are in the habit of getting notifications via email, I would like to apologise in advance for cluttering up your in-box much more frequently than usual.
On the other hand, these new poems have been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited of kingdoms and, dear reader, if you like what you find, I would be most grateful if you could share them as widely as you can, in whatever format you wish. I am waiving any copyright concerns because the underlying belief I am expressing in these poems is that bridges need building.
The working title for the sequence is Works and Days of Division – it opens somewhere near Threadneedle Street, not far from a child’s brightly coloured picture book, and roams the UK, talking, shopping, walking, driving, through earth and air, water and fire, in sickness and in health, to end with a death of sorts on a certain lake shore in the northwest of England.
The two main sources of inspiration for the sequence of poems have already been the subjects of a couple of recent posts. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express a great deal of personal anger, puzzlement, even despair.
The central, pivotal poem has already been kindly posted/published by New Boots and Pantisocracies and can be read by following this link. The poem is an abecedary, wishing to encompass everything from a-z, but wondering why nothing connects anymore. If you like, please share.
Also, as regular readers will know, I have always regarded translation optimistically as one of the key bridge-building activities in the literary world. And I am delighted to provide a link also to Modern Poetry in Translation‘s just published digital pamphlet of Lithuanian Poetry which includes my own translation (and a recording) of an untitled poem by Nijole Miliauskaite. I was pleased that the translation was selected as the best from all those submitted to the MPT Lithuanian Translation Workshop.
So – Works and Days of Division will begin posting on Friday 1st March and will reach its conclusion on Friday 29th March by which time – well, no, we don’t know where we’ll be by then, do we?
Two weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. Last week I blogged part of this talk, looking at the poem, ‘Reyerta’, alongside my new translation of it. I confessed then, I have always found Lorca’s poems difficult to work on – though they are superficially both alluring to the translator and seemingly straightforward – though, in what I said last week and in what follows, I hope to show I have made some headway with them over the years. Here, I am discussing Lorca’s well-known poem (also from the Gypsy Ballads collection) called ‘Romancero sonambulo’ or, as it is usually translated into English, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. My full translation of the poem appears at the end of the post (an earlier version of it was published in the magazine Dream Catcher).
Later in the lecture about the Gypsy Ballads that I referred to in my earlier post, Lorca talks about other aspects of the style of these poems. He says ballads have always depended on narrative – if the ballad poet veers too far towards the lyrical, without an echo of the anecdotal, the result is not a ballad but a song. Lorca was consciously looking “to fuse the narrative ballad with the lyrical without altering the qualities of either”. And he believed he had achieved this especially in the poem, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. As he says of it, the poem provides the sense of an anecdote within a very dramatic atmosphere, but this lyrical ballad is also marinated in the most amazing atmosphere of mystery. A mystery that even he, the author, would not penetrate. It opens:
Green how I love you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.
Shadows about her waist,
she dreams at the balustrade,
green flesh, hair of green
and eyes of chilly silver.
Green how I love you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
all things are watching her
and she’s unaware of them.
As narrative this is mysteriously brilliant and brilliantly mysterious. Unlike ‘Reyerta’ the narrative voice is expressive through the technique of repetition – 10 ‘greens’ in the opening 13 lines – suggesting an obsessive love or fascination with the colour green which seems immediately linked to a woman. The balance of the mystery is achieved with the first references suggesting fertility and fecundity, but later ones a rather queasy, uneasy discoloration of flesh and hair. The word ‘green’ almost becomes the woman’s name – “I love you green”. She is the focus of “all things”. As yet, we don’t know why she might not be aware of their gaze. The images of the ship on the sea and the horse on the mountain do little more than extend the horizon of the poem – they suggest this is more ballad than love song. There is a specific context – and, as we’ll see, it’s an important one.
The next section of the poem displays some of Lorca’s startling, surprising images: the “stars of frost”, the “fish of shadows”, the fig-tree’s “sandpaper branches”, the mountain is a “a thieving cat” that “bristles its sour agaves”. These are good examples of Lorca’s technique with metaphor: to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality. But these lines are perhaps really more about raising the narrative tensions in the poem through rhetorical questions such as, “But who will come? And where from?”
Making things no clearer, there follows a section of dialogue, apparently between the house owner and a young man, who is perhaps on the run from the authorities as he is “blood-stained from the Cabran passes”. The young man says what he seeks now is domesticity, to settle down – to exchange horse for home, saddle for mirror, knife for blanket. But the house owner cannot oblige. Not because he does not wish to, but because he cannot. Cryptically, he says “I am no more as I am, / nor is my home my home”. Only later do we (perhaps) understand his utterly compromised position.
It turns out the blood-stained youth is really hurt, from chest to chin. Another of Lorca’s great images: “Three hundred dark roses / spatter your white shirt. / All round your belt / the blood reeks and oozes”. What the two men do agree to do (though the reason for this is not obvious) is to climb to the top of the house – here I imagine a flat roof with balustrades. Here the colour green returns (paint, twilight, treetops?) and a daubing of romantic moonlight. But also – and how ominously we have yet to learn – they begin to hear the sound of water.
So up they climb. We don’t know why, but the atmosphere here is dripping with ill omen: they are “leaving a trail of blood, / leaving a trail of tears”. Then there is another of Lorca’s images yoking together unlikely items. As they climb to the roof-tiles, there is a trembling or quivering of “tiny tin-plate lanterns” and perhaps it’s this that becomes the sound of a “thousand crystal tambourines / [that] wound the break of day”. Lorca himself chose this image to comment on in his talk. He says if you ask why he wrote it he would tell you: “I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more; certainly I cannot explain their meaning”. I hear Andre Breton there, or Dali refusing to ‘explain’ the images of the truly surreal work. In each case the interpretative labour is handed over to us.
The reason for the climb to the roof-top perhaps only now becomes clearer. One of the men – I take it to be the house owner addressing the youth – asks where his girl is, a girl who used to wait for him on the roof top: “fresh-faced, her black hair, / on the green balustrade!” So the rooftop was one of the lovers’ meeting places. Then there’s another of Lorca’s jump-cuts of overwhelming drama. Up on the roof, as they reach it, over a rain-water tank, hangs a body:
Over the face of the cistern,
the gypsy girl was swaying.
Green flesh, hair of green,
with eyes of chilly silver.
A slip of ice-frosted moon
holds her above the water.
Did they know this? It appears not. But who is she? Daughter? Lover? Both? Is this really what the two men find there? For sure, there is some mystery about the chronology because the seeming explanation of the killing is couched as a flashback: “The dark night grew intimate / as a cramped little square. / Drunken Civil Guards / were hammering at the door”. But Lorca often plays fast and loose with verb tenses. Was this earlier? Were they in search of the rebellious youth? But they found his girl-friend? Hanging her on the rooftop? Is the house owner her father? Does he know what has happened? Is this why his house is not his own anymore? Is this why he is no more what he was?
The only certain thing is that the poem does not reply. It ends with a recurrence of that opening yearning – now it’s read as a more obviously grieving voice – though it’s not necessarily to be read as the young man’s voice. It’s the ballad voice, the one I took so long to really grasp in Lorca’s work. It is a voice involved and passionate but with wider geographical, political and historical horizons beyond the individual incident. Like Auden’s ploughman in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, glimpsing Icarus’ fall from the sky, yet he must get on with his work, ‘Sleepingwalking Ballad’ returns us in its final lines to the wider world:
Green how I love you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea.
And the horse on the mountain.
In passing, the poem refers to the dead girl as a ‘gypsy’. By gypsy, Lorca said he intended to allude to Andalucia itself, because “the gypsy is the loftiest, most profound and aristocratic element of my country, the most deeply representative”. So there’s certainly a political element to the poem, but that’s an aspect I’ve no time to explore here.
The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”
It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.
It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).
Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.
In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’ reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.
As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.
It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:
We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!
Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]
We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.
Surely we all have one or two Faber anthologies edited by Geoffrey Grigson on our shelves? Love Poems, Popular Verse, Reflective Verse, Nonsense Verse, Poems and Places, Epigrams and Epitaphs . . . As a critic he often wielded a savage power through his magazine New Verse. And as a big beast on the literary scene of the early 1980s, Hermione Lee interviewed him on Channel 4.But since his death in 1985, he’s better known merely as the husband of Jane Grigson, the celebrated cookery writer. His own poetry has been wholly neglected which makes John Greening’s new Selected Poems from Greenwich Exchange a welcome opportunity to re-consider it. I think Grigson’s contrasting themes were established early on. The influence of two great poets (not Eliot, not Yeats) is clear from the start and it may be that the limits of Grigson’s poetic achievement and the absence of much development in his style, are because he never chose one path or fully escaped either.
The influence of Auden is very clear in Grigson’s first collection, Several Observations (1939). ‘Meeting by the Gjulika Meadow’ presents an enigmatic narrative in a “frontier” landscape; a meeting between two men whose conversation is in large part concerned with “the thunder / about Europe”. There are sketched fragments of personal dependencies and guilts but the whole reads as a slice of narrative that has been carefully shorn of its explicatory elements. A poem from 1946 shows Grigson using similar methods but on matters much closer to home; ‘In a Dark Passage’ draws material from the deaths of two of Grigson’s brothers in WW1 and the early death of his first wife, Frances. The situations are still relatively distanced by being told in the third person and the timings of the incidents are compressed to form a litany of heartfelt if rhetorical griefs: “O floes of ice, you float downstream / But do not disappear”.
There is certainly a very dark river running through Grigson’s work. ‘Two A.M.’, from the 1970s, records a wakefulness at night filled – as so often – by nothing but questions: “all emptiness, all gravity, / Ultimacy, nothingness”. He captures vividly the way this kind of mood, at such an hour, insists on expanding exponentially, racing to fill the world’s “Sierras, monadnocks, lakes, prairies, taiga, ice”. On this occasion, there is the possibility of an erotic reply: “At least now, with our bodies close, / Be comforted”. But even that response is absent from ‘Again Discard the Night’ from the 1980 collection, History of Him. Written as a first person narrative this time, the poem pulls no punches in its flinty and unforgiving portrait of old age waking:
… you call, the kettle gathers
And talks, and Are you all right? comes your
Usual cry, and my habit insists, without sound, Reply,
Be bright, wash, shave, dress, and this once,
Again discard the night.
Of course, Grigson’s sense of an ungoverned and likely meaningless universe matched with his frequent backward glances also calls to mind Hardy’s work. One of Grigson’s earliest poems, ‘The Children’, has an 11-line stanza of complex rhyme patterning that Hardy would have been proud of. The children are portrayed as playing in a natural environment and in a state of temporal innocence: “They looked for no clocks, noticed no hours”. But ending each stanza, the triple rhyme words with “hours” are (ambiguously) “sours” and “flowers”. Between the third and fourth stanza, there is the kind leap in time often found in folk songs. We have instantaneously passed many years: “The rooms were pulled down, but they always abide / In the minds of the children born in them”. These are the best lines in the poem with the much cooler closing lines for me falling flat:
They see the clocks and notice the hour
And aware that restriction of love turns sour,
They feel the cold wind and consider the flower.
It is certainly Hardy that Grigson is thinking of in ‘In View of the Fleet’. The Fleet is the lagoon behind Chesil Beach in Dorset and the poem borrows phrases from Hardy, empathetically suggesting that each poet’s vision has the same sequential locus: “Things not as firstly well, a sparkling day, and / tolling of a bell”.
John Greening suggests in his very helpful Introduction that Grigson is also capable of an “extraordinary lyricism” and these are moments when he captures this “sparkling” quality of the natural world. In ‘A New Tree’, helped by the holding up of a child to a window, the narrator sees again with a newly cleansed perception, “a sun / being fiercely / let loose again”. Delight in the natural world recurs in a key poem, ‘Note on Grunewald’. In it, Grigson also expresses the scepticism about literary achievements which must have driven much of his own, often acerbic, critical comments on the work of others. In a man who devoted a lifetime to literary endeavours, it’s hard to take wholly seriously the poem’s assertion that he’d rather live to sniff the “scent of the flowers of lime” than to create lasting “poems”. But the scent is praised in contrast to the art of “Grunewald’s spotted green-rotted Christ”. Grigson sides with (“I join”) Cowper in deciding that death holds no attraction and that he too would choose to “leave this world never”. The perceived dichotomy between a vivid inhabiting of the world of the senses and the ‘rotten’ achievement of artists is by no means Grigson’s final comment on these issues, but the poem certainly expresses unresolved tensions.
As Greening reminds us, Grigson as a critic was a feared and fearsome creature, liable to “dismissiveness and intolerance of shoddy work”. Perhaps, in his own mind, he never quite settled his assessment of his own poems. A lovely translation from Tu Fu was perhaps chosen because it laments lack of achievement, or at least of recognition: “Writing gives me no name”.* More vigorously, ‘Lecture Note: Elizabethan period’ is an hilarious and outrageous account of a poet’s final work. While the ink was still wet on the page, he dropped dead. The poem fell to the floor only for the maid to drop it in “the jakes”. The final lines laugh cynically, sarcastically, as if this illustrates the fate of most artistic endeavours: “Now irretrievably beshitten, it was, dear sirs, / The one immortal poem he had written”. Yet this is delicate stuff compared to Grigson taking aim with both barrels in ‘Perhaps So’. The premise is that too much is being written:
Too much is told. Banish polymath Steiners
And seventy-seven other British Shiners,
Naturalists, archaeologists, publishers
Of publications in parts,
And all long-winded farts . . .
It’s hard to reconcile this voice with that of ‘A New Tree’. Interestingly, Grigson’s address to an ancestor whose name was ‘Nazareth Pitcher’ is critical on the surface, disparaging of Nazareth’s “pride”, suggesting his “lips were too thin”, that he might “be pleased” if he was to witness the parlous state of the world now (1960s). But it’s also difficult to dismiss the feeling that Grigson chose to address Nazareth because he sensed a kinship with this judgemental, sceptical and meanly satirical man.
But Grigson did admire, if very judiciously. Greening draws attention to an Eliotesque belief in tradition, that the best poems are made by “members of a long narrow community through time”. The word “narrow” here indicates Grigson felt that much of what was truly best was not appreciated by many. In one word perhaps, we see here his motivation to be harsh with what he felt not good enough and his hard work in anthologising what was. There are two tribute poems in Greening’s selection which show Grigson at his complimenting best. ‘A Painter of Our Day’ is about Ben Nicholson and has the feel of a Coleridgean conversation poem about it. Its tone is confiding, admiring, ranging from observations about playing with children, shared days out, discussions of Nicholson’s work, ageing and the nature of art. Nicholson seems to teach an appreciation of “what is” and an avoidance of nostalgia. But at the same time, he recognises the value of the “reiterated wisdom of perceiving”. That both poet and artist set the bar of achievement very high indeed is suggested by Grigson’s admission that, of their chosen role models, “most have been / Long dead”. I find it hard to pin down a more precisely articulated aesthetic, but these lines are revealing of any artist’s relation to his/her elders:
Suddenly when young or in our first ability
We find them, slowly we find the reasons
For our love, finding ourselves, and what we lack
As well or need the most
Finally, ‘To Wystan Auden’ records the moment Grigson learned of Auden’s death in the “English September” of 1973. His admiration for the younger poet is fulsome. With the appearance of his early work, Auden became “living’s healer, loving’s / Magician”. From the other end of the temporal telescope, now we can see what the young Grigson gleaned from Auden’s poetry:
You were our fixture, our rhythm,
Speaker, bestower, of love for us all
And forgiving, not condemning, extending
To all who would read or would hear
Your endowment of words.
For all Auden’s own protesting about poetry making nothing happen, for Grigson, “time, after you, by you / Is different by your defiance”. One might ungratefully gripe that these are rather vague compliments from one poet to another. But Greening quotes Grigson suggesting that Auden’s achievement was in destroying “a too familiar, too settled monotony in manner and subject”. This is undeniable and this selection shows Grigson following Auden’s lead, yet at the same time, through his life, also being drawn back to a different, more traditional poetic style in the model of Hardy. Here, for example, in his last years, he recalls his childhood in Cornwall:
Staring down from that broken, one-arched bridge,
In that vale of water-mint, saint, lead-mine and midge,
I was amazed by that fat black-and-white water bird
Hunting under the current, not at all disturbed.
How could I tell that what I saw then and there
Would live for me still in my eightieth year?
*As a labouring translator myself, I have long remembered Grigson’s brilliant put-down in his Introduction to the Faber Book of Love Poems (1973). Explaining why he has not included any translations at all, he declares that their “unmeasured, thin-rolled short crust” would prove detrimental to the health of the nation’s poetic taste. Times have changed, thank goodness.
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.
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.
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here
Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)
In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.
Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.
Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:
He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing
another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables
inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press
into her –
For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.
Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as
a strand of black hair – unravelled
from the alphabet
on her cheek
Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.
Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).
What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.
Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).
But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
your teeth, sharpened
with too much
The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out, this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be: