Interviewed on ‘Poetry Worth Hearing’

Just before the Christmas break, I was pleased to be asked by Kathleen McPhilemy to contribute to the January 2023 edition of her on-going series of podcasts, Poetry Worth Hearing.

Kathleen’s own introductory remarks about what the podcast includes are as follows:

Jessica Mookherjee reading from two recent collections, Tigress and Notes from a Shipwreck (both published by Nine Arches Press), and Martyn Crucefix talking about the poetry he thinks worth reading. We also have new poems from Beth Davyson, Stephen Paul Wren, Pat Winslow, Suzannah Houston and Chris Beckett. To learn more about the poets and the publications mentioned as well as to see the texts of new poems, go to https://www.poetryworthhearing.biz.

You can find the podcast here. Scroll down a little to Episode 11. My discussion starts at around 28 mins in – but do listen to all the contributors.

Helen Kidd

I was especially pleased to hear Pat Winslow’s poem ‘As for the owl’ which carries a dedication to the late, much-missed Helen Kidd. By a strange coincidence, Helen was one of the members of the Old Fire Station Poetry Workshop (led by Tom Rawling by in the 1980s) ) about which I talk in my piece.

I also talk about growing up in rural Wiltshire in a house with few books. My years spent pursuing science – beginning to study medicine at Guys Hospital in London – then my drastic shift to studying Philosophy and English at Lancaster University, where I worked with the Scottish poet, David Craig, on one of the first Creative Writing courses in the UK. At Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1980s I was writing a DPhil thesis on the poet Shelley while also attending poetry workshops with WN Herbert, Peter Forbes, Pauline Stainer, Keith Jebb, Anne Born (and Tom and Helen).

Kathleen also asked me to say something about the poets I go back to and I talk a little (and read from) Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and WS Merwin. Trying to pick contemporary poets to highlight is an impossible task but, on this occasion at least, I speak about Marvin Thompson, Nancy Campbell and John McCullough.

Tom Rawling

Between a Drowning Man (Salt, 2023)

Forthcoming from Salt Publishing in Autumn 2023.

Martyn Crucefix’s new collection of poems trace the forensic unfolding of two landscapes – contemporary Britain post-2016 and the countryside of the Marche in central, eastern Italy. Both places are vividly evoked – the coffee shops, traffic tailbacks, shopping malls, tourist-dotted hillsides and valleys of modern Britain appear in stark contrast to the hilltop villages, church spires, deep gorges, natural history and Classical ruins of Italy. Both landscapes come to represent psychic journeys: closer to home there is division everywhere – depicted in both tragic and comic detail – that only a metaphorical death of the self seems able to counteract. Closer to the Mediterranean, the geographical and personal, or romantic, divisions are also shown ultimately to offer possibilities of transcendence.

The poems of the longer sequence, ‘Works and Days’, are startlingly free-wheeling, allusive – brilliantly deploying source materials and inspiration from Hesiod’s original and the 10/12th century Indian vacana poems – all bound together by the repeated refrain of bridges breaking down. The Italian poems, as a crown of sonnets, are more formally controlled but the repeating of first and last lines of the individual poems likewise serves to suggest the presence of an overarching unity.

In the end, both sequences travel towards death which – while not denying the reality of human mortality, the passage of time – is intended to represent a challenge to the powerful dividing walls between Thee and Me, the liberation of empathetic feeling, even the Daoist erasure of the assumed gulf between self and not-self: ‘these millions of us aspiring to the condition / of ubiquitous dust on the fiery water’.

PRAISE FOR THIS BOOK

‘An ‘Autumn Journal’ for our times.’ —Nancy Campbell

‘Each poem is a such a thoughtful space to enter, and as a sequence they’re stunning.’ —Heidi Williamson

‘[The poems] have the urgency and the hurt we perhaps require now, it is good for poetry to speak up when it is compelled to do so, at times like this and in this way’ —Stephen Romer

REVIEWS OF THIS BOOK

‘That repeated refrain, “All the bridges are down”, exactly captures the mood – no way of escape, and no reliable communication, even with a continent to which we belong, or always thought we belonged. And most of all, no apparent way to bridge the divide in the country. It is certainly a time when poets should be raising their voices, and playwrights too. I hope you may help to start a revival of conscience.’ —Ann Wroe

‘I looked at the Brexit poems and they are wonderful! … I was truly blown away.’ —Caroline Carver

‘These are very powerful poems.’ —Clarissa Aykroyd‏

‘A sort of phenomenological response to undergoing the experience of Brexit.’ —Bill Herbert

‘Air-Waves’: poem as audio soundscape

One of the joys of social media (and there are plenty of aspects of them that are less than joyful) is that occasionally a notification pops up from an unexpected source and when you check it out there is something really worthwhile to be found. This happened the other day – via Instagram. Someone called Matt McGettrick had tagged me. I don’t know Matt, but he is a student on the BA course in TV and Radio Production at the University of Salford.

Matt’s instapost said he had recently created a soundscape based on a poem I published in 1990, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, called Beneath Tremendous Rain. It’s unlikely that the poem was found in that book itself, but I remember it was selected more than 10 years later by Sean Street to appear in an anthology called Radio Waves: poems celebrating the wireless (Entharmon, 2004). There, I was happily rubbing shoulders with the likes of Auden, Brecht, MacNeice, Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Sean – whose is a poet, broadcaster and recently retired Professor of Radio at Bournemouth University – had divided the anthology up into sections variously titled, Music Radio, Talk Radio, Weather, Listeners and Signals. My piece was in the section called ‘In the Car’.

Here’s that original poem. It’s voiced by a persona – I had no children at this point and had not moved out of the ‘dark’ streets of Manchester to the countryside.

Air-Waves

As I slowed up and shifted downgear,

a dance song thumping from the car radio

was stretched out and smashed to pieces.

x

But we barely noticed that first time –

all eager to see the house, where it stood

beneath the surfing crackle of the pylons.

x

The girls loved the sight of so much sky.

They slipped into new schools with ease

though Sue and I made it home more slowly.

x

And by then, there was Stephen, almost four,

suddenly ill, his rush of growing gone awry,

and the doctor’s face, closed up and dark

x

as the Manchester streets we had left behind.

He could tell me nothing. Inexplicable,

the pattern of disease. A year – maybe two.

x

Driving back across the hills, roadside wires

loop down, are yanked back to the blunted head

of each telegraph pole – and further off,

x

the pylons, hitching up skeins of darkness,

striding up country to a house where this car

and their sheaf of hot wires will converge,

x

where a young man’s voice on the radio

will melt down in a surge of boiling static

as I slow up, shift gear, and stop.

I remember a great deal of concern – this will have been in the late 1980s – about the possible harmful effects of living too close to the electrical fields generated by pylons. There was a particular study in 1979 that did conclude there might be a link between electromagnetic fields and childhood cancer (and this is the kind of scenario I am thinking of in the poem). However, other studies in the 2000s did not find an association or found an association only in homes with very high levels of magnetic forces, which is rare, according to the National Cancer Institute.

There was a personal connection, I remember, as my in-laws lived in a house which nestled in beneath a line of high voltage cables and pylons. But perhaps concerns about cancer-inducing lines of pylons have now gone the way of those early concerns about the dangers of mobile phones. Or has it even been consigned to the slightly cranky end of health concerns along with those people who sabotage 5G masts in the name of suspected links to the on-going pandemic? Even so, though it has dated a little, I’d like to think of the poem as one of my earliest expressions of environmental concern: if the electromagnetic fields do turn out to be perfectly safe, they are here acting as a metaphor for the kind of degradation of the lived-in environment caused by human action for which there is an indisputable and growing body of evidence.

Anyway – all this is simply by way of introducing Matt McGettrick’s excellent piece of work. The reader is Matthew Green. As the author of the original piece, it seems to me that both reading and soundscape engineering do a really fine job of responding sensitively to the text’s meaning, its structure and its rhythms. Have a listen – Matt suggests headphones are a good way to hear his work. It’s just over 5 minutes long.

Five New Rilke Translations in ‘The Fortnightly Review’

Wishing all my blog readers this season’s greetings.

Quite unseasonally perhaps, here is an image of a gazelle – gazella dorcas – the kind of one Rilke is writing about in my translation below, with that ‘listening, alert’ look. The other extraordinary image that Rilke imcludes here is of the hind legs: ‘as if each shapely leg / were a shotgun, loaded with leap after leap’. This is one of the New Poems, written by Rilke under the influence of the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Rilke learned from Rodin’s insistence on ‘looking’ closely at a subject, as well as his impressive work ethic!

Enchanted one: how could the harmony
of two chosen words ever match the rhyme
that comes and goes within you? The way
branch and lyre start from your brow like a sign

and every part of you is like a lover’s song,
the words falling tenderly as the rose
lets drop petals on one who does not read on,
but, shutting his eyes, lets the book close

to gaze at you: as if each shapely leg
were a shotgun, loaded with leap after leap,
undischarged, while your head tilts on your neck,

listening, alert: a girl who has ventured deep
into a wood, startled by sounds as she bathes,
the glint of forest pool on her upturned face.

This is one of five new translations which have just been posted at The Fortnightly Review. Click the link below to see the others – ‘Departure of the Prodigal Son’, ‘Pieta’, ‘God in the Middle Ages’ and ‘Saint Sebastian’.

This Friday – Lunchtime Poetry with Live Canon

I have been invited to give a 10 minute reading – on Zoom – this coming Friday 25th November @ 1pm alongside Hilary Watson and Sudeep Sen. The event is free to all but you will need to register for a ‘ticket’ (and Zoom link) here. I hope you can make it.

Details about the other two readers are as follows:

Poet, translator, artist, and editor Sudeep Sen studied English literature at the University of Delhi and was an Inlaks Scholar at Columbia University. Sen has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including The Lunar Visitations (1990), Postmarked India: New and Selected Poems (1997), Lines of Desire (2000), Distracted Geographies (2003), Rain (2005), and Aria (2011), winner of the A.K. Ramanujan Translation Award. Two volumes of new and selected poems and translations were published as Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 (2013) and Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (2015). Recent collections of poetry include Incarnat | Incarnadine (2017) and, with Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and Homa Arzhangi, Path to Inspiration (2017). The Government of India Ministry of Culture’s awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture.” Sen divides his time between New Delhi, London, and New York.

Hilary Watson grew up in and around Cardiff. She graduated from the University of Warwick Writers’ Programme with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in Writing. She was a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee 2015/16 with mentor Caroline Bird alongside fellow poets Rachel Long and Emma Simon. She was shortlisted for the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2019 and the Live Canon Prize in 2015, and has recently been published in a number of UK and Irish magazine such as the Butcher’s Dog, Interpreter’s House, and Impossible Archetype. She works in the third sector and is currently writing her first collection.

I have not quite finalised what I will be reading but probably a couple of poems from my last full collection, The Lovely Disciplines and some more recent poems. No doubt I will plug the recent Christmas poetry anthology that I have co-edited with Michael Glover – also plugged in a recent blog post here. You might be interested to hear that we are planning a London launch for the anthology on Sunday December 4th @ 7pm at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. More details (and booking) can be found here. Readers will include Rowan Williams, Nancy Campbell, Hilary Davies and Denise Saul – and there will be plenty of music of a festive variety too.

If I have time in the Live Canon reading, I’ll read this poem included in the Christmas anthology which I wrote in repsonse to Breughel’s fascinating painting of the same name (see above). It might be worth knowing that I imagine the voice of the poem to be that of the (blind? short-sighted?) man in the upper right corner of the image. He’s the one wearing the large blue-tinted spectacles:

The adoration of the kings

after Pieter Breugel the Elder

Everything looks rough-hewn and doltish

and has done since my eyes

began to betray me now unreliably I peer

through thick blue saucers of glass

x

yet I feel how these strangers stir us—

this one with the pinched face of a carpenter

more than a king though the bold red

of his sleeves and collar and the aureate bowl

x

his fingers dandle appear to be rich indeed

and wholly out of place in our stable yard

where we find this squalling child

reluctant and bollock naked as far as I see

x

then this older one with his lank grey hair

stooping as if to show off his ermine trim

and his extraordinarily long pink sleeves

(I see them more clearly than anything else)

x

he positions his hat and mace in the dirt

to offer something I can’t make out

beside me the black skin and sharp leather smell

of the third who proffers an elaborate gift

x

of green and yellow—it must be gold and jade

yet smells sweetly of spices to me

a sort of sweetness like nothing I’ve known

and I can tell you I’m good with odours

x

even better with my ears which are sharp enough

to trace the munching commentary

of the ass in the byre the shifting of the crowd

and the hiss of doltish Piet with his lips

x

to the poor father’s ear telling him I suppose

what we all know of the difference

in their ages and of the ominous signs

from the fractious boy even the fact the child

x

cannot possibly be his—shit-for-brains Piet

in his green snood has never been one to look

beyond the obvious not one to let gossip

go abegging yet the young mother’s face has

x

turned now half-obscured as if she wants us

to believe there’s something in all this

not the sighted nor the blind can fathom

some secret she and her strangers are keeping

Buy! New Christmas Poetry Anthology

Click here to buy your copies.

Perhaps it was in response to – really I mean a way of avoiding – the Tory party leadership campaign over the long hot summer of 2022 (and look how that turned out – and then again turned out…) that Michael Glover and I spent much of our time reading for, researching, inviting and selecting poems for a brand new poetry anthology with a focus on Christmas and the winter solstice. I know this is a bit obvious but – hey! – this might well be the solution to your up-coming Christmas gift buying deliberations – elegant, stimulating, moving, clever and very easy to wrap. That’s this new anthology. What’s not to like?

In fact, it was Michael’s original, bright idea and I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with him. It is the first anthology I have had a hand in editing and the book, in its final form, has two main sections – his bit and mine.

I found it daunting at first – where do you begin? Well, I don’t think I’m giving away any anthology-making secrets by mentioning that this Christmas collection is not the first on the market. I had a couple on my shelves already and the internet provides ready-made selections of possibilities and then less familiar collections like Enitharmon’s excellent Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems, eds. Kevin Crossley-Holland & Lawrence Sail (Enitharmon Press, 2005) and the rich seams of Seren’s Christmas in Wales, ed. Dewi Lewis (Seren Books, 1997) provoked thoughts and – with due acknowledgement – suggested some definite items. It was exciting when other contemporary poets were kind enough to agree to offer as yet unpublished work for the anthology – my thanks to Neil Curry, John Greening, Jeremy Hooker, Denise Saul, Joan Michelson, Penelope Shuttle and Marvin Thompson.

Penny Shuttle

For my own part, I pondered aspects of the ‘Christmas’ experience and came up with four loose categories: Mother and Child, Hearth and Home, Far and Near, Light and Sound.

Mother and Child was a fairly obvious place to start, and I was pleased to discover the 15th century poem ‘I syng of a mayden’ with its traditional take on the Nativity but its archaic and hence distanced and defamiliarized language. In contrast, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s plainly beautiful poem, ‘The Heart-in-Waiting’, revises the nativity story into more figurative terms for a contemporary audience: Christ is destined to be born into the human ‘heart-in-waiting’. WB Yeats’ take on the birth of Christ sees it from a quite different point of view: the pregnant mother’s sense of a divine love that ‘strikes a sudden chill into my bones / And bids my hair stand up’

Click here to buy your copies.

The thought of Hearth and Home, around the time of the winter solstice, was probably a more personal choice, partly a recollection of my own childhood but also of later Christmases with my own two children. In both cases I am lucky enough for these to be happy memories though this section is perhaps also about the great weight of expectation of happiness that the season brings with it. My own background is in West Country – people claim to still hear my old Wiltshire accent sometimes – so William Barnes’ boisterous ‘Chris’mas Invitation’ was a great find:

An’ ev’ry woone shall tell his teale,

An’ ev’ry woone shall zing his zong,

An’ ev’ry woone wull drink his eale

To love an’ frien’ship all night long.

Marvin Thompson

To follow this with Thomas Hardy’s more melancholic ‘The House of Hospitalities’ seemed right – with the latter’s reminiscing of warm logs on the fire, the food and songs of Christmas past, though now (this is Hardy after all) these are little more than ‘forms of old time’. I was very pleased to be able to include Joan Michelson’s touching evocation of Christmas under the 2020 Covid lockdown and Marvin Thompson’s densely allusive poem, ‘That’s the Art Deco Odeon on London’s Holloway Road’ neatly updates the memories of those of us of a certain background and vintage of watching Morecombe and Wise at Christmas with his more recent remembering of the family laughing at Lenny Henry’s character, Deakus.

Edward Thomas

The cluster of poems around Far and Near probably sprung out of the previous section – those expectations of the season are not fulfilled for all – loved ones, the rosy-cheeked messages of the time of year or indeed happiness itself may remain at a distance. So Edward Thomas’ gypsy plays ‘Over the hills and far away’ in a darkly troubling and less than traditionally Christian style, as something more ancient, ‘a rascally Bacchanal dance’. Kate Bingham’s, ‘Cento’, cleverly re-deploys phrases so familiar from Christmas hymns and songs and manages to be both questioningly ironic and touchingly empathetic. Beyond the tired commercial and religious cliches, the darkest time of the year, its turning point, makes us think of past and present, but also about other modes of being. Jeremy Hooker’s new poem sequence praises and reflects on the season’s natural world, the blackbird and owl, the snow falling and ‘bringing up / deeper silence / from some place one dreamed of / that was always there’

Francis Kilvert

The carolling, the candles, the Christmas tree lights: the grouping of Light and Sound also seemed to be very appropriate. Everybody, I’m sure, will feel the shock of recognition in John Mole’s brilliant poem about digging out the old Christmas tree lights from last year’s box of decorations: ‘dear tangled friends / With your plaited emerald flex / And familiar chime of chip-chink / Tumbling over my wrist’. The dancing, visionary lights described by the old Wiltshire man, John Bryant (huddled in his bed against the cold ‘like a marmot in its nest’), in a diary entry of 1874 by Francis Kilvert, are, he believes, the souls of ‘just men’. These ‘rhymed’ for me with the chilly stars in Nancy Campbell’s enigmatic new piece, ‘Lights’ as a desire, felt by some people, perhaps more of us in the depths of midwinter, ‘to lose themselves in beauty’. And what better way to end than with Tennyson’s poem from In Memoriam: having fought through grief and loss to come to some more noisily belling, optimistic, celebratory vision for the coming new year:

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

x

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Click here to buy your copies.

‘How I Write’ – a second brief Royal Literary Fund talk

As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted (as text and audio file) on this blog a few weeks ago. Another commision was to respond to the intriguing invitation to write a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. The recording of that piece is still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these short pieces has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this newly published piece is ‘How I Write’ – not an easy subject on which to be clear and succinct but with a little help from WH Auden and Louise Gluck I hope I have said something here that might be of help to all kinds of writers – poets, novelists and (the target audience of the RLF project) those writing at the varied levels of academe.

So – you can hear me reading the piece here.

Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.

How I Write

Always I have to commit something to paper as soon as possible after the initial inkling of a poem. Most writers use notebooks. Some use audio recorders, others their phones. Though first drafts are always terrible, what I’m doing is laying a path back towards the first emotional impulse, a way for myself to return there. You’ll often find me re-reading notebooks to pick up such trails among barely readable, fragmentary scribbles.

These scraps are what may develop into poems. I like W. H. Auden’s view of the poem as a “verbal contraption”. It reminds me a poem (actually, any piece of writing you are doing) is a purposeful device. It needs to be an effective device and poems look to impact a reader’s feelings. This view downplays one of the commonest stumbling blocks about creative writing, which is that what poets try to do is express their own inner moods. If that’s all I focus on, I’ll pay too little attention to the writing’s receiver, my reader.

Anyway, what I want ‘to express’ is seldom fixed at this stage. It’s important I’m willing to add on – simply write more connected material – even beyond the point at which I might think the job done. That tempting voice claiming early completion may be a lazy demon or a censoring one. It’s my practice at this stage to draft loosely, with as much energy and freedom as possible. If I watch children playing, I see them enjoying an excess of energy, movement, voice, and it’s out of this that real creativity arises – new moves, ideas, developments, reformed, revised, played again, played better. So in writing, spinning off new phrases or metaphors leads not only to decorative grace-notes but often to the still-hidden, true heart of the poem. This is why poets often talk of writing as a process of discovery.

For me, most of these stages still take place using pen and paper. The shift to a screen, a keyboard remains a critical transition. On screen, or on a phone, typed lines acquire an inertial resistance to being changed. On screen, I find my eye starts to narrow down to look at the poem’s physical shape and appearance on a would-be page. Such aspects are important in the long run, but they can prematurely cool the fluidity of the molten drafting process if they dominate too early. Beware the linearity of the screen!

But once it’s there, now I’m thinking ‘economy’. A linguistic cosmetic surgeon, I cut off verbal flab, repetition, redundancy. Crossing out is my most familiar activity. The American poet, Louise Gluck, says that a writer’s only real exercise of will “is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto”. One of the keys to this is reading aloud. I go the whole hog: standing as if to deliver to an audience. Loud. And. Clear. This helps me listen to rhythm and line breaks. Actually, for any writer of poetry, prose, essays for your course, reading aloud highlights stumbling blocks of all kinds. My sense of the ebb and flow of a poem is always clarified because I distract myself in the physical act of standing and speaking. I experience my words more objectively, more as my potential reader would. Try it. It’s a revelation!

The Writer and Technology – a brief talk

As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ and another piece was entitled ‘How I Write’. These two recordings are still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this published piece is ‘The Writer and Technology’ – a subject about which I have some experience in relation to the former and not a huge competence in relation to the latter. Nevertheless, I’m not one to duck a challenge.

So – you can hear me reading the piece here.

Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.

Writing and Technology

It frightens me: she gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I become too monogamous. I don’t look up. I google recipes using oregano or the name of the drummer in Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. I love her library of reference all within clicking distance. I email friends, family, writers, publishers (I remember stamps and letterboxes with no fondness). Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime make it a breeze to stay in touch, offer advice, give poetry readings to people around the globe. I’m never lost; I use Google maps. I post and follow on Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook. All this she gives me.

And most days I crave her distractions, her sensational sweep of sights and sounds, her informational vistas at the swipe or dab of a fingertip. I substitute longer, slower satisfactions with a preference for her novelties. Though I’ve read about how our cultural (and fiscal) economies promote such transitory stabs at contentment in the absence of other satisfactions, still – I can seldom resist. I do glimpse vicious cycles – her short-lived pleasures liable to collapse, disappointing anticipation – yet I play her perfect subject, eyes flicking without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up. Her multitudinousness spawns my passive respect for numbers, speed, spectacle, calculation, all of which barely disguises the non-event. I attend with others – but spend as much time watching a screen as the performance. I still tell my friends: I was there, it was huge, so many people . . .

She makes me fear something’s missing. Addicted to her click bait, I love her machines in their elegant black and silver. They seem to promise to breach the ancient laws of time and space. Yet having acquired the newest devices with which I calculate, communicate, translate, find millions of pages of information, actually, I can’t remember what it was I hoped to do with them.

Sometimes I remember. What she interrupts – with her shows of pleasure, power, riches, praise – is the creative impulse to look up, observe (look out!). Once this ceases – prophetically, the poet Shelley said this back in 1821 – new imagery stops being generated, language withers and dies. Only in my relations with the world (not with her) am I truly warmed. Then I’m the matrix through which the world steps – as the world becomes the matrix through which I step – to rediscover myself not ‘me’ (an atom in an empty universe), but ‘mine’ (living in relation to others, other things).

When I leave her, often there’s the startling beauty or strangeness of scenes that draw me away from my ‘self’. Perhaps for a moment, I’m lost for words. It’s not enough to take a picture, post it up, surround it with talk, comments, likes, shares. Poetry expresses such sensations as record, reminder, model and vicarious experience for its readers. Using form, figurative and musical language, I write to re-present such ineffable, inexpressible moments. The French poet and philosopher, Yves Bonnefoy, says: poetry is not about something but it restores the self to the lucid intensity of the truth of relational experiences.

Ash-Hiccups: on ‘Porcelain’ (2005) by Durs Grünbein

This review of Durs Grünbein’s stunning long poem, Porcelain, tr. Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2020) first appeared in a recent issue of Agenda. Leeder’s clever, formal, utterly sympathetic translation has since rightly been awarded the 2021 Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize by the Society of Authors.

For a writer who has published over 30 books of poetry and prose in his native Germany, we have had too little of Durs Grünbein in English. Michael Hofmann‘s Ashes for Breakfast (Faber, 2005) introduced some of the earlier work and described Grünbein as possessed of melancholia, amplitude, a love of Brodsky, a love of the Classics, plus wide-ranging interests in medicine, neuroscience, contemporary art and metaphysics. John Ashbery praised Grünbein, identifying his subject as “this life, so useless, so rich” and the challenge to any translator is precisely this breadth and ambition. Happily, Karen Leeder is proving to be a really fine conduit for Grünbein’s work and here she triumphantly tackles his 2005 sequence of poems about the firebombing of his hometown, Dresden, by American and British planes in February 1945.

Porcelain is a sequence of 49 poems, 10 lines each, rhymed and grounded in Classical metre and given an air of Classical elegy by its subtitle, ‘Poem on the Downfall of My City’ (‘Poem vom Untergang meiner Stadt’). But if resolution, consolation or summing-up might be expected, this is, definitively, not what we get. The title, of course, refers to the Meissen pottery which, from the eighteenth century on, brought Dresden its great wealth and fame. But it is also a pun on the poet to whom the sequence is dedicated: Paul Celan. In Celan’s poem ‘Your eyes embraced’ there is an effort to swallow the ashes of genocide but they return to the throat as ‘Ash- / hiccups’, an image repeated in Grünbein’s opening poem: “It comes back like hiccups: elegy”. The sequence does indeed hiccup in the sense of its jerky shifts of tone, its multi-faceted images of Grunbein himself and in its close to choking articulation of the horrors of the Dresden bombing.

Paul Celan

A self-conscious awkwardness or self-questioning is clear from the start: “Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone / when your little light first appeared”. Grünbein was born seventeen years after the bombing and accepts he cannot ‘witness’ the event in any simple way. But personal details do surface in the sequence such as in poem 8 where the young boy grows familiar with the still evident urban destruction: “proud and mute . . . the ravaged city”. He senses something of “that glory passed away” but can hardly know “the things [his] mother saw, / scarcely five years old” (poem 10). Later poems remember moments when his mother’s doll was in danger of the flames (“Flames as high as houses sucked the air along the streets”), but was rescued, unscathed, “or that is what they say” (poems 40/41). Leeder explains in her Introduction that Grünbein has been criticised in part for a sentimentality and this is perhaps such a moment. But the indication that this is reportage (family reportage at that) gives permission for sentiment and Grünbein is fully conscious of (and in control of) the massive swings in tone through the whole sequence. Poem 48 is one that might also lay itself open to charges of sentiment, focussing on a pair of lovers (Martha and Heinrich) seemingly caught up in the devastation: “Kids, the pair of you, first kisses in the thick of war, / until you met that night you’d grown up in uniform”. But Grünbein works repeatedly through allusiveness and intertextuality, so this Romeo and Juliet trope is hardened and complicated when we hear that, not only was the German air defence’s grid reference for Dresden code-named ‘Martha-Heinrich 8’, but also that both names recall characters in Goethe’s Faust.

In poem 38, Grünbein seems equally aware that some of his images of Dresden after the bombing might be open to the same criticism of a hyper-emotional tone. “Five long weeks upon the Altmarkt square, the horses / scratched the straw and watched the griddled corpses / burn. Mawkish? Ach, give over, late-born soul”. As this example shows, the sequence does confront the horrors unleashed on the city as in poem 22: “Are those people popping like chestnuts between / the gutted trams?” But looked at more carefully, even this grisly observation is nominally from the perspective of a stone angel on the cathedral roof. It is this continual innovation and manipulation of perspective that is important to the poems’ purpose and how we should read them. One important perspective Grünbein explores is the victim-narrative that predominated in thinking about the event in post-war East Germany and more recently. One aspect of this is the placing of the Dresden bombing in the historical context of German bombing of Warsaw in 1944 and the German’s systematic persecution of the Jews. Dresden’s fate did not rise ex nihilo. This latter myth, Grünbein embodies in the eroticisation of the bombing – the city as defenceless virgin – as in poem 45’s image of the city and the Elbe: “River like a sash of silver draped round her hips / enticing in the moonlight”.

Aerial View of Dresden circa 1930

From such examples, it’s easy to see why Grünbein’s own position on the bombing has been vociferously discussed and questioned. But he warns against using the destruction of the city as any kind of exemplum: “Let Dresden be. You won’t find what you are looking for” (poem 6). The reader understands he is also advising himself here, while, at the same time, acknowledging the human drive to interpret, to search for meaning, even in the most appalling events. The sequence’s treatment of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the RAF Commander-in-Chief during the bombing of Dresden, is interestingly equivocal. Poem 4 alludes almost invisibly to Harris’ comment on the Dresden bombing, when he suggested that objections to it were based on a sentimental image of the city as full of “German bands and Dresden shepherdesses” when, in reality, it was a Nazi munitions and transportation centre. In fact, Harris was carrying out orders from Winston Churchill: “No sweat, Arthur, you only did what you had to do” (poem 13). And in poem 23, Grünbein also notes that some more recent left-wingers in Germany have chanted ‘Thank you, Harris!’ in their efforts to question and counter more simplistic, victim-narrative commemorations of the event.

Meissen Shepherdess Figure

In such ways, Porcelain revels in its own pluralities while acknowledging and itself attempting to make some sense of an epitome of senseless destruction. The final line of the book plainly states the human need to avoid finality, the fall into fixity, yet accepts the compulsion to explain, to create meaning: “Changing places, times, dimensions as he goes—goes on—creating”. And behind all this stand those exquisite china objects, the ‘white gold’ that made the city rich and famous:

Falconers are there, vintners, nymphs with conch-shell horns,

frog-faced putti, figures riding seahorses and swans.

Groups of shepherdesses, lovely gardeners, beasts of lore . . .

Porcelain—most fragile thing”

The collision of Allied bombs and Dresden’s fragile porcelain lies at the heart of Grünbein’s poems. There was no contest, of course, though some pieces and many fragments remained and were perhaps repaired. Grünbein’s poems enact this process, collecting perspectives, often incongruous, even contradictory, but bringing them into relation with each other, not to make any definitive statement, but to hold up a mirror to us, to the recurrent tension between our need to create and our drive to destroy.

Durs Grünbein