2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus) – reviewed here.

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

This year’s Forward First Collection shortlist is astonishingly good but, for its cleverness, its ambition and coherence, its technical mastery and above all for its vulnerability in dealing with the eternal themes of childhood, love and loss, death, time and memory, I hope Stephen Sexton’s book wins the award in October. It’s a curious read in some ways – superficially fast and easy, its technical brilliance well hidden, its narrative quite buried though not really hard to trace, its emotional heft at times blunt and utterly naked, at others complex and many-layered.

Halfway through the book, in ‘Forest of Illusion 2’, Sexton recalls fishing for rainbow trout with some success. The bait is taken and “with a flick / of the wrist [he] hoisted the fish from one world and into the next”. It’s this kind of transition that is the subject of the whole book though the direction of travel is clearer in the recurrent images of young Icarus. The boy who thought he could fly near the sun (filtered through Breughel and then through Auden) is aptly evoked in this poetic bildungsroman of a boy struggling with the traumatic transition from innocence to experience.

The book’s title is the opening line of Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ in which the Nymph rejects her suitor’s optimistically seductive blandishments:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

But Sexton’s particular withering is not one of romantic love but the loss of a mother to cancer and by the end of the book, the wriggle room implied by Ralegh’s opening word, ‘If’, is significantly altered to the much more brutal ‘when’. This is no hypothetical idyll but an actual, remembered one and the loss of it is unavoidable. The post-conclusion, coda-poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, turns upon the reader with a compassionate yet clear warning: “some day dear friend [you will find] my sad head upon on your shoulders” (sic).

Sexton has written a genuine, contemporary long poem (not a long assemblage of lyrics). His lines are 16 syllables in length throughout, yielding a prosy, chatty, fluid sort of voice which avoids the risk of drag by keeping the reader on our toes by a relative absence of punctuation and a penchant for eliding two thoughts or images together in one single line. This generates occasional moments of misreading, but it is also the technical reflection of Sexton’s focus on the translation of innocence into the darkening of experience. The heard voice is quick, erudite and briskly allusive; despite being mostly in the present tense, it is not wholly the naïve voice of the child. The other aspect of the whole poem this fluid transitioning relates to is the exploration of the child’s obsession with the fantasy world of his computer games and the way he must slide from one world (on a screen) to the one we call ‘real’.

The computer games are specifically the Nintendo games of the 1990s which give the sections their odd names – Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome, Valley of Bowser – and account for individual poems’ titles, some of which I have already referred to. The games may be out of date but Sexton’s evident knowledge of them (love of them) means part of the originality of this book is they are fully integrated into the composition of the poems and raise questions about how absorbing such fantasy worlds can be and how the facts of reality are to be negotiated and reconciled successfully (perhaps, particularly by boys who seem so drawn to the former and so easily in denial about the latter).

Sexton’s own story is given in a Note and the poem called ‘Yoshi’s Island 1’. In the summer of 1998, his mother took a photograph of him, back to the camera, squatting before a TV, the family garden just glimpsed out of a window to the left. Here already, the screen world and the outside world through the window are juxtaposed. The boy is keener on the former:

Here spotted mountain and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down

carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground

fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The vivid, colourful, playful and safe fantasy worlds of Nintendo – its caricatures, its rules – is one of escape:

On Kappa Mountain past the great lake circumscribed with goldenrod

the abandoned palace is full of treasure glowing underground

in granaries and arsenals and economy of losses

and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.

 

The man looking back at his younger self passes judgement: “one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass”. But this shallowness is immediately challenged when the child is told of his mother’s illness, of “cells which split and glitch”. The following poem has thoughts of his (real) father interrupting (if only for one line) in his screen time:

. . . for the first time in some time I thought of our father at home

the Sirocco in from the south turtle doves in the huge wheat fields

‘#1 Iggy’s Castle’ suggests the same thing: in the midst of oceans of lava, fantastical islands and cartoonish incinerations, the boy hears his mother moving about the house, a woman in real pain, “whose feet whose toes / whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire”.

Within 20 pages or so, a poem appears which resides wholly in the ‘real’ world of a family visit to the Ulster Hospital and a visit to McDonald’s since his mother “has lost her sense of taste”. The narrative suggests there follows a period of respite. The doctors – in the boy’s mind they come and go as wizard-like Merlins “in blue scrubs” – remove the cancer. Though back at home his mother remains weak and unsteady so the boy concocts a “mess in a tray” for the school bake sale. In awkward self-defence, he acknowledges, “No one is going to like this [. . .] but I have done my best”. His observation obviously has a far wider application in the circumstances, and one of Sexton’s great achievements in the poem – in amongst the allusiveness and technical skill – is to be as open and vulnerable as this. In ‘#5 Roy’s Castle’ he recalls his mother working “her old-fashioned Singer”. Roy Orbison is on the radio. She is making curtains for the room “she’ll in future return to” when she has become ill. The way time collapses in on itself in such a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’, the way in which “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”, is expressed with devastating simplicity: “the sewing machine ticks so fast these small years go by in minutes”.

But the cancer has returned. ‘Choco-Ghost House’ is unique in that we hear Sexton’s mother’s voice, nervously complaining of a “pain in my side like a bird in a holly tree”. Her son, still half inhabiting his fantasy world of wizards and exotic settings, is perhaps now starting to use that experience to get a handle on what is really happening. The doctor – now a “Hippocrates” figure – is described as going about “the magic task / of grinding down a rhino’s horn to infuse with ground down rubies”. Even these sorts of quasi-defensive imaginings are eventually dropped and the bald reportage of a last hospital bedside conversation between mother and child is almost too painful to read. The long syllabic lines here have room for the hesitations and repetitions of such emotionally-charged moments without any ironic distancing:

It’s me I’m here is what I say but I am not since she is not.

Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night

and I say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.

The sequence ends with the longest poem in the book – still barely the length of a page – which recounts the mother’s return home in her coffin. Even here the young boy blurs the arrival of the “wood panelled box” with the arrival of the “sharp-cornered TV” before which he has so often squatted to play his Nintendo games. Penguin’s blurb talks of the poem ultimately suggesting “the necessity of the unreal” but actually we see the child fighting his way free of it. Halfway through this final poem, the revelation comes in a fluid, unpunctuated instant: “I felt my head turn into stone no it wasn’t the old TV”. It’s in this poem that Sexton alludes to the title of his book. Hedged around with the necessary qualifications imposed by the passage of years, by the unreliability of human memory, the cloaking device of powerful emotion, he recalls a childhood safe and secure in the light of his mother’s presence, the flashlight of her camera behind him, before him the vibrant, simple colours of Nintendo:

[. . .] her voice moves around the edge of the world and now I think I

remember what I mean to say which is only to say that once

when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.

Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.

 

Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

I have been thinking about the role of metre in poetry in preparation for 3 evening sessions I have been asked to teach for the Poetry School in London. The sessions are part of a wide-ranging course on some of the basics of poetry (other parts of it will be taught by Tim Dooley, Judy Brown, Claire Crowther and Matthew Caley). Also, last Saturday I attended the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Red Lion Square, London. There – apart from spending too much money on poetry books and chatting with people who had come from all over the country – I listened to a discussion about the role of poetry in relation to politics. Fiona Moore chaired a discussion involving Choman Hardi, Bill Herbert, Sophie Mayer and R A Villanueva. Ideas put forward included the delicate issue of ‘using’ the experience of others in political poetry as well as the need to work polyvalently or collaboratively to combat the influence of unquestioned language and form. Herbert quoted W S Graham’s line: “What is the language using us for?” At the confluence of these two biographical moments I found myself thinking of Tony Harrison’s solutions to the poetry/politics issue – in part through his use of formal metre. The following discussion of Harrison’s Iraq War poem, ‘A Cold Coming’, originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because “it’s associated with the heart beat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal”. In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, his favoured themes of death, time and social injustice. “That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side”.

There are few of Harrison’s poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, ‘A Cold Coming’. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the original Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in The Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck which had been hit by Allied Forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam’s forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (“a skull half roast, half bone”) as well as a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi’s speech of the hooligan alter ego in the poemV’, yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader’s emotional engagement with this fierce personal voice and a more universalising portrayal of  a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison’s establishment and then variation of the poem’s metrical “life-support system” that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno’s view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century’s brutality.

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The poem’s form – rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets – seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base “to carry [him] to the other side”. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier’s speech:

 

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen,

 

his windscreen wiper like a pen

ready to write down thoughts for men.

 

The instant the Iraqi’s voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions and at one point he asks if the “gadget” Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record “words from such scorched vocal chords”. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of g’s and d’s, followed by an horrific mumbling of m’s to suggest the charred figure’s effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder’s mike is held “closer to the crumbling bone” and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man’s initial aggressive button-holing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

 

I read the news of three wise men

who left their sperm in nitrogen,

 

three foes of ours, three wise Marines,

with sample flasks and magazines . . .

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In the stanzas that follow the dead man’s angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form and it is rather Harrison’s rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech’s/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with “the image of me beside my wife / closely clasped creating life . . .”

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for but with chilly, ironic deliberations on “the sperm in one ejaculation”. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity (my italics below) that suggests this is a false, defensive even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

 

Whichever way Death seems outflanked

by one tube of cold bloblings banked.

 

Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed

with, of all fates possible, the best

 

according to Sophocles i.e.

‘the best of fates is not to be’

 

a philosophy that’s maybe bleak

for any but an ancient Greek . . .

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That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses: “I never thought life futile, fool! // Though all Hell began to drop / I never wanted life to stop”. What follows is the Iraqi soldier’s longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media whose behaviour will not “help peace in future ages”. Particular mention is given to the “true to bold-type-setting Sun” and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surface like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine rhyme endings in this section which serves to give a barely-caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. This impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives – again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas – that form the climax to this section of the poem:

 

Lie that you saw me and I smiled

to see the soldier hug his child.

 

Lie and pretend that I excuse

my bombing by B52s.

 

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the “cold spunk” so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when “the World renounces War”. However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is “a bottled Bethlehem of this come- /curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium”. Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through “to the other side” of such horrors and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). However, any naive understanding of the poet’s comments about coming through the fire can be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatise but without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and message:

 

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY

and I heard the charred man say:

 

Explaining Water Images in the ‘Daodejing’

Daoism has been referred to as the Watercourse Way because of the importance of water images in its key source, the Daodejing. I thought much about these images in translating/versioning these ancient Chinese texts and I want to record a few thoughts systematically here. However, as you’ll see, trying to ‘fix’ something runs counter to the Way – yet even if what we seek runs through our hands, the effort to consider the role of such images is worthwhile. (I have blogged about other images in the Daodejing here).

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The Daodejing uses water images in two ways. Firstly as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies at the heart of all its thinking – imagine the vastness of the ocean, the unfixable flux of flowing water, never the same river twice. The texts also use water images to suggest aspects of our behaviour (personal and political) if we are acting in accordance with the Dao or Way. Many use metaphors of water in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined because in its nature indefinable in language or figures.

So Chapter 1, ‘Nursery’ (I’ll give my titles as well as traditional Chapter numbers), introduces water images while giving a clear indication of the short-comings of all language. It deploys a metaphor that immediately undermines the efficacy of its own figurative language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through a further metaphor: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomena of our world can only be suggested through additional metaphors such as a “mould”, a “source”, a “mystery”. Even this is not enough; more than a mystery it is “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. In my version I introduced a watery context for the source itself (indefinably, untrackably “adrift”). I then developed this to image it as a body of water held behind a “flood-gate” which only in release and inundation delivers “greater truth”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains just beyond our grasp.

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A similar image of a body of water occurs in Chapter 4, ‘Something greater’. The tenor of the metaphor is again reduced to “it” in the opening line.  The context indicates that “it” is the Dao itself, the One that precedes and contains all things, that state of wholeness and plentitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. Here the tentative nature of the metaphor is indicated firstly through the opening imperative – “imagine” – and then because the text itself consists of proposed alternatives to this very image. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource: “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. This image of a bottomless water source is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry” yet this follows 4 other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects:

 

fretted edges are smoothed within it

 

knots untangled all dazzle eased

all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared

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And the poem calmly goes on to declare its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin, or beginnings, is not adequate to convey the full force of the Dao but the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – seems to come close.

The second way in which water images are used in the Daodejing is as a gesture towards actual human behaviours which occur when we are influenced by the Dao: in knowing that the truth of the Dao is like a watery flood, we behave in a water-ish fashion. So ‘The great rivers’ (Chapter 32) reminds that the Dao “has no name” and uses one of the other recurring images of it (the uncarved block of wood). If “the powerful” would attend to the nature of the Dao they would be successful “without recourse / to compulsion or law”. One of the recurring political beliefs of these texts is that if society is organised and governed in accordance with the Dao then people will live in “harmony” without even trying (indeed it is the trying that causes the harm – see wu wei below). Metaphorically, this translates as a society knowing “when to call a halt” to our distancing from truth (the hacking of the block, the reliance on naming/language, our remoteness from the ‘water’ source that is the Dao). The poem ringingly concludes with the image of right human behaviours being likened to the natural flow of water:

 

all things come to those

who follow the way

as all wild streams

and all unruly torrents

drive eventually

to great rivers the sea

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Water is also the image used to consider more individual behaviour. ‘Best teaching’ (Chapter 43) opens rhetorically, alluding again to water:

 

—what of all things is most yielding

tell me what overwhelms the hardest

 

without solid form itself what flows

penetrates even the smallest gap

 

This understanding of the action of water in its pliability and fluidity, its erosion effects and its penetrability, reminds the poet of the concept of wu wei, or non-action, another untranslatable but key idea in the whole sequence. This is the wise person’s ability to achieve actions or goals without determined or intended pursuit of them. I have translated this as “unacted deed” and this poem immediately links this to the art of teaching, the best of which “occurs in the absence of words” (show not tell?). Water is an appropriate image for this in its passivity yet power, its pliability yet ineluctable nature. The poem ends almost with a shrug at the difficulty of grasping such concepts or behaviours:

 

the unacted deed the indirect

direction—it’s hard to comprehend

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The text of ‘Clearest words’ (Chapter 78) reinforces the image of water as a key aid to understanding Daoist thought:

 

—there is nothing in the world more soft

more yielding than water

yet in conflict with hard resistant things

there’s nothing better

and there is no way to alter this

what is yielding will defeat what resists

these are facts clearly known to all

why don’t we make better use of them

 

In these final lines we can perhaps hear Laozi’s legendary disgruntlement with the parlous state of the real world – why don’t we put known truths into action? Yet here again, the poem concludes by recognising how difficult such simple principles can be to grasp: “even clearest words are contradictory”.

Chapter 61, ‘Tributaries’, returns to a more political perspective with its comments on how “strong nations” ought to behave. The action of water in relation to both geography and gravity is the figure used on this occasion:

 

—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

 

This ensures that any exercise of power by such nations will “issue from stillness” and “quiescence” (according to the principle of wu wei) rather than self-assertion, anxious, fearful imposition, bullying. It’s this (former) sort of behaviour that the Daodejing repeatedly returns to and characterises as “female” and what follows is one of the most beautiful passages where water images are integral to the meaning:

 

[ . . . ] and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath

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This coincidence of water images and female images and the description of the passive exertion of power, nourishment, subtlety, irresistibility, is wholly characteristic of these poems. The image of water collecting at its lowest point – power exerted by doing nothing – is likewise the focus of ‘Influence’ (Chapter 66) which explicitly links such calculated passivity with virtuous potency:

 

—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do

 

so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear

 

only in this way can true leaders rise

not stifling people with their being on top

not bullying them into harm’s way

 

only this way all things under heaven

are content to range under your influence

not find instruction provocative—

 

a teacher achieves not by trying to achieve

and because she does not strain to succeed

there’s no-one comes forward to compete

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They Will Have Their Rights: Ted Hughes’ ‘Her Husband’

My AS level students are in the last throes of revising for exams coming in May. One question will be on a selection of Ted Hughes poems and what follows is an essay in the style required of them by the exam board (a single poem analysis of the Practical Criticism kind). ‘Her Husband’ first appeared in 1961 and then in Hughes’ 1967 collection Wodwo which mostly contained poems written before Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide in 1963 but also a few others (such as ‘The Howling of Wolves’) written after it. Hughes’ next major publication was Crow in 1970. Leonard Scigaj has noted how many of the Wodwo poems contain “recurring feuds and destructiveness” and ‘Her Husband’ is a domesticated, Lawrentian version of this.

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Her Husband

Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately
To grime the sink and foul towels and let her
Learn with scrubbing brush and scrubbing board
The stubborn character of money.

And let her learn through what kind of dust
He has earned his thirst and the right to quench it
And what sweat he has exchanged for his money
And the blood-weight of money. He’ll humble her

With new light on her obligations.
The fried, woody, chips, kept warm two hours in the oven,
Are only part of her answer.
Hearing the rest, he slams them to the fire back

And is away round the house-end singing
‘Come back to Sorrento’ in a voice
Of resounding corrugated iron.
Her back has bunched into a hump as an insult.

For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.

 

Introduction

Ted Hughes is more renowned for his portraits of animals and natural landscape than people. Especially early on, he is more interested in, as he expressed it, capturing animal and natural life in language as he does so brilliantly in poems like ‘The Jaguar’, ‘Wind’ and ‘Thrushes’. However, it’s not true to say Hughes does not write about human life and some would argue that a poem like ‘Hawk Roosting’ though on the face of it about a creature is really about human behaviour. In ‘Her Husband’ Hughes is clearly focussed on the human in a marriage which is full of bitterness and resentment.

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‘Her Husband’ is written in the third person, giving a distanced but vivid portrait of a marriage through the events of one evening. The title of the poem forms part of the opening sentence so the poem’s opening line, starting with “Comes home”, already gives the impression of the husband as an almost impersonal force, unnamed perhaps because already all too familiar to his wife. The thumping alliteration of the opening line (dull – dust – deliberately), reinforces the man’s brute entry into the house. As a working miner he spreads “coal-dust” about the house but Hughes emphasises his inconsiderate nature with the adverb “deliberately” and the forceful, unpleasant verbs associated with his arrival: “grime” and “foul”. This opening quatrain flows quickly, being unpunctuated from start to finish, evoking an arrival which is sudden, sweeping, unstoppable. The ugly internal rhyme of “foul towels” also contributes to the impression of his disruptive arrival and Hughes conveys the husband’s resentful attitude with the idea that he intends to teach his wife about the “stubborn character of money”. This personification of money as a person difficult to deal with, to persuade, cleverly conveys the husband’s own difficulties with the exhausting character of his day’s work. But he intends to impress this resentment on his wife who he wants to work (repetitively) with “scrubbing brush and scrubbing board”. This is not a relationship in which we see any love, compromise or mutual respect, though we have yet to be shown much of the wife’s perspective.

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In fact the second quatrain continues in much the same vein with a repetition of the phrase “let her learn”. All this repetition conveys the husband’s determined intentions. Lines 4-8 also introduce a vocabulary of a more moralistic kind. The narrative voice echoes what must be the husband’s thoughts about the way he has “earned” the “right” to go drinking in the pub before he returns home. He regards the earning of his wage as a physical and personal “exchange” of his physical “sweat” for cash and the hyphenated phrase describing money as possessing “blood-weight” particularly conveys the sense of his personal sacrifice as a working man, how he feels the day’s work metaphorically costs him “blood” (as a miner this might be sometimes literal too). I think Hughes goes some way here to encouraging sympathy from the reader for the husband’s situation but the quick return to his aggressive, even vicious, attitude to his wife in the heavily alliterated and emphatic phrase “He’ll humble her” (line 8) definitely lessens any sympathy I may be feeling.

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The simple metaphor of casting “new light” on his wife’s role is used in line 9. There is a sort of tired familiarity throughout this poem (on both husband and wife’s sides) and I suspect this sort of encounter is not the first of its kind so the idea of him casting/teaching “new” light probably really reflects his sense that however much he tries to do this she does not “learn” to behave as he expects by more obediently taking note of what he sees as her “obligations”. I doubt whether he himself would have used many of the moral terms that the third person narrative voice employs in these lines, so the distancing voice Hughes has chosen to use enables these more abstract points to be made. It’s only at line 10 that we get a sense of the wife’s “answer” to her husband’s demands. As has been implied already, her reply to his demands is not at all submissive. We are told “part of her answer” is the disgusting-sounding meal with its “fried, woody chips” though it’s partly unpleasant because it has had to be kept warm in the oven “for two hours” (the fact that he’s so late home increases our sympathy for his wife). But her fight back is sustained it seems; the other “part” of her answer to his demanding and bullying attitudes must be spoken to him or probably shouted. Interestingly, Hughes gives us none of this directly as it is only implied in the brief phrase “Hearing the rest” in line 12.

The husband’s corresponding response to his wife’s uncooperative (surely complaining) reply is immediate and violent. The husband’s vigorous determination causes Hughes to run-on sentences at the end of both stanza 2 and 3. Here, the violent verb “slams” shows how he disposes of her cooked meal in the fire and sweeps out of the house and “away round the house-end” all in one flowing, swift, uninterrupted sentence. The husband’s singing voice is described as “resounding corrugated iron” in a typical Hughesian metaphor (linking the organic with the metallic or industrial). Also the song he chooses to sing is full of irony and deliberately insulting as it is a romantic song of lost love. Line 16 gives us a brief last glimpse of the wife’s response, her body language suggesting her own stubborn resentment, “bunched into a hump”. Hughes adds a simile to make her antagonism even more clear: “as an insult”.

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The final quatrain now departs from the specific actions of the married couple and returns to the more moralistic and even legalistic language that I noted earlier in the poem. Here the narrator’s distance from the domestic argument is clear again. This poem was first published in Wodwo (Faber, 1967) and, as a relatively early Hughes poem, it is unusual in its focus on individual people though this distancing effect suggests he may be observing their behaviour in the same way as he does a jaguar in a cage or the power of the wind. Line 17 is the shortest sentence in the whole poem and declares, in firm monosyllables, that both sides in this conflict “will have their rights”. This makes it clear there is no room or desire for compromise. The final three lines introduce the language of the law court (a divorce court perhaps?) though the jury are “to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot”. This soot reminds us of the coal-dust he brings into the house in line 1, but also of the burnt dinner thrown into the fire-back in line 12. These tiny black specks suggest to me that such a jury will never come to any clear conclusion in this dispute. They suggest the hopelessness of the couple’s situation. This rather depressing ending to the portrait of a marriage is confirmed in the final line and a half as we are told that the legal “brief” (a technical term for one side’s case in a law court) follows the smoke and soot up the chimney. This suggests that the arguments on both sides metaphorically go up in smoke. Hughes concludes in the plainest language: “nothing more is heard of it”. The way in which the events of the dismal evening vanish up the chimney suggest the likelihood that something similar may happen again tomorrow and the day after.

Conclusion

So Hughes’ portrait of a marriage is very bleak indeed. The narrative voice describes events at a distance and though there are occasions when the reader does feel sympathy for the people involved, the language of the poem itself is not at all emotional. The poem’s voice sees events from both husband and wife’s perspectives though it’s interesting that we are never given any actual dialogue in this domestic row. Hughes’ irregularly-lined and unrhymed quatrains suit the poem’s plain description in a mostly colloquial tone: this is not a poem or situation where any lyricism or poetically-charged language would really be appropriate.

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Two Gas Attack Poems: Wilfred Owen and Choman Hardi

Ian Duhig has recently written for Poetry London about the genre of ‘poetry of witness’ (Poetry London). In 2014, Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu edited The Poetry of Witness: The English Tradition, 1500–2001 (Norton) and the genre was there described as a tradition that runs through English-language poetry: “composed at an extreme of human endurance – while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death”. Though Duhig’s discussion raises doubts about both the genre itself, this definition, and its ethical stance, the two poems I discuss here are surely examples of it.

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I’ve recently been reading Choman Hardi’s new collection and the link with Owen’s very well-known (well-studied) poem is obvious. Choman Hardi’s poem ‘Gas Attack’ comes from the ‘Anfal’ sequence in her recent book, Considering the Women (Bloodaxe, 2015). The narrator is a woman whose community is bombed by the Iraqi state in the notorious attacks on the Kurdish people in 1988. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’) draws on his experiences of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War One. Owen’s title is a reference to Horace’s Odes (III, ii l. 13), the full phrase translating as “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”. It is this sort of ardent, patriotic jingoism that Owen looks to counter in the poem as it is the world’s blindness to real events in Kurdish-Iraq that Hardi wishes to correct.

Structurally both poems are similar in that they open by setting a scene of relative calm even suggesting the ordinariness of what, to most readers, must seem extraordinary. It is into these already difficult situations that the gas attacks fall and both poems (Owen’s at greater length) detail the nature of the attack and some of its immediate effects. Both poems have a third and final part in which they focus on specific victims. In Hardi’s poem this is the son of the mother narrator; in Owen’s case it is one of the gas-affected soldiers, flung onto a “wagon”, and suffering the agonizing effects of the gas. So both poems open, in effect, making use of a wide-angled lens but proceed to focus on individuals and this reflects the shared intention of both authors to elicit understanding and sympathy from their readers. It is Owen who makes this purpose more explicit in the final, bitter address to “My friend” (possibly the jingoistic writer, Jessie Pope, the original dedicatee of the poem).

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Choman Hardi

The scene set in ‘Gas Attack’ is of the routine persecution of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein. The deliberate plainness of the opening line (“Bombs could fall anywhere, any time of the day”) with its repetition around the caesura suggests this – as does the unruffled sense given by the line’s end-stopping. The statement that such events are to be regarded as a mere “nuisance” that can be “got used to” wrenches the reader away from the more usual evaluation of such events into a world where these things are everyday incidents. There is however something proleptic about the awkwardly enjambed breaking of line 2, the reference to “shelters” and the unease implied by words like “haunting” and “muffled”. This is confirmed (after 2 more run-on lines) by the deliberate puzzle that the explosions “deceived us”. The faint personification here and the idea that explosions (surely pretty straightforward things) might have the capacity for deception alerts the reader, creating tension: in what way are these explosions unlike other explosions?

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Owen’s opening 8 lines are immediately more harsh and noisy though even here there is some sense of routine in that the retreating men “marched asleep” (from fatigue and perhaps on ‘automatic pilot’). The fact they are heading for “distant rest” invites the reader to some mistaken sense of ease (no doubt reflecting the feelings of the men themselves as they march away from the Front Line). But through figurative language and physical positioning, Owen’s men are more distressed than Hardi’s Kurdish woman: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”. Like Hardi, Owen also uses the word “haunting” but here for distant flares falling and the brief, stumbling phrases of lines 5-8 reflect the men’s difficult progress. Such devices elevate the reader’s anticipation of drama to come though again, on the surface, the men have “outstripped” shells (Five-Nines) that are dropping “behind” them. Their deafness to the sound of these shells on one side suggests their (safe) distance from them, on the other, “deaf even” (my italics) implies potential danger to come from this source.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA: WORLD WAR I/THE FRONT

Owen’s lines on the attack itself are a nightmare of panic initiated by the exclamatory, capitalized shouts of the men: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” This is an “ecstasy” in that their consciousness is so agitated and extra-ordinary that they feel to be watching themselves as in an out of body experience (ex-stasis). Their flurry to don gas masks is suggested by 6 present participle verbs in as many lines though most of these are equally descriptive of the poor individual who fails to get his mask on fast enough. Figurative language conveys his agonising plight as he is “like a man in fire or lime” and he moves “As under a green sea [. . . ] drowning”. By contrast, the impact of the attack in Hardi’s poem is at first a strange calm, once again related to the deceiving nature of these Iraqi bombs (thought to be conventional; in reality chemical weapons). Owen’s men are familiar with these chemical weapons; Hardi’s Kurdish community is not – yet.

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There is still no shift to the level tone of Hardi’s poem, even as the mother narrator observes how “a chalky-yellow powder settled // on our skin”. These lines seem to extend time agonisingly for the reader who, aware of the topic from the plainly informative poem title, waits for the narrator to comprehend events. In contrast to Owen’s figurative language of pain by fire and water, Hardi’s narrator’s ignorance (and therefore her innocence) is caught in her image of the powder “smelling of sweet apples at first” and it “seemed safe”. It’s the caesura of line 8 that marks the transition from ignorance to knowledge as the impact of the gas is evoked (again through a series of active present participles (going, laughing, buckling, twisting running, bumping)). The people’s erratic, tortured behavior has a black comedic, or surreal, quality which probably suggests the few shreds of the observer’s naivety (something Owen’s more experienced narrator never expresses).

In a notable contrast between the two poems, lines 15/16 of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ break from the retrospective narrative into the present tense (“I saw him [. . .] He plunges”). The lines provide another image of sight, perhaps launched partially by the heightened visual quality of the glimpse of the man “through the misty panes” of the narrator’s own mask. But in these lines the “helpless sight” is one derived instead from dream-vision and memory. The fact that, at an undefined moment after these events, they still haunt the narrator gives additional weight to the horrors unfolding in the past tense narrative.

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This is not something Hardi’s poem does and to this extent Owen’s narration is more complex, implying an attitude towards the events which emerges most obviously in the long single sentence of lines 17-25. The third section of Hardi’s poem continues with the level-toned witnessing: “Villages from the region came to our aid”. At first it seems curious that they are the ones to draw attention to the narrator’s son who “looked strange”. At this point it is almost as if the mother does not want to refer to her son’s injuries, a kind of denial, though eventually it emerges that it is her own blindness (as a result of the chemical weapon) that has actually prevented her even seeing its effects on her son. The boy’s strangeness is conveyed in the plain statement that “his face was blistered, blackened” but also through the strange phrase (difficult to visualize) that it was “as if his eye-colour had spilt // out”. This probably refers to the “blackened” image but also suggests the physically horrific melting of eye-balls not unlike Owen’s “white eyes writhing” and the dissolving of “froth-corrupted lungs”.

Hardi continues to hold back the fact of the mother’s blindness which accounts for the recourse to the aural image of the boy’s groan “like a calf faced with the knife”. This in turn conjures up Owen’s opening to ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” I don’t see influence here other than the fact that both writers are wanting to evoke sympathy by drawing attention to the dehumanising impact of warfare’s mass slaughter. Hardi’s narrator finally reveals her own injury (“I was still blind”) and after another run of destabilizing enjambment (ll. 11-14) the last line is more heavily punctuated, slowing and emphasizing and again keeping the tone level and factual: “he / died, [I] could not see him, did not say goodbye”. The mother’s passivity is very prominent; her hopelessness is what expresses her grief. It is as though the continual persecution and horror has left her drained even of the energy to mourn with passion.

Owen

This is obviously very different to the passionately angry conclusion of Owen’s poem. Owen’s focus on the dying soldier begins at line 17 but its vivid descriptions of the man’s death are already contained within a hypothetical syntax – a point is evidently being made with the surprising appearance for the first time of the second person pronoun (“you”). Far more assertively than Hardi’s poem, Owen demands his readers, those who knew too little of the realities of warfare in 1918, put themselves in a position of greater insight: “pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch”. Likewise Owen does not pull punches in terms of the gruesome description of the soldier’s suffering with his “writhing” eyes, his “hanging” face (upside down, hanging off the wagon?), his “gargling” lungs. The two similes he introduces achieve the same levels of hyper-intensity with the suffering “as cancer” (obscurely or – in another draft – obscenely) and the blood in his throat like a “cud”, yet another livestock allusion to match Hardi’s doomed “calf”. The cud on this occasion is itself developed metaphorically into “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”, further emphasizing the appalling injustice of this slaughter.

It’s at line 25 that the “you” is addressed more directly with the ironically amicable “My friend”. The “zest” and “arden[cy]” of those eager for patriotic glory is mocked (“glory” rhyming with “mori”) but the potentially ‘hedging’ effect of these ironies is vigorously and fiercely pushed aside by the plainly monosyllabic description of the Horatian tag as “The old Lie”. Owen’s poem takes the reader into the trenches, to the post-traumatic world of nightmares, but also manages to encompass this declarative, even propagandist, point. Likewise, Hardi’s poem plunges us into the gas attack and its aftermath but never ventures into the same argumentative, passionate point-making. Her decision to allow the details of this poem to speak for itself is a brave one (of tone and manner) given the horrors of which it speaks and the author’s evident commitment to bringing them to notice.

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How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #3 Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting three examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1 and Essay 2). The essay below focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas probably remembering bitter arguments with his patriotic father about the rights and wrongs of the war. Beyond this essay written for specific purposes, the poem seems to me to contain so much unresolved material that it rather falls apart at the seams. Poems may well travel long distances in a few words but this one seems to me to trip itself up in doing so though it also seems to record Thomas’ final and fatal decision to join the fight in France. As can be seen below, OCR students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

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Thomas in uniform

“I am one in crying, God save England”. Explore the ways in which Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case . . . ’ wrestles with the idea of patriotism in a time of war.

In your answer, explore the effects of language, imagery and verse form, and consider how this poem relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

Key:  close analysis is in bold;           comparative comments are in italics

In this poem Thomas seems to be continuing a debate – or argument even – with a more conventionally patriotic person (perhaps based on his own father) and trying to define his own view of patriotism and why he might join up to fight in WW1.The single block stanza suggests a dense or intense passage of speech. Though there are some vivid images included, this is an unusual poem for Thomas as it is argumentative rather than descriptive. Although it contains some of his characteristic uncertainties (as seen, for example, about memory in ‘Old Man’ for example), it does end with what seems to be a strong affirmation of patriotism: “God save England”. This love of England and its history is very typical of Thomas as in poems like ‘Words’ and the lovingly portrayed rural English landscape of ‘As the team’s head brass’.

The opening couple of lines contain a bold reply, suggesting a discussion is already underway. Thomas denies that the issue of patriotism can be easily resolved (even by “politicians and philosophers” – probably jingoists and pacifists respectively) because the rights and wrongs of it are not “petty”. This adjective with its plosive first sound conveys something of the anger that Thomas feels. He provocatively declares, “I hate not Germans”, the delaying of the “not” giving extra emphasis and the clashing ‘t’ sounds of “hate” and “not” again suggesting the anger, even aggression of the debate. Lines 3 and 4 make use of contrasting terms (Germans/Englishmen; hate/love) to make the point that the narrator will not simply obey the conventions or propaganda of “newspapers” of the times. Lines 5 and 6 repeat this contrasting device (hate/love) and hyperbolically and dramatically declare that his hate of a “patriot” makes his “hatred” of the Kaiser (the German leader) “love true”. This is evidently exaggeration as he goes on to describe the Kaiser metaphorically as “a kind of god . . . banging a gong”. This metaphor gives the Kaiser the powers of a god but he is portrayed as using them merely to create irritation and noise in the onomatopoeic, consonantal phrase “banging a gong”. The Kaiser’s actions seem pointless.

Scene from the Battle of Arras 1917

Line 8 again declares an independent viewpoint with heavy emphasis on the monosyllabic “not”, denying that the choice is a simple one “between the two” warring sides, or between “justice” (England) and “injustice (Germany) as jingoistic “newspapers” would have put it in 1914/18. The verb “Dinned”, prominently placed at the end of line 9, again suggests that Thomas feels the debate is a loud and noisy one (perhaps more shouting than clear argument?) and as a result he can “read no more”. This image of reading may refer back to the debates in the “newspapers” of the time or it might be more metaphorical, suggesting his ‘reading’ of the situation in general. What Thomas suggests is that he gets little more sense from these debates than he might find watching “the storm smoking along the wind / Athwart the wood”. This image of a natural landscape is much more typical of Thomas’ poetry in general, reminding me of the opening lines of ‘Melancholy’ where Thomas uses repetition, heavy punctuation and personification to evoke another stormy scene: “The rain and wind, the rain and wind, raved endlessly”. The storm image in ‘This is no…’ is ominous and perhaps war-like with the bad weather approaching, metaphorically “smoking”  and the sweeping and whistling of the weather evoked through sibilance and repeated ‘w’ sounds and even the enjambment of “wind / Athwart”. Perhaps this storm suggested to Thomas the next image, recalling the storms and wicked witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The imagery here becomes more gothic briefly (again not at all characteristic of Thomas’ poetry in general). The irony is though that what emerges from these apparent alternatives (Thomas again using contrasting terms in this poem) is similar. The adjectives “clear and gay” and “beautiful” suggest that there is little to choose between these alternatives, echoing line 8 with its phrase “I have not to choose”.

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Thomas’ discussion of patriotism continues at line 16 with a dismissive tone: “Little I know or care”. The admission that he may be “being dull” is surely ironic and his reference to “historians” must echo line 2 with its reference to “politicians or philosophers”. In each case, these reputedly clever and intelligent figures are being mocked as unable to solve the “case” being discussed. Thomas uses the mythical image of the phoenix (re-born from the ashes of its own destruction) and imagines the historians raking at the ashes when the bird itself – the valuable, beautiful – “broods serene above their ken”. The archaic word “ken” suggests the historians fail to understand (perhaps are behind the times?) and the verb/adjective combination (“broods serene”) again evokes the beauty and value of what they have completely missed.

It’s at this point that the poem abandons its blank verse form and breaks out into rhyming couplets. It has been suggested that these final 7 lines were added later and it is interesting that it is these that declare the patriotic view more confidently with the ringing rhyme sounds supported the confident tone. In line 20, the contrasting terms (“best and meanest”) now suggest a unity of purpose or viewpoint rather than the futile oppositions earlier. Thomas is more typically alone in his poems, an isolated figure as in ‘Rain’ where the narrator repeats the word “solitude” and says he has “no love” left to offer except the “love of death”. In complete contrast, here he declares he is “one” with many of his countrymen and the passion of their patriotism is conveyed in the powerful verb “crying” suggesting loud and vigorous support rather than grief in “God save England”. His discussion concludes here with his motive for patriotism: “lest / We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed”. This is a difficult line but the image of what never blessed slaves suggests that it is English tradition of freedom/liberty that he hopes to preserve and would fight for.

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The final four lines use the traditional personification of England as a woman. This sort of personification is not something Thomas does a great deal though he does personify the sun in ‘March’ to evoke the mixed nature of the weather of that month: “the mighty sun wept tears of joy”. In these final lines, England (as often for Thomas) is linked with history with the phrase “ages made her”. The bold declarative tone is aided by the hyperbole in line 24 (“all we know”) and the connecting “and” is repeated which gives a rhetorical tone. There is an  interesting contrast in the rhyme words “dust” and “trust” suggesting that England has raised her people up from almost nothing to a more complex relationship of trust in the country being “good”. The statement that she “must endure” conveys a determination or perhaps a hope that England will survive the world war. The final line again uses contrasting words and creates a sense of paradox as well as drawing the argument of the poem to a conclusion: “as we love ourselves we hate our foe”. Most of this line is monosyllabic which also gives a sense that these final words are clear and simple and explicit in deciding for English patriotism and against “our foe”.

So the poem starts by seeming to reject conventional ideas of patriotism and jingoism and suggesting that this “case” or issue cannot be easily decided. Thomas employs lots of contrasting terms throughout the poem and suggests (especially through the phoenix image) that this sort of black/white argument tends to miss the real point. Thomas’ real point seems to emerge in the final rhyming lines: it is the old traditions of English liberty that are at stake in the war. This is something he does feel passionately about and it is on that basis that he chooses patriotic commitment: “God save England”.

Photograph of Helen Thomas found on her husband’s body at Arras

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #2 Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting some examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1). The essay following focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas recalling happy days, walking with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside. Though the Great War  had begun, neither of them had yet become entangled with it. Students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

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Little Iddens – where Robert Frost lived in 1914

Explore Thomas’ response to the English countryside of 1914 in the poem ‘The sun used to shine’. Your focus should be on close analysis of language, imagery, tone and form.

NB: Comparative sections here are in italics only to indicate the proportion of the essay devoted to that Objective (AO4). The main Objective remains AO2)

In this poem Thomas describes the English landscape as a place of pleasure and relaxed enjoyment as he walks with Robert Frost. These are remembered scenes and as the poem develops thoughts of the war of 1914-18 become more prominent. In the end perhaps the poem explores ideas about permanence and change, putting the war into a more historical perspective. The features which are typical of Thomas in the poem are the focus on the small details of the natural landscape (like ‘But These Things also’), the way the war lies in the background of the poem (like ‘Rain’ and ‘Tears’) and his interest in memory (‘Old Man’).

The opening stanza describes the two men walking at peace and the sun shining and here is an example of pathetic fallacy, the sun reflecting their happy mood. The easy rhythm of their walking is also reflected in the enjambement of lines 1-4 and the caesura in lines 2 and 4, giving a lilting, relaxed and flowing movement to the verse. At this early point in the poem, the regular ABAB rhyming adds to this impression and adverbs such as “slowly” and “cheerfully” obviously reinforce this sense of easy pleasure. The phrase “sometimes mused, sometimes talked” also suggests their free and easy life, with the caesura here again giving the steady walking rhythm of the opening as they contentedly (but thoughtfully – “mused”) explore the English landscape. This is similar to ‘As the Teams’ Head Brass’ where Thomas uses enjambement in many of the opening lines to reflect the flowing movement of the horse and plough up and down the fields. In that poem there is even less punctuation, reinforcing the idea that in ‘The Sun Used…’ the caesuras’ reflect the stopping and starting of the two men’s walking pace.

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The narrator’s statement that the two men “never disagreed” about which gate to lean on is probably hyperbolic but again suggests their closeness and harmony and even the action of leaning on the gate with no urgency or hurry  reflects their relaxed state of mind. From line 6 the narrator conveys their mental focus as they walk through the landscape and suggests that they are wholly occupied in the enjoyment of the present moment. The phrases “to be” and “late past” suggest both past and future to which they give “small heed”. Other subjects are suggested by the phrase “men or poetry” and the “or” here suggests their easy freedom even in topics of conversation. However, it is at the end of stanza 2 that the war is first mentioned though at this point the word “rumours” is used, suggesting that the subject is only vaguely picked up and this is reinforced by the use of the adjective “remote” which is placed at the end of line 9 giving it an particular emphasis. At this point the war is not an important element as they walk through the landscape and this is also suggested by the word “Only” at the start of line 10 which rather dismisses the war topic of conversation in place of their focus on the landscape, this time in the form of the apples they find there.

The description of the apples is ambivalent because they are initially described with the adjectives “yellow” and “flavorous” suggesting their attractiveness and sweet taste so the reader may be a bit taken aback to hear in the next line that wasps have “undermined” the skin of the apples. The most important thing about this latter word is that it suggests the mines and mining associated with the battlefields of World War One and therefore suggests that thoughts of the war even penetrate the pleasant walks through the countryside of the two men. Something like this can also be seen in ‘Rain’ in which the narrator listens to rainfall in a depressed mood and hopes that no one who he “once loved” is doing the same. That poem uses a natural image of “Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff” which also can be interpreted as referring to the many dead on the battlefields of France. ‘The Sun Used…’ was actually written in 1916 when Thomas was about to join up though the memory of the walks refers to 1914 when the war did seem further from him personally. These suggestions of war are continued in stanza 4 with the line of betonies described as both “dark” in colour (a contrast to the yellow apples?) and with the metaphor of “a sentry”. This makes very explicit the war reference and this is continued with the description of the crocuses (their “Pale purple” suggesting both weak vulnerability and shade) as having their birth in “sunless Hades fields”. Each of the words in this phrase might suggest the war with the darkness of “sunless”, the reference to death in “Hades” (the Classical land of the dead) and “fields” which surely refers to the battlefields in France.

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Robert Frost

These suggestions that thoughts of war cannot be excluded from pleasant walks in the English countryside in 1914 are confirmed with the very next line: “The war / Comes back to mind”. Here it is the rising moon that reminds the two men of the war as they remember that the same moon would also be visible to soldiers on the battlefields of France “in the east”. The next word “afar” again suggests the distance of the war, though actually the poem has suggested that thoughts of it are not at all remote. The narrator’s thoughts now go beyond thoughts of the 1914 war. Typical of Thomas, he develops a more historical perspective, referring to earlier wars, “the Crusades / Or Caesar’s battles”. This has an ambiguous effect as it might suggest some consolation that war has always occurred and perhaps always will. On the other hand, perhaps it suggests the more depressing thought that humankind cannot avoid warfare. This sense of long stretches of time is quite common in Thomas’ work such as in ‘Aspens’ where he describes the trees at the crossroads and there implies that they are permanent, even indifferent to the human world: “it would be the same were no house near. / Over all sorts of weather, men, and times”.

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May Hill – where Thomas and Frost often walked together

Perhaps it is this longer historical perspective that creates the thoughts of the final 11 lines of this poem. They open with a hyperbolic statement that “Everything” fades away and Thomas then uses a series of similes of things which he regards as transient, starting with the “rumours” of war, running water vividly described as “glittering // Under the moonlight” and the two men’s “walks” through the English countryside, even the men themselves (in line 26) and the apples from stanza 3 (now more pessimistically described with the adjective “fallen”) and the men’s “talks and silences”. This is a very inclusive list which gives the impression of time sweeping away many of the pleasures of life. The climax of the list is the last simile that seems to wipe away memories too (an important element in many of Thomas’ poems). He seems to suggest that memories are like marks on sand and the tide washes them away (is the tide an image of Time?). The poem ends with images of “other men” enjoying the same “easy hours” that the poem began with though now Thomas and Frost have vanished. In these last lines some things have changed (“other flowers”) but the moon alone remains “the same” suggesting that much of the landscape even will have changed (this reminds me of the felled elm tree in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in which the English landscape is shown to be changing).

In this poem, Thomas records pleasures gained from walking in the English countryside in 1914 though he also suggests that thoughts of the war cannot be excluded. As the poem goes on, it seems to become detached from the countryside but does return to it at the end in suggesting that though people may vanish and die and even aspects of the countryside itself may change in the long perspectives of Time, there are a few things – like the moon – can be seen to remain constant.

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #1 Edward Thomas: ‘Old Man’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging, that I wanted to include more about teaching literature and having spent the last 3 weeks or so congratulating, consoling, interviewing and advising students post-results, I thought this would be a chance to post something of that sort. Part of my job during August is to talk to students who have fallen short at schools and colleges (largely at A level) and it never ceases to astonish me that so many of them – clearly capable of better grades than they have achieved – seem muddled and even ignorant of the Assessment Objectives required by exam boards. Now I’m the first to loathe this kind of acronymic reductiveness but if AOs are what the examiners want, it’s either a brave or stupid teacher who screws them up.

Of course, English A level courses are changing significantly this academic year but I’ll talk here about the OCR English Literature specification I have been teaching for a few years (both AS and A2 levels are available for the last time this year). Module F661 involves study of prose and poetry. The latter involves a study of 15/16 poems by an author and essays are close analyses of one selected poem (AO2) with the student putting that poem into relation with some of the other poems (OCR call this AO4 in this module – though elsewhere AO4 is historical and cultural context) . . .

See what I mean – it’s not really complicated but it’s easy to find this sort of stuff very boring indeed.

My advice is that it’s always better to show than tell. I show essays performing this relatively complex task written by students as homework or in past years’ exams (photocopied to the class, read and discussed). Alternatively, I’ll occasionally write something myself. The latter has the advantage that I can make specific points about style and strategy (and teachers doing what they ask their students to do is another piece of good advice). What follows is an example of the latter on OCR’s selection of Edward Thomas’ poems, focusing on ‘Old Man’. I’ve also included in this one a kind of meta-commentary on what the essay is doing. The poem can be read here.

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“I have mislaid the key” (‘Old Man’). Explore how Thomas tries to get to grips with his feelings about the real nature of the Old Man plant.

  • In your answer, explore the effects of language, tone, imagery and verse form, and consider how the poem ‘Old Man’ relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

 NB.  Bolded phrases signal close analysis to the examiner

Introduction

‘Old Man’, on the face of it, is a poem that tries to describe and explore the narrator’s feelings about a particular plant. Ironically, the descriptions tend to be rather vague and the point of the poem seems to be that the narrator cannot precisely pin the plant down, nor can he pin down the memories which smelling the plant’s odour brings to his mind.

Brief comparative suggestions here …

This sort of uncertainty is very common in Thomas’ poetry (for example in ‘The Glory’) as is his interest in states of memory. This is also a poem where we see evidence of Thomas’ love of Nature and his close attention to its many details which also appears in a poem like ‘Aspens’.

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Para 1: Get well into your close analysis of stanza 1 . . .

Line 1 opens with the alternate names of this plant. Old Man and Lad’s Love are contrasting terms – suggesting both youth and old age – and this immediately announces the ways in which the narrator finds it difficult to define this plant. In the opening stanza, the narrator is preoccupied with the plant’s names, probably because this might be one way to get to grips with the thing itself. But the narrator, after the caesura in line 1, immediately declares that “there’s nothing” in the name. This feels rather hyperbolic but the second line’s repetition of the two names perhaps gives the reader the sense that nothing is really conveyed by them. He then tries some simple descriptions of the plant itself but line three calls the plant both a “herb” and a “tree” which seems contradictory again and the hyphenated phrase “hoar-green” has the same effect because the first word is associated with grey (grey hair – old age?) whereas the second word is more associated with youth and freshness. The phrase is therefore oxymoronic and confirms the difficulty of defining this plant. The metaphorical “feathery” also suggests something soft, something whose shape is hard to define. Reinforcing this idea, the narrator goes on to say that (even for someone who actually does know “well” what the plant looks like) its names “Half decorate, half perplex”. The repetition of “half” here suggests that nothing about the plant is straightforward or clearly defined. Also if the name decorates the plant perhaps it also obscures it from sight, while the word “perplex” suggests that the name actually confuses things rather than clarifies.

A brief comparison . . .

This is surprising given Thomas’ evident love of language as seen in a poem like ‘Words’ where he praises words in a series of images such as “Tough as oak, / Precious as gold”.

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Old Man or Lad’s Love

Para 2 is till focused on stanza 1 – it’s detailed but I’m taking a long time…

Line 6 of ‘Old Man’ uses a phrase which does make clear what the narrator is after: “the thing it is”. But the language used here is vague and does not convey an image of the plant at all. This stanza ends with the narrator suggesting that the “thing” is not something that “clings” to the names of the plant. Despite the names not seeming much use in getting to grips with the plant, the stanza ends with a half line in which the narrator, rather contradictorily, says he does “like” them (the names). This short sentence is begun with the conjunction (“And”) though I would expect it to begin with a more contrasting word (like “but”) and this reinforces the way the opening stanza of the poem has been wrestling with trying to define things and names but failing to do so.

A brief comparison . . .

This sort of failure to get to the heart of experiences occurs in ‘The Glory’ too. There, having praised the beauty of the English countryside, the narrator suggests there is something further that he cannot access: “I cannot bite the day to the core”.

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Para 3 covers lines 9-16…

Line 9 of ‘Old Man’ uses the word “herb” for the second time to characterise the plant itself (rather than its names) and begins by sounding more definite with the monosyllabic “I like not”. This seems reinforced with the line’s final word “certain” but the enjambement to line 10 plays a trick on the reader: “for certain / I love it”. I think this surprises the reader but again the narrator seems to be struggling to define his own feelings about the plant. This second stanza goes on to focus on the narrator’s child’s interaction with the same plant. He wonders if the child will also have a strong attachment to it. This seems to be one of the ways in which he is trying to work out his own feelings about it, though I don’t think it helps him to be any more definite. Lines 10 – 17 focus on the child’s actions in relation to the plant. These lines are full of active verbs as she “plucks” a “feather” from the plant. The “feather” metaphor again suggests something about the type of leaves the plant has and “plucks” has a plosive opening, a harsh ‘k’ sound and sibilance at the end which is perhaps suggestive of the plucking motion, even the sound it might make. Sound is also important in lines 13-15 as the child is “snipping  . .  tips and shrivelling / The shreds”. Sibilance hisses through these lines, to me suggesting the quite aggressive action of tearing the leaves off. The short hard vowel sounds (mostly ‘i’) also suggest this to me. The noun “shreds” again suggests the destructive way the girl behaves. The girl seems unaware of what she is doing and this is suggested by how she just drops the leaves “on to the path”. This is reinforced with the casual-seeming repetition of the word “perhaps” (another example of vague lack of definition in this poem) but especially because the girl is perhaps “thinking, perhaps of nothing”. She then “runs off” though we are not told where to and the reader gets the impression she has not taken much notice of the plant. Her casual attitudes are perhaps reflected in the poem’s form (mostly iambic lines of about 10 syllables, but no rhyme) which gives a loose, colloquial, even casual tone. This suits the poem’s meandering, thoughtful qualities – though perhaps is a contrast to the way the narrator seems to want to be more precise and definite.

A brief comparison…

Thomas uses the same sort of lines in the opening of ‘As the Team’s Head-brass’, where the long lines running on reflect the movements of the horse and plough as they move up and down the field beside the fallen elm.

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Para 4 covers 16-23

Despite the child’s casual attitude to the plant in the present moment, the narrator wonders if she will remember it in the future, or as he puts it in line 19, the “hereafter”. Later in the poem we realise that this is part of his fascination with the plant: its smell reminds him of something in his own past. Lines 16-18 suggest some sort of comparison between the girl and the plant as the narrator compares their heights and ages. But his main sense seems to be that the girl is oblivious to the plant and this is emphasised when we are told that she says “Not a word”. The narrator now wonders what she might remember later in life of the “bitter scent”. This is an oxymoronic phrase which again suggests the puzzling nature of the plant with its acrid “bitter” smell, which is here described using the more attractive sounding word “scent”. This stanza ends with a listing technique. The narrator lists the elements of the landscape which he thinks the girl may later associated with the smell of the plant. The items in the list are not very remarkable but conclude with “me / Forbidding her to pick”. The father/narrator here takes on an authoritative character (the garden imagery might remind the reader of the original garden of Eden and God’s forbidding to pick from the Tree of Knowledge) though it seems from the poem that his warnings are ignored by the girl.

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Para 5 to the end of the poem…

It’s at this point that the narrator’s puzzling obsession with the plant becomes more clear as he admits that he too shrivels and sniffs the leaves but where he first “met” the scent is unclear to him. ‘Tears’ is similar in that it describes a fox-hunting scene and then soldiers parading, and the narrator tells us that they revealed to him “truths” that he has now “forgotten since their beauty passed”.

A brief comparison…

Thomas is fascinated by these areas of uncertainty and this is also reflected in his interest in those moments when seasons change as in the way ‘But These Things Also’ ends with an asyndeton: “Spring’s here, Winter’s not gone”.

In line 25 of ‘Old Man’ the narrator personifies the plant’s scent into a character he might encounter and in the following lines the repeated verbs (shrivel, sniff, think, sniff and try) suggest his fascination with the plant once again. But here too he fails to get to grips with its real significance as he declares that his efforts are “Always in vain”. The paradoxical thread that has run throughout the poem is again clear as he says that he “cannot like” the smell of the plant and yet he’d give up “sweet” smells rather than this contrastingly “bitter” one. The mystery remains unsolved as the final stanza begins and this is conveyed very simply with the metaphor that he has “mislaid the key” to the experience and to his understanding of the plant. This sentence fills only half a line in line 32 and so is short, dramatic and striking because longer sentences are far more typical of Thomas’ poems. The final lines use the repetition of negatives like “nothing” and “no” to suggest the absence of any clear understanding of the plant or the memory associated with it. These final lines are also heavily punctuated, slowing the pace of the poem, perhaps suggesting hopelessness. The absences of child, mother, father and play-mate, create a sense of loneliness in the final lines though the mystery remains unsolved. The last line of the poem conveys this very powerfully with the memory being imaged in the metaphor of an “avenue, dark, nameless, without end”. Again the caesura here slows the pace so that the reader emphasises each element of the scene, the final phrase especially suggesting eternity while the darkness might well suggest death itself, in an image

A final comparison…

that reminds me of the bleak ending of ‘Rain’ where everything seems to have dissolved for the narrator except the “love of death”, a suicidal thought that we know was something Thomas himself felt at times.

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Conclusion

So the narrator may try to get to grips with what the plant represents or suggests to him but he fails. He tries to consider the plant through its names, its physical appearance and smell, through the child’s experiences of it and lastly through his own memories. It is clear that the plant provokes powerful feelings but the “key” remains lost. The colloquial tone of the poem and its simple language make the reader feel as if we are hearing the narrator talk aloud but what he ends up saying is that he cannot tell us what is really behind this plant nor what memory it suggests.

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Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’

I have taken too little heed of BB, the poet. The chances are that you have too. This would certainly have been the case in 1976 when John Willett and Ralph Mannheim published Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen) with its stellar cast of translators. The Introduction to that selection pointed out that, until well after his death in 1956, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking” under world literature. It’s our desperate bad luck that most of us have only ever been encouraged to approach Brecht through his dramatic theories, then his plays, “only coming to the poems as a by-product of his theatre work”.

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Things may have changed more quickly on mainland Europe, but only 10 years ago Michael Hofmann could still argue that the “prevailing British view of [Brecht was] as an arid theorist of drama [. . .] and  the author of a few baffling but conniving plays” (Introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems). In fact, Hofmann thinks of Brecht as the writer who took “poetry into the twentieth century”, its single most crucial figure. Against the claims of Eliot, Valery or Lorca this may seem a bold statement but Hofmann is thinking of poetry as “a living counter-force in socio-political reality [. . .] poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure”, an art that is “heartening and inspiring”. There is some risk of this drifting back towards BB the purveyor of proletarian political messages, but Hofmann’s contrast of Brecht with “his great counter-pole” in German poetry, Gottfried Benn, a poet of more familiar “private griefs and musics, of monologue, of fascination”, makes Brecht’s distinctive contribution clearer.

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In beginning to explore Brecht’s poetry I’ve been looking at poems from 1925-1928 and, like plenty before me, I’ve become intrigued by ‘Of Poor B.B.’ (German original and Michael Hamburger’s translation here; Hofman’s translation read here). Apparently the poem derives from lines jotted down on a speeding express train at 9.30pm in April 1922, when Brecht was travelling home to Augsburg after spending a difficult first winter in Berlin. The impact of the Great War is still visible here but Brecht is also very interested in exploring the impact of big city life. ‘A Reader for Those who Live in Cities’ was the title of a projected group of poems from around 1926.

Bertolt-Brecht

From the notes in Poems 1913-1956 it’s possible to reconstruct Brecht’s early draft which, compared to the final published version, demarcates town and countryside more simplictically: “I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.” Paradoxically, the use of his own initials in the title and the bold use of his full name in the opening line, actually distances the poem from the straightforwardly autobiographical. BB is a representative figure and his move from countryside to town (is this the Industrial Revolution?) was wholly passive, beyond his control, as he moved while still in his pregnant mother’s body. In fact Brecht’s mother had died before he began visiting Munich and Berlin and the poem claims that the “coldness” of the forests remains inside BB and will do so till his “dying day”. Quatrains 3, 4 and half of 5 of this ballad-like ABCB poem-draft also characterize the cold, unrestful, uncomfortable woods, even to the extent that the pine trees “piss” with rain and the birds are “vermin”.

The early draft’s modernist anti-pastoral seems to be confirmed by the opening of the second quatrain: “In the asphalt city I’m at home” and quatrain 5 follows the noise of the bird-vermin in the trees with the seemingly-content city-dwelling BB: “At that hour in the city I drain my glass”. But there is clearly trouble in the urban paradise. Quatrain 2 portrays BB at ease (with a dig at religion in describing newspapers, tobacco and brandy as ‘sacraments’) yet there is something unsettling in the three adjectives that follow: BB is mistrustful, lazy content. Having drained his glass and stubbed his cigar he “worriedly” goes to sleep. In quatrain 6 of the draft the reasons for this worry are clarified (one of the changes in the final version is to remove some of these more logical connections) as BB plays a guitar to an uncomprehending audience and has “difficulty understanding” himself as the city dwellers seem “different animals”. Quatrain 7 wonders whether this is because he has been “carried off to paper and women” (which I take to mean the ‘pleasures’ of the city) from the black forests which still thrive “in me” along with the “roar of pines”. So the early draft suggests BB’s displacement to the city has not achieved an escape from the darkness and coldness of the black forests of his birth and he seems therefore ill-equipped to live truly contentedly in the modern city.

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Michael Hofmann

Brecht’s revisions of the poem between 1924 and 1925 make it both more modern and more mysterious. Hofmann has described the result as “strange and pitiless”. The most clear change is in the final version’s quatrain 3 where BB makes efforts to fit into city life (being friendly, polite, wearing a hat), finding other inhabitants “animals with a quite peculiar smell” (I’m now quoting Michael Hamburger’s rhymed translation). But then BB admits “does it matter? I am too”. The draft’s more ‘easy’ theme of the outsider is being dismissed. Two new stanzas follow in which BB seems ever-more at home in the city, with both its women and men. With the former he is “untroubled”, boastfully suggesting he is “someone on whom you can’t rely”. With the men he heartily hails them, feet up on a table as they say “things will get better for us” but he knows not to “ask when”. BB is now wholly complicit in the urban insincerities, the lies and pretence that make life bearable.

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Michael Hamburger

So the changes show neither city nor the black forest offers any real contentment or fulfillment and it’s this profound sense of alienation that Hofmann links to the Modernist pessimism of an Eliot: “nature and culture, friendship and love, are all travestied and diminished”. This is why BB still falls asleep “worriedly”. In the new stanzas (7, 8 and 9) this pessimism becomes positively apocalyptic as the poem becomes about a cultural moment, a whole culture. Quatrain 7 uses the first person plural significantly; we are “an easy generation” (Hamburger) or “a whimsical tribe” (Hofmann) living in great cities that we hubristically believe are “indestructible” (Brecht refers to Manhattan here, a place he had yet to visit in 1924). In reality, of our cities only the “wind” will survive and we are (in our hearts and as we fall asleep perhaps) dimly aware that “we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about”.

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Had the poem ended here the comparison with Eliot’s 1922 wasteland pessimism would be more apt but, in the apocalyptic “earthquakes to come”, BB hopes to keep his Virginia cigar alight and whether we read this as a perky priapic image, a gesture of New World hope, or insouciant resilience to prevailing socio-political conditions, it’s here that we find something heartening and inspiring, even if the tone is mostly pyrrhic. The concluding balladic repetition (“I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities”) now reads like a more determined declaration of identity, a will to life, to a better world. This is despite the whole poem’s extraordinarily thoroughgoing portrait of alienation and cultural decadence. There’s life in poor BB yet.

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