Robert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.
His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:
. . . he sees an unblinkered beast
braying smoke in the top field, light
from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates
cast from melted down horse brasses.
If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.
Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.
Selby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”
The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.
I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Segora Poetry Competition.I’ve been lucky enough to judge several such competitions in recent years and in 2015 I published a version of what follows on my blog as a compilation of my thoughts on the judging process. I’m tweaking and re-blogging it here in response to my experience of judging this new competition in 2020. As I have always found, the initial sifting of so many poems can be a slog, but the latter stages are unfailingly fascinating as the best poems – those that set little hooks in you from first reading – gradually rise to the top, their internal coherence emerging, alongside their skills with language, tone and form. So what follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – becoming more so, perhaps, as the process unfolds – but I hope it may cast some light on it for those (of us) tempted to spend hard-earned cash on entering the numerous competitions now running. Follow this link to see more upcoming competitions.
Some films stick in the mind for reasons beyond the cinematic, don’t they? In the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays the character of God and, along with more obviously useful powers, he has to respond to the prayers of the world. But people are always praying! He rapidly approaches a kind of madness as voices swim around him, clamouring for attention. He takes to reading the prayers in the form of e-mails. He tries to answer them individually but is receiving them faster than he can possibly respond. He decides to set his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming that this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.
Now – a poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays him/herself open to some obvious criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging poetry competitions rather like Jim Carey’s experience. There are so many and such a variety of voices clamouring to be heard and every one of them is heart-felt, recording significant moments in people’s lives. There is a similar sense of responsibility too – the raw nature of much of the writing submitted is impossible to deny. There are moments when I’d like to set my response mechanism to say ‘yes’ to everybody, but the judge’s task has to be how to distinguish submissions aspoetry.
What does that mean? The numbers involved are always a bit daunting. Many hundreds of poems have been submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early, red stoplight from most judges because the basic poetic elements are not competently done. Here are some of the obvious failings:
Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment and/or sense. The writer’s submission to this tyranny becomes clear quickly through the contortions imposed on the language to achieve a rhyme.
The writer’s choice of language can be devastating to the life of the poem. It just isn’t right to opt for forms of language or abbreviations that died out early in the nineteenth century. Thankfully, this problem seems to be fading as more and more people actually read contemporary poetry books.
Choice of diction can also derail an entry if it is doggedly abstract. Sure, there remains much debate about whether it is the narrow English tradition that insists on things rather than ideas – but poems about Fear, Ignorance, Poverty, Eternity and Love which refuse to dip a toe into anything resembling a real life situation are going to find progress hard.
A fourth error is using language without being fully conscious of its likely resonance with a reader. A poem using the verb ‘gaslight’ without knowing its current slang meaning or another called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which seems unaware of the loaf of bread, well, they are going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in any reader’s mind. Louis MacNeice wanted the poet not to be an ivory tower type, but rather “able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics . . . actively interested in politics”. All a bit Boys Own perhaps, but if this means the poet stays bang up to date with the way words live then he’s right.
If you are still thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel to most – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems forged in the heat of the moment (and not revised or reviewed) are seldom without their flaws. And this is the kind of distinction Rainer Maria Rilke makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents (he says) are rather “experiences” which he clarifies as “memories” though even with these, we “must be able to forget them when they are many and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again . . . Only when they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them”. On the other hand, such recollection can sometimes create an intellectualised distance that may do harm to a good poem. Who said writing a poem was easy?
Stephen Spender argued that a poet should try to acquire skill and virtuosity through the study and interpretation of other poetic works in the way Mozart and Beethoven did in playing the music of their predecessors. Spender suggests translating poetry is the best possible exercise in interpretation. But the really important lessons (Spender says) are those of the eye, the ear, the athletic/poetic muscles. A poet can go a long way without a developed heart, but, he says, can get nowhere at all without these skills. The poet must ask continually of his lines: ‘Do they make the reader see, or hear, or feel, this experience which I am trying to re-create?’
Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more on positives and hence more precisely on the sense, the story, the thought and feeling of a poem. Personally, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments. Edward Thomas’ poem about Spring, ‘But these things also’, likewise echoes this focus on what most people tend to overlook:
The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung
In splashes of purest white . . .
Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is so difficult to answer is because it is, to a large extent, an art of the negative, of avoidance. The Daodejing says what is rigid and inflexible is a companion of death; what is flexible is a companion of life. I’d guess there would be general agreement that poetry is an art on the side of life. So poetry must eschew the inflexible; we must avoid the posture. And that’s very hard. In judging a competition, one comes across the Wordsworth-posture, the Ginsberg-posture, alongside those of Hughes, Plath, Duffy, Oswald . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . For me, the mark of the absence of posturing is an instability, an openness, an awareness of time (which posture tries to deny) and this is something I look for in a good poem. If a poem strikes an attitude my attention diminishes (even if the attitude is one that wants to show a rejection of attitudinising through the hall of mirrors of ironic distancing). When the poem unearths a pulsing, shifting, live relationship between the self and the other, then I am captivated, recognising something that is both commonly human and uniquely personal.
But having said all this, I’d assure potential competition entrants that anything resembling a rule is there to be broken. Philip Pullman has said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” So any poem in any form can work its magic. It will haunt its reader for days; it will make me change the way I think and feel; make me see the world differently. Ultimately, a poem contributes to who the reader is becoming. That is an exciting prospect for the writer. It is an even more exciting one for the judge who settles down to read.
In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.
Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.
In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.
But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.
Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:
I refuse the confessional splurge,
the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.
I’m just another body, a statistic,
nothing special. Everyone dies –
get over yourself.
So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:
We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain
hung crooked over the hearth
and dream of England: the shire bells,
the box set, the M&S biscuit tin
‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).
Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:
She’s good for nothing because nothing’s
good: sirens drown out violins
and crows swoop to carnage in the street.
As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:
drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one
by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds
and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.
And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:
my parents would sing me to sleep;
now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief
like the banks of candles in cathedrals,
each a flame for someone loved;
It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.
It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.
The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:
We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,
the distance shifts to somewhere else,
we remain in foreground, everything moving
around us, even when we’re still.
Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.
A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!
Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.
If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.
At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”
On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.
So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.
We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.
There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.
Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.
The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:
[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.
I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.
As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, – alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart
The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.
In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.
Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.
And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.
It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.
There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.
So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate wilfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.
Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life.
Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.
But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).
But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.
His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:
What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph –
‘Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.’
The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.
[. . .]
By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:
The landscape winking thro’ the heat:
O sound to rout the brood of cares,
The sweep of scythe in morning dew,
The gust that round the garden flew,
And tumbled half the mellowing pears!
[. . .]
Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,
Beyond the bounding hill to stray,
And break the livelong summer day
With banquet in the distant woods;
Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,
Discuss’d the books to love or hate,
Or touch’d the changes of the state,
Or threaded some Socratic dream;
[. . .]
We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,
The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,
[. . .]
And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,
We heard behind the woodbine veil
The milk that bubbled in the pail,
And buzzings of the honied hours.
Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:
In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.
Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:
Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.
There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:
Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.
Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.
With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. As I discussed in an earlier blog, though I love the business of giving a reading, there’s often a moment that arises that I’m always uneasy about. It’s the question of influence. In that previous blog I followed through, chronologically, those poets who have had a powerful influence over the style and direction of my work. That provides one possible answer to the question ‘what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your poems?’ Another reply might be to look closely at very recent work to see which poets are present in it as ghosts. This is what I’m doing here.
In preparing a new book for public reading, I tend to work through every poem making notes on the kind of thing an audience might need/like to know before hearing it (once and once only, in performance). I will often draw attention to the presence of a powerful poet figure that I’m aware of in the vicinity of the poem. So in The Lovely Disciplines, I can see influential roles of substance for Robert Hass (with Czeslaw Milosz), Ivan Lalic, Mary Oliver (with Emerson), Whitman and Edward Thomas.
Before looking at those in a little more detail, there are also two translations/versions from other poets in the collection. One is a version of Boris Pasternak’s poem from the 1950s called ‘In Hospital’. In the process of my versioning, the gender of the main protagonist was switched to female, more in line with most of the poems from the middle section of my book which forms a composite portrait of the passing of my parents’ generation.
I also include a loose translation of (plus a poem alluding to) the work of the French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, who I referred to in my earlier post on Poetic Influence. My poem ‘Valsaintes’ is named after the rural retreat in Haute-Provence where Bonnefoy lived in the 1960s. In many ways an idyllic place, in the end the renovation and up-keep of what was little more than an ancient ruin proved too much for him and the property was sold. For years afterwards, he harked back to it as a favoured, lost place. Bonnefoy’s ideas about what he calls ‘presence’ continue to fascinate me. My version, called ‘After Bonnefoy’, ends:
let’s bring ourselves one to another
as if each was at last all creatures
and all things all empty ways
all stones all metals and all streams
Sir Michael Tippett’s 1944 secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, is explicitly relevant to my poem ‘Listening to Tippett twice’. Tippett also wrote the libretto, inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee and the Nazi government’s reaction to it. This took the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population – the infamous Kristallnacht, so called because of the broken glass which littered the streets the following morning. Tippett’s text and music deals with these incidents in the context of the experience of oppressed people more generally and the whole work carries a strongly pacifist message of understanding and the need for reconciliation.
I’m certainly aware of echoes of Wordsworth on a couple of occasions. In ‘The Toll Cottage’ – a dream-poem in which I am being driven by my father – there’s a mangled remembrance of a phrase Wordsworth uses in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – “Once again I see / These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”. Also ‘The girl who returned to Aix’, a sequence of three sonnets, includes the awkward fact that I cried on first seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was that moment when the huge alien spaceship finally appears, rising up from behind a mountain – just as Wordsworth’s mountain, Black Crag, rises up in the boat-stealing episode of The Prelude Book 1.
In my poem ‘Nocturne’, I was partly thinking of Whistler’s painting, ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ (c. 1875) but I like to think my (love) poem has more light in it than that, set as it is in the same Tuscan landscape as another poem called ‘The renovation near Sansepolcro’. ‘Nocturne’ also makes reference to ‘the poet’s kelson’ and this is Walt Whitman who, in the fifth part of ‘Song of Myself’, refers to love as a kelson of creation. A kelson (or keelson) is the structure running the length of a ship and fastening the timbers or plates of the floor to its keel giving stability and strength.
In his book, Time and Materials (2007), introducing the sequence ‘Czeslaw Milosz: In Memoriam’, Robert Hass recounts a discussion he had with Milosz (as his translator) about the different connotations in English of Oh! and O! As it turned out, the one Milosz intended in his poems was the second and this is the one that most interests me too. My poem opens:
Oh! is longer drawn already
beginning the button-down
with its freighting
of verb tense and identity
whereas O! is more sudden
more urgent surely
of the moment rapt
when we are prised open
by desire [. . .]
I wanted the title of my poem, ‘The lovely disciplines’, to feel paradoxical and in my mind it was related to the Serbo-Croat poet, Ivan Lalic. I remember reading his 1981 collection, translated by Francis R. Jones as The Passionate Measure. I remember Lalic explaining he hoped to suggest the fluidity or fluency of emotion as well as the orderliness or measured nature of a dance or verse. I hoped my title would suggest something of the same – a balanced response to experience, both our taking pleasure in it and searching it for order. My poem takes place on a women’s hospital ward.
Mary Oliver’s book, Swan, is not her best but I bought it in a secondhand bookshop once and inside discovered an ATM receipt with some cryptic notes on it. This provided the start of ‘As we live’, a poem which takes up Oliver’s sensitivity to nature (which she often gazes at with such precision of feeling as to achieve a visionary intensity) as well as her epigraphs from Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Beauty’ in The Conduct of Life: “’Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live”.
Finally, Edward Thomas (Ted Hughes’ “father of us all”) appears explicitly in relation to two poems in my book. Not a million miles from Oliver’s example, it’s his directness and love of what lies before him that I like. I like his sense that, in Robert Frost’s words, this world is the right place for love, combined with his intuitions about the human need to look beyond, perhaps into an inexpressible obscurity. ‘These things I remember’ is almost a found poem on these issues – taking phrases from a memoir written by Thomas’ friend Jesse Berridge (published with letters by Enitharmon Press).
And ‘Rebuilding Tellisford weir’ has an epigraph from Thomas’ 1914 prose book, In Pursuit of Spring. His book recounts his 1913 journey – by bicycle – across southern England from London to the Quantock Hills. I was delighted to discover him passing through the landscape of my childhood: cycling down off Salisbury Plain, through Erlestoke and Edington, Steeple Ashton, North Bradley to stay with friends at Dillybrook Farm just outside Trowbridge, where I lived for 18 years. He writes about waking at night to the sound of falling water. The next day he is persuaded to visit Tellisford and its weir by the mysterious Other Man (a kind of alter ego for Thomas). My poem mixes some of these details with my own memories of visits to Tellisford. I like to think the poem has a lot of Thomas in it: a sense of history, the beauty of nature, strange encounters with others, a sad loneliness, the transience of all things.
When reviewing my first year of blogging on poetry and related matters (see blog) I said I wanted to review more live events. That has not happened really but this week I wanted to rectify that to some degree.
Last Saturday I drove a few miles north to Palmers Green, best known to the poetry world of course, as the home ground of Stevie Smith who moved there when she was three years old. She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls and lived in the area until her death in 1971. I first became aware of the current poetry activity in the area a few years ago when I went to readings at the bookshop in the High Street run by Joanna Cameron.
But in 2006 the Palmers Green Bookshop was forced to close, the lease was sold on and I think it was an opticians that opened in its place. Since then a number of local poets and enthusiasts have been keeping poetry alive with 6 monthly poetry readings at Stevie’s church, St John’s, N13 4AL. The readings take place in the Parish Centre adjoining the church and are always friendly and well-programmed evenings. I’d recommend them if you’re in the area (Contacts: Katherine Gallagher or Myra Schneider and on Facebook).
The evening was introduced with clarity and authority by Lynda How and readings took place as the April evening sun set outside. The Parish Centre looks at first a little soulless but with its shades-of-yellow decor, surprisingly tasteful lighting and pitched wedding-cake-white roof it is actually a venue which has a good acoustic and a disarming and warm atmosphere. The first reader was Danielle Hope, whose new book is Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham Press, 2015) from which she read the entertaining and instantly recognisable out-of-season seaside resort description ’Llandudno Winter’. Recognisable to most of the audience it seemed and as I spent a couple of years in digs in Morecambe I knew the “please-remove-wet-shoes-at-door / heating-on-from-seven-to-eight / no-radiator-in-bar / low-watt-lamps” guesthouse. Her translations from the Italian are also impressive (Montale’s ‘Eastbourne’) and the Mrs Uomo poems manage to combine humour and acute observation with a more serious satirical edge. Mrs Uomo teaches her cat economics at one point but more poignantly is left awaiting an operation having “improved against [the NHS] recently refreshed thresholds”. Hope works as a doctor in London and knows what she is talking about here and her poems are always a pleasure to listen to delivered in a colloquial, un-stylised fashion.
In contrast, Mario Petrucci read slowly and deliberately from crib (Enitharmon Press, 2014) which is a selection from the 111 poems he wrote during the first year of his son’s life (Mario was kind enough to allude to my own efforts in this topic area (see A Madder Ghost)). Petrucci’s work (especially in recent years) is much concerned with language as an object/medium in itself (hence his delivery). He spoke about his interest in the “deckle edge” of language where it begins to fade and dissolve and on the page he accentuates the thingi-ness of words with mostly very short lines, unpredictable line breaks, sometimes dividing words across line breaks.
The cover image of crib is of a child sleeping in almost pitch darkness – a metaphor Petrucci suggested for the way language itself struggles to communicate, picking from the mass of experience a highlight here or there. This from ‘i fish’:
as spool &
on glass slide
Gill McEvoy’s most recent pamphlet The First Telling (HappenStance, 2014) won the Michael Marks award in 2014. McEvoy’s delivery is rather more actor-ish, her voice taking on the inflections and tones of the character felt to be speaking the poems themselves. I’m never wholly convinced this is the way I (personally) want to hear poems read (I’m even more uneasy about poets who have learned texts in order to ‘act them out’). But McEvoy’s work – especially in The First Telling, which deals with rape and its aftermath – is easily powerful enough to overcome any misgivings I might have had. Her poems are often brief and delicate and disturbing:
I touch the cigarette
to my arm.
I can’t talk about it.
I could touch this fuse
to my chair.
I could watch it catch.
I could watch it flame
to roaring fury.
Counterpointing such troubling pieces, McEvoy scatters even briefer poems on birds which comment obliquely on the human narrative. Petrucci had earlier commented on the importance of the silence after a poem has been read aloud and in the intervals between many of these poems – at least while the evening light held out beyond the windows – I could hear the occasional twitter and cheep of birds in the churchyard grounds. A rather lovely accompaniment.
After the interval there were 8 floor readers. The quality of the work was high (not always the case where venues welcome floor readers) but I was struck by the number of people reading from electronic devices – phones and iPads. Of the main readers several read from their books (traditional) others from folders where the poems seemed to be printed and ordered for the occasion (the well-prepared; the short sighted). I can see the latter becoming more likely in relation to my own eye-sight but I have to say I prefer to see poets read from their books (assuming the work is published) and I can’t help think that the sight of the book cover waving around up there does something for after-reading sales too.
Simon Richey read from his first book, Naming the Tree from Oversteps Books. I’m ashamed to say I know little of his work (though he later confessed to me that he has hardly ever attended a poetry workshop, so perhaps he has just not been very visible on the ‘circuit’). I thought his work was very interesting indeed, sharing something of Petrucci’s concerns with language but also developing threads of thought and emotional responses alongside.
the meaning of a word,
before it becomes a word,
waits in the silence. It is as if
it has come as far as it can go
without being uttered. In a moment
it will change from one thing
into another, or its meaning
will tremble into a word,
into something barely familiar,
finding itself spoken,
finding itself understood.
Several of the pieces were prose poems – one a series of sections, called ‘The Darkness’, about the night-wanderings of cats as well as about the night-wanderings of their owner’s mind.
The final reader was Mo Gallacio whose marvellously rich reading voice (she is a trained actress) leant itself to both Scots and English verse, triumphantly avoiding that actor-voice that seems either to value the rotund vowels and the crisply planted consonants over and above the emotional tides of a piece of writing, or to emote all over the poetic text so heavily that the language and form of the poem is swamped and made unhearable. ‘Purple Iris’ is an especially moving poem about the incurable illness of a neighbour. Gallacio’s own struggles with cancer form the basis for a number of poems; in one she asks the nurse how she will feel after surgery – the nurse’s reply: like you’ve been stabbed! Gallacio’s evident love of and attentiveness to flowers and plants echoed McEvoy’s acutely observed birds and the evening ended with a celebratory bunch of brightly trumpeting daffodils (no more than £1 from Tescos) suggesting – with a nod to the Edward Thomas of ‘March’ perhaps – that Spring is most definitely HERE.
I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.
Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.
Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).
There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:
When night fell, the space between two worlds
Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]
What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:
His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.
But inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).
But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:
There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]
one leads to suffering, the other to joy.
The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,
a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,
the other’s like a shadow that never parts.
So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.
The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.
But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.
Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.
The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.
There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.
The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.
It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.
This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).
Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.
The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.
The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).
But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.
Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.