This Friday – Lunchtime Poetry with Live Canon

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

Details about the other two readers are as follows:

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

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

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

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

The adoration of the kings

after Pieter Breugel the Elder

Everything looks rough-hewn and doltish

and has done since my eyes

began to betray me now unreliably I peer

through thick blue saucers of glass

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yet I feel how these strangers stir us—

this one with the pinched face of a carpenter

more than a king though the bold red

of his sleeves and collar and the aureate bowl

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his fingers dandle appear to be rich indeed

and wholly out of place in our stable yard

where we find this squalling child

reluctant and bollock naked as far as I see

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then this older one with his lank grey hair

stooping as if to show off his ermine trim

and his extraordinarily long pink sleeves

(I see them more clearly than anything else)

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he positions his hat and mace in the dirt

to offer something I can’t make out

beside me the black skin and sharp leather smell

of the third who proffers an elaborate gift

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of green and yellow—it must be gold and jade

yet smells sweetly of spices to me

a sort of sweetness like nothing I’ve known

and I can tell you I’m good with odours

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even better with my ears which are sharp enough

to trace the munching commentary

of the ass in the byre the shifting of the crowd

and the hiss of doltish Piet with his lips

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to the poor father’s ear telling him I suppose

what we all know of the difference

in their ages and of the ominous signs

from the fractious boy even the fact the child

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cannot possibly be his—shit-for-brains Piet

in his green snood has never been one to look

beyond the obvious not one to let gossip

go abegging yet the young mother’s face has

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turned now half-obscured as if she wants us

to believe there’s something in all this

not the sighted nor the blind can fathom

some secret she and her strangers are keeping

Buy! New Christmas Poetry Anthology

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

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

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

Penny Shuttle

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

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

Click here to buy your copies.

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

An’ ev’ry woone shall tell his teale,

An’ ev’ry woone shall zing his zong,

An’ ev’ry woone wull drink his eale

To love an’ frien’ship all night long.

Marvin Thompson

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

Edward Thomas

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

Francis Kilvert

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

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

x

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

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Unquiet to Unbusy – Coleridge, Hartley Coleridge and ‘Frost at Midnight’

This week I was invited to another of Michael Glover’s wonderful Bowwowshop soirees at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham. The focus was on the work of Coleridge. Tom Lowenstein read from From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu (Shearsman Books). There was also fiddle music and an aria from Mozart and parts of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ performed as a sea shanty (it really worked!). What follows is the text of my contribution (at some length, I’m afraid). By the way, Hartley Coleridge must be in the air at the moment as this blog post has just been put up by Alan Price.

I have been asked to read ‘Frost at Midnight’ – the 1798 poem in which the young father watches his sleeping child, thinks of his own past and foresees for the boy a bright future. The suggestion was also to focus on the more human side of Coleridge, less on the unique genius, the flood of ideas and knowledge, more on what we must all share with him: quiet moments of reflection, how we are made by our past, our hopes for the future, how blood is thicker than water.

So – in 1824, the young Thomas Carlyle visited Coleridge in Highgate, where he was now staying with Dr Gillman. The poet was 52 years old. Carlyle describes  – “ a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair” He seemed a good soul (thought Carlyle), “full of religion, and affection and poetry and animal magnetism”.  Perhaps his observations had already been influenced by William Hazlitt’s earlier description, noting the poet’s nose, “the rudder of his face, the index of his will, [how it] was small, feeble, nothing – like what he had done”. Carlyle also concluded with that thought, “he wants will. He has no resolution”.

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Given what Coleridge had been through in his life, Carlyle’s portrait is really one of a survivor against the odds. A couple of years earlier, Coleridge was contemplating the four greatest sorrows of his life. He noted: his failed marriage with Sara Fricker, his wife of almost 30 years, the mother of his 3 children; the bitter quarrel with Wordsworth; the relationship, that perhaps never even got going, with Sara Hutchinson – Asra. Coleridge’s fourth sorrow was a much more recent wound, still raw, on-going when Carlyle met him in 1824. It bears on my main subject, Coleridge’s poem about his first born son, Hartley.

To explain, I’ll go back a few years  . . . In a life that Richard Holmes in his wonderful biography has described as full of “black storms and glittering sunlit spells”, the year 1819 was a great, sunlit moment. The 23 year old Hartley had just secured a Probationary Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. His father and mother were overjoyed, a feeling they shared – so an unusual moment. Coleridge could reasonably conclude that the boy he had always loved best had perhaps not been harmed or disabled by his peculiar brand of absentee fathering, the difficult marriage of his parents, his father’s often public financial, literary and opium-related humiliations.

But storm always follows sunlight for Coleridge. In June 1820, Hartley – the little child who, 22 years earlier, had slept so peacefully on a frosty night in Stowey in Somerset – Hartley was accused of drunkenness, of “sottishness, a love of low company, and general inattention to the College rules”. In a moment of ghastly, public humiliation, his Fellowship was not to be renewed. Hartley himself seems not to have dared to inform either parent; he vanished for days on end and try as Coleridge might the College would not relent.

Flock-of-Starlings

It was a disaster. Ann Gillman remembers Coleridge being “convulsed with agony” over it – surely in part because the accusation of intemperance and drunkenness reflected his own long-established, unshakeable addictive behaviours. The sins of the fathers, is what Coleridge must have been thinking.

And really, if we look back at Hartley’s life the disaster was not so unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, we can trace events, poignantly, in reverse. During his third year at Oxford, in 1817, Hartley had come to visit Highgate and among the promising signs Coleridge fretted about his son’s unsystematic approach to life, there was some drunkenness, an evident loneliness.  On a return visit to Stowey, the clever college boy had tried to enamour himself with the local girls but they recoiled from his strangeness, melancholy, his dark shaggy beard. They called him the Black Dwarf.

At the age of 18, in 1815, he’d visited his father in Calne, Wiltshire, first ever summer vacation with his father. They celebrated the victory at Waterloo but Hartley was fascinated by the travelling players, by itinerants. He seemed solitary, a bit restless. People again remarked on his odd manners, his scrawny black beard. At 15, Hartley’s mother was optimistically thinking he might make a lawyer, with his “Gift of the Gab”. They were living in the Lake District and Hartley was a great local favourite, though Sara thought “a little spoilt” – in adult company he was not only permitted to speak, he was expected to speak.

At 13 he was brilliant – but quarrelsome. At the age of 10, planning a visit to his West Country relations, Coleridge wrote him a letter – a Polonius sort of letter – on how to behave. His son, he pointed out possessed a “self-gratifying fancy”, his spirits always at “high tide and flood”. The father recognised a tendency that swept away all “unpleasant and painful thoughts”. There were refusals to accept discipline; there was stealing food, snatching at things, standing in half-open doorways. Too often, the boy used his cleverness for lies, fantasies, false excuses. Coleridge urged on his son no procrastination, no self-delusion.

Even as a young child, Hartley had once asked his father what it would be like if there were Nothing! – just darkness and coldness. Apparently, he’d be thinking of it all day. The boy was 5. He often found playmates more a burden than a delight. A year earlier, celebrating moving from baby clothes into trousers, Coleridge already mourned the child’s old, joyous ways of playing. His activity now seemed governed by a more self-conscious “eager & solemn gladness”.

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I imagine him watching the boy – the young father as he was described by Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797. She thought Coleridge then plain looking, pale and thin, a wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth. He had longish, loose-growing, half-curling rough black hair, his eyes large and full, not dark but grey, fine dark eyebrows, an overhanging forehead. And this is the man who, around this time, watched a massive starling flock in flight. He described it “like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Ellipse and Oblong [. . . ] & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening”.

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This image haunted him for the rest of his life. It became more and more clear he had been fascinated by a self-image, a counter image of uncertainty, a lack of volition and determination, a swirling, aimless life quite unlike the one he had imagined for himself and his first born son in ‘Frost at Midnight’. In the poem Coleridge finds another self-image – the thin carbon film accumulated on a fire grate. Superstition told that this ‘stranger’ as it was called, foretold some new arrival. Coleridge remembers thinking of it as a sign of good things to come in his own unhappy school days at Christ’s Hospital in London.

In lieu of my reading of ‘Frost at Midnight’, here it is read by Richard Burton with accompanying text.

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Such hopes were not to be. After the Oriel College disaster, Hartley was urged into school-mastering but he was never very good at classroom control. The boys must have found him odd, melancholy, solitary – apparently suicidal at times.

By 1829 – now fully 5 years after Carlyle had visited Coleridge in Highgate that time – Hartley had drifted out of teaching, was just wandering aimlessly through the Lake District, living with farmers, writing a few sonnets while the aging father fretted vainly in Gillman’s Highgate garden. In 1825, Coleridge made a self-portrait in sonnet form. In the poem ‘Work Without Hope’ he is the “sole unbusy thing”, uncreative, not having built anything to last, nor preparing to build. In the octave, amaranth is the mythical flower awarded to successful poets.

Work without Hope

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—

The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—

And Winter slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,

Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live.

If we humanise Coleridge – if we turn aside from the work achieved, half-achieved, the fragments and Notebooks – perhaps we see too much of tragedy: the great potential, a life unfulfilled. After all this is the man who watched Hartley play and understood that for children the means is the end; he knew beauty is the intuition of the one in the many and therefore the first-born of beauty is the geometrical shape, the triangle; he thought of the sonnet as a sigh, something we let escape us, a single thought; he understood the poet must possess the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracker, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child; he thought poets were those who knew where the riddle of the universe remained unsolved; he thought a punchy, crisp style of writing lacked the cement of thought, the hooks and eyes of memory; he thought altruism required a generosity to oneself, without which we live in a despotism of the present moment.

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Hartley Coleridge

And perhaps there was a little honey at the last. In 1833, Hartley published the poems he had been working on and dedicated them to his father. He offered them in thanks for what Coleridge, for all his flaws and personal failings – had given him. It’s the note for us, who love English literature, to strike too: gratitude. Hartley’s sonnet, like a sigh, poignantly alludes to and quotes ‘Frost at Midnight’ on his father’s early hopes for the boy whose own life went awry.

Father, and Bard revered! to whom I owe,

Whate’er it be, my little art of numbers,

Thou, in thy night-watch o’er my cradled slumbers,

Didst meditate the verse that lives to show,

(And long shall live, when all alike are low)

Thy prayer how ardent, and thy hope so strong,

That I should learn of Nature’s self the song,

The lore which none but Nature’s pupils know.

The prayer was heard: I ‘wander’d like a breeze’,

By mountain brooks and solitary meres,

And gather’d there the shapes and phantasies

Which, mixt with passions of my sadder years,

Compose this book. If good therein there be,

That good, my sire, I dedicate to thee.