The Coherence of Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s. This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus of 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).

Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).

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Peter Porter

The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.

Rilke at his writing desk

The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “go inside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.

Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.

The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.

John Keats in Hampstead

Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.

Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.

Some of Rodin’s sketches

Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).

The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.

That Infinite Showplace: Rilke in Paris 1902-1914

NB This review first appeared in a shortened form on the Agenda Magazine website.

Rilke in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke & Maurice Betz, tr. Will Stone (French original 1941; Pushkin Press, 2019).

The argument of Maurice Betz’s memoir on Rilke’s various residencies in Paris between 1902 and 1914 is that the young poet’s experience of the French capital is what turned him into a great poet. Betz worked closely with Rilke on French translations of his work (particularly his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)). Will Stone’s excellent translation of Betz’s 1941 book, Rilke a Paris, elegantly encompasses its wide range of tones from biographical precision, to gossipy excitement and critical analysis. The book particularly focuses on Rilke’s struggle over a period of eight years to complete the novel which is autobiographical in so many ways, as Betz puts it “in effect a transcription of his own private journal or of certain letters”.

Rilke first arrived in Paris from Worpswede in northern Germany, a community of artists where he had met and married Clara Westhoff. But never one to truly reconcile himself either to community or intimacy, he had already left his wife to travel to Paris. Yet the anonymity, bustling energy and inequalities of the French capital appalled him. In letters to his wife and many others, it became clear that, as Stone’s Introduction argues, Paris had “unceremoniously torn Rilke out of his safe, somewhat fey nineteenth-century draped musings”. In ways reminiscent of Keats’ observations about feeling himself extinguished on entering a room full of people, Rilke would later recall how the city’s “grandeur, its near infinity” would annihilate his own sense of himself. Living at No.11, Rue Touillier, these initial impressions form the opening pages of The Notebooks.

But there were also more positive Parisian experiences, particularly in his meetings with Rodin who he was soon addressing as his “most revered master”. Famously, Rodin advised the young poet, “You must work. You must have patience. Look neither right nor left. Lead your whole life in this cycle and look for nothing beyond this life”. In terms of his patience and willingness to play such a long game, not only with his novel but also with the slow completion of Duino Elegies (1922), Rilke clearly took on this advice. Interestingly, Betz characterises Rilke’s methods of working on the novel, creating letters, notes, journal pages over a number of years, as “like sketches, studies of hands or torsos which the sculptor uses to prefigure a group work”.

Rilke was even employed briefly by Rodin as “a sort of private secretary”. Betz suggests Rilke simply offered to help out for a couple of hours a day with the famous sculptor’s correspondence. But this quickly expanded to fill the whole day and Rilke was soon confessing to Karl von der Heydt that “I must get back to a time for myself where I can be alone with my experience”. A break was inevitable though in later visits to Paris the two artists patched up any quarrel. In terms of his location during this period, Rilke had moved on to the Hotel Biron at 77 Rue de Varenne on the recommendation of Clara. Rilke in turn suggested it as a suitable studio base for Rodin who also settled there and over a number of years gradually took over more and more of the rooms. It is this building that, in 1919, was converted to the now much-visited Musee Rodin.

Maurice Betz

Betz suggests that the traumatic impact of Paris was the making of Rilke as an artist. Between 1899 and 1903, Rilke had been working on The Book of Hours, representing a “religious and mystical phase”. In contrast, Paris presented the poet with an often brutal but also more “human landscape”. He also discovered this was reflected in the French capital’s painters and poets. Baudelaire in particular was important. In personal letters (as well as in his finished novel) Rilke identifies the poem ‘Une Charogne’ (‘A Carcass’) as critical in “the whole development of ‘objective’ language, such as we now think to see in the works of Cezanne”. Baudelaire’s portrayal of a rotting body seems to have taught Rilke that “the creator has no more right to turn away from any existence [. . .] if he refuses life in a certain object, he loses in one blow a state of grace”.

But it took Rilke a while to arrive at this sort of inclusivity of vision. One of his earliest impressions of the city was that there were invalids, broken human bodies everywhere. “You see them appear at the windows of the Hotel-Dieu in their strange attire, the pale and mournful uniform of the invalid. You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead”. As Betz points out, this is one of the important observations made by the hero of The Notebooks. It is the “multiform face of death” that Brigge (and Rilke) confronts in Paris. And the irony is not lost on either of them because Paris, of course, at this time was renowned for its social and cultural vitality. Here, Rilke is being forced to make critical distinctions which he then worked on for the rest of his life: “Vital impulse, is that life then? No. Life is calm, immense, elemental. The craving to live is haste, pursuit. There is an impatience to possess life in its entirety, straight away. Paris is bloated with this desire and that’s why it is so close to death”. Years later, near the end of the fifth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke expresses something very similar (tr. Crucefix):

 

Squares, oh, the squares of that infinite showplace –

Paris – where Madame Lamort, the milliner,

twists and winds the unquiet ways of the world,

those endless ribbons from which she makes

these loops and ruches, rosettes and flowers and artificial fruits

all dyed with no eye for truth,

but to daub the cheap winter hats of fate.

Hotel Biron Musée Rodin

But unlike Brigge, Rilke escapes Paris. Reflecting later, he feared that people might read his novel as seeming “to suggest that life was impossible”. Betz – who had many discussions with Rilke during the process of translating the novel – reports that the poet, accepted that the book contained “bitter reproaches [yet] it is not to life which they are addressed, on the contrary, it is the continual recognition of the following: through lack of strength, through distraction and hereditary blunders we lose practically all the innumerable riches which were destined for us on earth”. Though the Duino Elegies opens with the despairing existential cry (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?”), by the seventh poem of the sequence Rilke expresses his affirmative view: “Just being here is glorious!”. In Rilke in Paris, Betz records some of Rilke’s conversations: “Instead of perpetually hesitating between action and renunciation, we fundamentally only ‘have to be there, to exist, that’s all”.

Will Stone

Betz’s admiration for Rilke is palpable throughout this fascinating little book. In its concluding pages, he sums up: “In seeking to express in his own way the world we thought we knew, Rilke helps us to hear more clearly what already belongs to us and permits us access to the most sinuous and iridescent forms, to profound emotive states and to that strange melody of the interior life”. This is marvellously put (and translated). Will Stone also includes a translation of a little know early sequence of prose poems by Rilke, ‘Notes on the Melody of Things’. In it, the poet reflects – through thoughts on theatrical experience and on fine art – on the relationship between background and figures in the foreground. Something of the personal angst and despair of The Notebooks can be heard in section XXXVII where we are told that “All discord and error comes when people seek to find their element in themselves, instead of seeking it behind them, in the light, in landscape at the beginning and in death”. The vastness and reality of what lies behind the solitary figure – and the negotiated relationships between the two – suggests to me that Yves Bonnefoy may well have been thinking of these pieces when he was writing L’Arriere-Pays (1972). Betz is right to conclude Rilke in Paris by praising Rilke as a poet who matured through “solitude and lucid contemplation of the loftiest problems of life”, but also one who never failed in patience or effort to express “in poetic terms the fruit of that inner quest”.

A New Look at Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Matthew Barton (Shoestring Press, 2019).

9781912524389Matthew Barton himself raises the question as to whether anything could “possibly justify yet another English version” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1922). As someone who has contributed his own translation of the work (published by Enitharmon Press in 2006), I know the feeling of throwing a pebble into a landslide. But – as Barton also argues – it is at least our own pebble and Rilke’s work both allows and demands further translation and discussion; it is without doubt complex, profound and obscure enough. Perhaps the question for the would-be translator is more about the time and energy spent on such a widely available text when other works by other poets languish untranslated. But for Barton – as I guess it was for me – it is a personal issue and we are assuredly thankful to those who consider the results worthy of publication because there remains a hunger for Rilke’s work.

Rainer-Maria-RilkeSo Barton has now produced a lively, English version which reads well (one of his aims). Apart from a brief Introduction and a few end notes on translation issues, the poems stand on their own here – there is no parallel German text, for instance. To see the German facing Barton’s text would be interesting for most readers, even without much facility in the source language, because he does make changes to the form of the poems. It’s true Rilke’s original plays pretty fast and loose with formal metre but the changes he rings are significant and Barton has a tendency to flatten out these differences by making firm (modern-looking) stanza breaks where Rilke often continues the flow of his argument. Rilke’s form is significantly much freer in the fifth Elegy, for example. This issue of the flow of the poems – and indeed through the whole sequence of 10 poems – is one of the difficulties in translating the work. It seems to me there is a clear progression across the poems and within each individual piece. To call this an ‘argument’ may seem too logical and abstract, of course, but any translator needs to try to follow it. To declare ‘it’s poetry’ and not try to see why one image or passage follows another is giving up too easily.

To be fair, Barton often does unfold the sequential argument. He’s well aware of the issue as he talks in the Introduction of coming across “knots” in the grain of the work which do not easily yield up there meaning. His solution was “not to translate them literally and hope for the best, but to live with them until I found a way through them that seemed, at least, to resonate with their larger context”. To translation purists this may sound a bit ‘version-y’ and Barton does indeed declare this book a series of “versions”, thanking Don Paterson for his thoughts on translation v versioning in his Orpheus (Faber, 2006). But, to my mind, Barton’s approach here is rather like Paterson’s in his version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, in that the results mostly read as translation, but with the English granting itself the occasional liberty to paraphrase, extend or even substitute for the original. For me, a version would depart much further from the original than Barton does; so I’d call these translations because Barton is approaching the original with great respect – there is the sense of a service to the original being provided here and the point is that such a service must (without the need for too much arguing about it) include the re-ordering of syntax, an Englishing of rhythms, an aiming at contemporary accessibility without denaturing the flavour of Rilke’s original distinctiveness. 

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Matthew Barton

And as I’ve said, Barton’s English poems are good. Rilke is really communing with himself through the course of these poems, so he does tends to use the impersonal ‘you’. Barton often converts this to ‘I’ which skews the impact of many lines to the lyric. This fits contemporary taste perhaps – it deflates the rhetorical feel of these poems – but can be risky. In the opening lines of the sequence, Rilke acknowledges that crying out to angels for help in our existential darkness is largely futile (they’d not listen) but also dangerous because if an angel did approach us we’d be fried by the intensity of their existence. The opening paragraph ends abruptly with, “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich”. Stephen Mitchell rendered this as “Every angel is terrifying”. Barton has “I dread every angel”. This seems wrong, making a psychological point from an individual perspective when Rilke’s line is more about the different natures of humans and angels (if the latter existed, which they don’t).

The argument at the start of the fourth Elegy also gets a bit garbled here. The whole of this section argues that human self-consciousness divorces us from a primal sense of oneness with life which the natural world (in Rilke’s view) retains (named in the eighth Elegy as “das Offene”, the Open (tr. Mitchell)). Barton seems to read this as suggesting that we are not “in accord with ourselves”. So he loses the distinction between ourselves and lions (at the end of this opening stanza). Barton has the lions walking in “sheer potency while their glory lasts” (my italics). But Rilke’s contrast is with human consciousness of transience against the animal’s absence of that consciousness. Mitchell’s clearer version runs: “And somewhere lions still roam and never know, / in their majestic power, of any weakness” (my italics).

new-duino-elegies-coverThese are small points in some ways but – as I’ve said – I think Rilke is pursuing a close-grained argument in these poems (albeit via poetic utterance rather than rational discourse). Barton is also liable on occasions to shift into an overly contemporary register (Rilke tends not to 1920s speech patterns but rather a Classically influence idiolect of his own). He replaces Rilke’s “wehe” which really is ‘alas’ with phrases like “god help me” or “heaven help us” which again propel the tone towards the personal (a rather English, bourgeois personal). In the ninth Elegy, Rilke is disparaging about the thin gruel of conventional human happiness in the face of death: “dieser voreilige Vorteil eines nahen Verlusts”. Mitchell translates this as “that too-hasty profit snatched from impending loss”. Barton tries a bit too hard with, “[this] is merely / easy credit with a looming payback date”. The same happens in the tenth Elegy, where Rilke is describing contemporary society’s shallow distractions from the fact of death. He describes; “die Kirche begrenzt, ihre fertig gekaufte: / reinlich und zu und enttäuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag”. Mitchell again: “bounded by the church with its ready-made consolations: / clean and disenchanted and shut as a post-office on Sunday”. Barton changes, up-dates, Americanises and so loses some of the irony: “the flatpack church, all safe and clean and shut / and dreary as an empty parking lot”.

But Barton’s rendering of Rilke’s satirical portrait of the “City of Hurt” (“der Leid-Stadt”) is enjoyably lively. Another infamously tricky moment is presented in this final poem by its personification of a tribe of people who have a far closer relationship with death and grief than Rilke sees is the case in modern Western culture. The German word “Klage” is used here and needs to work as the name of a young woman, the name of her tribe and her ancestors and her country. The word has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in the powerful emotion. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is a consistently heroic one. But Barton chooses not to translate the word consistently, using “Elegia” for the young woman’s name, then variously “grief”, “woe”, “heartache” and “Lament” elsewhere. These are all individually sufficient to the word, but – as on other occasions in these otherwise admirable translations – there is a risk that in leaning on the freedoms of a ‘version’, the critical linguistic consistencies which are essential aspects of the argument in Rilke’s original, can get a bit lost in translation.

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Kaveh Akbar

This is the fifth (and last) in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer of books chosen for the 2018 Forward Prize Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book.
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

9780141987972_Final_Kaveh_Cover_1024x1024

More than most, Kaveh Akbar’s poems read like jointed assemblages of seemingly disparate materials – accumulations, aggregations, medleys, jumbles. Over 91 pages, some work better than others, but on first reading there is such energy, honesty and commitment on show that it’s easy to be swept away. After a while, you begin to think that most of the poems seem cut from a very similar cloth. Amazingly, despite the inventiveness in imagery, the experimentation in form, the mix of cultures (Akbar is Iranian born, now living in the US), a paradoxical same-iness begins to set in and each time I read the book I find myself flagging about half way through.

item_XL_10301052_31669501Akbar doesn’t generally do the more familiar, simply focused poem. There are a few in the book like ‘Learning to Pray’, in scattered unrhymed triplets, in which a young boy (Akbar allows a straight autobiographical reading usually) watches his father pray, “kneeling on a janamaz” or prayer mat. The wish to emulate the admired father is conveyed pin-sharp. A later poem also starts from childhood and (mostly in loose unrhymed couplets) traces the boy’s later maturing in an America “filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” (‘Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)’). This poem also attracts threads of two of Akbar’s other main themes: his personal addictions and the ubiquitous sense of living in a fallen world.

rilke-hires-cropped
Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of a fall is very powerful and Akbar is often to be found addressing, berating or pleading with a God figure. To this extent there is a religious element to many of Akbar’s poems, but it feels more like Rilke’s address and concern for the angels in the Duino Elegies, for example, where their actual existence is to be doubted though their impact on the way we regard and live out our own lives is profound. Akbar’s opening poem declares God sometimes visits us, “disguised as rust” (‘Soot’). God’s imagined proximity then breeds new perspectives on our own existence, including images of the Heaven from which we must have fallen: “Upon landing, the ground / embraced me sadly, with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child”. ‘Recovery’ is also resigned to seeing life as it is really lived as “graceless” and the poem ‘God’ – before it really gets motoring with its examples of economic decline, personal illness, futile work and sense of fear – cries out: “I am ready for you to come back [. . .] / you are needed again”. Once more the mythic paradise is alluded to towards the end of the poem – simply as something that seemed promised yet is signally lacking in this world, so that “I will settle for anything that brings you now”.

three-empty-beer-bottles-pile-16804845One of the main elements of this fallen state (again Akbar allows a simple autobiographical interpretation) is the damage caused by his past addictions, especially to alcohol. This is the main hook Penguin hang the book on (a cover of empty beer bottles, for example). Poems styled ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic …’ recur throughout the book, but the first section is most focused on this. A familiar comment from W.H. Auden is used to firmly yoke spirit to bottle: “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation”. Many of the poems then have this sense of inebriation, muddling, confusion which Akbar’s style of writing is very at home with. ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly’ presents the drinker waking up, seemingly attacked by a home invader with a knife. Memories of keeping a housefly on a string intervene, perhaps because in the fly’s death the young boy confronted the idea of death: “I opened myself to death, the way a fallen tree // opens itself to the wild”. The poem returns to the threatening situation, then to more abstract thoughts of scale, a TV programme and the speaker passively returns to sleep. This is a great poem of the self as both endangered and paranoid, distanced from danger, the blurring of perception, thought and memory.

The title poem of the book seems to follow the alcoholic as an in-patient, this time in broken up prose. Thoughts meander again till they find a foothold in the self-recognition that “I answered every cry for help with a pour”. He sees this as a coldness, a turning away and tries to name it and therefore control it better: “if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But rather than effective combat the wolf has become evermore part of the alcoholic, like two coins on a train track crushed together. ‘Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before’ likewise takes the reader into the addict’s mind, the thrill-searching (“I don’t / have drunks, sirs, I have adventures”), the sense of life as boredom without the booze (“we live / on an enormous flatness”). These poems are certainly – as a blurb quote suggests – additions to the “canon of addiction literature”.

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Though Akbar’s choices of form in the book are legion and each one works well enough (which is impressive in itself), form and content don’t always seem inevitably linked. What so many of the poems do have is a forward propulsion which is quite breath-taking, assisted by the frequent absence of punctuation. There is a frenetic restlessness, often matched by leaps of imagery close to the surreal (interestingly one of the poets acknowledged by Akbar is Tomaz Salamun). But I worry there is something close to programmatic about all this. Poems often draw together threads of philosophical musing (several from Rumi), then mix in (tangential) aphoristic-sounding or plain informational statements, then throw in what will be read as direct autobiographical elements. These various constituents are sequenced alongside each other and Akbar’s formal and linguistic energy (like the “old battery” delivering jolts in ‘An Apology’) whirls them round before the reader. In the best poems, there is a strong centrifugal force holding the parts together; in others they are simply spun apart and the reader ends wondering about coherence and consequence.

Texas-early-26But when it works, these are marvellous poems – and, for my money, this book would make a worthy winner of the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize. ‘Wild Pear Tree’ – as if in one breath – conveys a wintry scene/mental state, recalls halcyon days (of spring) and ends lamenting the forgetting of an “easy prayer” intended for emergencies: “something something I was not / born here I was not born here I was not”. ‘Exciting the Canvas’ is much more risky in its jig-sawing together of disparate elements – a bit of Rumi, the sea, a child’s drawing, a drunken accident, the Model T Ford, crickets, snakes – but somehow manages to hold it all together to make a snap-shot of a troubled, curious, still-open consciousness. And finally, ‘So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction’, dallies with the Rilkean idea of dying young, alludes to recovery from addiction, then grasshoppers, ice-cubes, personal ambitions and the self-image of “rosejuice and wonderdrunk” (which is merely one side of Akbar’s work). This one ends with the not-infrequent trope of a re-birth from burial in the earth. I like these images, suggesting that, for all the fretting about lost paradise, the absence of God, the self-destructiveness of the individual, whatever redemptive re-birth may be possible is only likely to come from our closeness and attentiveness to things about us, an eschewing of the “self-love” Akbar struggles to free himself from in ‘Prayer’: in a lovely phrase –though I’m still figuring it – he concludes, “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”.

Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

Hesperus Press are just about to publish Will Stone’s eminently readable and wonderfully grounded translation of a contemporary account of Friedrich Holderlin’s madness. This is a long essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger, written in Rome during the winter of 1827/8. It’s an astonishing and very moving document for those interested in German Romantic and Modern poetry or in early accounts of mental illness or – as I am aware is my own case – for those who will instantly recognise, in these brilliant and detailed observations, some of the behavioural elements of what we now loosely refer to as dementia.

Holderlinturm
Holderlinturm

The essay first appeared in 1831, ironically only a year after its author’s death, though still a dozen years before its subject’s demise. Stone’s excellent introduction tells us that Waiblinger was an up-and-coming poet of the 1820s, “a rebel, a wayward fellow and a liberal maverick”. He studied at the same Protestant seminary (the ‘Tubinger Stift’) where Holderlin had studied from 1788 with Schelling and Hegel (imagine that team on University Challenge). But by 1806, the older poet had been confined to his tower in Tubingen (the ‘Holderlinturm’) because considered incurably mad. Waiblinger began visiting him in the summer of 1822. For four years, he saw Holderlin close-up, walking with him, trying to talk with him and enduring some pretty wild-sounding piano playing too.

41+WrUaV5pL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Waiblinger was a real Holderlin fan. The older poet’s novel, Hyperion, had appeared in 1822 (I review a recent translation of it here) and the younger man found it “saturated with spirit: a fervent fully glowing soul swells there” He was swept away: “Holderlin shakes me to the core. I find in him an eternally rich form of sustenance”. The mad poet in his tower was not often amenable to being visited, but Waiblinger, for some reason, proved an exception: “This lunatic, sitting at the window [. . .] is far closer to me”, the young man wrote, “than the thousands out there who are said to be sane”. Stone makes it clear that Waiblinger not only admired Hyperion but voiced the need for Holderlin’s other poetry to be re-published. Gradually, having fallen into obscurity, “his special hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism” eventually started to attract new admirers including Nietzsche, Schumann, Brahms, Rilke, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan.

Initially, Waiblinger seems to have intended to document: “It is not my place to offer some profound psychological insight, but rather to limit the quest to simple observation, a modest character sketch”. Filling in Holderlin’s earlier years he notes the uniqueness of his work in his “enthusiasm for Greek antiquity” which “left [its] mark on the tonality of his own creations” and led to a sense “of discontentment with the land of his birth”. This kind of sentiment dominates Hyperion and Waiblinger (sounding a bit prissily patriotic here) finds it elicits in him “a certain repugnance”. Waiblinger also reminds us of Holderlin’s doomed affair with the already-married Susette Gontard (the model for the Diotima figure in the poems and Hyperion). He sees the termination of the affair as the main contributory factor in Holderlin’s decline: “The coddled youth, lulled by the sweet intoxication of this love entanglement, was suddenly pitched back into bitter reality”. From here on, Holderlin was to carry “a fracture in his heart”, a wound barely transformed in Hyperion which Waiblinger reads as documenting “an unnatural struggle against destiny, a wounded mawkishness, a black melancholy and an ill-fated perverseness [that] cleaves a path into madness”.

Wilhelm_Waiblinger
Wilhelm Waiblinger

No doubt the end of the affair did deeply affect Holderlin, but Waiblinger’s drawing a direct line from it to the ‘Holderlinturm’ is probably a bit simplistic. Sheltered from the “bitter reality” outside the tower, Holderlin continued to write letters in prose and verse. Given the period, it’s not surprising to hear Waiblinger describe the mockery of locals who caught Holderlin out walking – and good to hear that the old poet responded with mud and stones thrown at his attackers. Yet his behaviour was often like that of a small child: “When he leaves the house, they have to remind him in advance to wash and groom himself, for his hands are habitually soiled from spending half the day tearing up grass”. This tearing up grass seems to have been a common occupation as does, while out walking, flapping his handkerchief against fence posts. All the while, “he talks incessantly to himself, questioning and responding, sometimes yes sometimes no, and often both at the same time”.

One of Holderlin’s other occupations in his madness was re-reading his own Hyperion. He would read aloud, exclaiming “Wonderful, wonderful!” then go on, pausing only to remark, “You see gracious sir, a comma!” In true Romantic style, Waiblinger notices that the mad poet is more calm and more lucid in the open air: “he spoke to himself less [. . .] I was convinced this unceasing monologue with himself was nothing more than the disequilibrium of thought and his inability to gain significant purchase on any object”. For those who have witnessed a relative or friend suffering from dementia, this is a familiar thought and familiar also, perhaps, is the recourse to the phrase “It’s of no consequence to me” which Waiblinger heard repeatedly from the chattering Holderlin.

Playing a piano still gave him some pleasure it seems, beginning in childish simplicity, playing the same theme over and over hundreds of times. On other occasions, almost in spasmodic fits, he’d race across the keyboard, his long, uncut fingernails making an “unpleasant clattering sound”! He would also sing with great pathos – though not in any identifiable language. Holderlin’s family had completely abandoned him in his madness, but Waiblinger records him writing to his mother in the style of a child, “who cannot write in a fully developed way or sustain a thought”.

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Friedrich Holderlin

In fact, Waiblinger suggests that Holderlin’s difficulties lay in mental weakness rather than full-blown insanity. He is “incapable of holding a thought, of giving it clarity, of following it and linking it to another by way of analogy and thus to articulate a distant idea in a regular consistent sequence”. He has another go at describing what he imagines must be going on: “He wishes to affirm something, but since reality [. . .] does not concern him, he refuses it at the same moment, for his spirit is a realm which sustains only fog and what is feigned”. This is partly evident because of Holderlin’s habit (in his madness) of thinking out loud, so Waiblinger believes he can hear a thought being consumed even in the moment of its conception. In the grip of such fluidity and terrifying fog, Holderlin then would shake his head and cry out ‘No, no!’ and begin “firing out words without meaning or any signification, as if his spirit, in a sense overstretched by such a drawn-out thought, could restore itself only by having his mouth issue words which bore no relation to any of it”. Holderlin retreats from his own incoherence into the comfort of sheer random association.

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Will Stone

The results are inevitable for the patient and (again recognisably) yield up a fierce, walled-in, self-involvement. Waiblinger describes a “complete lack of participation in and interest for any events outside himself”, and this, alongside an “incapacity to wish to grasp, recognise, understand, to allow in another individuality other than his own”, means there is no possibility of rational communication with the patient. And such solitude – experienced from the inside – results in such boredom that “he needs to speak to himself”, though lacking the ability to follow one thing with anything coherent, the result is “diabolical confusion” and mere “gibberish”. So it’s with some surprise that we find Waiblinger ending his essay with any thought at all of Holderlin’s recovery. He admits it’s unlikely – but does allow himself (surely consoling himself) with imagining an occasional “momentary restoration”, though even this might only be brief, perhaps no more than a fleeting prelude to the moment of death.

But perhaps such imagined lucid moments are less than consoling to those who spend time observing such distress. Leafing through his papers, Waiblinger says he discovered a quite terrifying phrase. Holderlin at one moment had scrawled down, “Now for the first time I understand humankind, because I dwell far from it and in solitude”. It is almost unbearably moving to imagine such flashes of conscious insight coming to the old poet in the midst of so much mental confusion and perceptual fragmentation. What Waiblinger here describes feels bang up to date and yet must be as old as the hills. Will Stone has done an important job in bringing this essay into English.

How We Created ‘O. at the Edge of the Gorge’ (Guillemot Press)

These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART ONE by Martyn Crucefix

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The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return /  to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.

The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.

A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.

One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.

Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.

In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.

Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.

The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).

At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART TWO by designer and illustrator Phyllida Bluemel

I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.image1

For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.

I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.

22071074_225079284691665_7698907406985592832_nThe poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.

The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape. 22158675_355445834881295_4436376972506955776_n(1)

The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch ­ – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.

How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #2

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.

A Boat..._quicksand cover

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.

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Abbaye de Valsainte

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

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Sir Michael Tippett

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.

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Enough to make a grown man weep

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.

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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

of understanding

that well-I-never

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.

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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.

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The weir at Tellisford, Wiltshire

How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

A Boat..._quicksand cover

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. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

Lots of Poetry, Too Little Cake

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Last Saturday I attended one of the half-yearly poetry events in Palmers Green, north London. These are always very good evenings, these days full of music as well as poetry as the Helios Consort of recorders play before and after the interval. Kevin Crossley-Holland was reading (a superb poet, as well as all his other literary achievements) as was Sarah Westcott (recently published by Pavilion – having just won the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition) and Katherine Gallagher, launching her new Arc collection – about which someone called Crucefix has blurbed:

This new collection is bejewelled throughout with haiku-like moments of vivid observation. Her delighted responses – in particular to the natural world – serve to peel away the film of familiarity through which we usually gaze. Yet Gallagher combines such excited observation with a quality of restraint, a respect for what she encounters in a process of self-creation – “from myself into myself” as her epigraph from Rose Auslander puts it. Sequences about her Australian mother and the loss of her brother are imbued with this same gift: life is celebrated in poems that never forget our mortality: “This is time we have underlined, / remembering what we’ve done, where we’re going” (‘Quotidian’).

On the following morning I was taking part in the Bloomsbury Festival, talking about the art of translation with Chris Campbell, Literary Manager, Royal Court Theatre and Gregory Thompson, Creative Entrepreneur in Residence at UCL. Chaired by Geraldine Brodie, Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation at UCL, the talk – in the very comfortable, wood-panelled surroundings of the Churchill Room, Goodenough College, London House, Mecklenburgh Square, London – was really wide-ranging from Gregory’s experiences of directing Shakespeare in the Indian sub-continent and the kind of cultural translation that takes place on such occasions to Chris’s translations of drama texts to and from the French and French-Canadian. One issue there is the translation of comic references such as cricket allusions or types of motor cars (I think he suggested a Vauxhall Cavalier equivalent in a French cultural context would be a Renault 21). I thought there was quite a bit of common ground when I was explaining how I fell into translation through the need to stand up and declaim/read/perform translations which I felt did not really convince in English. This is how I began the idea that I might try to translate Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy many, many years ago – I could not find a version that read well aloud. I still regard that as a key test.

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This idea that poetry ought to be read aloud is common enough in most writing workshops but I do wonder how many people really adhere to it. This came up again with my third engagement of the busy weekend – teaching my first session for the Poetry School on ‘music and metre’ on Monday evening. As I explained to the class, formal verse is not especially my thing but it is also an area I have had to teach on various occasions. I kicked off by reading James Fenton’s powerful poem ‘Tiananmen’ – see below – and Auden’s observations about the benefits of form:

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The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

I love the swipe at “manly independence” there. Not very surprisingly, this observation is quoted by Stephen Fry in his The Ode Less Travelled (Hutchinson, 2005) which also suggests modern poetry, because of its abandonment of formal constraints is now “laughably easy” to write. Elsewhere Fry describes most contemporary poetry as suffering from anaemia; it’s a lifeless trickle, rhetorically listless . . . Fry doesn’t mind setting himself up like this – and tucked away in the book you’ll also find his appreciation of Whitman, Anne Carson, Denise Riley and many others.

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I told the class, having spoken to a fair number of poets recently about form, that they’d be surprised (or maybe not) how few published poets would confidently declare their own grasp of metrical matters. On the night, we didn’t get along as fast as I’d anticipated – there was good discussion, especially of the areas of inevitably uncertainty in scanning a poem etc – it’s like jazz?? – so I’m looking forward to picking up the themes again next Monday evening with Tony Harrison, Wordsworth, Stevens, Elizabeth Jennings . . .

Now I’m feeling a bit poetry-ed out. Coffee and cake are required . . . after this:

 

Tiananmen – James Fenton

Tianamen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Tiananmen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

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James Fenton