Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Lady Gregory read Yeats’s ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing’ with sympathetic interest, thinking it was about Hugh Lane, when in fact it was about her. Poets and the theme of failure make for an interesting mix. I’ve always found Dante’s encounter with his old mentor Brunetto Latini one of the most moving things in the Inferno. Dante places Latini in hell for the sin of sodomy (he is one of those who ‘do violence against nature’), but even in their infernal surroundings he attends reverently to the old man’s words, damned soul though he is. He asks Brunetto who his most eminent companions were, and the shade replies:
Ed elli a me: ‘Saper d’alcuno è buono;
de li altri fia laudabile tacerci,
ché ’l tempo sarìa corto a tanto suono.’
It could be an exchange from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. And then in a beautiful and haunting image of defeat, the canto ends:
‘Di più direi; ma ’l venire e ’l sermone
più lungo esser non può, però ch’i’ veggio
là surger nuovo fummo del sabbione.
Gente vien con la quale esser non deggio.
Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro
nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio’.
Poi si rivolse, e parve di coloro
che corrono a Verona il drappo verde
per la campagna; e parve di costoro
quelli che vince, non colui che perde.
Adam Kirsch quotes these closing lines in Robert Lowell’s translation in the current NYRB, in a review of Christopher Ricks’s new book on Eliot and allusions to him in Hill, Hecht and Lowell:
Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona... and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth than those who lose.
Kirsch comments: ‘As Ricks’s study shows, damning your predecessor is sometimes the best way of ensuring his immortality.’
I was also reminded, though, by these lines of Derek Mahon’s elegy for James Simmons, ‘Art and Reality’, in his newly-published An Autumn Wind. Recycling Swift’s ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, Mahon writes:
Oh, you could be a royal pain,
thorn in the side, flea in the ear.
Had you but spar’d your tongue and pen
you might have rose like other men –
though what’s the point of ‘rising’ when
the kind of work we favoured thrives
in the night silence of the nerves?
What is the status of those quotation marks round ‘rising’? As anyone who has read Heather Clark’s The Ulster Renaissace: Poetry in Belfast 1962-1972 (and plenty of people who haven’t) will know, Simmons could be a difficult character, who, if he did not enjoy the same success as Heaney, Longley or Mahon, was not above berating and browbeating his friends for dereliction of their home duties as they achieved wider recognition and academic esteem. (I find Clark’s book chilling, I must say, as a case-study in how poets artificially yoked together by accident of birth, geography or reviewer’s label must forever after remain on the same critical teamsheet.) Mahon calls on Swift to make light of the whole filthy business of reputation (Swift would surely have extended to literature his characterisation of politics as a profession in which crawling and climbing constitute the same activity), holding his nose against the vulgar horror of ‘rising’. Yet the fact remains, not just in what we know of the two writers’ divergent paths after the heady days of the 60s and early 70s, but in Mahon’s poem too, that Simmon’s failure to rise (or ‘rise’) is a strongly determining element in the elegiac pathos at work. If Simmons was lucky enough to discover his inner D.H. Lawrence in the Presbyterian badlands of post-war Ulster, there is something sad and miserable about the spectacle of his épatement des bourgeois:
You cherished girls of every age
and pitied the poor Paisleyite
deprived of your advantages.
Often your dodgy sexual ethic
emptied front rows; some splenetic
alderman would throw a tantrum.
Hillsborough, Portadown and Antrim
saw shocked audiences walk out.
Mahon raises the question of his entitlement to tell Simmons’ story, answering himself in fairly doctrinaire style:
We flinch, of course, when someone writes
our story by his different lights;
yet what I say agrees, I know,
with your self-estimate.
How does he know this? Does this mean he is vindicating Simmons’ special qualities, which went unrecognised during his lifetime, in which case why the quotation marks round ‘rising’? So: he really should have risen, and may do yet, thanks to Mahon’s elegiac sponsorship. But Simmons ‘chose /reality over art and pose’, flinty plain-speaking and authenticity over all the apparent aesthetic frippery and (again, apparent) escapism of Mahon’s early art. ‘We disagreed there at the start’, he comments. The difference between the two men remains. Mahon’s elegy does not solve it. Nor does it gloss it over. Instead it shows it like a scar in those giveaway quotation marks round the word ‘rising’. It is a cause of deep regret to the elegist that Simmons should have suffered the frustrations he did, but the poet cannot quite decide whether this was a struggle worth winning or not (whether for reasons to do with the quality of Simmons’s work or Mahon’s own view of the literary world), or whether his bringing the subject up in the first place doesn’t place him in the same position of arch superiority we find in Dante on Brunetto Latini, exalting and condemning him all at once. Perhaps, finally, it is in the nature of elegy itself to want us to disagree with those we flatter ourselves we are honouring. Whether Mahon felt any of these impulses as he wrote the poem, I do not know. But those quotation marks certainly register them, do they not.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Many happy returns to Poetry Ireland Review, whose hundredth issue has just appeared. I contribute a review-essay on Brian Coffey and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, which begins as follows:
The poetry of Brian Coffey is an enduring enigma. In the 1930s its author fought a campaign of underground resistance to mainstream Irish poetry so successful that, as with the literally underground campaign against the Romans waged by Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling’s Anglo-Saxon ancestors, that decade came and went without realizing just how much resisting Coffey had been doing. His early publications were a frankly embarrassing volume of co-authored Poems (with Denis Devlin) before his début proper, the quizzical and engrossing Third Person (1938), after which he took a whopping twenty-seven year sabbatical before re-emerging with Dice Thrown Will Never Annul Chance in 1965. The work that followed gave him some belated modicum of recognition, helped along by the advent of New Writers’ Press and the journal Lace Curtain around the same time. A Poems and Versions 1929-1990 was published by Dedalus in 1991 and in 2000 Dónal Moriarty’s study The Poetry of Brian Coffey appeared. Coffey had arrived. Anyone in search of a neglected 30s poet today might want to give Lyle Donaghy or Geoffrey Taylor a try; but it makes little sense to continue to refer to Coffey by this label.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Down the streets rolls
St Eulalia in
a barrel of glass and knives
She has thirteen lives
and thirteen geese
in her honour,
in Seu courtyard.
Speak the word.
Deny the Lord
or die by the sword.
O sacred heart,
shepherd of souls
and downy birds,
to whom we commend
her terrible end
and much besides,
the faithful depart
and heaven grows cold.
For all she may prate
it is pain has endured.
Yet speak but the word
with a flaming tongue
while her geese take wing
in sudden surprise,
the air full of their cries,
and she is spared –
a word of release
or Mercy, Lord –
in this courtyard at peace.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Alive without living
in me, my life
that is waiting
for living not dying.
But nothing’s doing,
life that I do not live
living a lack.
Death is all
it has to give:
die a death blacker
than ever befell
a living soul.
To lack what I love
and love that lack,
die the death
I live deprived
of you, and taste
grief for two. I die
that life, and if you
who are but a lack,
how to make you,
Friday, March 19, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Aumbry. A recess in a church wall.
Chawd. A word that means anything you want it to.
Pica. A 12-point (for some reason) type.
Lackeen. As in ‘Pavee Lackeen’, meaning ‘traveller girl’.
Fixfax. No results found.
Sneachta. The Irish for snow.
Gadje. A non-traveller (pejorative).
Anacoluthia. A grammatical non sequitur, if I can mix my Greek and Latin.
Numnah. A pad that goes under a saddle.
There’ll always be a tidbit here or there for the dictionary cormorant in an Ailbhe Darcy poem. I say ‘always’, despite basing my reading on her new Tall Lighthouse pamphlet, a fictional dress, and her appearance in Roddy Lumsden’s anthology Identity Parade, but here is a new writer for whom it is worth putting a kink in the usual niceties of the space-time continuum. Here is quirkiness without archness, the bellybutton fluff of youth but the empty taxis and left-behind pubs and streets of the left-behind cities afterwards, and here too is an unusual way with spacing that may have something to do with the ‘burnt spaces between /one line and the next’ of the untitled poem on page 15. The talent for splicing the heterogeneous together, cadavre exquis-style, reminds me of Jane Yeh. I am tickled by the avian inventions of ‘Swan Song’:
I brood, yellow-peppered
In my own chawd-wine, sheepish, out
Of my element. Happed in you, feathers
Scales, wings fins, maw brackish.
You try to speak in pica, your claws kerns:
We lay a blotched ligature.
You’ve bitten off more than you can mew:
I’ve lined your throat with feathers.
In another avian moment, Darcy finds she likes the verb ‘swan-upped’ so much she uses it not once but twice (‘I’m swan-upped, whoops, into the pot’, ‘swan-upped, lackeen, bracketed in a fixfax’).
‘Polder’ was Seamus Heaney’s original title for Field Work many years ago now, and in her poem of that name there is a very, not Heaney- but Muldoonesque touch of returning in the last line to a casually dropped detail from earlier in the poem, with an added Muldoon touch of indecision and betwixt and betweenness: the speaker first finds herself ogled by men who ‘confirm /for their records my one side /was good as the other’, but ends up no longer an object of their scrutiny, returning the compliment by ‘turn[ing] to watch men pass, /to see was one side as good as another’. What a long-winded and convoluted (I mean me here) way of saying that if there is any discernible Muldoon influence here it is of the slightest and not a prey to the Muldoon-lite mannerisms that used to send entire first collections crashing and burning, and not so long ago either.
What audacity, too, to call a poem ‘The Art of Losing’ and not promptly take a pratfall. Darcy gives Bishop’s poem a shakedown that leaves our losses more comfortably companionable objects than what sticks around:
It’s plain to see the real mystery:
why, with all I gather to me, I dwell
so often on the things I’ve shed. I could
easier list my losses, the denim
jackets, watches, dignity, perfectly
affable friends, than all the curiosities
I still keep in my cave hoard,
troved finely on shelves.
‘I am speaking of you here, to everyone I meet’, we read in ‘Halo’, a poem that begins with a talking dog. May the dogs in the street spread the word of the abundant merits of this very fine pamphlet, and may her promised first book (from Bloodaxe) not be long in arriving. Though since some of these poems, presumably, will be reprinted there I will also point out one teeny typo (‘fuschcia’ should be ‘fuchsia’). But an altogether appetizing début.
Swan as seen in New Holland, south bank of the Humber, last November.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Proposals by Hull City Council (since scrapped (the proposals, not the council) to spend £200,000 on a series of fibreglass toads to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Philip Larkin provoked, inter alia, the following comments on the Hull Daily Mail’s website, and no I didn’t make any of these up. The Hispanic inverted question marks in the stirring poem I quote at the end here are also sic:
my flat has damp issues and plaster falling off walls .seems council have high prioritys
“I think you've got to face up to the fact that Larkin is the most significant cultural artefact to be produced by this city”
Do you indeed?
I think not. I care not one jot for Larkin, his ponsy background, perverted lifestyle nor stupid poems and judging from this thread neither does the majority of people. You have the right to express your views but you're outvoted my old son. We do not want our money wasted on this sort of twaddle, so let's move on, case for wasting taxpayer's money dismissed. Next please.
Glenroy - the chattering class looks after it's own. "Ordinary" people do not count, because we don't talk crap and fuss about arty farty crap, pointless poems or spend our life daydreaming in the University all day.
We're all qualified in the only University which really counts - the University of Life, but it's not recognised by the chattering class - what a surprise.
What a waste of money. The man may have been a famous poet but having just read his offerings for the first time in my life (and I am 70) I wonder why the HCC want to spend money on him in the first place. I found his so-called poetry pretty poor, to be honest. It didn't scan, it didn't rhyme in most cases and the subject matter was boring. Oh! and it wasn't really about toads or toads revisited at all, just the misery of his life in general.
Thanks for the Larkin poems.It just proves to me what a load of drivel he produced
I thought I was still dreaming
Not Getting up till late
April the first already?
No - that¿s not the date!
Who spawned this crazy notion
It is a tad pole emic
And truly symptomatic of
A madness epidemic
Can this really be the way
To add to our renown
Come and pay a visit
To this toad infested town?
Will there be loads of lurking luvvies
In simpering, vacuous mind
And love sick lasses kissing them
A prince they¿ll hope to find.
Mon dieu, what if we are sued
For broken tushy pegs
By coachloads of French tourists
Biting on their toady legs?
This thing just leaves me hopping mad
Miss Piggy and Gonzo agree
I may be slimy, green and wet
But it smacks of farce to me.
Postwar British poetry
Is for the toilet wall
He¿s rated midst the best of them
Which surely says it all.
And what of Hull¿s young people
As we try to to teach respect
Who question these amphibians
Whose honour do they reflect?
It¿s Phoul Mouthed Phil, they are put there by
The public so adoring
Profanity, children, is quite OK
So long as it is boring!
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Beckett pseudofact (hors série)
At the heart of Beckettian nothingness is a rhetorical paradox, profound and playful at once. In a moment of ill-judged rabble-rousing, politician Robert Kilroy-Silk once proclaimed that the Arabs had given European civilisation nothing. As the history of Western numeral systems shows, this is all too true: the Arab word sifr gives us the English ‘cipher’, a number or a nothing, or both. Pondering the problems of arithmetical representation, the Greeks wondered how ‘nothing’ could be ‘something’ in paradoxes such as those of Zeno of Elea and Eubulides of Miletus (the same paradoxes that reappear in the problem of the ‘impossible heap’ in Endgame.) ‘Nothing is better than the kingdom of heaven’, begins a syllogism that proceeds ‘A crust of bread is better than nothing’ before pouncing to sophistic victory: ‘A crust of bread is better than the kingdom of heaven.’ Lear’s fool and not a few Beckettian ne’er-do-wells might be inclined to agree. John Donne explored the productive womb of absence in ‘A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day’, in which love expresses ‘A quintessence even from nothingnesse’:
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death: things which are not.
‘There is nothing between us’, Sylvia Plath writes in ‘Medusa’, in a pun that brilliantly conflates intimacy, distance and denial. Wallace Stevens provides one of the most celebrated modern inflections of ‘nothing’ in its positive and negative senses in ‘The Snow Man’, whose listener, ‘nothing himself, beholds | Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ As a performative contradiction, this recalls the characterisation of Joyce’s Ulysses as an attempt to turn the light on quickly enough to see the dark, but example after example from Beckett reminds us how something (or nothing) can simultaneously be and not be, be present and absent at once.
From an essay on Beckett and Shakespeare, for more on which see here.
A review (by me) of Spanish poet Enrique Juncosa, here.
Also, from the same paper, an interesting piece by Terence Killeen on the new ‘corrected’ Finnegans Wake, whose editors have decided to make 9,000 changes to the text without, it seems, the slightest explanation of why or how or what their rationale was.
Monday, March 08, 2010
Humanity’s long war on nature, as described in Christopher Reid’s ‘Men Against Trees’, with its legion of anti-arborealists:
I saw one last week on a daylight job:
reversing under the boughs of an ash,
he tore a limb and left an enormous gash.
You had to admire the insouciant slob!
The environmental theme I will return to in a moment, but first, a question. Can living people have ghosts? Dante confers ghosts on selected then-still-living Florentines, but if we extend the principle slightly, then hark, what is that knocking sound I hear? It can only be the ghost Christopher Reid left behind to pace the corridors of Hull University, banging his head repeatedly against the nearest whiteboard or drinks dispenser. And why? Robert McCrum, in a discussion of writers and fame in today’s Observer (‘In the 1980s writers entered a world of large cheques, literary awards and celebrity’) cites ‘the intriguing case of Christopher Reid, the Costa prize-winning poet.’ Go on. ‘On the face of it, Reid, who is 60, has the profile of a writer marginalised by dominant market forces. (...) A Scattering was a well-kept secret, shunned by the book trade. Waterstone’s, for instance, declined to stock it. Until Reid won the prize, his prospects were bleak.’ Alas, McCrum could only have whispered to anyone who still remembered this witty, entertaining, moving poet, editor of Ted Hughes’s letters, former Faber poetry editor, and more recently Professor of Creative Writing in t’North Country, or somewhere north of the Watford gap at any rate, to anyone who still remembered a time when Reid too might have entered that world of ‘large cheques’ and ‘celebrity’, and then to our collective dismay didn’t: his pre-Costa PROSPECTS WERE BLEAK, McCrumb would regretfully have averred.
The Observer newspaper, historians record, was once in the habit of acknowledging the existence of poetry, or at least allowing A. Alvarez to review the odd book in its pages half a century ago. There was a brief recrudescence of reviews, by Adam Phillips, about three years ago, but having gone away again (though I notice Katie Price bagged an Observer review for her last novel) their prospects of return look, well, bleak.
Now, back to those trees. Elevating a position of unexamined individual privilege into a general rule (‘In the 1980s writers entered a world of large cheques...’) is certainly an unpleasant sight. Reviewing John Lister-Kaye’s At the Water’s Edge: A Personal Quest for Wilderness in the Guardian, Sean O’Brien cannot help noticing how its author’s sensitivity to nature is helped along by his owning a loch in the Scottish highlands:
He is clearly a man of principle, but his immediate world is very different from one occupied by the long-term unemployed on a sink estate in Hull or in small towns in Northern Scotland. In the afterword, stung by accusations of privilege he states: ‘As with any situation in life, it ultimately boils down to what you make of it and how determined you are to stick at things when the going gets tough.’
This sounds pretty lame, does it not. But when O’Brien moves on to attacking Lister-Kaye’s desire to emulate or enter the world of a wildcat, a fairly tough call while we insist on holding onto to human consciousness, I feel he overplays his hand:
[Love and hate] are characteristics that accompany consciousness, which is exactly what we don’t share with the animals Lister-Kaye so admires. His longing to surrender a sophisticated self in favour of the animals’ natural fit with their environment, to stop thinking and simply be present, would make no sense to a wildcat. Nor would the sheep and deer he resents for replacing older Highland fauna be concerned that they are beneficiaries of environmental damage by early farmers who cleared the forest and killed the bears and wolves. In this sense, there may be no nature to go back to.
The opening ‘is’, rather than an ‘are’, suggests it isn’t love and hate O’Brien believes we do not share with animals, but consciousness. Animals are devoid of consciousness? That’s harsh. But our respectful attention to a wildcat is compromised by our inability to shed our humanity and be wildcats ourselves? This position sounds to me like D.H. Lawrence’s Walt Whitman: I empathize with you by becoming you. Should I do something about your pain? Why would I, when I’m sitting here feeling it with you? There has be another way of getting closer to that elusive Big Other. But, getting back to Lister-Kaye, we contemplate the wild things across a species divide, and if we feel L-K is getting sentimental about it, then do it some other way, or ponder the insuperability of it all. But O’Brien’s response to this is a mixture of the salutary-sceptical and an apparent desire not to have the debate at all:
Above all, though, nature doesn’t care whether you’re on its side. And perhaps what makes the piety of some environmentalism so annoying is the sense of being addressed by someone who thinks they’re a member of a club that doesn’t actually exist.
The fact that a wildcat doesn’t care if you’re on its side or not strikes me as an excellent basis for starting, not ceasing to have this debate. The idea is to get yourself out of the way, and doing this probably shouldn’t involve displays of piety or unselfconsciously privileged guilt. But, to invert Groucho Marx, I can’t think of a club I’d be happier to belong to then one that ‘doesn’t actually exist’. It strikes me as objectively the right side to be on, in any given argument.
And, my God, as Sean O’Brien would be the first person to tell any of us, but there’s a lot of wildlife on Hull council estates that would make any wildcat turn tail and run. But prospects of making contact with it are, well, here again, bleak.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
The current issue of New Welsh Review features a review of mine of Keri Finlayson’s excellent collection, Rooms, which I hereby recommend. But it also reminds me of a review I had in that journal an issue or two back of Claire Crowther’s The Clockwork Gift (Shearsman, £8.95), and which I hereby recycle in a similar spirit of recommendation.
Philip Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’ judders to a halt against the buffers of ‘age, and then the only end of age’. If is seems a terminus, many writers (not least Larkin himself) have found it a starting point too, and much of Claire Crowther’s new collection, The Clockwork Gift, addresses itself to the condition of grandmotherhood. A grandmother is an ‘Endpaper, Scissorsmile, Leatherface, /Filetongue, Veinlady, Spiderheart...’, to list just six of the terms from ‘Names’, none of them exactly flattering. ‘Woman, Probably one of the Fates’ considers representations of the older woman in art, and the older female body as a metaphorised space of self-representation: ‘When wrinkles etch so deeply they lattice neck /and muzzle forehead, skin takes over, //makes a fabric of old stone.’ ‘Skin’, the poem concludes, ‘is resistance.’
To introduce Crowther’s work like this may set up unfairly thematic expectations of a book’s worth of cheery gender reclamation and uplift, but in truth Crowther’s poetry is thematic only in the sense that C major is the theme of a Bach prelude or fugue. The skin of Crowther’s poems is resistant to obviousness. Among the successes of her style is her ability to seem mysterious but not forbidding or arch, burrowing into her material, whether archaelogically or with her gardening gloves. ‘Lines get broken’, she writes in ‘Petra Genetrix’, and throughout The Clockwork Gift she shows a deft and unusual way with lineation. Alternating long and short (sometimes one-word) lines are a recurring pattern, or wandering indents in the style of Lorine Niedecker, as in ‘Empire’, with its consideration of (cue catastrophic true lineation failure; now you know what that mermaid looks so glum):
dead-nettle and betony
and the supposedly graceful
cramped under wicker fingers
that could slit hands,
your eyes once.
You tried to dig it out.
Its roots are infected
by some virus
that turns the clay soil
round the stems to cement.
The tiny eyes of its leaves
flash open each year
among dog grass,
dog campion, dog roses.
Still on the subject of what might lurk in the garden, The Clockwork Gift makes a notable contribution to English suburban gothic in the ‘thike’, an imaginary creature that stalks several of these poems, whose feet ‘stick to any surface’ and whose corpses ‘smell of fresh grouting’. A close cousin of Raymond Briggs’ bogey, perhaps? ‘Sleeping on a Trampoline’ ends with the richly absurd image of a thike so desperate to exit its mother’s uterus it calls to a passer-by, threatening to jump. Like any good nonsense writing, Crowther’s poem has no difficulty in making you ‘agree to wrong /ideas.’
Eavan Boland has written at length about ageing in her poetry, but Crowther’s work is much less reminiscent of Boland than it is of another Irish poet, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, as in the sequence ‘St Anne’s Apocrypha’, with its troping of Catholic iconography and subtle intimations of the pressure-points between the actual and the numinous. Earlier in the book, ‘Xylotheque’ introduces the theme of ghosts, and the central poem ‘The Herebefore’ is a long meditation on the commerce between the living and the dead (‘It’s indefensible, falling in love with the dead’). I can’t help being reminded by that title of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘wha’s been here before me lass’, in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and Crowther’s poem conveys a similar generational continuity and mystery, ending with its female figure ‘arc-lit /in gold water’:
We would watch her cross the wall
with her words, the woman below copying
the woman above, an image of synchronicity,
as tightly turned as her every stall at my desk.
No skull but a new-coined queen.
Other enjoyable moments from this collection include the austery era echoes of ‘A Seafront Wake for the Postwar’, the witchy overtones of ‘The Blood Queen’, and the single-sentence rush and McGuckianesque lushness of ‘Lucy’s Light’. Crowther’s line in tangy natural detail with a mythopoeic edge (not to mention the odd burst of Latin too) can be evocative of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns minus the Anglicanism. We are not told where Crowther lives, but the clues suggest the West Midlands (Hob’s Moat), which I feel licenses my detection of a Roy Fisher influence too, notably in its description of parks and public spaces. But this is not to play spot-the-influences in the usual way of explaining why the author of a first or second collection has yet to achieve artistic autonomy. The Clockwork Gift comes just two years after Stretch of Closures, Crowther’s distinctive debut, and between them they add up not just to a promising first collection and a speedy follow-up, but a real and achieved body of work by a striking talent. The Clockwork Gift is a pleasure to read.