Friday, 25 July 2014

Sacrifices, proxy wars

I am writing this on the blog trying to get my own head round it. I have written about Israel / Palestine before, several times. I too have seen the dreadful pictures and have heard the figures, wherever they come from (always worth asking and digging a little), though it hardly matters in abstract terms whether the figure is too high or too low since this is not an abstract matter. It is lives and deaths, most certainly the lives and deaths of non-combatants.

The man in the interview above is not Israeli - he is someone the BBC World Service thought worh asking for his views. They let him speak over the terrible pictures of the suffering in a Gaza hospital. I am not in a position to judge whether what he says is true but nobody except Hamas has tried to deny it. Two striking ideas to emerge out of the discussion concern  jihadist ideology's propagation of death and sacrifice as key values (I remember the Jihadist message: 'We love death more than you do life') and that this is a proxy war.

That does not make anything better. It is no use arguing that if Israel's idea was revenge or punishment it could have killed far more people than it has done. Nor does it help to argue that Hamas deliberately invites multiple casualties since however much it invites those casualties the casualties are real and we see them before us (even though some of what we see is not from Gaza at all but from Syria and other places).

We see them and we cannot avoid them. Seeing them breeds revulsion in us, and that revulsion is first and foremost for those who actually killed the people, not for those who deliberately exposed them to death. The finger on the trigger is what we think of.

Hamas knows this. That is the nature of its war. That is the long term war it hopes to win. It's the only war it can hope to win - for now. Hamas believes that if enough people want to isolate, delegitimise, and destroy Israel eventually it will be destroyed. Hamas's demands for a free-access, unblockaded Gaza are all but impossible for Israel to grant unless, among other things, Hamas gives up its rockets (where do these rockets come from? how expensive are they? how do they pay for them? who pays for them? where situated? could Palestinians' lives in Gaza be improved if the money were not being spent on rockets that only invite their own sacrifice?) and desists from suicide attacks, kidnappings and other forms of murder.

When Israel evacuated its settlers from Gaza there was no wall, no blockade. That only came after Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. It was then the defences started going up. (List of suicide bombings here, list of rocket attacks here, and in 2014 here.)

None of this helps the dead either. It may be that had Hamas not taken control of the Gaza strip and if the Palestinians living there had managed to develop some relatively amicable or even basic economic relationship with Israel the question of the West Bank might have been closer to being resolved (they seemed to have been close at the time of the Oslo Accords). If that were resolved there might be a start to a new and more peaceful era. For Israel, as things stands, ceding the West Bank would risk a repetition of Gaza and being attacked on two fronts with still that slender vulnerable neck.

As it stands very few neighbouring or Arab countries recognise Israel and Iran and Qatar continue to fund and arm Hamas. The long term aim of Israel's opponents remains to wipe it off the map. It is certainly the aim of Hamas.

Knowing this and assuming it to be true doesn't help the dead either. It doesn't even excuse them. But it helps to balance the account according to which Israel acts out of sheer wickedness.

It is easy to say what Israel shouldn't do. When you ask what it is Israel should do (that is if you ask it of those who are not wanting Israel simply to disappear) the answer you get is that it is not their affair and that the question itself is a kind of cheating. They say: look at the pictures.

And we do. Time and again.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hot Damn
A pamphlet of poems by Cat Woodward (2)

Of course it is possible to engage in two or more conversations at once or to channel remotely the voice of another, it is ostensibly a matter of slippage.
So it says in the middle of one of Cat Woodward's prose poems on the dawning of the age of aquarius. And she's right, that is possible. In fact we do it a lot of the time but it is not unproblematic. The core of poetry - the poetry project, if you like - doesn't change very much. It deals with the core realities, such as those I mentioned in the last post and it strives to understand them and offer them up as form, a form that has the peculiar grace composed of both excess and inadequacy. Form adapts and changes but the project remains the same.

In the first poem of the pamphlet we meet one of the abiding themes of poetry: the moon. The prose poem titled i love the moon makes several references to its subject from the first phrase (the poem is unpunctuated) where "the moon rises over a tree with a robot's muteness half way between gutspill and mind your god damn business" through the text. The moon has "something of an institutionalised relationship with the sun at this moment the sun is breathing into the moon's mouth and saying open your lips you idiot". The moon has the same look as the poet's dead grandmother "only she's been there with that look on her yellow face as if she were dreaming too". The moon "takes her by the hand with a decisive action". Finally "the moon is a dry river she is airless and pale and far after all she is the moon".

Some of these actions are perfectly traditional in a romantic sense, so the poem speaks of trees, femme fatales, nightingales and dreams, but it is looking to extend and intensify the experience of moonness, so it also provides us with robots, fashion models, bodily cavities, sexual contact, dollars, and, finally family history via the grandmother who enters the poem about two thirds through and remains there, becoming a twin subject, perhaps the discovered alternative meaning of the subject. The grandmother effectively anchors the moon for us.

This is, of course, a simplified description of one poem, not the analysis of a 'method' or even a 'vision' if by that we mean the apprehension of some kind of system that informs everything within it. The poem takes up most of the page. It sprawls a little and throws in some rhetorical devices, mostly those that de-romanticise the subject. Nevertheless it refers to intense emotions and an intensity of experience. Blake's moon, Shelley's moon, any poet's moon, depends on similar experiences.

If there's not exactly a method there is a general desire to play and disrupt, to avoid the cosy by cutting or disengaging. In the second poem (this time in lines) on looking for one's enemy and finding her she talks of "concocting a sort of doorway that cannot be passed through". But whatever is beyond the door will keep pressing through our way. Her third poem, sayonara suckers, asks three times for pain to be taken away. The poem talks of cruelty. Its imagery runs a gamut of flash-up scenes involving animals. The scenes are linked, not in narrative fashion, but in terms of register.

All the prose poems work on the same essential principle - some repeated term that sets the key discovered among a series of disruptions or rhetorical tropes. In hello jerk face we are given strings of adjectives, one piled on another. These have a cumulative and essentially alienating effect. The poems really don't want to cosy up to us.

There is a group of haiku too. The haiku is an almost infinitely supple form but in English at least it has a convention of seventeen syllables arrnged 5-7-5. Woodward keeps to that and gains from it. There is no sprawl, no room for extraneous matter. The disruptions are braced against their syllabic necessities. The classical balance is maintained despite the disruptions.

I have concentrated on the first half of this small collection and tried to describe the way it works. Woodward is very inventive and while maintaining a pugnacious front registers delicately and with power. A later poem tender begins:
there is this hoof in him
a kind of homelessness
made out of parties
That is original and beautiful. The poem ends:
how gentle is the finger to the poem
how closed the caterpillar to the palm
I have talked of sprawl in the pamphlet. Some of that is deliberate and necessary but maybe not all of it is. It is difficult producing forms in this way. It depends on an acute ear and a willingness to exceed some inbuilt norms. Woodward certainly has an acute ear. She is working her way to somewhere demanding but rewarding. And there is something beyond intellectual curiosity that is driving the horses. It is not about cleverness, nor is it about obscurity.

Which could easily take me back to my little agon with Jeremy Paxman.

Hot Damn: A pamphlet of poems:
A preamble on excess, deficiency and cosiness (1)

The sense of the 'poetic' is hard-wired into us and, when pressed, most of us would admit, perhaps grudgingly, to understanding what it was. It is both inadequacy and overflow. We perceive something whose effect seems to be excessive relative to its logical importance: the way a wall darkens (or lightens), the way a cat places its foot, the way someone turns in the street, the way a footballer or cricketer executes a movement, the way a sound produces silence or clamour, the way the sea spreads its fingers along a shore. It is, as Auden put it, 'a way of happening', or as the Irish tale has it, 'the music of what happens'.

It is excessive in that it is more than is strictly required. It strikes us as a vital enlivening superfluity, a kind of grace that once perceived, paradoxically, establishes itself as strictness, a necessity from which we can lose nothing or to which we can add nothing without ruining it.

It is, at the same time, a reminder of deficiency, of our inadequacy. By establishing its own standard of existence it rebukes that which lacks it while at the same time giving us an earnest of whatever perfection it itself falls short of. Ye are not gods.

It is, in short, a human act, not an absolute. It is a moment, not eternity.

I wouldn't want to confuse grace, in this sense, with gracefulness. Its line of beauty is not necessarily the arabesque. It can wear clogs with as much grace as it might ballet pumps. It is not a 'type' of activity, it is a way, a momentary way, of going about any activity. It perfects itself the best it can and it seems to do so without any self-important artfulness. It resists artfulness and when it does put on its artful mask it does so with a certain mischief, against the odds. When it dances on a tightrope while juggling and breathing fire at the same time it is aware that the rope is high and there are no adequate safety nets. It cannot afford cosiness. Cosiness is the death of the poetic.


Poetry,  as spoken, chanted, or sung, is also hard-wired into us and for the same reason. It is as old as language itself, and at least as old as story-telling, maybe older. No people have lived without it. I am not concerned to offer, however tentatively, a definition here, simply to say that while it has assumed various forms in various places at various times, it has nevertheless performed the same tasks, the chiefest of which has been to articulate a sense of reality in terms of the 'poetic' as above, in other words with a notion of momentary grace that embodies both excess and inadequacy.

It isn't a fresh effort each time of course. How could it be? Language is not the creation of any particular generation. It is inherited: it has a history. Each new usage struggles free from its predecessors but cannot help recalling them. Reality itself changes, sometimes drastically, sometimes cataclysmatically, but the core realities remain as they were: birth, death, chance etc etc History does not vanish. It goes underground.


I am prompted to similar reflections every time I read something unusual. This time it is a pamphlet of poems, mostly in prose, by  Cat Woodward.

Two qualifications needed.

Firstly, the poet was in my class at undergraduate level for a semester and, afterwards, individually, as a tutee while she was producing a portfolio of poems for an end-of-year assessment. Her poems then were clearly sophisticated, skilful, aware of other poetry, and ambitious - not in the career sense but in that she had guessed that there was more to the experiences she was writing about than could be easily formulated. Her poems were the real if incomplete thing, dissatisfied with themselves for the best of reasons. They distrusted cosiness.

Secondly, the unusual is never quite as unusual as you first think. There are always precedents. There are always echoes. No articulate sensibility is going to be entirely alien. Each new work establishes its own rules, lodges in its own frame, but those rules, those frames, are not without history. Nothing is.

This post is long enough, but it is a necessary preamble to talking about the pamphlet, which I will do in the next post.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Asking favours, begetting furies

Just back from London where I was tutoring a poetry class at the National Gallery on Saturday. Clarissa came on a later train and met Steph, a good friend, and our son Tom. After the class finished - it was a lovely session, the writers mostly very talented - the four of us met in the Portrait Gallery cafe just as it was closing, then  parted from Steph and, having wandered a round a little, had supper at a Persian restaurant not too far away then returned to Tom's in Stratford where we watched the second half of the Netherlands - Cost Rica game, extra-time, penalties and all, some thirty minutes of stalemate followed by close to an hour of frantic action. Sad to see Costa Rica out, partly because they were such underdogs and partly because their spirit - and defence - were admirable. Sleep was hard after that, but it came eventually.

But maybe it was hard because of something else.

I had asked a poet friend for a favour, not for myself (I don't believe I have ever asked anyone for a personal favour, being deeply shy of such things, maybe even a touch proud of never asking) but for a cause in which I am involved. It's a very noble cause for the good of literature in the country generally, one that is currently raising money to establish a stronger base. The head of the project had bumped into my friend at some affair and they had spoken about the cause, the friend apparently enthusiastic. The friend had a very wealthy philanthropic contact and the head of the project wondered if my friend might approach the philanthropist to arrange some kind of introduction. Could I write to my friend to enquire?

I am wary of such things for the reasons given above (shyness, pride) but the cause is excellent so I agreed to write a letter, and the project enclosed some of the publicity material.

After a couple of days I received an email from the poet-friend rejecting the idea of approaching said philanthropist but also criticising the publicity material and doing so, in what seemed to me, a rather lecturing, morally superior way. Asserting moral superiority is something the English are good at doing - there are times you can practically see the eyes swivel so as to look down the nose. I suddenly felt ashamed of myself for daring to ask anything. It was horrible. I felt hurt and angry. Surely if the friend disliked the PR material (what do I know about such things? - it's PR material, in other words information couched in whatever terms publicity tends to use) he could have graciously refused and added something to the effect that the publicity brochure might not be the kind of thing to appeal to the philathropist in any case. That I would have understood.

I can be quite impetuous. Why would a friend want to humiliate you? I wrote to the poet-friend, whom I have known for several years, and told him so. So that's one friendship finished, I thought.

Am I sorry? No, I am too old to care about it. Do I regret it? Not even that. The incident spoke a truth that had not had occasion to surface before. It clarified a relationship. My impetuousness is as nothing to B S Johnson's whose biography by Jonathan Coe I am still reading on and off. BSJ was convinced of his own genius. Me? I just dislike being patronised, especially by friends.

But one goes on.

This morning to the Museum of London for the first time. There is an awful lot of London, an awful lot of history and a great deal of water under the bridge, in fact right under the soil.

Tom is marvellous. Lunch in a pub in Farringdon then the walk to King's Cross, the farewell, and Clarissa and I home, rather tired.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

From National Gallery to Care Home,
via Southwold, football, and a Cat-whisperer

 Blyth105 FM, Southwold

Five days since the last posting. Let's try and keep this regular as and when possible. A quick summing up.

1. Art and political change
On Monday in London to the National Gallery. First I meet Sue, poet, novelist, and art journalist in the NG cafe to discuss a possible exhibition / event about (from my point of view) the drift to the right in European and UK politics and / or (from her point of view) the political engagement of contemporary visual artists. There is common ground but more to be explored before we can begin to think of a coherent framework.

2. Making Colour
From Sue to Gill H in the NG itself. I am due to give an NG poetry workshop on Saturday based on the Making Colour exhibition. First to see the show. It is organised in terms of one colour per room. The questions asked are: what is the raw source of the colour, how it is processed, how produced, how used, how it lasts and how it affects art, each room showing art works specifically related to the discovery and use of the colour.  My job is to introduce some ideas on colours (I have myself written a few hundred sonnets based on specific colours), to offer ways in which one might go about writing and developing, and to produce work based on the exhibition. There is a firm structure to the day, the workshop is full and we have six hours excluding lunch.

3. Interview
On Tuesday to Southwold to do an interview for local radio. The station is in a small octagonal building on the sea front next to an old row of cannons (see top pic). My interviewer is Chrissie who has done her research so we have a good conversation lasting about an hour with a couple of musical inserts (including part of one of Brahms's Hungarian Dances - I am honoured). I read six or seven short poems, including poems for children. This is all in preparation for my hour long spot to come on Saturday for the very first Southwold Arts Festival. It's an ambitious and enthusiastic venture (enthusiasm is central to all such first steps) and looks rather good - in fact it is still going on as I write this. See for yourself.

4. Cat-whispering
On Wednesday the cat-whisperer cometh. He is in fact Attila Sz. a Hungarian animal behaviourist whose wisdom is fabled in the region (and whose performance skills are on evidence here). He has come to discuss Pearl, our attack-cat. Having listened through he suspects she is just hard-wired that way and that certain stimuli set her off. No guarantee, no cure, he says, though there are little things one can do to keep her from being too miserable and snappish. Attila seems a very nice man and thoroughly competent, except he leaves his hat behind so I have to run after him with it. He seems all the nicer for that. No decisions taken yet regarding Pearl, though somebody has written on Facebook that she might be more than happy to adopt her.

5. Football days
Thursday and Friday are fairly quiet apart from the enthralling World Cup.  We invite our neighbour Elizabeth's daughter, Pip, who is over from Australia to watch the 5pm match with us. She is quite passionately well-informed. That's fun. We eat supper together. God know what happened to Friday. Oh yes - up to Norwich to meet Meirion and then to buy some clothes.

6. Preparing
I spend Saturday and Sunday preparing for Monday's appearance at Southwold. It needs more preparation than usual becaue I am performing solo for an hour and intend mixing material from poems, translations of both poetry and fiction, poems for children, libretti for music and the microfictions featuring Langoustine, Child Helga and the rest originally written for - and on - Twitter.

I have never done anything like this before. No visuals, no music, just standing up and speaking. It's a risk mixing the material but it all emanates from the same core of things so there's a chance it might work. This is onlyinterrupted by the visit of Ken, a local composer I have often worked with, who is currently setting my Scrapsongs (The First World War for children, in verse - I will put it up here.) Football in the evening.

7. Performing
Southwold. Monday. A fine day. We pick up Tom C on the way from Halesworth and drive over to be met by Oonagh who shows us where to park, then head off for coffee followed by a Cromer Crab at the nearby Adnams with the festival committee. Then to the event at St Edmunds Hall. The room itself is small so gets a decent looking audience and the hour flies by, not just for me but for them. Bags of enthusiasm, a drink of fizz and book selling / signing. I am relieved, delighted and a little high. People do actually buy books, which is very good of them at £12 a ticket to start with.

8. Visiting E
Tuesday. It's some time since we last saw E in the care home - her children have been over a while and have seen her most days. She is asleep in her room when we arrive and I have a faint apprehension she might be dead. She is very still, very grey, her position looks uncomfortable. But then I see she is breathing. Clarissa touches her hand and she wakes, slightly disorientated at first. The room is bright with sunlight which dazzles her when we sit at her bedside on the window side since there is no space on the other.

She decides to sit up on the edge of the bed and does so with some help. She is almost without colour and her arms are like twigs. Her eyes don't focus immediately but she is very much compos mentis bar the forgetting of personal or place names and times. She does ask us once where she is and we tell her. Two or three times she mentions that 'they' won't let her go home. (She really couldn't cope at home now). She hardly eats but does drink some of the cup of tea one of the carers brings. Talking is possible. I joke and she smiles.

She seems to exist on at least two levels, one being the same as ever, interested, amused, masking a sharp intelligence with self-deprecation; the other three-quarters out of the world, willing herself to be wholly out of it. Do you dream, we ask? No, she answers. She doesn't even think, she says. She tries to fill her head with nothing, but maybe there is just nothing there anyway. Nothing, she keeps repeating. A blank. But if there is nothing there she is remarkably conscious of the fact.

It's a hard job rowing one's way to death but she pulls steady for long periods then needs to take a rest. The room is clean though it does have a faint smell. The view outside is of lawns and gardens. She says she sees a car outside but there isn't one. There is a white wooden board leaning against a wall. The car she sees is white.

9. Last thing at night
The most wonderful game of football between Belgium and the United States, enthralling, moving, heart-stopping, the US team scrupulously fair, no cheating, no pretending, intelligent, inventive, full of commitment; Belgium gifted, professional, also honest, on the attack, on top - no pretending there either. The game is very dramatic. Extra time throbs and pulses. In the end the Belgians win but almost have to win twice.

All the most inspiring teams in this World Cup have been from CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean group: USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, the unfancied, the so-called naive. Something thrilling about them all. Sorry to see Algeria go out too, with something of the same straight commitment and invention. It is an echo of what used to be known as the Olympic, or Corinthian, spirit.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache:
Worlds Literature Festival (10)

Homeache. The soldier with his distances. The liar with his indulgences.
The noise of deserted streets. Open mouths.


You hold the homeache in your hand as if it were yours, as if your hands were yours,
as if you had hands, as if you had a home.


You feel unjustified. You don't recognise the madness in your veins.
The aching in your arms is for a home beyond arms' length.


Homeache is a city suddenly empty. A familiar unidentified smell.
The self gone missing finds itself unmoored. A shower of faint stars.


I can no longer count its streets, says a voice you recognise.
These are your streets. They are too many to count. They are yours to lose.


How many ways of recognising home without inhabiting it?
Without ever having inhabited it?
Who lives there now? Whose eyes meet its people?


After the rain the dry street. In the dead of night a sound settling into life.
That too is an ache seeking a home. Then the sound of rain.


It’s like ringing a bell at night. No one hears it, not even the bell ringer.
No, not even you. Yet it's there because you recognise it.


Homeache can't perfect itself. It can't even move.
It makes sculptures out of absence. It is its own lost art.


Homeache: the fierce wind wrapping itself around trees and eaves.


The consolations of being consoled. Of being able to conceive of consolation.
Of a home to ache for. Of phantom limbs.


How many ways of making the beautiful out of lack? Why desire the beautiful?
Would home be beautiful? Would it ache? Would it desire?


You have arrived home. You take off your coat. You move down the hall.
Your body aches. The ache becomes your home. You close the door.

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (9)

from Hiroshima, Mon Amour


Xiaolu Guo’s provocation was a plea to move away from the close concerns of the novel and to enter the public forum on many levels at once, as writers, as artists, as film-makers, as journalists, as theorists. One should return to the ethos of 50s cinema in Europe, or even earlier, to the time of manifestos between the wars. To the time of Dada for example. To its energy. Her own fictional characters, she told us, were always writing unpublished manifestos.

There should be an end to endings as closures too. Great literature, such as Calvino's, did not produce neat Hollywood endings. The arts should not be content to be confined within the limits of a craft. Art should engage in the public forum. It should be full of ideas, however unfinished.

To support this she showed us four filmclips, from Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poète, from Godard’s À Bout de Souffle at the start and from Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and from Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as scripted by Marguerite Duras. She invited us to be revolutionary public auteurs. Why should literature be a monoculture - the novel and nothing more? Why should we restrict ourselves to being wordsmiths? She talked of Derek Jarman, Chris P{etit, Neil Jordan and John Berger  all of whom had oproduced work in a variety of media.

Nostalgia was a novelist's preoccupation. The novel had become lazy and complacent. Let's explode nostalgia!


A little like Wojciech’s provocation, Xuolu's could be regarded as a wake-up slap in the face of the novel. But one might also see it as the throwing open of a window. It had little, perhaps, to do with nostalgia as such, except in its dismissal of conventional novelistic versions of it, but it was hard to resist the call of raw memory especially when the voice on Hiroshima, Mon Amour asks us ‘Why deny the obvious necessity of remembering?’

Remembering lies at the root of this: how we remember, what we remember, what we choose to present in order that it should be remembered, but what we invent or imagine having remembered or desire as part of the complex mixture each of us has to balance. We were reminded that we were talking about tightropes here. It may well be that the higher the tightrope the better.

My own decision was to retitle nostalgia and call it ‘homeache‘ just as one might refer to toothache, or stomachache, or bellyache or head- or heartache. The ache exists. I couldn’t sleep on one of these nights and wrote down these thoughts that may constitute a poem, about homeache.

See the next post for the last of the Worlds 2014 reports,  the poem, Homeache.