Friday, 31 October 2008


I am walking from one building to another while behind me three male students are discussing their appearance at the Halloween Ball tonight.

One says: I am going as a lump of cheese.

The second says: I am going as a Tory.

The third adds: I am going as a Russian billionaire.

I once went to a fancy dress party dressed as the man with the world's worst cold. You want style? You want elegance? I give you style and elegance. C accompanied me as a living jigsaw puzzle. No one attempted to take her apart and put her together again, unless it was me at some later stage.

Going as a piece of cheese could be tricky. So much more difficult than going as a Tory. And yet, I wonder what the identifying marks of the Tory are. The boy could do a Bullingdon, but wouldn't that just be all-purpose Oxbridge posh? He might be taken for Anthony Andrews or Jeremy Irons. Would he wear a Boris Johnson mop? But that would be going as a particular Tory. Russian billionaire? Again it seems easier than cheese, but how would one tell a Russian billionaire from an Estonian or even French one?

But this is exactly why people go to university. To make fine distinctions. Would you sooner go as Brie or Jarlsberg? Could you pass muster as Dolcelatte or Wensleydale? You see? It takes a degree. The staff? Old goat's cheese.


Ah, the important issue of Ross and Brand. It will seem to you as though I have been avoiding it. Well (folds his arms, stares straight ahead) one could regard it as a straightforward breach of one or other semi-existent BBC guideline. Or (unfolds arms, examines fingernail) as a lamentable decline in broadcasting manners. Or, alternatively, (scratches his ear) as the vacuous on-air fartings of vacuously rich blaggers. Or (takes out some loose change from his pockets and examines it in a vague, unfocused way) a betrayal of trust in ringing up a person on a private phone, making puerile schoolboy noises then playing the recording of it in public (he brightens up a little and looks briefly interested). Or (suddenly relapses, looks vacuous himself, eyes begin to droop) as a particularly repulsive episode in the snotnosed, shitfaced lives of the younger generation. Or (heads falls forward, sounds of snoring)....

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Home late...

...and pretty exhausted, despite which it will be a day at UEA for me tomorrow. Arrived home to find many copies of the double-whopping New and Collected Poems waiting complete with C's splendid cover, plus the handsome volume of Dr Sears's anatomy of my verses that I am almost afraid to read in case he pronounces me subtly dead. And some copies of my new Márai translation, Esther's Inheritance.

More tomorrow. This is tired stuff. Here's a picture of Frankfurt scraped off the web. I was disappointed not to find the four people shown at the bottom of the picture ready and in position. Not even the dog! O eternal disappointment! Now C will have to scrape me off the floor.

Wet morning in Frankfurt

Very grey,with fat rain threatening to thicken and scurry. Arrived yesterday afternoon, caught taxi to hotel in a Turkish area of town, or at the edge of it, next street up. A nice bookshop there, its window filled with poetry. Stoppped for a kebab lunch then to meet K at the middle of the nearest bridge. We walk along the embankment to the, mostly re-created, medieval centre where we have coffee. Then to the Judische Museum where I am to talk with Cecile Wajsbrot.

The city mayor attends and about forty people. As a conversation it is more a series of monologues about views of Israel. I make my only substantial point, that being that people should have the opportunity to live somewhere where they are not in a perpetual, vulnerable, minority and where they can have some say in defining themselves rather than being defined by others. Also, that since one has to die anyway, I'd rather die in a dignified manner of my own choosing within the normal terms of human life, and if that means being killed resisting humiliation I would sooner do that than be humiliated and dead anyway, thank you.

It's easy enough, you'd think. This doesn't apply solely to Israel, of course, but to all, including Palestinians. But it does apply to Jews too, as much as to Muslims or Christians or atheists or anyone else, and, it seems to me, Israel is the only place that can happen for Jews. Which does not mean I have any particular desire to live there or even visit, though if I were invited I would accept. It would no doubt be a strange experience for me since I have never lived in a Jewish milieu nor do I even desire to live in such. I am talking about basic human dignity, and while I am far from romantically idealistic about this to the extent as to think such dignity is immediately achievable, we ought damn well to try.

Then to dinner in a nearby restaurant by the river, K, her parents, Cecile, a friend and our friend Eva and Raphael from the museum. Spend the meal talking about art, the differences in language and manners between Hungary, Germany and England. Three of the four of us are rooting for Obama, the fourth is worried by him. Not long to wait now.

The New and Collected has arrived at home. I will be the last to see it. 500 pages of about thirty years writing. A bargain at the price, if you ask me, but then why would you? See that horse? It's got a mouth. Ask it.

Home in the evening, thank heaven. C waits, open armed. Work waits, sharp clawed.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Cracow 2 - This for C

This being allowed a free day for me, I walked over to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, ambled about the streets, looked in at bookshops and exhibitions, including a particularly moving one of Jewish Cracow artists. Most of them never made it through the war, of course. Some shot, some starved, some gassed, some simply vanished. I don't suppose any of them was that peculiar thing, a 'great' artist, but there they were, artists in the swim of Modernism, many of them sparky and gifted, some landscapists, some portraitists, some narrative painters, a few abstractionists; colourists, draughtsmen and women, printmakers, sculptors, graphic artists; some dead at twenty-three or not much more, others in their sixties or seventies.

As to the area, it is much as I expected. Nowhere near as pretty or stately as the old town, somewhat slummish in parts, and distinctly slummy back then it seems. It has a semi-improvised museum air now, not too volubly self-conscious and still not as pretty as the town centre, of course. The town centre is prosperous and grand and lively, full of the young. Just now there are bands of them draped in what, I imagine, are Wisla Cracow flags, singing away, over and over again, the usual four lines from some well known chorus.

One could live here - meaning I could live here. It is as pretty as a gift, and properly wrapped. The people look friendly in general. They too are sparky. Hey, we are all sparky! Spark is what we have.

I sat outside a bar in a sqaure in Kazimierz, drinking a beer in the sunshine, and I started writing, thinking particularly of C and of the dead whose work I had just seen, and the sunlight and the leaves drifting about the square in front of me.

This is only a draft, I suppose, but I think it is sitting about right, so I am venturing it here, airing it, like possibly not ultimately clean linen.


In thinking of you and where we might
have met, or never met, it seemed night
had settled in a far away corner, here
for example, in Kazimierz, in the one year
and the one moment. Autumn set in, leaves
just starting to drift like lost gloves
for lost hands, so all I could think of just now
was leaves and gloves and hands, and how
to address them. How to address you then
as we ourselves drift among men and women
much like ourselves, who might have been
anyone: leaf, hand, glove, the brown once green,
the night once day, the moment being for ever
the moment, the moment never being over?

Yes, a-a, b-b etc through the fourteen, and just the drifting things, drifting being the best of walking.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Cracow 1

The usual internet cafe, having picked up about 45 emails since yesterday, mostly Facebook invitations, plus some important stuff I have had to send two or three lines to.

Yes, Cracow is certainly beautiful, the old town round the market square at least. I woke early as ever, and after a quick breakfast (and not much sleep) ambled around the streets waiting for the sun to hit something so I could photograph it on my mobile phone, or, alternatively, a vehicle to hit me as I walked down the middle of the street waiting for the sun to etc etc... I take risks. I face the dangers. If it's not good enough you're not close enough. Why, I am practically Robert Capa.

Actually the traffic is slow. I would be run over very slowly, as in slow motion. I do however note there seem to be an inordinate number of police about for no reason I can see or hear of. I have seen more policemen in an hour in the market square than in four years in Wymondham. They drive like demons in Wymondham.

The Jagellonian University is gorgeous. The part where the conference is, is used entirely for meetings and ceremonial occasions so we felt spoilt. I have had three different interpreters in three different sessions, each brilliant. One was interpreting almost ahead of the speaker. Dazzling. Blinding. Blue blistering barnacles! (Or the same in Polish). My paper was third on the list and that went fine. It's not scholarly as such but sort of panoramic, driving two ideas as far into the distance as they will go. Enjoyed the other papers, so can't complain.

Opted for the full Polish at lunch. Soup with boiled egg and sausage (very nice) then a Polish version of ravioli (ravilovich?). Ela was teaching me a little Polish pronunciation as we were waiting for the food. I now know how to pronounce words of whose meaning I am entirely ignorant. Who was it talked of speaking accent without a trace of French?

On the other hand have read two novels in French - up to a point, I hasten to add - so I feel not quite such a dummy as I thought I would. But that's for Frankfurt.

Tomorrow I walk about a bit more.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Sunday Night is

Sunday morning in fact. Just dashing for the airport. Here is a little more Vigo. From Zéro de Conduite. So behave yourselves. No pillow fights. No religious processions. No blasphemy. And do run a comb through your hair!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

To Cracow

The Jagellonian University, Cracow

The weather is just turning cold as I am about to head off to Poland. C, like an angel, has been helping with, nay leading, nay all but solo conducting, a purge of my desk. It's great. I can see surfaces. It's like moving from a basement in Manhattan to the Gardens of Versailles. Life is clarity. Life is geometry. Life is plains and planes. Why, this could last for days! (At least till I get back from Frankfurt.)


I have had some more roadkill poems (dreadful term, I know) pointed out to me and some sent. Here is an appropriate one pointed out by an anonymous poster via email.

The Love of Travellers
Angela Jackson

(for Doris, Sandra and Sheryl)

At the rest stop on the way to Mississippi
we found the butterfly mired in the oil slick;
its wings thick
and blunted. One of us, tender in the finger tips,
smoothed with a tissue the oil
that came off only a little;
the oil-smeared wings like lips colored with lipstick
blotted before a kiss.
So delicate the cleansing of the wings
I thought the color soft as watercolors would wash off
under the method of her mercy for something so slight
and graceful, injured, beyond the love of travellers.

It was torn then, even after her kindest work,
the almost-moth exquisite charity could not mend
what weighted the wing, melded with it,
then ruptured it in release.
The body of the thing lifted out of its place
between the washed wings.
Imagine the agony of a self separated by gentlest repair.
“Should we kill it?” One of us said. And I said yes.
But none of us had the nerve.
We walked away, the last of the oil welding the butterfly
to the wood of the picnic table.
The wings stuck out and quivered when wind went by.
Whoever found it must have marveled at this.
And loved it for what it was and
had been.
I think, meticulous mercy is the work of travellers,
and leaving things as they are
punishment or reward.

I have died for the smallest things.
Nothing washes off.

Nothing washes off, is a very good line indeed, as is that reference to meticulous mercy (what other kind is there?) and being tender in the fingertips. I didn't know the work of Angela Jackson. Now I will find out more.

Life has been so hectic it has been hard finding time to think about anything other than the immediate and the impending. In the meantime, here is a street map of the pear-shaped centre of Krakow.


I am aiming for the Florianska near the top. I shall have one day, or part of a day, to walk about town. The picture on top is the university where the Herbert conference is, partly, happening. Winter coat on. (Then Frankfurt, and with a bit of luck, still posting.)

Friday, 24 October 2008

A prize and London

A letter received yesterday from POETRY magazine to announce that the set of poems I published there in February - the ones about photographs - have been awarded the Bess Hokin Prize. This arrives in the same post as a speeding fine (a roadside camera). It's a very nice prize. All prizes are and one from the USA is particularly, strangely, nice. As for the speeding fine, I think poets ought to be allowed to speed now and then. A little. On a dual carriageway.

Here is one of the POETRY poems:

Kertész: Latrine

Four poilus in a wood austerely shitting.
Death watches them, laughing, its sides splitting.

Life is a cry followed by laughter.
The body before, the waste after.

Could one hear in that wood the gentle click
of the shutter like the breaking of a stick
or the safety catch on its climacteric?

Like the four winds. Like a low fart that rips
clean air in two, like urine that drips.
Four squatting footsoldiers of the Apocalypse.

Kiss them lightly, faint breeze in the small leaves,
be the mop on the brow, the sigh that relieves.

Let them dump and move on into the dark plate
of the unexposed future, too little and too late.

The sidebar has a link to both the poems and a recording of the editors discussing some of them and me reading two.


Yesterday C and I drove to London, C to deliver her pictures, me to Bush House to record the Points of Entry essay, some fifteen minutes or so in a series starting on 24 November. I used to go to Bush House for World Service recordings now and then. Deep in the bowels of the building one would move between partitions where producers of programmes to Hungary, Bulgaria, Malta, Chad and Mongolia led their subterranean lives. Cigarette smoke, slightly yellowed faces... Or am I imagining the cigarette smoke?

First we go to the gallery and drop off the Palladio pictures. It's a gallery that likes photorealism and a generally un-painterly line of work, by which I mean the works are to be apprehended as all image no paint. That's not C's way, nor was it mine, so we feel we are in someone else's house on best behaviour, our buttons and laces never in such quite perfect order as to pass muster. But there we are. My poem about Palladio is in the catalogue (as also in Manhattan Review, where I have previously published, sometime soon.) I feel even odder, a solitary poet among architectural painters and architects.

Over at Bush House the recording takes about an hour or so, maybe a little more with some re-takes. The producer, the technician, the series producer are all women. They are very nice. One says it is good to hear of someone speaking well of their reception in Britain. Well, that's how it was, I say, and so I feel an obligation to say so. I can just imagine someone else frowning and saying: 'But have you thought about those who have been ill treated and exploited?' and this will come across as an accusation. And I will say: "Yes, I have, but it was not my experience and I am not about to lie about it."

Then, having received a phone call from Ron King, over to the premises of Circle Press, just off the Portobello Road, to sign sheets of the limited edition version of The Burning of the Books. A paperback version of the same collaboration will be out soon, probably some time in December. It looks a wonderful thing thanks to Ron whose eyes are as full of energy as ever.

Then the packed commuter train to Stevenage where C picks me up and she drives us home. Today I am reading books (in French) by Cecile Wajsbrot. I wish upon wish my French were better. This for Frankfurt on Wednesday.

I have poems to respond to, from UEA, from ex-UEA and also via this blog. So I am about to dive in.


Oh, a big PS. I am conducting one of those Guardian poetry workshops next thing. My workshop idea has just gone in today.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Jeremy Millar

The artist and writer Jeremy Millar has a new and very impressive site I am delighted to point to in the sidebar. Millar's conceptual, video and installation work seems exemplary to me, which is to say it has substance, gravity, shape and largeness of scale without a trace of cynicism or megalomania. There is a sternly elegiac quality to it too that I like. The world passes through it, first on an intellectual level, but moves at greater, gut depth.

Hard talking about art without abstractions such as substance, gravity, etc that simply assert qualities. It is, perhaps, a little lazy. The test would probably be how much the work might generate in the imagination, as with the poem discussed by students in an earlier post. It might, at least, be a test. It is possible that some work might affect some of us by leaving us blasted and silent. This would be something like Steve Foster's notion of -what was the phrase he used in the comments boxes I don't now have the time to find? - killing the space around it?

Maybe. Though my preference is for the generating principle.

To London today. I, to record the Points of Entry radio programme, details of actual broadcast to follow; C, to deliver her work to the Plus One Gallery, for the Palladio exhibition.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

On definitions

Pointing out the continuing stream of resignations and the arguments behind them, here at Engage. Is it worrying? Yes, it is. And those Israel-South Africa parallels stink to high heaven.

Many people, maybe most, maybe including myself, believe what they want to believe. Some try to leaven this with a dose of scepticism about their own beliefs, with, indeed, a dose of scepticism about the more intense cries of both sides in a conflict. I myself try this. But there are others who prefer a kind of intoxication, a need to feel not just 'right' but furiously 'right'.

Such people insist that Israel is the sole great evil in the world, the only country that should be boycotted, the only country against whom one should actively support those such as Hamas, Hizbollah and the leadership of Iran, forces that have clearly stated that they want to destroy it, and, furthermore, make no secret of wanting to destroy any Jew not sufficiently subservient to the order they would impose - or, according to some of their statements, any Jew whatsoever, wheresoever.

Israel is, strangely enough, the country where half the Jews of the world live*. And these include Jews long resident in Palestine, Jews thrown out of the countries they inhabited, Jews expelled from other parts of the Arab world, Jews who are the descendants - only by one generation in many cases - of those who faced extermination. The population of Israel is roughly the same as the number of those who actually were exterminated one generation back from me. Neat coincidence, eh?

There is no other evil next to this evil, the righteous rage. It is, indeed, the one evil uniting all the furiously 'righteous.'

I have long ago stated my own views on what should prove to be a settlement. A free democratic (of any shade) Palestine, next to a free democratic (of whatever shade) Israel, roughly according to the 1967 border, with some give and take. Israel is not composed of angels and innocents, of guiltless, one hundred-per-cent admirable or lovable people. It is, however, composed chiefly of Jews, who are much like most people, different only in knowing that, if they live in Israel, they live in a place where the surrounding powers wish, and have worked conscientiously, every day, from the birth of the state, to obliterate them.

Outside Israel and in Israel Jews live in a world that has already tried to obliterate them once, and in fact a few times before then.

Call it paranoia? Try calling it history. Try living with that consciousness.

I did not live as a Jew, never felt a Jew, never gave it much thought, until the mid-eighties, and even then not very much. I feel more so now, which is strange, since I do not move in a specifically Jewish society nor in Jewish circles. I am not a culturally social animal. I am increasingly aware though that there is a process of re-definition under way, according to which it doesn't much matter how one defines oneself because others will do it for you. So the Nazis defined the Jews. So Israel is coming to be defined. The world is slowly - or rather, not so slowly - coming around to definitions again.

*Wiki: According to the estimates for 2007 of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, the world population of Jews is 13.2 million.

The Road Kill Poem

A dark post, this, so beware. I chased up the William Stafford poem mentioned by Michael in his comment on the Dog post. Yes, I had read it. How could I forget I had read it? Here it is:

Traveling Through The Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

I seem to remember reading other poems about that modern phenomenon, the road kill. In fact I wrote one myself, years ago. Or at least it was partly about road kill, one I killed myself late one night on the road to Norwich.

The deer - or it might have been a muntjack - suddenly appeared as I was just at the top of a hill. There were no other cars. Nothing. C was with me. We stopped the car and moved it. There was no blood as I remember. There was, however, a considerable dent in the car. Such things make one think. And then think again. What I thought of then was the photograph of a long-dead but preserved Inuit baby I had seen in a colour magazine. Lovely tender face. Dark spaces where the eyes would have been. Terrible, insufferable tenderness.

And this was the poem.


I have fallen in love with this baby
whose empty eyes and wrinkled mouth
appear to be essence of baby,
his death a perfect pathos
without sentiment, still as a photograph
of stillness, without potential energy,
with how he looks and does not look at me.

Could he be the Christchild under an Eskimo moon,
part moon himself with pitted eyes,
proverbial round cheese, a comforting thing
in uncomforting space, registering surprise
at the thingness of anything and everything?
And why is he more touching than any live baby?
More nocturnal, more animal? And might he wake up soon?

I hit a deer once, doing a steady lick
at dead of night. Its quivering body
was a thousand startled eyes. I didn't see him fall
but felt his dark soft leg, a heavy stick,
hammer briefly at my metal sheath
then disappear as we sped on, unable
to adjust to his appearance, or
the knowledge of his death.

It was on the brow of a hill. We were heading north,
the notional arctic, but would later bend east
toward Norfolk as the sky lightened. I want to speak light
for the baby, that he might understand. Let him at least
hear the noise of our passage over the earth
and watch the live deer crashing out of sight.

There's that heavy hammering stick that Tóth too mentions (what's that De Quincey essay about the beating on the gate and the porter in Macbeth)? I remember reading the poem in public just once, the only time I ever read with Anthony Hecht, at the Bury St Edmund's Literature Festival, not long after the poem was written. We talked a little, he somewhat a grandee unbending, I awkwardly, in fact a little awed. I have no idea what he thought of the poem, nor did I ask him. I still like the poem. I can date it fairly precisely to 1993, since it appeared in Blind Field (1994) and the incident took place soon after I started commuting to Norwich in 1992. We did of course stop before speeding on.

As to the Inuit baby, here is some information:

[T]he Inuit baby was found along with six other women and another child, in a grave-like cave in Qilakitsoq, Greenland, in 1972. Dating of the bodies brings their age sometime to the 1400s....The Inuit baby was so small that when the mummies were discovered, the baby was tossed to the side by some archaeologists, who assumed it was a doll belonging to the child mummy!... The baby and the other seven mummies were, in effect, freeze-dried after death, resulting in very little deterioration to clothes and body tissue... What exactly killed the group is still unknown. Food was found in the women’s stomachs, so they did not starve to death. The mummies were well-dressed for extremely low temperatures, with the baby’s clothes even made from the skin of baby seals, with the soft fur turned inwards.

Long post. Let me know of other poems on this subject. I really am not interested in the macabre, at least no more than in macramé. There is Richard Eberhart's famous 'Groundhog', which is not a road kill poem but it thinks down vaguely similar lines.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Working, Gigging

Another late day at unversity, but some work is good so it doesn't matter if it stretches. At TCD in Dublin some of BKs classes ran three hours over and if the students didn't mind, he didn't mind. I'm getting a little that way myself. In any case, it had been a bright crisp beginning to the day and so it remained. There is nothing better than such a day in autumn, unless it is a sunny winter day. Good things generally are best when they simply arrive without too much of a hello and goodbye and there is something about art too that doesn't like a timetable but keeps going while there's energy. So it's morning already?

I have worked some seven versions of the Zbigniew Herbert paper and sent off a copy this morning. On Sunday I am off to Cracow to give the paper, then fly to Frankfurt for a day for another event before returning home on Thursday to teach on Friday. I never look forward to travelling. Hate the fuss and organisation of it. Hate the disruption. But then I quite like being disrupted once I am there. Dream days. Days out of time. Days of other reality.

After tomorrow I go down to the BBC to record a radio programme in a series titled Points of Entry, about immigration, as from the immigrants' point of view. That's all written too as is the Englishness of English poetry lecture for Liverpool. When I want to scare myself I look at my schedule for the next six weeks. In fact I wake up at 3 or 4 am feeling scared.

You can tell I am tired. There's no subject. So here is a list of upcoming gigs - not all, but those near publication date:

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Saturday 8 November, 8 pm
Newcastle, Live Poetry, Live Theatre, Sunday 9 November, 7.30pm,
The Savile Club, London, Friday 14 November, 7.00pm
Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 19 November, 7.15pm
Cambridge, St John's, Thursday 27 November, 7pm
University of Kent, Darwin Lecture Theatre, 2 December 2008, 7pm
Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, Wednesday 3 December, 7 pm
The King of Hearts, Norwich, 5 December 7pm
Bath Spa University, Bath, 11 December 2008, 8pm

If you live near these places you might consider coming along. In your own good time. Providing the weather...

But there's other travelling besides. I might put some of that up next.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Draft translation of a dog

This is a draft translation of a poem by the Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth about a Dog. Here's the translation, a few brief notes after.

Krisztina Tóth


It seemed no more than a clump of earth in the thaw,
a snowball that had rolled down a steep slope.
The day was darkening, nothing to see at all
just fields like tin, the windscreen part steamed up,
but as we neared it seemed vaguely to shift
like a heavy coat raising a loose sleeve,
a ditched hitchhiker’s shade thumbing a lift
in the brief glare that passing headlights weave.
It was there one moment, gone the next. Each car
in the queue steered well clear of the thing
but I looked out for it on the hard verge
and suddenly there it was. It was propping
itself up on its legs, the nearside ones in sludge
as if about to run, its nose held to the air,
its upper part attent. But behind I saw
its lower half, wrecked to a pulp. And there,
from its blood-clotted coat, stuck its back leg
that to a regular, agonising pulse kept kicking;
mouth wide open, it sat there, a half-dog
though I could tell from its eyes that it saw everything.
I cried out, Stop! draw up at the side
of the road. I begged you to save it or kill it now,
anything, let the cars behind us provide
an ending. But what can I do? What? Just how
should I end it? And so your voice grew sharp.
What do you want of me? What is it you want? Tell me!
I wanted you not to leave it, I wanted you to stop.
Once you found it you should look after it or kill it.
A week we tended the dog, because we thought
at least it’s better off home with us giving it attention,
as if it were we ourselves who had hit it and left it out
in the road, a fact we had somehow not to mention.
But I could still not help wanting you wrapped
about me at night: I watched your muscular arm,
trying not to think of the body that lay propped
in the roadside ditch, of the leg beating like a drum
while your eyes were focused somewhere far away
but did not answer; about the constant fury
and resignation involved in even love-making, and the way
you asked me just what it was that I wanted you to do,
striking the steering wheel over and over again,
and not once looking directly at me ,while I
watched as beyond your shoulder rain beat down,
soaking fields under the bloodshot winter sky.

I was talking about this translation with a group of Masters translation students this evening and we were speculating not only on what was going on but what lay at the core of the poem, as experience.

So there's this car going along in a queue down a country road on a horrible night, when the woman (not driving) spots a badly, in fact grotesquely, injured dog at the roadside. She insists the man (the driver) stops. It seems - in my version anyway - that they take the dog home and nurse it for a week, but that the dog hangs over them like a shadow as they make love. She sees some parallel between the dog and the act that disturbs her,

In other words the dog - a most physical, fleshly and bloody dog, the subject of the poem - serves as something beyond itself, as an emblem. Of death? Of loss? Of danger? Of the spectral half-dogness of life. Or, if the dog isn't really brought home but remains only a thought they keep thinking about for a week, as an ominous sign of the potential troubles between the woman and the man, or by extension, between women and men.

This draft is a reading of the poem in the sense that seems most powerful to me, that which says life is a mangled half-dog at times, and when it is we are utterly and unbearably alone, even as we hold each other most tightly. It's a formal poem in the Hungarian rhyming generally a-b-a-b but not too perfect rhyme most of the time, and that must mean something too, if nothing else a kind of discipline, a holding at due distance.

I cannot, of course know what Tóth means. Indeed, I even suspect that Tóth herself does not fully know, that no writer fully knows. That there is no full knowledge. The translation is the poem sense it tends to point to in me. Maybe there is no other sense.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sunday night is... a wedding and a barge

Yesterday in London for a wedding reception, then night at son Tom's with a walk around Holland Park and Kensington Gardens this morning, passing the houses of Michael Powell, Walter Crane, Jimmy Page, Michael Winner and Sir Henry Newbolt. Didn't knock in at any of them. Then big dinner with old friends near Holloway, so I am just back and rather puzzled by the sheer number of reactions to the Vettriano. And it was picked up elsewhere too. I have now said everything I am ever likely to say on Jack Vettriano. God knows why I started in the first place except to see where a piece of string might lead. Years of art and art history perhaps. I don't think it has led anywhere particularly useful.

In any case, here is something beautiful, in fact one of the most beautiful films ever made, the beginning of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante. A village church, a wedding procession through fields, and onto a barge.

Of course it is another Vigo film, Zéro de Conduite that is the source of the still at the top of my post on teaching. If you do not love these things I cannot help you.

Friday, 17 October 2008

On Ice

The Vettriano bothered me so I took out this well-known, much-loved painting by Henry Raeburn of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating (1784) for comparison with Vettriano's ice picture below. How do you define the difference? Because the difference is enormous but subtle. It isn't just that Raeburn's figure is in movement rather than statuesquely posing. It isn't just that we see his face while Vettriano's faces are turned away from us. It isn't even just that Raeburn was a wonderful sumptuous wielder of paint whereas Vettriano is glossily workmanlike.

Jonathan Jones wrote a brief sketch of it in The Guardian a while ago. I whisk a paragraph from it off the net here:

There's a wonderful good humour to this painting, whose full title is The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. A Presbyterian minister in black frock coat, black hat and black stockings; his face is dignified, grave - but with a twinkle of laughter. He is as graceful as a Degas dancer, perfectly balanced, poised on the ice scarred with lines made by previous skaters. The wild landscape behind Walker ought to be bleak, but his self-confidence has turned it into a place of civilisation and sport. This is an optimistic painting, an 18th-century image of reason triumphing over nature. The Reverend Robert Walker has conquered a wasteland - though this icy desert is not remote at all, but just outside Edinburgh, with Arthur's Seat looming up on the left.

Yes, that is true but it is greater, grander, more monumental than that. It's the time of the Scottish Enlightenment. The man has something of the delicacy of eighteenth century late Rococo but with a clear pre-Romantic awareness of the power of nature, of his social position, and of the gravity of his inwardness. His face is solemn and absorbed, his arms speak of self-control but his body flies. He is not simply an amusing paradox involving decorum and wildness, or responsibility and freedom. He is at the tipping point between these polarities, but retains his almost heroic balance. And the ice and the hills rising behind him in the mist speak of something beyond the picturesque, something in which the outside of things is reconciled with the inside. Not just civilisation and sport. Reason doesn't quite triumph over nature, God skates on thin ice.

Paintings, of course, are not the images they depict, or at least no more than partially so. They are material: they are paint applied laboriously or lightly to a surface: colour and tone and weight and modulation. Paintings are built. They are manual labour. The image is what they are building to. Great painters build towards great images. Everything in the Raeburn is built, but you can only build out of some apprehension of image - whether that be figurative or otherwise - pressing towards realisation. In the Raeburn there is not only an extraordinarily substantial image but a sense of it being assembled, striven towards, being discovered.

There is no discovery in Vettriano. There is labour but no substance. It is the work of a cowboy builder, working with shoddy materials, putting up a big house. I don't mind things being cheap. There is nothing at all wrong with cheap imagery. It is the pretending to be something else rubs me up the wrong way, that Vettriano's image is not even a case of 'all fur coat and no knickers', but that it is very much fake fur too: that is dishonest. Rather Beryl Cook. Much rather Beryl Cook.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Vettriano and the body-bag

There is something almost perfectly contemptible about Jack Vettriano, but I don't do contempt, at least I don't do it well, and in any case why complain? You might as well complain about cravats or candy-floss, and I don't. However, there is a kind of betrayal there and I am trying to define of what. Mostly it's a romanticisation of cinema, a blanding out of problematic and interesting imagery into gloss. Take the couple above, on the ice. Annigoni meets Antonioni. It is period, statuesque, faceless and depthless. It is all association and no substance.

Here's another:

More movies. The gangster film begins to move towards genteel pre-pornography. Of which there is more. Everywhere we find curious blends of the received glamorous, the received romantic and brutal vacuity. If we, for a moment, imagined the scenes depicted in their original contexts - and there always are original contexts - they would be fleshed out and, even when cheap, carry about them a certain pathos. There is no pathos anywhere in Vettriano.

I don't say say he means the brutal vacuity. I do think the pornography is implicit. Another step here:

The pornography is not in the image but in the picture. What people do is not pornography. People having sex is not pornography. Even pictures of people having sex is not pornography. Pornography is to do with distance, facelessness and presentation. It is a brutal blanding out and I think that is latent in even the most harmless of Vettriano's work. I do not for a second mean to imply that Vettriano as a man is brutal. How would I know what he is? It is the pictures that nudge the way of brutality, and the more so the prettier they are.

And here is where I sense the betrayal. Because the scenes depicted - always nostalgic, always some time in the past, even if only in the eighties - have a certain second-hand life, a hand-me-down received kind of life. But the paintings zip them up and place them in pictorial body-bags. Nothing is moving in them, only a closed-down, hollow parody or betrayal of desire, a clumsy brutal emptiness without the redeeming feature of irony.

I'm struggling to work it out, I really am. And I don't mind the clumsiness. I never mind the clumsiness.

In Which the Fury Writes a Verse Letter Bursting with Bile

New poem on front, or rather an old one found and changed. I had forgotten I had written this, probably about three years ago. It is much edited now, and considerably shorter than its four original epistles. It remains, and probably will remain, unpublished. It's furious fun in a kind of Augustan version of Burns stanza, a form I have handled once or twice before. Just think of a very grumpy old man jumping up and down while laughing at the imagined sight of himself jumping up and down. Think of a Scotsman with a monocle. Think of a Hungarian in tweeds.

No, of course, it's not serious. Not entirely. See, I'm utterly chilled. Blood pressure? I laugh at blood pressure!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Later and later

In fact rather too late for tonight. In and out of university. Flowers dispatched. About to sneeze.

Ah yes, capitalism. I doubt whether it's dead. I suspect it's just lying down for a while till we think of something better than this current crisis to beat it with. It's going to keep a low profile, skulk about on street corners and in boardrooms. I cannot see the masses rising. I don't feel anyone itching to address me as comrade. So, no. But let's wait and see how high unemployment rises.

Even so I think we are going to be electing on the basis of good conscience, good intentions, liberalism with a certain rectitude. I'll see how I feel about that in the morning. If the revolution happens overnight wake me a little earlier.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Exhaust fumes

Would have been down at the Booker tonight to celebrate or console Linda (celebrate whatever the result, I say), or rather at Groucho's afterwards, but a cold, plus a late 6.30 finish to my last class, meant arriving in London at about 10.00, a quick overnight stay before zooming back for a PhD annual review in the current state of exhaustion... Linda must forgive me. She will get a big bunch of flowers either way. Big and bigger.

C has just finished a picture for my 2009 book, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems. Looks very good. Books are, not to put too fine a point on it, burning. Soon there will be so much of me in book form there won't be any room for anyone else on the shelves of good bookshops. I shall rule in supreme, indeed splendid, isolation. I shall read myself, review myself, buy myself, remainder myself, immolate and bury myself. Farewell self.

Except for Cambridge University Library, who are putting on a show of my various literary extrusions and contusions. John W of the University Library has just sent me a list of exhibits with notes. The exhibition goes up on Thursday and opens on Friday. I can now make an exhibition of myself. Or, rather, the Library can. If anyone is interested there is a letter there from John Betjeman.'Come friendly bombs and fall on George...' Nobody, but nobody, could be famouser than that. I wear dark glasses even when looking in the bathroom mirror. I prefer to remain anonymous to myself.

Next week I'm off to solve the Middle East crisis. That's after I have loaned the Bank of England a few billion. They generally pay.

Monday, 13 October 2008

All my ideas about education in a single blogpost

I used to do that stuff. Schoolteaching, I mean. I remember that sense of awkwardness and fear on first walking into a classroom - an art room in my case - and thinking: So now you're on stage? Do you have any lines worth speaking? Can you explain a task clearly? Can you devise a worthwhile task? And what happens if? Or if? And it did happen, and I learned some lines, and we didn't have to write up lesson plans and I remember picking up one particularly bellicose child and depositing him elsewhere. That is practically assault now. But it was OK, and sometimes it was better and, just rarely, it was worse, and most of the time most of them enjoyed it and some carried on being in touch once they had degrees and children, so really it can't have been too bad.

One of my head teachers once suggested I write a book on the teaching of art but for the life of me I couldn't take it entirely seriously. I couldn't quite take myself seriously as a teacher. I had no sense of mission. It had never been my desire to become a teacher. It was a job. But if it was a job, I thought we had better make the best of it. Do some good things, have as much fun as possible, and occasionally lose our tempers.

Teaching, as in the adverts for teachers, always seemed that much more proper, more devoted, more mad-eyed idealistic and than I thought I was. In my own eyes, I was an artist / poet who taught, and if anything was to come of anything it would have to come out of that. And it must have done because I did it for seventeen years or so, the last four part-time. I ran departments, wrote plays and scripts for musicals for performance. Some I produced, some I even acted and sang (badly) in. It could have been worse. A lot worse. I don't think I was a great school teacher, just OK, and have known much better (C is better), but sometimes I was good, and we got on. Some of it was just luck. I never worked the truly hard cases, never taught the truly murderous or utterly hopeless (meaning utterly without hope), and that is luck.

And the fact is I admire teachers, the ones who work at it, retain their imagination and independence, who face the class every day and can instill some sense of pleasure in the whole process of learning. I don't mean the careerists clambering up the ladder, the waspish, studious, shiny-faced ones. I have never liked head teachers either. They were not supposed to be liked. They sometimes became human again once they retired, but I regarded them chiefly as a form of plastic interface. But teachers, good class teachers, are a real gift and they get a bad bad deal from everyone, from inspectors, from governments, from parents.

Once upon a time they taught subjects and had a vague project to instill character, however character was defined then. The PE teacher was more likely to instill whatever it was than the art master. Then they were made responsible for a great roster of other things, healthy eating, correct sex, citizenship, while at the same jumping through horrible inhuman hoops, ever more horrible, ever more inhuman. And now they are to become narks, to report on likely eleven year-old suicide bombers. They get the blame for everything and the credit for nothing. And I'm not beefing. I don't even teach school any more. Haven't for fourteen years or more.


Oh yes, my ideas of education. Here they are. Let them go. Let the boys out at, say, thirteen. Let them be apprentices, skivvies, office boys, let them learn trades, use their hands and bodies, let them run and earn. Then, when they are hungry again, say at seventeen, let them back in and feed them heavy with knowledge and guesswork and the actual delights of learning.

Let the girls go too. A little later perhaps than boys. Let it be school out for a while. Higher education is full of people taking second chances and good luck to them. I can't speak for girls. They tend to do all right at the graft and the orderliness. But that may be simply because that is what is generally required in school now. It is not what boys are good at.

And let's not take school so deathly seriously as though it were the whole point of life. It isn't. Let's blow up the league tables, let's remove the snaffle and bit of total curriculum control. I feel quite Lawrentian (D.H.) about this. Let school have something of pleasure about it and even, if you like, irresponsibility. A little of that. Once that is achieved let's hang Gradgrind from the nearest lamppost.

Or if we can't do that, let there be just the faintest understanding that we are in this together, that it is what we would all like to do, both teacher and pupil.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Eve Garrard's Two Narratives at...


Sunday night is...

Hell, you just need this sometimes. Ladeez and gennlemen! It's Wilson! Pickett! Live!

ps Spare exclamation marks going! Buy now! While shares are low!

Sheer joy. Just look at the cop. I wondered if he was real, then I look at the cop next to him and I think he is. Joyful cops! I don't know what it is that never ages, me or Wilson Pickett? I suppose it must be Wilson...

Saturday, 11 October 2008

You, you, you and you (2)

Scene from film of Anna Édes

The problem I was referring to was in translating an intense scene in the poet Dezsö Kosztolányi's marvellous 1926 novel Édes Anna (Anna Édes). There is already a complication there in that the word édes, in Hungarian, means 'sweet', but I had to let that go, because Édes is a not uncommon surname and need not be read as some kind of Bunyanesque character description (though, dammit! in the novel it sort of is...)

In the scene I'm talking about the nephew of an upper middle class civil servant and his cruel wife is left alone with Anna, a simple minded maid. He wants to seduce her so, after much nervousness, he ventures into the kitchen where she is sleeping in her truckle bed along with a live chicken, and gets into bed with her. She continues to address him in the servantly, transferred third-person tetszik form, while he persists with maga, until, at the key point of passion he switches to te, and tells her he loves her.

Very well, you can't say such a thing, even if you don't mean it, using any form but te. But how do you convey this brilliantly shifting drama of class and sex in English with its poor, single, all-purpose you? Enough to say I didn't convey it. My solution was an utter last-gasp failure that referred to the uses of you and thou in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.


Nemes Nagy in 1989

On the one hand you could regret the passing of a delicate, highly specialised instrument of social relations, in the same way as you might regret the passing of certain formalities in English letter writing. Do you really want an advertiser to address you as 'Dear Geoff' or 'Dear Sue'? Do you distinctly not want to know where you stand in relation to others, if not in terms of class or authority at least in terms of intimacy? Is it not the case when terms of address vanish we replace them with other codes signifying intimacy?

The great Hungarian poet, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, who died in 1993 at the age of 71, told me quite clearly on our first meeting in 1985, that she wanted me to to address her as maga and that she would address me in the same way. So it continued over the years. One day when I was visiting her (I always brought flowers), her ex-husband, the literary critic Balázs Lengyel called, and we were all in the room together. I addressed him as maga and he immediately told me to use te, because we were colleagues in the same field of work. Immediately, there were two relationships going on at the same time, and despite the fact that I had seen Nemes Nagy regularly and had never before met Lengyel, the relationship with her remained formal, with him they immediately relaxed.

Nemes Nagy in c.1948


Does it help to have formal stages in a relationship? Is it stabilising? I won't even start on the various class honorifics that are a horror to translate from the Hungarian, honorifics that persisted through communism, even though the relationships they signified no longer officially existed and everyone was supposed to be one or other form of comrade.These old class distinctions are now genuinely rare, not so much because of any official dictat but because the people who used them and grew up with them, so they felt uneasy addressing a doctor without some appropriate social honorific, have mostly died. And the distinctions between the four you forms are also eroding. But not entirely, because while class and authority deference is less likely to be articulated - and a good thing too, in my opinion - degrees of intimacy remain and people feel they have to signal them somehow. Age and gender or simply personal preference are hard to indicate through intuition alone. So you just watch how you talk to me, young sir! And kindly take your foot off mine, madam!

You, you, you and you (1)

Following a comment by Poet in Residence (on the last Márai post), a note regarding Hungarian versions of 'you'.

In contemporary English there is, for all practical purposes, just the one word for the second person singular. In French there are two - vous and tu - and it is much the same in a number of other languages. In Hungarian, I know of four forms and some twenty or so years ago had some problems with them.

The difference between vous and tu is broadly defined here. Tu is defined in terms of familiarity, intimacy and closeness: vous, as a singular rather than as a plural, in the more problematic terms of formality, distance and respect. The advice is to use vous when speaking to:

* someone you don't know well
* an older person
* an authority figure
* anyone to whom you wish to show respect
* two or more people, animals, etc.

The writer adds the following catch:

Some people follow the guideline of using whatever the other person uses with them. This can be misleading: someone in authority may use tu with you, but that certainly doesn't mean that you can respond in kind.

So it's quite a delicate operation. In Hungarian, even more so.

The four ways of addressing another directly in Hungarin are te (the equivalent of tu), maga and ön (two variants of vous) and the courteous transferred third person manner using the word tetszik, as in Hogy tetszik lenni, X bácsi? crudely meaning 'How are you, uncle X?' but actually taking the form 'How is uncle X pleased to be?'

As to usage, the standard form followed, and generally still follows, French. In communication between men and women it was the woman who determined whether the intimate te form was welcome or not. Between men it was a compound of age, respect and authority, so two of equal rank would have to guess which was the older and then it was either up to the older man to suggest the more informal use, though I suppose, the younger man might enquire, as might a man of a woman.

Of the two vous forms, maga is considered more brusque, more official. A master might address a servant so, or a policeman a suspicious-looking member of the public (they are all suspicious-looking). On the other hand, two people on a bus might use the same form if one had trodden on the other's foot. Or maybe they'd just use it anyway. I am not sure myself sometimes. Hard to know. Should I address a taxi driver this way? What are the implications if I do? I could go for te and that would probably be fine nowadays.

If I am not sure it is because the other vous form, ön is distinctly courteous, a little ceremonial. The host on a TV or radio show addresses guests in this way as might two polite people meeting each other for the first time. It implies possibilities of respectful friendship.

As for the fourth, tetszik, manner, children would use this to their elders. Highly courteous old wolves might use it to attractive younger women before kissing their hands. Servants used it to their masters. A young man addressing a very prominent figure might well use it.

This is a sketch, not a detailed drawing, but it indicates something. I'll write a separate post on that next.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Scandal trumps beauty

Zbigniew Herbert, 1924-1998

Having finished a draft of the Liverpool lecture, I responded to poems by various friends, acquaintances, people I am mentoring (mentees?) and started on the Zbigniew Herbert talk, which will begin with Hamlet, Fortinbras, Prufrock and Philip Larkin and look to explore the fortunes of cold war poetry in England.

That is because it has been obvious to me for some time that interest in specific areas of literature is partly determined by its value as news, particularly political news. So, in the early post war days there was a lot of interest in Russian literature, in the days of the Greek colonels in Greek literature, in the days of different Brazilian, Argentinian, Chilean etc colonels in South America in South American literature, just as currently there is an interest in Arabic literature. The Eastern Europeans had their turn from the mid sixties until 1989, at which point interest began, if not exactly to die, at least to diminish.

This is not cynical, it just happens to be so. Beauty does not trump scandal. Nor should we be surprised.

But there is another angle to this, just as interesting, in fact a great deal more interesting than scandal. What interest? Well, that is what I want to explore in the brief 20-30 minute talk, so I'll just work on it for now, as and when I can.

In the meantime I see Peter over at Fat Man on a Keyboard, has taken up and developed some points I was making regarding Márai, class, and the conservatism of the poor. And I have also been in a fight with the otherwise reliable Shuggy regarding teacher-student relationships. You could check the comments boxes there. I might write more about this some time. It is sad but true that the people best placed to write about such things are the last people likely to do so because even discussing them leads to tension, anxiety, paranoia and - in my opinion - foolishness. 'Fear stalks the streets of Reason!'

And so to bed.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Translating class

Reading Márai on class one is tempted to feel sorry for the speaker in the way one feels sorry for anyone in pain. The rituals and strictures of the upper middle class in bourgeois Hungary, as Márai depicts it - its sense of duty and privilege, a privilege that is never secure, in which every member of the class depends on another to support his or her own claim but is, at the same time, afraid of the other because the other might make some disparaging remark that might, just possibly, prove to be the first of a series of very slippery steps down the ladder, the rung you yourself - you, the speaker - are standing on, which seems a long way up, high enough to give you a certain vertigo, made all the worse because you imagine those even higher up to be rather more steady in their positions than you are, for they have the advantage of birth whereas you, you are only the son or grandson or great-grandson of a man who was little more than a tradesman or even, think of it! an artisan... and you can sense the vortex, the nervousness, the boredom - these rituals and strictures are cruel and pitiful and demeaning, since what could be worse than a ten year old boy feeling he must behave like the president of a major bank?

One feels sorry for these people because, one imagines, the education they have received would be likely to amplify their fears, make them aware of the dimensions of disgrace, render them articulate about dimensions of disgrace through literature and art and music, so that their capacity for failure, rather than being given its due portion and proportion as sanity might dictate, deepens instead, and intensifies to terror. Their failures of etiquette and integrity (but where does one stop and the other start?) are played out to mood music by Romantic and Late Romantic composers, a music that describes realms that lie beyond them, but which they are invited to contemplate and understand, and do in fact understand, as if from the wings, and yet from slightly above, as if they were hovering somewhere at dress circle level, insecure as ever, uncomfortably wedged together, but not holding hands.

One feels sorry for them, and yet not in the way one might feel sorry for those jostling below: workers trudging to the factory, clerks to the indignities and scurries of the office - those thirty-bob-a-week clerks John Davidson wrote about - living in small damp flats, where they carry on coughing as they did when they ran through the smog, or waited in line at the baker or the butcher, counting their pennies.

So there is a limit to sympathy.

I could go on before reaching those limits, because the speaker in Márai's book has experienced his losses as something terrible and yet unconsolingly liberating, because, in other words, he is interesting and furious and comical, resigned without really being resigned. So I think on about him and fiddle with his Hungarian words, trying to give them the right dimensions by expanding here, trimming there, making him orotund in one place and colloquial or even abrupt in another so as to measure my English space against Márai's Hungarian space in a kind of zonal translation, striving to get the zone or space right rather than trying to reproduce every particular detail of the landscape, because it is the zone that matters.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

John Heath Stubbs, you must understand..

So C is down with a cold, I am finishing off the Liverpool University Kenneth Allott lecture - just actually finished a decent draft, to be revised - and trying to draw a cover picture for Shuck, Hick, Tiffey, the Gatehouse Press book of three regional libretti I wrote for composer Ken Crandell. Waiting for me, pressingly, the talk on Zbigniew Herbert in Cracow and the conversation in Frankfurt, for which I am reading - as best I can - two books by Cecile Wajsbrot, with whom I am to have said conversation. Never mind UEA and external examining, the correspondence, the writing of references etc, and - of course - the translations, on which some further progress.

In the course of the Kenneth Allott lecture, which is about such versions of English sensibility as a foreign poet might, just, be able to enter,I refer to this poem by John Heath Stubbs:


MR. HEATH-STUBBS as you must understand
Came of a gentleman's family out of Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.

His elbows and finger-joints could bend more ways than one
And in frosty weather would creak audibly
As to delight his friends he would give demonstration
Which he might have done in public for a small fee.

Amongst the more learned persons of his time
Having had his schooling in the University of Oxford
In Anglo-Saxon Latin ornithology and crime
Yet after four years he was finally not preferred.

Orthodox in beliefs as following the English Church
Barring some heresies he would have for recreation
Yet too often left these sound principles (as I am told) in the lurch
Being troubled with idleness, lechery, pride and dissipation.

In his youth he would compose poems in prose and verse
In a classical romantic manner which was pastoral
To which the best judges of the Age were not averse
And the public also but his profit was not financial.

Now having outlived his friends and most of his reputation
He is content to take his rest under these stones and grass
Not expecting but hoping that the Resurrection
Will not catch him unawares whenever it takes place.

This has a great many keynote Englishisms. First the self-deprecation that is also a modest aristocratic brag. Second, the mocking of the poet's own bodily grace; third the schoolboy joke about creaky finger joints; fourth, the making light of education while letting us know there has actually been a rather high-class education; fifth, the arch joke about the Anglican religion; sixth, the gentleman-amateur quip about his own status as a poet that includes a learned literary reference; seventh, the mock-Augustinianisms and quaint lapidary phrasing in which this is conveyed (perfectly appropriate for an engraved, albeit long, epitaph, as imagined being spoken by someone else) and, eighth, trumping the lot at the end, one splendid double-negative.

It is irony at its warmest, a joke against pomposity in mock pompous language, a dismissing of everything thought to be just too too serious. A double negative working at double negative level. One is, one might say, not unamused. I don't think the poem could have been written by anyone but an Englishman of a certain class letting his hair down.

I have long loved the poem, the persona speaking it, and the guessed-at real person behind the persona. Because I did meet John Heath-Stubbs a few times, but he, being blind, only met my voice and my opinion of one of his books, an opinion that pleased him. He looked, in fact, a little like Lurch, the butler in the Addams family, big and heavy browed and raggedly dressed as though he had spent years sleeping under the stairs. Not being able to see anything he recited his poems from memory. A friend would adjust him so he was facing the audience, but he would - deliberately, I like to think - reposition himself so as to turn round and away by some forty-five degrees, his blind eyes looking somewhere into the top corner of the room.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Márai on the moneyed middle class

The speaker is the owner of a factory, now in late middle age, and twice divorced.

When I consider my memories of childhood I discover this anxious, grim sense of directedness behind everything. We worked like robots, going about our rich, refined, ruthless, emotionless, robot work. There was something we had to save, something we had to prove, every day, in everything we did. That we were of a certain class. The middle-class. The guardians. We were doing an important job, we had to embody the notions of rank and manners. We were to suppress the revolt of the instincts, of the plebs; we were not to run scared, not to succumb to the desire for individual happiness. You ask whether this is a conscious project?... Well, I wouldn’t exactly say my father or mother sat down regularly at the dinner table every Sunday to announce that week’s program of action or make speeches in which they outlined the next fifty-year family plan. But I couldn’t exactly say that we merely accommodated ourselves to the idiotic demands of class and occasion either. We knew perfectly well that life had singled us out for a difficult series of tests.

It was not only our home, our carefully wrought way of life, our coupons and the factory we had to protect, but the spirit of resistance that constituted the imperatives and deeper meaning of our lives. We had to keep up our resistance to the attractive powers of the proletariat, the plebs who wanted to weaken our resolve by continually tempting us to take various kinds of liberties, whose tendency to revolt we had to overcome, not in the world, but also in ourselves. Everything was suspect: everything was dangerous. We, like others, were careful to make sure the delicate machinery of a pernickety and ruthless society should continue to work undisturbed. We did this at home, judging the world on appearances while suppressing our desires and regulating our inclinations. Being respectable requires constant exertion of effort. I am referring here to the creative, responsible layers of the middle class, in other words not the pushy lower orders who simply want a more comfortable, more diverse kind of life. Our ambition was not to live in greater comfort, or more diversely. Under out actions, our manners, our forms of behavior there was an element of conscious self-denial. We experienced it as a kind of religious vocation, being entrusted with the mission of saving a worldly, pagan society from itself. The task of those who perform this role, under oath and in accordance with the rules of the order, is to maintain that order and to keep secret that which should remain secret when danger threatens the objects of their care. We dined with that responsibility in mind. Every week we dutifully went to the theatre, to the Opera or to the National Theatre. We received our guests, other responsible people, in the same spirit: they came in their dark suits, they sat down in the drawing room, or at the candle-lit dining table with its fine silver and porcelain, where we served good, carefully-chosen food and made empty conversation about sterile subjects, and believe me, there was nothing more sterile than our conversation.

But these empty conversations had a function, a deeper purpose. It was like speaking Latin among barbarians. Beyond the polite phrases, the banal, meaningless, arguments and ramblings, there was always the deeper sense that we responsible middle-class people had come together to observe a ritual, to celebrate an honorable compact, and that the codes we were speaking in – because every conversation was about something else – were ways of keeping a vow, proof that we could keep secrets and compacts from those who would rise against us. That was our life. Even with each other we were always having to prove something. By the time I was ten years old I was as self-conscious and quiet, as attentive and well-behaved, as the president of a major bank.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Primary and Secondary - Who do you blame?

Class discussing Coleridge's notion of The Primary and Secondary Imagination, via Auden's 'Making, Knowing and Judging in The Dyer's Hand. (This is a link to John Berryman's review of it.)

So, we say, the Primary Imagination is engaged wholly, exclusively, with the 'sacred', the ineffable other that locates us as strangers yet reawakens us to our sense of being in the world. We consider whether we have had such experiences? Auden has that lovely quotation from Charles Williams where Williams asserts:

One is aware that a phenomenon being wholly itself is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence... Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express... but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round..

And we talk about that "the other way round" (my emphases). If that is the case, isn't all this primary imagination stuff simply nonsense? Well, no, because... because, maybe, we are talking about an entirely subjective experience; or because we are talking about figures - as Auden suggests - out of dreams, embodying the otherworldly, ominous, revelatory force of dreams, figures with a certain universality about them, if only in terms of Freud or Jung; or, if more than this, images, moments, encounters that address our need to be relocated in the world, to be assured that existence is, actually, extraordinary, and that the sheer blank power of 'significance' is a means of such relocation...

And this is all fine, and it seems most of us can own to experiences of this sort.

Then we get to the Secondary Imagination that, Auden tells us, is concerned with beauty and form, the antitheses of these terms being ugliness and, he implies: misshapenness, wrong form, form gone wrong.

This is difficult territory for the young because they are strictly brought up to be non-judgmental, or, more precisely, to abstain from pronouncing judgments. Non-judgmentalism is a potent brew of religion and etiquette. I ask if we can agree on any criteria for beauty?

Reluctance to speak.

But surely, I continue, we are continually making value judgments, are continually picking things on account of their beauty, preferring one thing over another. Granted, beauty is complex and may not be entirely skin deep, though, I add, when my eye glazes over the glossy women's magazines at the railway station newsagents I am always struck by how all of them, every darn one of them, shows me a pretty female face, with perfect retouched skin, and that these faces look much alike. A process of skin-deep selection seems to be going on, and, what is more, it clearly works, because people are buying the magazines.

How far, then, is such beauty a matter of form? How far is it a matter of Golden Sections, serpentine Lines of Beauty? Why do we get bored of Golden Sections and arabesques? Is that related to wanting the sacred experience, the products of the Primary Imagination?

And why the reluctance to talk about beauty and form, or beauty as form? We are good people. We are non-judgmental. Yet we watch The Weakest Link. We love watching contests in which people are humiliated. More than ever. And when it comes to a failure, or a crisis, what do we ask, or rather what does the radio or television interviewer ask on our behalf?

Who do you blame?

So we find someone to blame, shifting the complexities of the failure from ourselves to the one judged to be culpable. We flip our non-judgmental coins over without a second thought. We want, we damn well demand, to judge.

And I am thinking that if we were a little more honest about preferences and judgments, if we ventured them rather more, albeit in a tentative sort of way, yet with a certain willingness to argue them, we might not be quite so hypocritical, quite so savage in our hypocrisy.

Lunchtime thoughts. In the meantime, here's a pretty face to look at. Well,there will be one here once I get home. Pretty enough for you?

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Sunday Night is...Er, Phhwt, Tsk, Aaargh, Plp...

A between-the-lines edit of Howard Hawks's Cary Grant / Rosalind Russell film His Girl Friday (1940). You get it all in a little over eight minutes. It is a little like one of Queneau's Exercices de Style...roll on Oulipo.

I have just noticed that I turn up, quoted, in Matt Harvey's piece on poetry in yesterday's Guardian Work supplement.

I rarely look at the Work supplement. Spend enough time doing it, let alone reading about it. But there I am, as you see, pointing things out, expostulating*. Working.

Mind you I have always seen myself as more of a Vogon than Matt H. Relatively speaking that is. Vogons get a bad press, Vogons do proper work. Now God stand up for Vogons!

*Expostulation is bad for you. I vaguely remember a sentence in Spike Milligan, possibly in The Essential Milligan that goes, "..the driver leapt out and gesticulated in a corner".

Don't do it. Or if you must, do it an a corner.

Saturday, 4 October 2008


A last puff on Damien. For now. In response to something argued by a writer I like and admire, so pax vobiscum, SF. Much of this refers to the debate that has been outrunning the comments box. This, unlike my last, is contra Hirst.

The title of Hirst's shark ('The Physical Impossibility of the Thought of Death in the Mind of One Living') bores me, if you'll forgive the pun, to death. It is portentous, grandstanding obviousness pretending to be a blinding revelation. It's sort of adolescent. I prefer just to think of it as the shark, nor does losing the title in the least reduce it for me. It's like the sculptors of the 60s calling their Philip King-type pieces 'Ixion' or 'Counterpoint IX'. They were hoping to gain something by specious association. Most titles are, most of the time, useful handles to pick things up by rather than an implicit part of the work.

I take the use of the word 'debate' to be referring to the bigger debate well beyond the circle of this blog. Because that debate about Hirst does exist. And so it should. It's just that the debate is not in itself the art. Nor should it be. The statement 'clearly a great artist' says to me what it seems to say, that Hirst is, clearly, a great artist.

Of course Hirst is an artist. So am I and so are you, so are all of us who have been engaged in this restricted debate. All 'clearly' artists. I will accept 'clearly' for that, in that we all produce art. 'Call that a poem?' someone might say, but as long as we and a few other people are happy to put the label poem, or prose, or whatever, to what we do, irrespective of whether it is a good or bad example of the art, we can safely assume 'clearly'. Greatness is something else.

And what has money to do with this, seeing that Francis Bacon's works fetch a fortune? Money has something quite specific to do with Hirst, in that his work directly engages with it. Picasso made fortunes but he produced so much work it was bound to lower his prices, but he didn't care. Money wasn't the issue, not part of the subject. Nor was it Bacon's, repetitive as he tended to become as time went on.

In Hirst it is part of the subject, to some degree it is the subject, and I, personally, don't like it. I don't like the smug backers, I don't like the smug critics, I don't like the smug prize-givers with their smug prizes, I don't like the smug buyers, I don't like the smug speculators. I detest their privileges, their monopolies, their bullying, their cartels, their flashing of flash ideas, cash and power, the fact that they create and maintain their own celebrity value, their cynicism masquerading as irony. And the fact that Hirst is right at the heart of this. He is, currently, its beating heart.

Which does not predispose me to like him.

Well, what do you know...

Usual Facebook junk mail, till I see one from Alison Croggon, Australian poet and good friend. She has taken the quiz: What Were You in a Past Life. So, for Alison's sake, I take it, thinking: Budapest barrow boy? The one decent doctor in history? The ghost of a flea? Mighty Joe Young?

At one point it asks me whether I cry at the movies. Doesn't tell you what films. Does that mean invariably? Is it asking whether I am an irredeemable sentimentalist? I say no. This does not generally happen with me. Let me be with the hard-hearted realists of the world. And see what happens?

Result: A Romantic Poet

You know how you're kind know...sensitive? There's a good reason for that. Long, long ago, you were a romantic poet - the kind that made all the ladies swoon with your sexy sonnets.

Even if you're not much of a poet now, you've still got a lot of creativity brewing in your soul. And you've got a strong ability to notice details and understand other people's emotions.

If you ever have writer's block or just need some creative inspiration, try to harness some of that poet power in your soul's past.

I rather resent that "even if you're not much of a poet now". My sexy sonnets are as swoonworthy as ever, nay, swoonworthier! I shall flyte the swine.

Friday, 3 October 2008

And rewind again...

I want to return now to Mark Granier's discussion at Lightbox following my original post on Damien Hirst.

Mark begins with a degree of qualified agreement, saying:

Hirst’s shark may have been startling once upon a time, though it has always seemed rather old hat to me, a sad little echo of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys, 'International Yves Klein Blue'... Perhaps it is apt to compare it to Goya’s dog (or a demon from Bosch or Michelangelo) in terms of “psychological location” as “a process of reorientation within the world”, though I have my doubts. Certainly the dog and the demons (many of them fish-demons by the way) instill a strong sense of dislocation, and perhaps the shark does this too.

He acknowledges the value of confrontation, suggesting, however, that you can get confrontation in a waxwork museum as much as in an art gallery, which is true, and I myself have, in the past, written about the development, role and function of gallery space. There is indeed much that is questionable about the reverence due to gallery space - that is to say a dedicated, churchly space, often institutional or at least possessing, one way or another, a certain authority. There is much to question there, but I don't really doubt that it produces a specialised form of attention, in which context re-orientates object.

That doesn't, of course, guarantee that anything in gallery space is bound to be seen as art, let alone great art. It still leaves a lot for the object to do, as any trawl through an exhibition, where we we prefer one exhibit over another, will demonstrate. If gallery space were all, everything on exhibition would have equal value. But it doesn't. In other words, we respond as though value were not entirely determined by the context of conferred authority.

My quarrel was with the collusion between 'conferred authority' and cash investment.

Context, which includes 'conferred authority' and a great many other things, is an essential part of Mark's argument. He correctly points out that Goya's dog is part of a series of murals, not an independent object.

It is almost inevitable that we will read too much into such an image. We are approaching it post Beckett, with the existential floodlights blazing. What is remarkable to me is how much expression Goya (or whoever) was able to put into such a tiny profile, almost a silhouette: a dog’s dark head, its one (bewildered? terrified?) eye.

Yes, of course, that is true. It's just that we cannot help bringing our baggage - cultural, personal, political - to anything we are invited to contemplate.

What Goya's dog, as well as the demons pictured by Bosch, have in common, is:

..engagement with the human predicament. They are in it, along with us, up to their eyes. Far from merely being ironic/confrontational displacements or quasi-surreal gestures, they are, in their own contexts, utterly real. And a measure of this reality, this engagement, is something necessary to all works of art, minor, good or great
And he goes on to say that he does not think Hirt's shark possess such reality.

What Hirst’s dead animal installations say to me, overwhelmingly, is: Look at the one that didn’t get away! Look at what I’ve imprisoned! Look at my acquisitions! Is it really likely that Hirst was challenged or confronted (much less scandalised) by whatever inspired his tanked shark? I strongly suspect that the idea of the shark, Hirst’s overwhelming desire to make a big splash, looms far larger than the thing’s mere physical presence, startling though this may be. It’s the audacity of it, the bigness and the brashness. And behind this is Hirst’s complacent voice, somewhat distracted, already moving the punters on to the next sensational exhibit.

Well, that may be true or it may not. That is in the realm of the subjective. That's just your opinion, man, to quote the Dude again. None of us can argue with what another finds to be 'overwhelmingly' so nor do I quarrel with Mark when he goes on to suspect something. I am generally in favour of suspecting. Suspecting is good.

I suspect all of that, but still find the shark, which I have seen - and I seem to remember Mark saying he had not - a powerful and proper confrontation, laced with irony, complete with a sort of sharkly, MacHeathian strut. Unlike Mark, I was persuaded on seeing it, that the confrontation was not only an ironic gesture directed at me and the cash register, but one the artist himself experienced, that is to say, quoting Mark, "an engagement with the human predicament." You cannot have an engagement with the human predicament unless you, the artist, are also a human being, engaging with said predicament.

Yes it is part freak show, part wax museum, part science lesson, part mortality fable and part dark humour. And there's even a touch of gravity there, a graveness experienced something like the still on top from The Werckmeister Harmonies - the Béla Tarr film from the novel I translated by László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance.

Very like a whale...


He's back. As is Margaret Beckett. And the Reps have passed the bail-out bill. And public affairs continue. And a couple of bits apropos Israel and academic boycotts, one from Martin Shaw via Norman Geras (I mean the riposte on Shaw's post). I am due to go to Frankfurt at the end of the month and engage in a discussion about perceptions of Israel. That's straight from Cracow where I am supposed to talk about the reception of Zbigniew Herbert in England. Have mouth will travel. The difficulty is getting a compendious enough brain. While on Israel, there is also Mick Hartley....

A debt paid to Stokie

To Old Stokie, that is, commenting as OS, this panegyric entitled...

The Old Nostalgia Ground

Do you remember…
Yes I remember…
Waddington, Matthews, Viollett and Banks,
Great rivals to Revie and Busby and Shanks,
The Victoria Ground and the Butler Street Stand,
And Mudie and Vernon, McIlroy and… and…?
But shouldn’t Bob Stokoe have managed the City?
Not Eastham and Asprey, and more is the pity
It wasn’t Lord Greystoke, him of the apes,
Or Johnny Weissmuller, or even Geoff Capes!

Do you remember…
Yes I remember…
Mahoney and Pejic and Shilton and Heath
A rocklike defence and a strike force with teeth,
(Those elderly wingers, those tentative ventures
Along either touchline, less teeth and more dentures),
And Conroy and Greenhoff and Dobing and Dodd,
When Hudson was Jesus and Greenhoff was God,
Denis Smith, Alan Bloor, Mark Stein and Garth Crooks,
Selected for speed, for his goals and his looks.

It was all hokey-cokey,
It was quite okey-dokey,
League Cup and Old Stokie

Do you remember…
Yes I remember…
The days before sub-primes and hedge funds and lotteries,
When employment in China meant work in The Potteries,
When men were all hairy and smoky and stank,
When a Staffordshire woman stood firm as a tank,
When food was plain food, not guacamole or coulis,
Which you can’t properly rhyme in English with Pulis!
When you’d hop on a bus and get change from a penny!
And a laugh was not Brand but Bob Hope or Jack Benny!

When gay meant just jolly, when busted was broke!
When all was as well as it could be in Stoke!
When blokes were pure bloky and life okey-dokey!
When time was still time, and Stoke wa
s Old Stokie!

Cheers, OS.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

It's like with a woman...

Peter Hill-Wood, Chairman, Arsenal. For example.

"It’s like with a woman: sometimes you can’t find love, sometimes you can, but it’s still not right, you want more, you want to give, you want to receive. I’m not sure that I would like to be with a woman who is like some of the chairmen I met." - Eric Cantona.

So, OK, Peter Hill-Wood, the Glazers, Dave Whelan, etc. I take the point.

Cantona. Gallic genius. The seagull returns to the trawler.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Chain reaction: the cortex of Cortez

In London today at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, planning events and projects and anthologies. Train down, train back. On Cambridge platform bump into J, scholar and poet who spent years teaching at the university in Budapest. Haven't met for years. How many? Thirteen? Fourteen? Recognition. Embrace. He and his Indian wife, R are off to India for a couple of events themselves. R appears. JD reminds her who I am. Ah yes, she says, and adds, But you look older. And have put on weight. And I reply: Ah yes, and you have grown older and even uglier than before.

No, rewind. I don't say that. I say nothing. I smile and continue the conversation. Nor is she ugly, just older. But I think two things (as one would).

First: Am I fat? (Answer no, though I have widened in the fourteen or so years since we last met, as one does towards sixty, but check for yourself reader, if you ever see me).

Second: How interesting certain Indian manners are....

Should we actually meet, I trust that you, reader, will remark upon my elegant, sylph-like form, exclaiming: Why, GS, you are a veritable Fred Astaire! You are Iggy Pop! You are Starveling Jack!. And on that fortunate occasion I will dedicate a poem to you. Promise. Unless you'd rather not.

In any case, wind on now, to yesterday's post. As by chain reaction, you might say, one image conjuring another.

Clearly criticism, as such, cannot rely upon the production of a chain of inventions in response to a piece of work. Sometimes it can come close, when the critic is himself or herself a writer of some wit, or a phrase maker or, indeed, a poet. Clive James in his heyday used to do this to brilliant effect in his TV reviews.

Alternatively, Keats reads Chapman's Homer and and says he feels like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken, or like Stout Cortez standing silent upon a peak in Darien. So there is Homer, and there is Chapman, and in comes Keats bearing a tray laden with Stout Cortez and Darien as well as a new planet. See, he says. That is Chapman's Homer. Sure, it's subjective, but it's something more than that too.

The point is, or might be, possibly this. Let me put it as a question.

Why do we respond to a good poem? What is the nature of the response? Might it be that the extra dimensions one keeps discovering in the best poems set off a series of associations in us that gather symbolic weight as they multiply? This is not entirely to do with psychoanalysis. It need not carry that baggage of desire and guilt or indeed any nameable, and therefore fixed and circumscribed condition, a term conceived as a symptom or a cause. It is not pathology but register. It is directed not to the self, but through the self, at what the self perceives. It is itself fluid and complex and multi-dimensional. It is perhaps not much more than a dog registering the sky or the onset of night. Or a child watching a door open or close, not quite thinking but feeling: How strange, and I am part of it.

It is possibly the sense between experiencing and naming that is amplified through language by the poem, the poem saying the word door, the word I the word part, and all the echoes of the thing and the sound, the whole sort of silent, or in a silence, as, say, on a peak in Darien.

No, it's not criticism as we know it, Captain Kirk, but then criticism wasn't exactly what was happening in class, more another form of description, a superior form. Or so it seemed at that moment. And, to tell you the truth, seems so even now, even when I know my teaching task is to clarify and specify and name and reason and not simply bounce associations off a text.