Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Richard Timney and the Flight Path of Desire

Now here is an article with an ounce of sense, decency and honesty on Jacqui Smith's husband and those videos. It's by David Aaronovitch in The Times. The word he uses is prurience. It seems the right word to me.

I don't mean, and neither does Aaronovitch, the misuse of public money, which is to be deplored, whether it was for a bathplug, a porn film or a silver Rolls Royce, because that is not what has been making the news. What has, has been the extraordinary revelation that a man has watched a pornographic film - to be precise, that man.

Yes, that man, but if he had simply backed a horse with the money, there wouldn't have been the fuss. No: it's the sniggery, hypocritical, sense of disgrace and utter humiliation that is the corrosive factor, that does the damage. 'Sad wanker' is the story.

Pornography is big business because plenty of people pay for it. That means a lot of people are watching it. To say as much is merely a truism, one that is universally acknowledged but rarely personally admitted. The reason people watch pornography is because it is sexually stimulating. That is the whole point, isn't it?

Then why do all those people - I will assume they are men, and will make no assumptions about women - require sexual stimulation? Isn't there enough out there in real life to satisfy desire? No. There never is. Almost by definition, there cannot be.

Real life is risky, lonely, uncertain, not always successful, sometimes indeed humiliating. In real life, so you are led to believe, you are supposed to perform. Women are supposed to have perfect bodies and the ability to achieve a perfect orgasm every time, men increasingly to have perfect bodies, and to perform the task of bringing the women to perfect orgasm each time. No orgasm means failure and terror. And you can only take so much failure and terror.

Perfect sex and the fulfilment of desire are fantasies. So fantasy-mongers produce the desired situation by employing people to enact it. The women enact perfect orgasms, the men do what men do, which is the rough, yo-ho-ho, sniggery, shameful, ungraceful, unbeautiful thing they have been brought up to regard as a venture between ecstasy and humiliation, and preferably never to speak about (don't touch that, Timmy!) except in the form of hollow, cocksure boasting. But maybe you can stimulate desire by finding that which stimulates you. It may improve things, they think. It excites after all. If you can remain excited then maybe you won't be a failure. There won't be the terror. Maybe, just maybe, you could feel the excitement without the responsibility. Maybe, if it is a choice between private shame and public shame, the private is better. Hence the shameful act, so called because it is accompanied by shame.

Desire and frustration. Desire and guilt. Desire and incapacity. Desire and opportunity. Desire and the moment. Desire outruns the body, the single body. In the end it has no body. What will remain of us is love? What may remain of us is love.

This poem is in 'Reel'. It is an attempt to say something true about that which it is rarely possible even to think about inside one's own head. To be brutally honest but tender at the same time. Because that, on the whole, is what the subject requires.

Romantic Love

It was early November. The grass glowed
under a frame of light. A red bridge crossed
a dual carriageway. The train was lost
between two cities. It was as if it followed
its own chronology forward into time
which sat still watching as it watched birds
and mice, the progress of rust and the words
spoken in each carriage, all with sublime
attention to detail. Not far off but elsewhere
two people were kissing. One’s hand moved
on the other’s breast. A fistful of blonde hair.
The tail of a shirt.
Who else have you loved?
they asked each other. Tell me, was there anyone?
But no one heard them speak. The train moved on.


And two girls in the next seat. One said:
So he
went to the top of the car park and threatened
to throw himself off, but then his friend,
the one who had stolen his lover felt sorry
and joined him and said he’d jump too, so they
came down and went to a club where there were
lapdancers and got drunk. But we’d lost her
in the noise. The wind had carried her away.
Their voices continued lapping as at the bank
of a river, wearing it away with their tongues,
dragging along shopping trolleys, brief ranks
of refuse and the words of popular songs,
and we watched them talking excitedly, their eyes
as dazzling as the wings of household flies.


The man who had raped the girl at the pool recalled
his wife, how he’d bring her her morning tea
then feel her tits, and they’d fall to it enthusiastically.
That at least was his story. His listeners were apalled.
He clearly missed her although he was a brute
who had probably forced her to have sex
on his own terms. By now she was his ex-
and he’d been alone for years. That was the root
of the problem, an educated man remarked.
He talked of fucking. She referred to it
in other terms. It was her breast and not her tit
he held. Such a man should not have embarked
on a mature relationship.
These sorry pricks,
he ventured, are soon hoist by their semantics.


They wouldn’t let go of each other’s hands,
since if they did they might drift apart into
the stream of the universe. And it was true,
they did let go, and there were no real strands
holding them together. But later one
entered the underworld to rescue the other
and they almost made it through, lover to lover.

Two schoolkids were walking home alone
beside the railway line with dark berries
beckoning them and marks where others had lain
among the tussocks with the blood-red stain
on their fingertips, their childhood miseries
gathering dust and weight...

...Incidentals both.
The flight path of desire. The dazzled moth.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Jeff in Venice OR The Dyer's Hand

Or do I mean Geoff in Tennis? I sort of do. Geoff Dyer was reading and talking tonight at the university and since I am a genuine admirer of the Mind of Geoff, I must go, and C comes with me. Geoff is reading from the new book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

I suppose I had better say what I like about the Mind of Geoff, having said it at the end of the reading when there was a question of him being a satirist of some sort, a suggestion that, he said, somewhat 'stuck in his craw'. I said I didn't think he was a satirist. What he was writing about was the meeting point of the ludicrous, the marvellous and the terrifying, which he confronts with a kind of infuriated bemusement.

I think this is a particularly English angle to the world, as his book of essays Anglo-English Attitudes suggests. The tendency to reach a paroxysm of puzzled rage while being bemused is the true anglo-angle. The way Geoff does it is a little like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, beating his car with the bough of a tree, except, in Dyer, there is always irony, an overarching, superior kind of irony, as if to say: I am behaving like John Cleese but only to demonstrate the fact that I am not John Cleese. Trying to corner a real Dyer emotion is far from easy, at least in his fiction. Regarding the question of satire a parallel with Jonathan Swift was suggested, but for my money a better parallel would be Lewis Carroll. 'I do think you should stand at the back of queue,' said Alice is the tone. The meeting point of the ludicrous, terrifying and marvellous stands in queues.

There is, in fact, a wildly funny description of waiting in a queue at Varanasi, that starts like this then moves into Basil Fawlty territory, the whole superbly timed and extended. GD knows precisely how far to extend a piece of elastic.

And then I realise I am not, after all, English, and that this aspect of the ludicrous is not quite mine. The ludicrous in my mind ends in massacres. In the Mind of Geoff it ends in embarrassment. And there, sir, there precisely, lies the key to the whole damn boiling.

Embarrassment is the flip-side of imperial confidence; it is modesty with battleships. I know about it in theory: I can feel its tremors under my feet: There goes modesty with its battleships heading for the bloody Gulf of Embarrassment, I mutter to myself, knowing I have no battleships, in fact nothing to match its form of diplomacy. Except a kind of horror, and laughter of a not-very-redemptive sort. And love of course, the kind that springs out of such things as command nothing very much.

But then maybe I am just tired. And I have been laughing.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Sunday night is.. Marina Tsvetaeva

I like it that you're burning not for me,
I like it that it's not for you I'm burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I'm lightly touching yours.
I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.
With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don't know it -
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren't walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it's not for you I'm burning.

Rough, clumsy translation picked off the web, but it's better than nothing. Just come out of a session on Russian poetry: Mandelstam v. Dante, Gumilev v. Vysotsky, and the melodic quality of Tsvetaeva's verse. An all woman session till I come in, and then, shortly after, a young man who later shows he has read deeply into both Russian and Italian verse.

Of Mandelstam and Dante I have a some knowledge, of course, of Gumilev less and of Vysotsky, none, so I listen hard, though the poems are only in Russian, which is as it should be on such an occasion. I don't speak Russian. The third, about Tsvetaeva, is the most available to me. It is essentially about rhythm rather than melody and about vocal interpretation of poetic text. Can we hear it as the poet heard it? Is there an authentic, true way of hearing a poem?

These are pretty much philosophical questions. Can we know how the poet heard it? If it is by the poet's performance of the poem that we judge, does that mean everyone else has to imitate the poet's performance to get maximum value from the poem? What if the poet reads it differently at different times (I experiment with my own in performance, not wildly, but a little, depending on the audience)? Does the poet actually know what there is to be heard? Can the poet control hearing? Is the poet the best interpreter of the poem? Is there a best interpreter? Is there a meaning that we are edging towards, like a homing device?

I suspect the answer to all of these is: no. I suspect that if there were a single point, a single hearing, a single voice, a fully articulated intention, there would be no poem. Sometimes when I am not sure if a poem is working aurally, or syntatically, usually because I have got too tangled up with it, I paste it into Text and get the impersonal computer voice to read it for me. That voice has no capacity for sly persuasion. It cannot emote, amplify or give me dramatic pauses. It has no sensibility, no intimacy. The language is naked, out there, shivering in the cold. And somehow it can look a little clearer there.

This is not some precious piece of Poesy mystification, it is, I believe, the very nature of language: a compound of music, distance, breath, loss, the absurd, the attempt to build something out of such codes as we have.

Tsvetaeva's rhythm certain sounds marked, and very attractive, and poignant, and, when sung, as in the clip, it is pure soul.

Well, soul.. I sit in the small seminar room and think that is what I see before me in the three speakers, three versions of that complex notion, part intuition, part intellect, part emotion, part aspiration: the soul, if only because I can't quite think of a better word for something so rapt, so involved in a corner of the world that opens out to be so much more than music, distance, breath, loss and the absurd. The dimensions of the human. One of the great dimensions is work. The sheer legwork of body and soul.

Now to work myself, to read something for a tutorial after tomorrow.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

From Fitzwilliam College, BASEES

I want to keep brief notes as I go, because these are interesting events. Coming at academe from the outside, so to speak, or by the back door, or indeed by some other analogy, I take real pleasure in listening to scholars speak. If I had more time I'd do much more of this at UEA, but I have so many deadlines and projects, I really have to be physically wrenched away from them to be able to give myself entirely over to listening.

Fitzwilliam is a modern college, and what it lacks in prepossessiveness from the front it somewhat makes up in postpossessiveness once inside. The gardens have a nice lushness, and most of the buildings serve up an amiable partly monastic modernism, with an especially fine later auditorium building and touches of art deco in the actual halls. The rain has swept in and out several times during the day and I have been to three out of four sesions.

The first was in the auditorium itself. Title: Does Russia have Free and Fair Elections? There is a kind of music to this. It turns out that, regionally, there are a good number of 100% votes with 100% cast for the government, on the other hand it also turns out that, according to some surveys at least, most Russians are pretty happy with their democracy and don't see much corruption. The music in the background is the familiar tune of: Why do you think your western model of democracy should be imposed on our freedom loving people? with the chorus: So what makes you so perfect? It is, of course, a high class set of papers and questions. Personal hunch goes with the view that countries with no established tradition of democracy will always regard it as something rather less important than jobs, stability, a full belly, and a good football team. And considering the histories it is hard to blame them, while regretting, etc.

Wave of tiredness overcame me next, and though I thought I would sit in on Russia in Motion: Screen Reactions to Ballet or alternatively on Through the Iron Curtain - Networking in Cold War Europe, presented by four Finns, one of whom has a Hungarian name, the resolve goes and I retire to my room, emerging for the third session, chaired by the one person I know here, my friend and ex-neighbour M. This is in a smaller room and is headed Espionage and the History of the Second World War. Only two papers here, one about the case history of a female Polish spy who set out on her spy career back in 1926, the case being a sample from research about women in the military and in intelligence. The story itself is fascinating, more like fiction than fiction, as is generally the case with interesting lives, though the gender line is exactly the one I could have written without having done any research. The young woman giving it is doing so in her second language, and has spent uncounted hours in the vaults of the Polish secret service, having run through over a hundred files.I see it is a heroic effort and of course, the gender line, is correct, and the whole is a part of the furnishing out of the lives of women which must be worth doing. Whether the subject had spied for the Gestapo as well as for the Communists is an issue that is raised but the truth is not established. She might have. From the gender point of view it doesn't matter.

The second paper is about Chekists generally, the internal tensions and divisions in the Cheka / NKVD / KGB / SMERSH and so on, particularly in the Second World War. It is eloquent and very well informed, the central point perhaps being that the whole was far from the big monolothic organisation we assume it to be, and that during the war - we get a good run down as to what the range of security forces duties were - SMERSH wasn't in the business of enrolling only ace agents but almost anybody they could get. The questions at the end include one from a younger man researching in KGB files who says every time he finds something really interesting it disappears the next day, and that in Leningrad there were swastika banners all ready to fly, welcoming the German invaders, just in case. Once the Germans had retreated enthusiasm for Soviet Union returned. The same might have been the case in Moscow, he says.

The evening session is a splendid three-way discussion of 1989 in the Soviet Union - Memory and Legacy, between, I'll name them, Archie Brown (Oxford), Philip Hanson (Birmingham) and Marju Lauristin (Estonia), all remarkable people with direct knowledge. AB argues that communism died in 1989 because the six characteristics that defined it, including the desire to propagate communism abroad, the belief in 'democratic socialism' etc, lost all force that year. PH concentrates on economics and the frantic search for a new economic model, while ML disagrees about the death of communism, arguing that the party structure was still in place, and might still be if Gorbachev had been stronger - 'a good man' she says, but not up to it. AB argues back suggesting it would have been very hard to have been up to it. It is not so much the argument here as the detail that fascinates, the behind the door, remarks made to so and so, notes written, conversations conducted, meetings attended, books read or not read. AB points to Gorbachev's second - unpublished - book about perestroika. Events had overtaken it, he said.

1989 is what I am to talk about, at least partly. That is tomorrow. Late now. Clocks go forward tonight, one hour less sleep.

Interview for Literary Norfolk

Just up on the web, an interview with Literary Norfolk, here.

This from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Rain doing its Jan van Hogspeuw act.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Translations, versions, poems

There isn't really a 'final' version, only versions.

I don't believe in the one 'right' translation. What you lose in transit from the original language to the receiving one may be made good, in its way, by what the receiving language offers. It's not like for like: it is echo for echo. It isn't an equal echo but it's all we have. To a native speaker, no echo in another language is going to reproduce the experience(s) of the original poem. To the non-native-reading foreign reader the experience resides in the receiving language.. This doesn't mean that anything goes. If we think a little more deeply about the experience of reading a poem in our own language we may become aware that the experience, as a whole, comprises the possibility of an array of meanings and that, in almost every important way, that is the whole point of the experience - the poem lives in an echo chamber of its own language.

If we doubt that we should try comparing the responses of a group of people to a single poem. What we get there is a broad area of agreement about subject, voice, register, and form, but, at the edges, on the penumbra, there is an ever more subjective set of associations and registerings. That is the echo chamber. The meanings echo back, overlapping and amplifying each other.

One cannot detach the area of agreement from the penumbra, the source from the echo.

In translation we may agree broadly on source, but echo remains various.


Language changes, its meanings change, the conditions under which it is spoken change. On the other hand human life follows much the same arc, with much the same range of variations. We are born, we grow, we sicken, we recover, we love or are loved, we form relationships or don't form relationships, we have or don't have children, we watch them grow, we work, we travel, we suffer, we take pleasure, we age, we die. Add a few details to that if you like, change the proportions and degrees. Where we differ dramatically is in the precise way such things combine and interact, like crossed shadows, and in the way our language chases these shadows.

The very act of speaking is translation of experience into language. Listening to each other we interpret what we hear. Poetry, the area of language least concerned with transaction and exchange, is the most attuned to the nature of the whole - the useful, the useless, the important, the passing - and tries to bind all this together with its sense of pattern. Each pattern, if it is going to be successful, has to be experienced as new. It has to be felt anew because language wears out. Cliché is truth whose language has worn out, has worn away with use. And even then it retains some residual power, if only as cliché, our knowledge of it as cliché, that knowledge too having a value. Nothing is without value. The art of the poet is to gauge, balance and energise these values. Even cliché can be part of the new.

In what sense is any work of art original? In the sense that it strikes us as fresh each time, at least for a long enough time. Music, visual art, literature retain power only so long as they can strike us afresh. That striking afresh is the originality-effect. It's the negotiation between what we think we know and what is passing and cannot be known. The reason poetry inspires love, when it does, is because the language in it remains fresh. You can bury your nose in it and it will smell fresh each time.


I don't think translation is betrayal. I don't think translation is theft. Translation is hearing and replying: it is trying to get your ear, mouth and mind round that which potentially fascinates you in another work in a different language.


(Why do people write poetry?)

Because they hear, see and feel the poetry in things, the way things hang together, and because they love and distrust language and are driven to spend their lives trying to make shapes in it that seem to echo with life. This making of shape, this preoccupation and delight is what makes them write poetry. The hearing, seeing and feeling of poetry doesn't necessarily mean you want to write it: it means you esentially understand it. I think almost everyone does, and has done so since the beginning of time.

People write love poems because they sense the shape of love, not because they are in love. People write poems of commemoration and celebration because such events determine the shapes of lives: births, marriages and deaths are a start but the rest follows. Shape following shape, even if only as shadow.

*Some answers to a few questions asked over email.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

More thoughts on thoughtful dressing

One strain - excuse pun - in Linda's book is the line of discomfort and downright pain involved in wearing some garments, especially shoes. She writes very well about this. The sheer agony of it is puzzling, she says:

And so I start to wonder if women are masochists; are we actually the brain-dead dolts and bimbos which our superior brothers suggest? 'It is only when the mind and character slumber that dress can be seen,' sneered Ralph Waldo Emerson. 'You cannot be fashionable and first rate,' intoned Logan Pearsall Smith, the early twentieth-century essayist and author of nearly thirty works, most of which are out of print.

But then I remember that men get their teeth knocked out playing rugby, fall off mountains, run marathons, lift weights and voluntarily sign up to be flown round the world to fight wars for the grand adventure of being shot at. Because pain is part of living, and pleasures without effort are candyfloss confections, pallid and sickening.

"Well," says the subtext, and not too sub- either, "a good miaow to you, Emerson and Pearsall Smith, you sneerers and intoners, whom the world has rightly forgotten and whose names I now bring up only to show how far they are forgotten, while... " ...While what? That we cannot know. But Linda is right about clothes, and they are wrong. I am firmly persuaded of that, chiefly by her, and in any case a good cat-scratch does no great harm. Certainly not to the dead, even the sneerers and intoners.

Later, in talking about the elegant women of Hong Kong, each with her designer handbag, she says of them:

... they carried them with the conviction of the young, fashionable woman who knows she is dressed to strike a certain impression of uniform brand luxury. It was a devastating sight for the untidy, badly proportioned Englishwoman. The women on the streets had achieved the plateau of excellent taste the rest of us aspire to. I found it soothing and extremely appealing to the eye. And terribly sad, too, for all individuality had been extinguished in the race for the calming plateaux of luxe, and the self-assurance it brings. I did and did not want to be them. For they seemed to exist in a morphine pre-death, utterly calm and at peace with fashion.

Lovely phrase that, the calming plateaux of luxe. It is a kind of poetry. But what strikes me under it is the tension between ease and unease, between confidence and pain, between wanting and not wanting. That, I think, is where the game is played, in that band of tension. Sometimes, I think, that is the female domain. And a pretty tantalising domain it is too, a power game in which power is helpless, and in which, sometimes, helplessness can be power.

Pain and plainness are part of what we are: ease and beauty, calme, luxe et volupté, are the wanted / unwanted objects of desire.

As to fashion, mutability is at the heart of it. Mutability - donna e mobile - used to be the characteristic barb thrown at women by men, as if mutability were unambiguously a vice. The true male hypocrisy is not about dress or fashion, it is about mutability, because mutability is the very object of desire. Which is, of course, why we condemn it.

Fashion changes because desire changes. Male desire particularly. Desire is not quite the same as love: love can live without desire, though desire might find it harder to live without love. Male desire depends on mutability, on the change, shape-shift, sheer otherness, of that-which-is-never-quite-here. It is the male equivalent of female wanting and not-wanting as described by Linda. So women change because they know in their very bones that change is necessary, that mutability is of the essence, whether they are, as Linda has it elsewhere, "on the pull" or not. It is not always the other we pull. It is our very shadows.

Maybe more on this. Translated two poems this evening. One very beautiful, but first draft only. Tomorrow to UEA for a class and some blessed admin. On Saturday to Cambridge and another lecture.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Books and Burnings and a review round-up so far

I said in the introduction to the New and Collected Poems that such books had something of the air of tombstones, and so I carefully saved from it the more substantial new poems that seemed to me to be striking out somewhere genuinely new. The book containing all those poems will be published by Bloodaxe in September under the title, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems, although, before that, the poems that comprise the actual Burning of the Books sequence, based on Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe, will appear by themselves along with the prints of the poem's original begetter, Ronald King, under the title, a little confusingly, of The Burning of the Books, to be published by the new Full Circle Press. That will be an artistic whole, a complete package of one project. The Bloodaxe book will contain many more poems, including those on photographs that first appeared in Poetry magazine, USA as well as the six canzone, the Nova Zembla poems, the Penig sequence, the Van Gogh sequence, the Palladio poem, the one about the man who thought he was made of grass, and a number of other sequences including prose poems, that have been building a while. So two quite different books in the end.

As to the New and Collected I could not possibly have expected such a marvellous set of reviews. The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Morning Star are all in (see sidebar for links), but just now, within the last few days two wonderful extended new reviews have appeared, the first by Martyn Crucefix in Poetry London, the other by William Bedford in The Warwick Review, neither on line. Never mind tombstones, I think I must be dead and have gone to heaven. There is, I have been told, another review to appear in The Times Literary Supplement.

How very strange this all is. I think of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?

What do you see? you see an asshead of your own, do


Re-enter QUINCE

Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art


I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
from this place, do what they can: I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid.

My normal expectation would have been that someone declares me an ass, an impostor, a foreigner who can barely speak English. To which my response would be much like Bottom's, in other words: I would not stir from this place, do what they can.

The expectation is a condition.

Well, if I am dead, I am having a lovely time reading the obits. Who dat man? He Mistah Kurtz.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Health Check

I think the site should be bright and pure and infection free now, thanks to son who knows whereof he speaks. And, better still, does.

If you still detect mischief let me know. Repeated profuse thanks for your help.

The Damned United

Listening to Lawrence Norfolk discussing The Damned United, book and film. The more distance I get on that book the less I like it, the more miserable in spirit it seems. Miserable and false - not false as in 'not a true record of real events', but not true to what it invites us to believe as truth. It is a false invitation. You are invited to touch fictional flesh but what you get is twitching neon.

And somewhere in there lies my entire distrust of - or at last unease about - the novel project. It is in the appropriation and presentation of events as real in a believable sense. Most of the time it does not trouble one too much because the fictionality remains somewhere in sight, even if only as a faint blur on the horizon. I like stories. I like knowing stories are stories. I like imagining the characters in stories as imaginable people. I know we are in the world of the imagination, furthermore I even know that the world that is, at bottom, real, also appears to me as an imagined construction. I know I cannot quite know the world. It is when the novel makes extra claims on reality that it begins to annoy.

The closer Peace got to imitating Clough and trying to penetrating the 'real' Clough's mind the less I believed. I felt exactly the same unease about it as I feel about dramatic music on the news, or the endless camera tricks that seek to illustrate' the contents of someone's speech. I sense a falsehood, a deliberate act of falsification.

We don't have the same problem with poetry, a medium in which we know not to expect documentary. Everything in a poem - from its appearing in lines, to its storehouse of literary devices - proclaims its artificiality, and it is precisely in that respect that it is true and respectful of the proper difference between language and the world. A poem strives to act on language as the world acts on us. It recognizes the sense of the world as a construction by employing overt construction.

Novels at best give you scope and action: poetry at best gives you depth and resonance.

The trouble is I think I still have a sense of human obligation to the otherness and unknowability of Clough, that is despite all I think I 'know' about him. The 'bond' between Peace and Clough may be a little like that between Max Clifford and Jade Goody.

I know. This may be not be fair. It might not even be absolutely true. But it's in the bones, and I can't help it. Its as true as I can make it. I think we should be better than this.

Checking website: a request

Thank you to friends who were kind enough to write and tell me about difficulties they were having with either the blog or the website.

One request. Could you try it again and let me know whether there are still problems? Some infestation has been cleared but there may be more.

Main website dificulties

- You have a sick website.

I have had a number of messages saying there are problems with the main site, www.georgeszirtes.co.uk - I am trying to have these fixed as soon as possible. Thank you for writing to tell me. You may be able to navigate there through this address via the sidebar.

Monday, 23 March 2009

First spare thoughts on thoughtful dressers

Late and I have been working and am tired, so this is just a preliminary sketch. Linda does superbly well in laying out the following areas:

1. Why clothes are important
2. Why clothes are an essential part of personhood
3. Why clothes are particularly intense part of personhood for women
4. Why fashion is important in the lives of women
5. Why clothes are an essential part of the personhood particularly of older women

Points 1 and 2 are easily enough argued, and all I would add regarding 2 is that clothes are one important element among other essential aspects of personhood, such as health, intelligence, opportunity and so forth. In looking at a clothed person one notices posture, movement, expression all which witness to health, intelligence etc. Nevertheless, point granted.

Point 3 is strongly asserted throughout and amply demonstrated although not fully explained.

Point 4 is also well argued though again I think there is more to be explained, or at least I am curious for more. Maybe Linda will write more in due course.

Point 5 is easier again, because here we are invited to regard various rearguard actions against aging, and dressing well is certainly one of those actions. I don't think I need any more explanation for point 5.

Points 3 and 4 are clearly related but are not exactly the same.


I am interested in points 3 and 4 because I am curious and because I like women. One is always curious about what one likes. My thoughts, in so far as they are thoughts, run a little like this.

Whatever people say about biological determinism it is certainly the case that carrying children, having them and caring for them for parts of their lives at least, takes considerable energy and time. In the days before easily available contraception there were far more pregnancies, miscarriages, births and infant deaths, so the whole motherhood cycle was one of the most dramatically determining factors in a woman's life. I say this without any feeling that undergoing motherhood is any form of obligation, or that once entered on, the weight of the process should be entirely born by women. By all means let us have creches, housefathers etc etc. Nevertheless the business of bearing children is not nothing.

So consideration of the possibility of motherhood is probably natural, even if it is dismissed.

Becoming a mother involves, generally, attracting a partner who may be chosen, or be offered for various reasons. This needs to happen during the period of fertility.

The period of fertility is the period of greatest attractiveness for a variety of reasons (hence maybe the significance of TITS). But human beings are intelligent, complex creatures not composed solely of reproductive urges, or even of the sheer desire to give vent to their sexual energies. For just how complex they are, read enough of, well, almost anything that seems interesting to you.

Linda stresses, and has stressed before, that women don't dress to attract men. I agree. That would be too simple a thing for intelligent complex beings to do. Women's dress will, in practice, chiefly be judged by other women (as will women's behaviour). But consciousness is subtle, because it has never been the case that, outside religious or possibly puritan ideological restrictions, women have ever dressed with the clear idea of repelling men, or even simply making them indifferent. As more than one feminist theorist has written apropos the male gaze: women look at themselves as though they were looked at by someone else, and somewhere behind that someone else, or behind yet another someone else, there is a man. Appraising her. It may well be the case, though I have never read it, that when a man looks in the mirror he is aware of being looked at by another person, and possibly, at the end by an object of his desire, or possibly his mother, or his anti-mother. It might be so. I suspect it is so. Nor can we completely separate the consciousness of men and women.

The notion of attractiveness, prettiness, femininity involves - as how can it not? - desire. So whose desire are we talking about?

Enough for now. More when I have more than one-tenth a brain left. What do you call a man with half a brain? A genius. (Feminist joke, vintage 1970-2000)

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sunday night is.. the Isley Brothers

1959! So early!


Written 80%-90% of BASEES lecture. It is going to be long so will cut. Plagued by allergic sniffs, as seems to happen from time to time. High pollen count?

It is a very strange world with all the attention to the death of Jade Goody. I have no opinion about her worth articulating. Max Clifford is another matter.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

And the next lecture will be...

Next Sunday, 29 March, at 7pm. Keynote for BASEES (The British Association for Eastern and Slavonic Studies) annual conference at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Title: The Poetics of Transition. Current state: in progress, moving along.

It is a strange and wonderful, possibly mad mad mad mad world in which I am asked to address a large group of international scholars who actually know what they are talking about (ie giving proper papers with titles like Local Elections and the Problem of Hooliganism in Leningradskaya oblast’ in 1922-1927, and Bomelius: Magus or Physician? Identity and Perception in Ivan IV’s Muscovy). Perhaps I'll find out what I am talking about as I write. It's the usual (and only) way I know. You never do know till you start speaking. As to being a keynote, I suspect I am more of a faux-grace note.

In the meantime? An introductory note to write for an exhibition by tomorrow. Not long.

And more thoughts on Linda's book, that I see being reviewed enthusiastically in today's Guardian, where there are several pages on the Poet Laureateship, chiefly a valedictory to the job by Andrew Motion, and background on possible female candidates for the vacancy as well as handy pen-sketches of previous incumbents.

For my money Andrew Motion has done brilliantly in an impossible situation. I have no idea how he has managed to juggle all the various elements he put himself to juggling. He has dashed about the country - and the world - arguing for poetry at conferences, in ministries, in institutions, in universities and in schools, and has set up the Poetry Archive in which the bones of our voices can safely rest. And he has written books. And countless reviews. And continued teaching at Royal Holloway. It has been a heroic labour of - well, I suppose it must be love, since the money can't be that good. Love and madness.

As for me, today has been alternating bouts of energy and lethargy. And my beloved reds blowing two more fuses. I tell myself this has been a seventeen-year golden age beyond my wildest dreams, so the odd blown fuse is just the way of things. The Irish rubgy team wins the Grand Slam. Good for them, and good on them. I cannot help finding that greatly cheering.

Now back to the vasty halls of comparative ignorance.

Friday, 20 March 2009


Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Back after four days, four very good days. The three lectures were, I think, a decent arc, much like those Tyne bridges, with Elizabeth Bishop at both ends Tom Paulin and Derek Mahon at either bridgehead and Eastern Europe in the middle, so Newcastle wasn't only Peru (via John Cleveland and Tony Harrison) but also Hungary, and the Tyne was the River Hernád / Hornád, down which the First World War corpses float, as featured in Sándor Márai's 'The Rebels'. All this seemed to make sense to the audience which is what really matters.

I had a very good time generally, especially once the second lecture was over. Bill Herbert gave me a guided one hour quick trip round the city centre, taking in the Crown Posada, the Central Shopping Arcade, the city wall, the Cathedral, the Lit and Phil Library, the Paolozzi sculpture, and many other fine places, and, chiefly not to be forgotten, the Vampire Rabbit round the back of the cathedral, which in honour of my Transylvanian maternal ancestor (nodding distantly but vigorously to Elizabeth Bishop's maternal ancestor, courtesy of Tom Paulin) I feel duty bound to display.

Not a well disposed rabbit, I would say; a rabbit gone to the bad; almost the apocalyptic Anti-Rabbit that will surely appear at the end of the world seeking to rip us all into lettuce-leaf sized shreds .

The fact is it was bliss, Messrs Herbert, O'Brien and all who sail with them, and as a last blessing there was Newcastle's own version of Kertész's Meudon, which makes Newcastle not only Peru and Budapest but also Paris.

Not much has changed there. The Millennium Bridge at the top is what I saw from my hotel window, directly opposite it. Except mine was multi-coloured and constantly changing.

Now to tidy up the lectures ready for publication, but first to prepare another one.

ps Note the preponderance of arcs in the three photos.

Preliminary Thoughts on Dressing

I did finish Linda's The Thoughtful Dresser, yesterday afternoon while waiting for PB at the Cafe Royal. It is rather marvellous.

Apart from the bitching at men parts, that being the matter of an occasional swing of the handbag which, frankly, doesn't do much damage to one's skull, it does - brilliantly - something that is deeply worth doing, first by fiercely defending its corner regarding the seriousness of the project, then, by layer-by-layer, shifting ever closer to the complex, and compulsive, heart of the matter. I would go so far as to say that it is the most valuable book i have yet read about the various angles and conditions of being a woman. Not a woman-thinker, a woman-intellectual, a this-that-or-the-other special kind of woman, but a perfectly ordinary, if highly intelligent, articulate and deeply and generously educated woman, particularly one moving into her middle years. I understand far more about this now that I did before reading the book.

I don't mean by that that any of it particularly surprises me, or that an awareness of (almost) everything in the book had totally escaped me, but that the case had not become articulate as an argument in my own head. The various aspects the book presents of women and clothing had been a series of glimpses and intuitions that had not added up to a whole. That arguing through, illustrating and revealing of a whole, I think, is the achievement of the book, about which I will write more later, because there is much to write and think about and because it is important.

Not that I would expect to be warmly welcomed in the inter-female conversation, because the book is inevitably that too: that primarily. It is not addressed to men. It is an explanation and argument within a circle that, naturally enough, like all circles encloses some things and excludes others. I speak - how could I not? - from the outside, and I don't speak to those within the circle, only, as ever, to myself and anyone else who wishes to drop in and listen in or add their own observations (the essence of non-polemical blogging, as far as I can see).

When PB arrived the book was on my table and I pointed to it and enthused. So I will enthuse as well as think. But now I am in my last half hour in the hotel. In five minutes I will meet a young student at the Grey Monument and he'll take me to have a look at the legendary Morden Tower where decades of the great, famous and infamous poets have read. Then it's off to the station and the comforts of the age of the train.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Third lecture and reading

I gave the third lecture yesterday and it went far better than I dared hope. It was an important third part, since I had spent considerable time trying to make the three parts into one whole, so there should be one sustaining, comprehensible, humane argument.

The third began with the notion of the individual and the community, the relationship of a poet to his / her 'people', voicing some unease about the demanding aspects of community and the songs community sings about itself. Derek Mahon took me there as also to the artist as privileged witness to the brutalities of history, possibly an agent in them, then it was 1989 and the Eastern European poet's sense of change and response to loss of community, which was also a loss of specific local history. We end up with Bishop's story, 'In the Village'.

Put like that it sounds very telescoped and somewhat improbable but it did work at its proper length. Here is a passage:

The Budapest equivalent of Belfast’ bombs and bricked-up windows were fallen buildings, bullet holes and shell marks, several score of cracked stucco angels, a few hundred allegorical figures with missing limbs and heads, a pile of smashed statues and broken glass, all bearing vivid witness to history of ghettos and transportations, ineffective barricades, burned-out tanks, Molotov cocktails, bodies covered in white powder, executions in quiet courtyards, and bones in unmarked graves. The conflation of the events of two world wars and a failed revolution has produced a contemporary brew that is part historical consciousness, part ironic quietism; part nostalgia, part patriotism; part song and part pure poison. The poison is in the waste and, as William Empson wrote in Missing Dates, the waste remains and kills. And goes on killing. The terrible butcheries and barbarities of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia are evidence of it. The fervid anti-Semitism of Budapest, Sofia and Bucharest are an aspect of it.

The poison remains but the human psyche has a wonderful, life-saving talent for forgetting too when it is not useful to remember. Sometimes forgetting is good. Sometimes it is the only thing to do. One might, occasionally, want to celebrate forgetting too. It might be useful to remember that remembering comprehends an element of forgetting. It is the balance that is so hard to strike.


Myth is a form of remembering while forgetting. It is a historical process. Illyés’s Sentence on Tyranny and Herbert’s Elegy of Fortinbras for instance, both of which I discussed in the last lecture, have undergone a historical and geographical voyage from clear and present danger into the beginnings of the myth where Adrian Mitchell’s secret policemen have long been at home. By myth I do not mean a lie of course, or anything specifically untrue, I simply mean history’s way of turning from event to account, to enquiry, to overview, to evaluation and revaluation, to imagination, to fiction, to meta-fiction, to movie, and finally to a universal pattern composed of what used to be known as Chinese Whispers: another way remembering while forgetting. Myth can revert to clear and present danger at the drop of a bloody hat because that is the way myth works. It re-enters the food chain and informs a wholly new passage through another generation’s guts.

And tonight the reading. More on that maybe tomorrow and some retrospective general thoughts and memories.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Left and I

The second lecture tries to tell it how it looked to me some time in the eighties, that is as it looked to me with the experience, direct and inherited, I had to hand. The simple things were always simple to answer: Are you for the weak against the strong? Yes. Are you for those who work for others rather than those for whom they work? Yes. Do you have a belief in the promise and goodness of the people whose part you say you would take? Yes.

I could go on setting up simple questions of that sort to which the simple answer would always be yes. However, did I hate those whom I opposed in this way? That is more complicated. The probable answer was no. I have considerable capacity for anger but not much for hatred of the long burning sort. I had a certain sympathy for what would have been called, by some, middle-class values in England, although I would not have called them middle-class, or indeed English. I never did feel, nor do I feel now, that I had a firm basis in one or other class as defined in in Britain, or, more specifically, England. I was immigrant refugee class of mixed parentage.

What do I mean? On the whole I would have chosen opera over darts for no other reason that I derived greater pleasure from the former. Ballet over football? More difficult. Football was about beauty as much as about kicking a ball into a net. Stuff like bingo and holiday camps seemed utterly alien and British to me. On the other hand I grew to love British professional wrestling which is a form of savage, working class morality play, a version of carnival (Barthes gets this dead right.) I thought my parents, in their way, were striving towards a European notion of progressive gentility. That they genuinely loved middle-brow music and operetta and gypsy bands and chansons and crooners and a reliable car to go out in on Sundays, and that they loved card games like rummy and bridge. That they were cafe rather than pub people. On the other hand I was aware that they had both been deeply socialist in their youth, my middle-class mother in a fervent idealistic way, my working class-lower middle class father in a pragmatic way. For him it was about the practical working of a fair system. Their instincts were never anything but socialist. But they lost the language for their kind of socialism when they emigrated and there wasn't another easily available language to replace it. They would, I think, have been natural WEA people had they got here in time. It was too late for that.

But this meant everything and nothing in England. Their preferences were not clear class signifiers. That was partly because of who they were and partly, maybe more importantly, because there were few clear-cut English class signifiers. That was the whole point. The distinguishing marks of class were part of the hidden complexity. It took more discrimination than I think they had, and certainly more than I had as a child or schoolboy. My own contact with the clearly identifiable English working class - voice, employment, manner, occasion - was, on the whole good. I liked them very much and immediately felt at ease. I found them warm and kindly. I was, of course, lucky to meet mostly good-hearted, tough but kind people. I did not think that was the whole story, because I was perfectly aware of a brutal side too. I had met it at school and felt it, even at this distance, in the mobs in Budapest. The sheer depth and range of human potential was part of my instinctive sense of reality. There was the potential for a lumpen fascistic proletariat too, though that would not have been the term I would have used.

My contact with the lower middle-class consisted of a balance of boredom and a certain detection, on my part - it might have been fanciful - of a decent, often well-disposed but rabbit-like fear in them. Fear of loss and exposure, I now think. That was their curse and predicament. Their personal actions were on the whole humane and well-intentioned as I experienced them. I couldn't possibly have hated them. I didn't much want to be with them, that's all. But how broad and wide that range was I had no idea. My social antennae were not that well-attuned. Interesting now to read Márai on the Hungarian upper-middle class and their self-torturing.

Almost everything - no, change that, everything - was complex and that was the truth of things. If something was not complex it probably wasn't true, and that was why it was difficult for me to hate, and still is. Easy to fear: hard to hate.

I would have been a natural Labour voter in the sixties and seventies. I would have had no problem voting for Harold Wilson or George Brown, or Jim Callaghan, or Neil Kinnock, or indeed Michael Foot. After 1968 I could have drifted very quickly to the far left or, more likely in a fanciful sort of way, towards anarchism, the former direction being the one taken by most of my contemporary contacts, indeed friends, and most admired friends. Instead I stayed just where I was. It was my peculiar form of resistance to the force of gravity. The popular visions, or panaceas, of both far left and anarchy seemed to me simplistic. The image that always comes back to me is the window of the anarchist shop in Leeds, close to the art college. It showed two pictures. One was dark grey, smoggy, faintly L S Lowry with miserable people drifting, singly, to smoky factories: the other showed a green hill in brilliant sunlight and a group of happy people holding hands in a circle. The legend underneath read. WHICH WAY DO WE CHOOSE? It was clearly a false dichotomy. That sounds a patently obvious judgment, but it goes very deep. Right down to the bottom, I would say.

It was the simple lies I resisted. I was not mythopoeic, if anything I was anti-mythopoeic. Still am. The second lecture was about the simple, all but innocent options offered by even the intelligent Left that troubled me and how the kind of reading it sometimes applied locally resembled very closely that which it condemned elsewhere, a kind of Stalinist reading of text for ostensibly anti-Stalinist reasons. It was what I heard in Tom Paulin's reading of Elizabeth Bishop. It was, I thought, a myth reading, a misreading, a kind of witch-finding discourse. What do you know about it! I felt deep within me. You who have lived in stability and safety all your life, and do not know the cold and frozen sea I sense knocking about at the bottom of things but all too close. That frozen sea was my corner. Maybe they too had it. I might have been wrong. Maybe I am still wrong. Maybe I will never know whether I was and am wrong. Allow for that. Allowing for that is what I think life is. Bishop does not put her hand in the sea.

But these are, to extend and mix the metaphor, dangerous and murky waters. The water Bishop talks about is cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear. Keeping one's head above the freezing complexities is difficult and can't be done for long. I am further to the left than I was then. I want to discover possibilities for a humane, believable, instinctively leftist writing that understands the big things while desperately loving the small things that comprise it while never forgetting, not for a second, that cold dark deep etcetera.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Lecture 2

Just back fro delivering lecture 2, the more contentious one, but here I am still alive and indeed well fed. I took the sunny afternoon to look round the Baltic opposite, on the Gateshead side of the river, then The Sage, a Foster & Partners building that looks like a huge silver handbag. Also translating. Supper out afterwards with Sean O'B and Bill H. Fair amount of whiskey plus a steak. All well.

The Millennium Bridge has just turned from green-blue to blue-purple. One more lecture tomorrow then a reading. If the sun lasts a longer walk around the Toon.

This is a part of the second talk:

Tom Paulin, in his introduction to the 1986 Faber Book of Political Verse, refers to what he calls, Elizabeth Bishop’s “sophisticated quietism”, and, in talking about “the witty, anecdotal formality of Elizabeth Bishop’s evocation of Trollope’s visit to Washington during the Civil War” adds “if we also know that Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal ancestors were New York State Tories at the time of the American Revolution then we can see that this perfect poem is the work of an ironic conservative patrician”.

‘If we also know…’ seemed to me a strange position to adopt. It seemed rather close to the questions asked of potential cadres and enemies in Eastern Europe in the early Fifties, questions that were asked of my own mother and father. A perfect mirror image, in fact. To be frank, I still have no idea what my maternal ancestors were back in the 19th century since their names vanished a long time ago into the cold dark deep sea, but Paulin made me think I had better check.

“The conservative,” Paulin observes in the same Introduction, “obscures political realities by professing an envy of the ignorant and by shuffling responsibility for historical suffering onto those who aim to increase knowledge by challenging received ideas.” That being the casee, we must conclude, the nature of Bishop as a poet is to obscure political realities, and to shuffle responsibility for historical suffering on to someone other than herself. Furthermore we must assume that she was foredoomed to fail in these important regards, at least partly, on account of her maternal ancestor.

However, Paulin makes an interesting distinction elsewhere in the Introduction, when talking about Dryden’s 'Absalom and Achitophel'. “Politically,” he says, “it is a dirty trick, an inspired piece of black propaganda; aesthetically it is a great masterpiece.”

Here we come to the obvious, indeed ancient, difficulty: the weighting of aesthetic value against moral value, the weighting of first rate poetry against vices such as, say, pretence of envy, the shuffling off of responsibility for historical suffering and the obscuring of political realities. Bearing the weight of such charges in mind as regards Bishop, I strongly suspected the aesthetic, according to the Introduction, must come off worse. The poem would be interrogated first, but eventually the interrogator would win out....

Essentially it is an argument against adopting Eastern European cold war models. Thence to the third.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Newcastle Lecture 1

Didn't rain. Hasn't rained. I look right over the illuminated and beautiful Millennium Bridge. It's like being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or is that the other side?

Coffee with lovely Newcastle hosts, then into lecture. All well so far. An excerpt:

(The first two or three pages are concerned with a discussion of Elizabeth Bishop's At the Fishhouses, then we move on to Matthew Arnold, then to Márai, Magris and Brodsky before ending with Bishop again.)

In all great poems there is, I think, an image of the poetic act. They are about both their subject and themselves, about both the world of knowledge and history and our act of making song out of language, singing our versions of A mighty fortress is our God in full awareness – in the best poems – of the cold dark deep and absolutely clear sea.

Listening to the to and fro motion of the sea, Matthew Arnold thought of another listener, of Sophocles, long ago on the Aegean, and of how "it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery". Arnold was writing about the loss of faith, picturing faith as a sea that was once full and, famously, lying like the folds of "a bright girdle furl’d"; girdle and furl’d rhyming themselves into a form of assurance with the waiting world, at the end of the stanza,

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world…

So Dover Beach became for him a "darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight." Can we imagine, faintly comically, Matthew Arnold singing A mighty fortress is our God, to a passing school of Dover sole? I doubt it. But Arnold’s sea is historical too. Bishop’s sea connects her with the old man and her grandfather, Arnold’s to Sophocles and medieval Christendom. Both have a peculiarly intense apprehension about the sea.

TITS etc (arrived in Newcastle...)

...where it is grey and likely to rain. Hotel opposite Baltic, room equipped with internet access, so all ready. I have about an hour and half to relax and prepare for the first lecture. On the way up reading Linda's book, now over half way through. It is very well researched - she has been very busy indeed - and is brilliant on the woman-clothing-fashion aspect. Not so great on men who, apart from the couturiers, are generally the usual objects of contempt. Men, she says, do not notice what women wear unless they drag around a huge illuminated sign flashing the word TITS. [Linda's caps] (p.88)

Well, I am not sure how to put this, but even TITS are part of an 'ensemble' of other body parts, such as, say, feet and legs and hips and waist and shoulders and arms and hands and neck and - what's that other thing? - oh yes, a face. I think most love songs about women feature eyes somewhere too. Speaking solely for myself it was eyes that grabbed me every time. Everything else grew around the eyes. There may have been a body impression but TITS wasn't the first or even a particularly noticeable part, because most women's breasts are roughly proportionate to their bodies, and unless they are particularly disproportionate they don't quite become TITS. And, actually - and I realise I am an utter freak when I say this - I did not think of them as TITS. I thought of them with a certain romantic awkardness as breasts. And they came a very long way after the eyes. (Freak! Freak! I can hear everyone shout. Yes, I am a freak and proud of it!)

Now as to clothes. It is true I was not, nor am yet, discriminating in the way most women are about clothes (but do I mean most women, because I see more badly-dressed, or at least not-particularly-well-dressed women than well-dressed women, which must mean I notice something, even if I am wrong). But the impression of the whole person even so, did and does involve clothes.

Back to the eyes for a second. I think the eyes are the first and most important feature because that is where the life is, and it is life, more than anything, I notice. So the eyes say LIFE and the face proportions itself around them. But the body also says LIFE, in this case through movement. It is the movements of attractive women that are attractive. The various body parts are sub-functions of movement (see the wonderful Theodore Roethke poem below). I suppose TITS move too, and noticeably so.

TITS are a primary sexual characteristic so it is not surprising that men, with their different primary sexual characteristics are attracted to them. Not to the extent that they think, as some women put it, with their dicks. I have known a great many men think perfectly well without conspicuously featuring their dicks. Hell guys, throw those things away.

I suspect Linda knows all this, and that all thinking women know it, but it doesn't do actually to say it. Oh it doesn't do at all! And that is why the great majority of female models pout and frown and look at the camera as though it were dirt. You know we like it! Kick us in the balls again! Go on. Why stop?

Oh, all right then. Read Roethke instead:

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

One of the loveliest sexiest poems I know. Her several parts could keep a pure repose. Good that.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Sunday Night is.. Alan Price and off to Newcastle

Slightly out of sync and not great film but a grand song. I am off to Newcastle tomorrow morning to give the Bloodaxe Lectures all next week not to forget the reading on Thursday. I expect I'll post from there with a bit of luck. Some luck is needed, indeed for everything including the lectures. So, on the train with you, O Lucky Man.

Meanwhile in Hungary the 15 March means marches and speeches. Not night yet and all quiet, very quiet, for the official commemorations of 1848, police cordons, rain. Some stone and bottle throwing at the Nyugati (Western Rain Terminal). A suspicious package in a Pest street. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Not for much longer. Or only with difficulty. Possibly rougher tonight. And to cheer everyone up the uniformed fascist Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) enrols six-hundred and fifty new members in Heroes Square.

Reading, cabbies, and bigots

Current reading? Several books at the same time, as usual. Billy's kind gift of Thomas Buergenthal's A Lucky Child, Hungarian polymath Thomas Kabdebo's novel Tracking Giorgione, and friend Linda Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser, about which more on another post once I have finished it (it will accompany me to Newcastle). Also about to launch into three poetry books for review: Emma Jones's The Striped World, Rob A. Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage, and J. O. Morgan's Natural Mechanical... I'm already up to p.99 with Linda's book though it only arrived yesterday.


I read the letters in the Saturday Guardian's Weekend. Three letters from people about the previous week's feature involving cabbies. The first two are bull's-eye Guardian. The first begins:

So taxi drivers want to talk... and the British ones quite like to air their dislike of foreigners...

The other simply says:

Joy of joys, an 11-page feature on cabbies. Personally I spend my life trying to avoid being holed up in confined spaces with celebrity obsessed bigots.

Cabbies are bigots, you see. But I actually read the cabbie's stories, and this is what I see:

1. Not one of the British ones has anything bad, not one bad word, to say about anyone foreign, in fact they hardly mention people from abroad at all, apart from a Belfast cabbie who says he is less afraid of being murdered now by sectarians, and that he picks up people from all communities because there are many more. He does this without characterising or criticising any of them;

2. The only other one to mention a foreigner is someone grateful for the kindness shown him by 'a nice Arab gentleman'. That's it as far as bigotedness and xenophobia are concerned;

3. Of the sixteen cabbies interviewed eight are in fact immigrants themselves. Two are women, one of them Iranian. Of the immigrants a number had been hoping to do better things but war and other circumstances back home prevented them;

4. Of the Brits, a number had lost jobs when firms closed and so became cabbies (I have met a few of these myself);

5. A number had been assaulted, robbed and cheated or had their cabs ruined. They worked all hours, at risk;

6. Only three (3) mentioned 'celebrities'.

7. There is in fact a very likely reason for that. viz points (a), (b) (c) and (d) below:

a) 'So taxi drivers want to talk...' meaning, in this case, to Guardian Weekend, is a misapprehension. A miscellaneous bunch of cabbies did not write to the Guardian, saying: We want to talk. Clear 11 pages of your glossy magazine. Cabbies don't write the stories;

b) The way such features work is that the paper sends out reporters to do a story. They ask questions: the cabbies answer them;

c) The questions they are likely to be asked are often based on clichés the reporters themselves have been brought up on, so one of them is almost certain to have been: Had any celebrities in the back of the cab then? The cabbies don't make up the questions: the reporters do (I have never been regaled by a taxi driver unwontedly listing the celebrities he has driven here and there);

d) Of the sixteen, three make some sort of answer to that question. But they don't talk. You do not actually hear the cabbies talking at all, if you listen carefully. They are, all of them, answering questions. The reporters are editing and paraphrasing. That is what they are paid to do.

What this demonstrates is that the Guardian readership is partly composed of middle-class snobs auto-piloting on prejudice. In other words they are, ahem, bigots. Refined ones, of course. Cabbies? Had one of them in the front of the cab once. Bigots, the lot of them.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Bad argument

Not sure if I am getting the hang of this but I picked this up (admittedly late) from Damian tonight. Here Ben Goldacre of The Guardian's Bad Science is talking to Aric Sigman, about a claim, sort of made by Susan Greenfield, that social networking sites addle the infant brain.

I have no opinion on whether they do or not - there is so much competition in addling - but the argument is peculiar in that while the two gentlemen debate with passion via the blessed Paxman neither is saying diametrically the opposite of the other, though each seems to be claiming or assuming the other is. So Sigman is not exactly claiming that long-term exposure to such sites rewires a child's brain, or at least no more than hours of solitude in a room with TV would, he just has a hunch it might be bad for them, nor is Goldacre exactly claiming that it doesn't harm children just that you can't be certain that it does. Neither claims certainty. That does not seem a vast difference to me except as an example of 'package thinking', the kind of situation where one person thinks that if another thinks A he must think, B, C, D and E as well, the swine.

As it happens I'd probably trust Goldacre more than Sigman, but that's only by hunch. Fortunately I am not in a position where I would have to trust either with my life.

It often happens that arguments develop their own dynamics in a faintly addictive way, both parties sharpening the difference and playing down the common ground. I even understand the attraction of this. Disagreement is a way of testing a proposition. It's just that the dynamic then takes over from the proposition.

I expect it's a male preoccupation rather than a female one, at least conducted over the kind of issues Goldacre and Sigman are debating. It's amusing, it's creative and, occasionally, it leads to blows.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Plugged into Miles

Listening, that is to say, to the sound track of Lift to the Scaffold, even as I write this. Film clip above. Jeanne Moreau stalks around the street, caressing cars, generally swathed in gloom. Louis Malle's first film in 1958.

Read the first of the three Bloodaxe Lectures to C, and it comes in precisely at forty minutes. On the other hand I was reading a little fast, so might cut a bit from the new beginning. Tomorrow I'll read lectures 2 and 3, which are longer. Earlier, concluding an interview over email with a magazine. To be published some time in the next month or so.

In the meantime start planning the keynote lecture I am to give at the BASEES conference in Cambridge the week after returning from Newcastle. It's about Hungary in 1989, with a bit of before and then some after, with poetry thrown in. Who would have thought I had so much to say? Not sure I have. We shall see.

Today's walk slightly curtailed by promise (unfulfilled) of rain. The little nature reserve, Toll's Meadow, is practically marsh. The water table must be high. Everything tinged with steely grey. On the way back I ask C: Do you like people? I mean people in the street, as you pass them? I ask myself this sometimes, as my own feelings fluctuate between a kind of sympathetic affection (almost lurv) and sharp recoil. She finds it impossible to say, of course. How could it be possible? Brodsky didn't like the look of human beings. I don't suppose Derek Mahon is keen either. A little misanthropy in a cold climate: St Petersburg, Belfast.

Budapest is hot in the summer, freezing in the winter. Room for extremes there.

I suppose it is possible to be warm and cool at the same time. A summery chill. A wintery warmth.

What's that Larkin poem?

The Card-Players

Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
And holds a cinder to his clay with tongs,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
Toward the ham hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial place!

Ah yes, the grate. The secret, bestial place.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Recession and a death

The little town of W turns a touch more ghostly each week. Woolworths is shut, the Cross Keys Pub is shut, the expensive dress shop is shut, the flower shop is shut, the small fancy furniture shop up the street from us is shut, the riding wear-saddlery shop is shut. Town is emptier, quieter. There even seems to be less traffic.

And M the butcher is dead. P, the table tennis master, the master butcher, the proprietor of the shop, is there still, cheerful as ever, making ping-pong style hand movements when he sees me in the street. M, who looked a little dour at times but was friendly when you got into conversation, had been ill for many years. His heart had gone, his immune system had gone, then cancer pounced and got him. He was often in great pain, says P. I buy half a pound of mince from him. It is very good mince, far superior to that from the supermarket. C turns it into stuffed cabbage, wrapping the cabbage leaves around the mince, adding some hot paprika and a touch of cream on top. I daren't make a list of the dead we have known because all such lists are too long. And it would be a long list even without thinking so.


Next week I am in Newcastle the whole time delivering the three Bloodaxe Lectures and doing a reading. I shall have to think of what to do with my days. Rewrite the lectures? It is going to be a continuous temptation. They are written now. Titles?

1. Cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear
2. Life is Elsewhere
3. Flowing and Flown

They are not all exactly the same length, the third being the longest, but I can cut it and might do so tomorrow. In the meantime, translating, writing references, answering questionnaires, and trying to contact my internet provider which is impossible as they are engaged the whole day. Meanwhile son T, the international DJ, composer, producer, and occasional keyboard performer with The Bays, is just back from Croatia and is heading off to Kazakhstan tomorrow.

C and I go out for a walk by the river which is in frisky mood, not so much high as fast, silver-leaden coloured, twittering and snickering. Few ducks on it - there used to be a whole rabble of them. Rooks, collared doves, blackbirds. A big huddle of sheep. over the field. A kingfisher has been seen flitting across the river- C has seen it.

Past the back of the newish estate, children playing football. On the walk back another way, it's almost dusk. We cross over the railway bridge and see the lights on here and there. Just opposite us, a woman naked, wrapped in a towel, obviously fresh from the bath, is cooking in her kitchen. Upstairs we can see the light in the bathroom, the glass faintly steamed. Rear Window stuff. Thinking around a poem but not ready. Mind too much of a flitter.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Flash light(n)ing

At this time of the year all the writers teaching in the department at the university are invited to deliver two lectures, one on a work or writer who has influenced them, and one on the particular work of their own so influenced.

With me, the first lecture is on Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', the poem influenced being 'Metro'.

The first lecture is about much more than the Disused Shed, it ranges through Mahon's poetry of the time, and concentrates on a few key ideas: the mushroom prisoners ("Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!"), the idea of de-objectified desire ("What should they do there but desire?"); the idea of community as something closed and demanding; the idea of the damaged centre (bombed Belfast) together with the idea of a possibly desirably bombed centre and how it relates to the periphery; the idea of a transferred loyalty to some aspect of Europe; and aesthetic judgment versus and/or combined with political judgment.

On all these matters I feel, and did feel back in the mid eighties when I wrote 'Metro', considerable resonance with Mahon, and some of the same themes run through my poem.

The second lecture is, necessarily, about 'Metro' (a poem that, for me, has certain dull connecting passages, but also some of my best, most vivid writing), but it is also a chance to say something about the nature of poetry and how poetry works with narrative.

The first lecture is more or less scripted, and indeed a touch long if I were to read the whole text, so I need to cut and improvise as I go which is always a slightly anxious procedure, but the second is impromptu with a few headings as guideline. I feel, and always have felt, much more comfortable with the second type of procedure. It means that if something occurs to me as I speak I can weave it in as it comes.

The image that emerged out of the second lecture this time has been developing in a half-conscious manner for some time, and is related to the post below on Kertész. In any case I kept returning to it as the controlling image. It was of the lyric poem as the capturing of a landscape or event as lit by lightning. For a brief moment or so you see everything, and everything has a significance that is not entirely clear. It is memorable. It closes. In that respect it is like the movement of a camera with a shutter. It's dark, the light floods in, then it's dark again.

This is not necessarily the mode of composition, of course, it is, rather, the mode of seeing that the mode of composition seeks to perfect. (By the same analogy, poems are photographs, novels are movies.) It explains why poems do or do not work. The lightning-lit landscape might be incomplete. Or there is, simply, no lightning at all. Lightning is not the same as natural daylight. The photo looks somewhat fantastical, but the electricity runs through us, and one can feel its approach the way we sometimes feel thunder approaching, through our stomachs,

This doesn't mean I have turned mystical about the art, but the effect is distinctly there in the best poems and we miss it when it isn't. The lightning effect is not mystical either: it comes about through the perceived sense of connection between language and the sense of reality. The connection feels electric. The two poles of what we say and what there is seem, briefly, to coincide. Then it's over, the light goes out, and language is just the stuff I am writing now.


Straight after the lecture (plus two brief tutorials) off to Cambridge for a reading at Michaelhouse in Trinity Street. We park in the Backs and walk through. Cambridge looks as idyllic as ever. I remember visiting it - we lived about thirty miles away - in my twenties and early thirties, book hunting. It was always someone else's idyll of course. It was the kind of privilege I couldn't even begin to resent because why, I thought, should anyone resent beautiful places or intelligence or education? It would be a privilege to be there, but someone has to be there, and, as Larkin said about Coventry, it wasn't the place's fault. Not entirely anyway. It simply wasn't my world, that's all, and never would be. I was an art school boy via the dreaded Harrow Tech, teaching in a school. The Idyll was Elsewhere in a land populated by Eloi. Needless to say I have been to many of the Cambridge colleges since then but the sense of being on other people's property has never left me. I am charming. They are charming. The weather continues, charming.

I read with young poet Kathryn Daszkiewicz some of whose work can be found on that link, as also here. She's good. The audience includes a number of scientists. They are very nice in that slightly spacy Cambridge way. Two young female scientists, one from India (I think) the other from Albania are enthusiastic and come up with New and Collecteds for signing. Aha, I think, my constituency! My patchwork good people.

C drives there, I drive back and just make it, yawning heavily in the last half hour. Full moon the previous night. Bad disturbed sleep.


Via the genius of David Morley, a good article I missed by A A Gill in The Times. It is what poetry needs most: enlightened enthusiasm from those without a personal stake in it. Unlike, I suspect, the gentleman commenting below Gill's article, who writes:

The BBC uses the term poet to mean anyone who has no reason to be on the airwaves. Poetasters and doggerel merchants all get called 'poet'. Nobody on a poetry programme ever says 'this is pretty awful'; they all nod reverendly at the emperor's clothes

I smell a disappointed poet. The terms 'poetasters', 'doggerel merchants' and 'emperor's clothes' are a clue. I suspect he means writers of light verse who are a pleasure to the nation. Nowt wrong with light verse when it is well written. It is still delight. Nor are there - unlike among the commodity dealer and production merchant community of visual art - any emperors. Check the condition of the poet emperors' shoes. Or indeed of mine.

Monday, 9 March 2009


André Kertész, Meudon 1928

Several years ago I wrote an article for Modern Painters, chiefly about this photograph. Meudon is a Parisian suburb and Kertész, sensing there was a photograph to be taken there, returned to the area, and to this spot in particular, a few times before getting this one.

Just what is it about this photograph? A touch of this Chirico perhaps?

Or perhaps this by the same artist?

Or this Paul Nash?

Nash had seen Chirico as had Kertész. It is how ideas and images move around, like shadows, like half-remembered motifs. Frail structures left dangling in the imagination. I like the Kertész best. It sings whereas both the Chirico and the Nash retain an air of programmatic, somewhat prosaic deliberation. Though it's a nice Nash, imitated, or remembered in its turn, or so I seem to remember, by Alfred Hitchcock in a scene from Marnie, a street with a ship at the end of it. (Am I dreaming this? Have I written about this before in the blog, a long time ago?)

And why is the Kertész so good? Is it simply a nice, phallic surreal train that takes his or our fancy? Far too crass! Is it the man in the hat with the picture under his arm? Is it the height of the viaduct? Is it the figures walking away from us at the end of the street towards the building site? Is it just a disturbing formal balance, the centre of gravity faintly tipping away from the foreground figure as his hat lines up with the central column of the viaduct? If the picture were any darker it would be a little too stagy, a touch self-conscious.It is 'found' and yet seems permanent.

It is, I think, much to do with the power of the not quite fully articulated symbol. The dark figure removing a hidden object, the sharpness of focus, the silvery quality in everything. The plume of smoke disappearing behind the eaves of the roof. Oh and yes, the memories we have of pictures such as those by Chirico, those peculiar Chinese whispers of association that Chirico himself depends on.

We are easily haunted. The photograph still takes my breath away, as if some secret of the universe were being revealed in it, one I could locate if only I knew where to look. But I don't so there is only the haunting. And the clarity.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sunday Night is.. Boogie Woogie Dream and Lena Horne

With Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. The girl leaning on the piano, listening, is Lena Horne to whom I have been listening on the train, London to Bath and Bath to London. But boogie first, from the best.

And here she gets to sing with Teddy Wilson's band and two more pianos. She is just gorgeous. And that voice! Edge of blues, shifting into ballad but with humour and sheer high spirits. Nice little film too with period advertisements. I wanted a good film of her singing 'Where or When', but the one I found was not quite as good as the one I was listening to on the train with the tears just preparing themselves to creep into the corners of the eyes. Nothing sentimental you understand. Simply delight. Good to be alive.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


Back from Bath Festival last night and straight to London for the Poetry School. This in a break.

Two events at Bath. First to chair a discussion with the Hungarian novelist, Gyorgy Dragoman, author of The White King, and the Anglo-Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta, author of Tokyo Cancelled and now of Solo. Both are in their thirties and there are a number of similarities between their writings but a number of crucial differences too. I don't have the time to expand on this now or even to link to the books named (have done so now), but take my word for it: both The White King and Solo are very fine novels. Or not exactly novels but something close, springing out of the story telling instinct but spreading itself, cutting itself, rearranging itself into shapes not quite like the nineteenth century novel.

Then, after a drink and a brief ceremony led by the Mayor of Bath, I do an event with Gyorgy Dragoman's wife, the poet Anna T Szabo, who is an outstanding talent. We are in conversation with Tim Liardet. We read a poem each, then talk about translation and leaving home, finally reading for another fifteen each, with some questions from the floor.

Rana has had to dash back to London so Gyorgy and Anna and Tim and I go for a meal where we are served by one of the most subtly supercilious waiters I have met in some time: so subtle is he that I am not quite sure that he is being supercilious but am eventually convinced he is. It's not a bad stance. It's self-respect in a waiter. He's quite young and he ought to be driving a Ferrari or running important drugs. He supposes he had better serve us, albeit with a certain irony.

Well, good for you waiter. Irony and a decent house Merlot. OK. Only a small ironic tip for you, my man. Go get that Ferrari.