Sunday, 31 May 2009

New poem on front / Sunday night is / Oxford

I have put the poem I wrote at Arvon up at the front and am still thinking about the male / female figure at the end. I am tempted to turn it into a man for the sheer sake of it. Because it isn't of course - no poem is - a report on something that "happened" like that, but a scene that seems to open some element of understanding, through a combination of, rhythmic, melodic, lexical and narrative actions whose purpose is hidden from the writer in the act of writing, except as a certain compulsion.

Very well. It will be 'he' and we shall see how he crawls into the world like that, phantasmal and croaky and half not there.


Meanwhile, The Ronettes:


I have returned sneezing, stuffy headed and with a runny nose. I have had a chance to catch up with the Walcott-Padel affair. I would say that I would love to have read what the writer of Midsummer, The Schooner Flight (decent sized excerpts here) and Omeros (description here) would have said in his series of lectures. Failing that I would have been less interested, but still interested, in what Ruth Padel had to say (she wrote all those columns about poems at The Independent). Failing them both, I would have loved to hear Arvind Mehrotra on any subject he chose to speak about, because he is an outstanding poet, a remarkable, intelligent and wise man, and as honourable as they come. They have lost him too.


As it is, failing all those, I find I intensely don't care who they appoint. One poet speaks, so I hear, of Walcott as "a sleazebag". That will do me, thank you. Let the whole post be set on fire and be pissed on. It is a repulsive affair. Some establishment figure will be appointed - whether male or female is a matter of complete indifference to me. Let whoever it is make that particular career move. I shall look forward to ignoring the whole bag of shite. Forgive the mixed bloody metaphor.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Totleigh 5: Last night

As ever, it ends with a party. Everyone reads - a very good set this year - and after a few shots of Jamesons I go to the piano and do my "Play it again, Sam" act (true lines: Play it, Sam. Play it. You played it for her, you can play it for me or so I remember). I improvise a bit, then it is Ellington, Berlin, and Rogers & Hart, and eventually..

...I have a quartet of lady singers crooning along asking "can you play...?" and, after a fashion, I can, until the whole performance becomes so ragged there is no continuing. Meanwhile proper piano players come and render Satie and Philip Glass and Chopin and Gershwin. I suppose if I had some sheet music I might be able to oblige in classical mode, in somewhat lumbering fashion.

Soon it is 1 am and here I am. Odd how the outside world suddenly looms up like a giant admonitory figure across one's path.

Got one good poem written here. Might put it on the front page once I get back.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Totleigh 4

The fourth day - the day when a certain spiritual and intellectual tiredness normally sets in. I talk in high energy mode and am continually attentive, furthermore my mind is alert, but inside I am sleepy. I am easily moved by things people say or write, then I yank myself back into proper critical mode.

And yet it is unavoidable. People are normally the epidermis of an occasional meeting. Here several layers of skin are suddenly shed - not in the 'confessional' sense, but in that you find out what concerns people. Their dimensions deepen suddenly. Their lives seem at least as substantial as your own. They are not people with a romantic idea about being poets, they want to write because language is what they have and they want shape and meaning, much as you yourself do - and, as it inevitably turns out, there is much to give shape and meaning to.

This is anthology night when students choose two or three poems from books to read. The poems vary and range from the grand to the little, from the funny to the profound. One student, who was a doctor, reads John Berryman's XIVth Dream Song. It runs right through me. "Literature bores me, especially great literature bores me". And the truth of that, the necessary and salutary truth of it, goes deep down without ever making great literature less great. On the contrary it makes it tragic and the slightly crazy, sprawling, yet perfectly cut poem that finds it boring becomes tragic in its turn.

Part of me doesn't give a tinker's cuss about Oxford and its professors of poetry. It bores me. It is, as Blake would have put it, something else besides life. And what's that Marianne Moore line about poetry?

I too dislike it.

And yet, by showing a perfect contempt for it, as she does in the poem, you find it does after all have value. It can even be great literature.

Totleigh 3

Rain all day, the same changeless grey sky so you don't even know what time of day it is. Helen's session this morning so I sit in for half of it then read student work for the other hour. The course directors, Claire and Ollie, are back. In and out of the office with an umbrella. Tutorials in the afternoon with an hour in between and a wave of heavy sleep overtakes me. My head is down for five minutes (or so it turns out) when there is a knock on the door. One student has come for her scheduled tutorial. I wake and open the door. My watch says 3.30 and she is scheduled for 4.30. We do the tutorial realising half-way through that her watch is still on continental time. She is an hour early. Farewell sleep. I wake up.

Kapka has arrived by lunch. We talk in her room. She looks very slender but sharp. I know she has had a difficult time. She is an extraordinary polymathic writer. Now novels, now poems, now travel guides, now memoirs, and she is only thirty-odd.

It is her evening. Reading followed by talk and more Jamesons. I must think seriously about getting Jamesons to sponsor this site. I will keep mentioning them providing they keep sending me bottles. Is it a deal. guys?

And United lose, which, to be truthful, I was expecting, since I don't think the team is good enough to win everything twice over. Won't do them any harm in the long run. 'Remember you are mortal, Caesar'. I have never forgotten that. Though I also remember what Keynes said about "the long run"*. Still, some pain, but at least I was prevented from watching and fretting.

And that Oxford Chair. It seems there is some enthusiastic backing. What to do? Nothing from here, certainly.

What's the matter with you, Szirtes? No ambition?

Oh, high ambition, higher than you could dream of, but not in this respect. Offices are another thing entirely. Still, it might be interesting. This from quarantine in Devon. Perhaps I shall be the Anti-Pope. Or Hadrian VII. In the equivalent of Avignon. Or just nothing. Just a poet. In the world where poems are the only judges.

Which is where the ambition comes in.

*In the long run we are all dead.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Totleigh 2

Half past midnight. Helen and I have done our readings and chatted and drunk with those in the sitting room. We have invested in a bottle of Jamesons between us and now it is all gone. One gentleman student generously offered me a top up from my own bottle. It was a moving moment.

It is always a weight off my mind to get the tutors' reading done. I generally enjoy reading - reading anything, not just my own work - but the Arvon circumstances are ambiguous in that you are supposed chiefly to be a tutor so you come in wearing a different kind of mask. But I am getting to the stage where I care less about this and just go ahead and do my stuff.

This must be a brief post as I am pretty tired. I took the morning session on imagery, then did almost four hours straight of tutorials (as did Helen). Tomorrow Kapka Kasabova comes as guest. Good. And Helen takes tomorrow morning's session.

Outside moths flap threateningly against the window. Slugs gather on the grass in menacing gangs. It's dangerous in the country. And that's not to mention the cattle wandering around fully armed with horns. Where is a policeman when you need him? Officer, I am making a citizen's arrest of that spider. Deal with him as you must.

Thank you for the kind support re: my brief outsider's flash as Professor of Poetry in Oxford. Let me know if the campaign gathers momentum. I would not want to be swept away by an avalanche. I shall look out for men in bowler hats bearing encomia. That's if they make it over the cattle-grid.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Totleigh 1: a shout for Mehrotra.

Arrived from London yesterday, meeting fellow tutor, Helen, at Paddington, then down on the usual crowded train, but finding seats. The train stuffy smelling faintly - as H said - of chips. Picked up at Exeter by taxi and brought down into the valley, over the cattle grids - one of them shiningly new. Many students already here, and there are cars in plenty - mostly younger than average.

The big news is the resignation of Ruth Padel as Oxford Professor of Poetry, on which no special comment from me, except that it is a comedy-tragedy for all involved, and that the forgotten third nominee, Arvind Mehrotra, whom I met in Delhi, is a marvellous poet and one of nature's deeply good people, so I hope he is offered it and accepts it. The fact that few have heard of him here reflects deeply on us, and not in the least - let us contemplate this fact for a minute in silence - on him. And why not an Indian poet in the job? He'd be very good - a revelation, I think - and what he would have to say would be new and to the benefit of all. Bring on Arvind Mehrotra!

As regards Walcott I don't know the full facts - if there are full facts to know - but his generation, which in this country was the generation of heavy boozers, les grands buveurs, as Peter Redgrove had it, was in the USA - and indeed sometimes here - the generation of campus affairs. The guillotine fell heavily on that malarky in the eighties. My generation preferred to teach in rooms with glass doors or windows or open doors. I still do. Sensible paranoia.

Back then, in the 60s and 70s, it was, as the TV show I have never watched has it, Life on Mars, so there would have been nothing peculiarly heinous in such advances when Walcott was a younger man. Autre temps, autre moeurs (French day today). I don't suppose Byron or Shelley or Donne would be offered the Professorship now. And as for Rimbaud or Verlaine, perish the thought. Not even Betjeman, with his love of strong young tennis girls.

Lewis Carroll...? Don't ask.

These are the menfolk, of course, but I am sure a few of the lyrical womenfolk might disqualify themselves.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Quiz and on

Last night recording of The Book Quiz for BBC4 TV. Four teams of two. One semi-final knockout, then the final. My partner is the stand-up comic and journalist Natalie Haynes who is splendid. Other teams involve Brian Patten, John Sutherland, Bonnie Greer and Andrew Motion and if I can't remember the names of the two other sweet and lively women it is because it's all a bit of a blur. We guess quotations, we try to guess poems from picture clues, we guess poems from garbled Japanese translations translated back into English, we do quick buzzer questions.

It all goes swimmingly. But I suppose I can't say what happened until it is broadcast, and I don't know when that will be yet.

Afterwards I sit around the green room for a while with Andrew and Natalie and Kirsty Wark, then am driven back to this rather smart hotel where after an initial confusion they have given me a suite, so I have slep in two double beds at once, watching two televisions and having twice the usual number of dreams, that I am now twice as incapable of remembering.

I watch the sad face of Alan Shearer being twice as gutted. I see Newcastle lose 2-0 not 1-0. It is double disaster time for Toon. My heart does go out to the city, that I really took to when giving those lectures. But from what I saw and read it was a gutless surrender. Alas.

It reminds me a little of Leeds - terribile dictu. Here's to better time to come for both.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sunday Night is... The Who, 1965

I was sixteen when this came out. Had a striped top like the lad leaning back on the dance floor. Otherwise the height of awkwardness and fantasy. No idea what anything was about, least of all myself. Might have been faintly in love with Dusty Springfield. I can't explain either, but she would have been worth it.

Off to London now, then Devon.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Another fado and Salt again

A good day for work. Finished translating the essay by Krasznahorkai for the Tate, finished the wedding speech poem for H and R, bought two shirts and two bags, then finished translating a draft of the longest fado. This one:

The version I was given has several verses:

Trova do Vento que Passa
Ballad of the Wind Passing By
Manuel Alegre

Translated by George Szirtes

I ask the passing wind for news
Of home so far away
But wind keeps silence on the truth
And stubbornly won’t say.

I ask the rivers on which dreams
Are carried down the flood
But there’s no calm in that rough stream
Just sorrow and bad blood.

They carry dreams but leave behind
Nothing of home but tears.
Oh rivers, what comfort will you find
When no one ever hears?

Take a green clover, tear off leaves
And bring me some reply.
And tell the four-leaved clover it is
For my country that I die.

Men cast their eyes down as they go,
I question their sullen mood.
Silence: the only answer they know
To life in servitude.

I saw a green branch in splendour thrust
its head high, all aglow.
Those who obey a tyrant must
Walk with their heads bent low.

The wind keeps silent as the grave,
There’s no news from my land.
A crucified country where people have
Nails driven through the hand.

I saw my fatherland on the banks
Of rivers flowing past
Like one who loves to travel but
Is doomed to stay stuck fast.

I saw ships setting out in power
(my fatherland set fair)
I saw my country in full flower
(green leaves and green despair)

Some there are who would ignore
Your name or call it cursed.
I saw you on the dark cross you bore
In the arms of hunger and thirst.

And still the wind says nothing
The silence seems forever.
My fatherland stands moping
By the side of the sad river.

To ask for news is little use
For speech there’s little room.
But I’ve seen empty hands produce
A fatherland in bloom.

Flowers may grow in dung, say those
For whom your loss is gain.
It is for you that I must lose
My life to live again.

Night in my country enters hearts
And takes up residence there.
I ask the wind with all its arts
For news but there’s only air.

The clover has four leaves and four
Syllables has the word:
Li-ber-da-de. What can’t be read
Can at least be heard.

My reader’s can’t read but there is light
In the bleakest fate we bear.
Someone will always sow the bright
Song in the passing air.

In the saddest night there still remains,
Despite the tyrant’s blow ,
Someone who stands straight in his chains,
Someone who answers No.


And please look at the Salt appeal, below.

Salt needs help

Some readers (and writers) will alread know that Salt, the publisher of a great many beautiful books of new poetry by a great many very fine new poets and fiction writers is in financial trouble. Here is the appeal by Chris Hamilton-Emery, asking people to buy books to keep Salt afloat. It seems necessary to me to do so. For my own part I have donated money and purchased five books and I commend the action - just one book would help - to any reader here. Without Salt, Carcanet and Bloodaxe there would be so little new innovative poetry and fiction published in this country that you might as well put all the writers into a single lifeboat and lose it.

Chris's message:

The Just One Book Campaign

From Chris Hamilton-Emery:

“As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we’ve £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt’s operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April’s much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It’s proving to be a very big hole and we’re having to take some drastic measures to save our business. Here’s how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don’t mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you’ll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

2. Share this note on your profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it’s just one book, that’s all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone


Director Salt Publishing”

Other routes to appeal here and here and here, and many more...

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Book Quiz

I am going down on Sunday to the old LWT building in London to record The Book Quiz. No idea when it is to be shown, but it is a special poetry version. Know nothing more about it except that I have seen the show in the past and that I had a phone call about a week ago asking whether I'd be interested. So why not extend my grand and glorious television career comprising: a spot (as captain, I would have you know!) of the Poets team on University Challenge - The Professionals, alongside Roddy Lumsden, John Stammers and the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Ruth Padel, when we trounced the Nurses but failed by one question, and hence 10 marks, to progress to the next round; something on the BBC Breakfast Programme when I won the Eliot; a poem read by a well-known actress whose name I can't think of now; another about Great Yarmouth that was a film on TV a few years before; and a full eight or nine minute spot on BBC4's The World saying some poems and talking about poetry in the environs of Wymondham Abbey.

And some Hungarian TV now and then - mainly then.

There. That's all the GSTV the world is going to get because that is all there is.

Oh, and why me, in this instance? Why indeed.

I stay the night in London then proceed in stately fashion to Totleigh Barton in Devon to a week's hard graft teaching poetry for the Arvon Foundation.


The Times will be publishing my obituary of dear Michael Murphy. They can't tell me when. They rarely can tell in their trade, which may be just as well.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

An Air That Kills - a few lines about one line

One line, that is, of A.E. Housman's

Into my heart an air that kills

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

Roger McGough's last Poetry Please programme was devoted to A.E. Housman and Walt Whitman. I wasn't properly listening. The radio was just on and I was in the bathroom when I heard this poem being read. It is the fortieth in a set of sixty-three poems from A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, though we usually read and hear the poems as though they were an elegy for the dead of the Great War. There are the various settings by Butterworth and Gurney and Ireland, and others. Nostalgia for the lost rural Eden before the trenches, before modernity - what Housman himself refers to above as "the land of lost content" - lies at the core of it.

But it was not pastoral or nostalgia or the lost Edens that grabbed me as I stood transfixed in the bathroom: those things are easy to parody and we are - perhaps rightly - somewhat suspicious of their ready call to mourn what we never had. That easiness, that readiness, that apparent predisposition to shed a few sentimental tears, is what is weighed in the scales against Housman today when he is discussed: those lads, those regrets, those broad imperial sighs and repressed elegiac tears - might they be a little glib? Yes, a superb phrasemaker, we admit, but maybe a touch cheap: those happy highways to which we cannot come again were not necessarily happy or even that high. And do we really want empire back, anyway?

No, not that then, but there is a touch of heart-piercing genius in the poems, and in this one particularly, that is harder to explain. For myself, I locate it in the very first line, the line that ran right through me and shocked me, though I knew it well enough. This is the line:

Into my heart an air that kills...

Is it the sound, that balance or narrative of vowels, the way the mouth opens wider and wider until at air it reaches maximum width and gasps out, the air pushed from somewhere just beneath the throat and above the lungs, grunting at the faint edge of pain? Because, of course, we began with a slighter, smaller, grunt on heart. And, chiefly, one might say murderously, there is the way the breath narrows, after air, into the clinical, clipped sound, the small dying grunt of kills so that, in effect, no sooner have we taken breath then we gasp out and die, thereby enacting the whole narrative of the poem in one line, through the body as much as through the mind, the words becoming a physical experience?

Yes, I am sure that is an important part of it. There is an unconscious understanding in poems, particularly of the very short lyrical sort, whereby the body enacts, as if by implication, but an implication we actually experience physically, an experience in language. It seems in the hearing and reading a kind of miracle: the mind and emotions feel something, then, in the course of moving into language, those feelings are transformed by language and end up permeating the whole body in a new, unexpected, even more powerful form of feeling, one that breaks down the barrier between body and mind. It is poetry's version of transubstantiation: the imagined presence becoming the real presence. (There are so many examples of this I could quote, a great mass of them in Emily Dickinson, as well as in Housman, and in Auden too). None of the other lines in the poem does the same thing with quite this intensity of effect.

But there is more, and that is to do with ambiguity, the ambiguity of heart and air and kills. Heart is both physical and symbolic. Normally, in poetry, we understand it on the symbolic rather than the physical level. But then that is the same with air. Air can mean music, as well as the physical stuff we breathe in and out. Here the word works on both levels so we cannot tell quite which is foregrounded. Heart has predisposed us to a metaphorical reading, but air jars us a little because, after all, we are told it is an air that blows. Blows metaphorically? Not entirely. It is air moving. Our mouths are wide open as we say the word: we are aware of air as substance. So the reading of the poem hovers at the edge of two or more meanings. And kills has various meanings too. Killing is associated with sex, the little death to which erotic poetry often refers, though that is probably an undercurrent here not the main stream, as I read it, though I cannot quite forget it. But kills is so much more. One can kill time, one can kill the spirit or the body, one can kill joy, or one can have an absolutely killing time, and even if it is only a bit of hyperbole, meaning something like: "breathing that very air causes me great pain in remembering what I have lost (those "blue remembered hills", another great sound pattern) it sill narrows and closes the mouth with a thin final grunt or thrust.

I don't for a moment think Housman intended all this consciously, nor do I want to say a lot of clever-sounding things. I want to explain to myself the grip the line had on me before I relaxed into the rest of the poem. It is like experiencing an electric shock then falling away from the live wire. And you're more alive than ever at the end of it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Greening of Norwich

Charles Clarke is one local Norwich MP, the other is Ian Gibson, both Labour. I cannot, however, help noticing that in the area of Norwich known as the Golden Triangle, meaning where the wealthy, relatively wealthy, and generally left-liberal citoyens live, the political poster dominating front gardens in advance of the local election is Green. I have not seen a single Labour sign - not one, where there used to be a reasonable number - one or two Lib Dem, and no Tory.

So an interesting prospect opens before us: a significant increase in the Green vote on the one hand and a possibly significant increase, in some areas, in the UKIP and BNP vote. I can't see BNP doing much here though which is something to be very grateful for. But it could be the wedge in for the Green Party.

Whether that is the educated middle-class protest vote or a vote for an actual programme I cannot tell, but the signs proliferate. Big houses, leafy front gardens, simple green squares on wooden posts.

We don't live in Norwich though. It will be interesting to see what happens in the small but perfectly formed townlet of W. Despite my own personal best efforts at putting crosses in appropriate places it has remained Tory with a Lib Dem flank. The Labour Party HQ almost opposite our house, a few doors down from the Chinese take-away, has been closed and empty for over a year.

Another questionnaire on translation

I put these up here in case anything new occurs to me on the subject. Questioner agrees to it. I am not a theorist of translation. I am just a plumber of verse with ideas above his station.


How do you define poetry translation?

As a poem clearly stated as a translation that would not exist without the original poem and that conveys a convincing reading of the original poem as a poem in the receiving language. What that convincing reading consists of and whom it convinces are matters of more complex argument. In one sense, it is an echo of an echo of an echo, since interpretation of a poem in the original language is itself an imprecise science, as is the composition of the original poem. All three activities are full of instinctive shifts, re-focusings and homings-in.

What is your own process?

Read the poem, get some idea of what it is doing and how it is doing it, then start at line 1 and go on. Translating is part of the process of understanding, so the poem becomes ever more the possible poem-echo as it goes on. The process of composition of a translation resembles, for me, the process of composition of an original poem. As above.

How do you translate aspects of form?

I regard form as an aspect of address: the way the poet addresses the language, the way the poem addresses the reader. It is, in that respect, a vital, in fact core, element of the poem, part of the dynamic of composition and perception. Form is not a surface decoration or a twitching genuflection to tradition. Saying that, however, does not 'solve' the question because different forms in different languages have different associations and values. Hungarian can scan by stress or quantity and is happy with hexameters. Hexameters constitute part of the normal field of expectations. In English they retain an exotic edge, so a decision has to be made regarding what might constitute some equivalent to the original in the receiving language. (Pope faced the same question with Homer). There is no great difficulty with some common European forms. Precise imitation is not the point. Imitation furniture is not what is required. It is the entry into the mode of language in the receiving language. That may involve rendering a Shakespearian sonnet as Shakespearian sonnet and not a thirteen line free verse, and Villonesque ballade as a Villonesque ballade and not as prose. It may, but it is not wrong to take any liberty providing the reader knows it is not the whole story. I like Lowell's Imitations. They read well, like good sinuous, muscular verse. I can't speak for Bonnefoy's Shakespeare but I have every expectation of it being excellent work. But even with more precisely formal translation the brush is broad, not fine. The fineness is a matter of delicate distinctions in the receiving language. As in an original poem. That degree of freedom is vital.

How essential is a fluency / knowledge of the target language?

It is core. More important than knowledge of the original language. The philosophical issue at stake is whether we believe that a poem is a set of clearly identifiable intentions and fulfilments, or whether it is - as I think - an oddly shimmering shape, like a cloud that is very like a whale (cf Hamlet). There is at one key point an instinctive grasp of what that cloud resembles in our language. That is where we start. All contributions in terms of philology, lexicography or cultural annotation are welcome but they do not, in themselves, constitute a translated poem.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Bill Evans: Waltz for Debby

I know it's not Sunday. Just because. Just because it is so close to being sentimental but is so precise and so thought out and felt down to the very fingernails, it is not at all sentimental, just a serious, deep form of play.

Home. Translating. Answering letters. After morning in looking at PhD work.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Michael's Funeral

It is a long journey to Liverpool by train (five and a half hours each way) so am pretty worn out now but am very glad I went. The large Unitarian Church was cold but the service was warm, tender and beautiful. Deryn read from Louise Glück's The Wild Iris, (see below) then we had a non-denominational prayer from Graham Murphy, who held the service together, then Judith Palmer and Michael's sister spoke, Eira read Muldoon's Why Brownlee Left and Maurice Riordan, one of the coffin bearers, read a late poem by Michael, his last poem, about both love of natural places and the process of dying as witnessed by his younger child, Felix. I hadn't realised Maurice and Michael had been working together on these late poems.

Then there was Schubert's An die Musik, sung by Philip Duffy; an eulogy from the Irish side of Michael's family, Paul Leahy; a silent prayer led by Graham Murphy; a performance of Debussy's Clair de Lune by David Walters and, finally, Eira and Felix's choice of reading: the last passage from Watership Down - Hazel's death - read by Bob Hornby.

Plenty of poets in the congregation: Maurice Riordan, Paul Farley, Michael Symmons Roberts, Vona Groarke, John McAuliffe, Matthew Welton and, of course, Matt Simpson and Liverpool poets such as Dave Ward as well as Liverpool academics, and just friends - a big congregation.

Then to the Wildflower Centre for drinks and talk. Gave Deryn another hug. Tears. Such days never seem quite real but we are all aware that everything that comes after assumes an extra reality. It was abundantly clear just how much Michael was held in people's affections.

The sun came and went and came again. Michael SR drove me to Lime Street just in time.

I record this because such things should be recorded. I will put a few more poems by Michael up here. Now at utter exhaustion with a PhD supervision to read up before 10.00 tomorrow morning.

The Wild Iris
Louise Glück

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sunday night is.. Ben Webster, Chelsea Bridge (1964)

As John Mole's interlocutor said in a poem called 'Listening' about Webster, back in 1984, "even the breath swings".

I register with pleasure the third title in a row and feel cheery enough to congratulate friends at Stoke on a brilliant season for them in which I thought they were sure to go down. One up for the spirit then. So maybe Pulis is OK? As for Rafa, known affectionately in United circles as the FSW (Fat Spanish Waiter): You've got a good team there and it is possible to avoid sounding like a fool. Give it a go.


But then Liverpool is where I travel very early tomorrow for Michael's funeral. I have written an obituary, now I need to persuade one of the papers to take it. But first it should pass muster. In the meantime another poem by Michael.


A hedge at Easter, hawthorn
blossom the colour of sunlight
on snow. A garvel track that cuts
helter-skelter through the knot-
grass above Old MacDonald's
farm. That lay-bay under Sugar
Loaf, rain breaking over tarmac,
fingering harmonics from the roof.

How and when love brings us to
our senses, leaving us breathless,
inclined to prayer or broken speech,
like a salmon arching upstream, the
tongue unlocks its back and
leaps, entering another element

A slightly breathless sonnet-structured poem moving from memory to something beyond prayer and broken speech, those two combined, complex, almost surreal images of broken speech: the salmon arching and the tongue unlocking its back, leaping, like a salmon, and the distance between air and water.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


If I still cannot find it in me to feel overwhelming moral outrage because of MP's expenses it isn't because I think fiddling expenses is fine. It isn't. It is for three reasons.

1.) Given any set of rules people adapt themselves to it in a general fashion and think no more about it. Hence the Menzies Campbell response on Question Time, that he did as he did and never stood far enough away to examine the moral status of his claim until it was brought home to him. I don't think most people 'plot' to put smaller items here or there. Mostly they are too busy with other things. Furthermore, I don't think they regard themselves as dishonest in any way. They do what has been done, what goes on being done, what is within the rules and within the realms of habit. It's a kind of anaesthesia. I suspect much of corruption is a form of anaesthesia and that what we regard as corruption in far away places would not immediately strike the local culprits or indeed their victims much of the time as corruption. Then something happens. People emerge from anaesthesia into full consciousness. It's as well this happens, but it's not a time for stringing people up. Apart from those who actually defraud the state of course. They should be charged with a criminal offence. The rest should be severely lectured, and, if their constituents fancy, be deselected and left to learn. Venial sins for the most part. The rest of the time they are either good constituency MPs or they are not.

2.)The sight of moral outrage, the prospect of a feeding frenzy, the sound of the mob baying for heads, is revolting, always hypocritical and terminally malicious. Much of the outrage in ordinary people is displaced frustration and that is understandable but it soon becomes what people think of as justified rage. Fair enough. We are right to feel angry about injustice. We should be angered by it. But the feeling of self-righteousness is one of the most repulsive human conditions and I thoroughly distrust it. This is despite of any political allegiance. It often leaves a worse stink than the original crime which is often petty though cumulative, and spills a great deal more blood.

3.) The role of the press is never innocent. They don't expose bad practice purely for love of justice. They do it to sell papers. Daily. You can't blame them for wanting to sell papers, but it's best to keep that in mind. Press outrage is always tinged with the deepest cynicism. Whistleblowers are good. Exposure is good. But listen to the sound of the voice shaking with outrage and note the well-worn tropes and trigger words.

Just notes for myself, if you like. There is, I think, a serious danger that thorough disillusion with proper politics will benefit only the vicious and the fundamentally crooked. I am damned well going to vote on whatever principles I have. I will never not vote.

As for the rest, civilised comments are welcome, should anyone wish to comment (though I have no intention of living by or for comment and will carry on writing this blog for the sheer delight of it, as long as the delight lasts) the rest can bugger off. Filthy ad hominem comments will be chewed and spat out into the outer darkness with an extra relish.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A lot of things

Yesterday C and I drove up to Warwick University with two PhD student poets, Meghan Purvis and Ági Lehoczky to a reading that was part of the Stratford Poetry Festival. Luke Kennard brought four students and Zoë Brigley two. David Morley himself introduced another two. The student readings were only 5 minutes each but to a full and supportive young audience. Marvellous idea. After a brief break Luke and Zoë and I read. In the audience, in fact directly in front of me the great Shakesperean scholar, Stanley Wells. Also in the audience my long time correspondent the young Nigerian poet Tolu Ogunlesi who is in Birmingham for a little while more as a Fellow. He is a very fine poet, already well-known, and he's just twenty-seven. At twenty-seven I was only dreaming of my first book, should there ever be one.

Lovely occasion. Drove home this morning - or rather C did, like a Heroine, First Class, of the Soviet Union. Copies of The Burning of the Books were brought round by John Christie at 1.30, to sign 100 copies. At 3.30 MG, whose PhD by Publication I am supervising comes round for a discussion. Afterwards I walk him back to the station via the abbey, the river and the bosky road winding by the cemetery.

Now thoroughly exhausted. There would have been a touching event tonight in Norwich, a commemoration for an ex-art school student of mine who died very early. I wrote the introduction to a selection of his poems, but I have no strength left in either my legs or my head.

I see John Lucas's obituary of Michael appeared in The Guardian. Here it is. There is much I didn't know there. Maybe I could write an appreciation of his poetry. I'll ask Poetry Review.

And here's a second fado rough draft. I have changed a couple of small details in the previous one for the sake of lilt. The changes are marked on the post itself now.

Sung by Mariza, "our Rainha do Fado" as one commenter puts it.


Toada do desengano
Melody of Undeceit

My fado and my love I sing
Borne out of life and suffering
Composed of yes, composed of but
Unruly love, unbound and rash
Once burning flame, now heap of ash
Trodden deep into the rut.

Love torn and shredded, torn and gone
Love like a wind that sweeps me on
Both day and night, that hurts like hell
Love undeceived that knows the cost
Love tortured by what’s known and lost
That fills life like an empty well.

This bedlam love, these fevered dreams
Of love that maddens with its screams
Of happiness and suffering
This love that won’t be made to fit
That’s desperate beyond its wit
What other love is there to sing?

Again, just first draft. Slightly more liberty taken, but really not much. Simplicity must be the key and the odd surprise, as in the original, such as 'composed of yes, composed of but', as in the original.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Before setting off...

...I found this. I had forgotten I did this conversation at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. It's a podcast under Backchat.

Life whirls round. Translating three Fado poems. Finished a draft of one of them. Gorgeous stuff Fado. Here is a little to keep going with till tomorrow.

It is in fact one of the three I have been given to translate, the one with the ready first draft. Something like this:

Fado da Tristeza

No false joy now, sing what is due
To pain, since pain oppresses you
Make the sharp teeth of loss your song
So give it vent and let it go - *changed line
True smiles are learned by those who know - *changed line
The taste of truth upon the tongue.

To sing of joy you don’t possess
Says nothing though in fancy dress
The very truth is made of lies
That murder truth with each false claim
To joys that don’t deserve the name
So with pretence the true joy dies.

Don’t sing to order, joys won’t serve
False comforters who don’t deserve
A cure for death that isn’t real.
Let your whole body sing the truth
Of which your being is the proof
Give what you are, sing what you feel.

First draft, as I say. The idea is all there.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

From 'Allotments' by Michael Murphy

Enclosures Act

A knot of music the ear unravels
this landscape is assembling
even as you listen: hills, a river,
a single-minded vowel.


Like eyes beneath a wide-brimmed hat
the blackbird on the gate-post
looks you through. It reads your mind.
You might as well not be here.


Barbed wire cuts across the path,
bringing you up short
against the limits of geography
and maps. Not here but somewhere.


Sky and river. Restless dusk.
Then dawn. An unbleached-linen shroud.


It is a notational poem. Here's a thing and there's a thing. And all these things hang like a not quite spoken word, one on the edge of being spoken. Absence and absences. That shroud, that restless dusk. It is as if the world were without you.

I think it is quite beautiful.

Picture of Michael from here


Tomorrow to Warwick University for the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, with C, and two outstanding student poets, Ágnes Lehoczky and Meghan Purvis. Zoë Brigley is bringing young poets as is Luke Kennard. David Morley will provide his own. Their reading is at 6pm. Zoë, Luke and I at 7.30.

Will Pike, by Linda Grant

On November 27th I received an early morning email from a friend with the subject line: Oh God. It was from a friend, Nigel Pike, whose son Will was trapped in a hotel room in the Taj Hotel in Mumbai with his girlfriend Kelly, on a one-night stay after a beach holiday in Goa. Terrorists were going from room to room looking for British and American guests to execute. After hiding for five hours in the bathroom, the terrorists had set fire to the corridor outside while a hand grenade was going off in the next room. With no choices left, they made a make-shift rope out of bed sheets and Will went first to test the weight. The knots didn’t hold, and he fell sixty feet. He is paralysed from the waist down and is likely to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Has he been injured in a car accident, a work-place accident or in a terrorist attack on British soil, he would have been entitled to compensation of £2m Because the attack took place abroad, he has been offered a final one-off payment of £15,000 from a Red Cross fund. That’s it. As Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister Ian McCartney, told the Observer: "The situation is totally unacceptable. Terrorism is an attack not on individuals but on a state, as Mumbai made clear. A state's duty is to its citizens."

In the Observer, Will’s story is told in full, brutal, shocking detail. You can read my report here.

Ned Temko’s interviews with cross party politicians here

And the Observer’s leader comment here.

Today Will and Kelly launched an appeal – to change the government’s mind about its refusal to help those injured in terrorist attacks abroad, and to appeal for funds for their immediate situation. I hope you will have a chance to look at their website, even if you can’t donate. It's here.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Back from back from...

The ferry on the Rhine at Basel. The hills beyond are Germany.

...well, Basel in the first place. Or Basle. More Basel when you are actually in Basel as it is German speaking. Furthermore and nonetheless, I flew out Ryan Air and came back easyJet, in other words: went out an Irishman, came back a Greek.

Basel was balmy. Certainly warmer and more humid than England is, so arriving there in mid-afternoon was a little like entering a greenhouse. Andrew waited for me in his red baseball cap, as arranged, and drove me to the hotel a couple of hundred meters outside the old city gates. Deposited stuff - just one small piece of hand-baggage - in my room, then down for coffee with Andrew (from the University of Basel) and Padraig Rooney (from the International School), it being thanks to the pair of them that I am there at all, along with Roddy Lumsden and his partner, Nina. Padraig is fresh from winning the Strokestown Prize that I judged either last year or the year before.

After coffee Padraig took me for a walk around old Basel, on either side of the Rhine, returning on the ferry, as shown above , the photo filched from net the here (and that's probably enough linking), over to the Romanesque / Gothic minster and around and around, sitting down in a Movenpick for Hungarian style ice cream. The hotel doesn't do evening meals on Sunday so I walk to a nearby Indian tandoori place and sit reading my Flann O'Brien between bites. Hence the furthermore and nonetheless above. It is deeply catching, that manner of mannerising.

In the morning the reading at the International School to some seventy 16-year olds who behave impeccably and ask intelligent questions. Basel is chiefly pharmaceuticals so some of these would be the children of those working in the industry. That is about thirty-five minutes. Padraig drives me back into town and we walk around a bit more, including through the tropical house in the Botanical Gardens, then have a sandwich on another cafe terrace. Padraig is peripatetic and has spent time in Hungary. In conversation we discover than he has been reading some of the fiction I translated from Hungarian, including Márai and Kosztolányi.

I have a couple of hours at the hotel before Andrew comes for Roddy and I, so we walk to the university to fill in claims forms for travel and fees. Andrew has translated a substantial amount of complex work from German and we do an exchange of books, his including a rather beautiful set of two complementary volumes - his poems with photographs by Claudio Moser in a box. Gorgeous things. Padraig has already given me his book, The Escape Artist (the artist in question being Harry Houdini, of course). These book exchanges are inevitably the ways writers get to know each other.

Then down to Bergli bookshop which is not big but very civilised and fills up easily. Roddy and I do our thing, followed by a few questions and the signing of a few books, then a meal.

Sleep difficult. Call me at 5am, I say to the desk but I wake at 3am. That's how it goes.

Just back from opening the Voicing Visions exhibition in Norwich. Big show, complete with book and DVD. The church / art gallery is packed. It seems I know half the poets one way or the other. David H says the thank yous then introduces me do the opening bit. The amplification is not entirely magnificent so rather than speaking according to the introduction text I improvise around it and shorten it. General enthusiasm. not specifically about the speech, more about everything in general. The bohemian quarter of Norwich glitters.

This is getting to sound dangerously like Jennifer's Diary. Veronica McBollycock in her coming out dress at Ascot accompanied by the handsome figure of the Hon Angus Gherkin.. Etc.

Sunday, 10 May 2009


Briefly from Stansted. No time for music today. Waitingfor Basel flight. If I did have music it would be either Slade or Mahler. Meanwhile, two thoughts in passing:

a) The current outrage about MP's expenses is blown vastly out of proportion and Harman is right, it will only serve the interests of BNP thugs. Frankly I don't care about bath-plugs. Let those without sin in this respect or similar respect cast the first etcetera.

b) A mite ungenerous of me re: the Oxford hotel. Mites are quite big when examined through a microscope. And damn ugly.

So forward, into the air with my few remaining brain cells. Do not desert me now, fellas.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

They don't like you

Last night in Oxford to talk translation to OUPS at Christ Church. Very nice session as you'd expect in a room stuffed full of intelligence. It is interesting that of the young school-age poets that Colette Bryce and I chose blind for the Foyle's Young Poets of the Year four years ago, all but two have gone on to either Oxford or Cambridge. Interesting, I say, because I am not sure what to make of it. It could mean that Oxford and Cambridge, being the elite universities they have traditionally been, had the good sense to see what Colette and I saw in the young poets. Or it might mean that the qualities we were looking for were coded in some way according to education, class and so on. Hard to know. We just picked what seemed to us the best work. In terms of class I know now that it was a various group, not all from what are normally called advantaged backgrounds. But it still intrigues. I suppose if they had chosen to go elsewhere they'd have got in there.

Students don't have much money generally and the OUPS has little so there is no fee, just travel, a bed for the night and, as it turns out, a nice modest meal. It needs overnight as it is four hours plus either way.

I arrive at the guest house overlooking some sports fields in Abingdon Road. It doesn't look much but considerably better than the Liverpool flophouse I once spent a night in after a reading. The man at the desk who turns out to be the owner is bald and beaky with a sad wisp of a pony tail. He asks me if I know anything about the room.

No, I say, it was reserved for me by students.

Ah, he smiles. I'm afraid it's not en suite. Toilet down the corridor, past the firedoor, down some stairs. It seems, he adds, your students don't like you.

He explains about breakfast to some others who are checking in.

There are fifty-four people in here tonight, he says, and we can only lay breakfast for twenty-six. Please be prepared to wait. Breakfast is served between 8 and 9.30.

My return ticket is for 9.30, the station about twenty-five minutes walk away. I don't intend charging the students a taxi fare too.

He takes me to the room. It is very tiny. If I really didn't like someone I might in fact consider making them stay there. The room is smaller than the average cell. It is Van Gogh's room at Arles without the colour. There is just room enough to stand next to the narrow single bed. There is a very tiny basin in the corner and a TV on one of those swivelling wall-mounted stands. No room for a desk or table of course though there is one chair at the end of the bed, pressed against the radiator. It is scrupulously clean.

I imagine myself in self-mocking fashion, as William Butler Yeats, a sixty-year old smiling public man, only a lot less public. The doomed part of me - the Beckett part - smiles, wryly muttering to itself: Come off it. This is no more than you deserve.

So I say: OK, and settle in for the forty minutes or so I have to wait to meet the student who has invited me.

Because there is no room to sit anywhere there is nothing to do except lie on the bed by the open window that looks out over the busy Abingdon Road with its traffic. I turn on the TV if only to drown out the noise. It is The Weakest Link. But the remote control doesn't work. It's getting a little dispiriting. I take the remote control down. The owner is full of apologies while he replaces it.

I am so sorry, he says. I shouldn't have said the students didn't like you.

That's all right, I reply. They don't know me. They haven't had a chance to like or dislike me. I took your remark as a reflection on the hotel.

Of course, he smiles in embarassment. But I shouldn't have said anything like that.

Don't worry, I reassure him.

We chat a little. He is Greek but was born and brought up in South Africa. Then England. His family tried to live in Corfu but their daughter's education was suffering so they came back to England. He is full of praise for her current school. I would like to like him but I can't quite manage it.

He replaces the remote control.

The session is an hour and half. In the first part we talk ideas about translation, in the second I set them a Hungarian poem with a vocabulary and background. They do very well. Two of the Foyles group are at the session (one being the organiser), as well as four people who are not at the university. There are three part-Hungarians. Then we go off hunting for a place that sells drinks and food and is not full of Friday night students whooping it up in evening dress. It isn't easy but eventually we succeed.

When I come back, a little after eleven, I find one of the lights in the room doesn't work and that the hanger falls apart when I try to hang my jacket on it. The cupboard itself is unsteady.

I wake very early, wash and get dressed then hurry down to breakfast just before 8pm. In luck. There is only one person sitting there. I take a place at a small table, helping myself to fruit juice and cereal. The owner comes along.

Coffee or tea? he asks.

I ask for coffee.

Cooked breakfast?

I go for poached egg and bacon. He brings me four half slices of toast, two white, two brown. He goes off to the kitchen that I can see into straight ahead of me. It is very clean. Other early breakfasters are arriving. They make their order.

I wait and wait. The coffee tastes bad, there is no milk on the table, the toast has gone cold. Others are being served.

I wait longer. No, it seems he doesn't like me either. I eat the cold toast.

After twenty minutes, I walk over to the kitchen and tell him not to bother. I pick up my stuff and leave the key on his desk with a note. I feel a slight twitch of pity for him and an equally slight twinge of guilt in myself for being a touch - well - inwardly petulant. Silently, politely petulant, yet petulant.

I walk the twenty-five minutes to the station and have a quick bacon butty there. On the train I fall into a conversation which I will save for next posting. If I get the chance. Tomorrow morning Basle.

Michael Murphy: Allotments

The first of a few poems by Michael Murphy, first published in Allotments by the Shoestring Press. The chapbook is available from Shoestring here. Go buy.


Heaped in corners, waiting to be of use -
twin-tub bleeding rust, prams missing wheels,
the inevitable shopping trolley, the foot-
loose, vagabond, down-at-heel

ephemera World gathers to itself
like leaves dying for November, or light
consecrated to a conflagration of grapes
you burst against the tartared backs of teeth -

what is is implicit in what it's not.
Take these planks, the hull of a re-fitted tug
now raised flower beds, or this Perspex bus-
stop reclaimed for a tumbledown hothouse.

God knows, even pebbles here might put down
roots, and grow...

The Chinese refugees are putting down
roots, planning to grow nothing but green
for its own sake. It is a remedy
against nostalgia, the heartsick moon

pining for its reflection in the ruffled lake.
Tendrils grip the wire mesh like ropes
wound round a hawser. Learning to let go,
the sun impales the year on cemented brakes

of razor wire, necklaces of broken glass...
It is mind, says Hua-yen, that manifests
the intimacy of nature
in scattered fragments the wind disturbs,

awakening us from the loss of self
that gathers in corners, aching to be of use.

I will write the normal blogs in between these. Changes in tone are unavoidable. There is another poem by Michael on the writer David Belbin's blog here. Also a photo of Michael signing his book at its launch in Liverpool last year. C and I were delighted to be there too.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Michael Murphy

Just before I leave for Oxford, the heartbreakingly sad news of the death of the poet and critic Michael Murphy, younger by a good twenty years than I am, of a brain tumour. Michael had been ill a long time - but this only makes it worse. Far fewer people will have heard of Michael than of, say, U. A. Fanthorpe, but his late poems are magnificent, as good as anything written in these isles, and I fully intend saying so. Michael's partner is the poet Deryn Rees-Jones. They have two very young very bright children. Oh life, life. How dreadful it can be. Sweet, gentle, good, passionate man.

I will write more on Michael in due course.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Joanna Lumley and I

The phone rings about 1.20 am last night. By the time C gets to it, they've gone. 1471 gives no number. Since C's mother is ill it does no good for the nerves being rung at that time, but she goes back to sleep - it is I who stay awake. For hours. And hours. Go away bloody Greta Garbo.

But it's into university for work, then a meeting, then home for continuation of work, H and R are here, H out at the wedding-dress-maker's for another fitting, C with her. R sits and works at one computer while I get on with the work. To my surprise I finish it just as C and H return. I am faintly delirious with joy. I thought it would go on for two more days, on the train to and from Oxford, and maybe even en route to Stansted on Sunday. Poet and a one-man-band. Somnambulating. Macbeth has murdered sleep. Or someone has.

Joanna Lumley stars as Hillary Clinton out of Margaret Thatcher. I once had that Lumley on AOL telling me I've got mail. It got to be embarrassing. Her voice kept winking at me. We really had to stop meeting like that.

Now I will actually fall asleep. Here goes.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Mad, I tell you

William Hogarth The Rake in Bedlam, from The Rake's Progess.

A little banter over on Facebook where I say, partly jokingly, that I am striving for sanity, meaning only that I would like to get my head clear of all the stuff it is currently crowded with. At one point I add that it's like trying to find a parking space in a full car park. But that is all it is. Apart from occasionally talking to myself that's pretty well it.

But some come back and say it's good to be mad, and that one should be mad, that one should strive for madness. Then a good friend, who is currently sectioned, writes and says the people who suggest that should ask those in her ward whether it is good to be mad or not. Well, I reply to her, they mean no harm, what they mean is a modicum of madness, a soupcon, a hint, a mere sniff of it, only a hair of the barking dog that might yet bite you.

There is, of course, much on madness and genius. "Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you," said Jung. And sure, people want to be cured of an excessive sanity, and certainly, or so we are told, genius and madness are close allied.

The fact is we don't really have a proper meaning for 'mad' anymore, the vague concept of madness being broken down into a number of minutely described conditions that don't necessarily involve rolling of the eyes and frothing at the mouth. Even to talk about madness as such is to betray an almost gross naivety. It's like calling someone lazy when they are suffering from this or that exhausting syndrome.

In any case, none of those who encourage madness mean it quite that way. What they mean to encourage is a certain daring, a disregard for convention or sobriety. And even then not very much. Just enough to escape by. It's that Jenny Joseph thing about being an old woman and wearing purple. There are many out there who like the idea. It was the Nation's Favourite Poem some years back. I do however note that Linda in her book, tends to reject the purple dress end-game as any kind of solution.

I don't in fact have any desire to be regarded as eccentric or charmingly batty. I want my sanity. It's mad enough out there at times. You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps, says the cliché sign. Well no, you have to be stone-cold, sober-sane. And you have to believe in other people's sanity too, or else what are you addressing when you talk to them?

And yet: "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as with anyone else," said Dr Johnson of Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno, one of the great mad poems. Smart was about to be moved into Mr Potter's madhouse at Bethnal Green at the time. I did write a libretto based on Richard Dadd's madness once. Yet I would not be Dadd or Kit Smart for all the money in the world.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The third one

The first one was unlucky for the Slipping Boy, but was handsomely taken by the South Korean lad.

The second one might have been saved, but from forty-one yards out you can't give The Greatest Player in the World that kind of chance.

But the third...

... was an object of beauty.

End of minute-by-minute report. Played them off the Ji-Sung Park. And a dastardly sending-off for our kid too.


Checked my Introduction to Déry's 'Niki' that arrived from the NYRB this evening. Life is all Introductions. On Friday to Oxford. On Sunday to Basle. Tonight, to bed.

Monday, 4 May 2009


Finished the introduction, finished the redrafting, wrote up the contents, emailed contributors for biogs, now just waiting for a few replies. This is how the intro to the anthology (yet to be titled) begins:

In case anyone should have forgotten, we had a revolution - a grand European revolution with global implications - exactly twenty years ago in 1989 though, if we have forgotten, it may be because we are still living in it. It was Zhou en Lai who, when asked in the 1950s about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789, is supposed to have replied: ‘It’s too early to tell’. It is too early to tell with this one.

Too early and already too late. Time, the post-modern phenomenon par excellence, is the great confuser and befuddler of chronologies. There we were, thinking it marched forward, in its somewhat unremitting dialectical way into some all but pre-determined future, with evolution as a series of revolutions, when it performed one of its periodic panic fits: a, more or less, bloodless revolution. It was, said Francis Fukuyama, the end of history. Maybe it was - then.

But history is not just events themselves, nor the consciousness of experiencing those events: history is what we write about what seems to us to have happened. Who did what to whom, in which order, why, and with what effect, is, to put it mildly, subject to interpretation. In retrospect everything seems inevitable: after all here we are at the end of it. It may be that the task of rival interpretations is to offer us ever more convincing form of inevitability, to act as Benjamin’s Angel of History but with an agenda, a case to make and a set of files to keep in order.

It was not just the physical Berlin wall that collapsed in 1989, but its equally important metaphorical-ideological-psychological equivalent. The usual wall consists of bricks held together with mortar. Should the mortar disappear the bricks might remain in place, simply sitting one on top of another, but there would be nothing except gravity holding them together. One good shove and over it goes. The parties, the ministries, the armies, the officials, the management, the cadres, the career paths, might hang suspended for the equivalent of a historical instant but then the wall would be gone. And that is what happened. The mortar that had held brick to brick had long turned to powder by 1989.

That mortar was compounded of belief, fear, and an everyday, ordinary confidence in its sheer existence. It was the confidence that, however dreadful it was, there was actually a kind of coherence, that things had to be as they were. I once wrote that the characteristic late-twentieth century Hungarian gesture was the ironic shrug, a shrug that worked its way through everything from social manners to literature. There were few ideologues left standing by the time the shrug was established. We were all Shruggists. What, asked my elderly party-member cousin, in the March of 1989, what if a strong man comes to power in Moscow, smashes his fist down on the table, and cries: Enough! His far more active party member son-in-law, smiled, shrugged and replied: The table breaks
I am trying to set the world the poems - mostly not political poems, or if so very indirectly so in most cases - appear in or evolve from. Granted all periods are transitional, this one seems to me more transitional than most. The introduction - thirteen pages of it - ends:

These are, if you like, poems of transition from what we think we knew to what we only apprehend. The illusion of a settled state of affairs in the world, a fixed binary opposition between directly conflicting systems and incomparable lives, has melted away. Perhaps it always was illusion, or at least partly so, but it had offered, if nothing else, an illusion of certainty, something a Hungarian could shrug at and accept as just another damn thing in a long unbroken sequence of damn things. At least it was a constant damn thing.

That is gone, but history has not vanished with it. The new position leaves less room for heroics and for myth, But they have not disappeared either. They are simply moving at greater depth, with smaller, often sharper teeth.

Binary oppositions continue to exist, of course. They don't go away. It's just that they are never fixed quite where we think they are. That's life's delicious / horrific uncertainty.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Sunday night is.. NOT Jessica Rabbit

...or even Red Hot Riding Hood, but Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman.

She doesn't move, she doesn't do cleavage or polish customers' bald heads, nor is she married to Roger Rabbit. But I still like her. And the set is almost as crowded as a Specials gig, just better behaved.

This from a 1943 film called Stage Door Canteen

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Guilty as Pigs

Writing, or trying to write, and making some progress, the introduction to the anthology of younger Hungarian poets I am editing for Salt. It must be done by tomorrow night, I tell myself. In moments when I get stuck I click on the new Stumble button I have downloaded, and am immediately distracted by reference sites, by artists' and photographers' sites, by animations and by sites devoted to authors or ideas. It is a guilty kind of looking, a distraction from difficulty.

Every so often there's a piece of news about the progress of Swine Flu. It seems to be a little disappointing at the moment. Not enough dead. Not enough weeping and screaming. That may come yet. Why? Partly because we want it. The press knows that better than we do and gives us what we want.

Why do we want it? Or half want it? I suspect that's also a matter of guilt. When things are going wrong - when the financial world is collapsing, when debts mount, when we think we have indulged ourselves too much - we look for spectacular punishments. Not that we really want to suffer since being able to imagine suffering is terrifying enough: it is the terror, not the actual suffering, that is the punishment. And immediately we are back in a medieval hell of handcarts, bells, disfigurements and demonic tortures. Such things never disappear from the imagination, they simply become a touch burlesque, a little camp. As hell really is, in fact. Where is the balance between humour and terror in the Brueghel above?

Here's a man who consigns the Italian football team to hell. The picture is not Dante though. The figure stalking gigantically into the foreground is Dulle Griet, or Mad Meg. It is her vision we see.

My guilt will be compounded by Stumbleupon today. It is Dulle Griet with her distractions. Bring on the pigs of guilt.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Ursula / The Laureateship

U. A. Fanthorpe - Ursula - has died after a long illness. Last time round she was a candidate for the Laureateship eventually awarded to Andrew Motion.

I reviewed her second book somewhere, probably the TLS, it seems an age ago, and part of the review was quoted on some of her subsequent books. I actually met her some time after the review appeared, at a festival, and we read together. She was charming, warm and very good at reading. Her companion Rosie was there too, Dr Bailey, with whom she later developed a poetic double act of good-humoured camp, like a poetic Hinge and Bracket: Rosie in her Cluedo Professor Plum jacket and bow-tie, Ursula in her sensible shoes and grey trousers, the pair of them occasionally telling each other off for some fluffed line.

As that very good obit programme, Last Word, told us today, she preferred the humble, the overlooked, the undefended as subjects. Her poetry talked rather than sang. Song, in the Yeatsian sense, would have been too high-falutin' for her. Her ear was acute and kindly, her poetic voice deeply commonsense, almost matey at times. She would have made an excellent laureate because she would have been loved in the way Alan Bennett is loved, and because she had written on 'official' subjects, a royal birth for example, in unofficial ways.

Under the gentle matiness of the voice there was, however, an uneasy but profound sense of the ancient past flowing just beneath the surface of the present: lost rivers, lost encampments, lost people and buried names. Her landscape poems were generally short while her more characteristic poems, about the human situation, ran to roughly middle length, extending just over a page or so.

This is a shorter poem from her 2003 book, Queueing for the Sun.

Waiting Room

I am the room for all seasons,
The waiting room. Here the impatient
Fidget, gossip, yawn and fret and sneeze. I am the room

For summer (sunburn, hay-fever, ear wax,
Children falling out of plum treesm neding patching);

For autumn (arthtritis and chesty coughs,
When the old feel time worrying at their bones;

For winter (flu and festival hangovers,
Flourish of signatures on skiers; plaster of Paris);

For spring (O the spots of adolescence,
Unwary pregnancies, depression, various kinds of itch):

I am the room that understand waiting;
With my box of elderly toys, my dog-eared Woman's Owns,
Permanent as repeat prescriptions, unnswerable as ageing,
Heartening as the people who walk out smiling, weary

As doctors and nurses working on and on


Andrew Motion has been a remarkably selfless Poet Laureate. It was always impossible to follow Ted Hughes in 'the voice-of-nature-and-blood' stakes; impossible to garner as much affection as someone a little more ordinary, or more eccentric might have done. He remained productive as a writer, teacher and reviewer. I don't know how he found the time. That and the Poetry Archive.

The Laureateship is a strange post. Today at about 1.30 I was rung up by BBC World Service and asked to dash into the BBC studios in Norwich to do a World Service programme about Laureates here and in Europe, along with Roger McGough in another studio elsewhere. Roger has spent the day being whisked from studio to studio to comment on the new appointment. The programme was a brief conversation and almost entirely substanceless. I say a little on the role of Hungarian poets in public life, but not much. Roger says nice things about Carol Ann Duffy.

Ten years for the Laureateships is, as Roger remarks, too long. Two or three years would be better. And then it need not be as a singer of royal occasions, or even particularly state occasions, but as some kind of commemorator of whatever happens at large, in a reasonable public voice that is not bending over backwards to be public. That and whatever else the incumbent fancied doing to encourage interest in poetry.

In that respect Andrew Motion will be hard act to follow too. He has worked his socks off for poetry at every official level. How he has kept sane I don't know. What will Carol Ann be like?

She will certainly be popular. She already is. Popularity is partly a matter of school syllabuses, and school syllabuses are not entirely about poetry - they are more about subject, about stuff to talk about. Popularity - even the idea of 'accessibility' - is not something I have ever tried to strive for or thought to have: I don't think they are good ambitions as ambitions. People must write about what excites them. But good poetry can be popular without ever trying to be so and, in that way, be taken to heart. Duffy's most substantial poems are popular in that sense. They are sad, tough, lyrical cries formed into prayers. The best of them is, in fact, 'Prayer': a poem that is properly popular at depth. Mean Time is, in my view, her most compulsive book to date.

As for the rest, poetry is not a joke, not a sermon, not a wink to the knowing, not the official voice, not the school syllabus, not the popular voice. It is none of those things. It is cry as song, the universe as form.

It is chiefly what Dylan Thomas thought it was:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.....

It is the lovers in bed with all their griefs in their arms. Duffy knows that well and has laboured in just that singing light. May she go on doing so. The first woman laureate. Welcome then.


I met Nicole S, who occasionally comments here, at the Hampstead reading yesterday. Good to meet her. I have now sorted out the problem with the links in the Cleo Laine post below.

Picasso / Richter (Richter)

Gerhard Richter, 'Horst mit Hund', 1965

So more biography. Horst mit Hund does not mean 'Horse with Dog'. Horst is Richter's father, the painting being based on a 1959 photograph taken at the wedding of the artist's sister. Horst appears to be horsting around, his hair pulled out at the sides like a clown's. Later, the booklet tells us, Richter discovers that Horst is not his biological father. There's a back-story there we are not given, but not being given it is, in its way, relevant, even apposite. The idea of biography in Richter is more to the point than in most artists since everything in Richter is based on photographs. Photographs are arrested moments of stories we never fully get to know.

So far so good.

Richter is (briefly, and possibly annoyingly, to persist with the horse theme) a one-trick pony but it's quite some trick. The booklet doesn't get very far with the trick, mostly saying the same thing time and time again:

(anonymous...painting is open to new interpretations...inscrutable.... changes both its meaning and its information content... images as photographic in origin... sense of viewing the subject or scene through the lens of a camera.... detached from original context...permitted Richter to respond to the subject in an impersonal way, without interpreting or imposing meaning... accepting appearance without imposing a personal view... ad, almost, inf).

The man paints from photographs and blurs them a bit. Sometimes he blurs prints of actual photographs. Sometimes he blurs a lot, sometimes only a little. Although there are back-stories in every case he is not going to tell you them. Everything is detached from the sense of character, impersonal, removed from the field of knowledge. The texture has a certain deathly sumptiousness, that's all.

Death is the trick. The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns... True, they might not return, but they do leave behind their photographs. These are them, though what we get is not the photographs themselves but a half-way house between the mechanical eye and the living human hand. The latter, in a hypnotised, almost traumatised way, seems calmly to remove the face from the photograph (the photographs behind these paintings are not outstanding as photographs, merely snapshots, crudely selected moments) and relocate them in the history of painted portraits. There are comparisons to be made with Warhol (eg and eg) and Tuymans (eg), but Warhol is more sensationalist and Tuymans more aesthetic.

It is the distance between lens and hand (by hand I also understand metaphorical heart and less metaphorical mind, but the physical hand seems most appropriate here) that is Richter's territory. It is the hand that moves the paint, that touches the nerve. The mind realises that it knows nothing of substance. The heart aches but remains suspended in a vacuum. It's not going to drown its subject in its own tears. That would seem improper to it, though this stern propriety is, paradoxically, more open to emotion than a flood of tears might be. It is a very disciplined emotion and all the stronger for that.

Barthes talked of photographs as memento mori: in Richter the memory becomes problematic. Memory registers as image, registers without hope but with a certain numb tenderness, a certain numb violence. This form of thinking is a form of thinking. This form of feeling is a form of feeling. This form of touching is a form of touching. I like it. I think the mind works as he thinks it works. I think knowledge is more or less what he assumes it is. I think propriety, as he feels it, is in fact close to the kind of propriety we may be right to feel when faced with mortality.

Who is the rider who comes in on a pale horse? He looks pale and blurry, more image than self. I don't know much about the rider, no more than anyone else, but the horse (or indeed Horst) is a one-trick pony if I ever saw one. As I said before though: some trick!

Picasso / Richter (Picasso)

Picasso, 'Seated Woman', 1920

She is thinking, and so am I, and quite possibly we are both thinking about Picasso - she, because she is his lover and is being depicted by him, I because I am looking at her knowing that without being too concerned with the knowledge. When it comes to artists I seem to prefer art to biography. Crazy, I know. There is a decent set of pictures from the current exhibition available here.

What am I thinking? I am thinking that Picasso is a genius draughtsman and a poor painter, by which I mean he has no great feeling for paint and is utterly indifferent to colour beyond a certain narrow range. All he is interested in is form and pattern and line, and in that respect he is quite magnificent. The colours are generally OK while they remain sombre but once beyond his safe palette of earth-colours plus the odd blue and green, he is just slapping the stuff on. In almost every case his drawings and prints are better than the paintings. The etchings especially are out of this world.

His formal sense consumes and recreates everything he comes across: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Delacroix... anyone. His daring and control are astonishing. His figures are composed of what appear to be inessential lines, a bulge here, an abbreviation there, a blitz of lines somewhere else, and yet they remain in energetic tension. - That surprisingly suggests that the essential is not the obvious, that the spine's relation to the sacrum for example is not simply an anatomical given in art, but a set of forms, a pattern that registers as energy. Surprise, surprise!

This is the work I sat down and stared at for some fifteen minutes and still only took in part of it:

It is one of the variations on Velasquez. It has such brio and humour. It is, in effect, an overt piece of visual metatext, metatext (working around another work) being something that appeals more and more to me as time goes on. And this example is so whole-hearted and delighted with both the original and itself, it makes me laugh inside so I feel stronger and happier in some way. It is as if the world were a furious array of languages, languages as dense as evolution itself, and that one could stand at the centre of these languages, as at the eye of the storm, and simply laugh at the fecundity.

For sheer lyrical beauty I go for the prints, the Vollard suite in particular, the gorgeous, decorative, luxuriant, meditative, dreamlike, erotic play of them but the black and white work in any medium is also full of life. As is the sculpture.

On the subject of erotic play, blah, blah, or vaguely so, I note a remark on one of those ever-annoying captions and bits of official commentary that talks of Picasso's fear of women. Fear? Well, maybe... But, give or take the occasional suggestion of the classic vagina dentata, it strikes me that for someone so frightened he seemed to return time and again to the root of his fear, both in art and life. And that he did so with a certain relish; that he was, in fact, clearly having a whale of a time. (A nice, and possibly not inappropriate, way of putting it?)

It reminds me of the occasion of Ana Maria Pacheco's exhibition at the Gas Hall, Birmingham some years ago, when the female curator looked me in the eye and said, 'Of course, what she shows is that men find women frightening.' To which I replied with just a slight widening of the eyes, 'Utterly terrifying.' She didn't quite know how to take this and conversation stopped for a second. Was I being ironic? I myself don't know, I only know I didn't want to be confronted with the latest platitude, one so certain of itself. The only possible response was to destabilise it.

And that is what most official state gallery information is. The latest platitude. That includes the recorded material they give you to listen to as you go round. To reverse Ben Jonson on his picture left in Scotland ("...And all these [his unattractive physical features] through her eyes have blocked her ears [to his pleas]...") - the commentary works through your ears to block your eyes. You can't be allowed just to look in case you get the wrong idea. You may not be presumed to possess eyes or intelligence. That intelligence, you are given to understand, is the possession of the very few who can speak the right language.

One notes that a great many people look longer at the labels than they do at the work. One supposes that what they really want is to be told what to say about a work. Been there, seen it, said the right thing.

Somewhere in there is an emperor in search of clothes. Sometimes, of course - just to be fair about this - it's a real emperor.