Saturday, 31 October 2009

Lost languages

The following excerpt from this article by John McWhorter, via the always fascinating A & L

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation....

...The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.*

I love the argument that small languages naturally go with the maltreatment of women. Safe ground there, professor. Reading this reminded me strongly of an open letter written in 1930 by the great early 20C Hungarian writer, Dezső Kosztolányi to Monsieur Antoine Meillet, professor of the Collège de France, in which the latter suggested that the world may be better off without its troublesome small languages, such, for example Hungarian. Kosztolanyi defends the Hungarian language with great passion and wit, noting in passing that:

There are some tiny European languages that are spoken by so few that only linguistics know of them and collect them. For example, Livonian is spoken by 1,255 people, Nakh by 799, Archi by 797, and Ludic by a total of only 494 people. Linguistic communities of this size would fit comfortably into a large tenement house or in a steamboat. If the tenement house were to burn to the ground and its tenants all to perish in the fire.... then these languages would be irrevocably lost.

Irrevocably lost. The current Wiki entry for Livonian talks of it as a moribund language "until recently spoken by some 35 people, of whom only 10 were fluent". (Ludic however has comparatively prospered with some 3,000 speakers on a recent count.) But what is lost?

For a writer who loves language because he knows both its emptiness and its extraordinary depth of association, a language is far more than a dictionary, a grammar and a body of writing. It is a particular sense of the world. For a writer, the argument of convenience that assumes language is simply there to conduct transactions of one sort or another, seems utterly banal. The connection between language and experience is the point. The peculiarity, density and communality of any particular language is, in effect, an aspect of the world.

But let's throw away the mask of 'writer' - let's just talk about people, the way they feel their way into the world through word, syntax, turn of phrase, register, rhythm, timbre, manners. To wish a language out of the way is to wish a people out of the way because, well, they are in the way.

The argument for universality is rarely pushed by those speaking a minority language, of course. It is pressed, most of the time, by those seeking not universality but ubiquity, the ubiquity of the language they themselves speak, a language that, by one or other historical turn, has become a language of power.

At the end of his letter Kosztolányi finds himself "overwhelmed by humility, and love and admiration for every language. It is," he says, "as impossible to give a rational answer to what the point is of a people speaking their own language, of our speaking Hungarian, as it is to determine what the point is in living at all."

We talk perhaps too easily of humility and love and admiration, if only because such feelings are befitting. But that's not to say we don't mean them.

Regarding the Eyak language McWhorter says:

...the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.

That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word 'ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.

A problem? To whom? Not to speakers of English, I suppose. But the problem is not about a problem. It is about something more; about a substantial unique understanding of the world that once constituted life, that was itself an element of human life. And the point of living is?...

Friday, 30 October 2009

Header and Footer / Bookends

Launch of UEA anthologies last week. A selection at UEA, the other selection in London. Andrew Cowan introduces at UEA...

In between, readings by Gavin McCrea, Seonaid MacKay, Marisa Silva-Dunbar, Philip Langeskov, Priscilla Morris, Jenny Pagdin, Claire Girffiths, Ruth Selwyn Crome in two parts.

..... I end

The ubiquity of YouTube. I hope you enjoy the readings. Me? Stuffed up with cold for now.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Now with Cold...

...Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante
Had a bad cold nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe...

As with Madame Sosostris so with Monsieur Szirtes who does not claim to be the wisest man in Europe and has an, on the whole, well-behaved pack of cards. Still made it to a reading of Arc poets-in-translation where the languages were French, German and Russian. Suffocated sneezes by popping handfuls of Tictacs...

Shantih, shantih, shantih
It's only a shantih in old shantih town... has been pointed out by another, elsewhere.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

At my Father's: cutting a figure


He is ill, small and frail in his armchair. He is in pain, a pain that has taken him by surprise. We are visiting him, having driven up to London on my first free day for a good while. He himself remarks how small he is. He has lost weight. We talk an hour and a half or so. He tells us what he has been through and how things seem to stand. It is not a complete or fully orderly account. I watch his hands. I am shocked to find myself thinking, 'Nosferatu hands. When did he get those?'

In the picture above he is newly married. He is a survivor, as is she. What they have survived has cast a permanent shadow on them but in the photograph they are happy, relieved, in love. They possess a certain vigour and voluptuousness. And yet now, when I look at them as they were, I feel younger than they were then. But that is because I now know him to be old - ninety-two to be exact - and because I don't feel old. Like him, I think of myself as someone young. He thinks of himself as someone young to whom age has happened out of the blue, much as pain has happened: I think of myself as someone young to whom age is waiting to happen. What will happen is a little like what I see in front of me. But that won't happen to me, not exactly.

We ought to see life as a shape that comprehends the entirety of our years, as if what we were contemplating were some perfect median, as if time were not linear but a three dimensional package, its three-dimensions forming a body: our body. Our body-mind-spirit. Our passage. The young always see the old as having been old from the start. The very fact of them having been young so long ago means that they have always been old.

There are moments when I think I can see the shape of my life as a shape, I don't mean progress, I don't mean career. I mean a shape. An incomplete shape, maybe no more than the ghost of a shape. It is, nevertheless, oddly cheering and miraculous to perceive a shape. One ought, after all, to be able to perceive shapes. Poets perceive shapes, don't they? That is what they are supposed to be good at.

Well, I will carry on trying to be good at it. My father will carry on sitting in the armchair. Then he will lie down in his bed and try to keep his food down. And he will get up in the morning and sit in the chair again. I wonder if it is harder for him at his age to see the shape of his life? Everything seems hard for him at the moment. Maybe it is the writer's responsibility to read and render that shape in language, a shape that isn't entirely a story but a kind of median that contains all the hard things yet cuts a figure in space as much as in time.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Arbus: Paragons


Those with two heads know something you don't - Diane Arbus

Distrust everything - especially the happy face,
the successful face, the face with something solid
stacked behind the eyes. Locate instead the scapegrace,
the lost and the squalid,

those who have nothing to say with the eyes but the eyes
are open and inward or are lost down a well
where you look down the shaft to find them and their faces rise
like your own in the circle

of water, with lips large as dinner-plates: the man with a tail,
the man who smoked cigars with his eyes, the Siamese twins
in Hubert's or Huber's where there is neither male nor female
but paradigms and paragons

that tickle your guilt and your pity. You say: I don't want
to make you cry, but when the button's there you press it.
And it's true that those with two heads know something you don't,
only you guess it.

(from Blind Field, 1994)

The characters are all from Arbus's own experiences. She was a frequenter of freak shows at a place called Hubert's or Huber's. She also said: 'I don't want to make you cry, but when the button's there you press it'. What Mark Granier says in the comment to the previous post is absolutely true and justified. It is only that "their faces rise / like your own in the circle // of water".

I suspect it is our faces we see as if from the other side. The 'freaks' are not out there: they are within. Those in the photographs retain dignity and integrity, are in possession of themselves. We do not retain it. We, whose eyes have something solid stacked behind them, in that alternative moment become the scapegrace, the lost and the squalid. It is not appearance at stake, but condition.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Lartigue: Bichonnade

- that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what is to become whoever we may be - Diane Arbus

The Mystic Barber teleports himself to Mars. Another carries
a noose and a rose wherever he goes. A third collects string
for twenty years. A fourth is a disinherited king,
the Emperor of Byzantium. A fifth ferries
the soul of the dead across the Acheron. There's a certain abandon
in asking, Can I come home with you?

like a girl who is well brought up, as she was, in a fashion,
who seems to trust everyone and is just a little crazy,
just enough to be charming, who walks between fantasy
and betrayal and makes of this a kind of profession.
It takes courage to destroy the ledge you stand on,
to sit on the branch you saw through

or to fly down the stairs like Lartigue's Bichonnade
while the balustrade marches sturdily upward, and laughter
bubbles through the mouth like air through water,
and the light whistles by, unstoppable, hard
and joyful, though there is nothing to land on
but the flying itself, the flying perfect and new.

(from Blind Field, OUP 1994)

That is Bichonnade in the photograph, that is the balustrade marching sturdily upward, there's the laughter, the light that whistles by, unstoppable, hard and joyful, and there is the flying itself, perfect and new. I wrote this as a set of four Diane Arbus poems, after I had read a biography of Arbus. So the Mystic Barber who teleports himself to Mars, the man who carries a noose and a rose and the man who collects string are all in Arbus's real life: they are some of the outsiders she followed and gathered in. As for the disinherited King of Byzantium and the character who thinks he is Charon, I made them up, thinking, why not? It is however Arbus who politely asked the outsiders if she could come home with them, who was well brought up and charming and, surely, a little mad; Arbus who destroyed the ledge she stood on in killing herself.

Each of the four poems carried an epigraph from Arbus, who could certainly think and write and said some wonderful things about photography that are just as true of poetry. I sometimes imagined Arbus as my own photographer mother, with the same penchant for standing on edges and destroying them.

The photograph above is not by Arbus but by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose life was as different from Arbus's as it was from mine, or, I dare say, yours, reader. It was not wealth that separated Lartigue from Arbus since Arbus (maiden name Diane Nemerov) also came from a rich family - a family of furriers - and was the sister of the excellent and underrated American poet, Howard Nemerov. The difference between Lartigue and Arbus is the differencce between light and dark, both of which are true states. Lartigue offers an overflow of delight. His family does crazy, playful things. They play straight in funny clothes, in new fangled, not quite domesticated machines, all the time killing themselves laughing. We could play it stern with them. We could disapprove of the Lartigue tendency to frou-frou and high spirits, but we know the sternness would turn us into killjoys. Exhilaration has something of innocence about it, and Bichonnade leaping down all those stairs for a dare is simply an object moving through space, a laughing respectable human object weighing as much as any other human being. And it is such a simple thing leaping down stairs, you don't have to be rich to do it. You can wear anything you like and the stairs can be any size, shape or colour. Classical balustrades are not obligatory.

So she flies down the stairs in the same way as Arbus asks to follow home the man with the tattooed face or the nightclub performer who could smoke cigars through his eyes (he existed, he's documented in the Arbus biography). They both take a leap.

I like the leap. At least I like to imagine the leap and land among words. Some time after Bichonnade appeared in the TLS, Anthony Thwaite said to me: I have just noticed that the last two lines of each verse rhyme with each other: abandon / stand on land on, you / through / new etc. Well, yes. The rhymes are, I suppose, a kind of leap between stanzas.

Both Arbus and Lartigue fill me with the welcome strangeness of being alive and moving through the world. One moves through both dark and light. It is inevitable.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Sunday Night is... Torquay in the 1920s and 1960s

The 1920s

The 1960s


The second reminds me a little of the work of Lartigue... of whom more perhaps another time.

Torquay in October Sunlight

Not my photographs, just plucked off the web, but there is something peculiarly truthful about the bottom one. Torquay was early British Seaside to my family, the learning of the seaside code of fun. We started in Kent and, over the years, worked our way across the south coast, venturing at last into Devon and Cornwall.

This time it was the invitation to do the pre-dinner reading on Saturday night for the Torbay Poetry Festival. The train journey involved a change at Newton Abbott, from intercity express to a very-much-local train that looked like trains looked a good thirty years ago, all benches and facing seats, combining the best of Edward Ardizzone and with the best of Soviet Pioneer Railways.

Torquay was bleached in late afternoon sunlight. Something about the shape, the space, the light, the colours, the form of the station itself suggested joy in aspic, the fantastical married to the very plain indeed. Walking down past the public gardens, past the crazy golf, seeing nothing but sea and bay and grand hotels d'un certain age everywhere, each grander yet slightly more uncertain of itself than the last, induces a sweetish pain in the soul that I'd identify as nostalgia, but nostalgia, so to speak, without an object. It is not a case of missing something that was once there but of touching the heart of something that has become a slightly lesser version of itself, something which, in that descent, had become more humane. You get this feeling in Cromer too. Not in poor old Yarmouth, nor, at the other end of the scale, in smart, knowing, Southwold. Torquay, of course, is considerably grander than Cromer ever intended to be.

The poetry festival was at the Grosvenor Hotel, as in the second picture above. Two Regency buildings are joined by a sixties (I imagine it is sixties) extension housing the reception desk. It is the extension rather than the Regency that moves me now, or rather the combination of the two. The extension seems to have aged more than the two buildings possibly could. The extension is from the age of optimism and cheap modernism. Hotels everywhere from Switzerland to Romania were presenting this functional holiday face to the world. Here is that face awaiting its period sunglasses.

The morning after the reading C and I took a pre-breakfast walk. It was a beautiful October day, the sun warm but a cold draft nipping round corners in the shadows. The light was chalky and fragile. Torquay hotels move to a certain dance, the truly old fabric, and the more recent extension that somehow feels even older, shifting or wafting like a curious couple across the ballroom floor. And it is a very crowded ballroom. Every house in every side street in the bay is a hotel or boarding house: menus, terraces, dining rooms, signs indicating Vacancies or, occasionally, No Vacancies in widows or by gates. The customers are not the rich, not even the well-to-do middle class, but something a little lower than that and descending. It was all descent, nothing too precipitous, quite a gentle descent, but distinctly descent. There was a tiny chaotic Polish shop on one corner with a Greek Orthodox church nearby next to the broken hulk of a building that was little but facade. The news agent was gruff. He looked as though he hated being opposite the Polish shop.

And the sails drift in the bay. A few people are playing crazy golf. The prom is generously wide. The tide is in.

I loved the touches of the fantastical. The mad faintly oriental gates into the park. The sprightly, convoluted ironwork on mansard roofs, the red spirals round the columns along the platform, the bridge across platforms that feels a little like some corridor in an old lido. The joyful things.

These are very quick impressions. I would like to say more about the redemptive yet haunting quality of the English seaside. It is as if the whole country had found itself at a lost resort, a reminder that everything here is really island, all edge and unknown interior.


The festival is itself is remarkably well attended and full of enthusiasm thanks to Patricia and William Oxley and their team of helpers. Aldeburgh is very professional now, as indeed it has to be. Torbay is simpler, more a marvellous lark or flight of fancy. It is not a university or an institution or a place of pilgrimage. It's a soul binge in a partially-grand hotel by the sea. It is the seaside. I don't know that I have ever read to a keener, more uplifting audience. And I left the envelope with my cheque in it somewhere in the hall during the book signing.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Griffin via Beeston

The reading at Nottingham University with two talented younger poets, Polly Atkin and Neele Dellschaft, was very well attended chiefly thanks to the remarkable energy of the organiser Eireann Lorsung, herself a poet. She and her phalanx of bright and charming fellow PhD students spoke volumes for the place. Afterwards we went for a meal and only at the end of that did I see the last twenty minutes of Question Time in my perfectly respectable and clean B&B on the oldest TV set I have watched in years.

It is a little worrying to see the comments on the BBC websites, mostly sympathetic to Griffin, mostly complaining about a lynch-mob atmosphere. It didn't look or sound like a lynch-mob to me: he was not being constantly interrupted as some claim, nor was he booed throughout despite the fact that he didn't look or sound anything like a decent human being. He prevaricated on Holocaust denial and on the Ku Klux Klan, and kept hammering away at the idea of the indigenous English or British, sometimes one, sometimes the other, as a downtrodden group deprived of rights by immigrants and government. As if! It does not seem to me that poor Asians or Africans or Caribbeans are running the country, let alone migrant Polish workers. Ostensibly, his greatest concern was immigration and indeed it is immigration that touches the nerve in poor white areas, but the rest was little more than a plea for racial purity, classic fascist territory, presented weasel-fashion. That, at least, is my twenty-minutes viewing.

I think the BBC handled this badly. It would have been far better to have him politely but very firmly interviewed in a face-to-face situation by someone prominent. Then possibly let him on Question Time with the full range of BNP ideas established. But this is a dangerous time - a deepening recession - to bring him on QT first. However hopeless and repulsive he is, he only gains by this form of appearance. A door has been opened through which he will walk again and again. Vile people bring out whatever is vile in perfectly ordinary people. They stop thinking of it as vile. Furies and frustrations concentrate on specific targets. The programme had both fury and frustration in plenty.

In the morning I walked up to Beeston town centre just to get a sense of the place. It has the sweet, hamfisted look of much of post-industrial Britain. Miscellaneous shambolic buildings where small businesses try to make a living either by providing cheap handy services or by appealing to the imagination: the three part barber-ladies hairdresser-children's 'jungle cut' building with the Martial Arts shack tacked on to it. Dancing lessons behind a shop. The vacant site. The large shed-like building housing Amore, the Italian restaurant . The small, front-room sized Balti take-away. The ancient cobbler's shop, established in 1947, in a tin shed with a facade of miscellaneous crooked signs. The bike shop. Young mothers with prams. The roads too big, sweeping through to other places. The friendliness in shops. It is latter day George Orwell territory at heart.

Hard to think of hatred simmering in such places. The odd resentment, the odd fight, the odd curse probably fuelled by drink, but not the steady downloading of hate accumulated over long years the way I sensed it in parts of Northern Ireland. I don't think the country is primed for Griffin and his yobs. I think people are better than that.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Stop Press: Burning of the Books on Eliot Prize Shortlist

I have known about The Burning of the Books and Other Poems being on the shortlist for a few days but it has gone to the press now. I am, of course, delighted. The press release goes:

Judges Simon Armitage (Chair), Colette Bryce and Penelope Shuttle have chosen the following 10 collections from the 98 new books published in 2009:

Eiléan Ní Chuilleánain - The Sun-fish Gallery
Fred D'Aguiar - Continental Shelf Carcanet
Jane Draycott - Over Carcanet
Philip Gross - The Water Table Bloodaxe
Sinéad Morrissey - Through the Square Window Carcanet
Sharon Olds - One Secret Thing Cape
Alice Oswald - Weeds & Wild Flowers Faber
Christopher Reid - A Scattering Areté
George Szirtes - The Burning of the Books and Other Poems Bloodaxe
Hugo Williams - West End Final Faber

Simon Armitage said:

“We believe this to be the most wide-ranging shortlist for a poetry prize for a good number of years, one which reflects the scope, breadth and vitality of contemporary poetry. From the extraordinary number of poetry titles to be published this year we have been most impressed and persuaded by poets who have pushed their level of craft to the next level, or, in some cases, have re-thought their entire approach to writing to produce uniquely invigorated work. The books on this list are by poets who have dreamed and who have dared.”


The winner will be announced on the evening of Monday 18 January 2010 at the T S Eliot Prize award ceremony, which will be held in the Courtyard at the Wallace Collection. Mrs Valerie Eliot will present the winner with a cheque for £15,000 and each of the shortlisted poets with a cheque for £1,000 in recognition of their achievement.


On the eve of the judges’ decision all ten shortlisted poets will be invited to take part in the year’s most thrilling poetry reading. On Sunday 17 January 2010 the T S Eliot Prize Readings will once again be staged at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Expect an electric atmosphere as the poets read from their collections on the eve of the judges’ decision. This event is a unique opportunity to hear the best contemporary poets reading their own work.

Tickets are on sale now from the Southbank box office 0871 663 2500 or go to For press tickets please contact Hilary Davidson 020 7833 9247 or email

In the second year of a three-year sponsorship the John S Cohen Foundation will be sponsoring the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry. The Foundation includes the David Cohen Prize for Literature amongst its portfolio, which covers the arts, education, culture, environment, conservation and heritage.

The T S Eliot Prize is supported by the T S Eliot Foundation.

Pleased observation by my publisher::

So the publishers have the following numbers of poets:

Carcanet 3
Bloodaxe 2
Faber 2
Cape 1
Gallery 1
Areté 1

(with Faber and Carcanet both having 2 of their poets automatically shortlisted as PBS Choices)

50:50 M:F

I am particularly pleased to see the names of Jane Draycott, Philip Gross and Christopher Reid included. I would be so happy to see one of them win. (Me too, of course, but then I am delighted just to be there.)

Miscellany: Frostrup, Griffin, Bankers

Before I buzz off to Nottingham in a couple of hours.

1. The lovely Mariella Frostrup on the radio this morning trails her programme saying 'This begs the question that...', meaning that some issue demands that the question be asked. But the phrase actually means the opposite, meaning 'it avoids the question'. This inversion still rubs me up the wrong way in much the same way as the misappropriation of King Canute and his non-problematic relationship to waves does, though Frostrup's use is now pretty general. Which then raises the question of usage and the miraculous, and sometimes cheering, English habit of accepting any usage providing a lot of people employ it for long enough. Which then raises the further question of which latest misuse is likely to stick and which to swirl away down the sewers of history. Canute is a lost cause. Begging questions is a lost cause, I suspect. There they sit in the pockets of language like the strange coinage they are, perfectly legal currency. Small change. Pedant and poet wipe away a passing tear, a tear that, like all tears, runs away down the sewers of history.

2. Griffin on Question Time. Fine, let him be on Question Time but let there be a loud picket and as many tomatoes as are deemed appropriate to the occasion. Let verbal and conceptual tomatoes fly in the hall. His attack on the war crimes of the military should be put in a large locket the weight of several bricks and hung around his neck. May it be the perfect complement to that hideous greasy face. There is surely, is there not, a faint resemblance to David Irving? I wonder if the two are related? Those of a nervous disposition look away now.

Go, Bonnie Greer! It's your stage.

3. Bankers: Without our vast bonuses you will die. Old news, I know, and not unexpected. They warn us that they will scurry abroad where the world is waiting to receive them with the grateful deference that is their due: bigger bonuses, more millions. That's the way it has to be. They will save us, they always save us. They save our jobs, our pensions, our mortgages, our savings. Without them the financial system would collapse.

I say for every £100k of bonus the public should be entitled to one kick up the arse each time they pass. That could be our bonus.

Midnight in Wymondham

Back from LSE where I give a reading, followed by three plays, one by Beckett, one by Havel and one by Stoppard (or rather excerpts from it). Whisked off to dinner before Stoppard, which is just as well as I only just make my train back anyway. Going on the plays (Beckett's Catastrophe and Havel's Largo...) the full time score is Beckettt 5, Havel 0.

My reading a mix of talk about 1989 and some appropriate poems. Tomorrow will be quite different.

I'll write more in the morning.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Noir Note

It is a big subject with big literature, the general lines of which are established to the point of cliché, particularly the role of the femme fatale, but also its themes of transgression, fatalism, lack of character certainty, violence and moral ambiguity. I don't want to discuss these things all over again in either a political or historical context. I am however interested in why film noir still thrills.

What fascinates me is the sheer poetry of it. In what way?

The narrative to begin with. The narrative is nearly always complex, often unclear. Some evil has been done, is being done, or is about to be done. The precise mechanism of the action is of secondary importance. It is our apprehension of events that is being courted, not our reason. Film noir is never really a whodunnit. Detectives appear in the films, are often the central characters in films, but it is not detective work, not deductive reasoning that is the point. Film noir pits image against syntax, or, to put it another way, the point of syntax is image, the apparitional image. It is the figure looking in a lit doorway, at the end of the drive, throwing his or shadow on the wall behind the desk. It is the femme fatale's sexual presence not her agency. She is undoubtedly up to something but it hardly matters what. It is simply not the story. The story is secondary. It can be as minimal as narrative in a lyric poem, which does have a narrative but not one of the what-happens-next variety. It is the sensation of possibility, the apprehension of something pending that matters.

So the narrative is poetry narrative rather than novel narrative. Thats what the stock characters are about. They are the genius loci of the backyard and the mean street. The weight they carry is beyond rational or instrumental. The femme fatale is not merely a device to embody the struggle of (and with) female independence or sexuality, though it could be that as well, but, more importantly, a figure that has always been there in both male and female imagination as a dream power, a latency. A shape that is the precise dimensions of desire but never quite still, entering, looming, disappearing. Never quite to be focused.

The language of film noir is pretty formal. Its devices are rhythmical and expected, like metre and rhyme: staircase, wall, lamppost, hand, drifting light, vertigo, swing of hair, great pool of shadow, glimpse, a look away, the broad shoulder with the jacket thrown over it, swing of hip, the half-open door, desk, back of chair, desklight, cigarette, a hulking back, a craggy face, car fin and car door. These images and others like them form the stanza, the rhyme scheme, the chorus.

The lyric I as a loner
Everyone in a film noir is on the outside. If there is an insider view, the insider is already isolated. There is no real communal life. It is the world of the poet as melancholiac, as romantic outcast, as voyeur. However the central characters resolve their situations their natural state is helplessness. They are being drugged or slugged or imprisoned or puzzled. They are troubled partly because there is only ever an outside. The inside, should there be such a place, is already corrupt. 'I wouldn't join any club that would have me as its member,' quipped Groucho Marx. And that is precisely the point.

The spectral
The characters are ghostlike or are in the process of becoming ghosts. Ghosts, wrote Peter Scupham, a good poet friend, are a poet's working capital. That's as true as it gets. Ghosts don't do things, they are just there, drifting about. Everyone in film noir is either being shot or about to get shot. They may not be shot finally but being on the edge of being shot is their very essence. They are all, in their way, uncanny, unheimlich. That, I think, is often the poet's sense of his own being in his or her own skin. It's all just a bit uncanny. What an odd place for consciousness to have lodged in, this Plato's cave of shadows!


Form, apprehension, sense of story rather than story, unfixed desire, isolation, haunting. Art is a house that tries to be haunted said Emily Dickinson. Yes, but the haunting takes place in a real world, a hard, mean, dollar-down kind of world, not in a ghost story.

If I like film noir It is for reasons like this.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Sunday night is... Film Noir

Very nice list of the films from which scenes were taken here. Myself? Back from day at the Hungarian School in Highgate where C and I learn the basic steps of the csárdás, eat gulyás and almás pite, listen to AL on Hungarian poetry and her own, and I do an impromptu talk on translation before returning to visit my father, thence home.

On the subject of film noir there will be something to think about at another time.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Hearing verse / hearing metre

The difference between rhythm and metre has been on my mind recently arising out of a discussion with a doctorate student who talked of rhythm as something superior to and quite other than metre. I can't quite see how this might be since rhythm presupposes some kind of regularity against which it plays.

The reason it comes to mind today is that I have been working on a commission to produce a verse play for radio. Something very short, of only some seven minutes length.

I had heard of a Hollywood film whose screenplay was in blank verse and had long wanted to find it. Mentioning this to a film studies colleague at university, she first said she hadn't heard of it, then, to my great delight, an hour or so later knocked at my door and held out a DVD of it.

The film is Force of Evil (1948), a version of film noir starring John Garfield. The director and co-screenwriter was Abraham Polonsky whose first film it was. It turned out to be his last for twenty years. Polonsky was a Marxist in the McCarthy era and the film was a study of financial corruption. It has some excellent performances and the verse script. Can't embed but I can link to some dialogue. The blank verse is in there, beautifully naturalised. 'Look it up for yourself while you are at it...' says the femme fatale. 'What do you want? What are you waiting to see?' he shouts.

I have a draft. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Cheltenham and back

I'm not sure when I first went to Cheltenham as a writer. It might have been 1989, when Lawrence Sail was director and there were a good number of poets on the programme. I think I did a reading with Stephen Romer. The next time was with Christopher Reid, or it might have been in reverse order. I also, that first time, chaired a discussion on translation with Ewald Osers, Adam Czerniawski and Danny Weissbort. If it was 1989 than I would have been thirty-nine and certainly a good deal younger than the other translators. On the other hand it might have been 1988. Or even 1987. I can't remember very much about it except that Adam C insisted that the true measure of a translation was how few words it had. The more it had the worse it was. But I might be imagining this or it wasn't exactly what he said. The session wasn't very grandly attended - some thirty people perhaps on a sunny morning. Later I saw Jeremy Reed perform, green fingernails and tiny scraps of paper bookmarks that he discarded with an imperious gesture after each poem.

Since then, as at most general literary festivals, the poets are a much diminished presence, and celebrity events (of a respectable kind) much expanded. This is not a complaint as such, it is simply the world, to which it behoves one occasionally to say hello. On this occasion I read with Roddy Lumsden to a good sized audience that was in complete darkness from my position on the podium. They were very nice, and bought books and said very nice things. Kapka Kassabova is writer in residence and she and I being old friends she joined Roddy and I for a writers' dinner. Kapka is splendid and beautiful and her memoir, Street Without a Name, is really a very good and very enviable memoir, she having packed a great deal into a life that is twenty-five years short of mine.

Then Roddy and I hunt for a pub in which to have a drink but either we go in the wrong direction or Cheltenham has very few pubs. We see The Slug and Lettuce, and, opposite that another less crowded pub so I have my Jamesons and Roddy his pint and we talk poetry and poets.

Back in my hotel room (one day I shall write a book called The Last Hotel) there is a large television, a marvellous shower, a beaut of a basin but no shaving plug by the bathroom mirror. This is no disaster, certainly not last thing at night, and in any case my electric shaver has batteries, but it still puzzles me why, having set up an all mod-cons relatively elegant room, the hotel should have decided - and it must have been a decision not an oversight - that 'they shall not have shaving plugs'. Wondering how the design meeting might have gone kept me awake a while. Then I was just awake, like on many recent nights. Not a good thing.

And today I stop off in London to meet another good friend, the magnificent Alison Croggon, whose intelligence is worth its weight in something better than gold and who has recently been named Australia's best critic, a prize that comes with cash, as a result of which she insists on buying me the meal rather than vice versa. By way of thanks I load her down with a hundredweight of books. She is currently on a tour that takes her to Ireland next, then the Lake District, then Edinburgh and Glasgow. We walk down past St Martin's-in-the-Fields and I tell her it reminds me of the time one night in the mid 80s when I walked down the same street with the Romanian poet, Grete Tartler, then in leather jacket and equipped with small vodka bottle, later, after the revolution, in smart suit and proper diplomat hair as Ambassador in Vienna. I am not sure how much this interests Alison but I recall it all being very interesting at the time. But then that is generally the way with things.

This is so much like a social diary I feel I should be signing off with a toodle-pip. But I am home now and tend not to use the expression while seated at my desk.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Brief from Cheltenham

About to walk down to the writers' room. Drizzly, spritzy. Reminds me of numerous channell crossings. Hotel full of writers I don't recognize. Driven down from station with Rageh Omar. Face smooth as glass the way mine never was. Friendly, glowing smile.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Back from back from...

...Newcastle University where they are still reverberating with Seamus Heaney's reading yesterday. It made a great impression. I was helping with examinations. Good to see Bill Herbert and Sean O' again. Come away with poems from both, read them both on the train back along with other things I have to read. They are lovely things, full of brio and grit, but I'll say more when I have a bit more time.

On the first train home I sat in my reserved seat numbered 01, right in the corner. At York a youngish African man sat down to me. I smiled and we started talking. His name was Lamin and he was from Gambia. He is doing a postgraduate degree in some aspect of practical politics. He had just started but was enjoying England, even the grey muggy spittly weather. 'What will you do when you go back?' I asked. 'I might become a secretary of state,' he mused. 'Wow!' I mused. 'Visit Africa,' he exhorted me. Top temperature of 36C in the summer in Gambia. Winter mild. I have never been to Africa. 'You're missing something,' he said. He is right. Maybe when he is a secretary of state he can invite me. 'Most people are not very talkative on trains here,' he said. 'You only live once,' I replied. Which in retrospect seems to me a wholly irrelevant idiotic thing to say.

But then I was very tired. See yesterday's post. Tomorrow to Cheltenham and pastures new.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Dynamo: Bad Machine

After something almost every day and night for weeks on end my dynamo is a little low. No chance of recovery however. The 07:49 to Newcastle tomorrow, back at 21:22. Then Cheltenham next morning. Then London next day. Then home, then London again. I am tired and short tempered (though the short temper will go). Here is a poem in draft, in passing. Hot off the press. Read it last night at the Faber gig having only finished it in the morning after some seven or eight drafts started a few days back. Maybe it's still a draft.

Canzone: The Bad Machine
for my father at ninety-two

And so they handed me the bad machine
that seemed a miracle to me when new.
This, they said to me, was the machine
I’d have to play with now, this grave machine
whose workings were beyond me. It was mine
for ever, as long as any grave machine
could be, since it was only a machine,
albeit miraculous. And oh, the many parts
there were to it! I could move whole parts
and not even know that somehow the machine
was on. They’ll care for it, I thought. If care
was what it needed they could give it care.

And yes I did, in my own way, quite care.
It was, after all, my very own machine,
and others at first also lavished care
on it. They bathed it, tucked it up, took care
it should be sound, kept it as good as new,
insisting, in turn, that I too should take care
with all they cared for, such parental care
being only natural. They called it mine
but it felt almost like theirs. I cried out: Mine!
It’s mine alone, let go!
They didn’t care
what I thought then. They played their given parts
as I played mine. These were our private parts.

It is the younger party that departs
and so it was with me. I took some care
to make the parting easy. So one parts.
Parting is all we know of heaven. My parts
were working. I was the fit machine,
each chamber of my being full of parts
that wheezed and slid along with other parts.
The bad machine was good, as good as new.
I strode out and the world itself was new,
delightful, with discreet and lovely parts.
The way was open and the way was mine
to choose, or try at least to make choice mine.

Then everything was mine or beyond mine.
And parts were lovely. I had seen those parts
before in books and cinemas, that mine
of images whose images were mine
to start with. There was such tender care
in them, with death enough to undermine
all tenderness. I loved that machine of mine.
I loved what it did as befitting a machine.
I had no thought then of the bad machine,
for how could it be bad if it was mine?
It was the machine that was for ever new,
or maybe I could change it, old for new.

And yet it was all new, or almost new
each time. My darlings and desires were mine
to cultivate as I saw fit, as if the new
were all machine and good machines stayed new.
I understood the wearing out of parts
as on another plane, as something new
and still in the future tense. And it was new
to me, the bad machine that tender care
would not maintain, that did not care
for me, bad even then when it was new,
because that is the nature of machine.
There’s no machine that’s not a bad machine.

My darling look. See, here is a machine,
the bad machine that is our mutual care.
I want you now for all those faulty parts
that over years have learned to move with mine.
Be bad with me, let bad be good as new.

'Be bad with me' sounds like a good line, but it's not the best possible state of affairs.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Faber New Poets at Dragon Hall

Lateish back because of this. Fiona Benson, Jack Underwood, Heather Phillipson and Toby Martinez de las Rivas. These are some extraordinarily talents. I am not about to review them or their readings now because that would be invidious, but they cover a considerable range among them from the mystical to the funny to the lyrical to the keening, from light to dark along a variety of routes. I read a little with them and we talk with two or three questions from the big audience. Then they're on the road for the next eight days in as many cities. Faber and the Arts Council. I wish them all very well.

In the meantime my second major wholly unofficial mentor from thirty years back, Peter Porter, with whom I was supposed to have read at Cheltenham on Thursday, is out of hospital again, and - so says AT - in high spirits. I remember sitting in pubs in Bayswater with Peter, about 1973, having sent him poems in the post, waiting for his verdict. Kindness, patience, intelligence, truth with a friendly face. It's what a young writer needs. It was what I needed and got. It is what I, in turn, want to provide.

Another launch - the UEA anthology - tomorrow evening.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dawkins on Darwin

I have been catching this programme, in so far as I catch any programme, for I hardly ever know what is on, but I have read Dawkins and Dennett too. And that is fine. Darwin's the man.

Just the following points:

1.) It might be worth looking more sympathetically at human emotion;

2.) It might be worth considering the nature of language a little more closely and particularly in its poetic aspect, a substantial poem being, by definition, neither a fudge nor a prettiness cast over language to divert people from the truth. When, say, Christina Rossetti exclaims: My heart is like a singing bird, we don't necessarily ask in how many precise respects it is so. Does it have feathers? Does it have a beak? How does it survive inside your physical body? Does it in fact sing? No? In other words it is not very like a singing bird at all. Case dismissed. Is only that which is demonstrably logical of value? Isn't this Gradgrindism? Is there no value in exclaiming, as the writer of Job does: Canst thou pluck out Leviathan with an hook? Is there no value in the feeling George Herbert addresses in 'I struck the board and cried no more?" In other words can we take some questions on the literalism of the questions as well as on the literalism of the answer? Our hearts are sometimes very like singing birds for no literal reason. (This is as much point 1 as point 2, of course.)

3.) It might also be worth considering why Dawkins, in railing at fundamentalism and multi-culturalism, only addresses Christians. He accuses some science teachers of running scared. But is he not running scared of other religions, which are never to be mentioned?

I do not doubt the science. It is the language and the humanity I quibble about. And the tin ear.

Sunday night is... Elocution (The last glottal stop on the line)

Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde White (dansant), (Julie Andrews chantant), in which the Irish Socialist George Bernard Shaw stands up for upper class English vowels. Pygmalion, alias here, My Fair Lady.

I wish this clip had the lovely Hepburn doing her Dick-van-Dyke Cockerney. Here in Norfolk where, notionally at least, we speak like this, I was given a ride by a cabbie last week whose voice had a touch of Devon or Somerset in it, or so I thought, but he was pure Norfolk. He could understand the confusion, he said, the difference being that Devon people spoke slowly and Norfolk people spoke fast. Well, fast is as fast does, and the Norfolk vowel is more country route than direct line to my ear, but he'd probably know better. Compared to Norfolk, Glasgow Scots has no vowels at all.

The same week though, everywhere I went in Norwich, I kept hearing London overspill, the full Estuary, especially among the young and I wondered whether this was genuine overspill or an affectation picked up from telly. The last glottal stop on the Liverpool Street line, I thought. True Eastenders. It's the new elocution: Norfolk to Walworth. And - not so rare after all - Higgins and Pickering and Julie Andrews learning from Eliza. Sheer street cred. For a while only, of course, before reverting.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Márai on death and the rich

This is the maid, Judit Áldozó still talking to her musician lover, long after her marriage to her ex-employer has failed. It is after the war, in the early communist period. We only ever hear her, never the musician.

Shall I tell you more about the rich? There is no way of telling anyone everything about them. I mean I lived among them for years: it was like walking in my sleep, in a deep sleep. In dread. I always worried about saying the wrong thing when I talked to them. I worried in case I listened wrong or touched things in the wrong way… They never shouted or cursed at me, certainly not! They trained and educated me instead, sensitively, patiently, the way the Italian organ-grinder out in the street there trains his monkey, showing him how to perch on his shoulder and preen himself. But they also taught me the way one might teach a cripple, someone incapable of walking, of doing anything the way it ought to be done… Because that is what I was when I first went to them: a cripple. I couldn’t do anything properly. I couldn’t walk, not as they understood walking, couldn’t say hello, couldn’t speak, and as for eating?!... I had not the foggiest notion of how one should eat! Even listening was beyond me, listening properly that is, listening with purpose, in other words, with evil intent. I listened and gawped. I was a fish out of water. But little by little I learned everything they had to teach me… I worked at it and got on. It surprised them how much and how quickly I learned… It was I who left them gawping in the end. I’m not boasting but I do believe they were quite astonished when they saw how I learned.

I knew about the family vault for example. The mausoleum. Oh lord, that mausoleum!.. You know how it was back then, when I was still a maid in their house. I saw how everyone was robbing them. The cook made a bit on the side, the servant took backhanders from the salesmen who inflated the prices for brandy, wine and the best cigars, the chauffeur stole and sold the gas in their cars. All this was to be expected. My employers were perfectly aware of it, it was part of the household budget. I didn’t steal anything myself since I only cleaned the bathroom where there was nothing to steal… But later, once I had become ‘her ladyship’, I couldn’t help thinking of everything I had seen in the cellar and the kitchen, and the mausoleum was too much of a temptation. I couldn’t resist it.

You see there came a day when my husband …. a proper gentleman husband… suddenly felt his life was incomplete without a family vault in the Buda graveyard. His parents, the old gentleman and the old lady, were old fashioned in their death, turning to dust under simple marble tombstones without a proper mausoleum. My husband grew quite morose when this omission occurred to him. But he soon recovered and set to work to remedy the fault. He asked me to negotiate with the designer and the clerk-of-works to create the perfect mausoleum. By that time we had more than one car, had a summer house in Zebegény and a permanent winter residence on exclusive Rózsadomb, not to forget the mansion in Transdanubia, near Lake Balaton, on an estate that my husband found himself lumbered with as the result of some deal. We certainly couldn’t complain we had nowhere to live.

But a mausoleum we did not have. We hastened to correct this oversight. Naturally we couldn’t trust any ordinary builder with the job. My husband took great pains to discover the leading funerary expert in the city… We had plans brought over from England and Italy, whole books, their pages printed on heavy burnished paper… you have no idea the amount people have written on the subject of funerary monuments… I mean, after all, just to go and die, that’s nothing special… people scrape out a bit of earth and shove you in, end of story. But gentlefolk lead different lives and, naturally, their deaths are different too. So we employed an expert to help us choose a model, and had a beautiful, spacious, dry mausoleum built, complete with cupola. I wept when I first saw the mausoleum from within, the sheer glory of it, because, for a moment, it made me think of the sandy ditch we lived in out on the wetlands. I mean the vault was bigger than the ditch. With careful foresight they had left enough space at the centre for six graves, I have no idea for whom. Maybe they were expecting guests, the visiting dead, just in case someone dropped in and needed somewhere to stretch out. I looked at the three spare places and told my husband I would sooner be buried by dogs than lie in this crypt of theirs!... You should have seen him laugh when I said it!

And so we were prepared for all eventualities. Naturally the mausoleum was equipped with electric light, lights in two colors, blue and white. When everything was ready we called the priest to consecrate this house of dead pleasure. Everything you could possibly think of was provided, darling… gilt letters above the entrance, and, on the elevation, modestly small, the aristocratic family crest, the crest they wore on their underpants… Then there was a forecourt where they planted flowers, and columns at the entrance, leading to a sort of marbled waiting room for visitors should they fancy taking a breather before they died. You then passed from the zinc hall through the wrought iron gates into the parlor where the elders were arranged. It was a proper mausoleum, set up for eternity, as if the dead interred there were not to be thrown out after thirty-to-fifty years later, yes, even the most illustrious among them; yes, for eternity, when the last trump would call them forth in their distinguished pyjamas and privileged dressing-gowns. I earned eight-thousand pengö commission doing the mausoleum, the builder wouldn’t give me more. I had an account in a bank and, stupidly, I deposited this little extra cash there, and my husband came across the statement one day by chance, the statement revealing how my little here and little there was amounting to a reasonable sum… He didn’t say anything – of course he didn’t say anything, what a crazy idea – but I could see it upset him. He thought a member of the family shouldn’t be making a profit on his parents’ family vault… Can you credit that? I couldn’t understand it myself, not to this day. I only told you the story to show how strange the rich are.

This is self-confessed bourgeois, Sándor Márai writing. He doesn't seem to be pulling too many punches regarding his own class. It is one of the fascinating things about him, the dramatist part that prefers long monologues to dialogue if only because he wants to hear everything that could be said by the characters he is interested in.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Nobel Peace Prize

Give him the prize quick before we can think of a reason not to. Winning the election was great and he is doing fine as I am concerned. Just surprised he is doing this fine.

One (done)-Two-Three (and Four)

Three readings in three days, all different.

I have written about Poems on the Underground where among other things I learned that Wendy Cope's favourite poet is A.E.Housman (she read the poem I talked about a while ago, 'Into my heart an air that kills') and that Jo Shapcott's poem was banned for use of the word 'bollocks'. (She actually subjected the audience to the trauma of reading the poem with the 'b' word in it).

Yesterday at The Curve, which is part of the events section of the Forum in Norwich as part of Norfolk Poetry Week, a mixed bill of poetry read straight, poetry with music, and two splendid animations based on poems, one on a Nicholas Breton poem to a Berceuse by Chopin which was quite wonderful, and a very attractive short piece featuring Carol Ann Duffy's poem, 'Valentine'.

I kicked off as the family 'elder'. How odd it still sounds to be an 'elder' (and odder still that Norwich should be full of writers I have taught or worked with, so that I feel a bit like father to hundreds of rebellious shining illegitimate children of the Muse - and be wary, reader, it is not just Norwich). We all did ten minutes.

Following me was, mostly, youth: Sarah Roby who won the recent MsLexia competition, who seems a fine assured poet with a very good ear and a strikingly clear poetic intelligence, then Tom Warner (son, illegitimate etc) who is quite outstanding and will be on the Faber scheme next year; then the Breton film.

After the break it was music from Andrew McDonnell and his band, My Dark Aunt (Andrew, another of the brood, now three times over as I am part-supervising his PhD), then my colleague Andrea Holland, who is such a fine poet it seems to me a monstrous injustice that she is not better known, and lastly, illegitimate daughter-of-the-Muse, but entirely her own woman, Helen Ivory, who, someone says to me, writes haunted dolls' houses. Well, I think she does a great deal more, but that's a reasonable starting definition. The Carol Ann cartoon followed.

To which I should add that I heard CAD's new poem (listen for a few more days before link dies) on the Today programme yesterday morning and thought it a really good Laureate poem, the number of which, over the centuries, you can count on the fingers of one hand.

Suzie Hannah organised the Curve event. She is in charge of animation at the art school and has a deservedly international reputation. Good audience. I like mixed events. In fact, considering what I said about the Poems on the Underground event, I prefer them in some ways because they unite strands and unite people. They're not keeping it in the club or in the family. I would love to do more mixed events.

And yesterday the dialogue with Martin Figura (yet another illegitimate etc and shortly to be international poetry performance star) at the Norwich Arts Centre.

I was apprehensive about this event for two reasons. First, the usual reason that no one would turn up or that the turn-out would be so embarrassingly small that I would wish I had never done it (prophet-in-his-own-country syndrome); but secondly for a more fundamental reason.

The relationship between maker and thing made is complex. My general feeling is that - to use academic terms - text is text and that the author (as Roland Barthes said long ago) may as well be dead; that we don't read poetry (poetry above all!) to find out about the author or even about the intentions of the author, but to find out about: 1) the world, 2) language, 3) ourselves. I ten to think that, if the author has a message, he or she should just tell me what it is and I'll text back. If, on the other hand, the author has a personal complaint they should see a specialist, though if they would like to confide in me, I, as a human being, am ever sympathetic. It's just that I don't need it in verse. You fall upon the thorns of life and bleed (PB Shelley)? Are you asking for Elastoplast, PBS? No, I don't think you are. If I care that you fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, it is because you perceive such thorns and such blood to be an aspect of the human condition. We fall on thorns and bleed, and when the pain is intense, it feels like this. Saying so is not Elastoplast, it is simply giving that experience meaning and shape, which, in the long run (in the long run only) seems just as valuable as the Elastoplast. In the short run, Elastoplast is best.

In other words the personal condition of the poet is not the point of the poem. It cannot help but be somewhere in the poem, forming it in some way, but it doesn't precede or validate the poem. So, having an autobiographical first half of an evening, along with old old family photos, goes a little (in fact rather a lot) against the grain. You may be able to glean biographical material in my poems, but the poems aren't about me. I have no very clear idea of the 'me' they might be about. I rather fear that such a 'me', if it did insist on parading round the square, would be some false imitation that would eventually lead to psychosis and I'd start saying things like 'George Szirtes doesn't do things like that...' George Szirtes is no more interesting than any other collection of atoms in the universe. Nor am I.

And yet this much is true. In certain circumstances one may talk about life and the things one has seen. We do this all the time. What did you think of the film last night? How was the holiday? My back is killing me! etc. This is a natural part of human life and even as a poet I am not apart from human life. Nothing of what I say in this context is an inducement to read my poems ("I have always wanted to read the poems of a writer with two heads / with fifty cats / with a guilty secret"). I do not wear my heart on my sleeve or on anything I might wipe my nose with in an emergency. But we are people. We can talk. It is, after all, a person who has made these poems, fixed the plumbing, arranged the flowers etc. I hate mystification when one could be clear. About certain things it is impossible to be clear because we are too much involved or because language is simply inadequate to talk straight about them. Granted. But for the rest, let's try to say what happens as people to people across a table as well as in the more demanding, more concentrated, better shaped, vital house of art.

So, it was fun and well attended and enthusiastically received and I am not cringing with embarrassment at that photo of me as a two year old in a suit in the bare Budapest square where I was born. But look, he's so cute, you simply have to buy the book!

And tonight on The Verb, Radio 3, at 21.15, or so I am told, there is to be talk of the sixty-year old man's new book, The Burning of the Books. Go then, little book...

Oh, and this nice thing.

Intervention and Corruption - Bring back the Taliban

Waking early at a time when Radio Four is out on the farm and when Radio Five is not as frenetically keen to be matey as it is at some other times, in other words listening to Radio Five, I think I hear an interview with the Afghanistan correspondent in which he asserts the whole place is a mess because of war and because of corruption. So (he asserts) Afghans want the Taliban back, because, after all, yes, they did execute people in stadiums, they did burn down schools, they did prevent women getting any education, in fact, yes, they prevented them from being seen, from moving around at all, and they murdered and smashed and terrorised, and I won't even mention the gays, yes, all of that, but, you see, they weren't corrupt. People could get on with their lives.

I lie there and wonder which people got on with what lives, then realise of course, that I don't really understand these things, because, of course, it is their country (ie the Taliban's) and their culture (ie the Taliban's) so it's really nothing to do with me, I just don't understand their inherently noble value system, which, you must understand, is not corrupt, whereas the non-Talibans, especially of course we listeners, we are corrupt, and all the more corrupt for wishing our corrupt value-system on the straight-as-a-die-and-off-with-your-head Talibans.

Am I corrupt? Honest, guv, me, I'm straight as a bent pin. Next door, you see, I have this bunch who have murdered a few, burned a few, terrorised a few, have in fact eaten a few of their children, like that bloke in Austria who kept his daughter in that cellar thing and fathered kids with her. That was his value system. It was in his house. It is nothing to do with me or the cops. Value system trumps ideas about common humanity, which is just, like, so just your opinion, man.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Poems on the Underground

Last night I was part of the reading for the publication of The Best Poems on the London Underground at the LRB Bookshop near the British Museum. This meant a scurry down and an even hastier scurry back but it was eminently worth it.

It is, I think, one of the great privileges of poetry to be included in this scheme, which has given birth to many others throughout the world since it was first set up in 1986 by Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert (and even more of a privilege to be in this Best of... volume). On this occasion, as the link says, I was reading with Wendy Cope and Jo Shapcott, but also with Gerard and Cicely. The place was crammed. We each read for about 10 minutes, roughly half from our own work and half from the anthology. Since there was no pre-planning it was something of a miracle that none of us chose a poem that had been chosen by another. It is also a tribute to the range of poems in the book. Many of the poems are familiar of course, as they would be given the premise of the selection, but they sit next to others that are new, or only faintly familiar.

I tried to say something about why I thought the scheme so good. I want to try to say it again now, perhaps a little more clearly, with a little more consideration, at a little greater length.

The phrase, 'Go, little book...' tells us of the power, value and vulnerability of the book. It is impossible to speak too highly of the value of books, of the human thought, feeling and endeavour contained and invested in them: the words of the dead and dying in the hearts of the living, the words alive, as if spoken now, as if touching the nerve now, at this very moment.

In bookshops there is usually the poetry corner about which Kingsley Amis once wrote a funny poem. 'A Bookshop Idyll', before turning his attention to fiction. There is, for all kinds of reasons, something coyly cornerish about Poets' Corner. Sensitives retire there in varying states of tremulousness: the robustly healthy avoid it as if it were a source of potential weakening or embarrassment. The common-sense disciples of straight-speaking and simple man-ness avoid it because it is for clever intellectual types who'll only make them feel inferior and dumb. Fancy talk for the fancy minded.

People, on the whole, only go there if it is what they already want: the corner offers a specialism, like turnip growing or vintage trains.

The corner is a minor, short-term disaster for poetry. It's not a disaster in the great eternal scheme of things because poetry survives wherever it is put because it is hard-wired into our central nervous system. It is as plain as day to me that under all the Pavlovian reactions and aversions there is a deep understanding of what the stuff is and what it's for and that that understanding extends to everyone, in every culture. It's not going to vanish. As long as language persists, poetry will radiate from its very centre, if only because the experience of living demands it. Being alive is a poetic experience. The simple consciousness of our capacity to breathe can take our breath away.

What is marvellous about Poems on the Underground is that it takes poetry out of the corner (I know, I live in the corner, am of it, and love it because how can you not love being with what you love?) and floats it into the very air. It is there among crowds, among advertisements, among newspapers, public notices, maps, graffiti, above the issues of London Lite and the Evening Standard. It is not in a corner. People glance up and there it is. Just a few lines of it. And those lines are doing something that nothing around them does. They hold the air. They engage an unprepared part of them (of me, of us, of you) just as the poem itself must enter the world a little unprepared, always a little surprised at itself. They engage the place we know exists within us, that rises out of all we are to meet them.

If I had my way I would print short poems on napkins in restaurants, on the backs of tickets, on ordinary things we never think about because we are about some other business. I would leave them on leaflets on park benches. Let them blow away. They'll eventually blow away in any case.

And as for the bookshops, I would have certain special, slightly unfamiliar arrangements. I would have some bookshops without a poetry corner. I would arrange all the books alphabetically and let the authors sit next to each other: the gardeners with the historians with the scientists with the poets. Or do it by subject if you like, the subjects suggested by their titles: The Death of a Naturalist with The Natural History of Selborne and The Nature Boy. Or keep the broad areas of interest but mix in the fiction and the poetry, so that, say Masefield and Homer and Anon and Walcott are with books about ships and the sea, or at least with travel, and industry, and colonialism and whatever. Let's introduce people at the party. Let's not stand on too much ceremony there. There will be ceremony enough elsewhere, and sections and corners and embarrassment.

It's lovely to get prizes (hey! I might even get one tonight, though I doubt it). It's lovely to stand in the prize corner. But it's just as good, even better, to be out of any corner, with all the other stuff of the world. On the Underground. Why not?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Commemorating U.A. Fanthorpe

When I think of poets who have been generally loved, that is to say loved by those who are not normally readers of poetry - and I think here primarily of Betjeman and Larkin and, in a different way, Wendy Cope and, again in a slightly different way, our current Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy - I naturally think of UA, as she liked to be known. The commemoration service at St Mary's, Wootton-under-Edge was packed mostly by local people to whom UA and Rosie Bailey clearly stood for something admirable and lovable that extended beyond books of poetry.

Wotton-under-Edge is heart of England, and UA wrote a great deal about England. It was a reciprocal love which means it tells us about both UA and England. Betjeman and Larkin were both eccentrics after a fashion, oddities who stood for a certain caricature of what the English found attractive and, in some ways, aspired to, meaning individuality as manageable, recognisable difference. Betjeman with his churches, teddy-bears, underground stations, self-mocking humour and fear of death was the loveable uncle; Larkin with his curmudgeonliness, his post-war, dry, matter-of-factness and lyricism about residual nature, was the stern unliterary librarian, the wry remark at the bar, the solitary, the man in the distance removing his cycle clips in awkward reverence, Mr Bleaney, the loner at the boarding house who'd never take a garden properly in hand. The toad that squatted on Larkin perfectly represented the toad that squatted on everyone. (How did you come upon the image of the toad for work? asked the Paris Review. Sheer, genius, Larkin replied.) Both Betjeman and Larkin spoke for everyone from a position tolerably outside everyone. They were the eccentrics that sounded the norm.

UA was clearly gay and dressed it. Her double act with Rosie was a mixture of the joyful, the wise, and the jolly, almost boy-scout, camp. The act was loved somewhat in the way music hall was. It was dressing up for the party, safe, and yet a blow for liberation, in the sense that whatever is camp in us - and there is a considerable amount in the English persona - could find an echo there. It was warm, generous, affectionate, comfortably outrageous. At the same time, her poems were born out of deep, common feelings, precisely and plainly articulated, that could never be described as camp. The life of the emotions was set to wisdom. It was a kind of secular charitable anglicanism. I would have had no difficulty in seeing UA play the role of Trollope's Warden. Members of the same parish. All three, Betjeman, Larkin and UA can be read in the light of class without diminishing any of them. All three are members of the same unruly congregation.

The loved English poets are loved in the way people love their follies: as romances, as extensions of latencies that spring out of themselves. These English - and they do not represent all England, which is distinctly a various place - are realists with a tolerance for caricature and a sense of the mystical perceived in unlikely places. The persona is music hall but the feeling is solid and reassuring as the landscape it is set in.

New audio recording of poems from Rotterdam

The marvellous Rotterdam festival and site is packed with material. There is a new set with audio poems by Mourid Barghouti, Valzhyna Mort, Vera Pavlova, Jacques Roubaud, Piot Sommer, Matthew Sweeney and myself. Mine are here. There is a sidebar link to it too.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sunday night is... Katalin Karády

'Mindig az a perc' - Ever that moment. Here is Wiki on Karády. To summarise: born very poor, started acting in 1936, became the leading glamorous film star through the war. She was arrested in 1944. Having been charged with spying for the Allies, she was imprisoned, tortured and almost beaten to death by the fascists. Nevertheless because she had been popular in the Horthy era her life became very difficult under communism. Her films were banned and her acting career forced to the very margins. In 1951 she left the country. She lived in Brazil and the USA and never returned. Died in 1990. She was given a posthumous medal by Yad Vashem in 2004 as a righteous gentile.

The first verse of the song translates (translated pretty impromptu by me) as:

The loveliest moment is ever the one
that life will never grant you;
The most wonderful kiss is the one
that we will never enjoy;
The most marvellous dream is the one
that most quickly comes to nothing,
it is the dream we never dream again.

It is, of course, a sentimental song, but then many of the songs of the time were, partly because times were hard and dangerous and the words were likely to be proved true. But the sentiment is often accompanied by irony, acidic wit or playful lightness of heart.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Pearl and Lily: two recovering cats

A very long time since I mentioned the cats, our war-time, music hall double act. Both rescue cats, slowly working their way back to security.

Security takes a long time. It has taken over a year for Lily, the silver and black, smaller part of the duo, to lose her resident terrors. She arrived from the cat home frightened by the car journey, frothing at the mouth in fear. Pearl had arrived a few weeks earlier. The first meeting of Pearl and Lily was not compounded of mutual delight. Territory and intrusion. More terror. Lily crept and slithered and scrambled out of the way, avoiding Pearl, avoiding us, even avoiding her food for a while. But food was necessary. Even we were necessary. But it was minimal contact. She ducked under our hands, would not be stroked and certainly never thought of leaping into our laps. It was all she could do just to get by in the house. And when visitors came she scampered off to find the most secure hiding place, squeezing into impossible corners, behind books on shelves. She desperately desired to be elsewhere. Or, perhaps, to be nowhere at all.

We had no idea what was making her behave like this. It continued for months on end and looked unlikely to change. But then a step forward. One day she leapt onto C's lap and settled there. Briefly. When touched, she leapt off again. She began to play wild games, involving Pearl in them. Pearl's notion of play was rather more violent. It would start quite tenderly. She would even groom Lily, but then something would get hold of her and she would start biting. Pearl had set herself up to be Alpha ex-female and was not going to be patient with a strange little upstart.

More recently Lily has entered another stage. She sprawls and lopes and gets under the covers of our bed in the morning and gives our hands a good lick. And yesterday, for the first time, a visitor came and she did not seek refuge. She showed a certain curiosity before sidling off.

She is a feral child who has learned to relax a bit. A war orphan.

Pearl is constantly hungry. She starts eating cardboard boxes as a hint. She eats fast and makes herself sick. She is bold and examines every visitor. Her fear is hunger. She can be stroked but not always. Like Lily she hates being picked up. With her half-Hitler moustache there is a touch of the comic about her but now she seems the more troubled of the two. She is quite a handsome thing but a touch lumpen compared to Lily. She waddles slightly. If we allowed it she would would eat herself senseless and sick it all up again.

Both these cats are more problematic than any we have had before. Both are in recovery from something. Pearl was found hurt on a road as a kitten. Lily was born at the catwoman's luxury apartment but the shadow of something dreadful had already lodged in her.

She is bright now, frisky. Still ducks from a stroke but likes a good firm scratch. She purrs a lot. Pearl has brief storms of purring than something else switches on. You can see it in her eyes. Sudden tension. Intelligent though. She understands certain words and acts on them without us initiating.

If my life were starting again I might be tempted to make a study of animal consciousness. Why they do this or that? Why leave a chair to move to another chair? Why walk or run or sit or lie? Why that direct look? What do their ears and noses tell them?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Sun and Sun

Natural disaster. Earthquake, tsunami. Here the warm autumn is beginning to develop a sharper edge as the wind picks up. The sun still slanting over the road in that hesitant end-of-sunny days manner. The Chinese take-away over the road is quiet. Our neighbour's daughter has returned to Australia. My Australian cousin rings in the evening, tells me my elderly Australian second-cousin is frailer than she was, but that her 87 year old husband, a Steinerian, has written a book about soil that could save the world. And my father is out of hospital. He wants no operations. Fair enough at 92.

As for me, I work, answering letters, sending books, reading people's PhD drafts, meeting people, writing blurbs. I see The Sun has decided to back the Tories. I shall not vote Tory but will register my hopeless Labour vote when the time comes. Hopeless because I cannot really stand the sound of Gordon Brown any more, that I have saved the world and had nothing to do with putting it in danger guff. Dead man walking and talking.

It is not personalities, not even precisely where the party stands now or in the next five years on this or that policy that keeps me voting as I do. It's very simple and I'm keeping it that way. Who needs more support? The weak or the strong? End of story.

To Ursula Fanthorpe's memorial service on Saturday. Long drive coming.