Thursday, 16 December 2010

On not celebrating Stalin's birthday: an institutional commission

Last night in London at the poetry opening of Europe House (note the Telegraph's way of headlining it: EU bureaucrats move into luxury new London address: Europe House). Time Out sees it in less jaundiced terms.

My task had originally been to write a celebratory poem for the occasion and to read it. On arrival I find I am a kind of host introducing the diplomats of nine countries (Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Spain) reading poems in their languages followed by - as it turned out - excellent translations in English. I am a little surprised but shrug, smile and say: fine. I don't get nervous at impersonal public events if only because I don't hope for favours and don't much care - except, most importantly, on the human level - if I don't make a good impression. I do what I do, I read what I read, and it is not going to faze me, whatever it is. (I am far more nervous reading to those I know well or have got to know on another basis.)

And here we have poems by Pia Tafdrup, Paul Celan, Paul van Ostayen, Ivan Vazov, Doris Kareva, Attila József, Czeslaw Milosz, George Bacovia and Miguel Hernandez. The diplomats read very well (surprisingly well!) as though they were familiar with the poems and it mattered to them. The Celans are particularly moving, as is the József. Elaine Feinstein reads a few poems slowly and beautifully, then, because we were running ahead of schedule, I finish off with a vote of thanks and four poems, ending with the commissioned one. This is followed by eine kleine book-signing then supper and a dash for the penultimate train, which I miss, so get the last one, arriving home about 2am, heroic C picking me up at Norwich. Sleep only after 3am.

The poem I wrote - three quatrains - is etched on the inner door as people enter the building, and that, of course, is very flattering and grand. And there are innumerable Poems on the Underground posters of the poem available. So now I am a little flattered and a little grand.


I have always liked commissions. They are essentially requests. I like the idea of poetry as an art that is requested. People produce poems for occasions by instinct in any case, so there is nothing odd about being asked to write a poem for an occasion.

The difference here lay in being asked to write a poem in celebration of a formal opening for an international political organisation. The principle itself was fine because I am deeply pro-European, in most of the possible senses at least, and am so for some of the following reasons:

1) The curse of European wars;

2) The curse of rabid nationalism that leads to European tensions and wars;

3) The importance of tying together the potential conflicts between the two major European powers, France and Germany;

4) The potential for the resolution of tensions in the smaller European states, particularly in the Balkans, and, from a personal point of view, in the case of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. (I am aware this is only potential, but potential is hope);

5) The hope of a humane bond that might protect the rights of minorities all over Europe (Roma, Jews, Muslims, refugees of all sorts);

6) Very importantly for an artist, the sense of a coherent identifiable culture that provides a basis for the understanding and sharing of music, visual art, theatre, cinema and, of course, literature. We share so much: stories, forms, modes of feeling.

7) European culture is my home. I write in English, in England, and have been influenced by many English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and indeed American writers, not to mention being befriended and informally mentored by Peter Porter, a Europhile Australian. But I am born out of the European experience, out of Hungary, Romania, Bohemia, Moravia, out of the residually Jewish refugee experience, and God knows what else.

Commerce, law and diplomacy are not my field. Like everyone else I have instincts and thoughts about such things, but I would not join a commercial, legal or diplomatic institution because, while such institutions are clearly vital, they operate in languages I neither understand, nor am drawn to. Furthermore, despite my rational belief that culture has a base in economics, my instinct tells me that such institutions develop out of culture, particularly as in the sense of (6) and (7) above, rather than vice versa.


The poem used by Europe House is in fact my second attempt. The first one I wrote was not considered quite celebratory enough in that it reflected on the ruins of Europe after the war and offered the idea of Europe as a kind of resistance or resurrection or last ditch shelter. In that sense it was not in the least celebratory. It wasn't so much Welcome To Your New Home as Look We Have Come Through If Only Just.

So I wrote the second, the etched and postered poem, with a little germ of reservation, slightly against the grain of my instincts as a poet. Was this what Martin Bell meant by a 'a secret and subversive pleasure'? Surely not. But was it like writing a poem for Stalin's birthday? Well, I wasn't being ordered to do it, nor would I have anything to fear if I did not write it.

In order to write it I had to recall the nature of the occasion and ask myself if I had hopes of a European project as located at 32 Smith Square. Hope without despair is pointless, but at births and weddings the accent is on hope. So yes, I had hopes as in numbers 1 through to 7.

Was the shifting of what The Daily Telegraph regards as a bunch of EU bureaucrats from one place to another - specifically to the old Tory HQ - a possible subject of poetry? I don't know but there was a certain subversive pleasure in adding to the discomfiture of the anti-European crowd (interestingly Nigel Farage has an office in the building!). Not, as Martin Bell would have had it, with a comical mask on, but dead straight.

So I did it, and there it is. It felt a little awkward. I would not want to do it as a job. My only proper qualification is that I can write verse as well as anyone. But it was a good evening. The diplomats were reassuringly human. They would have to carry on being diplomats who are, as has often been said, honest men sent abroad to lie for their country, and who are engaged in the very activities Wikileaks loves to leak. But they are not simply their functions. Very few people are, and those who are, are dry and dangerous. This was a human, almost shy occasion, and all the better for it.

I will put up both poems in the next post.

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