Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A poem by Bálint Balassi 1554-1594

If I were Baron Balassi I'd have been dead twenty-one years ago. There he is, dressed, befittingly, to the nines. He was mostly a soldier but is Hungary's greatest Renaissance poet. He wrote in Turkish as well as Hungarian (Hungary was under Turkish occupation) on the run - love poems, erotic poems, religious poems, songs, adaptations... An exact contemporary of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), who died even younger.

Adj már csendességet
Grant me tranquillity

Grant me tranquillity,
calm impassivity,
heavenly Lord!
Guard my poor sanity,
my heart in captivity
put to the sword!

Through long years of penitence
my spirit craved sustenance,
desiring salvation;
shield me and watch with me,
let not your enmity
cause my damnation.

Not without labour
you saved me, my saviour,
through death of your son.
For his sake assist me
that you might complete
what you had begun.

Your mercies so mighty,
not my sins unsightly
should precedence have.
Your grace is eternal
though my sins infernal
cry out for the grave.

Can you in beatitude
suffer vicissitude
or loss of possession?
Can you awaken
the ranks of forsaken
by thy intercession?

Why should I doubt,
when despair is cast out
in trust of your word;
freely you'll grant me
the grace not denied me,
the faithful's reward.

Lord, do not resist me,
unclench your great fist,
be tender and kind,
forgive my beginnings
and heal the torn wings
of pitiful mind.

Flying, I'd bless you,
adoring address you,
my trespass defying,
thus practiced in flight,
my soul being healed might
I rise in my dying.


I translated this poem some time after 1989 along with a great many other poems - including two more by him - for The Lost Rider, a bilingual anthology of Hungarian verse through the centuries. I kept to the rhyme and the verse form and found it a lively and moving thing to do. I doubt whether the translation would work any other way, because though it is a prayer and lament, it has a great deal of sheer brio. In that respect I rather enjoyed rhyming across lines in Lord do not resist me / unclench your great fist, / be... A Renaissance soldier should have a certain swagger even at the end of his wits.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Books currently being read

Enough football for now and enough other things too. Here is some work in hand:

The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems of Peter Porter (for review in Poetry London)
The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer (for review in The Times)
Teach Us To Sit Still: Tim Parks (because Tim sent it and it's fascinating)
Life is a Dream, Gyula Krúdy (just posted review for TLS)

Also in intermittent progress:
Proud to be a Mammal: Essays on War, Faith and Memory, Czeslaw Milosz
A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran
...and the rest of the series, particularly including...
How I Came to Know Fish, Ota Pavel

Nibbled at but full meals to come:
Poetry in a Time of Terror: Essays in the Postcolonial Preternatural, Rukmini Bhaya Nair
The Poet Who Forgot, Catherine Cole (a book that must have been meant for me!)

And poetry, (part consumed):
The Dream in the Next Body, Gabeba Baderoon, which is very very good indeed. In fact rather wonderful.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Old house


This is an old house. The oldest parts of the roof are dated to about 1580. The party wall to next door - equally old, as are most of the houses in the street - are wattle and daub. At the front there is the usual apparent chaos of flint and brick, a large area of wall seemingly rebuilt where, we suppose, something once crashed into it. Flint is local material, both knapped (that's to say with a straight polished face) or, as in our house, just as it is. At the front it has been rendered over. The walls are roughly seventeenth century, but there is a nineteenth century addition at the back that forms the kitchen upstairs. That kitchen is a leftover of the days when the house was a series of restaurants with the business kitchen downstairs in what is now the main book room and the private, owner's kitchen upstairs. Where I sit is another extension from the mid-1980s, with a spare bedroom above and the bathroom next to it.

In the early part of the century the house was a butcher's shop and old photographs show the butcher and his assistant standing at the door with a row of carcasses next to them. At that time, the house that is now behind was the slaughterhouse, with a barn opposite it.

After the first restaurant moved on, the place was divided into two so the slaughterhouse and the barn became a separate property. Our neighbour now inhabits the much altered slaughterhouse and the barn is a store of various things.

The first two restaurants were successful, the third wasn't. The proprietor contracted MS, his wife left him, and the business folded. After that it was bought by Kate who had a deep throaty voice, sang now and then, and ran the house as a gift shop, 'Present Time', which was not a great success at the point we bought it.

The walls being thick the house retains more or less the same temperature throughout the year, and even on a hot day like this I wear a cardigan at my desk. You come in off the street into the cool.


I love old houses, especially those that feel benign, as this does. Because, over the centuries, good and bad things will have happened in it, people have been happy and unhappy, but the walls seem to bear no trace of resentment or froideur, they radiate instead this gentle humane coolness. The house has a wooden frame so it moulds itself to conditions. The roof dips, then rises in a curve. Like any house it is soon filled up - in our case with books and pictures, some musical instruments and accumulated sacred, semi-sacred, and negligible objects.


I have never cared for the fully designed, for the untroubled sheer spaces of the modernist dream. The most perfect place for me is the Pazzi Chapel. I like serenity in its limited place. Brunelleschi's version of it appeals to me more than Corbu's. Le Corbusier's modulor is a rational set of proportions that I can feel elsewhere but don't desire. Brunelleschi's spaces are a kind of background singing. Le Corbusier's a mixture of the voluptuous and the sternly grandiose. If I were very rich I might like to stay occasionally in the Villa Savoye, but something about it tastes ever so distantly of murder. I know that's unfair, for why should it? It's not even a sixth sense, more a seventh one. A horror, if you like, of the absolutely pristine that has no room for the careless and chaotic.


But then I have never desired wealth either. What I like best is the sense of being within life, in some vital cell of it. It is night now but the sky is not entirely dark. It retains a faint luminosity, a glassy indigo. The desk is a mess again. I must clear it. The book room is non-functional because of plastering work, the plaster still drying. A little less clutter would also be good. I drop another word into place.

Last word on England

My last, anyway. Having been invited out to lunch that extended to the beginning of the second half, I saw the match back to front when, unable to sleep, I caught the first half about 1am.

The statistics show England had more shots and more possession than the Germans and, in the first half, despite losing two goals they looked fine. There were some nice passages of play from them. Imagining that the Germans were England I thought how I would curse overhit German passes.

Nevertheless England went two down. The team as a whole did not deserve it but the defence did. No team can work with a faulty defence. Upson was pretty terrible and Terry had little judgment. Johnson had a bad world cup generally. Gareth Barry had been injured and had only just recovered but had no speed. Cole was not disastrous but a little under par. It would have been better with Ferdinand, if Ferdinand were fit. It was the defence that let in two goals, not brilliance from the Germans, who were not all that impressive until the leaky defence had been breached twice more, although by that time the defence was spending more time upfield trying to get an equaliser.

The disallowed goal was, as everyone could see, a goal, and the score then would have been 2-2. (No use the Germans saying that was payback for 1966 - it is still not clear from the film then available that the ball hadn't crossed the line. This was clear as daylight.) From that point on the England team looked troubled. Football, like all games, is partly in the mind, and I suspect the English team went into the game fearing the history of the fixture. They lost two more goals when committed to attack.

The problem is not that English players can't play - Gerrard, Roooney, Lampard, Ferdinand and Terry have all been rated - by foreign journalists - to be among the best five players in the world one or other time. The problem was that they are not good under pressure. It was a poor campaign on the whole and everyone, bar James and, in my view, Lampard, played below par.

The psychological factor is important. So is exhaustion and injury. Rooney was clearly not fit, but his spirits were low too. United had lost both the Premier League and were knocked out in the Champion' League, right at the end of the season after he got injured. That's a triple blow for someone like him. Ashley Cole had only just recovered from injury, as had Joe Cole. Gerrard had been poor all season and might have been playing out of position. Ledley King was a gamble that failed - a gamble that had to be taken, nonetheless.

There are the predictable calls for an English manager, just as there were after Eriksson. Well, they got Steve McClaren that time. Where are the English managers in the Premier League? Roy Hodgson is mentioned and he is the only one I see possibly able to do the job.

As has often been pointed out England has a longer season than most countries so injuries and exhaustion tend to set in. That was the problem in the last few World Cups. The reason it is so long is the need to raise revenue - and that will not get easier.

The number of foreign players in England has raised standards but only among those players who play regularly in the first team. It hasn't helped the young players very much. There is no great wave of discernible talent coming through - not English talent anyway.

The very same people who bemoan the lack of skill quickly cry 'selfish' when a player actually tries something ambitious. I mean pundits and crowds. That was the attitude towards Ronaldo. There would always be more reasons to hate him here than admire him. Part of that was xenophobia, part inborn truculence, part his own fault.

The inquest that follows now will be contemptible and not worth having because it will not change anything. It will be simply people admiring the drama of their own voices at coloratura pitch. I remember Eriksson saying of Rooney in a press interview: 'He is your golden boy. Do not kill him.' But they will, they will. Much more fun and self-justifying than patience. Any old rubbish will do providing you sound 'passionate' about it.

I think Capello must have got some things wrong, and I have suggested that something was seriously wrong in the camp. Some bad blood. I imagine John Terry had a little to do with that: the resentful demoted captain not taking to be overlooked twice in a row in favour, this time of a moody rival. I don't see those two as friends - not that I like either of them.

But then France had already gone, as had Italy. I rather suspect Argentina will beat Germany. At least I hope so. It hasn't in fact been a very exciting or skilful world cup so far, apart from Slovakia beating the Italians. I'll watch some matches and might keep awake.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Sunday Night is... English lesson

There can be no more doubt -
England's down and out
Though it seems a little hard
To go out by a yard
So from a 2-2 score
To lose by 1 to 4
And with such little verve
To get what you deserve.

Really. What were we sinking about?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Point

The point about the reading was the reading...

The point about the reading was the reading
The point was that the time was out of joint
The point about the point was half the meaning
The point about the reading was the point

The point about the pointing was the winning
The point was pointing something out instead
The point was it was there from the beginning
The pointing gesture meant read just ‘as read’

We pointed out that pointing can be testing
We pointed out that pointing isn’t crude
We pointed out that pointing’s interesting
And that the point was pointing wasn’t rude.

The point is points are methods of anointing
The point was plain in ways that points just are
We pointed out the point, it needed pointing
(We pointed that out later in the bar.)

But did he take the point of all our pointing?
We fear he didn’t, which was disappointing.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Thursday, 24 June 2010

England winning, France out, Italy out

How curious, in fact how much curioser and curioser, this World Cup is turning out to be. I have to remind myself that England haven't actually lost a game while Germany have (to the Serbians, who nevertheless came bottom of their group) as have Spain (losing to the Swiss, who also failed to qualify).

Danny Baker, a Radio 5 man if ever there was one is funny and very sharp but has a radio face rather than a TV face. He put it this way (on radio): England aren't good enough to go out yet, meaning, as he explained, that England's pattern has been the same in every World Cup. Bad first game, worse second game, quite a good third game that sees them qualify for the knock-out, a real improvement in the next round, and finally going out on penalties or injuries, or bad luck, or simply to an even better team when playing their best.

Beating Slovenia 1-0 doesn't look great on paper, and was tense watching on the screen, but there was at least something nervously to smile at - some neat, thoughtful, confident football and the winning of fifty-fifty challenges - in patches only, but still with a touch of class.

Losing to Slovakia 2-3 will look worse for the Italians, who deserved to lose (I am home in the afternoon dandling baby Marlie while the womenfolk are out buying new fans to replace the dangerous old ones).

Central Europe is up and running (that is if we forget the Czechs, the Poles, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Croatians, the Austrians and the Hungarians of course)! I suppose we should include the Germans in that.

Western Europe is represented by the Dutch and the English.

South is Spain and Portugal.

As for France! It is more than curioser to see an implosion quite like the one the French team has undergone. There's a dangerous power vacuum forming there. They'll be tearing up the pavements of Paris tomorrow!

I suppose Argentina or Brazil should walk away with it.

On the other hand Slovakia! Another Central European Classic.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Provocations (2): I chase my own hare.

Couldn't go yesterday as I was in London at the Nehru Centre, my task there to be distinctly non-provoking, but I do want to pick up the matter of the first session of the conference, not precisely where I left it, but a little further along.

Rukmini's session continued in the exhilarating headlong way that I described, scattering hares as it went, with the rest of us contributing, the bright phrases (we are writers after all) beginning to set light to each other. Adrian Slatcher is blogging it all properly, in fact rather excellently throughout, so my notes are impressions and extensions rather than accounts. Adrian is a very fine blogger in any case so now he is on my links (on the right) where he should have been a long time ago.

Naturally, he gives an account of Graeme Harper's provocation too. Fewer hares with Graeme, as I said before, and they run pretty straight. In fact there were two.

Graeme's first hare looks to trace the roots of creative writing - the creative act as a complement to the critical act - back to the practice of the earliest universities. It's a bold move, possibly even a clever move when it comes to arguing the value, to a potential academy, of fields like creative writing. It is, in short, a hare worth chasing but I am not sure it is precisely the hare I would have started.

I wouldn't look so far back. Instead, I would use the examples of art schools, drama schools and music academies.

No one questions their right to exist or to be part of higher education. If writing didn't happen through the universities, as it does currently, it might then move to institutions that have more in common with those that exist for music, drama and art.

Some would argue that the equivalent of a three-year degree course followed by an MA for would-be writers will produce rather uniform results, but the same might be argued in the case of the other institutions. Having a longer history of regulated practice they might be expected to be very similar. I don't hear too many complaints. A new, and still developing field like creative writing allows for considerable variation of practice, as I have seen in my years as external examiner on such courses.

I want to define an MA writing course as 'intelligent, informed conversation'. I like the idea of intelligent conversation. It is not that I have a missionary sense about the idea of this form of education but I do always feel an obligation, and sometimes (in fact surprisingly often) an enthusiasm for the people involved. I consider it a human engagement supported by a contract, not a contract that fully defines human engagement. That is how I think all institutions should work, though the times have been very much against it. Most of the time in institutions we are filling in shadow contracts, making sure we obey them to the letter (and the letters multiply, driving some writers out). But our real contracts are with the minds of those we teach by indulging in intelligent conversation. Before, at undergraduate stage, there would have to be coherent reading, of course, in preparation for that intelligent, informed conversation.

That is valuable in itself. But what of 'success'? Do we give students false ideas about the prospects of success? No more than do art schools, drama schools and music academies. Just as not every student finishes up with a three book-contract, so rather few end up with a gallery, a theatre company or a spot at the Wigmore Hall. The outstanding are, by definition, few, and there will always remain the majority who will not become famous writers. Are they failures then? Is the course a failure?

Not in the least, for two main reasons.

1.) The production of a large number of intelligent, literate, articulate, independent-thinking people is a proper contribution to society (Rukmini was arguing something similar). They constitute a civilised matrix of readers without which writers can easily find themselves detached from society. They become the agents of the imagination, its transmitters, its carriers. They have been in the engine room and understand from the inside what the composing of poems, stories and such things entails.

2) Reading is good, especially the reading of good books. But there is much to be gained from having worked in the engine room of the imagination. The reader who has spent time in the engine room is not simply being driven about by the writer. They know how the engine has got into this condition. Their own engine is turning over in the process. In this way the agents of the imagination become more mobile, more articulate, more effective.

When I ask myself what I think I am doing teaching 'creative writing' my instinctive answer follows from this. It is not cynical. I'm not 'in it for the money'. I'm in it because I think it is, in is own way, an honest living.

This post is far too long now. I have let this hare run a good way. My hare is only a little way across the field, but it is, I believe, a real field.

I will return to Graeme's other hare regarding technology and its effects as soon as I can.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


So we are talking, ostensibly, about The Education of the Imagination, some forty of us (I haven't counted) from all over the world, but this time particularly from India and South Africa and Australia sitting round the council chamber, with Vesna Goldsworthy and I forming the Central European section, and Rukmini Bhaya Nair is giving the first paper or 'provocation'.

Rukmini is not only a scholar but a proper poet - what is more she is rather brilliant and playful so when she provokes she sends hundreds of hares bounding over the fields. The UEA campus has rabbits galore but they are rather tame and I don't see them chasing ideas so much as slowly nibbling at them.

Not hundreds of hares perhaps but certainly five, each of which has hundreds of little provocations inside.She talks about new reading publics in the context of Elizabeth Blackburn's discovery of the telomerase enzyme, aka as the immortality enzyme because it counteracts ageing. So there's a little hare to start with. Let's call it Death or the Alternative.

Rukmini argues that language and the use of the imagination 'could aptly be describerd as the telomerase of culture', in that offers a kind of immortality - not one you personally will enjoy - but something your cultural contribution might. So we are dealing with serious business. A matter of life and death in fact. So that's a pretty big hare,really.

Riding the hare in her account is Mr Hu, a Chinese architect who talks through an interpreter and says something about villages being analog and cities digital, but that neither city nor village are natural as such. ('Natural' is a darn big hare that is already vanishing over the horizon). At this point Mr Hu is beginning to turn into another hare, one born out of translation and dialogue. And this then leads to the consideration of the potential readership of China and India - potential only because they are illiterate. But then Mr Hu and Rukmini couldn't speak each other's language yet they could understand each other. And so the real hare emerges which is the link between the imagination and democracy. I like that one, the real hare, that is, but I suspect we might spend more time on the imagination at some stage.

So that is at least three hares, like Russian dolls, one inside the other. They are Russian hares.

And I haven't even started Rukmini's provocation 2 which takes its cue from Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, and their proposal that we should replace the ethics of impartial justice with an ethics of care. Rights mean nothing unless people can exercise them. Yes, but then what iis it they exercise? That's where we begin. The little hare inside this one is, again, language and we move on to Nussbaum's partial list of inconclusive capabilities as a foundation for conceptualising a 'language of rights'. Her index is as follows

1. Life
2. Bodily Health
3. Bodily Integrity
4. Senses, Imagination, Thought (you spotted Imagination hiding there?)
5. Emotions
6. Practical Reasion
7. Affiliation
8. Other Species
9. Play
10. Control over one's environment

I think I am counting ten good-sized hares there all set and raring to go.

That takes us on to the role of literary texts that can cross-culturally help realize human capabilities such as empathy.

I should mention that at the moment, waiting just outside my Facebook page (where, having gathered 1500 or so friends, I am thinking of organising an army), there is a person calling himself Empath Man who is represented by a drawing, who is not among the friends, but among those who'd like to be. I am generally friendly to drawings so I am trying to explain to myself why I have been avoiding him. It's my idiotic pride, I suppose. I'd like to make my own empathetic arrangements or leave them to God.

In any case, time hares on and I have only got through two of Rukmini's provocations and my mind is happily running along with all the hares, having a thoroughly exhilarating time, and once she stops I can't stop myself gabbing a little here and there.

And frankly I am very glad to be present because for some temperaments, and that includes mine, running with the hares is better than running with the hounds.

And after coffee break there is Graeme Harper with fewer hares, maybe just one big hare, but I suspect his too is more than one. I'm not there today as I am here, and then in London. And not sleping much - the hares get into my hair and run through my brain at night. It's just that I'm not sure I can tell a hare in the dark.

But now I have to go to London all over again and introduce Shanta Acharya at the Nehru Centre. Speech written, eyes a bit blurry.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Very late again


Yesterday was the Central European Classics event at the British Museum, today the beginning of the New Writing Worlds conference at UEA. This is after the evening readings and dinner hence very late. My two brain cells are looking at each other somewhat aghast. 'You don't look well,' says one to the other. 'You look exhausted,' the other replies.

So where are the other brain cells? That's what I would like to know.

With a bit of luck they'll be back in the morning. (Tomorrow down to the Nehru Centre to introduce Shanta Acharya's new book.)

Late again then.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Sunday night is...Noel Coward's Nina

Camp, yes. Funny, neatly rhymed words and beautifully timed and disciplined performance. Like playing ping pong with Cole Porter in a tutu. In fact quite quite too too. (And surely not 'guts' but 'butts' in the uncensored version.)


Just back from LRB Central European Classics event at the British Museum, well attended, lively, fun.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Watching England

Well, it has never been exactly fun, but yesterday was the worst I can ever remember in that, in the past, even if England was being hopeless there was a kind of fury of action, however meaningless. This lacked not only fury but drive. It was a very flat battery indeed. The response of David James to a question afterward (- The manager seems to think you are still playing with too much pressure. - Does he? OK, heavy accent on does) was even more than flat. It was sullen and indifferent. That is rather extraordinary. I've never heard quite that tone before.

As to the rest, Rooney may be injured but he never looked as though he might, however impetuously, just go and challenge. Most fifty-fifty situations were lost. The passing was terrible. Gerrard really hasn't been the same since the nightclub incident, Terry since the Wayne Bridge affair. Glen Johnson was sluggish and lost. Ashley Cole hardly ever moved forward. Lampard mooched around in no-man's-land generally in a dead thirty yards of pitch between half-way line and half-way again to the penalty area. Rooney actually played behind and some way away from Heskey, who was decent in the way Heskey is but without any support. Barry was OK but clearly recovering from injury. Lennon kept cutting inside into trouble. Carragher was just about safe most of the time but is out of the next game. David James was good considering he had nothing to do.

I imagine something has happened between Capello and the team, something that hadn't happened before, that can't have happened while they were playing well. It might be that Capello has lost them. Once lost, a team can't easily be found again. The fans booed of course and Rooney was miserable about it on camera, but at least the fans were there. This little article puts it nicely - far more intelligently than any pundit has done. I don't usually link to football websites and I found it by accident. Here are three paragraphs from it. The whole is addressed to Wayne Rooney:

The fans spent a lot of money travelling to South Africa, making personal sacrifices. For many, that is their annual holiday entitlement gone. Some even gave up their jobs. Do you still understand this, Wayne? Do you understand the sacrifices made by supporters following you? Do you understand what it was like before you were paid more in a week than most of us earn in three years? Do you understand that booing you off after such a poor performance is the only way most of us - bar the guy who made it to the dressing room - get to voice our opinions?

But part of what we like about you, Wayne, is that you are still something of a rough diamond. While Gerrard and Defoe knew better than to have a go at supporters for voicing their opinion after a match, you did not. Your comments to the TV camera were really stupid, but that is what we love about you....

...Gary Neville, your Manchester United teammate, describes you as a fighter, says you are raw. That is fine with us; we will write this incident off if you prove you actually care. You and your England teammates say you do, when in front of a TV camera, but the performance against Algeria looked unmotivated. How had you become disenfranchised so quickly?

Disenfranchised is not quite the right word, but the piece puts its finger on something in a surprisingly wise and simple way. And Rooney wasn't fighting. He was standing, walking and missing tricks he'd normally find easy.

As to the team - they'll have to do it off their own backs now. It is rather horrible to watch a collapse like this, if collapse it is. But that's what it looks like.

Friday, 18 June 2010

What's poetry for?

Today's issue of The Guardian carries a long piece by Stephen Moss (himself a poet) about what poetry is for. I think I am the only one interviewed who attempts to answer the question directly since, as the article says, I have been thinking about it for a while now. It would of course be possible to answer the question put as a challenge (Don Paterson talks about it as possibly a form of challenge, to which in that case the poet is not bound to answer), in the form of a practical demonstration of what is affectionately called 'a Glasgow kiss', because, after all, you don't find people asking 'What is music for?' and 'What is dance for?', if only because one is presumed to know. If you have to ask what jazz is, said Louis Armstrong, you'll never know.

Yes but, no but, yes but... I do think it is a question that can be asked about poetry, music, anything because, if for no other reason, the 'arts' have been with us from the beginning and things don't hang around for ever without a reason. Also because I distrust mystification. There are mysteries of course, but one should pursue them to the ends of the earth before bowing down to them. So I try to answer, though the answer as given in the article is, inevitably and understandably, short - certainly very much shorter than the one given in the conversation with Stephen.

Poetry, I say in it, is about trying to capture a reality that is deeper than language.. That requires expansion, a considerable expansion, an expansion that requires an essay or even a book, so this is not that expansion: it is only an amplification.

We human beings first confront the world pre-linguistically. Things home in one us and we must encounter them. Our first response is the involuntary pre-linguistic cry. It is the shock of the world - the shock, as has been said, of the new. But each thing that homes in on us is different, demanding its own specific cry.

I have argued before, and want, at some stage, to develop the argument, that the two key pre-linguistic responses to the shock of the world can be summed up in two phrases: 'What's this?!' and 'What happens now?!' The first question is about state: the second about action. The first question results in poetry, philosophy and religion; the second in story, science and morality. The first response tries to name the sense of shock because naming is a key human instinct. The second tries to resolve a course of action because life obliges us to act in order to survive.

Naming helps us control events. The poem is the complex name of the complex experience. Action moves past the shock and into sequence. If I do this, then that, what happens? Fiction and experimental science are related through their specialised forms of syntax. Poetry too employs syntax, so it is not entirely distinct from the story, but its use of syntax is different.

Syntax assumes a logical sequence of events. The sequence is the point. Poetry seeks a few simple movements to understand whatever is at the heart of the phenomenon encountered. The often noticed 'unworldiness' of poets is a product of a decreased interest in action. In a highly mechanistic, utilitarian society poetry seems to have little use, because everything is presumed to exist in order to produce something else, ideally as quickly as possible.

But human beings don't stop having the encounter experience. They are brought face to face with it at various moments of life whenever the syntax of life seems to stop for a moment. Then we are not primarily interested in a chain of events, but in the event that is there before and seems to have been there for ever, before language started. It is why people particularly want poems for birth, weddings and funerals and great occasions. Life is as much occasion as event. Time works differently in poems. In poetry we are faced with mortality as language.

it requires no great cleverness to understand this. It is hard-wired into us all. It is when we are not distracted by our comforts and needs that poetry comes into full play. István Vas, the Hungarian poet, said that when people had no shoes they needed poems. Once they had shoes the poems seemed less important. It is when we cannot manipulate the world, when we can't simply surf its channels, that poetry comes to the fore.

How useful is channel surfing, you might ask? Poetry is the opposite of channel surfing. People think they don't have the time for it. They don't understand how to understand it. One needs to stand still for it. Standing still can be scary when confronting the active world. So people get on with something else and feel they are doing something more worthwhile simply by doing something. Anything. Because, generally, most of the time, in our culture at least, doing is considered to be better than being.

Poetry's job is to half say-half sing the world into almost comprehensible being, being rather than doing: to register and shape the shock of the world while retaining the shock. That is the real shock of the new. That is why poetry, as Ezra Pound said, is news that stays news.

Almost comprehensible, I say. The sense of almost comprehensibility is, I firmly believe, something we genuinely understand. The best poems carry this sense around in them like a form of radiation, you might almost call it a soul, or a heart. In any case, it is a human thing and that is why we need it. That's what it's for,

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Long term, short term.

On the one hand this, news of the easing of the land blockade by Israel, on the other hand this, from President Assad of Syria, telling us that the dangers of war are much increased.

In the long run we are all dead, said Keynes and Israel / Palestine, is comparatively speaking, a long run. We know that many lives will be sacrificed in that long run and what attitude any of us take to such loss depends on our view of long runs. I suspect that the general Israeli view of the partial relieving of the land blockade might be that it will make no difference to Arab-Israeli relations, let alone Hamas-Israeli relations, except possibly to make them worse, because the easing of a blockade is not the tiniest fraction of the long-term-aim of the Arab street, let alone Hamas, that being the obliteration of Israel. The general Israeli view may well be right on this. Given the still living memory of the Holocaust, both short-term and long-term instincts are intensified, leading, necessarily to tension. So the issue of the captive Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit is both short-term and long-term

Europeans tend, generally speaking, to be short term on things like individual human life. We live in short breaths, with short memories and the desire for fifteen minutes of fame. Each short term loss, especially the loss of human life, gives us pause and makes us question our strategy in the next short-term.

In cultures where suicide bombing is encouraged there must be a preference for long-term thinking and feeling.

Short-termism is generally a fault. It leads to financial crises, among other things. Long-termism means never forgetting the slightest insult and never yielding. Or pretty close to never.

Long-termism is obliged to compromise of course, but it is generally stronger, except in the arena of individual human life, that it might regard, on occasion, to be dispensable.

So one might understand President Assad's statement as long term rather than short term, whereas the easing of border restrictions is short term rather than long term.

In the very long run, let us say in terms of sidereal time, the planet too is pretty short-term. Meanwhile (and all poetry is located in that meanwhile) there is a very agitated bird protesting just over the beautifully sunlit flint-and-brick wall of our tiny yard. Probably a blackbird warning off an intruder or some other danger. How short term is that? How short-term am I, or these words?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Courtesy, game, ritual, architecture, engine, dance

The rumba, basic steps

Form might be regarded in various ways: as courtesy, as game, as ritual, as architecture, as engine, and as dance.

Courtesy is a sophisticated, coded way of addressing another and establishing a set of social expectations. Modernity has tended to reject it, partly on the grounds that it might be over-constrictively hierarchical, only to replace it with its own codes, no less constrictive, no less hierarchical, but less willing to be codified in a book of poetic etiquette by an aspiring Emily Post of verse. The very word, etiquette is an object of suspicion, suggesting dishonesty and prissiness. Other cultures’ courtesies are to be honoured, but ours are to be reduced to a knowing minimum. We feel our way to the limits of our liberties and look askance at those who do not recognise them. One would have to be something of a prude to build a case for terza rima, or any other demanding form, entirely on grounds of courtesy.

We may, of course, regard courtesy as a game with all the functions of a game; that is, on the one hand, entertainment, and on the other the symbolic acting through of structured energies that might otherwise be employed in real conflict. Game depends on rule and surprise, pitting the fixed against an element of chance that may amuse or frustrate. The rules of a game don’t produce uniform results or uniform development. No two games of football are exactly the same, though the rules that govern them are identical. Of course the rules themselves may be applied in various ways by the officials or the players. Games are fascinating because of the delicate balance between the structure and the variable. So games in poetry may amuse: the more demanding the rule the greater the amusement. Byron, for example, may amuse by rhyming intellectual with hen pecked you all in 'Don Juan', daring us with the polysyllabic then offering bathetic relief with an ingenious but distinctly unheroic resolution. But, on the symbolic level, the demands of form, serve as recognised sublimations of energy, much as in sport the beauty of the disciplined body in action enacts a desire.

Ritual, as most people recognise, carries enormous psychological significance, whether as superstition that jokes about itself as superstition yet continues in superstition, in terms of routine or of certain lucky items, or as a religious ceremony that conjures the deity or commemorates a sacred name. The meaning of ritual is almost independent of its magical object. It produces its own magic. Whispering a spell over and over again produces the expectation of miraculous change or illumination. Whatever I say three times is true. Weave a circle round him thrice. Shantih, shantih, shantih. The three of terza rima too is a form of ritual. It helps, of course, if you are a believer, for ritual otherwise is simply people behaving strangely.

Architecture in form offers a firm and. importantly, indifferent, structure that can take the weight of ideas, emotions and events. It is indifferent because, once adopted, it is simply there, irrespective of mood or self. If the architecture is wrong the house falls down. Each poetic form imposes its own particular kind of architectural indifference. Terza rima’s begins with courtesy, runs through game and ritual and assumes the form of architecture. The structure of hell, purgatory and paradise is itself an architecture that Dante must explore. The architecture of the verse provides the framework for the language of the poem; its staircases and corridors and rooms and halls. Architecture, as classically understood, depends on some kind of regularity. Goethe said architecture was frozen music.

But terza rima is also the engine that keeps us moving down the passages and chambers, always propelling the poem forward. Of all the formal devices available it is arguably the one with the greatest forward dynamic. Once the engine is engaged it wants to keep going and the reader too moves on, ever mindful of what has been left behind and what is to come, moving on towards the last of the useful metaphors: the dance, so that eventually, as Yeats put it, we cannot tell the dancer from the dance.

Late again

Back from the Betsey Trotwood for the Ambit reading - that's speeding down from Norwich after a Skyped annual review of Canada based PhD candidate at the university. Candidate is also a rather marvellous poet, so a pleasure all round.

At the Betsey there are lots of old but pristine copies of Ambit on display. I note one thin issue in green featuring a front photograph of a woman in a bikini, either removing or putting on the lower half of it. Whichever it is, she is smiling. She' be about sixty-five by now.

I recognize it. Inside, there is my poem, 1974, a poem I had forgotten called 'The Tightrope Walkers', never collected. My second published poem. The first was in the TLS in 1973, the third in Encounter in 1975, the fourth in The Listener in 1976, roughly a year between each publication with nothing in between. It was puzzling. What was I doing right in batch 1 that I was doing wrong in batch 2,3, and 4?

I can't quite imagine the racy cover being quite the same today though I'm still trying to place her between cheesecake and pop art and something else. The past is another country. They do things differently there.

I read poems for about 15 minutes - a long way to go for that - going on first, thenlisten to some good poems by others (too tired to enumerate now) then, in the interval Kate Kilalea and Jack Underwood turn up - too late for me. I chat a little with Kate then dash to the station.

Gone midnight. UEA again tomorrow. Madly reading on the train and trying to keep eyes open.

Monday, 14 June 2010


Speaking as a foreigner as I sometimes do - as a kind of bemused observer if you like - I am tempted to say English sport deserves nothing because the people who claim to take an interest in it deserve nothing.

The case of Fabio Capello is a perfect illustration. The man took the team through a most successful qualifying campaign with a lot of goals and some nice football along the way. Now England have drawn rather than won a game, chiefly because of one irrational goalkeeping mistake, he is being set up as a fool. I don't mean just by the usual tabloid suspects, but by 'fans'.

But such fans are not only idiots of the first water, they are cringingly undeserving. Fortitude? No. Resilience? No. Patience? No. Consistency? No. Actual support? No. They claim to admire such qualities but show none of them.

Odd perhaps to use a term like moral fibre - it sounds so terribly old fashioned! - but I want to use it if only because I don't imagine you can do much without it. Is there any moral fibre in evidence? No.

Has anyone actually won anything lacking fortitude, resilience, patience, consistency and support?


The hacks and the 'fans' deserve each other. Nor are the 'fans' merely the mob - they include those generally credited with more intelligence.

My four liner of several years ago applies here:

Welcome to England, the land of the pound,
Where judges are wigged and monarchs are crowned,
Where whether you're Jack Flash or Roger the Dodger
The war cry is bound to be Wanker!! or Gotcha!!

There are long historical reasons for this, but knowing that doesn't help. You can see the results - a team that is scared to make mistakes, that therefore makes mistakes, that can take neither penalties nor responsibility because every individual member of it is fully aware that a perverse demon in the nation actually prefers to see him carry cans rather than trophies.

That demon works on people's gut instinct that other people's inadequacies excuse theirs.

Still, I expect they will get what they fully deserve which is pity and contempt. Should England get anywhere near that final, the best thing Capello could do is to resign and blow a raspberry.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Sunday Night is...Aretha Franklin

Don't Play That Song For Me

A Photograph in Old Age

So light entered the camera if only for
a fraction of a second which was enough
time for a draught to slip through the door

or a feather to rise in the faint puff
of wind, or the pupils of her eyes to dilate
and the conceiving of one off-the-cuff

remark about time. Even so she could wait
for time to pass, whole years of it, and slow
the moment down to no particular date,

she, being ninety, and smiling, in a flow
of moments, far too many to note or count,
like watching a feather, or hearing the wind blow

without any desire to keep track of the amount.

A design adjustment

For those who find reversing out a little hard to read. The trouble is, when I do this the links at the side are dark against dark, so now they become hard to read. I'll leave this for a day then return to it. Any comments welcome.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Watching England

A very full day in Cambridge - now in Hitchin. Of course we put ourselves through the agony of watching England play. It is not agony because they are awful - it is agony because they are peculiarly accident prone. The team is not great, though it could get better, and given one or two breaks might look as though it were doing more than blustering, but you know something is always likely to go wrong, often something ludicrous. And so it did. A crippling, slow-motion, joke of a goal. Such things happen to the best of keepers, such as David Seaman, though there must be a reasonable suspicion that Robert Green may not be the best of keepers.

He offers no security. Teams need security, and the goalkeeper is there to provide it. I doubt whether there has ever been a successful team without an imposing, infallible-looking goalie. So while he may not make another mistake in the competition his defence will be so worried in case he does that one of them will make the mistake instead.

That's enough technical chat. Tomorrow I discuss the midfield problem in equally illuminating detail.


This is a very full day so not much time to post. The sun is out though thin streams of white cloud come thickening up at times. The wind is tossing the branches without any particular vigour, just enough to remind them it's there and could administer a more earnest buffeting. From upstairs the sound of the radio. Lily, more statuesque now, sits on the windowsill surveying the street. Pearl is skulking and hulking, ever ready for another bite. Son Tom is in Canada doing two gigs, one in Toronto, one in Montreal. Daughter Helen plays Scrabble with me on the computer at night when the baby keeps her awake. The desk is as clear as it has been for a while. I write a few lines for mother-in-law W's ninetieth birthday. The lines come out well.

Winnie, Clarissa's mother

Affection is not a subject much covered in contemporary poetry, nor is love. We watch our backs now, see our nerves jangle and hope to say the right things to the ironic elements. I note the irony and give it its due but I'm not going to be cowed by it.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Books, etc.

A busy week coming up. Tomorrow to Cambridge to run a workshop for the Poetry School at Michaelhouse, then to meet my friend, Italian poet and translator, Gabriele, who has translated a whole book of my poems into Italian and we are now discussing details of publication.

Overnight in Hitchin for C's mother's 90th birthday. Monday in University, Tuesday, an Ambit reading at the Betsey Trotwood in the evening. Wednesday I teach. Thursday I deliver a talk at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts about two refugee Hungarian writers, Sándor Márai and Gyözö Határ for Refugee Week, On Saturday I am at the LRB Bookshop to discuss the following books with Michael Hofmann, Stephen Vizinczey and Thomas Zmeskal:

Gyula Krúdy: Life is a Dream
György Faludy: My Happy Days in Hell
Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters
Josef Skvorecky: The Cowards

The New Writings World days begin on Sunday, when we are expecting dear friend Sharmistha from India, and on Tuesday 22nd I introduce Shanta Acharya and chair discussion for her book launch at the Nehru Centre.

Meanwhile reading and writing and university work.

Sometimes life doesn't seem quite possible.

Trying a new template

Almost exactly as it is through the window as I type this.

What do you think? Can you read it clearly? Is the rain motif too gloomy?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Simon Armitage at UEA: poetry as prose

A near capacity hall for Simon Armitage reading from Seeing Stars last night. The book is as good as anything he has done, more adventurous, sharper, darker, bleaker and a lot funnier. It has been enthusiastically reviewed in The Observer, The Guardian and other places. Some refer to the poems in it as prose poems, but he wants to keep the term at bay. Too many associations perhaps. But he talks about James Tate and about Charles Simic. What joins him to them is partly prose, but partly the urge to tell a story that is funny in some parts and grotesque or unsettling on the other.

In fact the poems often start in a humorous key, inevitably naming one or other well known public figure as a fantasy character, drawing on some aspects of the real figure's real life but setting them in an unlikely situation, then suddenly twisting into a different mode and register. It is a little like hearing Eddie Izzard setting off into the arctic wastes accompanied by Alan Ayckbourn in a dark mood, but the result is oddly human and properly poetic.

It would be much harder to do this in verse and it is interesting to think why.

The poems on the page are justified left, not right, so sometimes there is an illusion (another illusion) of lines of verse, but the line break could come anywhere, and has come in different places in different publications. It is not so much prose poetry then, more poetry as prose.

Poetry as prose is counter-intuitive. We expect prose to inform us, to proceed down its syntactic route with just the odd glance to left and right. It is there to answer the question: what next? That is what syntax means. And what comes next has, by definition, to be consecutive. Reading prose is, intuitively, a reasoning, logical process springing out of a logical system.

Reading poetry is less a logical affair. You are looking left and right and every which way all the time. You don't necessarily expect a rational tour. Language simply behaves differently, distrusting itself, absorbing everything. As I have written before, no one reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. We know intuitively that the point of the journey is not to get to the far shore but to experience the sensation of travelling while being: it is travel as dance. It's not difficult really: there is nothing easier in fact, but reading left to right while accompanied by the police force of syntax and the gendarmerie of literalism, means we keep trying to explain the poem as though it were a journey from A to B. As evidence. Bad mistake.

And that is precisely the role of prose as poetry. It offers not only counter-intuition but counterpoint. If offers one expectation to deliver another. The sense of disorientation is humorous at first, but disorientating and potentially terrifying. Logic seems to be driving us on: but if that is where logic leads us (in one Armitage poem it leads us to the discovery that all our assumed nearest and dearest are in fact the agents of the state, without a shred of affection for us, but simply doing their jobs) - then logic too is absurd.

Absurd yet worrying, because nothing need be as it seems. The logic is not logic as we know it: its inevitability comes to us like night falling.

Having said that the poems make comic entrances that remain with us and Armitage reads them mostly as comedy, with comic timing, downbeat, lethal - in fact prosaic. The comedy appears to comfort, but you'd better laugh before the ribs break.

It only hurts when I laugh, went the joke. I met with one such last week who had met with an accident. She smiled but stopped herself laughing. Seeing Stars is full of accidents like that. His best book for a long time. Maybe the best, full stop.

A ruder pest

I am writing a letter to a friend, a fellow poet, to whom I want to send a few poems, and I feel vaguely apologetic about taking up his time, despite his invitation, because I know that it nevertheless imposes an obligation of some sort, and I inevitably think of this wonderful set-piece from Lerner and Lowe.

After countless lessons in elocution, Professor Higgins, the great linguist, has just passed off cockney Eliza Doolittle as a princess at a society ball. Now they are home and celebrating their great triumph. To them Eliza is just a guinea pig on which they have conducted a brilliant experiment.

Cruel and funny at the same time - the way they do it here - is difficult, because it is hard to laugh at a third subject while contemplating the sadness of the second subject being ignored by the first subject and all around him. It is perhaps a warning about self-admiring verse, or self-admiring wit, or indeed self-admiring anything.

But, of course, I thought of it because it is a brilliant sketch of the received image of a Hungarian, the pushy man who enters revolving doors behind you but comes out in front of you. Simply not cricket.

Thank Heavens for Zoltan Karparthy
If it weren't for him I would have died of boredom
He was there, all right
And up to his old tricks

Mrs. Pearce
That dreadful Hungarian
Was he there?

That blackguard who uses the science of speech
More to blackmail and swindle than teach
He made it the devilish business of his
"To find out who this Miss Doolittle is"
Ev'ry time we looked around
There he was, that hairy hound
From Budapest
Never leaving us alone
Never have I ever known
A ruder pest
Fin'lly I decided it was foolish
Not to let him have his chance with her
So I stepped aside and let him dance with her
Oozing charm from ev'ry pore
He oiled his way around the floor
Ev'ry trick that he could play
He used to strip her mask away
And when at last the dance was done
He glowed as if he knew he'd won
And with a voice to eager
And a smile too broad
He announced to the hostess
That she was a fraud

Mrs. Pearce

Ja wohl
Her English is too good, he said
Which clearly indicates that she is foreign
Whereas others are instructed in their native language
English people aren't
And although she may have studied with an expert
Di'lectician and grammarian
I can tell that she was born Hungarian
Not only Hungarian, but of royal blood
She is a princess...

Oozing charm from ev'ry pore / He oiled his way around the floor is wonderful, practically Sporus, aka Lord Hervey from Alexander Pope's 'Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot' (...Or at the ear of Eve, venomous toad, / Half-froth, half-venom, spits himself abroad)...

Darn - I can't resist the ballroom scene that precedes it. There would be so much to say about this - but another time. Here it is:

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Eve Garrard post at Norm's

Two wrongs don't make a right of course, nor is that the argument. Nor is it the argument that Israel does right, or is in the right, or is an ideal to aspire to. But if you prefer to construe it as a full blown apologia, no doubt you will. And if you do, this is the way it goes. Here's how Eve Garrard goes about it.

Fintan O'Toole thinks that Israel regards itself as 'exempt from the demands of common humanity' (via Z Word Blog). Iain Banks thinks that 'simple human decency' means nothing to Israel (see this normblog post).

Two well-known writers, very anxious to tell the world that Israel lacks humanity. Israel's not like the rest of us, the rest of the human family. Compared to other nations, it's inhuman. It doesn't recognize what everyone else knows about, the simple requirements of being decently human. It ought to recognize these things, it isn't hard to do so, since they're so simple; and most other people do, since they're part of common humanity.

Leave aside the sinister provenance of that claim, and let's just consider it on its own.

Turkey has killed between 30,000 and 40,000 Kurds in the last 30 years; it occupies North Cyprus; it blockades Armenia and denies its own historical genocide. But Israel lacks simple human decency.

Sri Lanka, at the same time that Israel was fighting in Gaza (around 1300 dead) killed about 25,000 of its own civilians in the course of repressing an insurgency. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.

Sudan has killed something in the order of 200,000 people in Darfur, with countless rapes and tortures alongside. But Israel lacks simple human decency.

Iran rapes and tortures and murders its own dissidents who ask for democracy; it hangs young gays, it oppresses women. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.

Yemen is blockading South Yemen, it lets no food, medicine or water through; unlike Israel, which lets around 15,000 tons of supplies into Gaza every week. But Israel lacks simple human decency.

Egypt is considering a law to strip their citizenship from any Egyptian who marries an Israeli; it persecutes Copts; it blockades Gaza. But Israel thinks it's exempt from the demands of common humanity.

Russia kills 25,000 to 50,000 Chechens, and almost completely razes the capital city of Grozny; its soldiers inflict hideous tortures on their prisoners before killing them; investigative journalists are murdered. But Israel lacks simple human decency.

And she goes working through China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo, and of course none of those places lack simple human decency or are exempt from the demands of common humanity. Nor indeed is the UK or the USA with its troops here and there. All these places, including we ourselves, make mistakes, sometimes grievous mistakes, but none of these places - none of us - lack simple human decency or are exempt from the demands of common humanity.

She ends:

...every point I've made in this post has been made before, by many others, many many times: forcefully, cogently, analytically; both passionately and dispassionately; with humour and with despair. It hasn't made the slightest difference to the likes of Banks and O'Toole. Nor to the many others shouting or whispering at us, in the teeth of the evidence, that Gaza is the new Warsaw Ghetto, and that Israel is really Nazi Germany come again - and so it's fine to hate Israel, it's to your credit to hate it, it shows the world that you have simple human decency.

Why is this? And where will it lead?

You tell the only Jewish nation in the world that it is the only one that lacks simple decency and is exempt from the demands of common humanity and demand it be the only nation subject to a cultural boycott, and well, I think I do know where it's leading. It's already some way down the road I recognise by instinct.

But we needn't worry about that. It's hard to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. It's what people like us are concentrating on. We are good people. We want to do good. We are all good people.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

From my reading... the question of style (and nipples)

A little reading sometimes goes a long way. As witness:

...In my student days Eva had been a famous actress in Vienna. Although I was only an unknown student she remained faithful to me for years...If, after the show was over, she noticed me standing on the other side of the Josefstädter Strasse under the gas-lamp, she would leave a world-famous director without saying goodbye and run across the road between automobiles and streetcars to join me. At such time Max Reinhardt gazed after her with a melancholy expression...

...My poverty, which prevented me from taking a woman to a café or seeing her home in a taxi, made new conquests impossible, or rather, it deprived me of the opportunity to create a situation in which a woman could seduce me...

...Throwing a last glance at the mirror reflecting her bare shoulders, shining like sixty-watt, frosted-glass electric bulbs, she caught sight of me standing behind her, green with hunger...

...I hesitated a moment and resolved to be as tactful as possible. 'I find your words too hasty...However estimable such outbursts of fury may be, I believe that they are merely emotional and of a temporary validity...'

...At every beat of my heart I felt the alcohol mount to the frontal lobes of my brain...

...We were talking about the colour of the female nipple. Dear Marfa told me that she had to ask only middle-aged men endowed with extraordinary intellectual capacities what colour of nipple they preferred... Dear Marfa emphasised however that the problem of nipples was merely secondary, even the most sensual of men regard the physical-spiritual qualities of a woman as more important than the colour and size of her nipples. Yet the nipple of a woman is like the buffer of a train; when you run after a train it is the buffer you see...

...I gazed at him, or rather I pushed my glance into his eyes like an electric plug into a wall-socket....

The author? All will be revealed in due course (no, it's not me.)

Monday, 7 June 2010

Season of Decline

This, apparently, was the year of the decline.

But then it has been decline all the way since... and it's not so bad declining, having got rid of two of the big international stars, to have lost the unprecedented fourth successive premier league title by one point, and the Champion's League quarter final through an injury and one goal. Ferguson - wisely in my view - has generally invested in young players, half of whom will probably not be a success at all and a quarter of whom may be minor successes. If he gets just one outstanding player from among them he will have done very well. He now has a very good youth team of which a fair number are English.

It's true the team has rarely played in the overwhelming fashion representative of the best Ferguson teams, at least not so often this season. I accept it is a transitional time with the older players - Neville, Scholes, Giggs - approaching the very end of their careers, but Rooney, Nani, the Da Silva brothers, Anderson and Valencia are all young and exciting - and the reserves and youth team also have promising players. Ferguson could buy really big - and he might yet do that (if the money is there) - but it's more satisfying building from the base up.

And if they don't win the league next year?

And if there is some decline?

When I first started following United the plane had just crashed, and apart from a few years at the end of the sixties, they were neither a brilliant nor particularly successful team. What has happened in the last eighteen years has been well beyond my wildest dreams. And even so, I wouldn't say the team, even in its most successful years, was imperious all the time. I rather think they played the best English football, meaning the best football the English game permits while at the same time yielding success. Because Arsenal have probably played more beautifully at times, but never quite imperiously - except perhaps in one season - in a sort of French style (think Platini, Tigana, etc) which is, granted, marvellous at best. Perhaps if Wenger had been a little less priggish his teams would have played with greater fortitude. Perhaps they still might.

If there is some decline - though I don't expect there to be - I will still go to my grave happy at having seen as much good as I have. This season has been the Rooney season. Maybe next season will be the Nani or Anderson (or even Hargreaves or Michael Owen) season.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sunday Night is... Autumn Leaves

Music for an overcast June day, for working at the desk with, but God, it's so gorgeous it stops you!

Here's the YouTube accompanying note:

Somethin' Else is a 1958 album by jazz musician Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, regarded as a landmark album in the hard bop and cool styles. This critically-acclaimed album is notable for the presence and prominent contributions of Miles Davis, in one of his few recording dates for Blue Note Records. Many critics and jazz fans consider Somethin' Else to be among the greatest jazz albums of all time.

When alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley culled together this quartet, he grabbed three champions from seemingly disparate schools to complement his flinty solos: Miles Davis, the king of cool; Art Blakey, the thundering force of hard bop; Hank Jones, a veteran of swing; and Sam Jones, a versatile bassist adaptable to nearly any setting. The results are one of Blue Note's most beloved albums. The open-ended beauty of "Autumn Leaves," which features Davis beautifully stating the melody on muted trumpet, sounds like it could easily be an outtake from Kind of Blue (which it isn't). The midtempo title track provides the centerpiece of this classic as Adderley echoes Miles's swaggering melody before both unravel wonderful solos.

Cannonball Adderley...Sax, Miles Davis...Trumpet, Sam Jones...Double Bass, Hank Jones...Piano...Art Blakey...Drums. From the 1958 album Somethin' Else.

There are such beautiful things.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Which may perhaps be expected

If The Guardian story is true then it really was a massacre. Reporter Robert Booth writes:

Nine Turkish men on board the Mavi Marmara were shot a total of 30 times and five were killed by gunshot wounds to the head, according to the vice-chairman of the Turkish council of forensic medicine, which carried out the autopsies for the Turkish ministry of justice today.

The results revealed that a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back. A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has US citizenship, was shot five times from less that 45cm, in the face, in the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back. Two other men were shot four times, and five of the victims were shot either in the back of the head or in the back, said Yalcin Buyuk, vice-chairman of the council of forensic medicine

and goes on...

The findings emerged as more survivors gave their accounts of the raids. Ismail Patel, the chairman of Leicester-based pro-Palestinian group Friends of al-Aqsa, who returned to Britain today, told how he witnessed some of the fatal shootings and claimed that Israel had operated a "shoot to kill policy".

He calculated that during the bloodiest part of the assault, Israeli commandos shot one person every minute. One man was fatally shot in the back of the head just two feet in front him and another was shot once between the eyes. He added that as well as the fatally wounded, 48 others were suffering from gunshot wounds and six activists remained missing, suggesting the death toll may increase
So says, the chairman of Friends of al-Aqsa - which may perhaps be expected.

If it is true, all claims of self-defence, all the videos before and during the raid, count for nothing. If it is true that the autopsies - that only Robert Booth has seen - do say this, then there's no point in denying it was a massacre, equivalent to My Lai - in which case the equivalent of Lt Calley should be brought before a court and tried. (Though no one boycotted the USA as a result of it.)

On the other hand no one else carries this story - I repeat no one else - not even the BBC which has never been friendly to Israel. Why doesn't the BBC carry it? Why doesn't any other paper or news organisation? Is Robert Booth any relation to Lauren Booth?

Whether he is or not, if the story is true, that hardly matters. It is an enormous scoop if true. Dammit - it should be the biggest front page headline throughout the world!

But nobody else is running with it.

Could it be that the all-powerful Zionist Lobby that controls the world, the BBC, and the comments on the Guardian's CiF, as well as everything else, has sent out its greasy, hook-nosed Goldfinger brigade to threaten everyone with annihilation?

Or could it be that the story is wrong? Though even if it is wrong, there will only be more of those who would prefer it to be right. It will have succeeding in exacerbating tensions, raising the temperature, and providing extra heat to hotheads who least need it.

Again, I don't know whether it is true or not. How could I possibly know? I would, of course, prefer it not to be. Because, if true, it would radically change my understanding of the I/P situation. Nevertheless, the fact is that I don't know. All I know is that it is The Guardian that leads on it.

Which may perhaps be expected.

In the meantime, another ship approaches...


Another ship...

Just to bear out what I say above regarding the BBC - this is how the headline has it on the situation at 11:45.

Israeli soldiers 'board aid ship'
Israeli soldiers say they have "peacefully" boarded a ship trying to take aid to Gaza, days after a deadly clash with another boat.

See those scare quotes there?


While we're on the subject, here is Michael Totten.


Ship boarded. Scare quotes gone. 12:45.

Friday, 4 June 2010

It is not as if...

...I hadn't been reading the news about the flotilla / blockade and the murders in Cumbria. Regarding the first I want to wait to see what emerges. The accounts are wildly different and I have seen the various video and YouTube clips and read the various testimonies, and enough opinions to keep me opinionated for the rest of my life.

Nevertheless there are nine dead people and nothing cancels that. How they came to be dead and what might have been done to prevent them dying, along with all the larger questions queueing up behind that question, is something I frankly don't know the answer to, not now, and will probably not know even once more is generally known. Because nothing is ever fully known. Except I know what I would prefer to believe while knowing full well that preference isn't knowledge.


As regards the second set of deaths, where there are in fact more dead - none of us ever move in a world where there is no death, where there is no danger, where there is, conversely, no happiness or delight in life. The rights we accord ourselves mean nothing. We know that full well each time we grieve, each time the world tilts a little on its axis. This does not make the grief one whit less, the shock more palatable, the pain easier to bear. It doesn't, yet still we know that the right to life would be a nice thing if we or anyone had that right or ability to bestow it.

In the meanwhile it's good to look after each other a little while we may. Love is the other face of the fear of loss, a perfectly justified fear. So love too - should it ever need justifying - is justified. It's perhaps the best we can do, except perhaps avoid all clichés about love at this, or any time.


In the meanwhile this:

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis MacNeice

Marvellous poem, though this is interesting:

I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me...

...O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my

So the former is capable of the latter, and the humanity that can be frozen is the one with tall walls. Hence the predicament.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Awayday: the bear, the kings, the monuments

In London from early on - first to do an interview with Stephen Moss of The Guardian on 'what's the use of poetry?' I imagine it might be short - say, 20 minutes or so - but we chat for an hour and a half around a drink. I talk my head off, as I sometimes do on topics like this, using the example at one point (it doesn't matter for now apropos what) of the potential human reaction if a grizzly bear suddenly entered the room. It is not an image I have ever used before, nor have I ever seen a grizzly bear except in a zoo, but the image recurs a couple of times before we leave. As we go out through a different door from the one we came in I glance behind and there is an enormous bronze bear sculpture by the door. I hadn't seen the sculpture on my way in, nor did I expect to see a life-sized bronze sculpture of anything, let alone a grizzly bear. For a brief heady second I feel that I have done what shamanic poets are capable of, that is to say I have spoken a bear into existence. I joke to Stephen about the prophetic power of poetry: he smiles and I smile, because it is intended as a joke - but just for a moment I had myself going there. You've finally cracked it, Szirtes. Now just keep doing it.


Then I rush off to the British Museum where C is waiting with friend Petra and Mary from the Chinese Department. Mary gives us brief informed tour of the Chinese prints before we go to the Kingdom of Ife exhibition, Petra knows the country (part of Nigeria) - she even know one of the archaeologists pictured on the wall. The exhibition is mostly heads, of brass or copper or terracotta. Many of them are in what I think of as Early Classical naturalist manner, the equivalent of Apollos and Venuses, maybe just a touch later in that they are clearly individuals with all proportions correct, but the handling formalises and abstracts towards ideal. They are beautiful, noble, more or less ritualistic, but serenely human too. I want to write more about this and will soon.


But it's not a large exhibition, and I have another exhibition to see at the Serpentine Gallery. It is Phyllida Barlow's work on show and Phyllida is one of the three visual artists I am collaborating with (the snake poem on the front of the website is via work by Helen Rousseau on the same project). Phyllida's half of the exhibition consists mostly of large, highly tactile, sculptural objects that look almost recognisable, but hold us at a kind of abstract distance (one is not supposed to touch). There is a clear paradox in the rough textural quality of the large forms and the refusal to become knowable. Even the titles partake of this. The titles are all untitled: (something), whatever that something is, eg, a wall blob. I walk around deeply attentive, make notes, go away, buy a cold drink and scribble a few lines. Then back to near Russell Square to meet Petra and C,

thence home...


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A note on 'Things New Born': things, statues, gambles...

Not so much a note on, as I am not sure what a poet can add to his or her poem that is worth adding, more a note on the thoughts swirling around and behind the event it celebrates.

The poem seems to concentrate quite heavily on 'things'. Why?

Isn't it an odd experience for the consciousness to perceive itself as one of the all but infinite number of objects in the world, an experience dramatically foregrounded on the arrival of a new being in whom consciousness is pre-social and all but invisible, so all that holds the beholder's consciousness is the sheer beauty, pathos, vulnerability, uniqueness and complexity of the object; an object that is the product of nature, desire, delight, work and pain; and, in the family context, specifically and inextricably tied to the consciousnesses that surround it. No wonder it makes us a little dizzy, however rational or practical we are.

This birth, as the poem suggests, came in a year of deaths. Originally, I had the actual names of the dead in the third sonnet, then thought the names might mean little to others, so replaced names with the nature of the relationship in each case. If the specific life of the writer becomes an active element of a work there arises the danger of the work being read as symptom rather than as art. I, personally (and not everyone will agree with me), like to draw that distinction rather clearly.

Why is Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale the framing reference? The parallels seemed obvious. They are there in the first two lines of the first sonnet, the lines that kept swimming round my head, that I was quoting to friends at Peter Porter's funeral, which was the day of the birth too. It was very strange to be both saddened and elated at the same time. The thought flittered on from there. Maybe the statue moving is an emblem of the feeling that there is life in the dead yet - that the birth of the child brings the dead alive in some way. The statue moving and coming to life, because it was never really a statue, only despised, forgotten and thought dead, is one of the great moments in Shakespeare. Its power exceeds our ability fully to explain it. Like a child we only know that something good has happened out of something bad.

Not that the poem - any poem - is a proposition like that. Poems are attempts to discover what language proposes in terms of cry, song and speech. We say what seems the truest thing at the time, then assume that seeming truth to be the case. That assumption is not primarily intellectual: it is instinctive and emotional. Feeling, instinct and thought meet language. The poem is the resultant trajectory.

A poem is taking a chance on language. It is the shaped, articulated gamble that all people take without the shaping and articulation. They start on a sentence, then having finished it, start on another one. The shaping and articulation is the poetic craft - the craft that recognizes the material it works with and tries desperately hard to understand it - but the art lies in the gamble. If we cannot feel the gamble in the work the art is failing somewhere.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Marlie and Helen

Helen & Marlie at 3 weeks

Things New Born
For Helen, Rich and Marlie

1. …I am past moe children, but thy sons and daughters will be all gentlemen born…

Thou mettest with things dying, said the shepherd,
but I with things new born, and the new born
are strange, not quite of the world, and yet
precise, just so, and of it, though we forget
the shapes of things, the violent way they’re torn
from us, as if we were no more than a cupboard
in a corner, forgotten most of the time,
then suddenly burgled by the realm of things,
the thing we are emerging into air
and light, the seeming freedom of just being there;
then loss of freedom, the dense tangle of strings
that binds us, the twigs painted with birdlime
that prevent us singing but which we must sing
like any voice that rises from anything.

2. …that rare Italian master, Julio Romano…

The statue moves the way that statues move
in human voices, whether in speech or song,
the air empty then suddenly full of us,
the cry that escapes us, the brief preface
of a book we can’t read, however short or long,
because it’s still unwritten, at one remove
from anything we know. We are the thing
that’s written: the ghost-writer, the ghost
that now and then appears at the very back
of the eye, writing its history of lack
and hope, of which it is fated to make the most,
scraping the birdlime, cutting through the string.
Then suddenly the statue’s closed eye opens:
the baby’s world becomes whatever happens.

3. Where's Bohemia? Speak…

Not a good year for dying: the catalogue
is much too long: young friend, old friend, father,
mentor, acquaintance... You offer too much choice,
too all-at-once, death. What does it mean to voice
such loss? Like spitting against the weather,
just names enough to feed a passing fog
receding over the sea at Winterton;
an ancient winter’s tale that ends in spring
and moving statues, reconciliation
between lost and found, and the best consolation
of the spirit becoming once again a thing
with body and voice, a distinct someone.
My prettiest Perdita, but O the thorns
We stand upon:
Girls! Hippogriffs! Unicorns!

4. …the king’s daughter is found

Of course she’s found! Everything is found,
because we keep finding things, and ourselves,
in the look of things. The collector, who delves
through boxes of junk, keeps his eye to the ground
and the look of the thing rises like some peculiar
whale, as yet unclassified by zoologists.
World is ocean: there are things beyond official lists
at the bottom, sightless things such as we are,
not yet ready to see, like a baby’s eye
moving to light as rhythm, pain, intrusion,
revelation. We are found in our confusion.
We are the revelation, the expected reply
of the deep lost bed, in the least likely quarter
of the universe: the king and queen’s lost daughter.