Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Night Waves tonight

Trunkless, but not legless!

Brief blog as called to appear on Night Waves tonight at 10pm to talk about the idea of poems as puzzles, with John Fuller. Short last minute notice. Have not read the book just the Guardian piece. They say that's fine. So why me?

We shall find out.

Monday, 30 May 2011


Atsuko Seta plays Beethoven für Elise


It was those long melodic lines that held them together,
chords wound about the limbs of the expected.
When they were falling apart it was what protected
their fragile heads from turning into lather.

They wanted passions they recognized in their sleep
because their sleep had never been unbroken.
There were too many mornings they had woken
to ice, fire, exhaustion, filth; to the cheap

music others referred to, that they themselves held dear,
their clichés priceless and dark as their own lives:
Songs without Words, Für Elise, the long knives
of aspiration sharpening in the ear.

A draft, a note to self, remembering my parents and my own hours at the piano practising this.

Sunday night would have been... The Who, My Generation

The Who at the Marquee Club, 1967

My generation too of course. 'Hope I die before I get old' they sang, and two of them did. Mostly that's a pantomime though, and I was never quite a Who boy. Maybe I came from stock that never had a firm expectation of living very long.

A bad night, getting up and watching some TV then returning to bed. I eventually wake to Start the Week and Catherine Mayer talking about her book Amortality, the baby boom generation's desire to live like kids for ever and then pass away on the midnight with no pain, leaving a beautiful corpse.

Not sure that Budapest 1948 was exactly Baby Boom City, but I did grow up here, not there. One of the other speakers, Salil Shetty of Amnesty International, pipes in with the perfectly valid point that there are many parts of the world where amortality isn't a privileged choice, because mortality itself is so pressing. It is valid, yes, and at the same time I think how difficult it is for human beings to relate to what is not around them. People measure themselves by what they know at their fingers' ends. It is hard to say to someone uncomfortable in their London bed that there are people sleeping in desperate circumstances in, say, a jail in Syria. The house of the imagination has only so much room. Unhappiness is a relative condition that feels absolute to those in distress.

But best not take amortality at face value. It is comical and ridiculous and oddly smug, like smashing a guitar in the Marquee in 1967. You cannot live by gestures alone, but gestures are there to be made.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

From Poetry School to Football School

Earlyish train to Cambridge to take a class for The Poetry School. Eight people and one of the best classes yet with a majority of interesting original poems, so a real pleasure. People come from quite a long way - one all the way from Lewes. It's five hours teaching with an hour break, but we decide to restrict lunch to about forty minutes as there is a great deal to say.

In the market square a boy on a monocycle is juggling knives. The woman on the hot dog stand gives me 20p off because that is all the change I have. I have time to drop round to David's bookshop where I pick up two books of poetry for £1 each, one The Very Man, by Charles Boyle, the other by Alistair Elliott.


I read most of the Boyle on the train back - a good sign as I wouldn't do so if I didn't like it so much, but it's rather brilliant: thin, lost, dangerous poems, a lot of elegance. Somewhere in the vicinity Michael Hofmann is speaking in a low voice. Ian Hamilton stalks the area too. Is that Hugo Williams in the distance? Well yes, these other voices help orientate but it's just a part of town we're talking about, not a crowded flat. The poems are absolutely delicious. There is something annoying about them in their svelteness, but I even like whatever is annoying me. Lovely things.

A tall rough looking woman sits down opposite me on the train as I read. She asks if she might read my newspaper and I say, of course. A working class woman with a bit of education. Friendly. Her face is comical, hard, a touch masculine, her voice deep, faintly London overspill. Not as deep or overspill as the woman in the seat opposite us across the aisle with her teenage daughter. They must be returning from somewhere abroad or overnight because they are both sleepy, and soon enough the daughter, whose voice is very quiet, curls up and falls asleep. Mother's voice is pure Eastenders. An attractive woman, possibly in her forties, she is on the phone a lot as it keeps ringing. She barks loudly back down it without malice but without much patience. She isn't really barking: it's her normal voice. I suspect she has a fist on her that she would not hesitate to use in a quarrel. Daughter remains asleep.

After the woman with my newspaper returns it to me and gets off at Thetford, I am on my own for one stop, still reading until, at Attleborough a fat man with a very bad limp levers himself into the seat facing me. He is wheezing and creaking. Everything is an effort. He wears a natty light suit,a slim boldly patterned tie and a black felt hat. He has a big white beard that froths about his face and billows from under the hat. He eventually manages to tuck his legs under the table. He immediately gets into conversation about the weather. He tells me he has been staying at an adults-only holiday camp where there was absolutely nothing to do. Half an hour allowed for breakfast, half an hour lunch, an hour dinner, he says. And by the time he got to the head of the food queue they were out of whatever he wanted. Attleborough is just one stop from my station and only about ten to fifteen minutes. As I prepare to leave he asks what I do. I say I write. What, books? he asks. Yes, books, I have time to reply as the train draws in.

As I am leaving the station one of our near neighbours, an elderly woman with a beautiful face, gracious manners - she was once a journalist - seems to be rushing onto the platform with someone younger. She says hello. You'll have to run, I say. The train is about to move off. Then I myself move off and walk down the hill and across the traffic lights. A car stops and a woman I don't recognise hurries towards me. I'm sorry, she says. I wasn't thinking. Would you like a lift? I tell her I only live about 400 yards away. I know she says. That's where we're going. The driver is the elegant elderly neighbour. They weren't going to catch a train: they were meeting someone off it - the young woman in the front seat. So I get in the car. A brief friendly conversation follows. It is the shortest lift I have ever had in my life. It is charming.


Then in the evening I see my team get the pasting of its life, by an out-of-this-world Barcelona, who are heaven to watch. Or rather they would be if it weren't my team they were beating. United are lucky to lose 1-3. Mind you, I think to myself, if you have Messi in your team, you can beat anyone on a half-decent day, and this day is more than decent. Messi drifts and spins and wriggles through the tiniest spaces with the ball never more than an inch from his feet. He has scored 53 goals in 55 matches so far this season. Park haunts him and harries him for the first ten minutes, but even 'old three-lungs' has had it by the middle of the second half. Everyone panics when Messi has it and forgets about anyone else. They are, of course, quite right to panic. Only they shouldn't. The rest of Barcelona fly this way and that. It's like being caught in a swarm. Rooney scores a great goal but it's out of nothing. Giggs lasts the match which is the best I can say for him. No one actually plays badly, they are just worn down and perhaps even a bit frightened. Now Messi has 54 in 56. Better than Maradona, I say.

It's no shame losing like this though. This Barcelona is by far the best team I remember seeing since the Real Madrid of the fifties and sixties. They are a lot faster, of course. Some say they are the best team ever. Not having been around for ever (though close!) I can't personally say, but even if they are the second-best ever, it's no shame. I don't think any other team would have beaten them. Maybe a wholly defence-minded team might have lost just 1-0, but there's no credit in that. So congratulations to them and thanks for the pleasure. Because that's what it became after a while. If you're going to be beaten get beaten by angels. Back to mortal business.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Károly Escher's Horse

Escher: Self-portrait, 1930

Some excerpts from the forthcoming catalogue essay for Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography, at the Royal Academy, opening 30 June. I can't find the photograph I describe on the web. Just imagine it for now.

There is a marvellous photograph by Escher (1890-1966), The Horse of the Apocalypse (1937), not a typical work – if there is such a thing as a typical Escher – in which a large farm horse is being paraded at an agricultural fair. A great pile of cloud rises to a peak behind the horse. Behind the horse there appears to be a plain, or possibly a wide, high-fenced field. The man leading the horse is actually working hard to keep up with it, running it seems, to prevent the horse running away with him. He is formally dressed, in a three-piece suit and a homburg. He looks at us from under the brim of his hat with shaded eyes. His dark moustache lends him a magisterial air but his free hand is extended towards us in a gesture hard to interpret. Maybe he doesn’t want to be photographed. Maybe he is warning us to keep out of the way. And so we should, because the dark horse is extraordinarily powerful and its white noseband simply ephasises its power and darkness. It is clearly moving fast. Its mane is flowing and its right front paw is a blur, throwing up what seems to be a cloud of black smoke.

On one level it is an image of primordial energy only just under control, though we cannot be sure of the extent of that control. The horse is ageless, the man behind him is firmly fixed in time. The pile of cloud suggest approaching thunder, though it is chiefly the horse that is thundering for now. In less than two years an apocalyptic war will, we know, break out, though Escher cannot be presumed to know that. Everything about the picture though – proportion, focus, framing, and contrast, implies premonition, a dream image about to enter a crucial moment.


Most of the now famous photographers left Hungary after the [First World] war. They were not the only ones to go of course. John Lukács lists some forty well-known names in various fields: composers, musicians, mathematicians, philosophers, chemists, economists, psychoanalysts and many others. Five out of six Hungarian Nobel Prize winners were among them. All kinds of intellectuals emigrated, at least for a while, but the writers generally returned once it was safe to do so, however difficult life might be, because their business was with the Hungarian language.

The photographers did not return. Their language was international: they could take their Hungarian with them. There were those who needed to leave because of their political associations and others who left because the prospect of life outside an authoritarian proto-fascist state seemed more attractive. Given his revolutionary background, Escher somehow remained and survived.

Escher remained behind, unnoticed abroad, recording the entire field: Budapest, the poverty of the thirties, the paraphernalia and rituals of the Horthy regime, the soldiers of the equally disastrous Second World War, shooting portraits, scenes from theatre and funfairs, even exploring the gentle surrealism that Kertész so loved.

Anxiety, flight and isolation haunted them all. The love of realism and fine detail on the one hand, the flirting with surrealism and dream on the other: the bustle of the city versus the suspect idyll of the land; international high-style versus the residual Hungarian sensibility made them what they were. The alienated turning away into the observation of something that cannot be seen, the distant noise of a circus of sorts, and the thundering of the big apocalyptic horse are the ground bass of the music of what happened and went on happening.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The naked civil poet..

GS nudie pic, not safe for work

I don't think I have ever received any request quite like this and since it is not entirely personal correspondence I feel free to refer to my side of it.

It is an email from a poet / publisher who wants to raise funds and draw attention to diabetes. The way she wants to do this is by reversing the standard male poet-female muse tradition and to produce a calendar of twelve poems by female poets on the subject, along with twelve artistic nude photographs of twelve male poets, taken by female photographers. She asks if I would be one of the male poets because she considers me "a poet of quality and interest, willing to push boundaries and holding an air of beauty". This is all very flattering. My air of beauty is somewhat like the smog filled air of London c.1957. I hope to be of quality and interest. Not sure about these particular boundaries. She also offers me publicity.

My answer goes:
I don't think I know any male poets who have asked whoever they considered to be their muse - and I am not altogether sure I go for the muse idea, except as a personification of something I consider far more important, the sting of non-specific desire - to pose naked for a tasteful calendar photograph, so I am not sure what this reverses. It doesn't reverse anything real for me. Male poets have certainly kept photographs of their loves as have women, mostly of the portrait variety. The male gaze is a convenient theoretical position that I seem never to have mastered. I have been married for almost 41 years and will be sixty-three at the end of November. I have never thought I carried an air of beauty and considerably less so now, although I recognise that may be in the eye of the beholder. If I have any beauty it will be, as with everyone else, in the eyes. My own, I should say, are astygmatic. The last photograph I have of myself naked is one taken when I was a baby. I am not in my second babyhood yet.

I wonder if Dante kept a nude snap of Beatrice, or Keats of Fanny Brawne, and if they did so whether it would have been sold as a calendar (for a good cause, natch, tubercolosis for example). Not sure how that works at all. The male gaze, a kind of proprietorial lasciviousness as described, but which might contain other elements such as idealised physical desire and awe, is not quite the same thing as the cult of the Muse, and as I say above, that is a far from simple thing too. It is, as I feel it, the sting of non-specific desire as embodied in this or that specific woman. It blends desire with suffering and defeat, but it can also consume its specific objects.

I well remember, after some discussion of Robert Graves's The White Goddess, asking a class of almost exclusively female students who they might consider a male muse. My memory is that out of the sixteen eleven opted for Heathcliff. Jo Shapcott was up for a reading that week and when I told her this over lunch, her response was a withering: I'd sooner have Mr Blobby.

Regarding the male muse, Clare Pollard did a radio progamme on it, and Magma ran a feature. So there we are. But as for photograph, go to Mr Blobby. He is shameless and needs the publicity. Or, alternatively..


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A splendid Budapest poem from Clare Shaw

The photo may be District VIII, but there is plenty of such in District VII

I am very flattered to be associated with this poem (and to be the title!) by the excellent Clare Shaw. Knowing she was going to Budapest for the first time I asked if she wanted to write a post for the blog based on her impressions of the city, and, like a true poet, she wrote a poem instead. Clare's book, Straight Ahead, was published in 2006. Jackie Kay called it a 'blast of a book'. Clare herself is a blast. She is not just a poet but organises events in aid of asylum seekers like Lily Mosini. She acts with furious energy and kindness.

For George Szirtes

April 2011l: a five-night break in Budapest we booked mainly because it was cheap. We hadn’t been there before. I meant to read about Budapest before we arrived; I was busy and didn’t. We booked an apartment in ‘atmospheric’ District 7, just off Dohany Utca. ‘Close to a well-stocked supermarket and playground’. And then we arrived. And I began to read.

Thanks for the book
of your history.
I did not know where to begin.
Where did it start? – the bite marks
of bullets in recent concrete;
how balconies crumbled in chunks

to the street? The stairs to our flat
worn thin above a hallway black
with dust that had never been swept
away, which muttered and shifted
through restless nights and days
of unexpected sun

that made fire in glass; a beach
of the street – the sand too hot
till rain fell hard on Margit-sziget,
green through the tree’s green ceiling
where the blossoms lay thick
as dust.

How big is the city
when you don’t know the language
for please, how to read, or
what is the sound
for “O” – why are the flags
all torn, the Glasshouse

made of stone, is the Eternal Flame
occasionally put out?
It took days to make sense
of the dark. But never
the unmissable House of Terror, never
the shoes in their iron rows -

and whenever I slept, I dreamt
of an angel who fell from a window;
there were fountains that leapt like fire or laughter
around the shapes of my daughter, my sister;
and buses were floating
wheel-deep in the river

and rusted steel stairs
spiralled upwards forever,
and the dust in the hallway continued to mutter
and the sound of the darkness grew
louder and louder. Flames.
And the sound of marching.

Boots. And the sound of flames.

My Notes
Margit sziget (Margaret Island) is an island in the middle of the Danube, between Buda and Pest. It used to be known as Rabbit Island for reasons suggested by the name. District VII was the district I was born in and lived in as a child. Part of it was the Jewish ghetto during the war. The House of Terror, based at 60, Andrássy út in Pest, the old headquarters of the secret police in both the Nazi and Communist eras is now a museum and a constant bone of contention about which terror was worse and which should feature more prominently. Under current circumstances it is - no surprise - the Communist terror that gets the edge. Thank you, Clare.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Back Late and...

...exhausted after the Jo Shapcott reading at UEA, with myself doing the introductions and interview. I don't usually feel nervous or anxious before my own readings but I get a double dose of both nerves and anxiety before doing this kind of thing. Generally it goes well once it happens, nor do I feel anxious once we start, but the hours before are like a kind of boring lecture I seem to be giving myself. Why am I giving myself a boring lecture? Why am I being boring? Why am I giving a lecture? To myself? Then it all starts again though occasionally a light comes on and a voice patiently explains that I am not giving a lecture and that this is a conversation.

Which is more or less what happens on stage. So this went well.

Monday, 23 May 2011


Impossible to avoid the footballer and model story - my favourite footballer as it happens. It's a bit like the bishop and the actress in terms of punchline. But the territory itself is interesting, if only because of the long discussed distinction - if there is any - between matters of public interest and matters of interest to the public.

There are 100% libertarians who speak in favour of complete press freedom. Do they mean there should be no privacy at all? All positions are defensible if you defend them intelligently. It may be easy enough to talk of 'the rich and famous gagging the press', but my surmise is that it is only the rich and famous who would be of interest to the press. I can't quite see our local paper running with the story, Postman Geoffrey having it off with Postwoman Daisy!!!

It was also amusing the other day to hear Kelvin Mackenzie repeating how ridiculous it was that 'out-of-touch seventy-year old judges should decide what we read'. If Mr McKenzie (aged 65) is in touch it is, by his account, only for another five years. I will be seventy in eight years myself, though I am glad to see Kelvin is ahead of me in that race. How much more in touch must I be!

So the rich and famous, who are the only people likely to be of interest to the press and the public, are to have no privacy. Frankly, the thought doesn't bother me too much. I don't care deeply about the rich and famous , not, at any rate, by virtue of their wealth or fame. My favourite footballer remains my favourite footballer, but, in terms of wealth and fame, he should simply have given the press the story they wanted then kept silence as far as possible. I don't know whether he consulted his wife before taking out an injunction but he'd better have. In any case, the gain is all the model's, not his. Watch out for her new TV series, next year or the year after.

The thought doesn't bother me deeply but the sheer volume of nauseating piety (are you still there, Kelvin?) does. I'm with the French on this. I don't think this should be a matter of great public interest. People have affairs. They sort their affairs out or they don't. Grow up and get over it.

It reminds me of that time in Budapest back in Summer 1989, when Hungarians started producing porn and selling it in the street, crying: Genuine, Hungarian porn! It was clearly a matter of principle that the porn was home produced.

Patriotism and the popular press. Bedfellows, I'd say, but the pun is tedious.

I'll find a picture to go with this later. There is a nice t-shirt with the legend: 'undulating prurience'.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sunday Night Is... The Owl and the Pussycat via Stravinsky, and...

Conducted by Igor Stravinsky.
Adrienne Albert - soprano,
Robert Craft - piano.

One of Stravinsky's last compositions, possibly the last, as sung by Adrienne Albert. There is a lovely YouTube encounter when the singer discovers herself and writes back to the uploader of the track. Chronologically it should read from the bottom up, of course, but it's more fun to read down.

Oh wow! I'm learning this piece for my Master's recital and I LOVE it!! I've known the poem for ages but had no idea that it'd been set to music. Wonderful! And this recording is very very good. Perfect pitch or just hard work? Bravi! :) didyce23 2 weeks ago

@adriennealbert I've only just seen this comment ... apologies, I don't get notified by email! I can't believe I'm talking to you directly. Truly inspiring. This is probably one of my favorite pieces of music, ever, and I mean this performance, specifically, as I mentioned before. My wife and I actually performed this song as a part of our wedding. I think we did a nice job on it :-), but nothing touches this original magic for me. Thank you so much!ragorimoviecv 5 months ago

Wonderful to know about this recording, Adrienne. A great performance from singer (you!) and pianist Robert Craft of, as you say, Stravinsky's final composition. ~Janet rwindeler 6 months ago

Congratulations, Adrienne! Wackiavelli 6 months ago

Go, Adrienne! Wackiavelli 6 months ago

@sanstitle, yes, this was Stravinsky's last completed composition. adriennealbert 7 months ago

Was this Stravinsky's last composition? sanstitle 7 months ago

@AndTok2, Thank you so much for adding my name to the credits of this recording. Much appreciated! It was the "talk" of Facebook for a couple of days:-). adriennealbert 9 months ago
A happy story, and the world has not ended, so happier still.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Facebook Friend:


I remember early in my blogging days being asked by Poetry Ireland - I think that was the occasion - to talk about blogging. What kind of communication was it? Was it a diary? Was it a commentary? Was it essays? Was it a forum for discussion? Was it a column in an invisible newspaper? And if you decide which of these it is should you write in a style appropriate to the established form?

It can be all of these things, of course, and I am less concerned with trying to define blogs here then briefly to reflect on the nature of virtual friendship in Facebook. Blogstyles vary, and though I have glanced at a couple of sites with hints how to develop your blog I have ignored all the hints (keep it short, stick to one subject etc) and just carried on writing about whatever happened to interest me, primarily because I like writing and seeing where words will take me, and partly because I suspect people might read something merely because it is well written. So writing well and writing fast is an incentive - a rather good incentive for a writer. Then people get to know you and you seem to add up to a person, and they come along as persons, and you talk on the comment board,

Interestingly, over on Facebook, I seem to have something over two-thousand friends. That simply means I have said yes to a lot of people who asked to be friends. Some I have met, most I haven't. Some I am more likely to meet because they write books or magazines or poems, some because I do. Some are catching up after years of absence. Some want to talk occasionally, some just to make contact, some to 'network' in the hope of making things happen, some to inform likely others of events. Some because they like your face or because they like something you've said. (I do get asked to respond to poems and I sometimes do though it's hard.) I very rarely do any requesting myself, though occasionally I take up suggestions from those I have already befriended. I don't request because I am not sure what I would be requesting for.

There is a simple formal way to request a friendship on FB. People just pick a name they fancy befriending and press a button. The request arrives and you can confirm or refuse. Occasionally the requesters come with a message to introduce themselves, but most of the time they don't. If you are curious to know something about a potential friend, you might click on the name of the person to go to their profile page that carries some information. But a lot don't.

And this is the strange thing. I am fully aware of the fact that a Facebook Friend isn't like a friend in the sense one makes friends in offline life. I think of Facebook as a place where people demonstrate interest and friendliness with each other. It is not impossible such people may meet sometimes, or that warm relationships, like corresponding friendships might arise. Personally I like it as a place of brief meetings, a kind of park you pass through where you exchange one liners or share news or wave a banner or make an enigmatic remark. It's rather nice that way.

But it's the silent requests, those with minimal profiles that are the strange ones. A brief introduction is better than silence if you want friendship. The silence may be a matter of the medium itself not yet having settled down to its forms of address, to its table manners and dress-codes. Because such things always develop in societies.

All media develop languages and relationship of their own. McLuhan had this right, I think. That little blue and white rectangle with its name and request appears, you click on it and open on to a profile page and the space for short conversations. Short sharp touch and go. Facebook is primarily a light medium, more comedy than tragedy, more grins and shrugs than tears and silence.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Poetry in motion

The poet Gary Neville in contemplative mood.

So poetry will keep getting in. This time it's Gary Neville, on the midfield in his approaching testimonial match:
Midfield: Picking the midfield would have been slightly easier as it basically picks itself: David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs

"The four were poetry in motion with a bite you would not believe. That midfield combination had everything. It had legs, tenacity, passing, dribbling, energy and defensive capabilities."

So this is what you need in your Gaz poem: bite, legs, tenacity, passing, dribbling, energy and defensive capabilities.

For Gary then read a touch of Swift's saevo indignatio (he had bags of that), neat poetic feet, a poem longer than 40 lines, felicity of phrasing, a few virtuosic touches (alliteration, bravura rhyme), keeping an idea going, and basic metrical stability (the back four moving up together).

It works Red Nev. Out of the mouths of Busby Babes.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Serious and impossible


1. Kenneth Clarke used the word 'serious' about rape, with the implication that there is less serious rape. Naturally that was met with a storm of protest with calls for his resignation, surprisingly enough from The Sun (for whom, I suspect, Clarke is the wrong sort of Tory, so best get rid). We know - everyone knows - what Clarke meant because he explained it. He wanted to say that violent rape against any woman draws a much heavier sentence than does, say, illicit sex between a seventeen year old boy and a willing fifteen year old girl which is also termed rape because the girl is considered to be below the age of consent. If the two crimes were equal then presumably the seventeen year old boy should receive exactly the same sentence as the man who, with violence and threats, forced a woman to sex.

I am not sure if anyone is proposing this. If they are they can argue it, but I haven't heard it argued so I don't think so. The furore then is about Clarke's choice of word, which is deemed to represent a bad way of thinking about rape. Whether or not it does represent such a way of thinking is impossible to answer without having a reasonably long record of Clarke's pronouncements on the subject. It was, however, a stupid word to use, and I imagine he was needled to it by the suggestion that rape crime generally receives sentences of a year or so. Most rape crimes do not, he wanted to say, but then used the word 'serious', which was a serious mistake.

2. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who may or may not have committed rape, but is assumed to have done so, and been treated accordingly both physically and in that his career has been declared to have ended. It is one of those ironic things that Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, is also a Socialist, and might have been a serious (that word again) challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy. Two interesting strands of the arrest have been, first, the conspiracy theory that Strauss-Kahn has been somehow stitched up by Sarkozy's people and, secondly, the line of thought that the French have long been far too tolerant of the sexual lives of their public figures, and that this is where such things have to stop.

As with Clarke, I don't know the truth, I only note the events and the effects. There has not been a trial yet in the Strauss-Kahn case so there has been no verdict. But his life is over, as may Clarke's public career be. In other words, nothing needs to be certain: suspicions and accusations are enough. This is mined territory even to think about, the signs clearly say, and you enter at your risk. It doesn't help that Strauss-Kahn is very rich and the chambermaid, like any chambermaid, is poor. It doesn't help, especially in today's climate, that Strauss-Kahn is a banker, nor that he is head of the IMF. And most certainly he may be guilty of the crime of which he is accused. I was going to say, 'He probably is' but then I stopped. On what grounds am I suggesting 'probably'? I don't have grounds. If he is guilty he deserves all he gets. But he's got some of that already.

3. Then Anne Atkins does her Thought for The Day in which she compares the language of sex with the language of religion and finds similarities. She says that a male acquaintance - a rather naive acquaintance, I imagine - once asked her why, if the sexual act was the same whether it happened by force or by seduction, rape was considered as 'serious' a crime as it is generally held to be. Her reply to him talked of the opposites of disgust and terror on the one hand and pleasure and trust on the other. The crime, she suggested in effect, was only partly of the body: it was a crime against being, in that it deprived the victim of choice, and that this choice lay so deep in the psyche that it resonated through the whole being.

Maybe then, it is a matter of autonomy. Autonomy, choice and control might be at the heart of it. And that might lead us into another discussion. But it's not easy having a conversation in a minefield.

So to Fulke Greville, from Mustapha Act V, Scene 4 1609:

Oh wearisome condition of Humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound,
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound:
What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason self-division cause.
Is it the mask or majesty of Power
To make offences that it may forgive?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Knowing People

As well as receiving that marvellous poem the other day I also received a letter from an American friend telling me his marriage had broken up. He is a poet so the letter, while troubled, is graceful and precise, as precise, that is, as anyone can be.

Since we knew them both, he and his wife - and what an old story this is, the marriage break up, so sometimes we feel there are perhaps just two or three marriages we know that have survived on some planet of their own - our feelings are of sadness. Or, rather, let me be precise: the feeling I have - I can't speak for C - is probably best described as sadness. I can't speak for C though we might both agree that sadness describes the feeling. I can't speak for her because though I love her and have lived with her for almost forty-one years, her mind and being are not an open book, nor would I want them to be, nor could they be.

And so I write the friend a long letter in which I think about these things, meaning why such things happen, and in the course of it I say I know him as both a poet and a man and that I like both, then immediately add, that knowing someone is not quite like that. One has a sense of knowing someone, meaning one has a feeling about them that involves trust and warmth and a reasonable length of communication, however sporadic. And that is what we mean.

Friend writes back very appreciatively but getting on with his own problems and potential new life with someone else, who seems attractive and interesting, and for him, certainly exciting, the way love and falling in love is exciting.

Knowing people is one of the great mysteries. I would quite like to give that a capital M. A Mystery. I say I stand in front of the mirror in the morning and feel hardly any connection with what I see there. I know what I know very intensely, but there is far more that I don't know. And if that is the case with the first person singular, how much more with the second, and then the third.

Martin Buber, if I remember right, set the relationship between man and God in terms of I-Thou. That made an impression on me (I was reading quite a lot of theology at the time, and that is the way God made sense.) I am pretty sure we recognize an I-Thou in various ways, while all the time knowing that the very fact that it is a Thou we are dealing with means that it is in some ways a formal relationship, an encounter with something whose core remains in the dark but whose external nature is a matter of address. You address the core, but the gesture is made in the light. And you might perhaps go on to think that it is precisely what is not known and yet may be addressed that is the nature of human relationship, even with oneself.

So my friend and his wife - and I liked her too - are cast into some other sphere now, which means that we might have to get to knowing them, and yes, him too, all over again from the beginning,and that we might fail, though I would not like to fail.

So the figure in the mirror too appears slightly changed, in some infinitesimally small degree. Our own private I-Thou with ourselves is the beginning of language, the same language that makes poems possible. Meanwhile, out there, there are mirrors and basins and bars of soap and tooth-brushes and the light in the window crackling through the frosted glass.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A beautiful new poem from Tim Cockburn

I get this through email. No need to comment, says the note. So I won't, but here it is:

Immediately on Waking

I had a dream my two girls, grown up,
with their intelligent eyes and nuanced, searching faces,
stalked up to me at Christmas, or something very like Christmas,
and their faces said, ‘Dad, we’re sorry it didn’t work out with mum,
but we’ve forgiven her.’ And I beckoned them come hither,
and fond of me as they are, with that wry, faux reluctance
best becoming intelligent women, they came hither,
and my look said, ‘So you should forgive her, girls,
she’s a marvellous woman and if we’re being honest
I should never have let her get on my bus in the first place,
knowing what I know about Cockburns before me,
about rocks melting with the sun
and everyone getting under the table when the phone rang;
I should have wound down my SORRY NOT IN SERVICE sign,
switched off my interior lights and driven straight back to the depo,
but you know, girls, your mother was only cold like anyone
and probably not any less selfish, and I was selfish too
and I wanted to love and fuck your mother always;
so I took her little ticket off her, which was furry from use,
and she took my little ticket off me,
which also was furry from use, and off we went.
And we laughed and cried and mostly cried aboard my bus
as it rattled along, just holding together on the faint promise
of the sort of destination one hopes, upon reaching, to concede,
with a wry faux reluctance best becoming intelligent women,
was certainly there all along. And whether it was or not,
look at you two, you’re perfectly wonderful
and you’ve got the knack of living – that’s all your mother –
she hates that sort of talk too, but it’s Christmas, girls,
or something very like Christmas, and I can be as camp and weary
as I please, and can’t a man draw the loveliness of women
around himself like sand if he wants to?’ At which point
their two boyfriends, who I knew in the dream were fond of each
came in, each enjoying the other’s company,
but, it being late and they being men, wanting only really
to draw the loveliness of women around themselves like sand,
and my girls kissed my cheeks, first the eldest, then the youngest,
and smiled at me, and I smiled too and my smile said,
‘Go to them, girls, it is to them you should go.’

Tim Cockburn is a young poet, through BA and MA, now in between but publishing. This poem is not in between.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Writing for Music: towards The Proportions of the Temple 4

Of course there is the excitement of hearing your words set to music. You wait with bated breath for what the composer has done, and of this, not having been part of the production, none of the poets had a clear idea.

The first part of the evening before the interval consisted of work by Nik Bärtsch, who performed at the piano with the Trio Zéphyr and a quartet of voices. The piano was more than the keys in this case - it was also the strings, the damping of strings, the percussive insistent noise of notes repeated at subtle rhythmic intervals. And some of my words appeared, only in pairs, as contrast, perhaps a phrase, but not the poem as I had written it. So I think, as others might, that perhaps the composer thought the poem was rubbish, that it was simply not musical enough, not poetic enough. The other half of me knows this was how it would be. Don't listen to yourself. Listen to the music. Meanwhile the music goes on, tantalising, measured, and, in the second part, impassioned with a wild aggressive violin flirting and biting at cadences that seem almost Hungarian to me, certainly Eastern European. In any case my words are a part of it.

In the next session it is Agi's long prose poem, and a marvellous thing it is too, the first few lines sung, then spoken, the whole text, in between beats, before the music returns to pick up individual lines. It's like a floor or roof opening up and then being covered up again.

In the interval we get into a conversation with an older man who had been architect for the cathedral, preserving its fabric. We talk architecture for a while - Agi off for a ciggy outside. Then we file back to row Q where you hear everything but don't see much. We could of course have been back in row ZZ where we might have heard less, but now we are hastily moved closer to the front for the second part. And Sian would like the poets to come up at the end, we are told. She'll wave you forward. So now we are in row E which is undoubtedly nicer.

This aspect of the arrangements was odd. No one asked if we wanted tickets till the day before, by which time I had already arranged a pair. The poets were clearly not Important People. But then I never thought we were really, so the shift from Q to E was a surprising promotion, like Colchester United being offered a place in the Premier League. Not that any of this was considered. People are far too busy getting on with preparation, and we were no part of the performance itself. It's very stupid to get social about such things, but there must have been a little hasty revisionism at half-time. So now we were mid-table Premier League, roughly where Spurs or Liverpool currently are. Quite flattering.

The second half was sublime throughout. The poems were used in a more thoroughgoing way and having the words in the programme (in which Jon had spoken warmly of some lines of mine, that were to prove to be the finale) was helpful, even in the growing dark.

What made it sublime? Scale must be part of the answer. The sheer dimensions of volume, pace, dark and light. But not just scale. I think it might be the level of comprehension. I don't mean of the words as such, the skin-text, but of something the skin-text had sprung from, some gene that the music turned into a potential body. The moving experience for a poet hearing his own words sung back to him in this way is that he feels he is being heard beyond himself (substitute she and her in Agi's case, though I cannot speak for her). It is not so much that the words are being interpreted, as that both words and music are facing the same way, looking into a space beyond either, but guessed at or intuited, so both are bigger for each other, though in this case, of course, the music is the truly big thing, that and the performance, without which music itself is only a multi-dimensional idea without a body.

The space the music was exploring was the cathedral and the meaning of the cathedral as a human act. It was the body moving about the cathedral. Anyone can experience that as they move about inside the building: whether they are religious is not is beside the point. There is the sky, there the ground, there the cathedral with its living and its dead. No one can help noticing that. The building as an expansion of the physical consciousness. You don't need to articulate it. It's just there. The music - the song - articulates it in its own way.

Which is why it is so moving. The conductor, the composers, the performers, the choir and the poets took their bows. The choir dispersed or headed for the party nearby as did we after a while. The words returned to the page, and maybe the page will become part of a book. So they separate again, the words returning to the street of spoken voices, muddling or rushing along on their business, the music still holding its space in the cathedral.

Writing for Music: towards The Proportions of the Temple 3

The performance was quite magnificent. I was deeply moved, as were the other poets, as was the whole audience. Not being a musician or even a natural concert goer I can't speak of the music in detail. In any case, I have only heard it once as a whole, so while details linger in my memory, I still experience the performance as primarily a musical totality. Even to describe it as a dramatic construction is beyond me, though I am convinced it was a towering success. The dramatic construction would have to have consisted of duration, texture, volume, pace, expectation and departures from expectation. It was, to put it simply, cathedral-like in detail, amplitude and effect.

In her comment to my first post on the subject Diane asks what it was like to work with Jonathan Baker and Sian Croose, but I can't answer that, if only because there was no obvious sense in which we worked together. By that I mean we hardly spent any time in each other's physical company. The poets provided the text and the composers and musicians got on with it. I dropped in on one rehearsal, spoke to the choir, briefly saying something about the text and reading it as verse. Andrew was there on the same occasion. I think Agnes might have had a similar experience but since she now lives in Sheffield it was at a different time. Attending the rehearsal was a great experience. The choir learned and repeated phrases. The sound passed round different parts of it, swelling and dropping. I couldn't quite hear what they were singing, but I didn't expect to hear it. It is rare to hear distinctly the words that choirs sing. The choir knows what they sing and they build on that. How did the music sound to me then? Marvellous in exactly the way I imagined it would be marvellous.

It is a special choir of course. Not just in the sense that it is an open choir that anyone may join, without an audition, without a test. If you want to sing, then sing. It is also special in that The Voice Project's dynamics seem to me peculiar to itself. The energy it works on is Sian's and Jon's. It is a soulful ecstatic energy. It isn't like, say, a Bulgarian or Danish choir: the voice still comes from the places English choirs produce voices from, but it is fuller, less 'proper', more turbo-charged. The danger of the spiritual in this sense is that it could become a mixture of The Guardian and muesli at its own revivalist feel-good meeting, but this is not the case here. The choir is a work of great art. Since I am an outsider I am happy to resort to the term 'genius'. It is a work of genius.

The choir sings the music. The music I heard was composed by Jon. Having heard some of Jon's previous work I instinctively understood some of its grammar. The voices are musical instruments. They produce percussion as well as swell and drone and lilt and blast. The sheer balancing of these elements is, like the leading of the choir, a high art. Jon with his broad musical background, including rock, can feel the power of the stadium gig but the chorister in him is precise. He is a mathematician on both a grand and minute scale.

But this is observation not work-with. The true organic collaboration is between Sian and Jon. The poets provide the text and retire.

Yes, but the text doesn't retire. And for a poet that is the point. The text is as written: poet becomes text as, with luck, does reader.

And the composer too is a reader. No reader is entirely passive but a composer is necessarily active. The words are his or her cloth: it is the outfit that matters to him. So Jon senses a possibility in certain lines. He seizes the lines and listens intently for the musical dimensions they offer. He has become the text he works on. The poem-text has various qualities as text, but text is as skin to the composer. What matters to him is what lies under the skin - because, assuredly, the poem is not just skin but body and soul. And it is that body and soul that must sing, through a new skin, a new skin grafted on to the old skin, with a new breath that is built on the text's breath.

One more post on this later.

Writing for Music: Towards The Proportions of the Temple 2

The last post was about distinctions between the spheres of poetry and music, and how the two might relate to each other. 'In my craft or sullen art exercised in the still night' there is no orchestra, no musical instrument, no singer. There is only the inner night and the furious silence.

I must imagine something like that for the composer too. However, both poet and composer meditate on something that moves them into their respective languages. The poet's music is composed of vowels and consonants and how they succeed each other, of the rise and fall of cadences, of the way everyday shop-soiled speech works its way along the flanks of regularity that constitutes a time signature, of the conjuring of tones of voice that builds to form. The composer's poetry is composed of the way sound strikes both sense and association, how mathematics and the body are turned into a form of speech beyond everyday usage, how things thrum, vibrate and sooth or roughen in the ear.

Both musicians and poets can talk about their art through a variety of common referents taken from other art forms: an orchestral palette, a spectrum of voices, the open or crowded stage of the poem, the way a piece of music or poetry presents us with cinematic devices like cut and dissolve. Both music and poetry may be described in architectural terms. All art shares a potential core vocabulary. All art is potentially, perhaps necessarily, synaesthesic.

I suppose the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk, the form we think of primarily in association with Wagner is the natural product. In that respect it is theatre that offers the key. The music, the words, the set, the costumes, the lighting, are all conceived and perceived in terms of theatre. A recording of, say, Siegfried, conjures the performance of Siegfried: the performance does not conjure the music since the music is part of the performance. In that respect gesamtkunstwerk takes its cue from Baroque art. The point of both was to produce a spiritual state by force majeure. They become irresistible by working on all the senses at once.

Last night, for example, I went to an evening of performance poetry by Molly Naylor and Martin Figura (of which more another time) that employed music, visuals and elements of staging. The words were the leading element, of course, but the other senses were engaged. This shifted the position of the words from their beginnings as inner night and furious silence and constituted a different kind of presentation to an audience primed for some kind of theatre. That may, of course be one of the key differences between a page poet and a performance poet. A page poet is engaged with night and silence, the performance poet with theatre and audience. It's not a hard and fast distinction. I am primarily of the night and silence school for example, but am aware when reading in public that there is a debt to theatre there. It's just that the theatre is a sideshow.

But this set of posts is about how the arts come together. In the case of The Proportions of the Temple, it is about how a strongly music-led piece of work close to gesamtkunstwerk is produced and how it strikes, in my case, the poet, but the poet who is also the listener. That is the next post, that will follow hard on the heels of this one.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Writing for music: towards The Proportions of the Temple 1

Last night the performance to a packed Norwich Cathedral of The Proportions of the Temple. Three composers: Nik Bärtsch (also on piano), Jonathan Baker and Jason Dixon (also electronics), three poets: Agnes Lehoczky, Andrew McDonnell and myself. The great Voice Project choir led by Sian Croose, with The Trio Zéphyr, plus singers Sianed Jones, Rebecca Askew, Jeremy Avis and Jonathan Baker.

A little background. I have spent some thirty-six years working with composers, generally writing libretti for either musical or opera, nothing grand, just school productions mostly. It started with The Bee Boy of Selborne (based on Gilbert White), moved through Cauchemar, both with music by Teresa Hyde, Wenceslas with music by Margaret Riches, and Hameln composed by Paul Rooke, then, after moving schools, to Back Street (based on Bash Street), The Dog's Dinner (based on the Mother Hubbard rhyme), The Mouse and His Child, based on Russell Hoban, and At the Court of Queen Biglips and King Pimple (a mixture of bloody fable and a kind of punk), all with music by Tony Parry. In between there were the operas, The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke (based on Richard Dadd's painting, music by Paul Rooke) and The Rocking Horse Winner (based on the D H Lawrence short story) and Air Kissing with the composer Jane Wells. Then there was Shuck Tale, Tiffey Song and Tom Hickathrift all with music by Ken Crandell, and maybe a few others, not to mention the individual songs. There were also some plays. I think I wrote one thing a year for several years, often producing them. Neither of the two operas was ever produced, though the Dadd piece was scored through. The Rocking Horse Winner was given to a composer who didn't turn up with anything after six years. Air Kissing was intended for choir and saxophones and was great but something went wrong in the collaboration between the writer and the performers - I never found out what - so though that was finished and composed through, it has never had a performance. Bad story. But the words might have been the problem.

In writing all the texts above the composer asked for a story line and words and I obliged. I wrote it all then handed over. They then set it or changed it a little, but the process was text to music to performance. Like most poets I tended to overwrite at times, the words of the songs sometimes cabaret, sometimes Audenesque. This made for some glorious set pieces. The Fairy Feller was probably too ambitious a text. I still think The Rocking Horse Winner would have been dead right. In some respects The Dog's Dinner was the purest delight of the lot, because it was necessarily episodic, so the slightly music hall lyrics were a very good fit. There was real pleasure in them all.

But writing for music is not like writing poetry. Poetry is its own music and form. It is complete in itself and does not need music. Music can be a very nice addition but it can also be intrusive and overwhelming. Music and poetry contest the available space and music generally wins. There are different kinds of poetry of course. Some have an ear tuned in to particular music: I think of ballads and the apparently weightless love lyric which is all intimation, breath and simple imagery. Music is generally not keen on ideas: it wants drama, voice and mood. It can do its own thinking. Writing for music means the spoken rhythm is usually altered to fit the spaces of the time signature. Lines or phrases might be repeated, or cut, or turned around. No wonder that most of the great operas and some of the lieder prefer second rate open text to dense first rate text. With the musicals and set songs I found I could write to line length, rhyme and specific rhythm and the music would generally follow and amplify, but the more serious the music was the less the measurements of the poem mattered. There was always the possibility of some variation on recitative and air or chorus, but there was no way of determining the music by it. Poets love words and want to write them. Words are secondary to most modern composers. They take what they need.

But that is no different from the way poets refer to works of visual art. The art simply opens a door and they walk in setting out their words in whatever space opens up. The poem doesn't refer to everything in an image. Ekphrasis be blowed. We just want a thought starting, a line to form, and we are away. There is no reason to expect music to behave differently. After all the result of a poem about a piece of visual art is a poem. The result of music based on certain words is music.

That doesn't, of course, mean that the work of visual art is incidental. Certainly not. The poem wouldn't have existed without it. It would not have been born. Similarly with music and words. The words are not incidental.

There remains the realm of popular song: Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht and Weill, Rogers and Hart, Gershwin and Gershwin. These are roughly fifty-fifty jobs, though Gilbert probably outweighs Sullivan. Not sure about Brecht and Weill, or Auden and Britten. All these are pitched in the field of more or less popular music. Not to mention the countless singer-songwriters who work out their own balance with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, say, weighing to different degrees on the words side. That boy in The Arctic Monkeys could write a good literate lyric without sounding arty about it. But the music still weighs heavier, as it generally does, and must. Because it is music, after all.

Yes, but this seems to argue that music involving words is concerned with two distinct, almost detachable parts. And that is not the case either, not for the listener.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Go, Stoke!

I don't know whether I am a neutral supporting the underdog or a United fan sticking out a tongue at the latest 'massive' injection of cash into the already bloated veins of a plaything club. I preferred City when they were City, even in 1968 when they won the league. Now they seem like a team composed for a video game. By a neat coincidence this is Jones singing the Stoke anthem in 1968.

Besides, I have Stoke friends. Go Stokies! Then she laughed no more.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Blogger silence: Canetti on Eliot and parties

Elias Canetti

Blogger has been off the air for a couple of days so it was impossible to post, but it has just come back on. It's an opportunity to say something about Elias Canetti's posthumous memoir, Party in the Blitz, that I picked off my Canetti shelf in an idle moment, wondering why I hadn't read it. I was quite prepared to put it back after a few more idle moments but the book immediately grabbed me. It is something like John Aubrey's marvellous 'Brief Lives' set in the wartime and postwar years, with Canetti's versions of T S Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Kathleen Raine, William Empson, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Waley, Enoch Powell and all, with a little Mrs Thatcher thrown in for good measure. Here's a flavour. Canetti on Eliot:

I was witness to the fame of a T. S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that? An American brings over a Frenchman from Paris, someone who died young (Laforgue), drools his self-loathing over him, lives quite literally as a bank clerk, while at the same time he criticises and diminishes anything that was before, anything that has more stamina and sap than himself, permits himself to receive presents from his prodigal compatriot, who has the greatness and tenseness of a lunatic, and comes up with the end result: an impotency which he shares round the whole country...

The sentence goes on but you get the idea. It is entertaining fury, born partly, or so I think it turns out, of the sense of rejection that he perceives through the wall of English reticence and polite distance. It is what he notices about English parties - and he seems constantly to be going to parties.

You're brought together in a small space, very close, but without touching. It looks as though there might be a crush, but there isn't. Freedom consists in the distance from your opposite number, even if it's only a hair's breadth. You move smartly past others who are crowding in on you from all sides without brushing any of them. You remain untouched and pure... An individual's identity is expressed by an active form of restraint.

Over a few pages he traces the untouchability of the English which disorientates and infuriates him. You can see how Crowds and Power might have been brewing in a mind like this.

The books is written in German of course, translated by Michael Hofmann, in whose translation everything sounds marvellous, even these crabbed unfinished notes written at the end of a life. And that untouchability is still there among the air-kissing mwah-mwah huggy-kissies - it has simply moved under the skin. In a trivial mood I think the English soul is like the country itself, an island in a sea. But I am used to the island and the sea. It has become habitat for me, in the way it never did for Canetti, much as he admired the English of the wartime, and the English of the great writers who were, he proclaims, the world greats of three centuries. That's until Old Possum came along, more English than the English, carrying his own cold polite sea about his person. Or so said Canetti, who, for all his personal warmth, fumed and boiled and blew and drew these unkind brilliant, clearly biased portraits. Furnace meets sea.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

If You Talk in Your Sleep Don't Mention My Name

This song recorded a hundred years ago, in 1911, well, on the 24th November that year, by Billy Murray, tune by Nat D Ayer, words by A. Seymour Brown. The Library of Congress have opened a Jukebox. It's a magnificent thing. It's right here!. You can browse!! Some 10,000 items. Make playlists, embed, etc. I found it via Norm.

Isn't the internet extraordinary?


Woke very early this morning so, working all day on other people's business, I lie down after lunch for half an hour and flick channels. On The Bill there are three young men. One's a snob and a crook, one's a crook, the third is mad. Flick to Jeremy Kyle, two young men, one a drug addict, the other a terminal sponger off his mum. She lands in £16,000 debt. 5-0.

Who loves ya, boys? Go to Wayne Rooney for a role model if you must have one. He's better than these. At least he's good at football.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

What Fire Stations Ought To Look Like

New Cross Fire Station, on the corner of Waller Road and Queen's Road.

The Victorian imagination has its wonderful wacky splendours. This fire station was opened in 1894. I was quite unaware of its existence until I went to a meeting in Waller Road today. The blend of darkness and uplift is perfectly tantalising and those chimneys, like a volley of gunfire, or the pipes of church organ, or an immense radiator, are so tall as to be almost meaningless ('almost' meaning too much meaning). The top of the turret is made for Rapunzel or the fire chief's infinitely extendable beard like some kind of safety shute. The look-out tower is nautical in its way. Perhaps all those verticals are emblems of leaping flames.

It is the overload of meaning that is so fascinating. It was the excess that Modernism wanted to sweep away. It was to be replaced - and was replaced - by the beauty of pure form, the beauty of the perfectly functional, by machines for living in - and, well, you could see why there was a desire for it. The desire is still there, clean-sheen pristine, an utterly finished simple grace shorn of association: the clarity of idea preferred over the clutter of the superabundant.

And yet there are those corners, those towering corners of a suggested bedlam of the overpopulated imagination. Such as this, one of Two Grotesques by Robert Graves:

Dr Newman with the crooked pince-nez
Had studied in Vienna and Chicago.
Chess was his only relaxation.
And Dr Newman remained unperturbed
By every nastier manifestation
Of pluto-democratic civilization;
All that was cranky, corny, ill-behaved,
Unnecessary, askew or orgiastic
Would creep unbidden to his side-door (hidden
Behind a poster in the Tube Station,
Nearly half-way up the moving stairs),
Push its way in, to squat there undisturbed
Among box-files and tubular steel-chairs.
He was once seen at the Philharmonic Hall
Noting the reactions of two patients,
With pronounced paranoiac tendencies,
To old Dutch music. He appeared to recall
A tin of lozenges in his breast-pocket,
Put his hand confidently in—
And drew out a black imp, or sooterkin,
Six inches long, with one ear upside-down,
Licking at a vanilla ice-cream comet—
Then put it back again with a slight frown.

What this place needs is more sooterkins. A whole brigade of them, lodged in New Cross Fire Station.

           Mother with Sooterkin

Monday, 9 May 2011

Where is Big Daddy?

I am in UEA for one tutorial and odds and ends, meeting Turkish visiting scholar and writer, B, in the corridor. I had taken him for lunch before in town, so we talk for about half an hour, and I begin to tell him about British style wrestling, which seems a mystery to him. Wrestling is serious business in Turkey, a proper sport with deep history, so the British fairground variety is a puzzle. I say I must take him to a local bill. Then my tutorial turns up, a very promising poet about to resume her PhD and we talk intensely for half an hour. After she goes I do some of the odds and ends and, passing a door in the corridor, see N, young poet, publisher, editor, ex-student, working at a desk, so I ask him to lunch along with B.

B tells us he went to see the royal wedding, that he stood for ten hours and found himself at the front of Buck House watching the kiss. Ten hours is a long time, he says, and the crowds so packed there was no chance to go to the toilet. But three elderly British ladies adopted him. Before the prince and princess appeared they spent three hours speculating about the dress, he says. We talk about clothes and royalty. I mention friend Linda and her interest in clothes, and books on clothes. N is not a monarchist and is bemused that B should have gone to the trouble of standing there so long. B says it is history and culture, and since he was here at the time, he felt he just had to go to this unique occasion. We talk about Atatürk and the Turkish republic, Turkey and modernity, Turkey and Europe. But, he says, I'd quite like the idea of a Sultan. Think of the status.

At the end of lunch, outside, B and N light up and I move on and home, but in the evening we go to the readings at Cafe Writers where a current student, A, has won the big poetry competition. A is a wrestler. He is reading his poems about wrestling. B should be here, I think. I vow to take him to the wrestling, and maybe Cab too, the Vietnamese-American writer-fellow. Britain starts here and at Buck House. Where is Big Daddy when you need him?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Sunday Night Is... Tommy Steele

Tommy Steele: Teenage Party

First memory of Tommy Steele: a seaside boarding house, aged about ten. The landlady's daughter in her room puts on Steele singing: What a marf, what a marf / What a north and sarf / Blimey what a marf he's got.

Still have photo of landlady's daughter. Were we flirting at that age? Maybe so, even if we didn't quite know it. Too young for a teenage party. England! What a marf, eh?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Well, of course...

...AV didn't win but the sheer possibility of voting on the process itself was welcome. It may also be that the No vote was tinged with a lingering desire to kick Nick Clegg, who will be black and blue by now. And not just that kind of blue. There's that nice line about the dreadful headmaster (Conk) in Martin Bell's 'Headmaster: Modern Style'.

Prometheus-Conk goes free. Joe gets the vultures.

Joe, Conk's deputy, is 'Chief-eunuch of the stock-room! Emperor of pen-nibs'

So Dapper Dave goes free and Nick gets the vultures. But remember Noes, you voted for the two-party system ad infinitum, so now it's Dave for the term.

I can't personally see what else Nick 'emperor-of-pen-nibs' Clegg could have done at the time of the General Election. Not even Polly Toynbee can: all she really says is that he should have looked less happy about it. If the LibDems hadn't joined a coalition government the economy would have been sent sliding down the chute, all the way down to the bottom of the Irish bog. Labour had well and truly lost the election and the numbers would not have added up, so there was only the Tories. The gamble would have been - and might still be - that the worst of the crisis would be over by the time of the next election and then the Libbies might even take some of the credit.

I remember the outcry when the coalition was announced. I understand people being passionate in a cause, but lacking any reality sense is another matter.

And frankly, though I vote Labour on essential principle, it doesn't mean I have to like the actual party or its spokesfolk. The cries of Tory Cuts! immediately after the first emergency budget, might have sounded worse but been a great deal more honest as Bigger Tory Cuts than Labour Cuts, and for different reasons! That I would believe. Regression to mantras is the sure sign of the huckster.

I know. All very well to talk about realism but it is no more realistic to expect party spokesfolk to talk like honest human beings. OK, to borrow a catchphrase, I am just saying like.

Friday, 6 May 2011

What Does a Poet Look Like?

That was the question posted up on the nicest small bookshop in the world, The Book Hive in Norwich (see my previous plugs for this marvellous store, voted best bookshop in the country last year). The question was asked by the poet Luke Wright and I happened to be the first answer to it today. The second answer will be tomorrow, and so on until Luke's list runs out of poets daft enough to have agreed to be on it. It may of course be possible that some bookshop customers will have glanced at the first option and decided they have seen enough of poets to last them a few years. (Potential conversation: Who's that over there? - Him? That's the poet. - So what does he look like? Couldn't you have got a nicer looking one? - Not at the price... etc)

The minimum demand was to spend an hour in the shop looking like yourself. There was some suggestion on Facebook of velvet jackets, silk cravats and floppy hats but I prefer to be out of uniform. In fact I spent about five hours there from late morning into late-mid afternoon. The ancillary task was to write a poem to go in an anthology.

The first part is relatively easy since the bookshop is gorgeous and full of the most tempting books. I sat on a stool my laptop in front of me, under a shelf starring The Arabian Nights. Some of the time I was translating, and some of the time I was drafting a poem sparked by something in one of the books. Meanwhile Henry, the proprietor, was supplying me with coffee and tea and conversation. The bookshop was busy at times. I am not sure how many people came to look at me, but they were all greeted with affability, some of them enjoying a coffee on the house (Henry's coffee is quite strong). A few authors dropped by, a highly gifted undergraduate, a gifted graduate, a number of young and middle aged to whom the shop was a social port of call at which they might well leave with a book or two (I left with seven at the end.) The arrangement was that I would be picked up by daughter H once she was through at the hairdresser, while C babysat Marlie who will be one tomorrow. The sun shone, the shop was nicely cool, the rhythm of intense work - conversation - drifting - more intense work suits me generally and it suited me here.

At the end Henry asked if I wanted to suggest a table of ten books with some thematic connection for him to display, with a short note on each book. Why not?

This is the poem I was working on: an amateur photograph of a young woman in 1954. Clearly on holiday, she is standing by a door with her friend nearby. Her face is movingly beautiful in a perfectly ordinary way, the merest touch of inwardness, of apprehension or concentration, in her expression. I hang the poem out here to dry.

Our Beautiful Mothers
For Henry Layte

Our beautiful mothers are leaning against a doorway
with windblown hair and a girlish grin.
They are eternal and terrified and slim
with perfect skin.

Our beautiful mothers are clutching towels
on the hotel terrace in their sweet white shoes.
Their friends are tucking their hair up and smiling
with all to lose.

The air is acid and kind and ruthless.
Our beautiful mothers are stuck in 1954,
their hearts hovering, whole and broken,
in the draught, by the door.

I felt it a little like a popular song as heard through the door of a bar.


And daughter points out that Ten Poems About London, to which I wrote an introduction and contributed a new poem was third in the poetry bestsellers list in last Saturday's Guardian. The book appears under my name, but I didn't edit it. That credit is due to the publisher, Jenny Swann. It is a beautiful small book and contains work by Elaine Feinstein, Sarah Wardle, Elizabeth Bartlett, W.S. Graham, A W Stencl, two people called Blake and Wordsworth, and a certain Anon, who looks very like Everyman.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Voting and shooting

I went to vote in the morning when the voters are mostly elderly but putting out a decent team. One old man is in conversation at the door on the way out. He has a mobile frame and lets drop that he is ninety-eight. He was born in 1913 and was five years old by the end of the Great War. Already twenty-six when the Second World War breaks out and thirty-three when it is over. He has been retired longer than that. He is thirty-six years older than me. Thirty-six years ago I was twenty-six. The astonishing numbers game. He wends his way slowly along the narrow pavement. I have never seen him before.

Inside, the desk with its volunteer officers, and they are still there in the evening when I walk C down to the church hall that is the polling station. I ask them if it has been a brisk day. Not as brisk as at a General Election, they say. Three of them are old and the fourth is a woman on the younger side of middle aged. Good citizens. They get no lunch apart from the sandwiches they bring. I firmly expect the votes in the local elections will be mostly Tory (they always are), and so might they themselves be. The old in rural areas often are and, if not, they might just be Lib Dem, that is if they haven't gone into Clegg-meltdown mode. As far as candidates go there are four Con, one Lab and one Lib Dem. Then there is the AV voting slip which is as simple as it can possibly be. I make my mark in the Yes column. It might, just possibly, the one occasion when my vote counts - unlikely but just a little more likely than it counting in any other election. I can quite see why people don't vote when the result is a foregone conclusion. Why go out on a cold and rainy night? Because it is a citizen's duty? Because, given the history of the world, it is more of a privilege than you might think (my answer)? Why else the ritual walk that means a statistical nothing? That 'statistical nothing' seems the best possible reason to be voting AV this time before returning to the ritual. It is, surely, a healthier system for an unfit body politic.

But I expect to return to the ritual tomorrow.


The Bin Laden case continues to take odd turns. Why not wait for the story to be fully documented before announcing the death in one version that must quickly be corrected by a second, then a third? It seems extraordinarily clumsy. I feel absolutely no sense of regret about the man's death as such. He killed thousands, so while I would have preferred a judicial process, such a process was never possible. An arrest and trial would have woken the devil all over the world. A kidnapping from a foreign country would be an international scandal. As concerns the moment itself, shooting the man you have suddenly come face to face with after years of searching is an understandable if not ideal human reaction. His sheer presence - the myth concentrated into a man - would have been enough to send the nerves into overdrive. So you do it, as Von Stauffenberg might have done it, as the Italian partisans did with Mussolini, end of story. Then you face the music, if music is to be faced. You know people just love to hate America and you may as well give them another excuse. The cynics and the idiots are already dreaming of Osama / Che t-shirts. They will eventually determine that Bin Laden died fighting for freedom in the way they understand freedom: t-shirts and berets.

Interesting to consider the Obama side of the equation. Losing president becomes winner president, suddenly turns botched-job, dishonest president. There may be a Republican stake in this, in all the twists and turns, but there probably isn't. Conspiracy theory should always be the last resort. Botched is first choice, schemed is second. I don't deny it happens, of course. And conspiracy makes better cheap fiction than botch does.

Bin Laden wasn't cheap fiction though: he was real death to many, real deliberate death, not incidental death, not collateral damage. So now he is dead. In the long run, as Keynes said, we all are. This shortened his run which, all things considered, was pretty long.

The ninety-eight year old voting this morning has outlived a good number like him. He picks up his mobile zimmer frame and makes his painful way to the polling station, registers his vote, and leaves.

I have no ambition to reach the zimmer age, but if I do I hope I'll be doing the same.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Norwich: energy and celebration

In university today for a tutorial and to pick up necessary papers, bumping into one person after another. A longish conversation with Giles who says he loves living in Norwich.

He's right, there is something humane and energetic about the place, and now the football team has performed the miracle of two promotions one after another so they'll be playing Premier League football next year. Maybe I will buy a season ticket. Maybe I'll buy two.

It is hard to think of Norwich as a city if your idea of cities is a European capital or a 19th century industrial metropolis. You can walk across the centre in about twenty minutes. Most of the streets are narrow and winding, on the medieval plan. The buildings are generally low and ancient. It is like Bruges without the canals, or Cambridge without the colleges, though it has plenty of small medieval churches to compensate, as well as two cathedrals and a castle. And yet the scale of it feels small and soft. Houses are curved, crooked, dimpled, worn, far from absolute. The city has its rougher edges as the crowds at the wrestling venues show, but even the aggression has an famillial warmth.

Norwich is full of writers and musicians and artists. There are bohemian streets and corners, student-haunted cafes and bars. The great Anglican cathedral, the bars, the wrestling, the bohemian life, the market, and the football team are sources of a more urban energy. When I was at the art college I would have coffee in Espresso or in Take 5, which, for a time was in the arthouse cinema. I could wander into other cafes or bars, or sit in a caff with an all day English breakfast for lunch.

This Friday I am starting a sequence of poet appearances in the Book Hive window and bookshop. Henry Layte, the owner, is another part of the energy. Daughter H and husband R are doing a superhero / evil villain session there on Saturday. The following Saturday the Voice Project are performing their vast choral piece, The Proportions of the Temple, in the cathedral with texts by Andrew McDonnell, Agnes Lehoczky and myself. That's part of the Norwich Festival - more energy.

Oh, and United have beaten Schalke 4-1. Joy unbounded after Sunday.

And tomorrow I shall go out and vote for AV. My normal election vote is worth nothing. So might this be. But I'd like it to mean something so there I go putting a cross in a box again.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Via the Royal Academy and a recording studio

One more brief unillustrated post. Caught the morning train to London from Oxford and met with ex-student Hen who is currently a Printmaker Fellow at the RA. She showed me around in the Schools, all vaults and arches and paper and equipment. We drank a long coffee and talked in the cafe then quickly dropped into the Watteau drawings. Hen is in her early 40s now but looks hardly older than she did at seventeen. Perhaps we shall do something together: an art-poetry piece. I hope so.

I set off to the studios where I was to record a couple of poems for, as it happens, the RA show of Hungarian photography at the end of June. The buses crawled up Ludgate Hill. I'd have got there quicker with crutches, walking backwards. I was some forty minutes late. But they were very sweet. I recorded the poems then some more material about photography and Hungary in response to questions. I am fully aware all this will be heavily cut, but it is best to have a decent chunk to cut from. This is all for the audio guide. Bits of the poems will be next to the photographs they address, both by André Kertész. One of them was a Poem on the Underground.

Having slept very badly the night before the journey home was a faintly hallucinatory experience, arriving some time after 6pm. Tomorrow into university.


I bought a Guardian and a Times to follow the Bin Laden story. It's a little like an earthquake: a major shock then the after shocks; first reactions followed by visions and revisions. As I wrote yesterday, the usual people are writing the usual things. The Times has given it many pages with every victim of every El Qaeda attack named and a selection of them with photographs and brief accounts. The man was responsible for thousands of deaths, and maybe more. The precise balance between what he might have conceived as murderous political redress, ideas of a caliphate, religious fury, and the sheer desire to dominate is impossible to establish. I doubt now whether we shall get refined and crystalline essence of Bin Laden or even Bin Laden-ism. We don't really know what kind of body politic Guevara would have established. Myths are bigger than political programmes.

There is still a long way to go with the Bin Laden story. The evidences of his death have yet to be presented. I note a video supposedly showing his death circulated on Facebook, but there's nothing there when it's clicked on. Possibly a hoax. There is also the balance between relief, delight and triumphalism in the context of international sensibilities to consider. And will the the event will have any bearing on the unfolding Arab Spring?

Tomorrow back to normal, or thereabouts.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Oxford and Osama

Class done, reading over. Particularly bright class. In three hours we work through 15 poems along with matters that arise. Quite exhilarating surfing poems and ideas. After lunch I am free for the afternoon until dinner and the reading. Jamie McKendrick and Jane Griffiths around. Jon Stallworthy talking about Yeats.

The big news of course is Osama. No time to watch the developing interpretation, but John Simpson downplays it and his report assumes Dubya's incompetence. The narrative line is the expected one. The significance fits the narrative that reverts to the default position. No doubt someone will get blown up soon. Interpret that!

Tomorrow home via London to record some material for the big Hungarian photo show coming at the RA.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Brief from Oxford

Today was the surprise party for A, dear Estonian friend. Her son had invited her down to Brighton, where he lives with his partner. A few friends were also invited for a long celebratory lunch.

In order to get this done we drove to C's parents' house in Hertfordshire on Saturday and spent the night in the empty house, first visiting c's widowed mother in the nearby nursing home. She can't live by herself and needs constant care now. Her memory goes on and off like a switch. Little by little there is less of her: thin armed and legged.It is as if life had moved into a furious reverse. She remains sweet and sharp in patches, then the internal light flickers and goes off, before turning on again.

The next day the trains to Brighton, all packed with Bank Holidayers. We walk the 20 minutes or so to the address and settle in the garden. Just three other guests. There is a Russian spread and toasts - three of them - with vodka that is clear as crystal. Eggs with caviar. Aubergine salad. Bowls of cold delicacies. And more vodka. We talk about art and language and institutions in the small garden. We hug and bid farewell and dash for the train. At London Bridge we part - I to Oxford, C home. It's late. Workto read. Plans to make.