Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Blog update whilst in China

Just to inform you that whilst George is in China he can't update his Blogger account due to internet restrictions. However a cunning workaround is in place, so you can continue to follow him in the notes section of the main website (

Normal service will resume here in around 2 weeks time.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pictures, forms, families (6): the event

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The intensely air-conditioned lecture theatre of the Castle Museum. Martin and Helen arrive just before me and we walk up together. Chris Gribble is to be our Chair and he appears. Then Anna Green, our host together with Harriet Loffler, the Co-curator. Norwich City are playing Arsenal at home at the same time (final score an honourable 1-2 defeat), there has been no great fuss of the reading so for a while we wonder whether we will outnumber the audience. Andrea turns up. Will we have the images on the screen behind us? It turns out we won't. Technical problems. Eventually some twenty-five people enter, prepared to listen. Poetry on match-day on a Saturday afternoon. Lucky to get so many.

We have drawn two tables together at the front and arrange ourselves. Anna introduces Chris who introduces us one by one as we talk about the pictures then read our poems. We go: Martin, Andrea, Helen then me. It seems I am the only one to have chosen paintings, the others have chosen photographs or sculpture or videos, though Martin's refers to paintings too. I think it is Andrea or Helen who say the problem with having the catalogues was that there are already words there that suggest how the pictures are to be interpreted. It's the same with all the images of course so that can only be part of it. But then there is also the question of how paintings are clearly constructed whereas photographs seem simply to appear. To think about this would require many more blog-posts so I won't do that here. For me it is chiefly a matter of familiarity. If I already know something very well it makes it harder to write about, unless the work is as powerful as the Andrews. Poetry is never just saying what you know. Negative capability, said Keats. I have loads of that.

I can't speak about the poems of the others as I don't have them in front of me, but they are all vivid and sound very good. One of Martin's is in the form of a specular, the form invented by Julia Copus which runs not only the end words but every line forwards and backwards. Martin is keen to emphasise this is not just showing off or cleverness. I think to hell with that. As if cleverness were a crime or a hindrance to feeling! Form invents feeling and supercharges it. His specular sounds very well, as do his other poems. As does Andrea's ballad, a form she usually avoids, she tells us. Again, I think everything is possible and everything is possible to do well, to leap from. So why not leap? Helen moves readily into fairy tale so her subject is immediately familiar territory to her. They all sound good poems.

Chris asks about form. It is not that overt formal devices - rhymes, stanza shapes, particular rhythms - are better than what seem to be covert informal discoveries. They are not, but neither are they, as many contemporary poets know, invalid. There is no need to go into the closed versus open form arena, still less try to fit into the straitjacket of traditional versus modern (as if traditional and modern were always the same, enjoying a fixed relationship). I don't even think it is easier to be naff in form than in free verse" it just sounds more naff. There is no opposition between form and feeling or intelligence and feeling and as for the distinctions between personal and impersonal, they seem gestural pedantry to me. You may be very clever but I really feel things, is the argument. Yeh, right, I don't feel anything, is the proper answer.

The hour goes very quickly. It is brilliant sunshine outside. As I walk down St Giles the iron fencing of the church is glowing extraordinarily. It is pure gold. It is burning gold. The cause? The sun is shining on a shop front opposite and the reflected light turns black to gold.

Pictures, forms, families (5): Andrews and Struth

The Batoni poem was a formal sonnet, more formal in some ways than many of nine. I thought of it - felt it - as the equivalent of a formal bouquet. The sonnet with its compactness, clarity and history seemed to be the right way to go, the full ABBA ABBA of the octet followed by a full CDE CDE. I don't say this was forethought - not at all - but once it began as a sonnet (the current beginning is a serious redrafting of the original idea) it felt it wanted to go that way. I have written about form often enough, how it is, like necessity, the mother of invention. You are never more than one line ahead, if that, having to look forward and behind as you go. But I knew as soon as I had drafted it that the sonnet would not be enough. There was some light beyond it.

I have long admired the Michael Andrews, in fact quite a lot of Andrews. He seems to me the poetic soul brother of Gerhardt Richter and Luc Tuymans. Sometimes I even think he was much less glib than they can sometimes be (I know, they comprehend the glibness but I can't help noticing it). In this large painting he is teaching his daughter to swim in very black water indicating great cold and depth. The daughter's face is half lost under her hair. Swimming - he is holding her up - is a matter of survival. The sea is not just the sea, the cliffs are not just the cliffs. They are domains - visual domains, language domains - in which he too must swim or sink. The Batoni poem ended with metaphors: this poem is all metaphors folding in on themselves, each section reversing its end word as if cupping some necessary space, maybe just enough space for a breath. The picture, as well as the poem, made my blood run a little cold. And yet it's about survival. And yet we survive.

The Struth is a photograph, one of a long series of photographs based on long-exposures of families so there is, naturally, a little strain in the faces and poses. But look how populous this family is, how comfortably ensconced in their room, and how they confront us. It is as if they were behind thick glass. 1989 signalled the end of history according to Francis Fukuyama, and this 1989 is a momentary dead end in the Smith family's history. It is the opposite of the first two images: it is family as armour and bastion and tribe. Each member of the family is fully mortal and sensate in himself or herself but put them together and they are a unit that has been arrested at a peak of power. The photograph is an embodied idea of what families might become. They have, as the poem puts it, made it as far as the room in which they sit. Nor is that a negligible achievement, in fact it's a great deal because, having been photographed there, they will remain there, invulnerable as image whatever happens in life. They look out at us rather than the other way round. Their gaze is the stronger. In that respect they are like those Byzantine wall paintings whose figures stare out at us reminding us we are not there as connoisseurs to appraise their aesthetic value or judge their merit as images, but as potent forces in judgment over us. They are conjurations, not art. I am still not sure of the Fukuyama reference, however it fits (and it does fit), because it is almost a pun, and it might not be that kind of pun that is required.

I write long today because we fly to China on Tuesday and I might not be able to post on Blogger there. One more piece to come on this theme though.

Pictures, forms, families (4): the poem

Death, Survival, Persistence

Luke Fildes, The Doctor (1891)*

1. Death
Pompeo Batoni

The robes, the cloth, the vase, the veil, the bow,
The posy, the leaves, the rising cloud, the lips.
These were ourselves, this is the cloth that slips
into shapes of cowls and hoods we cannot know.
We cannot decode ourselves. We move below
our surfaces, our griefs, our flowers, the tips
of our fingers. We know what it is that grips
the child in her numbed sleep, what winds still blow
about her. We put our ears to the cloud to hear
vibrations of the air, we measure our wrists
for pulse. We mist mirrors, move in our sleep
as if awake, make energies from fear
accumulated in our veins. We have made lists
of the dead. Our metaphors run deep.

2. Survival
Michael Andrews, as before

Floating is next to drowning
and though the metaphor of dark
is simply metaphor the metaphor is cold.

Look, our children float against the cold
and though we hold them against the dark
we know the sea’s own metaphors for drowning.

Those tender bubbles, sea-scum, illusion
of air, the clashing rocks that contain
the sea, they are our modes, our metaphors.

We cannot help but live through metaphors.
The bay contains the sea, the clashing rocks contain
our hands and bodies, our floating, our illusion

of floating, and our pale skin, pale warmth,
the metaphor of childhood we find ourselves
employing time and again, like love, like hands

that bear up bodies that terminate in hands.
Dear children you become almost ourselves –
the metaphorical sea’s notion of warmth.

My feet dissolve, my lower half in water.
Her face is strewn with hair, so we are joined
in this brief act, as brief as other acts,

as if water, drowning, floating, dark, were acts,
as if my life could float, steady and joined
to yours in the bay’s cold metaphors of water.

3. Persistence
Thomas Struth: The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland 1989

What is it looks out of us
so wary, so contemplative against
the glass that keeps us from the world?

What is the glass against which we press
our faces, that looks back at us
with its own blank puzzled face?

We cannot solve it, our presence, our eyes,
though we are gathered, clannish, cloned
in attitudes of familial power.

We have made it as far as the room
in which we sit. The glass confirms
the room, our eyes confirm ourselves,

just as we are in 1989
the year history ended,
the moment, the glass, our eyes.

*The Fildes was in the exhibition but I knew it too well. I use it here instead of the Batoni that I cant find.

Pictures, forms, families (3): the threatened child

I can't find Pompeo Batoni's moving, formal picture on the web. The couple in it were married in 1739, had one legitimate child Barbara, who died in 1749. Hoping perhaps to get over the loss they set out on a European tour. In Rome, as the catalogue note has it 'they commissioned Pompeo Batoni to paint this portrait of them watching over their dead daughter, united in their sorrow.' They had taken a miniature of her for the painter to work from.

The girl in the picture looks delightful. The painting is loaded with symbols of mourning. It is without mawkishness or melodrama. The couple contemplate the child who is more clearly defined than they are.

It is however a difficult and horrible subject. We have Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, what Toby Litt renamed as Deadkidsongs - infant mortality was common enough in the nineteenth and early twentieth century - but it's too much, too overwhelmingly much heartbreak. I can hardly bear to listen to the Mahler and I haven't yet opened up my copy of the Litt. Even here I prefer to illustrate this with a life-giving Picasso (life-giving is Picasso's great gift) rather than with a number of available Victorian deathbed scenes because Picasso always sees bigger and beyond to ever greater energy and restlessness.

The poem for the Castle Museum is divided into three parts, Death, Survival and Perseverance. The Batoni is sumptuous in its way, tragedy as a set piece with cello. Mortality with posies. What is love if not fear of losing? Love is in fact mortality, so mortality lies at the bottom of the family, as it did for mine when I was a child.

The next post will contain the poem.

Pictures, forms, families (2): going nuclear

My mother, father, brother and myself, c. 1955

One question raised by the exhibition is whether the concept family necessarily includes children. For me the answer is clearly yes. Even if there is only a couple they are the children of parents before them though, as an independent unit, they are primarily a couple not a family. As I imagine it however (imagine intuitively, not argue it) a family includes children. In fact the family is most itself at the moment when the latest child comes into the world. In other words it includes not simply children but infants.

The implication is that the family is most itself when it has the care of the most vulnerable stage of human life, the very beginning. It is therefore tied to responsibilities (for the adults) and utter reliance (for the newborn). It is as the line in The Waste Land, as suggested to Eliot by Vivienne, goes: What you get married for if you don't want children? Again, I have no wish to argue this: it is what my bones and viscera tell me.

The arguments about - and chiefly against - nuclear families that were raging in the sixties and seventies meant little to me. My whole apprehension of life was of the family endangered. Half my family were wiped out in the war, my mother and father were almost destroyed by it. I almost died at the age of two, and here we were in a new country where we knew no-one but ourselves. That is if we knew even ourselves.

If I felt this as apprehension, my parents knew it as experience. It was a miracle that families survived, that children survived, that any of the four of us was here at all. I think it made life uncomfortable. Psychologically the pressure was acute. I sometimes think it drove my mother to the edges of madness. As an adolescent I hated it. It was strangling, obsessive. The family absolutely had to be together on Sundays. There had to be family excursions. Even after I married my mother had to be everywhere, know everything, be a presence.

I now think that was because she had been so close to being an absence.

But the visceral feeling is not about pleasure or discomfort. It is the reality sense, not the value sense. However they may overlap, they are different. The madness lies is assuming they are exactly the same. The poetry, if it comes from anywhere, also emanates from this region.

Pictures, forms, families (1)

Michael Andrews Melanie and Me Swimming 1978-79

Along with three other poets (Martin Figura, Helen Ivory and Andrea Holland) I was commissioned to write a poem / poems for the exhibition Family Matters: The Family in British Art, currently at the Castle Museum, Norwich, The reading and discussion took place yesterday afternoon, after which I wasn't home till gone midnight so no blog yesterday.

The Great British Art Debate may not amount to much more than what the curators already know and may be keen to tell us in their missionary endeavour, but then again it might. This show was particularly well curated with paintings, prints, photographs, videos and sculpture arranged in broad themes rather than chronologically, so the catalogue itself comprises five booklets headed Childhood, Inheritance, Parenting, Couples & Kinship and Home. The well known was balanced against the hardly known and the British aspect included immigration from the Commonwealth rather than from many other possible places, but that was a reasonable and perfectly justifiable decision since the British connection is bound to be stronger from within the old empire. The fact is, it is a moving and exciting show well worth going to see.

How do we go about writing? In my case I went in with a notebook and more or less wrote out two out of three poems, finished the third at home, then drafted all three into shape. I didn't get the catalogue for some reason so it had to be more or less then and there. But that is often how it works for me anyway: start writing, follow some distant glimpsed light and gallop there without breaking pace. It's an act of almost absolute trust in the improvisatory moment-by-moment process. It is how it has always happened before, even with the long poems. Go hell for leather while the light is visible or just round the corner and stop once it is no longer there. Complete a section. Then return, because you know, or have a very strong hunch, that there is more light.

The three works that offered the prospect of light were, paradoxically, all rather dark in tone and mood were Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) The Hon. Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughter Barbra Anne, 1750, Michael Andrews (1928-1995) Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-9 and the photographer Thomas Struth's The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland, 1989.

Why is that? A separate post for it.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Sepptic Tank

Photograph from FIFA's own website.

I know it's 'only football' and I am sure the pun has been made before, but why not make it again? It has been clear for a good while now that Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, has been running a corrupt organisation prone to duplicity, bribery, secrecy, high-handedness, smugness and, now it turns out, an indifference to racism. It is hard to think of an organisation as blatant in its corruption as FIFA has been since Blatter took over. Good to hear that he has been telling the IFA conference in Zurich: We have to be transparent. The corruption has been the only transparent thing so far. And then there are the damage-limitation photos.

According to Forbes magazine Blatter is the 63rd most powerful person in the world. Having suggested that women footballers should wear something more tight-fitting, he has boldly declared that the future of football is feminine. More teams in pink then.

Forbes under its Profile heading says:

FIFA recently announced a raft of reforms to restore credibility to the corruption-ridden organization. "In a nation of 300 million [soccer players], there will be some violence, doping, racism and corruption. But the institution is not corrupt."

2011 Highlight: In June Blatter won a fourth term as FIFA's president after a ­scandal involving cash for votes sidelined his only viable opponent.

It is perhaps no surprise that David Beckham and Gordon Taylor, or any English football figure should call for Blatter's resignation in light of the fiasco concerning the awarding of the World Cup to Dubai when the England party were promised votes they did not get, a decision that was followed by a certain sniggering by the FIFA board. Surely there could have been no question of money changing hands? Surely not with Dubai? It was a fiasco that continued to delight and amuse when everyone was astonished to discover that Dubai is too hot for football in the summer and that, in consequence, every country's winter season would probably have to be abandoned. Even greater hilarity ensued when both the FIFA Vice-President and Blatter's 'only viable opponent' in the election for the presidency were forced to resign.

It may be that Blatter is just a very old fool who feels so secure in his position that he can make 'good sportsmanship' and 'simply shake hands' noises when faced with a scandal he doesn't recognise or understand. It may be that he's just an old-fashioned charmer who has always enjoyed a nod and wink.

So all continues charming in the pile of dung.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Old Review of Bill Brandt (2)

Continued from yesterday. Strange to think this was written eighteen years ago. It seems no time at all, and Brandt still seems like that to me.

Knowing what we now know of Brandt’s development, it is amusing to consider that his first book of photographs, The English at Home, had been turned down by one publisher in 1936 for not being ‘erotic’ enough. Eros and Thanatos are patently his tutelary gods, or so they appear to us looking back at his work from this, the wrong end of the lens. Things loom and stretch or lurk in shadows, form dark masses against light, part reveal and part hide secrets. There are many pictures of people looking, fewer of what they see. The English at Home shows social masses: the upper classes as a block of hard hats and frock coats, the lower as softer, more battered shapes. Often their backs are to us: we are creeping up on them. We creep up on the lovers in ‘Top Floor’ in 1938, or appear to. We know it is stagy, that it has been set up as a version of film noir, that Brandt often did set his subjects up, nevertheless there is discovery or at least a process of exploration. We forgive Brandt his contrivances because we know that we are being enticed into a world of fiction rather than of hard facts and that the first question we instinctively ask before his pictures is not What Really Happened but What Is Really Happening, meaning by that, what is really happening to us.

Brandt is unapologetically stagy and inward. From the empty Bermondsey street of 1938, through portraits and fashion photos, through all the lives of barmaids, miners, nippies and parlourmaids it is obvious that the events they enact are scenes from the internal dramas of an isolated psyche. Eventually, the creatures that had been the animating force in his journalism, take over entirely and desire realises itself. It does so most dramatically in the nudes.

One might complain that these, indeed all his pictures, are intrusions into real lives. After all, aren’t even these distorted nudes in the haunted rooms of the forties people after all, with their own jealously guarded inwardness? Such complaints wouldn’t be fair or even sensible. It is not as if Brandt were pretending to be objective. Think of the earlier work. A maid dips her hand into a bath; a wild couple devour each other in a shaggy bar; pretty girls lie around in a wartime holiday camp as if they were dead; naked soldiers enter ridiculous open-air contraptions for showering, boffins buzz away inside the illuminated hives of their offices, children strut on the verge of adulthood or lean like elementals out between lace curtains. Families play at death in bomb shelters, bend themselves into extraordinary shapes ; hills turn to bodies, bodies into rock; paths and hedges wind like luminous vertebrae into the dark soft sky. Images are constantly juxtaposed: like the girl carding wool in Giotto’s ‘Annunciation to Anna’, a woman weaving in one picture seems to drag closer the dark storm clouds of the neighbouring photograph with every turn of the wheel. The soldier hitching in the car’s headlight turns into a terrified rabbit in the next. Everything is electric and intangible. Naked objects of desire stretch out enormous demanding palms towards us, as commanding as Pratt the parlourmaid in her own element. Women are dominant figures; in one aspect delicate and hungry, in another vast as primal landscapes. They are secret principles more than individuals and it is useless to ask about the inwardness of principles, especially when everything else is principle.

Towards the end of his life Brandt turned his attention to assemblages. His friends were rather puzzled by these. He employed feathers, skeletons, shells, string, fragments of wings and arranged them into ambiguous patterns whose compositions remind us of Miro and Ernst. Some of these are on show at the Barbican, but most of the collection, purchased from Noya Brandt, the artist’s widow, can be seen at the Reed’s Wharf Gallery near Tower Bridge. The resultant objects are joky, threatening, fetishistic, obviously pregnant with meaning. Coming at the end of Brandt’s career they can only serve as a coda, but it would be a great mistake to imagine them as mere dabbling. To Brandt they were numinous, unknown, unknowable magical objects exciting memories and desires. Compositionally they are not unrelated to either the Hampstead nudes of the forties or the body-as-landscape nudes of the fifties. They stand a little melancholy in the cold Thames light, as I suspect Brandt might have done. Brandt’s attitude to the Other is tender, tangential and passionately evanescent. The impression of an angel is not absolutely misleading. He is certainly one of the great photographers, perhaps the most poetic and subjective of the lot. Both exhibitions should be seen. The world is richer, more melancholy and magical for them.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

An old review of Bill Brandt (1)

from The Perfect Parlourmaid

It being late and the evening filled with marking I am ransacking old articles and have found this one from 1993. It appeared originally in Modern Painters, reviewing Bill Brandt: Photographs 1928-1983 at The Barbican and Bill Brandt: The Assemblages and Associated Vintage Prints at Reeds Wharf Gallery.

There was something angelic about the elderly Bill Brandt. I only remember him from a television programme many years ago, before he died. He looked thin, white and insubstantial, spoke gently and seemed both bewildered and wise. From his photographs of nudes, which were the only works of his I knew at the time, I had imagined someone darker and racier, a David Bailey or Helmut Newton type. It was one of his pictures of The Perfect Parlourmaid he was talking about, images of children, landscapes, air-raid shelters and pubs already having passed before us on the screen. Pratt was the Brandt’s own parlourmaid, a stern, slightly sinister Mrs Danvers sort of figure. But she was not a frightener primarily. The picture had pinned her precisely behind the set table beside her assistant, She was under control, not just as a menial who ruled over little but maintained her self-respect in the ways available to her, but as a psychic force, I thought the picture understood that instinctively. Brandt looking at it, blinked, and said: Anyone could have taken that picture. Anyone. Meaning: You too would have seen what I saw. But to see thus; to remember the precise awe of the awed child and at the same time imagine being the object of that awe is not so easy. Artists do these things for us. They find and redefine the language that makes it possible. If one pays any heed to the proposition that life passes like a dream, or that history is a nightmare from which one is trying to awake (Stephen Dedalus’s words) then such photographs, which arrive like frozen moments out of a pageant of suggestions, may serve to intensify, thicken and clarify that dream.

Brandt does in fact have a photographic essay on dream which is included in his major Barbican retrospective. In a series of pictures a woman rises from her bed, meets a bearded figure on the landing, passes him, or another, on the stairs, She floats out summoned by a dreamers’ moon. It is a poor piece of work. The ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ dream sequence from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 has far more power and punch and makes Brandt’s look rather pallid. Perhaps he is too close to home: talking about dream rather than experiencing it. What he did experience was far closer to reportage, and therefore, paradoxically, for him, more genuinely dreamlike: its complexities reflecting the complex and marginal career of an outsider.

Brandt was that poetic archetype, a sickly and, in some ways, protected child. He was born in Germany to a father who was a British subject and a German mother with interests in the arts. His travels began following his treatment for tuberculosis in 1920, contracted when he was sixteen From Hamburg, his birthplace, he moved to Switzerland and thence to Vienna in 1927 where he was psychoanalysed by. While in Vienna he met Loos, was encouraged into photography by friends and met Ezra Pound who arranged for him to spend some time with Man Ray in Paris. Three months of Parisian Surrealism in Ray’s studio combined with journeys to England, Spain and Hungary provided him with a body of work we know little about and is sparsely represented in the exhibition, though what there is demonstrates a blend of dreamlike humour and theatrical insecurity: a pair of headless mannequins of 1929 in Paris for which Crevel wrote a text, wax figures in a museum, funerary sculpture and gestures of gypsies, beggars in Spain. In Hungary a drunken postman balances himself against the immensity of the plain and a hog rolls in mud.

In 1931 the newly married Brandt and his Hungarian wife, Eva Rakos, settled in England, opting for obscurity in a country where he had no reputation and therefore little work. His career as a photo journalist - albeit never quite a conventional one - was to develop here. Slowly, the commissions arrived and he joined that mass of talented men sent out on assignments to photograph days in various lives, or places and events of interest to the general public. The magazines for which Brandt worked had their own agenda of course. They ranged from the populist Weekly Illustrated, through the documentary Picture Post and the respectably but slyly erotic Lilliput . The caption is always an important element in the reading of pictures and these inevitably tended to simplification: they set out to domesticate and familiarise whereas Brandt’s instinct was to alienate. This should be qualified. At this time Brandt alienates within a secondary context. One finds references to the films of Hitchcock and Cocteau, to other photographers such as Kertész and Brassai, to certain graphic artists and to visual stereotypes derived from childhood. Brandt’s language took time to evolve: it had to work through whatever imagery lay to hand. Ian Jeffrey, in his informed and imaginative catalogue essay, suggests that Stekel’s psychoanalytical method made a lasting impression on Brandt, in that it provided him with an “iconographic depository” that he could ransack. It is a moot question how far a sophisticated man who has spent some time under such analysis can avoid self-consciousness or a programmatic approach to imagery. Perhaps that is precisely why his documentary work was so valuable to him. If, as Jeffrey says, the “whole of Brandt’s career amounted to one long submission of dreams to an imaginary analyst”, and he was “a paraphiliac, in love with the symptoms of his own condition” (which is perfectly possible since his or her own condition is one of the few fixed points in any artist’s mind), it will have come as welcome relief to have been set a given task. It will also explain his progress across genres, and the rather lurching quality of his career.

(to be concluded)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Goodbye to classes

Richard Strauss : Metamorphosen, Studie für 23 Solostreicher. Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan, direction.

Next week we are going to China. I don't know whether I will be able to blog from there. We shall see. But in the last two days I have finished two classes at university before passing them on to colleagues who will complete the term with them.

I feel quite sad at leaving them. In general I enjoy teaching very much - it's a way of talking about what I love anyway and spending time with people who are learning to love it in their own ways.

Can people be taught to write poetry? Not without hearing and reading it first, or at least being aware of it as a quality in perception, so that is where I usually start. And I don't even think of teaching it, not as the passing down of certain precepts. I think good teaching is intelligent conversation with a growing understanding of what might be said and how.

And of course there is the relationship with the people that constitute a class. You cannot get to know them thoroughly. Class isn't that kind of place. But you can like seeing them, talking to them and grow to miss them if they are not there.

People can sense if you like what you are talking about and thinking about. They can sense that the subject matters, that it is about something important, that something gets sorted through in this way of writing, saying or singing, and in talking about it. That in itself it isn't something anyone has to be taught: people know it, but they rarely speak about it. Talking about it can be taught. In poetry, the importance arises out of the speaking. It is like speaking a whale into being. Poetry is the act of speaking things into being, even, at times, becoming the thing that is coming into being.

Poetry is not like political rhetoric or advertising: it isn't there to get you to do things. It isn't even there to get you to be things. It is about how being is possible, in language if nothing else: it is about the kind of being that language can give life to.

So you toss this around the class, with this or that example, often - with luck - with some laughter. Laughter at the sheer ingenuity and cheek of the thing. I don't think poetry is a product of solemnity, but it is serious, deadly serious if you like. It is a properly serious form of laughter. Even the saddest and most tragic of songs is better for that unheard laughter.

Shall we be incongruous with the music. Why not?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

After Durham

First home for lunch and packing and then to London by car to take part in Passing Bells at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, which is quite a place, and supposedly the best acoustics in London.

The occasion was put together by Judith Chernaik of Poems on the Underground. The programme: the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Chernaik playing Barber's Adagio, then Cicely Herbert, Carole Satyamurti and myself reading poems, followed by Bartók's Divertimento for String Orchestra before the interval, and after. Gerard Benson, Tony Harrison reading poems, ending with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen. It's quite a mix. The Barber is well known, the Bartók is spiky and capering and thundery and lyrical and joky, and the Strauss is labyrinthine, ever more labyrinthine, lyrical and heartbreaking.

The poetry is generally pitched towards suffering and loss but in a lively fashion. Tony Harrison in the second half is making a rare appearance, granite-like, monumental.

This note is briefly composed as we are still in London, back later tonight after dinner with friends. I'll add some music or visual later.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Peterborough, the other way - not cool, and yet...


Not the 'third way', just the way back. Brilliant sunshine much of the way, the kind of light that transforms everything it touches, serving up a world that is practically Samuel Palmer-Edenic.

I read a while, then do some codewords, sudoku and crossword for half an hour. There are six ways of travelling: social, working, playing, daydreaming, reading and looking. One moves between these depending on circustances. I do five out of the six.

Having picked up an Indy & a Times I scan the glossy mag. Aaronovitch in hospital etc and get to Hannah Betts. She writes a small envelope sized column in which she declares that couples who think they are cool are not cool. Being single is cool.

My general view on cool is that anything referred to as cool cannot be cool. In short cool is not cool. Not-cool can be cool but as soon as it becomes cool it is not cool. Cool is possibly the least cool thing on earth.

As for Peterborough it is cool in a simple temperature sense. Sunshine gone. No Palmer. Just Peterborough. Cool.

But then at Darlington before, the man in front of me in the shop queue was Steve McClaren. Who is that? asked the girl at the till after he had gone. Steve McClaren, I answered. Her eyes widened just a little. Does it ever get cooler than that?

Friday, 11 November 2011

From Peterborough station

Trying out iPhone Blogger. Grey, misty and cold. No- No-November, the proper service. On way to read at Colpitts in Durham. More later.


Reading very well attended and Many books sold which lightens my load on the way home. Gillian Allnutt there too. 20 min - break - 20 min. Afterwards an Italian meal.

Streets full of the young, the girls in tiny dresses out on the pull or just rehearsing. Boys dressed as for day, haughty or hapless. They run, they loiter, they laugh or frown.

Then it pours down.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

From a forthcoming broadcast on W G Sebald

Three hours in studios today recording a fifteen minute essay on the poetry of W G Sebald, known informally as Max. Three hours because we recorded it three times and because we - meaning Martin, the producer, and I - had to change studios because the first studio at the BBC's Norwich HQ was not only very like a cupboard, about the width of an old fashioned telephone box and full of packing cases, but was noisy with people outside and feet on the floor above. So we gathered up the recording equipment Martin had brought with him and someone kindly showed us to another studio, where we unpacked, Martin set up, and we began again. In the meantime some conversation, some corrections and an initial delay. But I enjoy recordings. I enjoy reading and catch my left hand conducting the script as though it were a lecture or a concert.

The essay is one of a series to mark the tenth anniversary of Max's death. I know Chris Bigsby and Amanda Hopkinson are two of the other essayists. The broadcasts will go out in early December when I will be away in China so I won't hear them but I hope Martin makes a disc of them for me. What I hadn't had a chance to read was what Jo at university showed me yesterday, Iain Galbraith's new translations of Max's selected poems under the title Across the Land and the Water, which comes out this month. The title rather reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor's marvellous Between the Woods and the Water, but that's just by the way.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the talk I recorded today:

...This double nature - the poetic shifting between fact and fiction - seemed to hang about him and about everything he wrote. He was a scholar of German literature, but he was also an author of essayistic fictions based on history and coincidence. In what I had read of him there was always a sense that the floor would fall away and that his complicated, old fashioned, melancholy yet droll voice would fall through with it and we would find ourselves altogether elsewhere in history and geography. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, said Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses. The dreams and nightmares Max was conducting us through were historical, but the history was perceived in terms of accident, coincidence, anecdote and ghosts. History was a way of feeling the world as much as knowing about it.

I sometimes think of Max’s books as haunted magical encyclopedias. It isn’t the story that holds them together, the books are not exactly working towards a climax: it is more that they present us, particularly in his last work, Austerlitz, with intensely seen and felt phenomena that come upon us without warning. Nothing is stable, not even the narrative voice, which is likely to melt into other voices in the course of a sentence. One first becomes conscious of this in The Rings of Saturn where the voices of Michael Hamburger and Sebald wind in and out of each other, with a simple, ‘he said’. Even as I write the words ‘he said’ I note how I have placed the inverted commas around them, rather than, as in normal speech, before or after, around what is actually being said. I think that is appropriate for a voice so insistent yet so evanescent, and one so likely to return to the reader as the reported speech of an encounter behind glass, that intervening glass becoming the very nature of perception...

...Max’s history, the history of the world as he presents it, is the history of suffering. The suffering happens in the real world but is immediately mediated through memory, historical record, art and narrative drift. The suffering is often at second hand but is everywhere, the very air through which we move. Remorseless power and cruelty are the animating factors in his history, leaving behind a trail of vanishings and cries.

The ghost world is, however, lodged in a material one whose physical substance is an object of wonder. The sheer welter of phenomena, the orderings of the natural system as well as the orderings of the museums and palaces of art, are constantly brought before us. The whole place shimmers with it. Reading him made it shimmer.

All summings-up are unsatisfactory. The best you can do is hit a phrase or two that seems to be right and try to knit them together as best you can. Having said that, I do like the radio essay as a voice turning things over. I hope this series goes well.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The music vanishes

Constantin Cavafy

The god forsakes Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

- Constantine P. Cavafy (1911) tr Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

The university is to close down its music department. The students staged a touching demonstration today in front of the council chamber. They had three brass, a violin and a lot of drums. At one point they broke into Miles Davis. I was watching them from my window, as it isn't my normal day in, and was about to attend the meeting which was the reason for my presence. Even from the window it was loud and poignant and sweet.

The ant said to the grasshopper: now dance! But there was no music, so the ant turned over into a dreamless sleep from which there was no waking.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mouse Dreaming

I will be doing a collection for children next year. In gathering together poems I came across some oddities that are not necessarily children's poems but are not quite something else either. This is one such:

Mouse Dreaming

Small as I am
I have such dreams
under the stairs,

the grey mouse screams.

In the dark hall
coats wave
empty sleeves,
enormous and grave.

But mouse just twitches
the end of his nose.
Well, dreams are for fulfilment,
I suppose.

There is a memory there of Edith Sitwell's piece from Facade:

Madam Mouse trots,
Gray in the black night!
Madam Mouse trots:
Furred is the light.
The elephant-trunks
Trumpet from the sea....
Gray in the black night
The mouse trots free.
Hoarse as a dog's bark
The heavy leaves are furled....
The cat's in his cradle,
All's well with the World!

And a very early poem of my own about silver fruit falling from branches with a soft sound

that stifles the screaming of mice

That comes from 'News for Signor Mouse', my first ever poem to appear in The Times Literary Supplement, in 1973.

But then sometimes it is people (Ladeees!!!) who scream at mice, certainly in cartoons, so screaming and mice may go together like sugar and spice.

For children? What are children? Are they those small things that run around in playground? Ah, those! There's one running around in the playground inside me. He must have written the poem. Perhaps it will please him.


A lot of radio work at the moment. Yesterday recorded an interview for Radio 4, a programme about poetry at time of war and other stress. Very nice producer came from Brighton. We recorded in my university office. On Thursday I record a Radio 3 essay about the poetry of W G Sebald.

Monday, 7 November 2011

One is... a flirtation

Liverpool, October 2011

One is, as one knows, a phenomenon among other phenomena in the world. In that respect one is strange and surprising. It is odd to find oneself here, or anywhere that constitutes a 'here'. It is odd to find oneself popping up in mirrors, in reflections in train or shop windows, in other people's photographs of one. One might be accused of a certain solipsism but one may be be both subject and object at once, the object observed by the subject, and that is peculiar, isnt it?

I write this - or one writes it - because I have got into the habit of taking an iPhone photo of myself when I am away somewhere, passing through hotels, in the mirror over the bathroom basin say, as a kind of evidence that I have, after all, been somewhere, passed through a space.

Is there vanity in this? There is always a little vanity, not in imagining any specific thing to be vain about - there isn't much after all - but in the very fact of noticing oneself / myself / yourself-as-self at all.

The world, after all, is endlessly fascinating, and now that I am at least two-thirds through my life, it seems more brilliant, more extraordinary, more temporary than ever. I look at the grass and note its greenness, and of course it is green since that is what grass is, and yet it is odd to be in a world that has green grass, and earth, and houses made of brick, and, above all, the light in which these objects sit, as though it were light that had made them. Light is strange and shapes are strange - strange that one discerns them, strange that one is oneself a shape.

I think I have felt both more loving and more detached recently. I love what I love, love the flesh of those I love, the thought of them, with a kind of lost delight, a delight that is also a losing. I also feel more detached, even from myself, from the consciousness that registers me.

It has never been different in some ways. I have been carrying around this coin with love on one side and detach on the other for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is simply getting heavier. And brighter. Like language - the language I am writing at this very moment - in which something comes into being, something perfectly transient yet always in the process of becoming.

I have seen a number of friends die. Both my parents die. And something goes with them yet the love and detachment remain. I dare call it love because I don't know what else to call it, this pain that is directed and radiant, that knows it is what we have in common. And feeling that, seeing oneself feel it, is a form of detachment.

Horseman, pass by, said Yeats. Ok then, horse. Go, horse!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Munich and forgetting: Phlebas

Let's get this out of the way. The associations are hardly good. There are the beer halls and Hitler with his long murderous marches down Ludwigstrasse, the Manchester United Munich air crash of 1958, and the Munich Olympics of 1972.

It is one thing to remember events in an official way, another to forget them in a private way. We are almost eighty years on from those marches. I am never sure of the value of forcing one generation to take on the guilt of another, nor of bathing old streets that now bear new names in the light that once damned them. I suspect it breeds a resentment that is, in the long run (say two or three generations on) likely to fester, until it results in new hatred. I am as deeply suspicious of statements such as The Germans are... as of The English are, or the Irish are... Not that there are no characteristics of any particular people but that they are never the sole ones, and are likely to be mixed up with characteristics that are entirely contrary. To limit a group to just one set of stereotypes, however fitting the stereotype in this or that case, is to be willfully stupid. It is, in effect, to continue the Nazi example, to damn all by caricature.

Munich suffered considerable destruction in the latter stages of the war (there is a set of postcards showing some it here). Little of that heavy grandeur remains now. There is the 1860's Rathaus in Neo-Gothic style, some restrained counter-reformation baroque churches, extremely rich in detail that is neatly contained in architectural panels, and some civic and commercial buildings, but the main impression is a kind of coolness, the colours generally varieties of silver and grey, the geometry quiet but firm, based almost entirely on the unadorned rectangle, everything planned, in proportion, and neatly fitting, almost sterile.

Sometimes I thought it was a civic disappearing act, the buildings so light, so unassertive, they were hardly there. Against a neutral sky they would vanish into neutrality. But then the firm geometries would slowly bring them back into reckoning. It is an architecture that consciously refuses to refer to the dangerous grandiosities of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Underneath them the shops in the shopping streets continue their elegant dialogue with sobriety. Black, white and grey with just a dash of sober green or dark vermilion. My bright green scarf was like a shrill whistle in the middle of a secular church service. People wait conscientiously at traffic lights even when nothing is coming. It is partly fear of the police but much more a kind of social understanding that life is better when rules are, to some extent at least, internalised. It is good manners.

The conformities are civil and decent. There remain the consciously Bavarian old in their hats and hunting jackets, and the waiters and waitresses in the big beer halls with their indulgence of folklor as a submerged, or at least contained, ardency. But these are exceptions. The young are relaxed and friendly. There is a great deal more smoking than in England now. There is a readiness to smile and engage in conversation where appropriate.

Do I forget and forgive Munich for my parents and all that lost family? There is nothing to forgive as far as my own generation and anyone younger goes. We are civilised people who can be intelligent and affectionate with each other. And we remember the heroic Scholls and those who, in Hans Fallada's book, Alone in Berlin, stood up and were counted at the cost of their lives when the monster arose.

Forgetting is a different matter, but I don't make any fuss of it, nor do I prepare myself for such visits by reminding myself of histories I know perfectly well at unconscious level. There is something horribly cheap about indulging history. History, after all, is much longer than our lives or our parents' lives and reaches beyond the personal. It runs in deep currents and counter-currents. It's salutary to know - in fact it is necessary - that it is cold down there where Phlebas the Phoenician rots and that currents undersea pick his bones in whispers.

Human kindness remains, and human good intentions. Consider Phlebas then, who was handsome and tall and not altogether unlike you, smiling over a table, brimming with warmth, offering to pay for the drinks.

Main sites back on

That was a strange vanishing act but both my main website ( and Clarissa's ( are back on. That may be due to Tom's prestidigitation or the return of a repentant host. My money is on the former.

A little more about Munich later today.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Main site missing

The host of my main website has vanished up its own hosting device, but the site itself is in the safe keeping of son Tom, and will shortly be up and running again with a new host.

Fortunately the archive of the blog/news part that goes back to 2003 is also safe and we may be able to make those available too. The British Library has been keeping track of the site for some years now.

The same but different for C's website that will have a new host and a new look. The change will take a couple of days or so.

After Munich 1

Café Puck, Türkenstrasse, Munich

I couldn't get Blogger to work from my iPhone in Munich so am catching up. I did make some notes though, which follow (inset passage), with some later additions before and after.


The journey is easy. We park the car at Stansted in mid afternoon, fly on time, get the S-bahn into Marienplatz, then the U-bahn to the university - The university itself is just round the corner so the whole area is full of students - and walk the ten minutes or so to the hotel. Wide streets, not too much traffic, easy ambience, but it being dark we don't see very much except lit shops and the sky above with its half-moon waxing.

Having checked in at Das Hotel in Türkenstrasse - a nicely old fashioned hotel in some respects, with dark folk-arty colours and post-Biedermeier furniture, while perfectly modern in other respects (wifi in rooms) - we drop in to the Cafe Puck next door (pictured above). It is essentially a student bar, with lovely friendly staff, that serves food till 11 pm. The café is a typical long deep space across a roofed courtyard, the feel bohemian, the menu quite cheap. I immediately fall in love with it. We have a Spanish omelette, Bavarian style, because we are not particularly hungry. The food is good, but it was good everywhere in Munich and certainly a great deal better than the sandwich easyJet had offered as tea.

The next day, after breakfast, we went for a walk around the block before being met by my host Helge N, now professor at the LMU, and he took us through various parts of the building including the great classical atrium where Sophie and Hans Scholl of the White Rose movement publicly distributed leaflets against the Nazis for which they were beheaded.

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst of The White Rose group.

(Munich was Bolshevik before it was Nazi, but more of that later.)

This is what I wrote but couldn't post:

Hotel room. Night after a very long day. Talk at noon was a quarter of an hour short of two hours to a packed lecture hall of well over a hundred students plus some staff with the Romanian translator and psycho-linguistics scholar Aprilia Zank in the audience, I read some poems and talked without notes about the idea of truth as we might meet it in poems, about the strangeness, provisionality and compulsiveness of language, about translation and recognition of form, and a little about form itself. I know the territory: it is mostly a matter of clarity and pitch. I think it went very well.

I had first met Helge at the Walberberg Conference that I attended in 2004 and which opened the way to Germany. I think I was invited to Berlin first but it was Helge who arranged my first German tour, starting in Dusseldorf and Munster, moving on to Regensburg. (I lose track now - a few readings in Berlin over the years, but then also Freiburg and Bonn and Cologne and Bremen and Frankfurt, all in four or five visits.) It is very good to see Helge again. He has published a history of English literature since then that is now used in universities, what is more he wrote it in English.

He had to teach after 2pm so his colleague Daniela J takes C and I, and Aprilia to the poetry library, the wonderful Lyrik Kabinett, which has not only a marvellous collection of poetry but of photographs and art works too. Here we are shown gems of the artists' books collection and sit and talk for an hour.

Afterwards we meet Helge at a nearby pastry shop and he walks us into the city centre, visiting two churches along the way. We go to Marienplatz and sit in the Glockenspiel Cafe, wait for the glockenspiel of the rathaus to work, but nothing moves. All the time we are talking - about poetry, about film, about children, about the universities, about history and politics - and end up in a very crowded, very Bavarian restaurant where our elderly waitress spills some food and brings enormous glasses of weissbier, which has all the lightness of champagne combined with all the menace of beer.

I am very tired now. More detail tomorrow.

I was indeed very tired and didn't sleep well. Nor the next night.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

From Yang Lian to Munich

Yang Lian at Pen USA

Yesterday's reading with Yang Lian was a splendid romp. We were both to read a couple of our own poems along with translations of them, plus our translations of others. It was a very hybrid, partly impromptu affair. Lian had tranaslated, and read, two of my poems, I hadn't translated any of his yet - that is to come in Shanghai, later in the month. He is, as many will know, a spirited and expressive reader, full of energy, riding the rhythms and melodic values of his poems in the Chinese. His several translators have done pretty good jobs and one of W N Herbert's translations of Lian's poem A Night in the Purple Tulip Palace (Adagio) struck me as a particularly fine, virtuosic work in itself (that sucked/duct rhyme for example is neatly piched), paralleling, through not sounding like, the original. Antoinette remarked afterwards how deep, sonorous and in fact adagio the original was. It's true that Bill's was set higher, sprightlier, being more tenor than baritone, but that gave no less pleasure.

That leaves a fascinating question hanging about voice, and demonstrates what a wide range of options there is for the translator. Options and responsibilities. At best, I suspect, translation is the meeting point of two auditory imaginations, the receiving imagination's pleasure being to release the appropriate genius of the receiving language in the act of understanding and writing. Because you can't take the writing - the process of writing the translation as a piece of writing - out of the equation. There may be a more adagio version of this poem poem that Lian desribed as 'decadent', to be discovered in translation. What we are reading in Bill's translation is the Yang Lian (W N Herbert) poem. But it's a very good poem. The poem of two very fine poets. There may be - and almost certainly are - more to be found. But I got on very well with this, and my own auditory imagination is better for it.

Off to Munich in a couple of hours.