Sunday 30 January 2011

Kinks: Waterloo Sunset / poetry and verse

Waterloo Sunset (May, 1967)

I think this is the masterpiece among many outstanding Kinks songs. That may be partly because of its great popularity at the time and because of its lasting power since (I remember a poet friend - a pretty hard headed man - talking about it in reverential tones) but it's not the remembered popularity, nor the fact that it has hung around that makes it so potent now.

So what is it then? The lyrics are simple:

Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night
People so busy, makes me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
But I don't need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise

Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don't want to wander
I stay at home at night
But I don't feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise

Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine

Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don't need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise

Waterloo sunset's fine

Song lyrics don't have to be poems. Sometimes - heaven knows! - I prefer to think of verse and poetry as related but distinct forms. In this sense the poetic is simply the articulation of anything to which a kind of poetics might be applied. The poetic experience then refers to poetics, while the art of verse refers both to poetics and to prosody.

The poetics level is what everyone means when they exclaim: That's sheer poetry, that is! or Wow! Poetry in motion! Such a poetic may be produced by prose (by the prose poem for the most obvious instance) but it might just as easily be produced by a mere sentence, or by two words; or by a piece of music - a few notes might do - or a painting, a film or a photograph, or an actual scene - a glimpse might be enough, perhaps a glimpse above all!

I wouldn't myself quite know how to apply the basic terms of poetics to, say, a shout in the street, but I believe it might be attempted and that the poetic exists in this form and that somehow, in the experience of the poetic, we are presented with the apprehension of a whole parallel world that is a version of this one, but one in which all the important qualities are both distilled and focused. Verse then is the art of forming language into patterns whose chief purpose is to produce the poetic. I am a poet, so I write verse.


Waterloo Sunset is a song that exists within its own milieu, which is that of the cheap music Noel Coward talked about in terms of potency, though not so cheap neither. There is something in the lyrics about fear and safety, about a couple we are introduced to by their very ordinary first names, about another character - the singer - watching from the window and losing himself in a reverie, looking at the dirty old river by Waterloo Station which is not in itself, in my own opinion at least, an especially beautiful sight. It is all everyday, all familiar.

The familiar is rarely the poetic: it has to be reinvented and seen afresh, not in an idealised form of itself but just as it is, so it may be believed in. Many places in America have been sung and believed in, albeit in a different way, in the sense that even for Americans, they retained something of the exotic: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tulsa, Memphis Tennessee and so forth. England isn't like that. London as a concept might be exotic for Americans (say in Gershwin's A Foggy Day in London Town) but in England itself, in song at least, what is on offer has been validated primarily by fondness of association and by a sense of mortality - that nightingale in Berkeley Square, for instance. Later, in punk, it could be seen as a site for potential revolt (cf The Clash's London Calling)

Waterloo Sunset was released in the same year as The Beatles Penny Lane. Like Waterloo Sunset, Penny Lane offers ordinary places as objects of affection and substance, though Penny Lane is just as interested in the quirky as in the ordinary. Nevertheless, both songs turn their face to places that are in themsleves unglamorous and perfectly common. They do so with affection but without sentimentality. I suppose you could trace the immediate roots of the feeling back to the British cinema of the early Sixties (A Taste of Honey, for example) and, before that, to Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse...

That turning of the face was extraordinary in pop: a democratic assertion of what was lyrically valid in the here and now, not in the exotic but in us.


Waterloo Sunset is a song not a poem. Its poetic depends on the music and on the quality of Ray Davies's voice. As always the intro riff is vital to prepare us for the entry of the voice, and then it's like being on the bridge, on a slightly rainy day, aware of both one's own solitude and of the solitude of lives everywhere - a consciousness The Beatles shared. Davies's frail, quavery voice has lodged itself in its perfect location. The edge of barbed wire we heard in You Really Got Me is still there. It is not a pathetic voice: it understands the material and delivers it to maximum effect. It is not sophisticated music in an abstract sense: it is as precisely sophisticated as it needs to be. Terry and Julie have vanished in the Sixties, but in other ways they have never gone. Nor has the fear, the solitude, or the beauty.

Saturday 29 January 2011

The Imaginarium of the Doctors of Parnassus: on judging process

A last word on the NPS competition, for now at least. I think it is in order to describe the elements of the judging process, at least of this particular one, in broad terms.

Before the meeting all three judges had been asked to make a list of fifty to take forward to the final session. There were of course poems just outside the fifty (I had shrunk my thousands down to a little over eighty, then had to discard thirty, which was in itself a very hard decision) that might very well have been in the fifty but just missed it at the end.

Each judge's fifty is sent to the other two (each judge has seen two-thirds of the poems and not seen one-third: every poem submitted has been seen by two judges), so, with some overlap we are, by the time the meeting comes around, looking at something like a hundred-and-twenty poems, give or take overlaps.

This is the point, before the meeting takes place, when I start marking by percentages. I do it out of the desire to create some semblance of precedence and to set my mind in order. Even at this stage individual poems move up and down the ladder, but eventually I have marks ranging from the sixties to the eighties. I don't think other judges do that, but this is how I personally manage this time.

When it comes to the meeting we decide that each judge should propose a personal top twenty. This decision is taken in the meeting, which is just the judges and no-one else present. No one tells us what to do or how to do it. It's a reasonable way of proceeding. I look at my marking and take the top twenty, still with doubts about the precedence between those and the ones a mark or so under. I recall how the poems had slipped up and down the ladder before and wonder whether they might do so again. They do, because some of the others' top twenties did not make it into mine.

As it happens there is only one poem in our joint top twenties on which all three agree, but for none of us was it number one. There are several poems where two agree and one doesn't. It doesn't have to happen like this but we can't discuss over a hundred poems in equal detail, and this method works.


This is where the discussion really begins. In what terms does the discussion proceed? I'll list some of the terms, none of them official criteria (we don't have official criteria and other judges might have different ones), nor are they in order of precedence. The 'criteria' themselves slide up and down the ladder of importance as discussion proceeds.

  • artistry in terms of construction - something beautifully made out of whatever material
  • consistency and coherence throughout the poem in terms of material
  • freshness and originality of perception
  • a certain passionate depth at the core of the experience articulated by the poem
  • the establishing, variety, flexibility and sustaining of voice
  • controlled excitement in language and vision arising out of the development of the poem
  • pure personal delight

To repeat, these are not criteria as such, but do seem to have been some of the main qualities discussed. Not in these words. Every judge employs whatever terms seem right and natural to them. I have my way of talking, so do others. Furthermore, each individual judge will set those 'criteria' into a slightly different personal order in general, an order that might change again in the case of individual poems. So, when considered in the light of one of these criteria, those that seem to have become particularly appropriate in the case of this or that poem, this or that poem might 'move into the light'.

As soon as it does so it is subjected to a strict examination. Those who first advocated the poem in any of the available terms now listen while those who are less convinced address the poem again and point out its weakness in this or that respect.

And so it goes on. So poems move up and down the order until it seems we have agreed on the top three or four and even on their order of precedence. That can take more hours of course.

Nothing we decide is of eternal or objective validity. It has no objective validity outside of the process itself. The result is what the process has produced. Given more hours the process might have produced a different result. We are not gods. We are civilised people, poets entrusted with a task, who have behaved well to each other, putting our cases for and against. We have not tried to intimidate each other. We have listened as hard as we could. Sometimes we changed our minds - but there was nothing set in stone about our minds before we started - and we hope that when we did so it was for the better.

Others before us might have conducted the process and themselves differently, as might others to come. We are tired. We feel it's been an honest day's work. We are as sure as anyone can be that not only are we not gods, we are not even deities of a minor kind. We are perfectly fallible human beings and we might be wrong. Juries often are. There are, in any case, important things beyond all this fiddle, and that is true for every poet that has entered the competition. But this was the given competition and we have done our best.

Gray and Keys

There have been, and generally continue to be, though to a lesser degree, occupations traditionally dominated by women and by men. There is no need, I think, to produce too many examples: cosmetics has been generally a woman's job, removing your bins a man's. There is no theoretical reason it should be so but I would be making a pretty sure bet if I gambled on the next refuse disposal officer turning up at the house being male and the next beauty parlour worker being female.

In these occupations it is natural for there to be a certain banter and even expression of playful, or, more rarely, real contempt for the other sex. How banter passes over into playful contempt or real contempt is hard to tell. No doubt there are tensions between women and men, and always have been, tensions and misunderstandings that find a social outlet one way or another, most often in jokes. Jokes naturally employ stereotypes, because jokes about specific individuals will only work when referring to stereotype. It is no secret that jokes are relief valves in oppressive societies: the dark jokes of what used to be Eastern Europe are collected in many books, some of them novels and poems.

The nineteenth century fishwives of Great Yarmouth or Grimsby or Hull will have made such jokes about their husbands and about the male sex in general. In each other's company they will have given vent to playful and real contempt. Nor do they need to have been fishwives back in history. I don't have to quote too many instances of women expressing contempt for men. Television, radio and the press are full of it. Most of it is friendly enough banter, the letting off of steam, especially when among friends when a certain competition may arise about having the most outrageous complaint, which is then also a cause of laughter.

In the same way, though different in manner, the miners and navvies of the same period would have talked about women to much the same purpose. The jokes would have been perpetuated in working men's clubs as much as in upper class clubs, or indeed anywhere men were gathered together without women present.

The situation becomes more complicated when a member, or few members - yet still a great minority - of the opposite sex is employed in the same workplace. It makes no difference whether these are men or women providing their rank is roughly equal and one or other is in a clear minority.

This is, as will be clear by now, about the sacking of the two Sky Sports presenters who doubted the ability of women officials to understand the offside rule and, in Gray's case, because he made a faintly lewd suggestion to a female colleague.

I don't have Sky, I don't therefore watch Sky Sports, nor do I have any liking for the two presenters judging by what little I have heard of them.

As concerns the remark about women officials and the offside rule, it is of course a stupid, disparaging thing to say, but it is not about contempt for women as a whole: it is about women's competence in a traditionally male profession. Stupid and disparaging, as I say, though how serious is hard to tell from the clip.

The second offence, which, I imagine, was the more serious, though again clearly not very serious, as there are many people in the studio, is more the kind of thing that might have gone on, and might still, on the shopfloor with either sex, women teasing men, men teasing women. Gray is a working class man, more shopfloor than office (nevertheless currently working in an office of sorts)

It is quite right that the two presenters should have been punished in some way, and quite right that they should apologise. Primarily, they should both apologise to the female assistant referee, and Gray to the woman to whom the lewd remark was made, Whether they then apologise to the world is neither here nor there - that kind of apology is pure hypocrisy both on their part and the world's. They should certainly undertake not to make such remarks again while at work. Why, because cumulatively such remarks might be intimidating.

Whether the men should have been sacked is another question. This morning Jim Naughtie pushed a female interviewee as to whether two women in an office corridor, making similar remarks about men, should be sacked. She didn't answer of course, but clearly thought they shouldn't. It was a one-way street to her.

But you needn't go to the corridor, Jim. There is no secret about the female disparagement of men - men's general incompetence and unsuitability for anything. It is the daily business of the press, the television, the radio and film. I have been through all this before so I won't go over the territory again. Nothing of the opposite is permitted to men about women. It is, in effect, a thought crime.

I don't even feel particularly strongly about the sacking, but I do register the round ripe loud condemnations of Gray and Keys as a particularly splendid piece of twenty-first century piety.

Friday 28 January 2011

Back lateish from...

...London, of course. The process of judging with others is an amplification of the arguments one has with oneself, but from different angles. There is minute examination of the poems with the greatest claims on us, attempts to persuade one another of the virtue of this or that, the whole event somehow organic in that it is constantly moving this way and that as though the decisions were live creatures, now out in the sunshine, now sheltering under rocks. And then a beam of light hits one or other poem, or part of poem, and it looks quite different again. Eventually, after a long time, Sinead flies back to Belfast, I get the train back to Norfolk and Deryn spends the night in London before returning to Liverpool.

The train from King's Cross to Cambridge is always a nightmare from late afternoon to mid-evening. You wait around under the main departure board not knowing whether your train will depart from the main hall or from the suburban platforms - they don't tell you till ten minutes before departure and it takes a few minutes to rush over to the suburbans should the train go from there - as it did today. Then there are no seats, and you stand in the packed carriage which is far too hot, and there's no room to take off your coat or to park your bag, and if you get the quarter past the hour train there is the constant anxiety of missing the eight-minute connection time to the Norwich line, which I have done often enough.

I did find a seat today, possibly the only one left on the train, but that was because the man in the aisle seat had put his heavy bag in the window seat, and I politely asked if I might sit down. He was cheery enough but tired like me, and nodded off now and then. Unfortunately the seat was right under the blower that was pumping out heat enough to bake bread.

At Cambridge we unwedge ourselves and pour out onto the platform. Having got the earlier train I have twenty-five minutes or so to wait. The waiting room is dingy and full of half-empty paper cups and plates, empty packets and left over food, with serviettes on the floor. The poor young man minding the bar has no time to get out and clean anything because he's on his own. I read David Harsent while nibbling something. It is however true that Cambridge is better than Ely, which in turn is better than Thetford, than which I suspect, little is worse.

On the way home I read more Harsent then listen to Talking Heads. Myself, I am talked out.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Farewell to the 8,000

This is the last time I blog about this because tomorrow the judges of the National Poetry Competition meet to decide winners etc, so from then on in it will be the occasional reflection on the experience.

In order to prepare for the meeting I look at the 140 odd poems on the long list again and having marked them once, mark them again. I try to put the sheets into mark order, then make a spreadsheet to enter every poem, with number (since the writers are anonymous), title of poem, whether the poem was my choice or of one of the others (I don't know which of the other two, the percentage mark and a note or two if necessary.

In so doing I change my mind over a few of the poems again, re-mark, and reorder the spreadsheet. I suppose I could carry on doing this for the rest of my life. I don't mind doing the fiddly business. It is a little like I imagine knitting might have been for some women. It keeps the fingers busy and produces something tidy and useful if unspectacular. My spreadsheet table is the the equivalent of a pair of warm socks. This is what I have been doing all day, hardly stirring from my desk.

The mechanics of thinking are often a way of avoiding more thinking. The typing in of letters and figures, the arranging of rows and columns, would be hell in eternity, but as necessary pabulum for a tired brain, it works a treat. Now when I arrive tomorrow I won't be scrambling after lost pieces of paper, and the meeting will be shorter, and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.

I have three current favourite political bloggers, Norm, Plump and Bob all offering something of interest.

Tomorrow to London again for all the above. Good luck to whoever emerges as winner, runner up or commended. I am going to commend a lot of people.

C - A Birthday Pic

Clarissa on eve of 62nd birthday

By way of the miracles of iPhone (and nature, and her permission.)

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Black Swan - a review of sorts

So, since it was C's birthday we thought we'd go and see a film, then have a meal. What film? Whatever sounded decent and was in the right place at the right time. This turned out to be the much-praised The Black Swan.

It certainly gets a lot of critical approval at iMDb. I should confess that there have been several times in the course of my life when I have felt a strong urge to walk out of a film and breathe the fresh air - and have in fact done so now and then - and had it not been C's birthday, I think I would have been out like a shot after about ten minutes. Nor, reader, did it get better for me after that.

To call the film an insult to the intelligence is to err on the side of charity. The story involves a brilliant - or so we are told - ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) who lives with her dominating, smother of a mad mother. Dancer is in line for leading role as The Swan in Swan Lake. The trouble is, as the director of the company tells her, marvellous as she would be as the virginal, in every way perfect, White Swan she utterly lacks the sinuous wickedness that might enable her to make the necessary switch to the predatory temptress that is Black Swan. Terrible crisis! Her sheltered life, her fear and frigidity (so we understand) means she is doomed to remain mummy's girl, because mummy - who is a failure - rather fancies keeping daughter as fellow failure at home.

I trust you can see where this is heading? It takes about ten minutes to work out on a particularly slow-thinking night. What the girl needs is sex and drugs and rock and roll. Fellow dancer and rival, Mila Kunis, is on hand to take a shot at persuading her to it, but the effort is so hard that poor Natalie Portman goes mad (mad you hear me? mad!!!) which just goes to show what lack of sex and drugs and rock and roll plus an overdose of mummy does to a gal. The simple trick she misses - though we don't miss it of course - is, hey, what you need is a good occasional fuck, preferably from an ignoramus. Or, far better, from the magnificent, faintly Byronic director, whose role in the ballet might just resemble the role of the director of the film.

Polanski's Repulsion (1965) worked on a similar idea but the girl there (Catherine Deneuve) was a cosmetics assistant rather than the more significant virgin princess in a world-famous corps de ballet. That was a good film. The sex angle was hinted at and quickly understood but it wasn't turned into a parable with gorblimey special effects. It was just the Deneuve character's (and her victims') bad luck, not a moral lesson in life.

There was also, some three years later, a piece of puffed-up pretension, Girl on a Motorcycle, with Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull, to which my teenage self was drawn because of the promised prospect of seeing Marianne naked for a brief second. But even then, reader, I knew the film was utter dross, with some French philosophe (possibly a take on Georges Bataille meeting D H Lawrence) making enigmatic remarks about the dark power of sex. At the end of the film Faithfull is having near orgasms on a motorbike when she crashes, splat. Now there's a lesson for you.

It is the Faithfull film that anyone should think of in contemplating this heap of spectacular banality masquerading as grand, self-conscious profundity. If you are happy with that you will not be disappointed, not for a second.

The meal was great.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

After Roethke

It is C's birthday today. This is for her, a meditation on Theodore Roethke's marvellous poem, 'I knew a woman, lovely in her bones':

A Fantasy After Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)...

..Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one,
But that’s just movement as the cat performs,
Beauty enough for cats, for anyone
Because a movement can be more than one
And several is how they spent the day.
And she was several, far more than one,
Just more perhaps of one than anyone
In terms of movement, nothing standing still
For long enough, though they themselves stood still
While moving on, refusing just the one
Mode of movement or fixity of place
And so they kept on moving, place to place.

And this is where they were. This was the place
Where she was moving, every movement one
With the next, each fitting into place
Then shifting on; discarding sense of place.
And he stood by, seeing how grace performs
Itself, and knows its place beyond the place
Provided for it, never perfect place.
You love the many and you love the one
But many may be focused into one.
You want the thing, you want it in a place.
You want it how you want it, to be still,
As poised, he thought, and constant as if still

In movement, loving all that remained still
In her, her sense of being in a place,
Not of it, and the sense he made was still
A point of stillness in her being still.
So when she moved it was more ways than one,
He noted, as she moved by being still.
One might move so and yet remain quite still
He said. It’s life that holds her and performs
The daily ritual she herself performs,
And she performs herself beyond the one
Still moment of performance in the day
That moves past her and will not spare a day.

But this was where she moved, it being day
She moved through, as though perfectly at one
With day, and it with her, day after day,
With nights to come, the body of the day
Turning to sleep and image in the place
They lay and moved in, in a dream of day
Working its way through body and the day
As though her body, his dream, and day were one.
Most time is timeless. Time knows only one
Mode of being, rushing through the day
Ticking off items, the function it performs
Performable, but not what she performs.

They were, he thought, what permanence performs
When permanence is saved for just one day.
So day performs, so anything performs
Itself by moving, being what performs,
Because performance is like standing still
While moving. And so everything performs:
Movement, stillness, whatever thing performs
What happens. And it happens in this place
Or that, the whole being only the place
She moves in and, by moving in, performs.
So she, he thought, must clearly be the one
Who holds the movement still, as if at one

With both the stillness and the movement, one
Moment here or there, then the whole place.
Her body moved, and then she stopped quite still,
Still as the world compacted into day,
Her several parts and all that day performs.

Yes, a canzone, writhing about itself, trying to explore every last small avenue of meaning in those wonderful lines of sensuality and delight.

So, Walcott...

A great poet is a great poet and I have yet to read the book, an omission that will rapidly be corrected. For me it would have been fine for any one of four, which four I am not revealing.

Before the prize-giving I was giving an afternoon reading in a North London girls' school. It's all wonderfully civilised and intelligent. Some ideas about poetry, and reading relatively few poems so that there might be a chance to talk. Blissful and quite short.

Having arrived early I stopped for a drink at a pub so declaredly Irish, with flags from Irish counties everywhere, I almost felt I had stumbled into an evangelist's tent. Are you saved, brother? Come in under the shadow of this shamrock, and I will show you...

Monday 24 January 2011

From a hotel room...

By Euston Square as it happens. The room is small and inevitably makes me think of the Sisyphus experience in the poem below. Yesterday at the Eliot readings it seemed as if I knew half the capacity audience of the RFH. Familiar faces and greetings everywhere. And poetry is often regarded as the lonely art, "exercised in the still night".

And that is of course true. I doubt whether a fully socialised being can be a poet. There is something utterly solitary at the heart of poetry, which may be why I cannot quite come to terms with the matey tone that appears in some poets some of the time. The sound of singing in the locked room of the head is more to the point. The channels of communication are underground or a kind of sonics. However open the verse is, however apparently convivial, at core it is alone in the valley of its saying. Yes, even the socially urbane Byron, perhaps especially him.

I must say that I was particularly impressed by Sam Willetts last night. For precisely the reasons above.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Instead of Saturday

Judging and Marking

Quite forgot to post yesterday, most of the time being taken with a close to four-hour meeting (five with travel) up town, then the final stages of reading through the short-long list for the National Poetry competition. By this point every one of those 100+ poems is good and you begin to feel any choice between them is likely to be invidious. So you imagine yourself an editor with only so much space in a book or magazine and you look for such hidden strands of ruthlessness as you only ever need to argue with yourself. Even then it is a horrible job, so you start putting percentage marks on every poem, as though these were submissions in a class where that was the obligatory procedure.


Do I have firm criteria for my marking? Well, I guess, being me as opposed to being anyone else, there are my own instinctive criteria that are actually very hard to break down into components. And this reminds me that it is just as difficult to do that with actual educational marking, though this is exactly what people are supposed to do in most of real education.

When the movement to devise highly specific objectives and criteria each of which had to be marked separately and then totted up, first entered the system - some twenty or more years ago, I think - I recall wondering how it would work with actual works of art. Take Picasso Demoiselle d'Avignon, and award percentage marks for Assessment Objectives such as: a) development of ideas, b) appropriate use of resources, c) recording insights relevant to intentions, d) presenting a personal, informed and meaningful response. You do so by breaking down each individual Objective (worth 20 marks each) into ten highly prescribed marking criteria. To write them all down takes two A4 sheets, there being altogether some forty descriptors. OK, you have half an hour. It's called transparency. It is also a form of madness.

I do not question the idea that, whatever the work in front of us, we do pay attention to specific elements of it, it is just that we do not employ definitive descriptors of each element separately - that is if we have articulated each element distinctly in the first place - then add them up to make a total. You can carry on subdividing and subdividing. Lovers of small numbers, Auden noted, go benignly potty. It is the lovers of the big numbers, the actual system makers, that are stark, staring, frothing-at-the-mouth mad.

It comes down, does it not ladies and gentlemen of the jury, to a matter of trust. Do you trust the people you have entrusted with the marking, or do you prescribe and micro-manage every last detail for them just to make sure they are not all the scoundrels and incompetents you expect them to be? Best to safe, you know.

If I had to use any such system for 8000 poems I would be here next year. But then I wouldn't take the job on. Now here I am on percentage marks, instinctive percentages, nothing under 60%, very few under 70% and a few hovering a little over 80%. It's almost exactly like university marking. Do I have a personal winner yet to be debated with the other judges? No, not yet. But I do have some 80%+s. So it will be back to reading them all over again before the judges' meeting.

Trimalchio's Globes

I note in passing the rallying round Ricky Gervais in defence of his performance at the Golden Globe awards. I catch the radio this morning and Dom Joly's airy line that Americans are sycophantic simpletons stuck in their own little bubble and it takes a gritty Brit to tell them the truth about their false gilded selves. A little later an American guest on the same show makes a minor remark about the queen not being likely to meet the Middleton parents till the wedding, and wonders - since it is alien life they have just been talking about - whether the queen is an alien. The others in the studio, there to review the press, which seems essentially to have meant a review of the Independent on Sunday, are hardly monarchists, I suspect, but you can practically hear the indrawing of breath as if to gasp, The queen is our own alien, Yanks go home!

For my money Gervais is rather splendid, like something, perfectly appropriately, out of Petronius's Satyricon, a jester at Trimalchio's Feast (apropos of which this is, erm, not the original as in Petronius, but very beautiful). Well, indeed, Gervais plays nightmare to the dream factory and it adds a touch of danger but, on the other hand, there are circumstances where nothing is safer than scandal.

There remains the interesting question of the possible reaction to hiring an American comic to introduce the BAFTAS in the same way. Would it be quite so easy for the Joly Brits to find themselves being generalised about by Americans? I suspect it is the effortless superiority that most people hate about self-admiring liberal Brits. I don't much like it myself. But then I do occasionally realise I am an alien from another planet.

Friday 21 January 2011

Hearing Harriet

I catch Harriet Harman being interviewed on the Today programme and I feel such a sudden surge of anger I find myself swearing at her. I can't help asking myself why. Why? She is in the party I voted for and will probably vote for again. The subject is the appointment of Ed Balls.

What she says seems so much beyond the bounds of anything that I might consider reason or argument that it seems she must be living in a world where the only measure of success us being able to repeat the same useless thing over and over again until your interviewer gives up. Gordon Brown was the same. Just keep talking.

And this, she imagines, adds to the sum of common good.

I usually defend politicians. I am not cynical about the calling. I even think it possible that many enter politics because they they want to do good by their lights, even if their lights are not the same as mine. Because, it is of course possible that others see things differently. It's just that, if they do, I'd like them to explain what they do think.

There was no attempt to reason or explain anything in her case. What she doesn't realise - what most politicians don't realise - is that it isn't the interviewer they are trying to steamroller; it isn't the interviewer whose questions they attempt to wave away; it isn't the interviewer they are talking past and over and through.

It is me. It is us. And I, if I am representative of anyone at all, and I doubt that I speak entirely for myself, I feel nothing but contempt for them at such moments, contempt and the kind of resentment I feel we would feel if someone tried to talk that way to me in any normal circumstance. It is, in human terms, a repulsive way to behave.

It happens to be her this time, and if she is worse than most, the others of all parties do much the same. What an extraordinarily sealed world they live in.

Thursday 20 January 2011

More on Hungary's new media laws: from Article 19

A very critical piece by Article 19, who are:

"an independent human rights organisation that works around the world to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech."

They don't have a hang-up about Hungary, it's just that they include Hungary among concerns like Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya and Belarus. Nor do they ignore matters UK and the USA.

It is a comprehensive article complete with nine specific calls to the Hungarian government and four to the European Commission. It gives some background:

The ruling coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, with an absolute majority of two thirds of all seats in Parliament, immediately took full control over the legislative agenda. For the last six months, it amended more than fifty laws and changed the Constitution six times. To avoid public control over its actions, the ruling coalition removed important constitutional checks and balances. For instance, the parliamentary majority became in charge of the appointment of the constitutional judges while the Prime Minister used his powers to replace the head of Equal Treatment Agency, and thus removed its independence. Legislative amendments also permitted the coalition to replace the members the National Election Committee and gave powers to ministers to dismiss civil servants
without justification. The rapid legislative reforms have been carried out without prior consultation with the public and the opposition.

and gets to the heart of the problem,

...very restrictive content requirements for broadcasting, print and online media and a highly centralised media regulatory authority to police them for unbalanced or immoral reporting. The new authority is designed to grant permission to traditional and new media to operate. The authority is not independent as its head is appointed by the Prime Minister. The Press and Media law makes it very difficult for media and journalists to protect their sources which will impede their capacity to investigate and inform. In addition they are threatened by high fines aiming to encourage self-censorship..

On the actual fines:

ARTICLE 19 finds the fines set for violations of new media laws excessively harsh. The fines for "unbalanced reporting" by radio and TV broadcasters can be as much as 200 million
forints (about €700,000). Other maximum fines can be up to 25 million forints (€90,000) for daily national newspapers and websites and 10 million forints (€36,000) for weeklies. Private persons can be fined up to two million forints (€7,250).

Noting that international law requires that sanctions be proportionate, ARTICLE 19 notes that the maximum fines are likely to bankrupt even big national newspapers and television station. Likewise, the maximum fines for private persons are disproportionately high in view of the average wage in Hungary. The high fines are likely to have a serious chilling effect on free expression..

Dr Agnès Callamard, the Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 calls for the Hungarian authorities to:

“take seriously their obligations under international law and ensure that the media can enjoy fully their rights. The EU institutions and member states have responsibility to ensure that the respect of the democratic values is immediately restored including by undertaking the measures provided by Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon ad suspending Hungary of certain voting rights”.

The full text of the article can be read here, and is, reproduced in part on the website of the Free Word Centre.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Audio: Sisyphus

Sisyphus by George Szirtes


When Sisyphus enters the hotel
he drops his bags. He rings the bell.
This is, he checks, Pensione Hell?

Charon emerges through a door.
It is all that and something more,
What can we do for the signor?

Sisyphus glances at the stairs.
You could relieve me of my cares
by taking my baggage. Your affairs

are strictly your own. I assume
you’ll want the very topmost room.
Here are the keys.
It’s like a tomb

up there and Sisyphus sleeps alone,
or would if he could. He’s stretched out prone
and wide awake. He hears the stone

muttering in its metal box
sealed in the biggest case. He blocks
his ears. The bed he lies on gently rocks.

Hotel life. Baggage. Minibar.
TV. Remote control. They are
migrating souls who’ve travelled far

to get to places such as these
as if they cured some vague disease
but were themselves diseased. The keys

are weighing down his pockets. Night
comes on suddenly like a flashlight
or mysterious loss of appetite.

The bedside phone. The trouser press
in the cupboard. Emptiness
in drawers and bins. Last known address.

The stone rolls out along the bed
and comes to rest beside his head.
He thinks, therefore he must be, dead.

The bill arrives some six months later.
The room yawns open as a crater.
The stone comes down the elevator.

from Reel (2004)

Sisyphus comes from a set of poems titled The Morpheus Variations, based on the short stories in Morpheus by the marvellous German writer, Katharina Hacker. Her book is a re-telling of classical myths. I wrote a poem for each of the myths.

In her story Sisyphus arrives at a hotel with his baggage and at night everyone can hear him rolling the stone he has been condemned to roll for ever. My Sisyphus also arrives at a hotel but this is the hotel of the afterlife, a prelude to hell.

The poem concentrates on the minutiae of hotel life, a life I have grown quite used to over the years, and enjoyed, even while sensing them to be anterooms to some other, cut-off form of being.

Technically, triple rhymes like these tend to comedy to relieve the danger of portentousness or predictability. The point of rhyming in this particular way is not to lull but to surprise. The whole is a light black joke about existential disengagement. As with any poem I really had no idea where it would go. The narrative becomes apparent to me line by line, verse by verse. It is the feeling that hangs there and is modified as it finds whatever mark it finally arrives at.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Exile village, except...

Thinking of John Réty and why we never met it becomes clearer. I did not come from an intellectual family. Our family bookshelves held a few reference books and some thrillers, perhaps a few classics - most of them in Hungarian - but it didn't amount to anything like a library. Certainly there was music - we were members of a record club that sent classical LPs but I don't remember any of us listening to them. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were deities to whom homage was paid but they generally kept out of our business. They were, of course, intensely the business of my younger brother, who was training to be a solo violinist. That was music as cry. I would accompany him, rather lamely, on the piano while he soared into intimations of the proper art he was, in fact, to pursue. Neither of my parents played a musical instrument. Neither read much. My mother had been a photographer and was a fine craftsman in photo-oils but I don't remember any art books at home either. The more I think about our home life the less I seem to know.

We knew few artists, except the bohemian puppeteer, Panto, and his wife, the kindly Violet. And there was Leo the painter, with his beautiful wife whose name I now can't remember, but who made me shiver when she offered to dance with me one Christmas. These bohemian-types were my mother's loves, but I never got the idea she wanted me to be any kind of bohemian.

Panto and Violet were English, Leo and his gorgeous wife were Hungarian, though Leo's family had been exiles in Chile. None of this constituted a community.

In any case I did not speak Hungarian with anyone. But an intellectual emigré community did exist, based around BBC World Service, universities, and certain social and discussion groups in which my parents had no part and of whose existence I was totally ignorant. Hungary only became a real place to me after my second book of poems, November and May (1982), when it seemed necessary and I set to serious reading about it. But by that time some of the leading emigré figures had died or were shortly to die.

Maybe for that reason I never felt part of the emigré group. I got to know some of them individually but never met them as a community. And even then I felt like a latecomer to a party whose hosts might regard me as an uninvited guest. Not that they did so regard me, but there was, on my part, something like shyness and even reluctance to be drawn into affairs of which I knew far less than they did. I wrote in English, they wrote in Hungarian. Their manners were more Hungarian than mine. I was far more anglicized. I had, after all, grown up here. I was not an exotic, as they were, at least I did not regard myself as an exotic.

John Réty will have known the community, but he seems to have led a full life outside it too, living on his wits and charm. Unlike most of them, he wasn't a 1956 refugee.

My parents' circle of friends were chiefly Hungarian, and towards the end of my father's life, almost exclusively Hungarian. It is extraordinary now to think of his in political life in Hungary. Maybe that was why he wanted no more to do with it once here.

Odd scraps of memory. Even now I don't feel entirely at ease in the bosom of Hungary and things Hungarian. I have given over twenty-five years of my life to translating from the language, which is, after all, the essence of the people but, as I have often thought, my place is on a train of transit, not quite stateless, more British if anything. Sometimes it feels like a train stalled at a Hungarian station. I stand up, walk around and look out of the window. But the tracks lead back here.

Monday 17 January 2011

At the Torriano Meeting House

Last night I was reading with Jane Duran at the Torriano, properly speaking The Torriano Meeting House. It's surprising that I should never have been there before. Very surprising really since the Torriano was set up, according to the obituary in Camden New Journal in 1983 by the Hungarian refugee John Réty. Still more surprising is that I never met John Réty, or rather I met him just once, shortly before his death at an event of readings and music in November 2008 at St John's Church in St John's Wood, organised by Judith Chernaik of Poems on the Underground. The evening was titled The Pity of War and John Réty was there. We sat down for a coffee and talked for fifteen minutes or so, resolving vaguely to meet again. But then time passed and we didn't meet and some fifteen months later he died of a heart attack, a death noted by the Telegraph and the Financial Times as well as The Guardian, but, probably most appropiately by The Morning Star, of which he was poetry editor for many years.

There is plenty enough to read in those obituaries so I don't have to give a resumé of his life. I did, of course, know of him before we met - I knew who he was - but my re-connection with Hungarian emigration in England came late, in 1984, and by that time we had been living out of London for some time. What was clear, and became even clearer last night, was just how much he was valued and loved by people.

The Torriano has hosted a long and very distinguished line of poets, as well as regular readings from the floor. As someone - it might have been Alan Brownjohn - pointed out, Torriano isn't a glamorous place. It's a narrow shop-area with a raised platform at the end, slightly, endearingly scruffy, with the air of a well weathered youth club. I could imagine a couple of table tennis tables or chess boards set up in it. Or it might have been a small political club, which maybe it was in some way. John played chess to a high standard and was, notably, a non-violent anarchist, which is probably the most angelic of political states.

It was packed to bursting point though, granted, it doesn't take that much to burst it. Jane Duran writes the most beautifully balanced poems about the overlap between the personal and the political. She was reading from her new book Graceline about sailing to Chile, and the Pinochet regime. The beauty of her poems lies in precision, observation and patience. The language and technique are understated and all the stronger for that. Little need be overt. Details are lightly touched in and the resolutions when they come are like simple flowers unexpectedly unfolding.

...And I imagined the Santa Barbara,
her decks, the long wooden tables and heavy registers,
leatherbound Voyage Supplements - yellow and fraying,
the paddling and hesitant footsteps of the readers -
and our ship rose with a shout from its waves
and the water fell off it like streamers.

from Tonnage

There is a little of the patience and the flowering.


Also last night part of my poem, Seeking North, was featured on this wonderful radio programme. You have six more days to listen - nothing but music and poems with no commentary. Ravishing.

Over summer I will be making a Radio Three programme about Liszt and gypsy music.

I am also adding a link on the right to the blog of commentator and man of spirit, Mr Digressius aka Mr Philoctetes...

Sunday 16 January 2011

Sunday Nights is... Kinks delayed

Dead End Street (November 1966)

I have to go to London for a reading and will be back very late. No time for a more substantial post here, but this is part of Ray Davies's exploration of England.

The simple idea of writing about England, English themes and English places was startlingly new to the generation born after the war. There was no particular glamour in the idea of Birmingham or Wells or Gateshead or Bristol. Familiarity had bred not so much contempt as a dead space. Twenty-Four Hours to Bootle. I left my Heart in East Grinstead... Lazy jokes. And then it opens up again, a little like this, as a crude road map of the sublunar imagination. These songs are made of our lives, not of the myths of others. Well, something resembling our lives at any rate. The lives at the back of our eyes.

There's a crack up in the ceiling,
And the kitchen sink is leaking.
Out of work and got no money,
A Sunday joint of bread and honey.

What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No money coming in,
The rent collector's knocking, trying to get in.

We are strictly second class,
We don't understand,
(Dead end!)
Why we should be on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
People are living on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
Gonna die on dead end street.

Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)

On a cold and frosty morning,
Wipe my eyes and stop me yawning.
And my feet are nearly frozen,
Boil the tea and put some toast on.

What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No chance to emigrate,
I'm deep in debt and now it's much too late...

Boil the tea and put some toast on..., there, at just that point.

Saturday 15 January 2011

A little more János Vitéz...

Picking the unfinished draft up where I left off...

...So answered fair Helen, her trim little figure
Pounding the laundry with ever more vigour.
The shepherd arose intending to coax her
Over the stream, and approached somewhat closer.

“Come out, my sweet dove, come over my poppet,
The kissing and hugging will take but a minute;
Your stepdame is elsewhere, she’ll cause you no anguish.
Come, rescue your lover or else he must languish.”

So gently he charms her she yields to his wooing.
His hands round her waist are her tender undoing.
One kiss then? Or two? A hundred if any -
The Lord God alone could tell you how many.

Meanwhile the minutes and hours were flying,
Sun dyes the water dark red in its dying.
Stepmother’s furious, wickedly fretting:
Where is that sloven? How late it is getting!

Wicked old thoughts swirl round in her bonnet
Till she has to give voice to it, cry out upon it
(Nor does her manner of speaking grow kinder)
“She’d best not be slacking, by God, when I find her!”

Poor Helen, poor orphan, what fiend waits to bind you!
The furious witch is standing behind you;
Her mouth is wide open, her lungs swell like bellows,
Love’s dream is ended, awakening follows.

“Shame on you, slut! You wastrel, my sorrow!
You think I’ll be mocked before the whole borough!
You blasphemous hussy, you mocker of labour!
To blazes with you!...Take the devil for neighbour!”

“Enough of this now! you old venomous bucket!
Shut it at last, or I’ll force you to shut it.
You curse her once more, or try to dismiss her,
You’ll lose the few teeth you have left in your kisser.”

Seeing his lover so frightened, the tender
Of sheep rose up boldly to try and defend her;
He glared at the witch as to say woe betide her
And added the following caution as rider:

“If you don’t want your cabin reduced to mere ashes
You’ll leave this poor orphan alone when she washes.
She labours for you quite enough, you old sinner,
And gets but a crust of dry bread for her dinner.

Away with you, Helen, you’ve a tongue that can utter,
Just tell me at once if she dares give you bother.
And as for you, ma’am, leave folk to their labours.
Your sheets are no cleaner than those of your neighbours.”

With this Johnny snatched up his cloak in a fluster
And dashed off to catch all the sheep he could muster,
Alarmed to observe that while he’d been blazing
Only a few scattered ewes were still grazing.

The distinction between poetry and verse tale in translation is complex. I am looking for a language that will allow for both swaggering archaism and contemporary colloquialism, where "You’ll lose the few teeth you have left in your kisser" and "Shut it at last, or I’ll force you to shut it" can sit alongside, "He glared at the witch as to say woe betide her". Then there would be the occasionally comic effect of the double rhymes.

What the translation needs is space enough to develop a sense of confidence in language. The heroic, the tragic, the lyrical, and the belly laugh are all part of the original. The trick is to keep moving through splendour and bathos with a certain brio. Try to think of Byron and push on.

A note on Anonymous commenting

A Non-Mouse

I am glad to hear from anyone, including Anonymous, providing said Anonymous is not simply abuse or spam. The trouble is Anonymous is in fact Legion and having once or twice deleted spam or abuse originating from one Anonymous the system tends to hold over anything by any other Anonymous, so comments may appear a long time after the original post. I suggest adopting a name, which will still be anonymous to me or to anyone else. Sign as Legion as you want. Or if you are abroad, as Foreign Legion. You could be A Nonne's Tale if literary, or a Anonstarter if suffering from a bad inferiority complex. Try Anne Onn, as in John Donne, Ann Donne, Undonne. Or Anno N. Or A Nonny Mouse. The possibilities are not quite endless.

Friday 14 January 2011

Metaphor: hunting, trapping, shooting, fishing, running, fighting over..

In the wake of the Arizona shootings and the targeting imagery used by Sarah Palin (the ignoramus hockey-mom talking about blood libel and looking to be presidential candidate again). I pick the following terms out of today's football gossip at the BBC Sports site:

a target for Liverpool

may also try and tempt left-back

also on manager Kenny Dalglish's list of targets.

wasting their time pursuing the Serbia international defender

to beat Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United to the signature of

Stoke are poised to swoop for Hoffenheim midfielder

Blackburn have won the race for

Diego Godin in the west London side's sights.

are hopeful of landing unsettled Tottenham striker

Mark van Bommel is being pursued by Tottenham and Aston Villa

still trying to prise manager Eddie Howe from Bournemouth

The image is of the player as a trophy animal, the club wishing to sign the player as a hunter of some sort: chasing, beating rivals to, laying traps for, shooting, angling, swooping like a bird of prey, fighting over.

What is the specific range of metaphors doing here? I don't think anyone thinks that Harry Redknapp (say) has gone out with a vast fishing net and 'landed' (say) David Beckham in it, or that he has actually grappled with the manager of the LA team to 'prise' Beckham from his physical grasp. No, the accusation against Palin doesn't work that way.

The metaphors above want to rouse excitement by association - and they do actually work pretty well. Football fans want to get excited, and do get excited by perceiving the teams with which they identify as aspects of a metaphysical struggle for survival and supremacy. They pay good money for it, they may even take physical action to achieve it. In an excited atmosphere where everyone is shouting, the most excitable do take physical action (the Liverpool fans ripping seats out at Old Trafford last week and throwing them at the United supporters below). It was ever thus. Nor is it, before anyone suggests it, just a masculine trait, not if one studies the behaviour of women at wrestling bouts. Men, having been hunters, have simply formalised these routines in a specific way.

We live by metaphor: metaphor doesn't say one thing is like another, it says it is another. It doesn't say, this is a figure of speech, it says this is where you are.

That doesn't make Palin guilty of anyone's murder, but it does perhaps demonstrate that she of the 'blood libel' is not best equipped to deal with metaphor. She has no idea of the origins of the term and can't be bothered to find out. 'Couldn't be bothered to find out,' is not a good epitaph to a presidential candidate's career.

It also suggests that one useful guide to sanity might be a basic understanding of the difference between metaphor and reality. That is where poetry comes in. The more a poem is aware of itself as a structure, the more the reader is aware of the poem as an act in a distinct sphere, the clearer that distance between reality and imagination remains. The metaphor can exercise its full effect on the imagination actually perceived as the imagination. It is, after all, a willing suspension of disbelief that makes art. That is how art humanises us and keeps us sane.


At the splendid Drawbridge, a piece, partly autobiographical, on Flight Path

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Post rodent... a recantation and a bouquet

God bless Bob Diamond, God bless his bonuses,
May each banker be rewarded according to his merit.
God bless the deserving and curse those who curse them
By name of rodent or weasel, skunk, polecat or ferret.

God bless their bonuses, those necessary morsels,
God grant them true value according to His Charity,
God bless the wealth-makers and curse those who curse them
Or call for humility, temperance or parity.

God curse the moaners who clearly are envious,
God curse the jobless, those lacking in liquidity,
God curse the wage slaves, the ranting and rudderless,
God curse their creditless cretinous stupidity.

God bless Bob Diamond, God bless his bonuses
May each banker be rewarded according to his merit.
God bless the deserving and curse those who curse them
By name of rodent or weasel, skunk, polecat or ferret.


By way of contrast, watch this! It's part of a marvellous documentary on Wallace Stevens and some of his poems, beautifully read. It can't be embedded but it can be watched.

Monday 10 January 2011

Back late, so... János Vitéz (the beginning)

Because I am late home, too tired to write a proper new post, I am grabbing a couple of things from the backlist. Or rather the prose part is from the backlist. It is the beginning of the introduction I wrote for John Ridland's translation of my favourite childhood Hungarian poem, the book length yarn, János Vitéz (literally Knight John, or Childe John) that appeared here as John the Valiant.

John did a good job but I can't help experimenting with my own beloved first reading. Not that I am doing it seriously because I don't have the time, but when I do, I pick at it. So the verse part below is the beginning of my unpublished and very much unfinisehd attempt. There is more than this of course, but this will serve as a filler.

from the Introduction to John the Valiant

Some ten years ago I was staying at a friend’s flat in Budapest, examining the books on his shelves when I chanced on a spine that looked faintly familiar. I drew the book out. One glance and I experienced one of those rare convulsive moments of disorientation and recognition. There in my hand was a copy of Sándor Petõfi’s János vitéz, the very same edition – for all I knew it could have been the very same copy – that I had read and dreamt over when I was a child in Hungary. The book that had thrilled, fascinated and frightened me had also offered me my first glimpse into the adult world of romantic love and loss. It was in fact the book I would have wanted most to keep and take with me when we left Hungary in 1956, left all of a sudden as it now seems, without even necessary possessions let alone cultural or spiritual luxuries, to take up residence in a far-off place.

The book itself was not a rarity, though I had not come upon this particular edition in the forty or so years after Hungary. It was an early 1950s production for the popular children’s press and, as such, was general, indeed univeral, reading matter. Petõfi was, after all, the most famous, most popular poet in the history of the country, a romantic hero who perished in 1849 at the age of twenty-six on the battlefield at Segesvár (Sighisoara as it is now), fighting the army of the Russian Tsar for liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the collective mind he stood for youth, the poor, for the nation: for everything bright, right and rebellious. He was the very icon of the aspirational Hungarian spirit, a vastly productive strolling actor and man of the people, equally at home in the country and the city, a product of the folk tradition but singing the woes and pleasures of his compatriots and contemporaries, the man who launched the 1848 revolution by reciting his rebellious, patriotic poem, Talpra magyar (Rise up, Hungarians) from the steps of the recently built National Theatre...


from my own unfinished translation..

János Vitéz
A Tale of Johnny Barleycorn (Kukorica Jancsi)*

The summer sun blazes, not a smidgeon of shadow,
The shepherd attends to his sheep in the meadow.
No need for the sun or celestial fire,
The boy is in love and aflame with desire.

Tender his heart as it crackles with passion,
He shepherds his flock in amorous fashion.
At the end of the village the vague sheep meander,
He lies on the grass with his cloak spread out under.

An ocean of brilliant flowers surrounds him
But little he cares for anything round him,
A stone’s throw away flows the brook in its station,
His eyes watch the water in rapt fascination,

Yet not quite the water, for all its fine features,
But a beautiful maiden, the fairest of creatures,
The fairest of creatures with midriff so slender,
Her golden hair tumbling, her bosom all splendour.

Skirt to her knees, the bright sunlight flashing,
Bright flecks in the water, she pounds at her washing.
Her delicate knees are a half-hidden treasure
Attending on Johnny Barleycorn ’s pleasure.

Yes it is Johnny ! That’s Johnny all over,
An amorous shepherd sprawling in clover.
Who else could it be? And the maid with the laundry?
It must be John’s sweetheart, the fair Helen, surely.

“Fair Helen, my jewel, my treasure, none dearer,”
So Johnny addressed her and begged her draw nearer.
“Grant me a look, O my sole consolation,
The one point of light in the world’s desolation,

Cast the pure beam of your sloe eyes upon me,
Step from the water, embrace your poor Johnny.
Step from the water,” young Barleycorn beckoned.
“My soul yearns to roost on your lips for a second.”

“O Johnny, my love, I would, but I’m rushing.
The clothes must be clean. I must finish the washing,
If I don’t get it done I’m as lamb to the slaughter..
My stepmother waits. I am not her real daughter.”...


*John Barleycorn is not an exact equivalent for Kukorica Jancsi (the hero's original name before he becomes a dashing soldier). 'Johnny Corn' is closer, but clearly there is a hint of the bucolic deity about him, and John Barleycorn sets him in a somewhat similar domain. Those double rhymes are key to the pace of the original but they're hard to maintain. One does what one can. I am pretty sure that the Fair Helen's bosom gave me my first sense of desire as a child.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Kinks 3 Sunny Afternoon

Sunny Afternoon, Summer 1966

Released on 3 June 1966, just eight days before the World Cup kicked off, this was the music for that summer. I leave out A Well Respected Follower of Fashion because, though it is an important part of the band's development as social commentators, musically - and actually in terms of words too - it isn't far off Chas and Dave simplicity. Even so, the first hard chords are nicely followed by a suprising switch to a fairly charming 'live' tinniness.

Summer Afternoon is a different matter. Its release coincided with another classic, The Lovin' Spoonful's Summer in the City, which also uses those ominous descending notes.

The lyrics are voiced for a figure in a stately home. The air is of slow degeneracy and waste. Noel Coward's marvellous The Stately Homes of England tells of economic decline: this suggests a moral one too (tales of drunkenness and cruelty). The words don't do very much with the story but they draw a nice simple picture of taxman and girlfriend and car and yacht while the singer sits with an ice cool beer. This is no big deal in itself except it's a poignant tune and that plaintive Davis voice, with its edge of cruelty, brings it to a nice bloom. Nor is it so much the lyrics in isolation as the sense, pretty new at the time, of a pop lyric engaged with a subject a long way out of the usual pop range. It was intriguing for that reason and for the sweet barbed sadness of it.

It was interesting too from another perspective, in that it was the beginning of the Ray Davies project to deal with England as a place. There is an evolving vision there which is very much post-war. Too sharp and critical to be nostalgia but not altogether unaffectionate, it was like noticing the ground slipping from under the country's feet. The fashionable mod in Dedicated Follower of Fashion and A Well-Respected Man (below) and the decadent figure in this stately home are some of the earlier citizens.


In 1966 I am seventeen most of the time. My parents have voted in Harold Wilson (again), and we are in the third year of the white heat of the technological revolution. It's the last year of the house in Kingsbury from where I can walk to school or ride the bike. I feel I am failing at everything, but I walk home with my intellectual friend, David, who lives a few streets down and enjoys reading scores while listening to classical music. He is a better scholar, knows more about music and plays proper chess. He is far left of Harold Wilson though his father runs a small shirt factory. David suffers badly from acne and we - I have this awful nose - are a pair of romantic non-starters, though I have fallen in love at least five times by now. Ah, hopeless, hopeless love! David plays rugby, I play football. Weekends are a blank. Our home Sundays are spent playing rummy or bridge. Occasionally I go bowling at Wembley Bowl with a group of friends who are hardly friends and who make me feel even more awkward. But not on Sunday. Sunday is ordained family day. There is no escape. Family is the iron grip I have learned to live in.

It seems to have been like that for ever but from 1963, or maybe late 1962, this new bright music has been blowing through the house, at least through my hidden corners of it, through my brain cells, and has had some beneficent effect on my spirits too. The Kinks, among others, make me think it might be possible to both feel and think in this ready-made form. I feel part of the music which is beyond the grave nobilities and desolations of the sanctioned orchestral music played on the official domestic radiogram (Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies, Tschaikovsky, Bruch, Brahms, and the occasional - please God no! and yet seductive - Johann Strauss.)

It is not altogether doom, though I do feel that the scandalous secret of my life will be that I have had no scandalous secrets. Poetry is just around the corner in those thin books in the school library. Harold Wilson puffs at his pipe and Bobby Moore lifts the World Cup. Meanwhile, I am living 'this life of luxury, lazing on a sunny afternoon'. A well-respected man? Don't make me laugh.

Saturday 8 January 2011

The idea of subject in poetry (5)- Town and City

I would like to get to a round fifty, then stop, if only because I will find myself ever further from the centre.

So let us begin with the centre.

40. I liked litref's contribution to the second post in this series. He gives a lovely example of 'making strange':

Language can "make strange", can make a cliché into a surprise. My city anecdote: having bungled a short-cut walking in London, slightly lost, I emerged from an unknown street and found myself suddenly in Trafalgar Square, as if for the first time (because of the new angle and my state of mind)

I assume he means Cockspur Street, which looks a little unpromising as you approach Trafalgar Square. In the same way the Rue de Francs Bourgeois, in Paris, leads into the beautiful Places des Vosges (above). And that is the way a poem might well take you, both in writing and reading. Not that the first lines are side streets but that the sense of the poem is a kind of convergence, a made thing involving nature and architecture and people.

41. Also from litrefs:

"I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat when I say that a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page's horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition", Cole Swensen

The verticality seems right to me: the vertical axis of language is mostly echoic association not so much syntactic forward drive, though the poem too has to move forward in its own dancing way. A city of language? Perhaps. I was born in one capital city, brought up in another, and studied art in a major industrial city. Since then I have lived in towns. There is no Places des Vosges in town.

42. The third passage from litrefs:

"If, for the modernist writer, the city existed as a space onto which s/he could map their own psychological terrain, for the postmodernist writer the city is experienced as a rapidly changing domain in flight from ... rational and official discourse", Paul March-Russell

Well now, here is an interesting thing. Beyond the polemics, there is a perfectly rational case for locating something like postmodernism, though I am not so sure of March-Russell's rather over-theoretical description of it. I am not sure that the Places des Vosges is ever in flight from rational and official discourse, as if that was what the modernist city had offered (plus the psychological terrain, etc). The city is relatively stable and we have our official and rational A-Z street maps to help us through it. Nevertheless, something has changed, and I propose that it is technology. The new technology makes possible several parallel discourses to be conducted at once. The point is that each of these discourses might appear rational and official to those conducting them. For some people it means wearing a tin helmet, but for most of us, most of the time, it is a domain of possibilities. The eclecticism of the postmodern is an enormous toy-shop. You want sonnets? We have sonnets. You want Dada? We have Dada. You want an Ashbery? We have several Ashberies in stock, all colours. Would you like that with an O'Hara?

43. Where does this leave the poet - a poet younger than I am possibly, though not necessarily? What voice, what language, what gestures, are feasible? I don't think it is possible to keep repeating the same venerated Modernist gestures and calling that avant gardism or (Godhelpus!) cutting edge. You can only strangle a certain sort of rhetoric once; after that you make your own. Artistic commerce loves the look of a heroic gesture: that is its lifeline and cash cow, and, I quite understand, the young need to do heroic things, but...

44. The city still wears a Modernist look but we who live in it are part of various alternative wirings. We walk the streets of Modernism and keep arriving at one or other Place des Vosges, a space that is serenely itself, and to which we cannot help but respond. Because the essence of city is not this or that period, but the visible historic trace, a compression, heterogeneity and juxtaposition that has never quite obliterated its antecedents and antitheses. This doesn't mean that nothing means anything but that everything means all too much. You cannot spend your entire life in the Rue de Francs Bourgeois and certainly not in the Place des Vosges. Nor is it good to spend your life in the most dreaded banlieu, Man, you gotta go.

45. And if you are writing, all these things can colour your work. These are the streets and cafes and libraries you can frequent. Then you imagine the terrifying and exhilarating galactic spaces beyond all this fiddle, beyond the glorious nonsense of language, and you dive back in to your haunts and responsibilities and other mental landscapes.

46. The image I originally used was the town, not the city. The subject field of this or that average-length poem may resemble the topography of a medium sized town rather than a city. Most poets, I suspect, inhabit towns rather than cities of the imagination. There is a good chance of recognizing people in the street. It is possible to find your way round without a map. You might shop at the same round of shops. Does that make the place dull? The other week we passed four rusted, half-dismantled bicycles chained to each other. Boris's bikes, a notice said. The war memorial is crowded with names. There are five names of one family, nine of another. The men in the betting shop are staring at the screen showing a race. An ambulance screeches down the main street. The old hobble, potter, trundle, waver, come to a brief stop. If you have an eye for microcosms nothing is dull. Emily Dickinson had her room and the universe. The poem with this town as subject needs the universe, but it starts with the bicycles, the war memorial.

47. Axiom: the silver poets are often as interesting and more human than the gold.

48. It is, however, very likely that it is their language, rather than their subject, that makes them interesting. Probably? Surely!

49. When there is an electric storm in the city you can leave the curtains open and feel billows of damp of air passing through. I remember one year in Budapest, a bat flew in and got caught in the curtains. The whole electric shebang was pulsing away. Somewhere, at bottom, life is like this, if only because even a town needs a proper electricity supply, and not just in the official wires.

50. I have long imagined my own natural habitat to be a displaced, slightly run-down tenement block some way from the centre of a foreign city, a good long bus ride from its version of the Place des Vosges. Let there always be lodgers there. Let them keep talking.

Now, enough of this. Tomorrow it's back to The Kinks.

Friday 7 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (4)

And so, a little further...

26. This could go round and round the blocks. I don't want to go back to the old form-content debate which, as Alfred rightly points out in his comment below, is beyond resolution. What I wanted to understand, or begin to understand, was an instinctive personal preference and the limits to that preference. It was a preference for poems lighter on subject than on language. It was a preference for invention over ideas of sincerity and straight talking. It was perhaps a fleshing out of Pound's belief that technique was the test of sincerity. It's a personal thing.

27. Yeats is not the best example of this test. Yeats was given to a certain poetic bombast, or at least the noise of bombast. The poetry, however, remains magnificent. And, despite Auden, whom I adore, I love Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. There are, I think, conditions under which it might be the finest thing to be a golden bird. A golden bird is, after all, immortal. There are longings for immortality in all of us, else what's the point? We know the longing to be ridiculous, and we know that claiming such things is not only bombast but a kind of crime against the imagination. And yet we long, and are right to long.

28. Stevens might be a better example. Take 'Bantam in Pine-Woods'.

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackmoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos

I have in front of me the Faber Selected, the copy I must have given daughter Helen, when she went up to Oxford in 1994. She has annotated the poem, talking of four levels of imagery, making sense of lines such as: 'Your world is you. I am my world.' She is one damn smart girl and was one even back then. But to my ears - and, I am sure to hers too - there's an altogether different set of events hitting the ear. 'Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" and 'blackamoor to bear your blazing tail' and 'Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!' The assault is of another order. It is, with work, amenable to sense and subject, but at the same time, it devours it.

29. Granted Stevens is more of an aesthete than most of us are, but he is aesthete as explorer and survival expert, the Captain Scott and Bear Grylls of the peignoir. Next to him, Auden is a heap of common sense.

30. I suppose I like my breath a little taken away. I like to watch grace on the wire playing the fool. Maybe I am too easily impressed.

31. And yet I know my capacity for sentimentality, to be moved too easily to tears by fairy tale homilies that echo the deepest hopes and fears. I suspect I am right to suspect this too easy welling up. I suspect it is not empathy but a form of self-pity relieving itself at the nearest well of tears. Maybe, and again, maybe.

32. Axiom: Feeling should not be too easily arrived at, but one should ideally arrive at it.

33. Axiom: Not too clever. Just clever enough. The humble virtuoso at the spinet.

34. Axiom: Dancing is better than preaching and the fetishization of grief, or indeed of anything else.

35. And yet: They flee from me who sometime did me seek. And Here doth lie /Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry. And Wild nights! Wild nights! / Were I with thee. All these have clear subjects. All these have tears and I am not about to surrender them.

36. But then, in these poems, it is as if language itself were moving: flee / me / me / seek..eeee! Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum-ta- (caesura?) ta(dum?)(caesura?) ta dum. Possibly. Depends whether you oppose flee to seek, or they to me. And see what we are thinking about here? The means that is also the end. Technique is the test, etc. And a certain ambiguity of interpretation, even in this first line. And how the shudder runs up the spine just saying it!

37. If poetry had not moved or excited me I'd never have become a poet. But I didn't then know what it was that moved and excited me. Now it seems ever more likely that I will not find out. All the same, it's worth a go.

38. It may be that what moved and excited me is the human capacity to utter sound and meaning, and be lost in the act of discovering sound and meaning. Chieftain Iffucan. If you can.

39. The Thirty-Ninth Step and I'm still nowhere near.

I will return once last time to consider the city / town metaphor. Yesterday I was giving a speech on prizes day at a local school. When first invited to do so I wrote to the head - a splendid head - a long letter suggesting why I was not the right person. But that, she replied, is why you are the right person. There is no right person. But I did it anyway. Play up, play up, and play the game.

Thursday 6 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (3): apropos Byron and I

Alexandre-Marie Colin: Byron as Don Juan with Haidee, 1831

I'd like to think of this post as a Byronic digression, but I don't want to push my luck. Please interpose a little smily icon after that sentence if you like. But seriously...

22. I was listening this morning to In Our Time, one of the best radio discussions in which learned academics chat about their subject. I say chat rather than discourse because the programme is intended for a lay audience not fellow professionals. The discussion can be sparkling, combative, and even bruising, but it is always high pace, brilliantly hustled through by Melvyn Bragg. On this occasion the subject was Byron’s first great success, his poem, Childe Harold’s Prilgrimage. You can listen to it here, for a while at least. The programme was as riveting as ever, it was just that the poem, as poem, was hardly part of the discussion – apart from a brief mention about the use of Spenserian stanza and its context, there was nothing. The concentration was on theme, occasion, history, significance, influence, personality and ideas. The programme is, after all, properly devoted to ideas in history so that’s hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is odd that any literary text, let alone a poem, should be the occasion for talking almost exclusively about its subjects.

23. The biggest subject, of course, was Byron himself. Childe Harold the character becomes the figure I at a key point of the poem with the effect of overlaying two meta-subjects on top of all the other subjects, as discussed by the scholars by way of Byron's poem. Byron does, of course, treat of subjects in Childe Harold. Subject is where he begins and the subject of Byron himself is a vital part of it. Byron creates not only the world that is his subject, he himself knowingly creates himself, the figure, the figure that was to cut such a figure. The poem created the figure that arrived in London and was greeted there as subject. That figure was also a man. Byron the man became the subject not only of his readers but also of his society. Larkin said he couldn’t go around pretending to be himself. Byron discovers something of himself by pretending to be the Byron of language. Subject as figure is at the heart of lyric poetry. Subject as world is what is proposed in lyric poetry. Both arise out of language

24. As concerns language, form, and some possible way of close reading, I suspect producers and programme makers fear that any such notion would bore the listeners. They might think it too dry an approach. It need not be. Michael Rosen’s fine series, Word of Mouth, suggests one way of talking about language. The fact is that Byron’s choice and use of the stanza form, with the diction it invited and made possible, is not secondary. The poem is not a means of saying, nor even an aspect of saying – it is, to put it a little crudely, the saying. It is not what is said, but the saying. It is the speaker’s body; the way the speaker moves through space; the way he walks or strides or bows or buckles up; the way he gestures or grimaces or springs to attention. It is the way he enters the room. That which is said arises out of the movement, not vice versa.

25. In Byron’s greatest poem. Don Juan – one of the very greatest poems in the language – he deploys a form he imports from the Italian, ottava rima. This is a difficult form in Italian and is an ostentatiously virtuosic form in English. It requires great powers of invention, and in doing so, like all forms of virtuosity, offers a kind of commentary on itself. The poem is a verse narrative that is all but flooded by its own digressions, and yet, like its hero, Juan, it swims on. Byron’s first attempt at ottava rima was another marvellously amusing, swaggering, ironic poem, Beppo. There he learned what English ottava rima might do. There he could be a clear, apparently unambiguous I, an I whose performance is so far performance that it is constantly drawing attention to language, an I that owns itself as a figure of speech. Language and subject point to each other’s provisionality, note the alas of it, but glory in it. To return to my metaphor of the town, they paint the town red.

Speaking of towns and cities, in the next post I want to pick up on some points made by the excellent Tim of LitRefs in the comments on the previous post and the one before.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (2)

Continued from yesterday...

11. I want to be careful not to caricature the idea of 'subject' and am trying to locate the points at which it seems inadequate. The invitation to feel comfortable about an attitude to a subject we all agree on (the lamentability of sickness, decay and death, the evils of war, the difficulty of loneliness, the intractability of desire, the unfairness of this or that political action, the wonders of nature and the possible superiority of nature over human productions, to name a few) is what I have begun to describe as the invitation to cliché. The problem with the proposition is that it doesn't mean that, say, sickness is not lamentable, that people do not experience its lamentability at first hand, that it is in any way wrong for a poem to deal with universal experiences.

12. The argument might be that the feeling should be experienced, if not at first hand then as though at first hand by the imagination. The development of that argument into language might then suggest that one of the key attributes -- perhaps THE key attribute - of empathetic imagination is linguistic, the imagination's task being to transcend cliché through language. In other words language too is the subject, maybe even the foreground subject. I have written before about how I am fascinated by Yeats's poem Under Ben Bulben where he writes: 'Cast a cold eye / on life, on death / Horseman, pass by!' It is the cold eye that is fascinating. There is something right-on-the-button about it.

13. In other words the eye is detached, uninvolved. The eye has something else to do: language is its concern. The problem is to reconcile proper human feeling, which is social and empathetic, with the dark cities, corridors and lacunae of language. That, it seems to me, is the core project of poetry. (Or maybe just a core project: this is still more loosely expressed than I want but I am getting there, or at least somewhere).

14. It is not unnatural (to use a studied double-negative) for a poet at my stage of life and / or career, to begin to compile a working ars poetica without quite calling it (daring to call it?) that. And where are the notions for such ars poetica likely to come from but from one's own practice. Don Paterson is doing exactly the same thing now. He is younger than me but more prominent so he too feels it appropriate. It is natural to enquire to consider what one is doing, or what one considers to be good.

15. I have never really gone with the idea of poetry being a dark mystery, an abstruse discipline, or a potentially revolutionary theoretical construct. If I believe poetry to be one of the essential ways of responding to the world, a normal human activity, I feel somewhat bound to connect it to ordinary human life, complete with its commonplaces, tiredness and cliché. That is the world we all inhabit, and, like Marlow's Mephistopheles, nor are we out of it.

Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

Not Hell, in this case, simply life. Life is where we are and life is both gift and deprivation. We may conceive of a perfect language that is 'the face of God' with all the 'eternal joys of Heaven', and be aware of that loss. Being aware of the loss is what we ask of poetry. Back to the only and the alas. So loss, alas and only.

16. Yes, comrades, but with a light heart and a cold eye. The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, as Bogart says to Bergman in Casablanca. I don't want to make heavy weather out of a storm in teacup. I only need to remember that storms in teacups are normal. We have measured out our lives in coffee spoons. Tea and coffee as well as loss, alas, and only. And that, comrades, is tragedy: spilt milk and a handful of dust. You get my drift, I trust, with all this reference to litterachewer.

17. It doesn't take an intellekchewall to come out with phrases like: words can't express how I felt! or a picture is worth a thousand words! or, it was, like, so, yuk / cool / gross ... etc. We know about that like, so... Everybody does. Everyone knows closure is not truth. Every one knows closure is treacherous. Any cold eye will tell you that. And yet we carry on talking, talking about things, knowing that the about is an approximation.

Beware, metaphor approaching...

18.The Town. So what do you do with subject? Everyone has subjects, some big, some small, some as yet unknown. Let's think of subject as a town we enter, a town that is also, necessarily, a society: language is, after all, a social medium composed of idiolects. How do we behave in that town? It is, like all towns, an arena packed with language. There are groups of people talking away nineteen to the dozen in streets and rooms, in offices, factories, in cafés and bars - all the places you would expect to find in a town. Listen hard. If you listen only to them though you are likely to talk only like them, which is fine if you only want to chat. But remember - and this reminds me of the moment of realization in the school corridor when, at the age of seventeen, I first formed the ambition of writing poems - that chatter is the voice of death doing its rounds. You can't exclude it but you don't want to be trapped in a lift with it.

Having invented this - possibly useful - metaphor (but how long will it remain useful?) let's stay with it for now. It's like telling a story, isn't it? So...

19. Naturally the town has a library where, among other items, you will find whatever was at some time thought to constitute the best words in the best order. You can't avoid the library, so enter. You can't escape death in the library but you will find points of power, sometimes still living, overwhelming, power there. It's a lending library so take out what you need for as long as you need it. You will sharpen your ear by listening hard to what you read, you may develop a colder eye so read demandingly. Going back into the open air with a sharper ear and colder eye is vital.

20. You have the subject, you have the chatter, you have the literature. This is life and neither are you out of it. But your sharp ear and your cold eye tell you that this, after all, is, as the schoolboy's exercise book used to have it, only a town, in a country, on a planet, in a universe, in other words, Bogart's hill of beans. Nevertheless, the vital fact remains you can't begin to talk about this town, this hill of beans, until you feel the vast sense of incomprehensible space outside it. Then, beyond that, having felt how vast and incomprehensible the space outside is, you might go on to consider that we have, nevertheless, described solar systems and constellations and have produced atlases and street maps that are still of some provisional use.

21. It is at that point you begin to understand language and can begin to construct a town. Nor should you think you're so darn clever in coming to this awareness, because you might, with some justification, suspect that everyone knows this. That this, precisely, is the law by which people live when they chatter. This is what lies beneath the chatter. Your task, then, is not to be clever about all this, but to construct towns, the construction itself being what constitutes a town. The town you make, in other words, is the town of making. And for any town - a real town, the actual subject-town - to live, it must continually be constructed.

Forgive any incidental sententiousness in all this, but I don't suppose sententiousness is avoidable. I just try to keep a cold eye on it, and hope my ear is sharp enough. For you, read I throughout.