Monday 28 February 2011

From Field to Form 3: The skating apostles

One might well ask what it is about certain passages of prose that make them seem like poetry. Is it some quality of language? Alliteration? Use of metaphor? Onomatopoeia? Euphony? Approximation to certain kinds of rhythm or metre? Some version of particularly fine 'fine writing'?

It isn't hard to imagine prose deploying any number of poetic devices to achieve a heightened state. At worst we might have what used to be called 'purple prose' which implies a degree of over-writing. Fancy writing. What is poetic prose at best? Passages out of The Authorised Version of the Bible? Thomas Traherne's 'Centuries of Meditations'? Virginia Woolf? Marcel Proust? Henry James?

Might part of a novel, perhaps even a whole novel, register as poetry? Woolf's The Waves is often perceived as a form of poem.

On the other side of the question, don't we assume that the point of syntax is to move the mind on to a full stop? That the whole directional flow of a sentence, and the flow of the sentence into a paragraph suggests a forward motion in which the individual words are stepping stones to something located up ahead? If so, is prose that deploys a lot of poetic devices a weakening of the robust nature of the sentence? Cannot early Evelyn Waugh or Christopher Isherwood or Ernest Hemingway or, John Bunyan for that matter, be equal to the greatest poetic-prose writers?

I don't think the attempt to define poetry as verse can be based on a distinction between fancy and plain, between high-flown and dirty realism, between inspiration and intelligence. It is not a matter of texture, density, rhetorical level, nobility of purpose, or super-refinement of idea.

In his Eliot lecture, the year before mine, Don Paterson more or less defined poetry as something written by a poet. My question, the following year, was who was going to declare the poet a poet before he or she had actually written anything? I understood the nature of apostolic succession and the laying on of hands, I just wanted to be sure that this wasn't simply a club. Oh, don't you worry your head about that, my dear chap, one imagines the anointed and the anointer saying to the outsider. Which is the point I turn sans-culotte.


Since we are on Eliot territory here I want to go back the core image I used at the time in my own lecture, the frozen pond out of Edmund Blunden's 'The Midnight Skaters'. It is the ice and the skaters on it I want to return to.

The idea there was that language was the thin ice over a very large, deep and murky pond, at the bottom of which lay death. Some people with business to conduct might simply skate across. The ice for them is an obstacle they have to get over. Some might enjoy the skating sufficiently to think of the ice as clear crisp prose. Other will want to make patterns with apparently no other purpose than to make patterns.

Making patterns, I argued in 2005, and again in Brighton last week, is the poetic vocation. The only difference between someone doodling patterns on a sheet of paper and the midnight skaters is that the latter move across frail, easily cracked ice. The skating is important enough for them risk the ice.

The pattern on the ice is an affirmation of the ice. Language is like ice because it is as frail and unreliable as ice over water. Language is a system built on arbitrary equivalences. Each word of language is a nonsense held in place by the tension of syntax and association. Falling through language is falling into chaos. In order to skate the skater must move in complicity with the ice while cutting it. Cliches occur when the same cut is made time and again, so the skater falls through. The skater needs an instinctive - or rather some learned and internalised understanding of the character of the ice: its density, its thickness, its weak spots, the speed it allows, the movements it permits.

Metaphors are traps. We invent them then find ourselves caught in them. The poet does not risk death by writing a bad poem, but maybe the language moves one step nearer death in that part of the pond. We needn't follow the ice metaphor all the way through. But let's remember that there is a risk in poetry: the risk of failure. Let's remember the poet Rooney whose bicycle kick might have ended in nothing better than an embarrassing, painful landing and dented pride. We value the gambit because of the risk. The risk affirms the game.

The patterns on the ice are what is possible: the idea is to risk the difficult. The football pitch is of limited dimensions, so is the pond.

What is it makes the skater skate such patterns? Is it simply because the ice invites skating? Partly. But at the same time it is also something in the skater, something in the skater's experience or constitution, some experience that is rather like a subject - but not a subject alone, more a condition produced by various subjects distilled into a condition that says 'Skate!'

Almost anything that directs our attention to the tragic yet joyful nature of the ice - which is also our condition - is to the benefit of the skating. Almost anything that points to the fragility and otherness of language is to the benefit of the poem.

Sunday 27 February 2011

Sunday night is...Monk's Midnight

That marvellous, smoky tune as Monk himself has it - insistent, plugging, dumb - as if deliberately reversing, what's that line from Pound who was born...

...In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn

Give me acorn from lilies! the delivery says, refusing every solace of the lyric slouch. It is almost military; certainly rebarbative.

It's a fascinating idea resisting the lyric, putting it in its place. All those slurs, as if hitting the wrong notes. Damn you, damn you, damn you! I'm giving nothing to your pussycat, lounge-lizard soul. You'll have to dig for it. Here's the spade. Get your hands dirty!

Saturday 26 February 2011

From Field to Form 2: Poetic v poetry

On one of my visits to India (where I am bound again in a fortnight), probably the third, I got into a disagreement with a very fine novelist, Allan Sealy, whose book Red I had just finished and very much enjoyed. Clearly it was not a straightforward novel, but was based around the various people who come to see a particular painting by Matisse. This is the Amazon 'product description':

Billed as an alphabet, and narrated by the nameless 'N', Red introduces us first to N's friend, Zach. In St Petersburg for a music festival, Zach encounters the red-headed Aline in the Matisse Room at the Hermitage and is immediately bewitched. The two fall in love as quickly as they fall into bed and it seems that nothing can keep them apart. But other characters also appear between the sheets: a gang of six black-shorted, grease-smeared, soot-smudged men, who take what they want, stealing money (and, on one occasion, a piece of art) from homes of the rich; a girl who tends pigs, and wants to keep what is hers; a workman whose wants are few, but with devastating consequences. Even aspects of N's own life are revealed: his awkward relationships with his teenage daughter and her American mother. As these stories overlap and entwine, Red is revealed as a vibrant, violent tale: a love story and a story about the love of art, about life imitating art, about the end of love -- and the end of life.

Allan insisted the book was poetry and that he was a poet. That seemed to me to stretch the terms poetry and poet too far, so we went at it hammer-and-tongs, albeit pizzicato, without resolution. I could see that there was a poetic conception to his novel and that it contained passages of writing that were poetic in the best sense of the word but I still did not find it in me to call the whole set of tales a poem or its author a poet.

I went away wondering whether the debate was usefully located, and began to formulate a definition of poetry in terms of verse. Verse was far easier to define than poetry. Verse was written and conceived in lines and played around with regular rhythms, or at the edges of them. One could talk quite concretely about versification. This is a line: this, on the other hand, is a sentence in a paragraph.

This was not to diminish either poetry or fiction. In the previous post I suggested that sport can offer moments of poetry, as can dance, and indeed almost anything else that invited observation in a particular way. I bore in mind, particularly, Robert Frost's view (one I had often repeated and instinctively put into practice) that the basic unit of the poem is the sentence. To interpret that in absolute terms is misleading and I tend to prefer the sense of counterpoint, where the music and nature of the sentence is played against the music and nature of the line, producing, at best, a kind of manageable, comprehensible, polyphony, one in which the mesmeric effect of rhythm and the whole range poetic devices, particularly metaphor, is brought into contact with syntax, that is to say the world of synecdoche and metonym, statement and information, much as it is - or so I reasoned and felt - in life as we listen to it.

Poetry then, to put it crudely, was verse and expectations of verse as played off against prose and expectations of prose, while prose (or story) was prose and expectations of prose, with elements absorbed from poetry.

In the Rooney post I tried to describe the form of the poetic in the move that ends with Rooney's goal. The movement there depended on certain given quantities and factors: the size of the pitch, the rules of the game, the notion of formations, the state of the pitch, the size of the crowd etc.

Talking of sporting analogies I think it was Frost, again, who said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. That is not my view: what I am suggesting is that the idea of the net remains in place, that free verse has an understanding of the vestigeal iambic or trochaic (or any other metre) around which it hovers as if in acknowledgment.

But that means the net survives and is necessary: that rule is required to bring poetry-as-verse into being.

More next time.

Friday 25 February 2011

From field to form 1: the Rooney moment

Do just watch with the sound off!

I am interested in what people mean when they exclaim: Sheer poetry! or That's poetry in motion! These are ordinary people with no particular sense of literature and no sustained experience of written or oral poetry. It fascinates me partly because no one ever cries in admiration: Sheer prose! Indeed, when people consider a thing prosaic the term is intended, and taken, as criticism. I have long felt that this almost involuntary cry referring to poetry that goes up at times, in dance or sport, was the affirmation of an instinctive understanding of what poetry might be.

The reason I begin here - and did at Brighton - was because I actually heard the term, Sheer poetry! used by a TV commentator, either of Rooney's goal, or some moment in the recent Arsenal-Barcelona game. It really doesn't matter which match I use because the argument would assume a similar shape, and if the reader draws certain conclusions for my choice of the Rooney moment, those conclusions will be, I am happy to confirm, correct.

I say a moment but then it seems to me that it is not the question of a 'moment', not, at least, of a moment without context or duration. To put it another way I asked myself what the poetic moment was? Was it the moment the foot strikes the ball? The moment the ball hits the net? Do we rewind to the point Nani centres the ball? Or should we go back still further to the point at which the 'move' seems to start.

I don't want to get dryly analytical about this but the following occur to me.

The narrative of the poetic 'moment' begins somewhere and ends somewhere. The narrative of the Rooney goal might be said to begin just before the clip above, with a team passing movement that develops a certain momentum, a momentum that is briefly interrupted by Rooney himself in one of those passes. (Sometime in the future the poet Rooney might consider editing that line.) If poetry is a sequence of limited length - in this case, the clip - it's worth considering the possibility that the story of the full second half might be a badly edited short story, that the whole match might be a novella, and that the season itself might be a whacking great airport novel.

Does the narrative stop with the foot contact? The ball in the net? Or with Rooney's act of celebration, rather like an ice dancer's or gymnast's at the end of a floor exercise? The 'poem' does not seem quite complete without the celebration, as the crowd well know. The celebration, however, is not part of the form of the game. It is, perhaps, that moment of silence after the reading or saying of the poem.

How much do we have to know about the rules of the game? The history of the game? The history of this particular match? How much do we need to know about what constitutes skill in a game? Again, we can assume that a good portion of the crowd knows something about this, and that such knowledge helps form their sense of the poetic in this context. The bicycle kick has a certain independent grace, just as a few lines in the poem might take the breath away, but the breath is stopped in a context. The overhead kick belongs in a sequence of events.

How would it affect our sense of the poetic if we knew that every part of the movement was strategy? How much difference does it make to know that the whole is improvised, based on some ideas of strategy (why is this player on that spot at that time, running in that direction?)

There is - isn't there? - a considerable element of chance in the execution, particularly for Rooney. In one split second he decides to attempt to overhead kick. He takes off and looks to hit the ball. Should he miss, the result would be comical. Should the ball balloon over the bar the result would be disappointment and pathos. The element of risk is assumed by the crowd. It is specifically because the movement is high risk that the moment itself is heightened. All the more so because the occasion is one of great importance to the spectators. Failure too would be magnified.

It is Rooney who finished the movement, fed by Nani, involving other players. The fact that Rooney's name is (to use structuralist terms) a rich and complex signifier whose reading depends, to some degree, on the subjective disposition of the reader - who might be a Manchester City supporter - but which nevertheless constitutes a powerful set of meanings is an important part of the poetic experience. The same set of events enacted on a practice pitch, or in an amateur club game, would not presumably resonate in quite the same way. The goal takes place before a substantial audience. Rooney's meaning is different from Berbatov'e meaning or Nani's meaning or Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper's meaning. I don't mean in any context - I mean in this one, happening now - but informed by whatever has already happened.

To sum up: it might be that the poetic is constituted of risk in a context, an essential part of which context is formal and historical. The poetic moment begins somewhere with a specific action (a first line, in medias res) according to certain formal possibilities with certain recognizable figures playing character roles in an improvised narrative involving the risk of failure.

I wanted - somewhat playfully - to establish the notion of the poetic as an essential aspect of human experience, requiring some familiarity, but responding to a universal longing. In other words to demonstrate that the sense of the poetic does not 'belong' exclusively in the realm of literature. Everyone is capable understanding it as 'effect'. I didn't want to draw my example from the other arts, but from something considered rather boorish, from the world of flannelled fools and muddied oafs. I did however point out that such poetic sequences may be available in everyday life, in the way someone moves in an available space. I could have added that the term poetry in motion was used by some men of the movements of some women (and possibly vice versa, of course, though the context is less public there, or at least less well known to me.)

From here I went on to consider the difference between poetry as effect, and poetry as a product of verse. I don't mean high formal verse but of lines operating within an awareness of formal constraints and possibilities, such as the ending of lines, the deployment of rhythmic and other devices, the modulations of diction, address and register that constitute a sense of voice, never to forget the ways in which words and combinations of words refer both to the world and to language.

In Rooney terms we have the dimensions of the pitch, the basic rules of the game which nevertheless allow no two games to be similar, the notion of playing style, the vocabulary of possible moves, and a sense of character as generated by both what we may expect of a player and what other apparently extraneous parts of knowledge regarding the player - Rooney's visits to prostitutes, his wife's pregnancy, his transfer request, etc. Words are coloured by associations outside their immediate context and so are players.

No analogy is exact, no analogy is authoritative, no analogy is without dangers. An analogy presents us with a field of action in which similar events are deemed to occur. I moved on from the football analogy after less than ten minutes, returning to the ice-skating metaphor I first used in the Eliot lecture in 2005. But every so often I wanted to bring the Rooney sequence to mind again.

The next stage of the talk looked briefly at the poetic effect in literature. I'll go on from there next time.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Brighton late

The talk talked and it held together. Tomorrow I'll try to run through its main elements. It wasn't written down, just headings, starting with a piece of YouTube. Dinner with hosts Nigel and Georgie - mostly in Hungarian!

Late now...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

The Snow Party

That marvellous Derek Mahon poem about the place and distance and responsibility of art that ends with the snow as...

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is faling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,

Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

And the bodies remaining in the boiling squares of Tripoli with its barbarous king, and the boiling or simmering squares of the Middle East and North Africa, with or without barbarous kings, and the burnings beyond, and the fallen buildings and the dead in Christchurch, New Zealand, and, as ever, those damned barbarous kings.

Last night I was writing about thinking form and forms of thinking, tonight I am introducing seven poets from Carrie Etter's Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets, and tomorrow I am getting on a train to talk poetic form at Falmer... and that is a kind of silence in the houses of Nagoya and the hills of Ise, where Basho is listening to the tinkling of china at the snow party, where everyone crowds to the window to watch the falling snow.

Not forgetting the boiling squares and the burnings, nor to forget the barbarous kings. Which Basho doesn't - and nor does Mahon because, see, there they are in the poem, boiling away on the other side of silence, yet included in it.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Sunday Night is... Bernstein and Mahler and Baker

Leonard Bernstein talking, hypnotically, about Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde, while smoking. God, he does talk marvellously and he holds that picture frame

Followed by Janet Baker singing Das Abschied (The Farewell) from the sequence, complete with words and translation:

I have been slow coming round to large-scale orchestral colour and German song (OK Austrian-Bohemian in Mahler's case). Got here via Richard Strauss. I preferred, probably still do, chamber music. Those clear distinct lines. It's like preferring Florentine to Venetian painting, or Vermeer to Courbet, or Noh Theatre to Hollywood spectacular. But now I seem to hear something extraordinarily fresh in the sheer tidal power of the song plus the orchestra. The grand self-pity of the melancholy leave-taking seems that much more real, that much rounder. It just shows one never stops learning, especially when learning is such pleasure. Just play Baker over and over.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Reel ed altre poesie

From the comments to the post beneath:

Are you being generous towards others in what you write and the information you provide, what is the balance towards self-promotion and the genuine act of giving?

So here is an advertisement. In FB conversation with the poet Peter Robinson, he tells me he has seen a copy of my Italian-language selected poems, Reel ed altre poesie in Parma. I reply to tell him it is more than I have seen, but that is only because my charming translator, Gabriele Natali, himself a poet, has my copies over in Cambridge where he teaches at the university. So that's to pick up. I did not choose that the mugshot should go on the front, but I am not about to complain. It is wonderful to be there at all.

At the moment there is a Hungarian Selected Poems, a Romanian Selected Poems, and now there is the Italian, published by Polistampa. A German is slowly under way. Salute.

Friday 18 February 2011


Every so often, when I'm in London, I visit University College to remind myself about the future of privacy. I go there to visit the tomb of the utilitarian social reformer Jeremy Bentham, a glass-and-wood mausoleum he dubbed his "AutoIcon", from which the philosopher's waxy corpse has been watching over us for the last 150 years. It was Bentham, you see, who, in 1787, at the dawn of the industrial age, designed what he called a "simple idea in architecture" to improve the management of social institutions, from prisons and asylums to workhouses and schools. Bentham imagined a physical network of small rooms in which we would be inspected "every instant of time". He named a tract after his idea, calling it, without irony, Panopticon; or, the Inspection House. Bentham's goal was the elimination of mystery and privacy. Everything, for this utilitarian inventor of the greatest-happiness principle, would become shared and thus social. In Bentham's perfectly efficient and transparent world, there would be nowhere for anyone to hide...

...No wonder, either, that, as the American journalist Katie Roiphe has observed, "Facebook is the novel we are all writing." We are becoming WikiLeakers of our own lives. There has been a massive increase in what Shirky calls "self-produced" legibility. This contemporary mania with self-expression is what two leading American psychologists, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, have described as "the narcissism epidemic" -- a self-promotional madness driven, they say, by our need to broadcast our uniqueness to the world....

from Wired, via A&L

The writer Andrew Keen's idea is of a Facebook-powered dystopia in which no one has a private life any more. I am not entirely convinced by this as I have failed to be convinced by any of the dystopian / utopian visions in my lifetime, articles that said: In ten years time we'll all be doing x or y.

I suspect we are dealing with illusions of social existence and self-expression. I suspect we are becoming ever more private, in that internet presentation and fantasy are the public acts of people sitting alone at desks.

That's fine most of the time. I like my desk. It is a peculiar panopticon of the mind: everything is private there and nothing is. All things are a flowing, / Sage Heracleitus says. I don't know whether it is a tawdry cheapness that shall outlast our days, as Pound thought. None of us is cheap. It is simply another dimension into which human existence has flowed and goes on flowing. And we flow there alone as we have always done, watching other flow while the tide swirls this way and that.

Thursday 17 February 2011

That Obscure Object of Desire..

...aka Liverpool Football Club. But first, a heavy day's writing during which I was telephoned by the travel agent to the effect that the normal photo booth photographs (costing £5) that I had sent, along with the long complex visa application form which demands extraordinarily obscure detail such as my citizen number in Hungary, a country I had left at the age of seven, along with a box marked physical identification marks, would not do for the purposes of a visa to India, and that they had to be 2 inches x 2 inches, proper Imperial Measure. For this purpose, the agent informed me, two photographs taken by any local photographer would do. There are no professional photographers' studios in the town of W. I don't even know of one in Norwich, not one where one can drop in and have the photographs ready the same day.

So we do it ourselves. C sets up some plain white paper in her studio and takes a couple of likely looking snaps. My head is not quite straight, and when we transfer the more correct looking photos from the card to Photoshop the image immediately degrades and prints, on the expensive photo printer, the wrong size with lines across it.

Ach..Let me cut this short. After three hours of fiddling eventually we get two photos printed. In the meantime the agent rings back to say a friend of his can enlarge the photo-booth pictures I had sent along with the form. It would cost only £10. I have already sent him a cheque for £90, to include the visa cost and his trouble in arranging this. I say we have done it. He says that might not do. I say we are sending it by First Class Post. He says, Fine. Best do it Next Day Delivery, says C. I rush down to the post office. Next day delivery, I say. OK, they say, making it special delivery. Another £5. I have now spent £100, and C half a day in arranging this rigmarole. I curse India, consider telling them I am not going after all, but desist. This £100 plus several hours in applying for the visa earlier is, well, just one of those things.


But back to Liverpool and that obscure object of desire. I can understand the love of Liverpool as a place. Michael Murphy has written beautifully about it. This time Channel 5 are showing the Sparta Prague v Liverpool match, which is preceded by some half hour of unmitigated and utterly unalleviated brown nosing. Kenny Dalglish, the saviour, has, it is stated some twenty times, already transformed the great club: they are back to their old selves of twenty-years ago; they are, once more, imperious, witty, irresistible and upwardly mobile. There is a spring in their step. It is like having new players. The fact that this is like throwing mud at the previous manager does not occur to them, nor the minor fact that since King Kenny's return their record is won four, drawn three and lost two, which is respectable and not much more. From the beginning of the game, in which Liverpool do nothing but pass the ball square in their own half, they are singing the praises of the new Liverpool: how this indicates that Liverpool 'are in control', how happy King Kenny looks (in fact he looks dour), and how Liverpool have a huge advantage in possession. By the middle of the second half it has dawned on them that it is a dull match against an average team, and that Liverpool - they dare not say so - are paying dull football with few ideas and exercise very little control except in their own half where Sparta don't challenge them.

By the end of the match it is clear that Liverpool have not in fact enjoyed the great majority of possession, possession being 50-50 according to the stats; that they failed to have a single shot on target whereas Sparta had four; and that Sparta had nine shots at goal to Liverpool's three. This is hardly clear proof of Liverpool's domination.

But Kennyolatry goes on undiminished. He has revitalised, motivated, created a new spirit... ad inf

I had never before experienced this intensity, this sheer unquestioned duration, of blind idolatry. It got so that every time the commentator or Graham 'Turnip' Taylor told us how wonderful something utterly ordinary was, I turned the sound off for three minutes. As a result I watched half the game in silence before the interval, then, as regrettable reality began to dawn on them, I cut out only about fifteen minutes.

To anyone but a Liverpool fan this obscure object of desire, this fetish, is a mystery and a form of madness. I wish the team no ill, except when they play us of course, and for the virtues of the city I am happy to take the word of dear friends who live or lived there. It was fine the times I visited, which was fairly frequently, and no complaints. I even take the Liverpudlians word for their own indomitable spirit. God knows, I even like Kenny Dalglish. But this... I am speechless (as, thanks to the mute button, were the commentators for one third of the game).

Now Arsenal v Barca. That was a game! Jack Wilshere was marvellous. If United v Marseilles is half as good I will be happy.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

I Have Seen The Future

Artwork by Helen Ivory

1. I have added poet / artist Helen Ivory's new website to my links on the right. Do visit.

2. I have handed in and had approved the Introduction to Michael Murphy's posthumous Collected Poems. That will be a marvellous book.

3. This morning I conducted a two-hour Skype tutorial conversation with my Escalator Scheme mentee. After the initial awkwardness, it felt fine, I was simply aware that I was gesturing and pulling faces as I would in a visual conversation. Conversations, even on the phone, even possibly with oneself, are physical engagements in some café of the imagination.

4. I went in to university this afternoon on one of my off-days because daughter H (editor / writer) was on a panel of speakers advising students about publishing. She spoke very well, says proud father, and it was a good informatory session. An incidental note: all four speakers were female, and of some one hundred students, about 96% were female. That's if I count myself among the male audience. I have seen the future and it wears make-up.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

The Old

The Health Service Ombudsman's report refers to ten horrifying cases she considers to be typical.

In a damning report, Ann Abraham said the 10 complaints showed neglect of even the "most basic" human needs.

One woman described how her aunt, named only as Mrs H, had been taken on a long journey to a care home in Tyneside by ambulance after a stay at the elderly care assessment unit at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital.

Mrs H was described in the report as a "feisty" independent and dignified woman, who had lived at home until aged 88.

She arrived at the care home "strapped to a stretcher", soaked with urine, dressed in clothing that did not belong to her held up by paper clips, and accompanied by bags of dirty laundry, much of which was not her own.

A study of pensioners who suffered appalling treatment at the hands of doctors and nurses says that half were not given enough to eat or drink. One family member said the maltreatment amounted to “euthanasia”.

Some were left unwashed or in soiled clothes, while others were forgotten after being sent home or given the wrong medication.

The case of hospital staff in Ealing leaving a man in a waiting room as his wife died is one of 10 complaints used by the health service ombudsman to highlight how the elderly are being failed by the NHS.

The husband of Alzheimer's patient, who is only referred to as Mrs J, was "forgotten" by hospital staff at Ealing Hospital NHS Trust, denying him the chance to be with his wife as she died.

leading on to:
Yesterday’s shocking report from Ann Abraham, the NHS ombudsman, into the care of elderly patients is followed today by the disclosure that not a single hospital manager or worker has been disciplined for the failure to provide even the basic standards of care. No one, it seems, is to be held accountable for leaving these vulnerable people, close to the end of their lives, dehydrated, underfed and unwashed.


I wonder how much of this neglect is due to four things:

1. Pressure to be getting on with bureaucratic tasks;

2. Brutalisation of staff due to over-exposure to helpless distress, leading to half-conscious contempt;

3. Embarrassment at loss of human dignity, leading to fear and unconscious contempt;

4. The attitude that the old patient might as well die and clear a bed, the quicker the better, leading to fully conscious contempt.

Such lack of human care amounts to more than neglect - it is distinct cruelty. It is cruel not to offer water to the plainly thirsty, not to help the feeble to eat, not to help the crippled to move, not to clean the bed of the stinking and horrified.

In effect it is dehumanisation, something the concentration camp guards of the last world war got used to. The contempt is, I suspect, mostly unconscious: it is locked deep into the psychological system so that on leaving the hospital the key can be turned, the sick locked away, and normal life can resume. It is as if the old were guilty of dehumanising themselves. It is as if they had never been not old, had never been clean, had never been quite human. Their history drains away from them until they become no more than waste.

I was watching the author Eva Figes give an account of her own recent dreadful experiences. But I have heard nothing at all from the professionals, not a word about this state of affairs that did not amount to a useless, perfectly heartless platitude. It does not speak well for what pleases to call itself humankind. I expect it to go on.

Monday 14 February 2011

A Poem for St Valentine's Day


It was around your neck, or I was, with my ideal hands
loose about your ideal shoulders lost in a storm
of ruffs and frills in the middle of a night’s sleep.

The sleep was silk, or I was, slithery with silence
in the rain that was an articulation of something
I did not understand but would continue to trouble

the sleep remaining to me. A wardrobe left open
always brings good luck, and maybe this was luck
folding out of the mud of the shower, in the earth

beneath the trees, where I, or it, or that sheer bolt
of silk lay unrolled, unfolded, my ideal body
curling its lip in disgust and, I must admit,

pleasure, at your neck and shoulders and your trees
and all the invited adulation of the rain
in that dead sleep where I was around your neck,

where your head emerged out of its shimmer,
or my shimmer, or that nothing that was sleep
or simply took the tree’s or sleep’s or my own form

and you lay there, pure silk, pure storm.

from New and Collected Poems, 2008

Sunday 13 February 2011

From Egypt to UK and back

Népliget, Budapest

Following events in Egypt, of course. The military have suspended the constitution, but then the constitution had guaranteed majorities for Mubarak. It will be a tense time from here to the elections. There is, say the experts, no party in waiting apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is the army that will not want a long period of chaos.

In May 1989 we were wandering round with friends in Népliget in Budapest examining the trestle tables of the various new parties, fifty-two of them by the time of the election was held, as I remember. My cousin went over to one of the tables and said, 'I think I'll join this one.' Soon enough he was an MP himself, though not for that long. Come the election the old parties were all but swept away and a new politics emerged based on cultural loyalties.

I'm not sure now that cultural loyalty is a particularly good way to determine political position. Culture comprises region, ethnicity, religion and tradition, but it has little to say about policy, except perhaps to propagate advantage for whatever elements of the winning party's culture can be advantaged by political action. So, after 1989, considerable portions of the liberal and socially progressive parties preferred to throw in their lot with market economics, while portions of the socially conservative, traditionalist parties preferred protectionist and national ownership of national assets, such as they were. Ideologically it was mixed bags and rapid splits.

Here we have, notionally at least, an ideological politics dramatically modified by short term pragmatism. Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists will vote for either Labour or the Tories on principles other than identity. The rural community tend, as everywhere, towards conservativism, and hence towards the Tories; the inner city poor, naturally vote for change and redistribution, hence for Labour.

That does not mean we don't have identity politics in the UK, and I don't just mean ethnic or religious identity politics. The educated intelligentsia of which I am, in many respects, a part (it feels almost comical using the term intelligentsia here, but I far prefer it to 'the chattering classes'), the part of it that does not come from a position of decided privilege,or working class Toryism, is, I suspect, almost entirely Labour and regards the Tories as the party of evil. That is not pure ideological politics, it is partly down to identity and theology. In any case, there are not many Times of Telegraph readers in Higher Education.

Personally, I have always felt unhappy with identity politics. Well, you'd expect a refugee of my age to be unhappy, wouldn't you? What kind of identity is that anyway? (A very vulnerable one). I am distinctly uncomfortable dismissing the Tories as, well, simply bad people who are bound to have bad ideas because their intentions are intrinsically evil.

But it's not just vulnerability, it is also a kind of inner contrarianism. The Simone Weil line I have often quoted is at the heart of it Obedience to the force of gravity: the greatest sin. I even suspect it is what keeps the poetry alive in me.

That means there are two grounds on which I can have political preferences. They are ideology and pragmatics. If I vote Labour, as I do, it isn't because I think Labour politicians are more virtuous than Conservative ones. I vote because an ideology that stresses social justice and equality seems to me a worthwhile ideology. Ideology can be discussed: identity cannot. I have no great expectation that the Labour party will embody this ideology, but I do have some expectation that it will bear this ideology in mind in formulating policy. A degree of pragmatism - meaning the maintenance, and possible increase, of general well-being and stability (meaning people don't start murdering each other) - might even be risked in pursuit of this goal. Should be. Conservative ideology, as I understand it, values stability above all, especially if that stability advantages those who benefit most from the market. Socialist ideology prefers equality over stability.

I can think like this because I live in a mature, well-weathered democracy in which, despite the circuses, the spin-doctors, the scandals, and the funfair rhetoric, it is possible for the state to creak and sway without toppling. One can push for social equality without precipitating collapse. One can hope for changes for the better and, given any reasonable choice, one can prefer to take the one that offers a better chance of equality. One can argue for that choice in both ideological and pragmatic terms. I suspect most people recognize this.

People in Hungary and Egypt have not lived in such democracies. Over here, we tend to assume that democracy, by definition, includes the capacity for weathering, but I doubt it. New democracies are brittle, panic easily, and quickly revert to identity politics. That is where Hungary is now. I am utterly ignorant of where Egypt might be in six months time, what parties might form, representing what ideas or identities. It is almost as if democracy, in states that have not had long experience of it, were composed of exhilarating moments, like the moment a couple of days ago, when a vast crowd deposed Mubarak by simply persisting and uniting. At such moments our hearts lift and sing.

Now the tents are being removed. Hearts are still beating fast. Meanwhile the body politic is hastily scrambling about looking for its reasons.

Friday 11 February 2011

At Charterhouse

Alma mater of Crashaw, Lovelace, Steele, John Wesley, Thackeray, Beerbohm, Robert Graves, Osbert Lancaster, and Ralph Vaughan Williams and, rather surprisingly, the wrestling commentator Kent Walton, not to mention the band Genesis, and more recently, of the son of the footballer Gary Lineker, Charterhouse, often favoured by the military, lost some 650 ex-pupils in The Great War, Robert Graves almost among them. Lots of Giles Gilbert Scott in the architecture, including a red telephone box.

My invitation was to talk to a small poetry group and then to give a reading in the lecture theatre to a mixture of parents, pupils and staff. I make no comment on the public school system - it is not behovely of a guest. It was all hospitality. The events went well, and were followed by dinner with shimmering glasses and courses of delicacies, preceded by a two word Benedictus benedicat and a standing toast at the end, of Church and Queen. Everyone is very well mannered, and very nice, and very intelligent, and very enthusiastic. They are a very nice bunch. The bar stays open late, and I embark on a long conversation about Bible translation and Byzantine iconography with the head of theology, that is as fuelled by a double helping of single malt on top of sherry, champagne, white wine, red wine and dessert wine. Bedroom appropriately and correctively spartan, faintly military. Bad sleep, then breakfast with lordly helpings of bacon and scrambled eggs plus muffin and marmite. Coffee. Bring me coffee!

Waiting in faint rain at Godalming station, exceedingly sleepy on train, then plugging into Talking Heads, then Brahms then Bartók.

Odd thing the life of the peripatetic poet. Last week in Leeds in a functional hall reading impassionata, for two splendid asylum seekers, this week in the lap of traditional privilege. Blimey guv, I tell you, it's an educaysshon. Church and Queen. Bubble and Squeak.


I might mention that since the purchase of the iPhone I have been reading some books as ten minute fillers, including John Buchan's bracing The Thirty-Nine Steps (minus the female interest in the film of course) and John Cleland's Fanny Hill. Many years since I first read the latter and pleased to come, if that's the right word, upon passages like:

...and pleasure milked, over-flowed me once more from the fulness of his oval reservoirs of the genial emulsion...

That, sir, is pornography with proper eighteenth-century cojones, which is to say prose with oval reservoirs.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

David Harsent: notes on two and a half lines of Night

Although it would be fair to describe David Harsent's poetry as 'dark', in the sense that there are hauntings, mysteries, nocturnal excursions, sinister hints, violence, and the enchantments of despair, it is not in fact the darkness but the brightness that makes his poetry as valuable as it is. By brightness I mean the sheer pleasure in sound and association. It is almost as if the narrative were darkness but the texture was constantly throwing off light.

This is partly an aspect of what I have sometimes thought of as 'the mouth dance', the way the mouth shapes itself to a sequence of vowels, throwing in the consonants as those points where, in the dance, the feet touch the ground. Spenser and Keats were masters of the open vowel, Tennyson, I think, was a voluptuary of consonants (with blackest moss the flower pots were thickly crusted, one an all). Marry the mouthdance with a subtle, very slightly off-centre sense of rhythm, something that catches at the edges of pentameter, but then sways under the shadow of classic hexameters, moving from iambic to dactyl or anapaest, with a powerful caesura or a pair of spondees, blending ballad metre with the ghosts of Sapphics, and you have the brightness, the coruscation.

Between myself and the wall, the darkness in itself would be too relentless, too much the same thing for me were it not for that marvellous dancing counterpoint, a counterpoint that lends darkness a certain luminescence. The dark is what he needs to set him dancing.

I listen, for example, to the first few lines of one of the finest sequences in Night, 'The Queen Bee Canticles':

Sun on the sea running white, sun on white walls, yes, on the thick
shoulders of the fishermen, as they fanned their nets, sun

as an engine, a trapdoor, a compass...

/-- /-- / /--/ / --/
/--- /-- --/ -/ /

--/- -/- -/-

That's how it sounds to me as rhythm (/ as accented, - as un accented syllable): broadly classical here, dancing in threes, but not too evenly, leaving room for a skip or change of tread. There are internal rhymes, the thrust of the w sounds, the management of long and short vowels, the varied percussion of those hardly-there consonants from th to ck to sh to f, the alliterated f, and then the engine, trapdoor, compass.

I don't want to go too analytical on this: analysis can get quarrelsome and dry. But weigh any group of lines from Night and you'll see what language is doing to the narrative imagination. The narrative imagination says: this is what turns me on (sex, death, violence, nightmares, drift, guilt), then language dances the turn-on into a multi-dimensional life that both confirms the darkness but also weaves it into a series of patterns that turns it from cliché into a vivid sense of life.

Down these mean streets a man must dance and sing, proclaiming small miracles.

David Harsent at UEA

My task for the night is to introduce David Harsent at the UEA. It is always a glittering series and David is the first of the Spring Festival.

He was publishing long before me, well, ten years before me, though there is only six years between us in age. He was a young first-collection poet, probably no more than 26 at the time of A Violent Country (1969). A bricklayer's son, without university education, he fell into poetry through ballads at school and has spread his wings very wide since then, writing opera librettos for Harrison Birtwistle among others, and, under different names, translating poetry and writing thrillers as well as screenplays for Midsomer Murder, Holby City and The Bill. He has been nominated for more prizes than exist in the wildest imagination and deservedly won the 2005 Forward Prize for Legion.

I see from his Wiki entry that he won the Faber Prize for Poetry two years before I did (I shared mine with Hugo Williams) so there is a kind of parallel, though in publishing terms he was David Harsent (and not just David Harsent) some time before I was George Szirtes.

Holding mind-heart-life together is complicated. It isn't quite as simple as changing hats, though that isn't without its difficulties either, and it may be that in David the same dark silver stream flows through or under it all. The new book he is reading from tonight, 'Night' is very much a Harsent title: the poems nocturnal, mysterious, visionary (as others have noted). There are two special sequences in the book, the title poem, that springs out of insomnia, and Elsewhere which is like a hallucinatory ballad, part film noir, part ghost story, beautifully stitched together with hanging rhymes.

But that's what we'll talk about tonight if all goes well.


Couldn't post this before. We did talk about it tonight as about other things too. More tomorrow.

Monday 7 February 2011

In Leeds

The reading was, as I said, for the poet and stage and screen actress Lily Mosini and her partner, journalist, blogger and photographer Elia. They are a very striking, highly intelligent and courteous couple, both speaking good English now, though only having spoken it for eight months or so.

The reading was, in effect, part of the evidence in that it was a packed, properly advertised and documented poetry reading. Lily read three poems in Persian and also in vivid English translations by Clare Shaw. Clare Pollard and Clare Shaw's readings together with Lily's formed the first half of the event. It was the fiery, furious, passionately delivered half, poems read with great attack on subjects relevant to the evening. The brief interval was followed by raffles and auctions to raise money. The auction items included a pair of Levis donated by Simon Armitage with a poem hand written on the pocket lining. But there were several other items too (I read with Simon Armitage in Sheffield, in early April).

Then young poet David Tait read poems - quiet, lyrical, very well made convincing love poems. I am sure we'll hear more of David. Then I came on, reading some relevant poems and translations along with other things to end a highly charged evening.

After the event we were returning to the hotel, about ten minutes walk away, through the light rain. Clare P and I were walking a little ahead of the others and must have been deep in conversation, and had just turned round to see where the others were when we heard someone scream. A tall, quite heavily built and smartly dressed young man in glasses was in a rage. Clare S had stopped to see what the matter was. As we turned the young man gave the taxi door a hard kick. I assumed he was simply very drunk and was upset about something to the point of violence. It seems he had wanted to use the taxi, but for some reason the driver didn't want to take him and had, deliberately or inadvertently, slammed the door on the man's hand. Clare offered to ring for an ambulance but the man was still in a fury and as the taxi moved off he was in danger of getting his feet run over by it, avoiding it by an inch or so. There was nothing we could do for him. I didn't get to see his hand so couldn't tell what state it was in. It was one of those Saturday night incidents repeated a thousand times through the country. Drink, tears, conflict and someone getting hurt. The taxi was gone.

Back at the hotel we sat in the bar and talked till Clare S had to go. This was where the stories were told about arrest, prison, hearings and waiting. I won't go into that now until Lily and Elia allow me to do so for fear it might prejudice the next appeal hearing. What I can say is that part of their difficulty here has been proving that they are who they say they are, having had no hard evidence of it on their arrival. There is quite a lot now so the prospects are brighter.

The welcome for the return of the Ayatollah in 1979 lasted some four years, they said. Since then, and ever more so, there has been the spying, the torture, the killings, the oppression of women and gays, the fear, the fixed elections and the deaths that followed and keep following. It is the sort of danger that has been faced by many of their friends, some dead now, and would be faced by Lily and Elia personally if they were handed back.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Sunday night is... Ella, Round About Midnight

Ella Fitzgerald with Oscar Peterson trio.

Back from Leeds to mark and to blurb. Leeds was a powerful night. More tomorrow.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Setting off... Leeds, as per last post. Sky steely, the wind still beating away at everything in sight. More trains, more reading. Here is the end part of Gylua Illyés's One Sentence on Tyranny (1950). My translation, appropriate to the day:

..his is the truth, the way
so each succeeding day
is his, each move you make
you do it for his sake;

like water, you both follow
the course set and the hollow
ring is closed; that phiz
you see in the mirror is his

escape is doomed to failure,
you're both prisoner and gaoler;
he has soaked, corroded in,
he's deep beneath your skin

in your kidney, in your fag,
he's in your every rag,
you think: his agile patter
rules both mind and matter

you look, but what you see
is his, illusory,
one match is all it takes
and fire consumes the brake

you having failed to snuff
the head as it broke off;
his watchfulness extends
to factories, fields and friends

and you no longer know or feel
what it is to live, eat meat or bread
to desire or love or spread
your arms wide in appeal;

it is the chain slaves wear
that they themselves prepare;
you eat but it's tyranny
grows fat, his are your progeny

in tyranny's domain
you are the link in the chain,
you stink of him through and through,
the tyranny IS you;

like moles in sunlight we crawl
in pitch darkness, sprawl
and fidget in the closet
as if it were a desert,

because where tyranny obtains
everything is vain,
the song itself though fine
is false in every line,

for he stands over you
at your grave, and tells you who
you were, your every molecule
his to dispose and rule.

'He' in this case is Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary's sub-Stalin of the time.

Friday 4 February 2011

Leeds and Lily Mosini

Tomorrow the Leeds reading for the Iranian poet Lily Mosini who is threatened with deportation where her life would be in danger. It's a free gig as far as Clare Pollard, David Tait, myself and the organiser, Clare Shaw are concerned. The tickets are all sold at The Leeds Carriageworks. The event is under the umbrella of Voice Recognition. This is what the poster says:

Besides being a evening of heartstopping poetry, the reading aims to raise awareness of Lily Mosini and her partner Elia; both have experienced brutal persecution in Iran because of their work; both currently face deportation back to Iran. An unmissable opportunity to listen to this powerful writer and activist; and to become involved in the movement to support her.

Clare Shaw I should say is a very fine poet herself, her work absolutely full of life. It is marvellous that she should have organised this. I am very much looking forward to it and to hearing Lily herself, in Clare's translation.


A day of very high wind and dark grey skies. I have been marking at my desk, just running up to Norwich to pick up tomorrow's rail ticket from the machine. In between, a glance at Norm's blog on Marxism, liberal democracy and human rights, as well as a running debate on Facebook with Jon Stone. I defend Don Paterson and others. As if they needed me. I have never been of any great interest to those I defend. Still, the mind must keep busy. Schubert's great Quintet as I write this. And the gust bellowing.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Lightness of Being

Tonight to the launch of the latest issue of Stop Sharpening Your Knives (4) with readings by editors and contributors including Nathan Hamilton, Sam Riviere, Hayley Buckland, Jack Underwood, Theo Best, Ágnes Lehóczky, Tim Cockburn and Matthew Gregory, all damned good, some edging into prominence, some already edged. It's a two part launch, the first part in the beautiful central bookshop, The Book Hive, the second in my favourite Norwich bar-cum-restaurant, Take Five. A good number of our current MA's come along, as do some of the PhD's, both venues packed out.

I look around and realise I have at some stage taught everyone reading here, and that half the young audience are familiar. I may well be the oldest person in the room, and C with me. I am immensely proud of my ex- and current students, both present and the many elsewhere (taught not only by me of course but by notable others), but feel oddly disorientated as if all the faces added up to vanished years, as I suppose they do. I wonder for a few minutes what it would be like to up sticks and to vanish properly into a large city without personal history. Or to appear as a kind of notable from elsewhere but at a distance, to be just a poet, not a poet-who-teaches.

There is a very strong, chill wind tonight that gallops through coat and bone. Home now, I can hear it throwing tantrums in the yard. Like most writers, I imagine, I live a great deal in my own head. The plastic sheeting outside protecting the plants, snaps, shudders and shrills on the other side of the window. On Saturday to Leeds. More about that tomorrow.

Wednesday 2 February 2011


Yes, those pro-Mubarak demonstrators with Molotov cocktails etc. Old old story - plain clothes security trying to beat down a revolution. It is very like 1989, but turning from Czechoslovakia to Romania.

Talk about outside strategic interests from whatever side is not only beside the point at times like this, but actually disgusting, like talking about the rights of servants.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Sebald and Prizes

The only problem with going to London is coming back and then rising early the next morning, But it was worth it. We got down early so C could meet friend Annoula, and I could meet MT from the PBS. I finish as Chair there after the next meeting and we have approached MT to stand for Chair, or sit for Chair, whichever is more appropriate.

We have a drink before the 7pm event, meeting as arranged with friends Eva H and Stephanie, then go in. There are so many people I recognise there: poets, novelists, translators. Six prizes are to be given out for translation from Italian, Spanish, German, French, Arabic and Hebrew. The poets did well. The prize for Italian is won by poet and friend Jamie McKendrick for his Valerio Magrelli translations, Susan Wicks translations of the excellent Valerie Rouzeau (of whom I have done a few translations myself with the help of Marilyn Hacker), Christopher Johnson with Quevedo and, rather wonderfully, Peter Cole with his The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492, (text of book readable here) a book I must buy, but time was short and we had booked dinner with Eva and Annoula. Had a chance to congratulate Ali Smith too, she too having stayed to dinner with friends. She is someone I had never met, but whose work I admire. On way out and very late, bump into Margaret Obank of Banipal.

The full prize list plus article is available here, at The Times.


This is a little like the kind of social diary I don't do, so on to the lecture. Ali Smith had sent a simple questionnaire to various translators, including some of tonight's prize winners, as also myself, and the first half of her talk - beautifully written and delivered animatedly at a necessary 100 mph for lack of time - consisted chiefly of answers from us all, exploring the title of her lecture, Loosed in Translation. This part was a passionate advocacy of translation, which then moved without much transition to a fascinating and highly detailed examination of Max Sebald's entire oeuvre as translated into English. The question was not so much about the nature of this or that excellent translation of Sebald, but in the ways in which Sebald's work is itself a kind of translation of history and the self, the meanings of both constantly shifting and revealing. She had clearly read the poetry too, particularly After Nature (Michael Hamburger's translation), which was interesting to me as I have only a couple of weeks ago submitted an essay on Sebald's poetry.

Ali spoke for just under an hour but it went by very fast. It was like a fast flowing river carrying all kinds of glittering fishes. I would have liked to pick out each one and examine it, but the text of the Sebald part of the lecture will appear in the TLS.

After, at dinner, we talked about the lecture and translation in general. Eva said the Polish translation of her classic book, Lost in Translation, surprised her. It sounded somehow more masculine, possibly because it was in some way more propositional than the English. We talked about the notion of gendered translation, of potentially gendered languages. For lack of time we ate just starters, though some of us ate two. Long, long drive home from Stevenage, first me then C.

Sebald Lecture

Home very late last night, gone 1am, having driven most of the way to London and back and used the train near London. Full morning at the university, home for hot lunch, then straight off, both of us. Chief purpose to see Ali Smith give the W.G.Sebald lecture. Alarm for 6.30 this morning so there's no time for a post - later tonight.