Thursday 31 March 2011

The PBS and the Arts Council: Hatchet job at the RFH

On Sunday 24 January 2011 the PBS organised the Eliot prize readings at the Royal Festival Hall which seats 2,500 people. The previous year the same readings were organised at The Queen Elizabeth Hall that was packed out with about 900 people. Just a few years before that the readings were in The Bloomsbury Theatre, that has a capacity of 535 seats. The Prize had clearly outgrown the Bloomsbury, and within a year or so had outgrown the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There was a near capacity audience at the Festival Hall. That represents more than a doubling of audience with every change. The atmosphere has always been great but it had become ever more, well, festival-like.

The Arts Council sent out an observer who could not have done a better of job of stabbing the organisation in the back if she had been paid to do it. Her report was grudgingly complimentary but noted that she would not have had quite that shortlist (as if it was any business of hers to comment on it, ignoring the fact that there were two Nobel Prize winners on same list) and that a lot of people in the audience seemed to know each other, hinting that the audience was a matter of a small cabal of people pleasing themselves, a cosy little club of some 2,500 people. In other words the double doublings of the audience meant nothing to her, nor the fact that the RFH was the place that those who loved poetry would naturally flock to. All in all it was a hostile report where in reality there was only cause for celebration. Frankly, it looked like a set-up to me.

It didn't help that I recognised the name of the person submitting the report, it being someone I wouldn't particularly trust to make any judgment on poetry or indeed on much else. I won't name her here. ACE knew that the Eliot Prize was the biggest feather in the cap of the PBS. Hatchet job done.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Little Murders, Big Murders.. And Light

Back home from hosting a reading so exhausted after constant travel and rushing. but worse than anything the Arts Council cuts. It seems an attempt at the assassination of poetry at its roots. Poetry will survive of course, but not necessarily the people who have put their hearts and souls into making publication and distribution possible. For them - for me too - it is heartbreaking. And then for the Arts Council of England to give a hundred thousand to a commercial publisher like Faber is an absolute disgrace. Carol Ann Duffy got it right:

The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, condemned the cutting-off of the Poetry Book Society, established by TS Eliot in 1953 "to propagate the art of poetry" as "a national shame and a scandal". She added: "This news goes beyond shocking and touches the realms of the disgusting."

Disgusting is exactly what it is. The PBS has been my own particular concern for several years. It is a core organisation doing so much more than selling books. But then there are the publishers too: the root publishers who do the work with new writers and translations.

We will fight these of course. Much activity to come. There is nothing cheaper to support than literature and books, and poetry is the cheapest of all. For the sake of a few coppers they kill half of it. Little murders and big murders.

I'll write more on this tomorrow...

News at the university no better, administrative redundancies, losing invaluable, kindly, highly efficient people; reorganisations that mean moving the experienced into areas where they don't have experience, very fast, creating faceless 'hubs'. Thank you bankers and our glorious financial sector. Pocket those bonuses and let them sink you.


But, also tonight, the second in the series of free readings at the Drama Studio. These are turning into rather wonderful events. The bill was Heidi Williamson, Sam Riviere, Katharine Kilalea, Tom Warner and Peter Scupham. Fine attendance and marvellous readings, I mean really marvellous. I was particularly struck by Kilalea's recitation of her radio poem sequence which I found absolutely spellbinding.

Riviere, Warner and Kilalea, all excellent, all Norwich educated, with more to come. Heidi Williamson, local, grown into a very fine poet. These things make me happy, as they did the audience too. That was positively palpable. Poetry at best is electricity that flows through the neural system in the form of language and leaves the reader or hearer feeling electric. This was an electric reading. It's the present and the future. And Peter Scupham is simply one of the major poets in this country. He is a monument.

The bleakness of the day transformed. Just for the evening maybe, but the memory will remain and generate more such evenings and more electricity, quite beyond the reach of Arts Councils and Cuts and Funding. The poetry is in us: that will never go, however people try to kill it.

Tuesday 29 March 2011


Last night in Lewes reading to a good many people and, having gone down with a trolley full of books, pleased to be coming back with none. It was a good 45 minutes so for it to go well is as much relief as a delight.

Lewes, where I have now been some four times, seems almost a club rather than a town. It's a secret enclave full of Notables, Artists and Celebrities: a sort of Groucho's of Sussex. Arriving I was met by one of my contemporaries at secondary school, Peter, who was definitely cutting edge at the time (I wasn't even anywhere near the handle) frequenting The Marquee to hear The Yardbirds, then going off into sound engineering and working in big recording studios. He designs websites now and continues to work in radio. He took me to a pub called The Snowdrop, so called not because of nearby flowers but because of an avalanche that landed on it from the nearby white cliff ravine. Nice place. Ex-hippies, kids, respectables and, later, a man in top hat and flowing multi-coloured cape, who looked very much Incredible String Band about 1975, except that he was probably born about 1972, so must have been a retro-cutting-edger. Peter and I talked happily for an hour and more before I was picked up by my host for the night, Christopher and his wife Anne, who took me back to their house where Catherine Smith joined us for a fine dinner, before the walk over the old council chamber at Pelham House Hotel for the Monday Literary Club which was surprisingly packed. Since I never expect to see packed halls when I appear unless it is on a genuinely Grand Occasion, the surprise was marked.

Reading and talk as in first paragraph. Afterwards book selling and signing, and meeting with an ex-school student of mine, now actor Nicola Blackwell and her partner, Nick, as well as with Ruth Swift as was, who was in the very first Leeds Anthology edited by Martin Bell, along with me. Such lovely coincidences. Lewes may be a club in which I know some of the membership. Perhaps everyone I ever knew will eventually be found in Lewes. We drink at the hotel bar till about 11 then I am taken back to C and A's house. The morning we chat for an hour or so over breakfast. They are lovers of cities so we talk about a few we have in common. Then I am back on the train.

I break the journey in London to have lunch with Alfred Corn, who is returning to the USA until January. Alfred is with a stick having hurt his back and is in pain but gracious as ever. He has a present for me - Don Paterson on Shakespeare's Sonnets. We sit down in The Betjeman Arms opposite Kings Cross and talk for an hour or so over food. Poetry, politics, the environment, his education in the USA, some music. Then back on the train again this time to Stevenage to meet C who has been sorting out more affairs for her mother. She drives us back.

I like to write about ideas in these blogs. I doubt whether there is a single idea in the account above. I feel a bit tired and dull, probably a mixture of the two. Tomorrow it is more readings, this time at the Drama Studio, UEA at 7 - 8.30pm. Free readings, myself hosting Peter Scupham, Kate Kilalea, Heidi Williamson, Tom Warner and Sam Riviere. That is not a bad free line up, in fact it's rather magnificent. Let's hope we get a decent audience!

Sunday 27 March 2011

Sunday Night is... Gilda

Well, why not? It is not that Hayworth is a great dancer, more that she is not, more that she is a touch trashy and looks vaguely out of it in every scene and especially in those assembled here: whatever choreography she is following, she is to one side of it, not quite in time with it. And that's the nature of the deal. She moves like flame uncertain of itself in a slight draught, as if a stronger gust would blow her right out. Candle flame. And yet, as one of the commenters on YouTube puts it, she burns the screen up.

She takes the blame for whatever Mame does because Mame simply cannot help it, because there is a kind of burn in her as in all noir femmes fatales, who are as fatale to themselves as they are to the man in their shadow. The wrong to her has already been done and it leaves her woozy and sensuous. The poor male creature who catches her glove is like a hooked fish. His eyes goggle. But he will know somewhere at the back of what remains of his head, that once they leave the club he'll be a rich man and will die rich while she'll be a befuddled creature whose time is limited.

But in this arena, under stage lights, in the spangly gear, her power as dream fulfillment is immense. A third of our lives if we're lucky - is spent in sleep and dream. And she is undoubtedly beautiful, quite stunning, almost precisely because of what she is not and cannot be, and she does really burn the screen up in the way few have except Monroe and Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box.

Saturday 26 March 2011


It is indeed terrible that so many are about to lose jobs and prospects. I know what is waiting to hit the university, where some of the best people in vital offices will be lost. The great rally today is understandable and natural, and the various scuffles at Fortnum & Mason, at Topman and the rest are nothing much. Perhaps the whole is a cry of pain and anger - anger chiefly at the crash itself and what brought it about - with the usual circus sideshows. It doesn't seem to me a coherent demand for anything particularly clear. Is the cry for no cuts at all? For different cuts? For slower cuts? The first makes a good slogan, but the issue is about the second and third which are not much as slogans. CUT A LITTLE LESS! is not very dramatic. CUT AT A SLOWER PACE! is no better. The big 'alternative' as proposed by Ed Milliband is a combination of the second two, but it is still awkward for him to be leading the charge on the barricades as it is less than a year that Labour were in government and it was under their watch, and with their policies, the crash happened.

I say 'them' meaning my party of choice. History is not to be wound backwards. We are not going to recover coalmines, steelworks, fisheries, shipyards and dockyards. The unionised workforce is very much reduced. No doubt railway workers and UNITE can still bring some services to a halt but the TUC has no great army of tanks to park on what Jim Callaghan once called his lawn.

Short of a revolution - and I thought things might just move in that direction with the collapse of the banks and the financial system but we seem to be past that - it has to be different. Banks collapsed but the financial system survives. The importance of the financial sector is beyond me to gauge but I don't imagine it is something that can be controlled at a purely national level.

I would like an honest Labour party that told us it will do the best thing possible in whatever conditions it had to operate in. If it has to operate within globalised constraints, let it form its policies according to the best humanitarian options available. Let it be unashamedly ameliorist. Let it worry less about presentation and hollow rhetoric than about the gradual shifting of the moral centre towards a more generous, egalitarian society, persuading us to it, so we don't just talk or shout but do it. That much is possible and honest. I think it can work. I think the people among whom I live understand that and could respond to it.

That policy won't yield much of a slogan either. Things can only get better has been done to death. But I don't care for slogans anyway. My prescription for a march would be a silent one whose only banners were those that indicated where particular groups came from. This is who we are. This is where we are. Get to the squares and stand there. Forget the speeches. The change starts with silence. And with our own willingness to be honest about what such a change would entail for us. Injustice must be fought from within our own silent pockets.

Friday 25 March 2011

Some notes towards notes on photography: 1. Innocence

Image from

There is one moment of innocence in photography, which is the moment that light is allowed to enter the lens to strike the sensitive surface that records its effects. But that is a crucial moment by which hangs an entire history of recorded evidence that furnishes out memory and stringently corrects it when it weakens and prefers to follow desire. Photography, in this sense, is what Philip Larkin tells us it is in ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’. It is: no art is
Faithful and disappointing! That records
Dull days as dull, and hold it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes
Like washing lines and Hall’s Distemper Boards

In the hands of an amateur photographer, the ‘snap’ which begins with, and seems to stop with, the shutter shutting, does indeed seem to offer a unique form of fidelity. Words, after all, can be twisted, their meaning may be ambiguous, or interpreted ambiguously, but photographs show you who is where, doing what. That is the principle. That is the notion of image-as-evidence.

No one would hold a painting to this definition of fidelity to truth. We know the artistic act to be interpretive. That is what we expect. It may be that Queen Elizabeth had red hair, and a broad class of features that had to be recorded, but we know that recording wasn’t the whole story, that it hardly ever is, so when the painter Paul Delaroche, on seeing the first Daguerrotype announced: ‘From this day, painting is dead!’ we know he was wrong, understandably wrong of course, but still wrong.

And this ability of the photograph not to interpret but to record - this moment of innocence - immediately conferred an obligation. That obligation was to maintain innocence. The innocence was sacred. To interfere with the process of recording was to break a sacred oath. It was to interfere not only with evidence, but with light and time. It was like supplanting God and the laws of the universe in turning time back and changing it by breaking the laws of light. Some things must be sacred. Some things must be free of us. Sacred are the mugshot, the passport photo, the disposition of the corpse in the room, the piecing together of CCTV evidence, the due record of time passing. ‘Why, I saw it with my own eyes!’ cries the woman talking to Groucho Marx. ‘Well, who are you going to believe?’ retorts Groucho, ‘me or your eyes?’ ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ so Christopher Isherwood begins Goodbye to Berlin. The camera is the eye. The camera is the I. Best believe it.

Thursday 24 March 2011


Translating for a couple of hours, then starting an essay on photography to accompany a proposed book by Justin Partyka. I'll put up parts of it here as I write it, to let the pieces hang out and dry so to speak.

In the meantime a walk in the bright sun before lunch and then the journey to London for the Ted Hughes Award and the National Poetry Competition prize giving, at which I have, briefly, to speak. We walk down the back lane behind the abbey, with the great cedar of Lebanon at one end and the old railway bridge at the other. Birdsong throughout. Goldfinches, Blue Tits (or are they Great Tits), the whistling, whibbling, the stuff I once referred to as fioratura in a poem ('...his sculptured fioratura / neat and clean as a whistle...'), that little onomatopoeic flowerlet of sound, something like the Hungarian word fütyülés, meaning 'whistling', but also as applied to birds. The Italian word purses the lips with its 'f' then practically whistles twice (fio!... tu!) in the first and third syllable of its saying: fioratura. Cousin of toora loora-lie. The walk down the lane being so good, we simply reverse our steps and walk back the same way, listening and watching out, past the abbey beyond the trees that looks so much like a nestling bird it is tempting to imagine a beak on it, past the cedar, down towards the MNR railway line, and back along the Tiffey, which looks clear and fresh.

Fortunate days in fortunate places. The sunlight on my cheek is a reminder of fortune. Good to be alive. What else is there?

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Swings: A Photograph by Károly Escher

Károly Escher (1890-1966), Swings, 1930

Escher was so various. My mother's first and only teacher in photography, he was the great Hungarian photographer who stayed at home and was forgotten when all the rest - Kertész, Munkácsi, Brassaï, Moholy-Nagy, Capa - went abroad and made their reputations. This picture is not typical, but then there isn't a typical Escher. This one is brighter, lighter, dizzier than most. It's also tricksier with some double exposure and possibly some reversing out. It is playful. And yet it is more. It is spiky, funny, and a touch demonic as if a clutch of Signorelli's demons had found their way into a gym full of light. Those dark figures! That constructivist frame that is part cage, part menacing contraption! Things are both upside down and the right way up, out of kilter. I am also reminded a little of Wenders's angels in Wings of Desire: less pacific, more clearly electric.

A work of art enters a space: a state of being perhaps, then participates in it through the imagination, throwing itself back at the world. Those strange mad little tubs the demons drive through the air are like something we read backwards into history. There is a vague sense of the whole scene being an omen. It's the year after the Great Crash, three before Hitler takes over in Germany. We swing on, furiously, our hair throwing off sparks.

I myself am exhilarated looking at the image. Maybe what the artist throws back is the spirit of what he or she is witnessing, transformed and interpreted, flying through language - whatever language, written, spoken, visual or sonic - and we are there in the artist's own exhilaration, or perception of exhilaration, flying along his own neural network. Which, just at this moment, and in its own way for ever, happens to look like this.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

All About Oil... an incidental note and a poem

The cry that It is all about oil! have gone up several times in the last ten years regarding engagement in the Middle East. I am not concerned here with the degree of truth in the claim, though personally I believe all is a great exaggeration. There is, I suspect, very little all in international relations.

What the cry suggests is that it is all about the big oil companies and their share holders. That is no doubt part of it, but what it forgets is how much oil is about us too in a world where access to oil is vital.

I am thinking here of the fuel blockade of September 2000 where, in the face of rapidly rising prices and a promised increase in fuel tax, farmers and taxi drivers instigated a blockade of refineries. This is a brief summary of the events and their effects:

Protests were triggered on September 5, 2000 when it was announced that fuel prices were to rise again following a rise in the price of crude oil. The Channel Tunnel was blockaded in protest on September 6. On September 7, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Chesire, was blockaded. Protests spread rapidly with more refineries blockaded on September 8 resulting in nation-wide panic buying of fuel on September 9. On Sunday, September 10, the protests had closed Britain's largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands, and huge queues at gas stations were reported. By Tuesday, September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK's eight refineries. Over half of Britain's gas stations were shut. The protest ended almost as quickly as it had begun. On September 14, the Stanlow blockage ended and on September 15 the first fuel deliveries were reaching some gas stations, although it was estimated that 90 percent of gas stations were empty of fuel.

The italics are mine, but I well remember the event as I was about to fly off to Trinity College Dublin to be their first International Writing Fellow and I didn't know whether, in view of the lack of fuel, a coach would be running to the airport. The whole country seemed to be coming to a stop. That's after just a week of no fuel. Nor was this about me getting to an airport - it was ambulances getting to hospitals and all the rest. This was all about oil.

This is not to argue that a nation should do anything to ensure its supply of oil, certainly not an argument for war, but the flow of oil is clearly important. Oil isn't just about them - the hugely wealthy - it is also about people's daily lives. In 2007 there was the Russian oil blockade to Belarus that took just three days to reach crisis point.

As I also recall, the shift in the western view of Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 happened to coincide with the squeeze on oil by the OPEC countries.

In 1972, the price of crude oil was about $3.00 per barrel. By the end of 1974, the price of oil had quadrupled to over $12.00. The Yom Kippur War started with an attack on Israel by Syria and Egypt on October 5, 1973. The United States and many countries in the western world showed support for Israel. Because of this support, several Arab exporting nations and Iran imposed an embargo on the countries supporting Israel. While these nations curtailed production by 5 million barrels per day other countries were able to increase production by a million barrels. The net loss of 4 million barrels per day extended through March of 1974 and represented 7 percent of the free world production.

Any doubt the ability to control crude oil prices had passed from the United States to OPEC was removed during the Arab Oil Embargo. The extreme sensitivity of prices to supply shortages became all too apparent when prices increased 400 percent in six short months.

So moral grounds slowly shift with economic pressure. People begin to 'see reason', to 'see the other side'. Realpolitik changes hearts and minds.

Most wars have, at bottom, been about resources and control of resources. Under conditions of global warming the prediction is wars about water. If an alternative to oil was found the oil producing countries would suffer economic collapse. Like all slogans which are meant to suggest one thing, 'It's all about oil' is about a great deal more.


The poem is one in An English Apocalypse (2001), from 'The Pickets' section. The poem, written just weeks after the blockade itself - as was the whole Apocalypse sequence - responds to the fuel blockade of 2000 and how, through technology and legislation, the power seemed to have shifted from unions with their history of solidarity and ideology to individuals with a brief common interest and no ideology, except, as I remember quite clearly, the flag of St George around which the taxis and trucks gathered. It felt like the beginning of a new psychological order (as it did in 'Orgreave', another poem in the same section, about the miners' strike). The new order wasn't lovable, nor is it now, which may be partly why the rising of people - the people as the phrase has it - in the Arab world seems so exhilarating.


Where ideology fails, mere livelihood
takes over, seeking its bottom line,
wherever that is, in vision or in blood

or further regions impossible to define.
The cross of St George flutters on the pole
behind men picketing in a benign

huddle, comfy, but barely in control
of the world that they are bringing into being.
They form a solid yeomanry in droll

revolt against powers that even now are fleeing
the cities they rule from. From what far regions
have the yeoman risen? Where are their all-seeing

leaders and prophets? Their everyday religions
are bottom-line affairs with few demands,
offering basic warmth for mild allegiance,

composed of mostly affordable deodands:
crumbs for the ducks, a tip for the paper-boy,
a Christmas kiss, holding a mother's hands,

comfort for the dying. I'm thinking of Joy,
Ruby, Ted and Jerry, their children trapped
in kitchens and sheds a real storm would destroy

in minutes, and Stan, hollow-eyed, flat-capped,
whose tools we inherited, and Percy Bunn
the handyman and glazier who dropped

dead at the church fete, and gangling Ron
the caretaker, whose wife left and he drank
for weeks, and every picket the son

(or daughter) of people of such social rank
as drop away now, lost in the dawn retreat,
the tankers rolling past them, faces blank.

Sometimes being of foreign birth can make one feel like a sad, slightly removed observer, not one of Benjamin's angels of history, but one of the fleas of history, hopping around on history's back.

Monday 21 March 2011

Translating Cliff

I am working away, translating, then we go for a walk, and I remember that Jet Harris (late of The Shadows) is dead at 71. I say to C: Jet Harris is dead. She knows. I say to her: In those days that was the sort of name you had to have: Jet, Cliff, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde. I begin to wonder whether Ricky Livid really did exist or not. Did Freddy Frantic? Micky Manic? Or am I confusing him with Rock Hudson? And then a Shadows tune comes into my mind. Is it Apache? Or Wonderful Land? Or something else? One of those straight guitar twangers that foreshadows Enzio Morricone and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a faint cowboy trace, a sense of galloping, and the hard true tune turning just a little bitter at the edges like smoking on a rainy night in someone's doorway.

Then I come home and work again and remember I have Spotify. So I put up a bit of the Shads: Jet and Bruce and Tony and, of course, Hank, boys in suits doing a mild kick forward (not unlike Diana Ross at that World Cup, I reflect) to the sound of girlish screams. And after listening through to Apache and Wonderful Land and Foottapper, I go on to Cliff, to some of his first proper rock 'n roll hits. I listen through to Dynamite and Mean Woman Blues and Whole Lotta Shaking Going On. And then there's this clip.

I know, I know... Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Eddy Cochran, Elvis of course... but there's quite a lot of this sort of Cliff. The movement is very short of Elvis or Jerry Lee, but it's definitely rock 'n roll. So the translation proceeds, surprisingly enough. By the way, Jet is the blond one in the middle.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Sunday Night is... Busby Berkeley, Ginger Rogers in the money

Gold Diggers of 1933

There is something about Busby Berkeley that out-vulgars vulgar and lands up in its own mad, disturbing, dark, satyr-play, faintly erotic poetry. Everything curls together, all the golden girls are solid fool's gold, waves of movement are like dream patterns rolling over you. The Andrews Sisters picked up something of this dark gloss. It's the underside of the American dream emerging as the top side.

I'm reading tonight - I forgot to mention - at The Bicycle Shop at 8pm with Ágnes Lehóczky and Andy Mc Donnell.

Dates coming up

Every so often I must remember to do one of these, not because I have a vast army of readers dying to follow me around the country, but in case one or two people see a date, are nearby and feel they have the time to come. So:

Thursday, 24 March: London for the awarding of the National Poetry Prize (as also for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, where friend, fellow-poet and ex-student Martin Figura is on the list)

Monday 28 March: Reading in Lewes, for the Lewes Monday Literary Club, 8pm, Pelham House Hotel, Lewes.

Wednesday, 30 March: UEA Drama Studio Free Readings by Peter Scupham, Kate Kilalea, Heidi Williamson, Tom Warner and Sam Riviere (and a couple by myself) 7pm, Drama Studio, UEA, Norwich

Friday, 1 April: Cheltenham Poetry Festival, with Nigel McLoughlin and Georgian Harmony Singers. 7:30pm, Francis Close Hall, Cheltenham. (The whole festival is down to a tremendous effort by Anna Saunders!)

Sunday 3 April: Sheffield Poetry Festival. This is a first festival in Sheffield and, like Cheltenham , has an excellent programme. My own part in it is in the form of: 1) Poetry and Translation, a dialogue with Simon Armitage (11-12am, Humanities Research Institute); and 2) Reading with Agnes Lehoczky at The Workstation, 3:30-4:30

Monday 4 April: Discussion at The Leeds Salon on Poetry and The Tyranny of Relevance, with Michael Schmidt and David Bowden. 6:30 at Bank Street Arts.

That is spreading myself a bit thin, but if I must get into these scrapes..

Then a break till 17 April when I read at The Assembly Rooms, Swaffham... and, likely, a few days in Hungary.

Friday 18 March 2011

Beyond realpolitik

Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849)

How complicated nation-states are. I was in Cambridge yesterday, talking to my fine translator Gabriele yesterday, having taken delivery of some copies of my Italian selected poems in his translation, and we got to talking about the divisions of Italy - the Northern League and the South - and he remarked how most Italians regard themselves as of their particular region rather than as Italians. And when you look at Britain too, or rather just England, you can see the north-south divide and also be aware of the West Country, as to some extent of the East of England too.

The Kingdom of Libya was founded as late as 1951 and it was only in 1969 that Gaddafi ousted King Idris. Gaddafi's history is terrible, though as my correspondent to the last post says, the citizens of Libya have, thanks to oil, been relatively affluent. Nevertheless it has been an absolute fiefdom, merciless in hunting down whoever it saw as its enemies inside and out.

Down with the Tyrant! is one of the essential revolutionary cries. Down with Tyrants! (plural) was the cry of 1848. The Hungarian Sándor Petőfi's Föltámadt a tenger (The Whole Sea Has Revolted or The Sea has Risen) articulates the revolutionary cry:

Föltámadt a tenger
The whole sea has revolted

The whole sea has revolted,
The nation in full spate
Has earth and heaven assaulted
And over sea-walls vaulted
With terror in its wake.

See how she treads her measure?
You hear her, as she peals?
If you’ve not had the pleasure
Then watch her sons at leisure
Kicking up their heels.

At nineteen to the dozen.
Great vessels roll about,
And fall where she has risen
To hell with mainmast, mizzen,
And sails turned inside out.

Pound on, exhaust your passion
Batter at passion’s drum,
Expose your depths, the riven
Furies. and fling to heaven
The filthy tidal scum.

Eternal heaven bear witness
Before all heaven’s fools:
Though ships bob on the surface
And oceans run beneath us
It is the water rules.

(My translation)

'The water rules' is rarely the case, but there is something deeply tidal about human affairs. I am immediately tempted to think of the great tsunami that swept away towns and over 10,000 people in Japan a few days ago. The Romantic notion of the terrible Sublime as an ennobling force extorts a very high price. We want to avoid the Sublime when we can. And then it happens. As my correspondent suggests, people are swept up by the emotion of the moment, and that doesn't necessarily work out well.

The cause of the nation state is not the one that thrills me. My sense of the ambiguities and hypocrisies of realpolitik is a hunch about the human world and how it actually works. I don't expect nations to be embodiments of virtue. On the other hand there remains considerable force in the idea of liberty. Back to Petőfi, another poem, titled Egy gondolat (One Thought). The following lines from it:

O let me be a tree by lightning blasted,
Twisted by hurricanes, by wild winds wasted;
Or let me be a cliff the loud storms batter
And hurl into the vale below to shatter...–
Once  every nation now in chains,
Grown weary of its yoke, regains
Its self-respect, cheeks flushed and banners red,
One undefiled word fluttering overhead,
That word LIBERTY
Chanted incessantly,
Chanted across the globe from east to west,
There, where the tyrant, dares to raise his crest,
There, where guns resound,
Let my corpse be found

His corpse was never actually found, but he is assumed to have died in battle defending the liberty of his people, by which people he meant, in one sense, his putative nation-state, but in another, something larger and more general as the above excerpt makes clear.

Ideals, ideals... The no-fly zone and control of air-space are not there to put down the tyrant, though the tyrant clearly is a tyrant. It is what global realpolitik can manage. It is intended to prevent a massacre. It might do that. That is why I am for it. But if the tyrant should fall as a result of it I will feel the sense of release that human beings do generally feel at such times, and are right to feel, however long liberty lasts, before it is absorbed back into the world of tensions, checks and balances we normally live in.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Might / Might Not


We hear that Gaddafi's troops might or might not take Benghazi today. We hear that there might or might not be agreement to provide a no-fly zone. We hear that a no-fly zone might or might not help the rebels. We hear that whatever we do now might or might not do anything to prevent carnage. So we might or might not stand helplessly by while Gaddafi's forces take revenge in the manner generally expected, and we might or might not hear that the voices we heard being interviewed during the rise of the rebellions might or might not have been silenced by killing, torture and imprisonment.

Human responsibility is never as clear as the conscience might hope. Whatever new regimes may emerge out of similar regional rebellions that might or might not be successful, might or might not be more fundamentally Islamicist, or might or might not be more democratic than what preceded them. The calculations of realpolitik - which is to say the politics that actually happens almost all the time, as opposed to the rhetoric and the drama - are not about abstractions: they are about possibilities as large and as dramatic as the events of this or that specific moment. If 'The West', meaning primarily the US and the UK, followed, with a show of reluctance, by the rest of Europe and the rest of whatever remains of the Commonwealth, intervenes in an area that is already deeply suspicious of it, possibly in a state of loathing of it, the chain reaction of events might head towards more confrontation (or might not).

Nevertheless, I for one, will feel a kind of despair when I hear that Gaddafi has suppressed the revolt, killed a vast number of people in the process and will go on killing more of them over the next few years. And I will feel very much like a hypocrite when the dust settles and everyone will have to go on talking to Gaddafi again as if nothing had happened.

It is not because I think 'The West' is the model of righteousness, but because I, like most people I imagine, do feel a sense of involvement with others, a sense that is, in some ways, a product of democracy, meaning the enabling of individuals and groups to influence decisions taken at remote levels. That is what being in a democracy entails. And that is why any movement towards genuine democracy is so moving, however it turns out in the end.

The balance of forces in the Middle East and North Africa - indeed anywhere in the world - is realpolitik. Realpolitik is that which we cannot help happening, whether it goes one way or the other. All politics, once out of the heat of the moment, is realpolitik. Realpolitik can save lives as well as destroy them in the long run. Realpolitik is what is possible to be done: it is what we do.

But the lives of those living that realpolitik through are a matter of human conscience. And it isn't the newspaper cries, the storming editorials or opinion columns that gnaw at the heart. It is the knowledge we cannot help knowing.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Delhi - a review

Baoli - the step-well in Delhi city

Talking almost continuously out and almost continuously back makes Delhi seem a short trip and once arrived it feels mere weeks since I was there last. It is in fact two years. The first time I went to India was to the Katha Conference in 2005, at exactly the same venue, the International Centre. That was a huge international affair, with Orhan Pamuk, Roberto Calasso and Tim Parks with a cast of hundreds music and film, without let up. Dear late Jack Harte was there too. It was at the IIC I first met Sharmistha Mohanty, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Sudeep Sen. As I remember I gave a reading outside and did an improvised talk on translation. Sharmistha and Priya began their al fresco reading in the warm sunny late afternoon but it had chilled several degrees by the time they were through. But we were friends by then and so it was Sharmistha invited me to the first Almost Island conference the following year.

The conferences are small - some eight speakers at most, including outstanding Indian poets and prose writers - and have a broad given subject around which all talk morning and afternoon, with different speakers and respondents for each session. In the evening there are readings and, sometimes, music, in the Annex garden, under the Bottlebrush Tree.

It is the quality of the conferences that is so remarkable. The conversations are passionate, learned, generous and exciting. Because there are relatively few speakers, each two or three hour session allows time for development and exploration. The form is flexible. The core idea is to explore the possibilities of poetics in verse or prose. The conferences are followed with real interest outside and there is an invited audience that is encouraged to contribute.

My presence - the third time - is my good fortune. The second time I was replacing Elliot Weinberger whose father was very ill.


A few specific memories of Almost Island 2011.

Arriving at the IIC with Vahni and Doshan to be warmly greeted by Sharmistha and Ashwini, once dancer, then translator, now ceramicist, who is an indispensible part of the organisation. Quick change and a quick introduction to Forrest. Settling into the room. Unpacking my single piece of hand-luggage. Showering in the bathroom with its three shower heads. Getting the phone charged up. Meeting Charu for the first time. Meeting Allan again. In the evening the first reading: Giriaj Kiradoo, Rahul Sony and Charu Nivedita

The first morning of the conference proper, and Forrest's presentation, short, brief, opening out, the conversation billowing nicely.

The afternoon with the Cybermohalla Collective, six of them, each talking eloquently and at length about their project. They are very young but extraordinarily mature. But I keep losing concentration. Maybe because there is so much translation, and it takes so long to improvise out of such length.

Vivek Narayanan and Vahni Capildeo's evening reading, all pulse and stretch, Vivek's on the edge of laughter, swelling to grand; Vahni, almost stern, mostly prose but with a great sense of interior spaces and driving intelligence.

Vahni's presentation the next morning, the one I take to be a dismissal of verse as a banal form, a fake of some sort, as something that never did really exist. This is the one that upsets me. Allan explodes into life with an assertion of his right to write as he has to, as he actually does.

But before that, a rest in the afternoon with a visit to Humayana's Tomb and the terrifyingly deep step-well where I gather up my courage and walk along the ledge by the side of the well. See above. I read in the evening with the Collective. That's OK. But I am awake most of the night. Just two hours sleep, if that.

My presentation next morning, some trouble at the beginning then sorting itself out but still troubling. Nothing particularly wrong with it in itself, but was it the best thing to do here? Now?

Time for a quick sleep before a dash to the Shangri-La Eros grand hotel, where the British Council conference is going on in parallel. I am down to read for half an hour but they have overrun so I will do ten minutes. Quick warm words with Miklós Haraszti mainly on the state of Hungary, on which more another time. The reading goes very well and I am asked for an encore at the end of which a middle aged woman thrusts a book into my hand. She asks if she might give it to me. Well, of course. I dash back to the evening reading on the last night, and only then do I notice that the book is by Katha Pollitt and is very nicely dedicated. The knowledge of this grows on me over the next day. Why didn't I speak to her properly? (The cab was waiting).

The last reading, already described, all strange life and depth.


At times I wondered if I hadn't outstayed my contribution. Perhaps I just don't have three years worth to give to a conference like this? That feeling hung about me the last night and through the morning, and hasn't quite gone even now. What have I learned that I can move forward? Can I learn? I have to learn. There is no other point to life, is there? Just walk that ledge by the step-well even if your knees feel a bit weak. Especially because your knees feel weak.

Sunday 13 March 2011

from Delhi 4

Of course, everything is overshadowed by the Japanese earthquake and the nuclear leaks. What a year this has been for disasters already!

In that perspective our concerns look insignificant, but while the mind is engaged with something else the great disasters wait at the door. Once they enter one might as well be thinking with the mind fully engaged in any case.

I led in the morning on material springing from the earlier blogs about football and form, so there is no great need to go into that. The point was that here I was proposing it at an angle to the general agreement around free-flow and what is considered to be openness - and for that matter interest and validity. My task, so I felt, was to present form as chance and incompletion - as a liberator in other words - rather than as an enslaving pretty pattern.

Was this the best thing to do? Perhaps not. The group is not particularly interested in definitions, or thinks it isn't, and quoting the ancient anonymous quatrain O westron wind when wilt thou blow / The small rain down can rain / Christe, that I were in my true love's arms / And I in my bed again may be at too much of a tangent in its attempt to prove the power of the line and of concision, as well as the power of imperfection (those two 'I's that actually make the poem, along with the cry of Christe!)

But it all ends amiably enough though once again I wonder if I am in the right place, the right heaven. That might depend on the other angels with whom I have been inhabiting. I do not intend this ironically. There is something of what I understand as genuinely angelic in the project.

But, having slept only two hours last night, I put my head down, setting the alarm to give me three-quarters of an hour possible sleep. Sleep does come.

Quickly then, get dressed and wait for the taxi to take me to the much grander Hotel Shangri-La Eros where the Bitish Council conference on mixed communities and globalisation is taking place. The hotel is intensely security conscious. The conference is upstairs. Eva H comes out to greet me and tells me there is some timetable adjustment. Instead of half an hour she would like me to read for about ten minutes over coffee. The subject should, ideally, having something to do with the theme of the conference, so I take out Preston North End, and three sonnets from the sequence, Backwaters: Norfolk Fields, plus two new poems, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and the pair, Honour, and Pride, this all goes very well and they want an encore so I give them, Sisyphus, which is set in a hotel and deals with eternal transition. There among the participants is Miklós Haraszti from Hungary, in whose flat we stayed during most of 1989. I haven't seen him since then. It is a warm reunion.

Back at the IIC it is time for the last readings. Sharmistha gives three excerpts of superbly poised, meditative prose that moves through history as in a series of sharply recalled dreams; then Forrest Gander performs his poems. I find these hard to judge as poems because the level of performance is too strong for me the first time round. His whole body convulses as with a mild but continuous electric shock. His delivery is similarly electric, in bursts, with sharp crescendos and steep brief diminuendos. At the end he quotes a Japanese tanka, in Japanese, as a reminder of events. It is a stunning performance, and a perfectly legitimate one, but for the moment it takes place in front of the poems, so I close my eyes and it is immediately better. I know from reading the book I have what a really good poet he is: that is how I know.

Finally Allan Sealy reads and talks about his work in hand, which is a kind of journal, but so much more. This is the reading that most blows me away - it's funny, lyrical, matter-of-fact, studious, naturally manic, and yet tender and solicitous. If there is anyone truly angelic here it is Allan. He encompasses more than any of us do by being not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. It is a privilege listening. And I mustn't forget the Cybermohalla Collective, who are a miracle sheerly be existing the way they exist, how they came to be and what they remain.

Then supper, and here we are again, at the end of another Almost Island, almost done, almost flown. And me too. I am boiling the kettle and have put a tea bag in the little cup. I will add the powdered milk and a bit of sugar. I hope I have made closer friends with Allan. I think I have a new friend in Charu Nivideta. Those who are friends already remain warm friends. And actually Vahni and I are friends too, different as we are. We would probably drive each other quite mad after prolonged daily exposure. But maybe we can learn from each other too. I can from her - learn, that is, that which I can actually use, which is all anyone can learn from other people.

Late again. Gone midnight. And sew to bid. Or something like that.

Saturday 12 March 2011

from Delhi 3

This morning it was Vahni and Alan. Vahni speaks first and delivers a beautifully illustrated argument about her preference for time over space, expressing her doubts about the legitimacy of the poetic line, which she feels is something of a dead end, to deploy a pun that was not clearly called for. She asks whether form belongs to the reader or the writer, wants to look beyond the process v. product discussion, employs metaphors involving architecture, oceans and astronomy to suggest scope. There is a lovely image of her as a piecer-together of mosaics surrounded, she suddenly notices, but a great mass of other mosaic constructiors.She says her unconscious is more orderly than her analytical mind, prefers toalk of forms rather than of form, cites Anglo-Saxon poetry to demonstrate that the line is an afterthought, not part of the structure, and that if there is form it lies in movement not in fixity. Beginning from Mallarmé's notion of the white space around poems as a kind of silence, she develops the idea that Mallarmé might have wished for silence but that the margin is actually full of noise, pointing to the use of grotesques in the margins of old prayer books and psalteries.

She wants the reader to make an effort, to work. She uses terms like complacent and banal, and when I remark that I have asked students in the past to put the lines back in a poem that I had printed out as prose, and that they have generally got pretty close, she says that students will do things to please their teacher.

Of course, I understand that she must speak with force because she thinks forcefully, but I feel a bit patronised if nothing else. All the same I admire her and have enormous respect for her mind. However, I remember how at the end of her reading the previous evening she asked the audience whether they wanted more prose or a 'poem-poem'. Having heard what she had to say on the subject they naturally opt for prose.

Well, I think, I write poem-poems, and perhaps when I introduce my own reading later I will preface the reading with a warning that the audience is about to hear poem-poems, so if they wish to take a sleeping pill and set their alarm clocks forty minutes on, that's fine by me. I add that at least they are not poem-poem-poems, so are only guilty in the second degree.

Actually, this is probably just vulnerability and pique on my part; why not argue theory with passion and ruthlessness. Ideas are not people, are they?

And of course we get on very well outside the ring... She is splendid, intelligent and right in very many ways - there is always a need to be sceptical about one's work and to guard against complacency and banality. It just feels a touch absolute, as though delivered from a superior height, and does discount centuries of poem-poems. That may just be my own vulnerability though. Some of us start low. But tomorrow I talk about poem-poems.


When it comes to Allan we seem to be caught in an earlier endless circular discussion about who or what readers are and how far we do or do not determine or encourage readings, or indeed readers to be complacent and banal, as complacent and banal as ourselves. Eventually Allan erupts and describes, wonderfully, how he writes - at night, in the dark, with a pencil, seeking words and progressions, without ever thinking of the reader, wanting only to please himself. This is so heartfelt and so clearly true I feel a positive surge of love for him.

And he is right and is only slightly fuzzy on the sense of self, on how the writing self is compounded of all that we have been, done and read and admired, so the tutelary deities in the head - my phrase now - are constantly changing places, vanishing or being replaced. In my case there would certainly be deities that go by the names of Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Roethke, Bishop - and further back, George Herbert, Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, Rochester in his way, Pope in his and Swift in his and Byron in his; and some notes of Wordsworth and Tennyson, and Emily Bronte, and perhaps we might add Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Rilke, Mandelshtam, Brodsky, etc etc, to extend to the Hungarians and then to people who are not writers at all, say Vermeer and Goya and strange minor names like Francis Picabia; nor should I ever forget my mother and father and the history I owe them, though that I do not in fact ever forget. And Clarissa who is there in so many poems.

Where does one stop? The truth is that the list is not infinitely extendable. 'These are your Gods, O Israel' wrote Robert Graves accusingly. These are and have been some of my own tutelary spirits who have not quite been gods, and no doubt there will be others. Possibly even Graves, the most English of twentieth century English poets.

In the afternoon a trip out and we talk at ease, Vahni and I. Well, why not? We actually like each other, I think.

Then the reading - first the collective, the writing much simpler and clearer than the theorising about it. Rather lovely depictions of scenes in the city, the complexity tucked well inside the narrative flow. Then I do my piece including a majority of new work. It's fine. I know how to read, and get on with it. People are complimentary afterwards and we head off for a meal in the Lodi Gardens.

Quarter to one in the morning here. Time to stop.

Friday 11 March 2011

from Delhi 2

It's full-on and hard running at Delhi. I woke at 6 and opened the door to the balcony, then sat out there to read, with parrots, myna birds and crows a few feet from me having a very loud series of rival conferences. At breakfast played safe with poached egg, then into the first session.

This is the American poet Forrest Gander on the subject of form, form being the topic for the conference. It was his book I was reading on the balcony, with considerable pleasure. Like Alice Oswald he is something of an eco-poet, which means writing out of nature rather than describing landscape. Trained as a geologist, his work is rich with scientific reference and the book I have been reading, Science & Steepleflower, employs a variety of ways of using page space, the line measure darting in and out. The most fascinating aspect from my point of view - at the moment anyway - is his use of various forms of language to original purpose employed with real delicacy. For example, what I take to be a set of subtly erotic short poems based in in place he ends the poem with the following lines:

.... She
makes a knot on the inside knob
and ties my arms up
against the door. Williamsburg green.
With a touch as faint as a watermark.
Tracing cephalon, pygidium, glabella.

That's one of the straighter looking poems in the . The last three words are exoticum with purpose and precision. I'd say that was piquant and lovely.

Forrest was proposing a form beyond the Modernism v New Formalism debate - I am with him on that. It wasn't a long speech and the conversation immediately began to ripple outwards from technical questions that are also, in their way, ethical questions, to issues between poems as spaces and poems as time. So we spread and stirred a few waters.

After lunch it was the extraordinary Cybermohalla Collective who had just published a book titled Trickster City. They are very young, in their early twenties, not from privileged backgrounds, nor do they speak English, but their work is complex and their comments on it deeply intelligent. Their subject here was the notion of splitting up the first person interlocutor into fractions of other voices so as to give voice, not so much to those who have no voice, but to the city itself. It's a very ambitious programme and involves intensive collaboration. It would take far more space and time than I have here to explore their ideas, some of which are familiar from all kinds of contemporary discourses. I am not entirely sure that the processes they describe so coherently do what they say they do, but I could be wrong, and would be pleased to be.

At night it was Vivek Narayanan and Vahni Capildeo reading under the Bottle-brush tree, the usual black cat yowling attendance, the sickle moon on its back behind them. Both are outstanding in their different ways: Vivek's poems are full of invention, plea, joke, prayer, public matters and private matters. Over the years I have known his work he has developed a serious sense of proportion and considerable dramatic scope. He is a passionate writer and a passionate man, full of energy.

Vahni has a biting insistent intelligence that is its own form of passion. She is more and more interested in prose, less patient with the self-satisfied aspects of poetry, as I understand it, (poetry-poetry as she refers to it). She is a debunker with a vast thirst for exploration. Supremely well read and articulate she is, paradoxically, a poetic intelligence above all.

Though as to poetic and poetry, or poetry and verse, thereby has hung a tale already and will again.

Night now. Cool. The window open to the balcony. The eternal noise of traffic and the sound of car horns, much like the birds a conference this morning.

Thursday 10 March 2011

From Delhi 1

Flight over with Vahni Capildeo, poet and fellow participant in the conference. We talk ourselves into sleep, the, a few hours later, we talk ourselves out of it again. We are passing the snow-covered mountains of Afghanistan, the light as clean as spring water.

Terminal 3 is new, hence spotless, palatial and endless. We seem to walk for miles down moving conveyor belts. At the exit we are met by D, who gets us a taxi to the IIC, which by now is very familiar to me. There, waiting warmly, are Ashwini and Sharmistha. We settle in, have lunch, pass a large chanting demonstration by Tibetan students - the police out in bus numbers, which seems scarcely necessary. After that it's rest, then at 5pm I meet a journalist from The Hindu, a young poet who asks me questions that I am often asked if only because they seem to be the ones that That makes a nice change. Then she takes a few photos.

After that it's back to the annex under the Bottle-brush tree. A very large black cat makes loud pleading noises and settles in one lap then another. Readings follow, partly in Hindi, partly in English, partly in Tamil. More on that later. I am grateful for the English parts as it is cold and cooling. I follow the English with intense interest.

The young Collective who wrote Trickster City is here, or at least a number of them. We are introduced and talk through interpretations. Then to supper upstairs, a meal of many parts.Now it's late - 11:30 local time. Tomorrow we start full on.

No pics or links while I am here but maybe I'll work out a way of getting some on. Maybe once I'm back home. Odd, however far you go, if you've been there before it is as if you've hardly been away.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

At Heathrow

The transit lodges of the soul, easily recognisable as a state of mind: that ageless yet limited hovering. Soul born in WH Smith, nurtured in Caffe Nero, the eye one big check-in board, the body a piece of luggage, then up up into the air, sub specie aeternetatis.

Conversation with Sarah Crown but so-so from my point of view, but maybe they'll splice and edit me into a genius.

Next time from India, with luck.

Alice Oswald / India

Excellent reading last night with Alice Oswald. She was delayed because of an accident on the railway line but still made it in time to talk to the students, before a break, then addressing the 250 odd audience.

She reads quite hypnotically, mostly from memory, carefully spacing her words and lines. She doesn't read too much but levers each poem into the air so you could hear a pin drop. The great theme is nature, or rather nature and humankind and the energies that flow through both. Her introduction to The Thunder Mutters, the anthology she edited, (the title a quotation from John Clare) begins with a dedication to the humble rake, the gardener's friend, not the eighteenth century hell-raiser. The drag and scuff of it, its grasp on texture lies at the heart of the poems. Then there is the river, those flicks, swirls and tides, the lives the river supports and generates, and the dream-element of moon at night (she is an insomniac and walks the night out).

Like all good poetry her work presents the body in words: language being the other body. But she also has something of the shaman or the seer. There is a looking through things, albeit against resistance. She says she prefers listening to looking, and the ghosts of Manley Hopkins and Hughes, and Homer too, certainly stalk through her verse.

All subjects have to be reinvented. In her case she is reinventing nature for us, but not a nature at odds with people, rather one that encompasses people and their sheer cussedness with its own sheer cussedness.

The conversation flew by.


And now to set off to the station. First to London to do a podcast with Sarah Crown at The Guardian, then over to Heathrow 4 and a night flight to Delhi.

I'll probably keep in touch here.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Late for Monday, on way to Tuesday & Wednesday

Hecticker and hecticker. Yesterday spent in the company of great Magnum photographer Ian Berry who has to shoot my mug through a working day for an UNHCR project on refugees, such as wot I am. Ian is soft spoken and looks nothing like his considerable age. After the first twenty minutes of settling in to being photographed and not posing it becomes easier. We move around the house, down the nearby streets, into the abbey, then go to university where I have two tutorials with students who don't mind being snapped. Home again, then in the evening back again to university for a reading of translations with Philip Mosley, a poet-translator like me and a UEA alumnus, though now teaching in the USA. It's an Arc event, Philip - whom I had not met before - reading from his translations of the Belgian poet, François Jacqmin, and I from New Order, the anthology of younger Hungarian poets.

Philip's Jacqmin is clear, translucent, philosophical, ironic, delicately cerebral and unsettling, the verses in ten-line dizaine form. He makes a contrast to my choice of Hungarians, equally unsettling but dramatic and direct.

Then back to Nick and Amanda's for talk, drinking and eating, Ian having worked with Amanda's father in the sixties. It's a long day for us all, and for C who has been under the weather for a couple of weeks now. It is not the being photographed, or the being with Ian that is tiring - on the contrary, that is exhilarating - it's the concentration on the full day. And the ones right ahead.


Today it's Alice Oswald at UEA. My job is to host her and have a brief conversation with her between poems. I have been reading through the remarkable Oswald oeuvre, including the anthology, The Thunder Mutters. An audience of a few hundred in the big lecture theatre, then supper out. I am not one of nature's natural chat show hosts so it's always tense for me before, though the events themselves are not tense. Anticipation is always worse. Once you are there you talk. What else would you do?

But before then, last minute preparations for India, where I am bound tomorrow till the 14th for many more conversations, a paper, and a couple of readings. It's the lovely Almost Island conference in Delhi, my third visit. On the way down I stop in London to do a Guardian podcast with Sarah Crown, and while in India I nip over to another part of Delhi to do a short reading at another conference. I have managed to maintain a blog from India before and will hope to do so again.

There would also have been an almost immediate flight out to Uzbekistan on my return but I am booked and advertised to read elsewhere. I think I get hectic and hecticker, but next to Ian Berry's life (and Ian is over ten years older than me) mine is a leisurely stroll through the park. Life is not, as the Russian proverb says, a walk across a field, a line repeated by Boris Pasternak in his poem, Hamlet.

And through the field to water and to Alice Oswald.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Sunday Night is... Bill Evans talking and playing

1966. The essential in the detail... (I note the detail of his missing teeth)

And putting into practice...

When I glimpse from the train a clutch
of allotments, a tight row of cabbages or spuds
or garden peas, I think there are gods
beyond gods who live in the bones
of men and women, shivering at their touch;
that when rain falls it weeps hailstones;

that when Bill Evans lays his fingers down
on the keys it is death he is playing
in his own and the world’s ear,
in the time allotted, in the proper undertone of fear,
in each cloud that arrives with its gown
of rain, in the moment that bears no delaying...

...What we learn once - that life being ordinary
is the extraordinary thing – sticks with us
like clods of soil trapped in the treads of our shoes.
It is the plastic bags and shopping baskets we carry
to and fro, those bags of manure, compost and refuse,
the well-worn crust of the mysterious

that wastes itself and comes round again. I think
of Bill Evans’s head bent right down, staring,
it seems, at his feet not the keys. The soft, lost
spaces between head and foot, the loss-bearing,
the unsharing shared, the forgetting of cost
as space opens up just where we stand, on the brink

of music or earth, the universe of barren rock
where everything bears fruit and nothing does,
where the tune moves deeper, an inflorescence
in unresolved chords, with long lines of dock
and nettle and the faint occasional buzz
of the fly hanging on the air, its brief dark presence

zipping off somewhere by itself, into itself...

(from 'Allotments' for Michael Murphy)

From Field to Form 5: Force fields and working the pitch

To recap and elaborate a little on some recent points:

Force field
The force field is associated with specific forms which may be seen as charged objects capable of generating the energy accumulated in them because they themselves have been recharged time and again, each new charge being not a repetition but a variant on the original object. So there is a sonnet of one kind, then another kind develops, then another, each redefining the original in such a way that it can still be regarded as part of the same object as it develops. Here the longevity of the form is an asset. The reason it doesn't die is because it is continually recharged. It may be that the sonnet responds to a need for a particular length, dynamic, and organisation in lyric poetry, offering, in the process, a useful median between feeling and intellect.

To return to the idea of space, the sonnet, like the room, is a space in which we may live and dispose. Whatever metaphor we choose it seems to me evident that the sonnet has survived in ways other forms have not and this may be a reason why.

It may be that other forms that look, or have in the past looked moribund, have simply not been sufficiently frequently recharged but are capable of being so. I think it might have been Swinburne who revived the sestina, with Carlotte Perkins Gilman soon after, then Pound following on. It may be that Pound, standing as he does at the crossroads between nineteenth century aestheticism and high modernism, is the major re-charger of this neglected form. Not quite as natural a recourse as the sonnet, the sestina has nevertheless assumed its position as a force field capable of generating a charge.

A poetic force field in terms of form is, we might say, one that offers possibilities and restraints that may be referred to and internalised by a writer. Of course individual poets and poetic themes offer force fields of their own.

Retournons á nos Rooneys. A football match has eleven players per side who may be disposed in a number of formations. I still remember the innovatory force of Alf Ramsey's England World Cup winning team: the 'wingless wonders'. This formation has been so internalised it would seem rather odd to revert to the old 2-3-5 formation (forgetting the goalkeeper who is always 1) that was more usually a 2-3-2-3 or, as I recall them: right-back, left-back, right-half, centre-half, left-half; inside right, inside left; right-wing, centre-forward, left wing. That was back in the days of the splendidly named Walter Winterbottom. Since then there have been many more modifications though the formation in itself guarantees nothing except a basis. The formation is a force field among other force fields.

Spaces and trajectories
I understand this in a visceral way. I understand that forms delimit and make clear demands that may, however, be negotiated. One learns to move in various kinds of space. These spaces (the fourteen-line space, the thirty-nine line space, the sixty-five line space) might be valuable because they carry enough energy to work as positive force fields as in the examples above.

I know instinctively where I am in a sonnet just as I know where I am in a room. I know where I am in the rooms I am already familiar with of course, but even in unfamiliar rooms I know to feel for chairs, tables and other articles of furniture. I expect there might be a window, a light-switch, some kind of floor covering, something on the walls. I have some preconceptions about rooms in general. The longer the poem the bigger the space, the more objects one might find there. Even if I transfer this concept into the open air, I have an idea of gardens, parks, fields and various other kinds of terrain.

The laws of Association Football do not lay down precise measurements for a pitch, but offer a range of legal possibilities. I expect the length of the pitch to be greater than its width. I know there are certain marked areas within the pitch. I understand how the laws operate in terms of available space.

Trajectory is not about space but movement in time. A ballad has specific units of movement but no set length. Terza rima can extend as long as it needs to. Both are narrative forms, as is the ottava rima and the heroic couplet. They are ways of moving. In these forms the spatial sense is to do with stanza on the one hand, and narrative proportion on the other. In terza rima you weave, in ottava rima you perform a more elaborate, almost digressive set of movements that nevertheless form to a snap or series of snaps. It moves while diverting. Rhyming couplets in a row propose a highly disciplined set of brisk movements joined through hard logic.

You can recognise people by the way they move through space. In poetry the movement is always formal in some way, or - I would suggest - works against formal expectations. Once the formal expectation has gone the movement must work against some other rationale. The ghosts of pentameters and trochaics are formal expectations against which verse can move. It might be that neuroscience, or some related discipline, will provide a useful framework for a theory of poetic line and movement, but in the meantime there remain the ghost structures of verse form.

Warning: turn off sound!

The football equivalent of trajectory is the run and the pass sequence. The pitch is of limited size but a successful Barcelona or Arsenal move involves sideways, backwards, forwards, running straight, weaving, pausing over time. It can be very beautiful. There was a notable goal in the last World Cup where the Argentina side played some twenty-five passes in a row, in all directions, before scoring. The players involved in the passing move were all running and weaving into position. Manchester United's best moves are not like that: they are lightning fast forward, one or two rapid interchanges then the attempt at goal. Quite a different, counter-attack 'poetics'.

Turn off sound

Barcelona combine the best of Arsenal and United. Giggs and Messi are weavers as is Nasri.

I have flown this idea before. It is the three-part lyric, a flexible variant on beginning-middle-end, on the dialectic thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or, as I prefer it, the ode structure of strophe-antistrophe-epode.

Anything constituting a forward dynamic is naturally associated with narrative and here we run up against the distinction I started with, between poetry and fiction (or prose generally): the cry versus the story; the wow! versus the and then? the act of naming versus the action and reaction; or, to change terms, metaphor versus metonym, association versus connotation, conjuration versus syntax, the lake versus the river, and so forth.

This is the distinction that is all but impossible to draw clearly, the chief reason why I wanted to begin with verse rather than with the looser, yet generally understood term, poetry. Is a poem without an action, or implication of action, a poem at all or just description? Is a story devoid of conjuration, association, metaphor etc fully a story?

It seems to me clear that poetry without a narrative or syntactic element (it may be playing against narrative and syntax) is not fully poetry and that a bare story in which we know or feel nothing about persons and circumstances by association is not fully a story.

To transfer this to a football pitch again, twenty-five passes behind your own half-way line never moving forward can be very dull, and simply kicking the ball forward on a pitch without a conflict that might deploy character or emotion, lacks interest.

In practice there are no poems or stories that I have read that are purely cry or purely action. It is interesting that in forms like the ghazal and the pantoum the sense of forward movement is restrained in favour of a more circular motion, nevertheless something continues to move forward. The poem's intensity increases as it circles. One might argue that it drills its way down. Or that, even in its circularity, it flirts with narrative, invoking potential circumstance, potential story. A ghazal about love names the author and refers to a condition that has not obtained from eternity to eternity. Its subject, in so far as it is desire, is necessarily temporal. It might be we are dealing with a form of impasse at a moment in the absent story.

The three-part lyric does generally seem to work, not so much as dialectic but as idea-and-action 1, that switches, as by an Aristotelian peripeteia, to idea-and-action 2, resulting not necessarily in a synthesising idea-and-action 3 (or, in the case of the Shakespearean sonnet in a paradoxical idea-and-action 3, which only works as a paradox because of the expectations roused by stages 1 and 2) but in the offering of a third, unexpected possibility (unexpected especially by the poet) that is, however, related to, and is a product of idea-and-action 1 and comprehends idea-and-action 2. The third term, the equivalent of the epode, is Rooney's moment of improvisation or its equivalent. It will not strike the reader as the trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but as the natural conclusion after which the poem need not continue.


I argue from verse because verse is both compulsive and arbitrary. A regular beat is compulsive but the reason why this or that regular beat should be more compulsive than another is less clear. It is however clear that mere regularity of beat can grow dull unless quickened by invention and risk. The point is that the apparent imposition of a rhythmic pattern on language is an arbitrary imposition on it, a seeking out and locating of something that need not happen in speech. Rhyme (similarity of sound) is another imposition. It foregrounds coincidence as do all poetic devices.

Verse, therefore, is arbitrary and coincidental in exactly the same way as language itself is arbitrary and coincidental. Verse is the ghostly reflection of language's own condition, and language, I have suggested, is as thin as the ice on the pond on which skaters dance their patterns.

This is not an argument for judgment by prosody; it does not suggest a series of correct or incorrect moves as a basis for that judgment. The argument is that if there are distinctions between the expectations of the form of utterance generally known as poetry, and those forms that are not, it might be worth exploring the distinctions specifically from the point of view of form, that is to say in terms of the limits of space, of the possible range of movements within that space, and the sense of improvisation and risk that depend on the limits of space and a flexible but still limited range of movements within the space.

Or to revert one last time to my football analogy, I would like to define the poetic in football (and anything else that has claims to the poetic) in terms of that which makes it possible to call a set of actions a game of football, and to suggest that the factors that make that possible find their best analogy in verse rather than in some general 'poetic sense', a sense that is in any case only poetic because of the residual elements of verse in them.

I chose football not only because I like it, but because it seems unpromising to those who look down on sports because they are the recreation of what seem to them uneducated and inarticulate people to the entertainment of what seem to them uneducated and inarticulate people. I might have chosen another sport or dance, but even in the ice analogy I have concentrated less on the 'art' of the ice dancer as on the simple act of cutting patterns on a village pond.

For a poet writing a poem, the mere apprehension of the presence of force fields might be enough to suggest ways of internalising space, trajectory and risk. But that apprehension would, I think, be improved by reading and listening to poetry in terms of space, trajectory and risk rather then in terms of situation, subject, or as I suspect often happens, when I listen to programmes such as Poetry Please, the background notion of small pearls of wisdom. The sigh of 'Oh how true' is less exciting to me than the cry of 'Oh how strange and approximate!'

Friday 4 March 2011

Before continuing Field and Form, more János Vitéz

Johnny loses his sheep and has to face the rage of his master. Chased off the property he sets out on his adventures, just calling on the fair Helen one more time to take leave of her..(in the next chapter)

By the time John had rounded up half of his charges
The sun was so low it was red at the marges,
And where were the others? He couldn’t locate them.
Perhaps they’d been pinched or the wolves took and ate them?

Wherever they were, they were gone. It was finished.
Useless to mourn or to seek for what’s vanished.
Then what should he do? It would take some explaining.
So he set off for home with the few head remaining.

“You’re for it now Johnny, my lad, you have bungled,”
He muttered dejected as homeward he stumbled,
“My master’s an ill-starred and ill-tempered fellow,
But whither God leads us there we must follow.”

No time left for thinking of deity or mortal,
Shepherd and flock have arrived at the portal.
The master stood furious, his temper still mounting,
And, as was his habit, he started off counting.

“Don’t bother to count, sir. There’s no point in messing.
I cannot deny that half the flock’s missing;
There’s nothing to do, I am sorry, I’m gutted.
That’s all there is to it,” John mournfully muttered.

Giving a twirl to his whiskers, his master
Glared at poor Johnny and gave him this answer:
“Don’t joke with me, laddie, I don’t find that funny.
My temper, as you know, has never been sunny.”

No trifling indeed, his patience eroded,
Johnny’s employer almost exploded,
He bellowed and boomed, his face was quite blue with it:
“Give me my pitchfork! I’ll run the brute through with it!

You swindler, you thief! You’ll drown in the river!
Oh for some vultures to feed on his liver!...
Is this why I kept you and fed you your wittles?
May the hangman be using your thighbones for skittles!

Now out of my sight! Disappear altogether!”
His furious words tumbled over each other,
He picked up a stacking pole, the nearest to grab at,
And rushed at poor Johnny for something to stab at.

John took to his heels but not out of terror,
To think him a coward would be a grave error,
A tough kid he was, and had outwrestled plenty,
Albeit of winters he’d not yet reached twenty.

He only made off because he admitted
That master was right, he’d not be acquitted:
Should words come to blows he really would rather
Not strike at the man who was all but his father.

He ran till his master was thoroughly winded.
Then ambled and stopped and once more meandered
Now right and now left, who knows now, wherever.
His mind was confused, he was more lost than ever.

Tomorrow to London but a little more poetic form in the morning.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Late Comments: a note

Blogger alerts me to comments on these posts, but sometimes the comments are on posts a little while back. There was a nice long exchange on the subject of Spike Milligan back on 20 December 2009. Today I received a new comment on it, to which I have replied. I have no idea whether either the new comment or my reply appears in anyone's email, so I am taking a moment to draw attention to it and other such late comments. It is rare to receive comment on something this far back but this one is interesting. It's on Milligan and anti-Semitism. The comment is Anonymous, a perfectly good, fair , thoughtful Anonymous comment.

I am curious to know whether readers of a blog are aware when a comment comes in on a post that is now part of the historical archive.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Field to Form: Arena / The virtual room in real space and real time

1936, Teacher Miss B. Casey coaches the boys from the football team in the school playground in Bradford, England. Photograph: Corbis Source

In earlier discussions about 'subject' in poetry, I was skirting round the idea of will, or rather, the sense of wilfulness: wilfulness in that when we have a subject, and we have 'something to say' about it, there is a temptation for the will-to-say to ride roughshod over language. This is what I want to say and now the words must do what I want. The trouble with this attitude is you get what you thought you wished for, which is not what there was to be wished for, not what there is to be discovered. What you wish for assumes something about language that is untrue and deprives it of possibilities it might otherwise have offered.

Not that I think it is possible to exercise absolute control over language, but the temptation to rein it in remains. Will renders language passive. Poems written this was may be honest, sincere, earnest and decent, but they look a little tired. Subjects can demand that of us. They insist that what we have to say about them is the most important thing.

Great poems generally do have subjects of course, but they also listen to language, listen intently, hearing it as it approaches, seizing it as it passes, trusting to it just enough to follow it at times, to let it have its head.

Poems start not with ideas but sensations: poems are sensations travelling through language, changing, modifying, looking for themselves and discovering what they are. By doing so they discover the truth of what they are and, for the duration of their reading and remembering, we discover through them the truth of what we are.


I want to return to the ice, to the point where we set out on it. Poetry is not like ice dancing. It is not fully choreographed. The will to write, to begin a poem, is the will to set out on the ice, not the will that dictates every move. The poet-skater feels the ice beneath his feet, senses its give, its thickness, its resistance, its amenability, and its guidance, aware of the marks of skates that have passed that way before. The temperature, the direction of the wind, the slant of light across the ice, are all internalised into what seems like instinct or is on the way to becoming instinct. It is never infallible instinct of course. There is no infallibility. Attention, intense concentration, and a certain momentum are required (each poet has his or her own best momentum). And the apprehension of fallibility despite which the poet moves and feels the dance develop.

I want to think of verse in terms of time and space: the time and space it takes to execute a turn, to come to a stop, to make a leap, to wheel right round. Space is arena. A footballer has the pitch, a dancer has the stage, the skater the pond. There are patterns that take a particular time and space to execute: haiku, tanka, sonnets, ghazals, villanelles, pantoums, ballades, sestinas, canzones, cantos of terza rima and many more patterns. All these patterns are primarily forms of time and space in which the body - the imagined body - can move. The poet builds the known space that is to be inhabited, but the material is language in movement. Time is what is possible in that space.

A sonnet is about room size. Let's build the room in air. The dimensions are given: fourteen lines within which certain other spaces offer themselves. We can learn to move our imagined bodies within this room. If necessary we can imagine a door and make another room of the same size. And then another if we like. We can furnish these rooms with whatever our imaginations sense might be appropriate at the point they meet language.

In constructing such spaces we will be aware of other such constructions existing in their own real space and time, closer or further off. All these have a magnetic power. Each exerts a force field. To write a sonnet is to understand construction as an act in a complex force field. I don't mean primarily by means of reference or quotation or a through knowledge of some specific sonnet model (the Spenserian, the Shakespearian etc). I will assume that all you need of knowledge has been internalised, so you are merely aware of the existence of others. One way or the other you have to be aware of them. It is what you learn. See all those ghost skaters moving through a space exactly like yours? They are the whispers on the ice.

It is not those who know most that write best. It is those who can sense the time and space available and find it exciting. No one has read everything. You can't read all the sonnets in the world, but you must have a sense of the sonnetness of the sonnet through reading and listening. You must sense the sonnet's spaces and possibilities. You can get that from relatively few. You can seize on their individual spaces by instinct. You understand the space then you move in it, constructing it.

Let's imagine these set forms as architecture, as virtual architecture in real space and time. The terza rima with its overlapping corridors, the mad spinning palace of the canzone...

Or just imagine a footballer, a child in the evening as the light is failing, kicking a ball against a brick wall time and again, now low, now high, trying to keep the movement flowing with first-time touches. Behind him the fence of the yard, to either side the walls of the neighbours. The boy internalising, learning instinct.

Metaphors. That's all they are. But we feel our physical way through metaphors, and the imagination, like language, is a physical thing - or at least it is becomes physical in us as we adjust to walls and time and space. We make our bodies out of language.

One more step after this.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Passing memo to Ken Livingstone

President Hugo Chavez has been speaking up for his old friend Colonel Gaddafi. Quite right. This could be an ideal moment for Ken to invite them both this time. Hugo Chavez tells his audience it was Israel that bombed Fallujah. Well, of course. Israel started the Second World War too. But Ken knows all that.