Wednesday 29 June 2011

At Paszab with Parno Graszt 2

The car works its way through one relatively prosperous small town, then the buildings thin out. Fields of maize. Apple orchards. Signs for Sós Tó (the Salt Lake). We record a couple of links on the way, then reach Paszab and turn up of small dead end road to reach the family home, or rather one of several family homes since some two-hundred members of the family live in the village. Réka and József usher us in. We are immediately welcomed and offered a small glass of pálinka. I go around introducing myself and shaking hands. Some of the band are already there but the small house is soon filled up with old and young. It's a poor basic house but richly decorated. One of the men talks to me and tells me about my lost bag. It must be the work of God, he says.

Where is the music to take place? Right where we are in the kitchen. Parno Graszt (White Horse) is a nine-piece band. Trying to set up a complex recording with nine microphones in a smallish room filled with some twenty people is not easy but Martin, who has recorded in many distant and exotic places, gets on with it. While he does so Elizabeth and I move to another house with Jozsef and Réka to do an interview. The interview, like all the interviews, is terrific. When we return the band is almost ready.

I have seen the faces already on film and here they are, some smartly, almost dandily dressed, some in normal everyday wear. The eyes are beautiful, quick, intense and deep. One of the women, wife to one of the band and herself part of the band, is everything we imagine fiery gypsy women to be: beautiful bone structure, deep, gorgeous lively eyes. A flashing white smile. We are waiting for two more people, one of them the family elder, Uncle Gyuszi, a frail eighty-two year old, wearing a fancy waistcoat.

The music is as wild as on the discs, and exactly as on the discs. The man next to me is doing beatbox while his hands are playing the milk-churns. The young lad on accordion also sings. The beautiful gypsy woman sings and the fat man who greeted me with pálinka is playing bass in the background. József sings and plays a kind of mandolin. The rest is guitars. Then Uncle Gyuszi comes to the front and sings, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth. He sings and half dances. He then does a second number, and we finish with another fast one from the band. Then there is revelry, meaning drinks and food. We pack away. I am talking to a member of the family who asks about working in England. He has turned his hand to everything and in many countries. He is desperate for work. He shows me his two horses, a black mare and a pony and a field ruined by rain. Then we drive off.

Our driver Attila is similarly depressed about job prospects. He wife has a baby coming. He is working at two jobs. He has some qualifications.

And soon we are on the train.

At Paszab with Parno Graszt 1

On Monday night the train to Nyíregyháza in the north-east of Hungary. This involved taking all the sound equipment, which involved several bags, one of them so heavy it takes two of us to carry it. The hole needs a bigger than usual taxi. So we ordered one and were dropped at Nyugati pályaudvar (Western Terminal). I went to buy tickets and we mae our way to the platform with not much time to spare. I hopped on the train to check we were on the right carriage - we weren't - so I hopped of again, leaving my smaller lighter bag with the computer in it without realising it. I realised it had gone and thought it had been stolen. The train went and I changed the tickets to the next express, first making the sort of arrangements one would make if one had lost a computer with valuable information on it.

But then, wonderful to relate, about two hours into our journey, a text from Réka, one of the managers of Parno Graszt, to say my bag had been found and was on its way to Nyíregyháza. A kind young man in first class had contacted her to say so and would drop the bag off with her. Her telephone number was among those on a sheet of paper in my folder. A miracle. By then a cancelled debit card to replace.

We caught the later train and, having arrived, found a taxi and checked in at the Korona Hotel in the main square. The Korona is an old provincial grand hotel in need of some renovation. It also has its own pub, named The John Bull. The John Bull is a precise copy of English pubs in furnishings and bar. It even has a dartboard. As if this were not strange and surprising enough it also serves a remarkable menu well beyond the ambitions of any pub likely to be called The John Bull, involving major Hungarian dishes but also vegetarian dishes with tofu, all prepared with a certain genius.

Next rainy morning we realise the proposed timetable was far too tight, so the producer, Elizabeth, and I set about changing it, through texts and calls with Réka. The tickets we had were fine but in Hungary you need seat reservations too or they don't let you on. That means a taxi ride for me to buy new reservations. I like to talk to taxi drivers about whatever town we are in, and this man drove me through the old town and the new one telling me about employment and unemployment in the city.

Unemployment is high, and even higher out in the small towns and villages, approaching 70% in many cases. Meanwhile the old town sweeps by with its pale blue baroque and rococo public buildings, then the later estates with their neat post-Stalinist tenements. There used to be trams here, says the driver, but they were removed in the lat sixties.

The firnedly young man on reception in the hotel is our driver to Paszab and carries both the two-man-weight bag and the other heaviest bag with ease to the car. Réka turns up with József, the leader of Parno Graszt and we set off to follow them.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Third day of interviews

The interviews just get better, so much better it grieves me to think how little we'll be able to use.

Theme: Liszt and Gypsy Music. Read Liszt's own book on the subject, which may not really be by Liszt but by his then mistress, Caroline von Wittgenstein but approved by him. So far have talked to curator of exhibition, ever more animated Peter, to gypsy cimbalom virtuoso Kálmàn, to ethnologist Katalin and to the last student of Kodály, Bálint, each one adding something new, usually about 30 minutes into the interview. 

The loveliest so far was our last, Balázs, who is 86. His halting English caused him trouble but he grew ever more passionate, till he began to demonstrate his musical points first on the piano, then on his field research tapes, finally producing a set of pipes and playing each one. We embraced at the end and he gave me a dedicated book.

Now in Nyíregyháza, in north east Hungary, in a hotel with a John Bull pub with darts, serving tofu! Life gets surreal at times.

This afternoon to Paszab, a village to interview Parno Graszt, a gypsy band.

Friday 24 June 2011

In Budapest. Three days silence.

Eating supper in Budapest after long journey and long interview, not having eaten all day, when I receive a message from C asking me to ring back. I do. She has terrible shock news of the death of a very good younger friend, ex-student. I feel mystified and devastated. Work must go on since I am not alone here but accompanied by my producer, Elizabeth, and the sound recordist, Martin. This is on BBC time.

Nevertheless, I am going to keep three days blog silence in mourning.

Next time I'll post will be on 27th June.

Thursday 23 June 2011

To Gatwick Hilton via an ocean of red herring

Long haul day. The New Writing Worlds saloon continued with Gwyneth Lewis on poetry and techology, the technology in question being the body - the effect poetry has on the mechanism of the body, the neurological triggers, the molecules that thrive on metaphors. Then she moved to the internet and I lost it a little except, of course, I understood the internet part but not quite how we got there. But it hardly matters, since none of the provocations was an argument as such. It was writers speaking and feeling their way into ideas.

Indeed, that is the nature of writers' conferences. The one in Romania was on Exile, but there's no point going expecting an answer or hoping to arrive at a conclusion. Go to hear people speak, with feeling and intelligence about some angle of the advertised subject that, in this case, was Influence.

My job was to sum up, and since one of the writers earlier had asked for new metaphors for influence I searched back for the various metaphors people had employed. And not just metaphors but binaries and struggles - the translator with the author, the influenced with the influencer, the patrimonic and patrilinear with the toxic traumazone (a term I picked up from Joyelle McSweeney who employed it).

Joyelle, who gave the most provocative of the provocations, talked of losing the dead metaphor of flow. But then she employed it herself, talking of toxic flow, and of seepage. Liquid metaphors seemed the most frequently deployed and so the summing up worked towards images of liquid - first the soup, the clear consommé and the thick broth, then water pooling, inundating, working in tides and currents, moving as a sea and finally, the water that was no metaphor, the Japanese tsunami that our Japanese author wanted to write but couldn't. What happens when metaphor meets reality? Reality is indifferent to our use of its various manifestations as metaphor. It is indifferent, almost serenely indifferent, like Rilke's angel, sometimes disdaining to destroy us, but on occasion doing so, destroying us, entirely oblivious to our existence. There remains a doctor gathering a dictonary of the local dialect, and an old man weeping because so many deserving and illustrious people had died and he survived. And this had called forth the poem of the Polish Szymborska, which then led to a recollection of the ancient Japanese verse. I read my own poem about Water, the one in Reel, to end with, where the Calcutta washerman is drying his cloth by slamming it against the stone trough while behind him the water thrown off rises in a perfect indifferent arc to which he himself is indifferent, though we, as viewers, are not.

Then we went round and asked people they thought individually. There was one wonderful moment back with Gwyneth when she told us how she had responded to the idea of the subject of Silence, possibly for next year, with the concern that there were too many red herrings in it.

And suddenly we were back with water, a sea teeming with red herring, as, I suspect, language is, each word its own red herring, each poem its own school of red herrings swimming in formation, and that gorgeous luminous red that tells us it is not real herring, but a herring imaginaire which is the only herring we are ever likely to catch, while the real tsunami and the real perfect arc of Calcutta water shower us with more metaphors than we can possibly cope with, which is why we have red herrings in the first place.


Straight home and straight down with C to the Boundary Gallery, C's gallery, celebrating its 25th year. Bumping into people I hadn't seen in forty years, and a few other friends, and discovered friends of friends. And so by various trains to Gatwick from where an early start tomorrow to Budapest.

We brought our troops home for lack of money...


That Larkin line, voiced for whoever, might apply to Barack Obama's statement regarding the early withdrawal from Afghanistan. I doubt it's a coincidence that US recovery is slow and that Europe is in a continuing and possibly developing financial mess.

The Big Crash isn't over when the papers stop headlining it. Crashes go on through at least a generation, as this one will. And maybe longer. Not in the sense that the buildings all fall down at once, just that they slowly empty out as maintenance becomes more expensive. The rich fly off to their havens, the middles grow poorer, the poor poorer still, while 'Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss / Silently and very fast.'

Might as well have the whole magnificent Auden poem that made me shudder the first time I read it all those years ago, and still does:


The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

A little stagy? Certainly. But the beats fall on and through the veins as those reindeer vanish in the distance.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Ska predecessor, Slim Smith / Influence

from You Tube Slim Smith died aged just 25 years. In his short recording career he made over 150 recordings, either as a solo artist or as a member of The Techniques or The Uniques.

One of the most soulful and accomplished singers of Jamaica's ska, rocksteady, and early reggae eras, Slim Smith found his biggest success from 1965 until his premature death at age 25 in 1973.

Although according to various reports stating he had a troubled and unstable life, Smith will best be remembered for his stunning contributions to reggae's vocal tradition.

Sweet, melancholy, just a touch dangerous with that seductive reggae beat, soon to become so pervasive and, eventually, reconciling.


I am a day late because of late night and exhaustion. Yesterday morning the discussion on influence continued, this time by way of translation.

We are far from firm ground here (we never are quite on firm ground) and this time we drift on currents of binaries: grammatical translation versus Borgesian form and narrative trance; the power-struggle between living author and translator; the notion of an ideal or divine translation versus a faulty human version; the notion of the work and its reworking; the rewards (the international literary prizes) for the work in translation and how far credit is divided between author, without whom no translation, and translator, without whom no prize.

We move on to the idea of influence in retrospect, influence as distilled and assimilated so it no longer smells of influence. Learning here is presented as a long term process of assimilation. But borrowing, particularly of structure is permitted, even helpful. So, for example the structure and premise of Robinson Crusoe can not only buttress but give birth to a new work. So Joyce on Homer, etc. The ghost walk on a set pattern but in a different place. The literary model. Jean Rhys developing Charlotte Brontë. etc.

Translation leads on to the question of World Literature (you can have that with capital W and L or without). After all, if translated works, or even works in other languages that the writer might know, can provide structures, there must be an assumption that certain works travel. Very well - some may travel productively, some may travel unproductively, meaning they produce no borrowings. And are genres international? Are there families of the imagination? Do the terms Gothic or SciFi or Romance or Bildungsroman or Chick Lit mean something across cultures or is that simply a case of globalised culture, or even, perhaps - shudder - colonial culture? (Being a Hungarian by birth I grow slowly immune to talk of colonialism and post-colonialism. I know what these terms mean and understand the issue for countries that were formally and formerly colonies, but I rather long to grasp what lies beneath an experience that isn't identifiably mine and cannot be the only game in town).

Much the most interesting part of the morning is the quandary posed by our Japanese author, who wants to address the meaning of the recent tsunami but finds there are too many facets of the disaster. There are only fragments and missing pieces and people trying to hold life together (the doctor compiling his dialect dictionary). What to make of the old survivor who says many more eminent people than he have been lost, then weeps. And to address his bewilderment our speaker pulls out a Szymborska poem in English translation and reads it, saying how it reminds him of an ancient Japanese poem that he recites. World literature (lower case) in action. He himself had produced a reading list for potential writers collecting writings from many different languages available in Japanese translation. The equivalent of Sir John Lubbock's 100 books. The Big Book of Lists. These we have loved. Read this and learn. And of course we do learn, not just the books but their choosing and their chooser. We are that smart. We are that lost.

And lastly the translator's word on Japanese, on the enormous cultural differences in value and form, differences that seem unbridgeable but that may be bridged, because they clearly are in practice. Occasionally. Not quite as either shore might imagine, but a bridge al the same, something to stand on and even walk across, even if only part of the way, to smell the far shore and see people moving on its banks.

Under it all the question of gender runs. Under it all desire of oblivion runs. But then this is not oblivion but the world of the imagination in writing. Auditory imagination. This is it, nor, as Mephistopheles put it, are we out of it.

The metaphor that is slowly simmering in my mind is something to do with soup. We are in that too.

Sweet, gently rocking Slim Smith could see us out before he sees himself out.

Monday 20 June 2011

A Few Days of Ska: Lip Up Fatty / Influence, a beginner's guide

From YouTube note: Fronted by Buster Bloodvessel (born Douglas Trendle), the band was formed in 1976 while the members were at school together, and among their early incarnations were known as Stoop Solo and the Sheet Starchers. None of the members had any formal musical training, not even the ability to play any instruments. They were popular during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when lots of similar ska bands filled the charts. Some of their hits include "My Girl Lollipop", "Lip Up Fatty", "Special Brew" and "Ne-Ne-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nu-Nu". One of the main reasons for their notoriety was because of their outlandish, larger-than-life, huge tongued & shaven-headed front man.


At UEA New Writing Worlds conference on Influence. Or is it Imitation? Or Infection? Or patrilinear possession? Or friendship? Do we hate those who influence us? Do we look to be influenced? Do we change tradition by influencing the reading of the past through the brilliant works of our present? Are we feeling Anxious?

Three provocations given, the first by C K Williams, the second by Christopher Merrill, the tird by Joyelle McSweeney. American morning. Since it will be my task to sum up at the end I won't even start trying to form a view on the discussions. I'll just take the personal line, if only because I am unlikely to serve it up in the conference itself.

As a child in Hungary there are two books I remember among the many I apparently had. One was an illustrated edition of the 1861 verse play Imre Madách's The Tragedy of Man, a work I went on to translate over twenty years ago and which then appeared with what I think were the same illustrations by Mihály Zichy, whose work somehow ran into my early impressions of Gustave Doré. (Note the early confusion and associations, typical of 'influence'.) The other was Sándor Petöfi's magical verse yarn János Vitéz (John the Valiant in John Ridland's translation), a book I did not look upon for some thirty years until I pulled the very same edition, heart in mouth, from the shelves of our closest friends in Budapest. There was also the bilingual edition of Now We Are Six, that I probably reeceived at the age of six, the Hungarian translation by the virtuosic humorist Frigyes Karinthy.

Three building blocks laid down. Three that I remember. Then England, and very little I would call a literary influence. Kids' stuff. Boys' comics. The Eagle. Dan Dare. The Beano. Biffo the Bear. Corky the Cat. Lord Snooty and his Pals. Dennis the Menace. Minnie the Minx. Simply saying the names is ever so comfy, as Auden said of something else.

The next decisive moment,c. 1967 or 8 when I pull a thin volume of poems from the shelves of the school library. The lines: "I was not born, mister / they mixed me up in a cement mixer'. The poet, Michael Baldwin, whom I was to meet by chance on the occasion of my one reading at The Athenaeum (of which I gave an account some time back).

So things tie up and tie in. Then the period of furious book buying and equally furious reading once I started to write. Includes all the cheap Penguins and whatever looked glamorous in the library (Death's Jest Book! by Thomas Lovell Beddoes). Falling in love with Rimbaud, weaning myself off Ginsberg (though I think I am weaning myself back on again). The Leishman / Spender Rilke. The Liverpool Poets. And once at art school, the first big important friendship: Martin Bell. And the poets I first read because of him.

So Alexander Pope grew glamorous, so Wallace Stevens, so John Crowe Ransom, Laforgue (whom I had already sipped at, and Desnos and Reverdy too). Marvell and Herbert. Eliot of course, the enormous figure flashing the ruins of Europe at me. And the slow onset of Auden. There was a stage when, in a half doze, I would write clutches of weak Auden lines. And the resistances. Resistance to Larkin, to Hughes and even to Heaney, who had nothing to do with me. And to Plath, so demanding and accusing. Even so, living in Larkinland. And Elizabeth Bishop and Louis MacNeice entering as welcome full voices. And Roethke and Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. And Berryman too. Louis Simpson. Brodsky.

It is not so much influence as a blend of noises in the head, the excitement of entering and passing through force fields and echo chambers. They still enter and lodge themselves somewhere or other. Even the people I teach: they get inside, some of them making me purr with delight and envy.

And actually reaching a stage where I seem to have added up to a Collected Poems, which as everyone realises when it comes to them, is only part of a story, a story that had better remain unfinished, so the only anxiety is about it being finished, though even that anxiety is productive. Because the world as it has been is embedded in us, as is the sense that its meaning can be approached as a sequence of human echoes and forces, but you haven't got the meaning because the meaning is always slipping ahead, elsewhere. Which is, after all the nature of poetry, it being, as Bishop wrote, historical and flown in exactly the same way we are.

And the moral of all this? The gradus ad parnassum of the beginner's guide? Read and listen and sing your speech. And theirs. Over and over again. It's a mess in there but keep stirring and adding.

Sunday 19 June 2011

A Few Days of Ska: On My Radio / And fitba (2)

The Selecter on TOTP, and the same, live:

Little to say, just driven high spirits, same social and musical source as The Specials, driving ploughs over the cut worms of racism and white supremacy. Things were better after this.


Between seasons

In the summer, when there is no major international competition, the time is taken up by transfer rumours. Fans of every team are on tenterhooks about who will arrive and who will leave. Having formal transfer windows has only intensified the hubbub. The press have a wonderful time starting one rumour one week, another the next. Fans of rich clubs want big money signings almost as a sign of virility, to prove they can attract superstars by virtue of their status. Rich clubs might buy simply so that rivals shouldn't. Chelsea operated like this for a few years as did, notably, Real Madrid (known by United fans as 'the virus' or, for historical reasons, as 'the fascists'). It's a short term philosophy because big transfers are not happy to be sitting on the bench and their unhappiness spreads through the team. But then most business is short term, as are the enthusiasms and hatreds of most supporters.

There are two or three teams I have grown fond of over the years. One is the local team, Norwich City, who are back up in the Premier League this year, having sunk as low as the third tier. They have now been promoted two years in a row, which is wonderful but dangerous because a team that has risen on spirit - such as Blackpool last year - often finds it harder to grind out a season among better equipped teams. A good start is followed by a slump, if not the first year then the second. Norwich play attractive football and have clearly got an outstanding manager (another Scot - all the best managers seem to be Scottish). It's romantic to see a team like Norwich at the top, and all the more so when it's the local team. Impossible to get season tickets this year. All sold.

Stoke City have also found a place in my heart. That is partly through friends who are Stokies, and partly by admiring the sheer determination of the team as it rose and clung. They could not afford pretty football and were a traditional Route One team at the start, but as they established a hold in the league, have grown a little more tolerant of grace. They have earned it. They have some skilful players now, and a trademark card in Rory Delap who can throw the ball so far and so fast it seems almost unnatural.

And AFC Wimbledon, back from the dead after a remarkably fast recovery. More soft spots for Wigan, Everton, and, for my dad's sake, Tottenham. And Blackpool whose bright brief moment may have come and gone. And QPR, the nearest team when I lived in London.

Players shuffle between unglamorous teams, sometimes appearing only for two or three games before disappearing, sometimes doing the circuit of the obscure, still hanging in in their mid-thirties. No big names. Hardly names at all, just people good enough to be kicking a ball at this level, making a living.

I know these are in some ways childish things, symbolic romances, the interest itself a form of playing. But I rate play very highly. It is precisely what is beyond bare necessity that proves the spirit. Playground patches. The ball lost in the dusk as it bounces back off the brick wall. The mud churned up in the goalmouth. The heraldic colours spread across the pitch. A sub-class of poetry.

In the meantime there is cricket, but it's not the same.

Saturday 18 June 2011

A few days of Ska: Gangsters / And fitba (1)

The Specials on Saturday Live, 1980

I suppose it is Ska's compressed energy in a confined space, the menacing yet joyful Caribbean-flavoured party music, the whole borne out of a kind of intensely British urban grimness, that I find so attractive. The Specials' Ghost Town is the masterpiece in this genre, though I've had that before. The link above is to a BBC commemoration of Ghost Town. I far prefer these tight spaced gigs to the big spectaculars. The bands are not superhero idols but people like those listening to them. I will close this brief series with a Specials performance that demonstrates that. The energy is close to violence but is violence contained and formed. It's not about sex as a great deal of contemporary material is: it's about streets and small front rooms and old cinemas. It is these things that make the heart beat faster, not the gigantism.


Another United Era

For years people have been forecasting the end of an era at Manchester United. This time there is truth in it. Scholes, Neville and Van der Sar retiring, noises about Wes Brown and, possibly, John O'Shea leaving. Giggs? Who knows. At least he has the summer to think. Assuming he doesn't retire or lose form, it is the first three that matter most.

Like most people, I love attacking football but teams are built from the back - in fact from the very back. No matter how good the defence, if defenders have no confidence in the goalkeeper they are vulnerable. This was the case with Kuszczak in the last Blackpool game. Nobody knows what a shaky keeper is going to do, how much cover he'll need, where to position himself in case the keeper is in the wrong position or is liable to drop the ball. The organised defence immediately becomes disorganised. Systems fail. Great teams have great goalkeepers. They don't necessarily need to be great shot-stoppers, though that helps. They have to be decisive, firm and assuring. Every keeper will let a soft goal in now and then, but he has to control the area. Van der Sar was a great keeper in this respect. Maybe de Gea will be, if he really is coming.

Next to the goalkeeper it is the last line of defence that matters. That is taken care of in the middle for a good number of seasons. Smalling, Jones, Evans, Fabio and Raphael are young and look right.

If your centre backs have some grace and poise that's a bonus, but at least one of them has to be feared and imposing. Ferdinand has grace (but for how much longer) and Vidic is fearsome. Vidic is a good steely captain. Smalling has grace, Jones has power, Evans can recover.

The backs need timing, strength, speed and the ability to hold out against skilful wing players. Neville at his best was outstanding at that, and did more. He was a fiercely partisan footballer who annoyed the opposition wherever he went and didn't care. The backs need some fire now. Neville has been at the heart - at the furnace - of the team for fifteen years and more. The Brazilian twins are rather wonderful without quite the Manchester grit yet, but they have other qualities beyond those possessed by Gaz.

Scholes is the man though. When I first started watching him I didn't know what he was about. With Beckham, Giggs, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt it was clear what you were getting. Scholes was like a mysterious force in the middle, cruising here and there, playing ambitious passes, occasionally crashing a spectacular goal into the top right corner. His work was partly undercover work - but regular OT fans loved him and the very greatest of his international contemporaries spoke glowingly of him. Little by little I understood his importance and his gifts, though he could be laughably clumsy in a tackle (the 'dark side' of Scholes that Wenger spoke about). As a character he was more Van de Sar than Rio, but to an extreme I haven't seen in modern football and would not expect to see in the future - a man who loathed attention.

There have, of course, been men like him, especially in England: men who hate a fuss, who say what they think but only when asked, who seem to tuck themselves away into a life so private it never registers on the tabloid scales.

Replacing Scholes? Great players are never replaced: people fashion new greatness in their own image if they have the talent and the luck. But it is interesting that United fans never took to Ronaldo or Beckham or even Giggs in quite the way they took to Scholes. The key to Ferguson's United teams lies somewhere in the area between Scholes and Cantona. 'Not arrogant, just better' say the dumb emblems. Canton was possibly both: Scholes was just the latter. 'The ginger knight', the ginga ninja' passed through games like a brilliant shadow, exploding now and then into a power no other United player had. At other times he'd just throw himself at an opponent as if he himself were an explosive. This season too he has received more yellow cards than the rest, except Vidic. Even so he had the best pass rate in the team.

But things change, and have changed, several times in Ferguson's time. Now they are changing again. I hope he hangs on to Berbatov. As everyone says, and Fergie surely knows, it is the midfield that needs reinforcement. If not Modric, then Sneijder, or...or...maybe someone from within - Pogba, Cleverley... That's beyond me. Maybe Rooney can be redeployed in that area. Fame is not the same as success. But there was a time no one had heard of Scholes, and you weren't ever going to win anything with kids.

Friday 17 June 2011

Neptun Paper 2

An edited version of the Romania Literara article given as a short (10-15 minute) paper. I have modified it but it isn't quite right. I am still thinking about that 'palace of nerves' or as it might be, the 'neural palace'. Such images appear as they would in poetry because they seem right and persuasive, but they are not fully comprehensible and might be misleading.


But exile is too easy a term. It suggests a political act of which the exile is the subject. Expelled from his or her home, the poet loses contact not only with his language but with the society whose language has been his own and, perhaps just as importantly, with all those elements that add up to an identity. We haven’t to go far of course to look for the nearest and most famous exile, Ovidius Naso.
I live in a place encircled by countless enemies.
And add to that, my imagination’s dulled, harmed
by long disuse, and much inferior to what it once was.
A field that’s not refreshed by constant ploughing
will produce nothing but weeds and brambles.

- Tristia, Book V, Part XII
The imagination is presented as dulled and harmed by long disuse: the field unploughed. Ovid was writing this from exile of course, in his original language, and plainly the Tristia are not merely weeds and brambles.

Dante too was exiled, and there is a long list of poets and other writers writing from beyond home, beyond the field, beyond the emperor’s palace, the terrain a writer must internalise in order to inhabit his own neural field and construct his own neural palace.

The language we overhear sounds to us fresh, new, and slightly unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity – the exoticism we find in Nabokov, the elegance we discover in Hoffman – may be compared to our first sense of language as we learn it in childhood. It can make us clumsy at times, but can register with a brightness and clarity undulled by common usage. The new writing language glows as we grow into it. It is the delicious new toy, a habitable palace of nerves.

Speaking for myself I was just a child when we left our home. Being inside exile – that is if I accept that grand romantic term - makes it hard to speak about it. I sometimes suspect the poems I build in English, my palace of nerves, looks rather like the Budapest tenement building we lived in. I sometimes fear it sits oddly in the English landscape.

The half open door, the overheard words, the river, the cold water, the ploughed field, the palace of nerves - a poet’s natural recourse to metaphors is both an advantage and a burden. We do not escape the first realities of our childhood in terms of both physicality and language. My other metaphor, the trace in the universe, is, however, bigger than my Budapest tenement or the palace of nerves. The person waiting at the door, overhearing language addressing him, is reminded that his condition is being outside. In that sense we are all in exile.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Neptun Paper 1

A version of this paper appeared in Romania Literara. This is the first part, the second tomorrow, then I'll talk football.

Exile as Listening: the poet in a second language

Poetry is a matter of intense listening. The intensity needn’t be planned or conscious: it might be likened to the idea of overhearing, something we might do by accident, as we pass a door and find ourselves being talked about in a room by people who don’t realise we are there. Suddenly the language we use so casually every day gains an extra weight and density. Every slight shadow of meaning takes on significance, a significance we cannot quite define, but which addresses us in an almost embarrassingly naked way.

Poetry is like overhearing language, like eavesdropping on it as it addresses us without our physical and immediate presence. It is as if we were not there, or had become something else, a trace in the universe sustained by language.

There is no utilitarian purpose in the overhearing. The Stasi spy in the film, The Lives of Others, overhears everything and is supposed to put his listening to use, but it is in emerging from the cocoon of utility, of function, of consequence, that the spy becomes human, a recognisable and tragic human being.

The voices we overhear in poetry are not those of other people, or rather they are far more than the voices of other people. Being humans and therefore ambitious we might even think the voices are those of the universe talking to itself. And so we listen with bated breath when we, who are mere traces in the universe, become the human beings we are.

The language we listen to is the language we hear every day, or read, or hear sung, In poetry it is a mixture of speech and song without music, as if the speech were the song.

In her classic book on exile from language, Lost in Translation, the Polish born writer Eva Hoffman tells how in shifting from her Cracow home to Vancouver, the words she knew which were dense and filled with meaning and song, were replaced by new words that had no history, no depth, no song.

‘‘River’ in Polish was a vital sound,’ she writes, ‘energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, or being immersed in rivers. ‘River’ in English is cold – a word without an aura’.

Even more disturbingly, she finds that language affects her sense of people too:

The verbal blur covers these people’s faces, their gestures with a sort of fog. I can’t translate them into my mind’s eye.

These are the difficulties of transition: the cold and the blurring affect both mind and body. But then this is Eva Hoffman writing in English, in excellent, supple, literary English. Later of course, but it is the same person, or at least sufficiently the same person as the thirteen year old girl she is remembering.

Naturally she speaks of Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, but she could just as easily have spoken of Nabokov’s English work in general: his luxuriant prose, his delight in the exotica of the language in which he made himself so voluptuously at home.

Because once you are in the water and have got used to the cold and the blurring, there are compensations....

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Two more poems I liked in Romania

I intended to take two poems by younger women but some of the younger women were translated into French, not English, or rather they wrote in French and were translated into Romanian so I feel incompetent to discuss the poems of, say, Linda Maria Baros (b 1981), a Romanian poet who writes in French (and with whom I exchanged books), or Irina Nechit. Instead, I'll take poems by two Slovenians, Veronika Dintinjana (b.1977) and Barbara Korun (b.1963)

Veronika Dintinjana
Sparrow, through a Hospital Window

I saw death
sit down beside him on the bed and take off her slippers.
His blood pressure dropped,
his face paled, as she lay down.
His eyes were frightened.
I flew out. As I did not
have a share in his life,
it was only right not to have a part
in his dying.
Half an hour later I returned
to pick up the bread crumbs
left over from lunch.

Translated by the author with Ciaran O'Driscoll and Rose Aasen Rojas

This is a simple matter of fact narrative, voiced for a sparrow, or so it seems. The female figure of death is unusual. Another Romanian female poet wrote in one poem that she could not see death as anything but male. Certainly the figure of death is often depicted as a hooded man - I think of the classic Bergmann - or as a male skeleton with a scythe. But who is the woman in this case? Is she an allegorical figure? a nurse? a mother? Didn't Munch show the female figure at three stages as Virgin, Lover and Death (see above)? No, she cannot be either a nurse or a mother. She removes her slippers and lies down. It is the lying down that makes his face go pale. So maybe she is Keats's Belle Dame sans Merci who rides the knight then leaves him palely loitering. She is some such compound figure, but she appears quite natural there, a disturbing quotidian vision, the last of the hospital visitors.

And then the poem takes a moral turn. The sparrow considers the rightness of his being at the dying man's bedside. The sparrow might be scared of course, but at the end, his scruples laid aside, he returns for the crumbs that have gained a powerful ambivalence, as in 'the last crumbs of life'. The whole poem is a seamless piece of narrative, casting a cold eye on death, or at least seeing it in perspective without any false drama, its subjectivity under firm control. It's quite a tough poem, reserving its feelings. I wondered whether I would pick the poet as female and if so on what grounds? Would it be because the intellect was not constructing games of distance? Because wit was a lower value than concentration?

Maybe it would be different with the other poem.

Barbara Korun

Through my dreams
you roll a stone.
My body,
my heart,
groan in sleep.
You roll the stone,
your eyes
two slits of dark.
a surprise to me
over and over again,
you pounce on the stone
like an animal,
a body delighting
in movement;
when I catch up with you
you are already panting
in happy exertion.

Through my dreams
you roll a stone,
under my ribs the echo
of your terrible footfall.

Translated by Theo Dorgan and Ana Jelnikar

Sisyphus is a figure I myself have written about, but here Sisyphus is partly internalised. He is a dream that is associated with the body (My body, my heart) and is itself a body 'delighting in movement' with whom the writer has to catch up. The figure is rolling a stone whose effect is under the ribs. There are echoes of death (your eyes / two slits of dark) and sex (you are already panting / in happy exhaustion), death and sex exchanging places and terms, the two conflated, as they were in her other poems. The terrible footfall is like that of some rough beast slouching towards a Bethlehem of the inner constitution.

I am pretty sure I would have identified the author of this poem as a woman. Why? Because of the conflating of body and exteriority, the body becoming the register and barometer of the world? Because the register is unconcerned with irony, preferring urgency? Because Sisyphus's burden is as much pleasure as curse? Because of the poems comprehensive subjectivity? Would a male voice behave like this? Would it press its claims in this precise way?

I leave these as questions. The questions are interesting because I have occasionally engaged in discussions on other people's websites - in fact women's websites - where the questions have been gingerly hinted at, usually in the context of women winning or not winning competitions, the assumption being that male judges (and maybe even female judges, it sometimes turns out) undervalue female experience.

I should say that male writers outnumbered female writers 3:1 at Neptun. One woman whispered to me at the prize giving that all the big Ovidius prize winners were men. These are countries of old men, I reply. But they are passing and the next wave of poets in Romania is female: Denisa Comanescu, Carmen Firan, Liliana Ursu, Ioana Ieronim. All fine important poets. We shall see.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Two poems I liked in Romania

I have picked these two poems because, in their different ways, they appealed to me at first reading. Both are by younger men and when I think about it now, I would find it hard to believe that they were by women. As to why that is, that is not entirely clear to me. Both are in English translation of course. Tomorrow I will take poems by two younger women to see how they might differ.

Michael Astner (nr Sibiu, b.1961)
To My Brothers

my brothers' strength of purpose
without doubt obliges me
to admire them -

and to imagine for myself roots
that forsake their trees.

the sun shines
rain falls
winter and summer are
of course
rather unusual -

even the plants pretend
they're growing in complete indifference

and a blind hope
is driven about in a white carriage
without a coachman.

translated by Adam J. Sorkin with the author

Some salient points. There are registers in the translation that probably respond to something in the original. Two examples: without doubt obliges me / to and are of course rather unusual. These are pitched (in English certainly) in a mixture of the authoritative, the scholarly and the ironic, moods I associate with, on the whole, male institutions. They are faintly Kafkaesque. The narrative itself is direct and distanced, until we come to the last verse where a romantic, surreal image appears without warning, the whole set in some historical past. That disjunction too I think of as male, the blossoming lyricism of the last verse held back by the apparently dry earlier lines. The richness is presented with a certain reluctance, as if it surprised the writer and he didn't quite know what to do with it. But the coachmanless white carriage stays with us, all the more so for its sudden appearance. And the passenger of the coach, that 'blind hope' addresses a dynamic intensity of feeling. It is often how feeling works. It is distanced, hedged about by cold, apparently 'objective' language, then leaps into fantasy, which contains a ferocious core (blind hope) of emotion. It is how a feeling finds itself. This poem moves through elegant gestures with a certain awkward grace. It is the akwardness that makes it powerful and touching. It becomes a kind of grace plus.


Tadeusz Dabrowski (Gdansk, b.1979)
from A Lover's Discourse: Fragments

I caught her in the act of looking through
a porn mag. Pointing at a picture
of a naked man, I asked her: What is that?

Ceci n'est pas une pipe - she answered me,
taking me into the bracket of her legs. And today
I came home early from work and in the passage

I bumped into a naked man, and asked:
What is that? - pointing at him, or rather at his
manhood freshly smeared in lipstick. That is a

- I heard the answer from the woman, with whom
I'm still sleeping because I cannot prove her

Translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones

Quite different from the Astner, the poem moves by way of logic and cultural allusion. A Lover's Discourse nods knowingly at Roland Barthes while keeping its route to real feeling open: Ceci n'est pas une pipe refers us to Magritte's painting. Now we have had two nods. We will, if we know the painting, be aware that on one level it is a comment on the difference between reality and depiction, and that Magritte's po-faced prosaic application of paint is his approximation to a dry manner of speech. It is like a clearing of the throat before a rather dull lecture begins. It is Magritte's bowler hat. It also resembles the dry manner of the Astner poem. It comes, that is, from a similar psychological source. So we have philosophy and dry humour to work with.

But it is also a poem about sex. The crude slangy term 'porn mag' is flashed at us in line two. The question asked is one to which both questioner and subject know the answer. Une pipe in French is slang for dick, so the woman's answer is both an evasion and a cleverly knowing joke. The photographic image in the porn mag, like the pipe in the Magritte painting, is not reality but an image. Sex occurs in brackets ('the bracket of her legs'). The next day the male figure returns home and find a naked man with clear evidence of sex on him. At this point the woman speaks again and tells him, not in French this time, that the 'manhood' of the visitor is a 'pipe', maintaining the joky ambiguity while distancing it, through a switch in language, from its French language source. So the joke comes round and the speaker is uncertain which is reality and which image. The ending is perhaps a little laboured, but the wit of the conception remains with us. And beyond that, beyond the joke and the philosophy, there is a serious question that transcends the intellect, about sex and reality. Again, as with Astner, there is a sense of distance between mind and experience. The language is more in a single key here, though in the English the word 'manhood' has a Victorian sobriety that might be matched in the Polish.

Neither poem is, or pretends to be, a 'great' poem, but through grace, precision and wit, both poems feel their way to a more complete sense of experience. Astner's is closer to the core of lyrical poetry: its key emotion turns out to be intensity. Dabrowski's key emotion is a knowing bemusement.

Both poems are formally achieved structures that pass through clear stages of feeling without surrendering to feeling. They are in some ways attitudes to experience more than responses to direct experience. We don't after all know what has occasioned the Astner poem: all we know is that there is, at the end, an occasion and a condition referred to as bright hope.

Nor do we know whether any of the incidents in the Dabrowski actually occured, or invite us to believe that they occured in some sense. The whole has the air of a propostion, and in fact it does carry a proposition about language. Language is not to be trusted because it is not life. The important question for the poem is whether it convinces us that the question itself is important on some level. If it is important the importance lies in our sense of the wordplay. If the wordplay offers comedy beyond the notional the value of the poem rises. And it does linger as more than a joke or an amusing parallel between a sober pipe and a listick stained organ. The organ in the poem is psychologically detached, regarded as an object whose very existence is uncertain. It also refers us to the independent and involuntary aspect of an erection ('Down wanton, down', as Robert Graves wrote) so in effect the male figure is occasionally obliged to ask: What is that thing to do with me? And that, I suggest, is a serious question, beyond a joke, which is why there is distance and jokes.

As a poem of metaphysical and linguistic wit it is simple enough but the subtlety of register is what determines the value of feeling. A young man's poem again, the feeling in it is not rechanneled through register as in Astner, but is distilled into pun and parallel.

It is probably right that younger male feeling about experience involves distancing of both body and mind. Or so it seems in many cases. Indeed in most of the verse of the younger poets I have taught and now teach. Ceci n'est une pipe: it's rhetoric.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Neptune 3

Last day of the festival - so soon over. I enjoyed yesterday night's readings, or rather a surprisingly large proportion of the two and a half hour session. So much depends on the English translation and there were enough good ones. The young Polish poet had a particularly good one - he might have written them in English! Funny, philosophical ironies with an assured sense of grace.

But since each reading is just five minutes and the text is there in front of you most of it is clear. OK, maybe too long but worthwhile.

Slept well, then the last conference session this morning. Two minor points. One, the presentation that consisted of a long witty sketch of the Romanian character, that was much appreciated by the Romanians who obviously recognised themselves. Then I suddenly thought it might be possible that any group would recognise itself in the same description - given a wide enough range of characteristics we read ourselves into them, especially if told the description was particularly of us.

The other was a happy exile story like an extremely long joke, in which every chance meeting turned out in the speaker's favour, each grander and more farcically glorious than the last. And what happens if you step out of this building and are run over by the bus? I thought. That would be a cliché of course. But what if we rewrote and rewrote the script a dozen times?
Ah then, we might have a postmodern classic on our hands.

The sea is a light translucent green. The young Montenegran novelist tells me the national stadium seats only 15000 people and that English FA have asked for 30000 of them.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Neptun 2

Hardly any sleep last night - who knows why, maybe some rhythmic thing, delayed time adjustment - so almost asleep on the bus to Mangalia in the morning. In fact once at the conference centre I sit and doze out the first hour in the lobby then venture in. As ever the loud urgent voices stung on by one or other demon of history (the demons are legion!), simultaneous translations, the hall packed. There is something about the seethe and fury yet courtesy, almost gentleness, of the proceedings that is vaguely magical and unlike any Western equivalent.

After coffee break where I talk chiefly to the Slovenian writer, a young trainee surgeon who later turns out to be very good poet, I have to take my place at the front and speak. A good part of the text has already been published in the Romanian equivalent of the TLS - as a full page no less! I'll put it up here once I am home, not on this iPhone.

All goes swimmingly. Back for lunch then bed. Readings in the evening. More of this, with names, once back.

Now 23:30. Music from the hotel across the road. Like the soundtrack of a 60's socialist realist film.

Friday 10 June 2011


The terrace of the Writers Villa with a beer. The Black Sea directly in front of me. This is my fourth time at Days and Nights of Literature. The Black Sea Sonnets in Reel were begun here and are at home here. Tonight was the first of the big compendium readings where a lot of poets read for five minutes each, translations of their work projected on a screen. I was the very first, which was a little daunting but best get it over and listen. A strong representation of Israeli poets and a good number writing in French, translated into French, or simply French.Romanian-French relations have been warm historically.

Some old friends appearing here. Poets now in the USA or France. New people to meet. It is very social. Kindly and bright.

The time here is 8:20 in the evening. The sky with a gorgeous cerulean blue streak over an aquamarine sea, just fading. A light wind in the trees.

There is a necessary disengagement in the condition pre-poetry. A focused hovering. Yeat's long-legged fly. A music of foreign voices, as of life elsewhere.

Thursday 9 June 2011

From Bucharest

Set clock to 02:30 this morning and managing surprisingly well so far. This is a different hotel from the ones we have stayed in before and has Wifi, which will not be available in Neptun. Bucharest is a little smarter each time I visit but it's still a sprawl. Fewer stray dogs. The Pre-war elegance remains in odd buildings, but there is more of what I think of as Stalinist Classical-Dystopic, all proportion no fabric. And sheer mess. But it holds together.

Tonight a meal, tomorrow a five hour bus ride down hot highways.Cry of gulls outside, long way inland. This from my phone.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Conversations conducted and overheard

LESLIE HOWARD piano Franz Liszt Variations on a motif of J. S. Bach: Weinen, Klagen, S180 (1862) (part 1), Recorded Columbus, Ohio 2009

At Broadcasting House today, studio 70A, talking to the magnificent pianist, Leslie Howard, who is a big warm man full of enthusiasm for his chief subject, Franz Liszt, about whom he is also encyclopedic. My questions deal mainly with the Hungarian aspect of Liszt and what he picked up from gypsy bands. I have some fourteen questions to hand but then it is natural to follow his own direction so the route between questions is slightly different from what I had planned, but all the better for that.

It was very enjoyable, and he too enjoyed it a great deal he said. How strange life is: my knowledge of Liszt is as the size of a pin in the proverbial haystack, but at least I know where the pin is. Providing the subject is the pin I seem to be knowledgeable, in every other respect I am an ignoramus. To labour an opportune figure of speech by reference to a quite different context, there are a good many angels dancing on that pin and watching them do so is a pleasure. Leslie Howard makes a very good angel and can dance on pins I haven't even heard of.


Another train and a series of overheard fragmented conversations. There is a universal truth here. Whenever two people travel together one has a loud voice and does almost all the talking, the other has a quiet voice and replies briefly, ever more briefly and ever more quietly, before fading right out. Two railway workers - or so I suspect from the context of their conversation - are sitting behind me after Cambridge. I can't see them but sense the loud one is of bigger, broader build than the other. The loud man is bluff and wants to talk. He talks romance and affairs at first, declaring that the one thing he would never be interested in is other men's wives. He is just not interested. It's unfair. It's immoral. He knows someone who has had just such an affair and though the bloke is a good bloke, this was wrong. People shouldn't do it. Stabbing people in the back is wrong, and he knows because he has been stabbed in the back by someone at work. And suddenly the talk switches to entertainment, to films and telly. He likes old telly programmes not the new ones, and begins to talk about Frank Spencer, which leads him on to Norman Wisdom. But there are good things on TV now too, and he tells the quiet colleague what to watch. He keeps forgetting the names of the films and gets annoyed with himself. The films he refers to as new are about ten years old. He himself can't be very old. Every so often he asks the quiet man a question and allows him to answer before taking off again on another theme. Sometimes it's just a rhetorical question. This time it's railway lines and stations, and where they used to go, and what remains of them now, though some he wonders about. Don't suppose you know, he asks the quiet man. The quiet man appears to know something or has an idea and is not completely rolled over, but is either happy or resigned to listening to the loud man. The loud man is dedicated to talk the way Leslie Howard is dedicated to Liszt. Talking is a pleasure to him, that is why he must keep the talk going with no break between subjects. He likes a bit of authority. He knows what he is talking about. Or has heard. Though sometimes he forgets a name. And everything is going to change in this area, he says, as we approach my station. Just you see! But I have to get off and will not find out why.

As I stand up and turn around I see he is short and stubby and the other man is tall and thin. That is how it must be. A variation on the old theme.


After tomorrow I am in Romania at a conference / festival on the Black Sea for a few days. I may be able to post from there using the hotel computers. We shall see. They were kind enough to give me a handsome prize (the Ovidius Prize) a few years ago. Great square stones in the sea. Stray dogs. Coaches to Mangalia and Constanza. The exile of Ovid. Bilingual and trilingual simultaneous translations. A paper to give (a very short one), a few poems to read (already translated). A country almost healed over since Ceausescu.

Monday 6 June 2011

Listening to Liszt

The BBC Radio Three programme about Liszt and gypsy music (we can apparently use the word gypsy' in this context without offence) is in preparation. Last week it was Simon Broughton, tomorrow it will be Leslie Howard to interview. So my morning is spent listening to the double CD of Howard playing Magyar Dalok & Magyar Rapszódiák (Hungarian / Gypsy Songs & Rhapsodies) on the Hyperion label. The treat above is a later work.

I have also been reading Liszt's treatise on The Gypsy in Music, not regarded now as wholly reliable, and salted with anti-Semitism. Essentially, Liszt compares the lives and contributions of Jews and gypsies, and identifies the first with meanness and money and law tra-la, the latter with nature, melancholy and a kind of cultural autism. He far prefers the gypsies. However, Liszt's text was probably corrupted by his mistress, Princess Carolyne, who was certainly anti-Semite in the Wagner vein.

But that is beside the point here. What is fascinating to hear are the elements of the jagged, barbaric, sometimes slushy, but always energetic material Liszt embraced from his sources. The syncopation, the modal twists and turns, often from major to minor and back again, the characteristic highly-stressed endings, the fancy cadenzas, the melancholy and the furious quickly succeeding each other. I have been familiar with some of themes and modes from early childhood (my mother liked at times to dress as a gypsy: I imagine she might have met some gypsy women in Ravensbruck and Penig, and always asserted how much she liked the gypsies she had met). Liszt turns them into concert pieces and Howard plays them brilliantly. It makes me curious about the balance between village inn and concert hall.

There is, in any case, considerable overlap between various kinds of 'gypsy' music and folk music. The most interesting piece on the album is the odd man out, the rarely performed Rumanian Rhapsody (no 20) that, as Howard points out in his notes, has a distinctly Bartókian air and is rather different from the Hungarian gypsy material. Another distinction. Where did it come from?

Sunday 5 June 2011

Tourist for a Day

Staying with son T at his new house in Stratford, a quiet street, very international, though the couple next door are, says T, very friendly old Eastenders. After lunch we set out and walk first to the View Tube at the Olympic site which is populated by body building cyclists and a film crew filming a little girl running up and down, possibly for hours. From there we walk to Brick Lane, stopping for a drink on the corner, then to Monument, where we get the tube to Embankment for a Japanese meal next to the Festival Hall, followed by a spin on the London Eye, and finally by underground, back to Stratford. It is a long hot walk the long hot livelong day. That's more London tourism than I have done in the last fifty years put together, and it is both exhausting and invigorating. The Eye gets stuck for some ten minutes as we are on the way down. It is evening in the long days so Parliament is delicately sprinkled with copper coloured light. Not as many churches to be seen as I would have thought. Our fellow capsule travellers are, naturally, international. Down below Swiss football supporters mingle and drift.

Brick Lane has the ambience of a number of earlier fashionable streets - Carnaby Street, Portobello Road. It is full of life but it is if it were the same people as before, people who have never grown old but are doomed to enjoy amortality for ever, the shops and bars and eating places simply time travelling, everything vintage, everything young. Sisyphus in the rag and take-away trade.

An art college degree show to take in along the way. Final year work, neither better nor worse than expected, mostly imitative, mostly with a sheen of knowingness.

Artists' statements include 'My work represents our dialogue with the cosmos', 'My work tries to embody an inner meaning...', 'My practice examines the dynamic between humanity and the natural world', ' aim is to explore and investigate thoughts and emotions, related to experiences and memories'. And beyond the cosmos: from 'Reference to the relational dynamics with fairy tale narratives has long been used within art to reflect upon a variety of socio-cultural concerns' to 'Inperfection is perfection and human nature is lifes infection'.

All typos are [sic]. The cosmos continues as before. I continue to try to embody an inner meaning while reflecting upon a variety of socio-cultural concerns despite all my inperfections.

On returning we watch Team America on DVD. Hadn't seen it before. It is pretty well perfectly pitched and very funny.

Reflections on PBS reading

Yesterday's post was a bit rushed, so a little more here. The event was supported by a host of our best known poets. I don't want to go through the whole list of thirty-two, the order and cast list changed till the last minute. The point was everyone read for three minutes and gave time for free. Those reading in the first half were in the Green Room, hearing those reading, and mostly there was respectful silence and a desire to listen. Here and there chat bubbles up, but I think it's a sign of respect to listen, and most of the time people did, and applauded in the poet just returning from the stage. The second half was probably similar though since I read in the first half I was sitting among the audience in the second. Who knows, poets may, in their heart of hearts, be autistic, spoilt egotists positively raging for absolute undivided attention of infinite length, but they don't generally behave like it and, frankly, I have never known them so. No divas on show this night either. Case much exaggerated. Of course it is a solitary art in the composition but at best it is not simply an intense study of the poet's own human heart, but of the language too and this requires much more intense concentration. I don't know of a single poet who has no humility before language, and language is not the self, it is the air we live in. Other people's air.

The atmosphere then was very good and the poets are together. I know many more who would have come or would perform at another similar event. There is talk of one in the north of the country.

The audience of about 300 came prepared to join, spend and offer. It's straight after work on a Friday night at an event with minimum time for publicity. It's not in an accustomed place. It's a very good and very enthusiastic audience. And we could multiply that over the country 10, 20, 30 fold. There is a sense that a fight is going on and that this fight is, in some respects, a fight for the official soul of the country. The poets represented a wide range of the mix of the country, and they and their audience are amongst the most articulate people. There will be plenty more articulacy here before we're done.

I have absolutely no concerns for poetry. It was there at the very beginning and will be there at the very end. It will survive everything and the worse things are the better it will survive. Which is not to excuse the hypocrites who would do it down at every turn, who spout on about bums in seats but when they arrive at a packed Festival Hall for the Eliot Prizes do nothing but whine about how a lot of people seemed to know each other. We can't be having that. And we can't ben having these small publishers who underpay themselves and work long hours to make the stuff go round, especially round those circles the big events, like the Olympics for example, don't concern themselves with. And we can't be having organisations like NAWE who realise that having creative writing in universities suggests the need for some an intelligent overview. Nor can we be doing with apparently lesser festivals or other bodies that propagate the poetry that's on the page and stays in the heart.

No, the money must be spent on fast food, fast culture, fast party people poetry, fast professionalisation of quickly introduced and quickly dropped government policies in languages that no-one actually speaks. Short term grandiosity is what is wanted.

Well, they'll be forgotten. Who knows, most of us poets individually will probably be forgotten too, but some won't and even the forgotten poet's words leave traces in lives and language that will last and be treasured. I see the Facebook page in memory of that fine poet Matt Simpson continues to flourish through individual dedication. So it goes on and will go on long after this or that fly-by-night policy is forgotten.

I had the pleasure of walking back to Kings Cross with Charles Boyle, about whose poetry I had recently written but had never really met or talked to. We both recalled with fondness the time when we were reading to our children and how sad we were when they didn't need us anymore.

The night train packed with people part drunk, part utterly exhausted.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Holding Post

The big PBS reading last night, led by Carol Ann Duffy. She and Daljit and I do pieces for Channel 4 TV. I make mine fairly hostile in the face of the Arts Council. It might be on today or tomorrow. I doubt I'll see it though it would be interesting to discover how much they show. At one point I am asked to respond to the ACE suggestion that closing things down might in fact be, er, exciting and bring out lots of people like, er, tonight. A loathsome hypocritical argument. My reply is along the lines that if you knock down someone in a car accident you'll get excitement and a crowd, but it's no reason to knock people down. I wonder if they'll screen that.

Crowd about 300+ which isn't bad for short notice, no advertising and a Friday night. Presses and Poetry Society well represented. I introduce the evening with an account of the PBS, what it does, what the other cut organisations do, then Daniel takes over as link and host. Most people read just one poem - I do the very short, We love life whenever we can'. Thirty-two readers across a wide range in terms of age, gravitas, approach, ethnicity, gender. It's a great evening and not altogether doomy. It is a fighting and celebrating kind of evening that makes for great atmosphere. Some book selling and signing at the end.

Away from desk so may write another short piece later.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Thin blooded and mad as a hatter.

Not the pianist Leslie Howard, the other one.

Galloping down to London to meet my radio producer, Elizabeth, but before then, taking furious thought on questions, forms, narratives in advance of the programme that is scheduled for October. Today it is Simon Broughton. In Hungary we will interview the virtuoso violinist Roby Lakatos, the band Parno Graszt and the singer Márta Sebestyén, but first an interview next week with the Australian pianist Leslie Howard, a Liszt specialist.

The name Leslie Howard takes me back to the wartime film actor of that name, one of the suavest of Englishmen you'd think, but his father was Hungarian and he himself was really Leslie Howard Steiner. Killed when his aircraft was shot down in 1943. As the whole world knows, rub an Englishman hard enough and a Hungarian appears under the sheen.

A good friend who has just returned to America laments the immediate loss of contact with English friends, to whom out of sight, out of mind, seems to be an immediate and permanent condition. My parents used to say the English had thin blood (they were híg vérű) and I supposed that in the long run this proved to be a difficulty for them since all their friends in the end were Hungarian emigrés like themselves (my mother's 'end' was considerably sooner than my father's). Yes, I reply to my friend, but then there is a furious, mad-as-a-hatter side too, that I rather like, or at least I like intimations of it. Furious diffidence. It's not a working class trait, of course, it's an educated middle and perhaps upper class trait. One behaves in acceptable ways. One knows when to keep one's distance. One also knows when to blast the buggers out. And, at almost the same time, an infinite gentleness that wouldn't harm a hair, a kind of sensitivity that forbids overt self-promotion. I rather like that too.

Life will be different with Parno Graszt.

There is more of them on YouTube

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Mysteries and Puzzles

Entering the vortex of a very busy period. Tomorrow to London to interview Simon Broughton as material for the BBC Radio Three programme about Liszt and Gypsy music. The next day back to London for the big PBS reading. In London with son over weekend. The following week back again to London, interviewing the pianist Leslie Howard about Liszt, and two days later to Romania for the Days and Nights of Poetry Festival. On return a few normal days before the beginning of UEA's New Writing Worlds Conference, and from there straight out to Hungary to do more recordings with musicians, historians, gypsy musicians and Márta Sebestyén. From there directly to Ledbury, and from Ledbury immediately to Lumb Bank for a week's hard teaching. Later in the year back to Hungary and quite probably to China too, but more on that nearer the time.

The spot on Night Waves yesterday was interesting. In so far as there are exegetic problems and pleasures in poetry I am all for them. But if the problem is substituted for the poem or, rather, the solution of the problem is taken for the 'meaning' of the poem, then I am against them. John Fuller's book, Who Is Ozymandias?, is about the pleasures of annotation as a form of solution, meaning as a kind of background narrative. In mentioning Philip Larkin's 'High Windows' we seemed to agree that the key last image of high windows is more mystery than puzzle. Beyond that I would want to argue that the reading of poetry may be partly a solving of puzzles, but that it is far more a series of guesses about feeling and language, guesses for the poet too. So though we may imagine asking Larkin how he came by the image of high windows, we might remember his answer to the Paris Reviews interviewer on being asked how he came by the image of toads for work. 'Sheer genius,' he replied. He might have considered further and explored his own reading about toads, or direct experience of them. And that then would have been an interesting answer, but a possibly distracting one.

Looking for answers in terms of puzzle suggests correct or incorrect answers. There was an amusing moment in our conflicting readings of Wallace Stevens' 'The Plot Against the Giant'

First Girl
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl
Oh, la...le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

John moves through the stories of giants and sees the poem as a rather elitist argument by Stevens of the power of aesthetics over art. So the giant is a life-threatening yahoo. It's a poem about art and death.

It has never been that to me. To me the giant was always a figure of panting desire, a clumsy priapic figure, whose hacker is in fact undone by those 'Heavenly labials'. A filthy mind perhaps. The difference is that John is reading from the point of traditional literary scholarship (what was the author's intention?): I from a kind of hunch about the senses and the feeling of language as sensuousness and joke (what has the author found himself / herself doing?)

I don't imagine either of us would discount the other's reading. John said as much. The question might be whether the death reading allows for the sex reading and whether the sex reading allows for the death reading? I am sure of the latter and less sure of the former.

In other words my anxiety is that the problem solving approach might exclude more than is good for the poem and might privilege the appropriately educated. But listen for yourself.

Notice: Removal of Krasznahorkai Satantago

Due to pending publication of the book, New Directions have asked me to remove the earlier Krasznahorkai, Satantango posts. Apologies.