Friday 30 March 2012

Editing, a party, & ending with Matthew Prior

Yesterday spent in last commissions for Poetry Review, much ringing round, much enquiring and explaining and hoping. But that part - the asking - is now done with. I can't get more into the prose sections. Details will eventually emerge and normal service will be resumed.

When we moved in to our present house it was still a commercial property - a gift shop to be precise - though the estate agent assured us we just had to apply for residential use and it would be easy. We applied and got turned down (the long story being that I then entered some six months correspondence with local council & everyone else and we got permission for residential use at the end of it)*.

In the desperation & anxiety that followed we asked our immediate neighbour, E, who used to run a craft shop in the centre of Norwich, what it was like running a shop. Her reply was, and I isolate it in its own line for full effect:

'Running a shop is boredom relieved by anxiety.'

We had no intention of running a shop.

I can now say that editing a magazine is anxiety relieved by excitement. Anxiety because you're never sure, if you're new, that you're doing the best possible thing, and excitement because the people you approach to do things often seem quite keen in the end. I realise this may be a fool's paradise.

Anyhow, a day of this is exhausting but also satisfying. In the evening we had the postgrad poets over for long-delayed drinks, those who could come, and a fine time was had by all after a few glasses of wine. I was suggesting to a football lover just off to Barcelona, that he might apply to be poet-in-residence at the Nou Camp. I am not sure why I give my best ideas away like that.


And today in London at the Poetry Society. More work, more reading. It is like summer outside. When I get home some more work & phoning, then I sit down to Twitter and do my Friday 'Neglected Poets' series. So far I have had Clough and Beddoes. Today it was Matthew Prior (1664-1721), with whom Auden would have been pleased to picnic on the lower slopes of Parnassus. The man was a dangerous, deeply civilised charmer. Here is a sample with a gorgeous first line:

A Better Answer

Dear Cloe, how blubber'd is that pretty Face?
Thy cheek all on fire, and thy hair all uncurl'd:
Pr'ythee quit this caprice; and (as old Falstaf says)
Let us e'en talk a little like folks of this world.

How can'st thou presume, thou hast leave to destroy
The beauties, which Venus but lent to thy keeping?
Those looks were design'd to inspire love and joy:
More ord'nary eyes may serve people for weeping.

To be vexed at a trifle or two that I writ,
Your judgment at once, and my passion you wrong:
You take that for fact, which will scarce be found Wit:
Od's Life! must one swear to the truth of a song?

What I speak, my fair Cloe, and what I write, shews
The diff'rence there is betwixt Nature and Art:
I court others in verse; but I love thee in prose:
And they have my whimsies; but thou hast my heart.

The god of us verse-men (you know child) the sun,
How after his journeys he sets up his rest:
If at morning o'er earth 'tis his fancy to run;
At night he reclines on his Thetis's breast.

So when I am weary'd with wand'ring all day,
To thee my delight in the evening I come:
No matter what beauties I saw in my way:
They were but my visits; but thou art my home.

Then finish, dear Cloe, this pastoral war;
And let us like Horace and Lydia agree:
For thou art a girl as much brighter than her
As he was a poet sublimer than me.

Note the touch of flattery and modesty at the end. Somewhere between Restoration and Politeness (though not always) with a lovely judicious ear and a light line in ironic propriety. I think Prior would have been a very nice man to know. Not the cricketer, should there be any doubt. Not that he would not be nice, etc.

*My letters of appeal were so eloquent the estate agent offered me a job and the Mayor, with whom we had talked a number of times, asked me to stand as a local candidate. You may imagine what annoyances the world was saved when I declined both offers.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Some thoughts on Hungary

The scene on the left is of the surrender of the Hungarian army after the defeat of the 1848 revolution; the map on the right is of the break up of Hungary according to the Treaty of Trianon, 1920.

A Hungarian writer friend asks why people in Hungary might follow a figure such as Victor Orbán. I don't know, of course, but here are some early guesses:

1. The lack of a long-term stable democratic past and the fear of anarchy in the popular sense (Elszabadulnak az indulatok! = All hell will break loose!), which leads to a desire for a strong stable leader. The strong king. This can be addressed in the long term by some form of reassurance, the equivalent of the good king. (I thought the first president, Göncz, had a touch of this).

*Orbán acts like a strong king. The goodness can come later, if it ever does.

2. A long history of military defeats, often against overwhelming odds, that leaves behind a residue of resentment and self-pity. At a crude level this emerges as a form of vainglorious sword waving by way of compensation.

*Orbán has been good at this, the speech of 15 March being an excellent example. He understands this role well, and those with a tendency to resentment and self-pity gratefully recognise the fact that he understands them and addresses the issue precisely as they would want to have it addressed.

3. An underlying sense of cultural alienation since many of the finest and most gifted people to come out of Hungary have had to leave Hungary to establish themselves, and that even when such people remained in Hungary, they were in some way alien (all those Jewish Nobel Prize winners!) This is humiliating. It breeds anti-Semitism and distrust of intellectuals at large.

*Orbán responds to this by stressing the homogeneity of a Christian Hungary and by smearing or relegating those intellectuals that oppose him.

4. Trianon & the imagination. There are the great Hungarian writers of the 19th and early 20th century whose homes and subjects, ever since the savage Treaty of Trianon after WW1, lie beyond the borders of Hungary (Csonka Magyarország nem Magyarország, = Rump Hungary is not Hungary, as my father recited at school in Budapest). The wrongs of Trianon have been an abiding theme. Bringing together the Hungarian ethnicities is an act of redress and self-assertion ('there are more of us than you think') The loss of the territories and its associated art, music and literature, was and remains a scar on the Hungarian imagination.

*Orbán has partly addressed this by giving Hungarian minorities abroad a vote.

5. Isolation of language: the pride and apprehension that breeds. 'Who can know us or stand with us?' The need for support from others in a similar situation.

*Orbán tries to address this by referring to a separate, Christian, 'silent majority' Europe, based in the eastern part of the EU, thereby uniting Hungary through a supposed common history and sensibility. 'At least someone loves us and knows what it's like to be us.'

6. Because there is no well-established middle-rank in society, one that has developed its own codes of morality and value, those who have leapt from a commercially middling position to substantial wealth are taken to be emblematic of general corruption and are therefore (not always without cause)distrusted.

*Orbán offers nationalism as an alternative to class politics, often blaming foreigners, though judging on past Fidesz record in office it will be interesting to see how far corruption is reduced in the future, and one might argue that filling all important state positions with supporters is in fact a form of corruption.

There is more along this line. As far as I can see, these are all genuine issues and Orbán is addressing them in his own way. But it's a dangerous situation, and what Fidesz is operating seems to me not far from fascism, calling on some of the same instincts in similar historical and economic circumstances. Moreover, I think it is likely to move ever further to the right in order to subsume and neutralise the far right anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, anti-Europe, homophobic, quasi military Jobbik, (Wiki leans over backwards to be fair to this loathsome crew) who are in effect the major opposition. And is it not a disaster when the main opposition to a right wing party, drifting ever further right, is the extreme right?

Hungary is a much wounded nation. If I were Orbán, I too would try to address some of the problems - which are genuine problems and genuine burdens - but I would try to talk about them honestly and calmly, in an adult way. I would probably fail but even failure would be something, a kind of decent memory of what could be done with courage, kindness and intelligence.

One of Jobbik's succession - not the latest - of uniformed militia. They change names and uniforms to avoid the law.

Monday 26 March 2012

More editing and a reading.

Another of my avatars, Arthur Dehon Little

A day of PR editing - commissioning reviews and articles, reading through poems. But it's the reviews and articles that have to be handled first because, unlike the poems, they are still to write.

So I go through the last three years of Poetry Review and consider the books in, trying to make them into packages. It's a delicate balance. My instinct is to review as many publications as possible in c. 10 reviews, but if there are too many books in one article none of them gets a very good deal. However, considering the paucity of reviews elsewhere, and that some good books never get reviewed at all, there is a strong argument for more books per reviewer, not in every case, but in some. Some are out now. I can't do more tomorrow as I am teaching and at the Paul Farley reading in the evening, but I will send out more books on Wednesday.

I say I send them out but I am in Norfolk and the books are in London, so it is actually Rachel in the office who does the sending, I just make the decisions.

All in all it feels like a high-pressure day, and in the evening I myself am doing a reading in Norwich. That turns out to be lovely occasion. It's in an old church, once Swedenborgian. Some seventy people, all readers, mostly above the age of fifty I should say, but fully focused, appreciative and full of intelligent questions. The church is in what I think of as the intellectual centre of the city, where many of the senior university staff live. There is a cheering humane dedication in them. The reading is about 45 minutes with conversation at the end. I get a box of wine by way of payment - looks like nice wine - and a voucher for a restaurant. I wasn't expecting anything.

Sometimes one doesn't and it's not important. Festivals and funded bodies should pay the going rate but this is poetry so I read where I am invited. When asked, I say what my usual fee is. Sometimes they can't afford it. Sometimes that's OK.

There is an idea, to which poets actually play, the very poets who are reading (I have heard them), that poetry readings are a form of torture. Depends who is doing it perhaps, but if that is the case, there are a good number of people who want this kind of torture.

Because, of course, it is not torture at all. It is concentrated listening to the music and space of language as it meets what happens. It is part of intelligent planetary life.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Night is... Haydn String Quartet Haydn op. 76 No 5 - 2nd Mvt

Largo. Cantabile e mesto - Ysaye String Quartet from France - Guillaume Sutre and Luc-Marie Aguera, violins / Miguel da Silva, viola / Yovan Markovitch, cello

For my money the string quartet is the high point of western music: it has a crystalline quality at best, the ideas fully felt through and articulated. When it is sweet, as this is, it remains disciplined and unsentimental. Sweetness too exists, especially when underlined by gravity. It was the late Matt Simpson who introduced me to Haydn's String Quartets. The sitting room was a wall of LPs arranged, as I remember, alphabetically by composer.

It's like the soul being tenderly drawn out through the guts.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Editing notes, 2

Editing a single issue is different from editing over a period because it is harder to save work from one issue to the next. Your next editor might not want to be hobbled with your unfinished business. Meanwhile the poems pour in and the centre spread is assuming a shape in your head if nowhere else.

There seem to me two attractive overlapping ideas. Poetry Parnassus, involves very many international poets from the various competing Olympic countries, takes place as the magazine appears, and is one necessary focus. The other that, to some conceptual degree, overlaps, is the idea of providing a series of maps on which some of the lesser known but very fine poets may be located. Not a physical, geographical map. This 'map' be drawn in terms of style and voice and we might see the territory that lies around them. These maps are not geographical but sonar, a kind of poetic echo location. Terra not quite incognita: dragon territory.

Except there are no dragons, not exactly. My impression is that the various camps and closets of poetry are not as closeted off from each other as they once were. They are different but not estranged or estranging. I look at the work of the younger poets and note how their metaphorical sheep graze safely across various meadows without a sense of trespass. They are not eaten by dragons. A moment of curiosity seems appropriate.

I am not particularly interested in a 'new generation' as such: I am interested in the way continuities work in changed circumstances.

These are big ideas and can only be partially carried through in a single issue, so some interesting areas will be missing, but I hope my successor might supplement the loss.


As to what happens when I am in the office that I share with some five or six others? I sit in my corner and go through boxes of submissions. I note the well-known and look to see outstanding work from the lesser known and unknown. Finding such things is one of the greatest pleasures an editor can have. It takes no particular editorial skill to choose that which has often been chosen, though reputations are built on substantial foundations and must be respected. All the same, I hope to be impressed by the unknown. After, all the winner of last years Poetry Society Competition, Paul Adrian, hadn't published anything till then.

There's no lunch hour as such, so we work until there's the need for a meeting. As we did on Friday. About 2:30 I remember I am hungry. The Poetry Cafe has soup and one piece of quiche left. I immediately think of The Last Quiche Saloon, and tweet off a couple of brief fantasies on the subject.

Then back upstairs to the boxes and the shelves, to lists and guidelines. Mike, Paul, Trupti are at their stations and Rachel who is helping out is available to help me in particular. Katie comes in later. I leave about 6pm. Judith is still working upstairs. She usually is, till late.

The Friday streets are packed: people swell this way, sway the other, billow through the still-balmy air. Covent Garden station is packed, the lifts full and breathless.

The new Kings Cross Station is beautiful! It looks gorgeous and seems to make logistical sense. There is less walking, less wondering which platform to rush to. All the same I am lucky to find a seat on the 18:44, many don't. Then half an hour at Cambridge with a Chai Steamer and a sandwich, the last they have left. Finally on to the Norwich train, plenty of room, bliss and exhaustion.

Having started from home at 8.15am I am home again shortly before 10pm.

Friday 23 March 2012

A Day at the Poetry Society...

Back a little too late to write anything now, but will do so tomorrow. A little more on editing Poetry Review then. A big sign for a small note.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Short meditations: certainty

I write these things on early waking, mostly in haiku form, but sometimes in couplets suggesting a classical Greek measure. Sometimes they hang together, other times they fly off in different directions. These more or less belong together.

When the roof falls in
the dust rises. High, empty,
the frame of the sky.


In the latest siege / children play loud music to / their adult killers.


Heavily armed with / Kalashnikov and Uzi./ The night's home comforts.


Certain of one thing only, the rightness of the heart's affections
and of which hearts should keep on beating and which to seal shut.

Both guns blazing he leaps from the window, the hero
who calmly put his gun to three children's heads.


Thought, like shit, happens / any time. It doesn't take / all day about it.


There is nothing there / just days of limited scope / opening their eyes.


The weather at sea,
like a clutch of names under
a rain of vowels.


The last two nights were too short. I woke at 4am both times and did not go back to sleep. Today I spent all day at the desk filling in a very long author form, writing the report on a PhD upgrade, checking the corrections to a finished PhD, and going over and over the finished first draft of the prose translation. At 6.30 there was the meeting of the Wymondham Words festival committee. Tomorrow to London all day for Poetry Review, on which little progress so far because of these other things, only ideas and lists.

I followed the news of the siege and the shooting in Toulouse in odd moments, certain of one thing only, as the verse above says, which was the horror of certainty itself. There is something quite inhuman about certainty. Certainties do exist but they are the limits between which we move, not the ground on which we stand. I know what I like. I know who to blame. I know for a fact where I stand. Then bullets wipe away any remaining doubt.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

       Sonnet: So he lay naked..

So he lay naked on the bed and she drew him
in coloured crayons and her own skin shone
in the light of the low window and they were alone
in the house, so when the current passed through him

he slipped her out of her top, a moment’s work,
and skin met skin in the soft heat, her back
sliding down to the point where the rough track
of bone swells into plump flesh where lurk

the demons they were hoping to invite
so they should turn the body inside out
into that central universe where a shout
is enough to bring on rain, or sun, or night

or the end of breath like an answering cry,
with the landlady’s knock, since she was passing by.

Monday 19 March 2012

Rereading: metaphors, white space.

I will get back to Poetry Review very soon. I am desperately trying to get through the corrections to the draft of The Summer My Father Died. I have given myself until tomorrow evening.

It is enlightening to see how many mistakes you have made - some typos, some bad continuity, some obscurity that need not be so obscure, some toning this way and that, some turnings round of clauses or sentences. The one good thing is that you are now free of the original text except as backstop. You are no longer looking up words and checking references. You've done all that. From now the translated book has to flow as a book. It is the voice you have found for the book being consistent to itself primarily, perhaps exclusively. You are no longer constructing the engine, you're hearing it purr and listening out for mistiming and other odd noises.

But it's small-scale work for the eye and eventually the mind tires too. I have spent some eight hours on it today, after having returned from university where I had a single supervision.

It would be nice to think poetry for a while, to breathe the emptier spaces of the page and move to a rhythm that generated itself as it progressed, to feel the slight drunkenness of careering through the forest of words powered by curiosity and the faint scent of subject. And then the white of the unwritten page breathing like the memory of nothing. A film.

Something is working from this, or around this; something that has been hanging around for months with just a few others like it for company. Around love, or the idea of love, or the ache of even considering it.

But it aches, each moment a scratch on a surface
that keeps moving, each moment simple as light
on a film-clip. It aches as if it were too bright
to register. You buy tickets and take your place

in the cinema of the spirit. You know the style,
the plotlines, the world presented to you, flat
on the flat screen. And then there it is, that
ache detached from the story! And meanwhile

the film runs on and is past you before you blink
and it hurts and is difficult. And you want to speak
of her and you can’t help it, can’t help but break
the narrative and the rhyme in which you think.

And when you walk out the scratch remains the best
remembered thing and you forget the rest.

Not right yet, but the thoughts are flickering somewhere there, in that cinema.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Sunday Night is... Tosca, E lucevan le stelle, Pavarotti

In honour of Yudit Kiss's The Summer My Father Died, where her father is remembered humming this as he shaves. It is also the song her grandfather used to hum before he was murdered in the war.

I have finished the translation, first draft. The next week to polish it.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Last stretch & dinner

The last two days have been either reading excerpts from novels for a fellowship or dashing for the line in the current translation. I am so close to the end I can see the tape, and once things get to this point all I want to do is get to the end. Hence the lack of posts yesterday and this short belated one today.

All day I work on it then in the evening old friends arrive for dinner, a last minute arrangement. C produces another magnificent improvised spread. He, the poet, is in his eightieth year and uses a stick now, she, the theatre producer, is a year older than I am. Both are still energetic and full of life. We launch straight into subjects: the Hollis Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, the line of English landscape / nature / ecology / pastoral that runs from Thomas, and before him John Clare, through Mabey and MacFarlane. I almost add Andrew Motion, but I know his opinion so leave that alone.

From there we get on to mutual friends, their jobs, fates and predilections, whizzing on to Hungary and its ailments, to thoughts of retirement and pleasure (they think I should retire from teaching and write even more). We talk about what happens to our papers. Mine are at Cambridge as are his, though the British Library has some of his too. We talk of politics - he is Tory but dislikes Cameron, Clegg and the whole bunch but thinks Blair more vile, while I'm on the left but cannot help loving him - then we all list the prime ministers since the war (easy) followed by the leaders of the opposition. We do well on this too. She tells how her father in the war commandeered a grand piano then exchanged it for beer. I tell how my father made off with a train full of armaments from the Ukraine and was arrested at the end and sent right back to the Ukraine again.

We have known each other almost forty years. Nothing seems to have changed though everything has. He glitters and laughs. We all laugh and marvel. It has stopped raining. The big washing up follows. Gone eleven. I slept only four hours last night. Another dash for the line tomorrow, then on to Poetry Review matters.

Thursday 15 March 2012

15 March, 1848: the claims of demagoguery.

15 March in Hungary celebrates the outbreak of the great 1848 revolution that was crushed the following year. The revolution, like all the European revolutions of that year, was a complex mixture of nationalist and internationalist passions. It certainly wasn't 'Christian' any more than were those of the French Revolution. Like all revolutions, once past, it remains up for grabs for anyone unscrupulous enough to claim it. The equation is: Those heroes were like us and wanted what we wanted, therefore we, and you, dear audience, are heroes.

Victor Orbán has once again claimed that revolution.

In 1988 people who tried to lay flowers at the statue of the revolutionary poet Petöfi in 15 March Square were turned back, arrested, or beaten by the police.

The next year I was there as were hundreds of thousands of others: it was the first great public event in the toppling of communism. The revolutionary moment was open.

Now it is closing.

This evening the Prime MInister, Visitor Orbán made another revolutionary speech, one very much aimed at the home audience.

As the Guardian reports in the link, he:

...delivered a stinging broadside against Brussels on Thursday, likening EU bureaucracy to Soviet tyranny and casting himself in the mould of Hungarian heroes fighting to free the country from foreign domination since the 19th century...

Drawing a clear parallel between Soviet domination of Hungary until 1989 and the behaviour of the European authorities, Orbán said: "We are more than familiar with the character of unsolicited comradely assistance, even if it comes wearing a finely tailored suit and not a uniform with shoulder patches."

"Hungarians will not live as foreigners dictate, will not give up their independence or their freedom, therefore they will not give up their constitution either," he thundered in a speech with strong nationalist overtones.

I note how the government constitution, that was not the subject of the vote at the general election, is now incorporated into the idea of Hungarian nationality. In other words it wasn't Fidesz's constitution, but the people's. The constant identification of the government with the people is a vital trope for Orbán.

The fighting talk goes on:

...we decide what is important and what isn't. From the Hungarian perspective, with a Hungarian mindset, following the rhythm of our Hungarian hearts. We will not be a colony."...
The prime minister traced Hungary's freedom fight through the great revolutions of 1848 against Vienna, of 1956 against Soviet communism, and of 1989 when he played a starring role as a young student anti-communist leader.

The message was that Hungary was once more embroiled in a fight for its freedom and that Orbán was the heir to the heroes of Hungary's history. "In 1848 we said that we should tear down the walls of feudalism and we were proven right. In 1956, we said we have to crack, we have to break the wheels of communism and we were proven right," he declared.

I like the idea of being 'proven right'. Hungarians certainly fought for values such as he mentions, among others, but they lost both times. I am not sure how you can be 'proven' right under the circumstances.

He continues:

We said we have to break out of the prison of debt and we also declared that Europe can only be made great again with the help of strong nations. You will see my dear friends that we will be proven right yet again.

Don't you love those 'the strong nations?'? These appeals to patriotic fervour, the sense of injustice and the flattering of national strengths are core parts of the extreme right's songbook. `he claims:

"We have with us the silently abiding Europe of many tens of millions, who still insist on national sovereignty and still believe in the Christian virtues of courage, honour, fidelity and mercy, which one day made our continent great."

And of course the values of the 'silent majority' can only be Christian. These values involve the catalogue of virtues I described in the second of my LSE posts and the clever stroke of preventing your opponents speaking by commandeering all the major public spaces on the great day. But that's the way it works: you legally close loopholes one by one and deprive your opponents of space, cash, resources and living, while working yourself into a rhetorical fury about their separateness from good 'Christian' values.

I confess it breaks my heart to see a nationalist demagogue driving my country back to the Thirties.

One might be forgiven for forgetting that the EU was an entity Hungary actually asked to join, and that Victor Orbán held the presidency of the EU less than a year ago.

What the great patriot really wants at the moment is the money the EU is withholding from him. As I wrote before, the message, the true revolutionary cry, is: Give us the money, you bastards!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Marking time and a nice picture

Here, This Is Stieglitz Here, 1915 Francis Picabia (1879–1953)

All life form postponed till tomorrow. The work is catching up on me a little as is university. Fits of deep sleepiness fought off. In again tomorrow. Something important every day this week, including a potentially awkward tutorial today. It went fine but it needed plenty of neuron work beforehand to make it so.

And so much to read and respond to! One day I'll sit down and read a 'book' requiring no intelligent comment, rather than sheets of paper that do.

Some lovely lovely reviews of Satantango, some including compliments for the translator. I'll put up some links.

I very much enjoy this period of Picabia's work. He completely lost it later. This is the poetry of machines: a schoolboy's dream of beautiful women cleaned up into the diagram of a camera. It is a piece of romance, trust me. Think of it as a bouquet of red roses. My new book Bad Machine will have a Picabia on the front. Not this one.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Notes on Editing 1

In case there should be any confusion, the image above is not me, but my avatar George S Holmes of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association.

I have edited before - books rather than magazines, chiefly anthologies - but this is a different kind of task. The Poetry Society HQ differs considerably from its old HQ in Earls Court Square with its grandeur, classical columns, large rooms and garden. The current arrangement is an 'above-the-shop' enterprise, with the cellar for readings, cafe on ground floor, plus floors for studio and two sets of offices. My desk is on the lower office floor, a corner on a room length wall table with shelves full of books above, a computer terminal, and boxes of correspondence and poems. The rest is box files for previous issues. It's a fluid space. On this floor, the day I am in, it's Mike, Paul and Trupti, all busy about their work, all very helpful and friendly.

My first job is to look at the books in - those freshly in and those left over from last time but still current, though it is a moot question how long a book of poetry remains current? I once saw a review five years after publication in another magazine*. A review is unlikely to generate a rush to bookshops in the case of poetry, especially these days, but a review is part of a poet's cumulative reputation and therefore influential, not to mention the sense of relief any writer, and indeed publisher, gets at being noticed at all. It is another question altogether what it means for readers of poetry, let alone the general reader, but more on that another time.

So say I am looking at between fifty to eighty books, some by well known people and presses, others less so. Most names are familiar to me but there are always those that are not. In view of the space available for reviews I am already thinking of batches in most cases. What batches make sense? Cultural, geographical, stylistic, occasional... It's not ideal since any book worth calling a book is worth thinking about in some detail, but we have long lived in a far from ideal world. Say, then, a review is about 800-1200 words, what is worth saying about how many books? (I seem to remember that 700 words is a good proportion of a newspaper page). I have done longer reviews of between 1500-2000 words for journals at times, but consider that the upper end. In any case, my first job is to make a list of what has come in and looks promising to think about. I have asked an intern due in later to make me a full list of the contents of the last three years plus the one about to appear - 13 issues. Best to know who and what has been recent. (I myself have the magazine since I am a member, but the days of orderly shelves in chronological order are gone - there is just too much of everything on the home shelves, with some proportion of them in constant movement.)

Like any editor, of course, I have come in with a few ideas of my own regarding content, balance and theme, but have also to accommodate other priorities due to occasion and date or potential sales or membership. There is no clear rubric on this, it's just stuff to bear in mind. (There is always stuff to bear in mind.)

i spend roughly half my time on the books, dipping and hoping. There are translations and books from other English language territories. Internationalism is a good thing so I bear that in mind too. Some years ago I co-edited New Writing 10 with Penelope Lively and took in translations and articles on translation. This wasn't a universally popular move but I felt it right and no one actually stopped me.


The second half of the day is spent on a very big box of poems clipped to accompanying notes and SAE envelopes. This was the way I got used to when I was a young poet. I'd send the poems out, just like this, with a brief note, and wait for the envelopes to come back, hoping they'd be slimmer on their return. Most of the time they were exactly the same with a small business-card or at most post-card sized printed notice to the effect that: The editor has enjoyed reading your poems but regrets (s)he cannot use them on this occasion. End of response. Every so often there'd be word or two of encouragement scribbled in the border, to say Not quite! Or Try again! Alan Ross of the London Magazine and Jon Silkin of Stand were particularly kind in this way. It meant such a lot. Both eventually went on to publish me but not for years. I remind myself, and the reader that I had years of this, some seven or eight years. PR does better in this respect and has a full page printed letter, plus space for comments. In view of the numbers of submissions it is impossible to do what some less-experienced poets ask for and offer a detailed critical response, but we will redraft the basic letter and look for the best ways to do it.

After an initial sort-through I see there is the usual number of the clearly unsuitable, a good number of potentially suitable but not sufficiently remarkable, a good number of genuinely decent poems, and some that are clear candidates. There are submissions addressed to me, others to the previous editor. There are poems from very well known people and those I have not heard of. I don't read the poems from the best known at this stage, but I take the possibles from among the unknown or lesser-known and put them in a box along with the well-known to be sent on to me at home. Everything must be responded to. I have to do the responding.

There are more days left for more submissions to arrive. I'll try to get down to London as much as I can rather than go entirely postal.

I can do some asking and commissioning. I can try to redress some gaps in the past. I can introduce something new, and make requests. It all has to be balanced out.

The main issue: I am here for one issue only: what worthwhile thing can I do that others might not? All this is like rolling the universe into a ball that leads to what TSE called 'one overwhelming question'.

I'm not in a position to firmly address it yet. Tentative for now. More thoughts on related matters in due course.

On the way home I read Siegfried Sassoon on my Kimble. Sassoon at best remains extraordinarily fresh and startling. Send us something, Siegfried. What news from the front?

*The book was The Noise of the Fields, by Hugh Maxton. It would have been quite a distant noise by then.

Monday 12 March 2012

Long day at the PoSoc

My first day visit down to the offices - a pile of books, a pile of poems, a good discussion, then just working through. From door to door it's about three and a half hours, so I am a little tired. More on all this tomorrow. Good to get started anyway.

Ely Cathedral almost invisible in fog on the way to London. The marina shrouded in a cobweb, the boats like trapped flies. Dark when I came back. Just the tower illuminated like a crystal skull. All very gothic. Pic of said cathedral in fog, above. From Fangman, here. Thank you. It was considerably more than I could see.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Sunday night is... Bill Withers, Ain't No Sunshine / Just the Two of Us

I had almost forgotten about Bill Withers then he came up on the documentary about him, Still Bill (probably only there for a few more days after this post appears). It's a lovely film and he himself is admirable, articulate, honest, kind, an altogether proper man moving into the phase of life that is only just a few years in the future for me.

As for the songs, the tunes, the words, his voice and the settings, they are beautiful, out-of-time, at the border between jazz, soul and even funk at times, though not particularly in these two classics. As with all classics there is a touch both of sadness and aspiration that adds a poignancy that is never maudlin or simple easy listening.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Egret, changing, moving.

Little Egret, Tiffey 10.03.12
Little Egret, Tiffey, 10 March 2012

C suggests a walk. It is always her suggestion and most times I don't feel like it at first, even while knowing it is good for me. I spend too much time sitting, reading, thinking, writing. Exercising the legs and lungs is sound philosophy and good practical advice, yet I resist it. Why?

But I always say yes, in fact almost immediately. I am, I think, an infinitely amenable creature almost to the point of passivity. You want to do that? OK, let's do it. You want to turn right? Fine, let's turn right. Shall we dance? Yeh, let's dance. It's the head where things are buzzing and flying. Frankly, I am surprised I am no flabbier, no creakier than I am. I run up stairs two at a time. I find it easier that way.

Once out I notice the air. It feels good generally, simply by being other than the air of the room. The street is familiar and the walks are familiar. We go together, talking, watching, occasionally taking each other's hand or throwing an arm round the other's waist. Sometimes C skips about just loosening up and I smile at her.

At some point, especially in the last few years, the outside world becomes noticeably multifarious. It has a crispness and pathos and brightness, a sort of emergent quality. We pass by the abbey and down towards the river, or beyond it to the great cedar of lebanon at the end of the further path, as we did today. A hedgerow either side thinning in places. Tufts of almost lush looking grass, the abbey to our left in the middle distance. The hedge is cut back, bare twigs strong and white, cut into smooth stumps. Then the birdsong becomes clearer. I don't know much about birdsong, but the blackbird's extraordinary richness of song is clear enough. A 'sculptured fioratura, clean as a whistle', I called it in a poem dedicated to C's father a decade or so before he died. The phrase comes to mind again, the pleasure of saying the word fioratura, so much like whistling, at the heart of it. Then the chiff-chaff, the coarse cawing of rooks as they nest, an old tyre in the field, the new buds just appearing, and then, as we come round to the river again, quite suddenly, something that hasn't been there before, curled like a miniature swan in the water, a beautiful white calligraphic shape. It's an egret, probably a little egret. It fishes and plunges, undisturbed. We gaze at it. C takes a photo on her phone. Eventually it flutters a few yards and lands on the far bank, uncurls its neck and stretches it.

After that the whole walk feels more buoyant, even a little luminous. Everything has clearer edges, is crisper still.

These impressions strike deeper and sharper now than they ever did. As if life were ever more a precipice, the air a touch rarer and more dizzying. It is as if one were slowly becoming oneself, more the shape of being, but seen, of course, at some distance, as an object in space, like any other object. It is a form of understanding, even if what we understand is simply that what we are understanding may be no more than the act of understanding itself, and how little that means, and how good it is to understand at least that much.

So we walk home and arrive at the house and I go back to my desk. I send C's photograph of the egret to Mark, to check it's a Little Egret. He confirms it is and says they are very common in Hungary and growing more common in England since the 90s.

Small angels of history. Small archaic torsos. Rilke's terrible angels. 'You must change your life'. But look, it is changing, moving.

Friday 9 March 2012

And a video of sorts...

There is a video here of Schöpflin's speech, made by Schöpflin's people, therefore starring only Schöpflin with the same 'narrative of the left' woffle. I am squirming on the right, listening but listless. You won't hear me of course, nor Victor Sebestyén. Surprisingly you don't hear the minister either. Why should you? Why should you hear anyone else at all? Schöpflin runs over by some three minutes. He is extraordinarily patronising throughout, most particularly about Klubrádio. (They've lost a frequency, I am losing my hearing, I've lost some frequencies too') Hence the squirming. Note how he says that nobody is interested in the detail. My speech following was all detail.

Fortunately the entire discussion is available through the post below. This for visual impression.

Thursday 8 March 2012

The audio of the full LSE Debate

Here is the direct audio link (mostly chatter at first, then comes in, could be louder):

Other links: here (Echo), here (Audio) and here (Vodcast)

I hope these work for interested readers.

The LSE Hungary debate 3: Brief reflections

1. The questions were grouped and, as ever, only partially addressed. They referred to issues of procedure, the speedy enactment of laws, of possible EU recourses (what, for example, did I mean by the EU keeping an eye on Hungary, and frankly I didn't know, except to point to Article 7 of the EU and possible financial pressure), what about the migration of Hungarian intellectuals and scientists (not entirely new under Fidesz, but I pointed to the new law which would require state-supported Hungarian graduates to spend the first eight years of their working lives in Hungary). There was also a nicely acute question addressed to the minister and the Professor Schöpflin, wondering who Fidesz saw as the opposition? They were good questions and the mood remained calm.

2. It seems to me that nationalism of a not-very-bright sort has been an element in Hungarian political life ever since 1989. Of course there was nationalism before, and, as in other countries with similar histories, of a very fervent kind, tending to the liberal left in the 19th century and to the rather less liberal right in the 1920-1945 period. I seem to remember how the very successful record label Hungaroton was ruined. Wiki has a rather laughable version of events as I recall them. The new nationalist mood of 1990 demanded that Hungaroton should not be a vehicle for foreign recording artists recording foreign music but for Hungarian artists recording Hungarian music. This is considerably like the position of the newly appointed Jobbik head of the Újszinház in Budapest, who insists that only Hungarian plays should be performed there. Nationalism is a complex force, but Dr Johnson said something apposite about patriotism and scoundrels which might be born in mind at moments of high national emotion.

3. I did look at the offending video of Dopeman. Here it is. The title Bazdmeg, which is the beginning of almost every line in the rap, means 'Fuck it / them'. Interestingly the text blasts both Orbán and Gyurcsány, and just about everything else. I don't think it could be accused of partisanship. The lines from the Hungarian national anthem are delivered fairly straight, so their significance is not entirely clear. But what if it does mock? The Sex Pistols did much the same thirty years ago. You could ban the record but you wouldn't arrest them and charge them with the equivalent of treason.

4.I was more than surprised, I was almost astonished, at how one-dimensional the opposition argument was. I assume it is the line repeated in Hungary. It is the line of utter denial. There might have been a more sophisticated defence referring to emergency and the need to hold the nation together by identifying it emotionally, but no such thing. Sheer denial of everything.

5.I don't imagine I will be in this position too often but it was interesting to have to articulate something fragmentary but deeply felt into a relatively brief speech. It's good to have to do that sometimes, even in the quarrel with ourselves out of which literature emerges.

The LSE Hungary Debate 2: GS text

I began by responding to a couple of points made by Kovács and Schöpflin.

1.I pointed out that there wasn't a single socialist narrative in Hungary after 1989, since the centre-right MDF, and later Fidesz itself had had periods in power. [This also suggests that whatever financial and constitutional mess the country is in now is not the doing of one party - My own sense of it is that the mess was actually the result of the Kádár regime's foreign borrowing in the 80s. I didn't say this but do think it];

2. I suggested that while Professor Schöpflin had accused critics of giving no details he had given none himself;

3. I also wondered why, if Eastern Europeans were regarded as 'hairy barbarians' no one was accusing the Czechs or the Poles of being the same. Text follows


I should first of all make it clear that I come to speak not against Hungary but against the Hungarian government which is not the same thing. I begin like this because all criticism of the current government is regarded as anti-Hungarian. In other words, Fidesz, the governing party of Hungary is deemed to be Hungary. Furthermore, if one does criticise the actions of the Hungarian government one is regarded not only as a traitor to one’s country, or in the case of foreigners, as enemy of the state, but also a liar who must be communist or gay, or an agent of international finance (by which one generally understands ‘Jewish’), or indeed all these things at the same time. Because, evidently, it is only communist-capitalist-gay-Jewish liars who could possibly find anything to criticise.

I was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a child refugee in 1956. I first returned to Hungary as a writer in 1984 and have visited most years since, including a nine month stint in 1989 when I was not only on the unofficial procession against the then government on 15 March but also in Heroes Square on 16 June when the dead of 1956 were publicly celebrated and the current prime minister Victor Orbán made his speech calling on the Soviet troops to be withdrawn. And lastly on a personal level I should add that, besides writing my own books, I have spent every week since May 1984 - including this one - translating Hungarian literature - poetry and fiction - into English and am very proud to have done so.

My personal reason for arguing on this side of the debate is less because of this or that specific act of the Fidesz government. My reason is the sum of them all and through them the creation of a climate that seems to me inimical to the country I have loved and admired. Little by little I find every part of it is being dismantled and banished.

What is interesting about Fidesz’s great slew of constitutional reforms is how specific issues - the issue of the central bank, the issue of the lowered retirement age for judges, the question of data protection, the question of state support for varieties of religion - when raised by the EU, are rejected as factually wrong, then, under external pressure, reluctantly addressed.

All these are minor problems that will soon be sorted out, argues the prime minister on an almost daily basis.

There are I think, various problems with the new constitution and its application. I will consider just culture and media.

One might dismiss the claim - as some do - that the newly created Media Authority is stuffed with Fidesz supporters by arguing that ‘The members of the Media Authority are professionals; how they vote is immaterial’. In other words that their political affiliations are a coincidence.

It might be argued that the power to levy ruinous fines on journals or programmes that do not show the right kind of political balance or which ‘breach human dignity’ - by doing what precisely? - has not been much used yet. It doesn’t have to be used with great frequency. The threat remains, inviting self-censorship. In this and other respects the Hungarian government acts very much like its bête-noir, the old pre-1989 party-state.

One might argue that the sacking or retiring of some 570 members of staff from branches of the media and their replacement by right wing figures, is just clearing dead wood.

One might argue that the replacing of an internationally recognized and applauded theatre director, such as the head of Trafo by a relatively inexperienced Fidesz supporter is just the luck of the draw; that the ousting of the heads of provincial theatres and that the appointment of a member of the far right Jobbik at the Ujszinhaz or New Theatre was a little local affair; that the refusal of a license to the only independently critical broadcaster Klubradio was purely a commercial matter; that the organisation of a grotesque exhibition of kitsch art to celebrate the new constitution is not an attempt to represent history from a right-wing inter-war Horthyist point of view, and that as such it has no consequences for the future of Hungarian art; that the smearing of leading international philosophers like Ágnes Heller and others is a genuine investigation into corruption even when the case collapses; that the rebuilding of the square in front of parliament so it should correspond to the pre-1943 model with memorials appropriate to that time and ethos, and the moving of the statue of the great Hungarian poet, Attila József are interim measures of no political consequence; that the demonising of internationally known Jewish cultural figures such as then Nobel Prize winning writer Imre Kertész, the concert pianist András Schiff, and other leading musical figures like Adam Fischer and Ivan Fischer is unconnected with their criticisms of the Hungarian government; that the take-over of the long-standing major English-language magazine the Hungarian Quarterly is unconnected to any political agenda; that the sacking of headmasters, the reduction in the number of places in Law and Economics at the major universities while building a new university of governance to follow the Fidesz line in ideology is nothing to do with many economists’ critical view of the government’s economic policy and certainly nothing to do with Victor Orbán’s remark that Hungary needs no law graduates; that although it has adopted some of the policies of the far-right party Jobbik, who constitute the third biggest force in the Hungarian parliament, the Fidesz government is fiercely opposed to all that Jobbik stands for, and that its refusal to debate with the MSzP in public while doing so with Jobbik is not a sign of its own political leanings; that the statement of its greatest supporter in the press, the editor of the Magyar Hirlap, Zsolt Bayer, to the effect that more Jews should have been massacred while there was an opportunity, is of no consequence to it; that the opening of secret files that Fidesz proposed earlier but which it now wishes to keep closed is the act of a government with nothing to hide; and that the filling of great institutions with supportive cadres is an act of life-enhancing pluralism.

You could argue that Fidesz is not intent on remaking the country in its own image and that its threats to criminalise the one ideologically opposed party, the MSzP - the socialists of the previous government, who are socialists about as far to the left as Tony Blair was - because they are ideological descendants of post-war Stalinists, was not an attempt to outlaw any thought that is not sufficiently right wing; you could argue that the police action of 2006 was the precise equivalent of the Soviet armies putting down the revolution of 1956 - an idea celebrated in one of the kitsch paintings already mentioned - and that whoever called the police out was therefore the equivalent of Mátyás Rákosi, the Soviet backed tyrant of the Fifties.

In other words you could argue that the attempt to deligitemize liberalism, tolerance, internationalism and replace it with an Eastern European version of the Tea Party with greater powers, powers sufficient to carry it beyond elections and to outlaw any opposition to the left of it, is perfectly OK.

I haven’t even mentioned the condition of the Roma, the criminalization of homeless rough-sleepers. There are many things I haven’t mentioned.

However you discount this or that element of the list, however you quibble about the precise reasons and mechanisms for this and that part of it, there is easily enough here to worry us, and for the EU to keep a very wary eye on.


The argument that ‘The members of the Media Authority are professionals; how they vote is immaterial’ is quoted from Professor Schöpflin.

I should add that I can link every one of those points above, but that, as I say near the beginning, it is the cumulation of acts and events that is my theme.

I felt obliged to begin with the first two personal paragraphs because the tendency is - and was in the debate - to equate the current government with Hungary and Hungarians. I don't believe that and wanted to make clear my love and respect for the best in Hungarian society and culture. It is sad that one has to do this, but nationalism is a powerful force that needs its enemies and prefers them to be presentable as being unambiguously biased and brutal.

It strikes me now, and it did at the time, that there was no discussion of the very particular circumstances under which Fidesz gained its great majority. The elections were free and fair no doubt, but the fiasco of the secret recording and publishing of previous prime minster, Gyurcsány's, behind-closed-doors speech to his party - the 'we lied morning, noon and night' speech, in which he also speaks scornfully of the electorate - was a very powerful factor without which the majority - in my opinion - might have been a lot smaller. A clear case of blowing off one's head by shooting oneself in the foot.

This post is long enough. I'll do just one more of brief reflections with some account of the questions in so far as I remember them.

The LSE Hungary Debate 1: An impression

Preparation for this debate had been a major worry for me. I don't usually debate politics, or at least when I do it isn't against ministers of state and MEPs, even less in a situation as highly charged as this, on the very day when the EU sent the Hungarian government away to rethink - rather rapidly - its responses to the main criticisms regarding the central bank, the retirement age for judges and data protection. That was announced yesterday, and I was coming straight from Reading where having delivered the Finzi Memorial Lecture the day before, I had just done an hour long reading of poetry at lunchtime. I was falling asleep in Delaunay's in Aldwych, a stunning konditorei/restaurant where I had arranged to meet my fellow debater, the historian and journalist Victor Sebestyen, whom I had never properly met to talk to and with whom I had only had a couple of brief phone conversations ahead of the event, just so we shouldn't overlap too much.

The meeting was chaired by Abby Innes of the LSE, our opponents were Zoltán Kovács, Hungarian Minister of State for Government Communication, György Schöpflin MEP. The order of speaking, at maximum 10 minutes each, was Kovács, Sebestyen, Schöpflin, Szirtes. This was followed by questions from the packed and rather distinguished floor.

I can't give a verbatim blow-by-blow account since I don't have the other people's speeches but I am pretty sure that we won our case on a clear points decision. In any case I will try to sum up the essence of what was said, then add a copy of most of what I myself said, since the text of that is before me. Considering their positions and experience it seems to me now, in retrospect, that our opponents weren't fully prepared. In any case, I stress that this is just an impression and there will, I think, be a podcast available of the whole session so readers can check for themselves in due course. I'll link to that in the blog as and when it is ready.

Kovács had notes but mostly extemporised. He spoke a great deal of 'narrative', of how the twenty years following 1989 was dominated by a socialist, ex-communist, narrative that had brought the country to the verge of ruin; that Hungary was 'at the cross roads' so something drastic needed to be done (hence the over-350 new laws), and that half-measures were no longer enough. He stressed that Hungary was deeply misunderstood by the foreign press and, generally misrepresented, that this was, he hinted, a conspiracy by the liberal-left press. He said it was nonsense to think that there was any attempt to rein in free speech or stifle opposition in Hungary, and that, on the contrary, there was no real free speech before the current government, and that what Fidesz set out to achieve was 'a balanced, symmetrical system'. He also reminded us of Prime Minister Orbán's words that he wanted to turn Hungary into 'a normal European country'.

Sebestyén, had written notes and spoke from them. He began with Orbán and developed a history of the journey of Fidesz from the 'cool' party for under thirty-fives, citing Orbán's dictum never to trust anyone over thirty-five, through to its current position on what might or might not be defined as centre-right. He said that Hungary had been very badly governed since 1989 admitting that the last socialist government was probably the most incompetent. His case rested on unnecessary steps taken by Fidesz since assuming power. Why were such steps necessary? Why the illiberalism? Why, for example, the prosecution of a rapper called Dopeman, for his 'mocking' use of the Hungarian national anthem? Why were all foreign correspondents in the country deemed to know nothing? How was it that the methods of the Hungarian government seemed to resemble those of the pre-1989 regime? He went through the major issues addressed by the EU today and wondered why the tensions with the EU were necessary.

Schöpflin, once a professor at the LSE, was sitting next to me and had typed and copious hand-written notes and he went through some ten points, but his case was very similar to Kovács's: He accused those accusing Hungary of never giving any details; he accused the western press of deliberate distortion and misconstruction; he pointed to what he considered to be a widening gap between the western members of the EU and the eastern ones, claiming the eastern ones were sympathetic to Hungary; he claimed Hungary was 'the whipping boy' for the EU whose other members had problems just as great; and suggested that people in the west regarded Eastern Europoeans, especially Hungary, as 'hairy barbarians', a charge that would only turn the Hungarian people even more enthusiastically into the arms of Fidesz.

I think that's a reasonably fair summing up - at least it's the best I can do for now. If anyone thinks I have missed a major point (I might have) or have misread or misrepresented the thrust of the various arguments they are welcome to comment on the post and tell me.

It seems unfair that I should offer the text of my own speech, but, awaiting the podcast, at least it is available now. The next post is the text of the speech. It will be curious to see reports on the evening in the Hungarian press, that is if it does report it.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

In Reading for the Finzi Lecture

Only the iPhone to rely on. I think the lecture went down very well generally - though who can tell? It's done at any rate, case presented. I'll try to give some idea of it later.

Today the reading at lunchtime then down to the LSE for the Hungary debate / scrap. That should be an interesting experience.

This from university accommodation. Weather has closed in after blossoming so gloriously yesterday.

Monday 5 March 2012

FB, Twitter and the rest 3: Petals on a wet black bough

Photo of Grand Central Station from here.

First the personal stuff, then the notes.

Twitter was the medium I resisted the longest. Do I care whether Stephen Fry is standing in a doorway or sitting in a chair? Do I care for the thoughtlets of Rio Ferdinand or the e-presence of the philosopher Joey Barton? Do I desperately want to be making remarks into the crowded void? Do I want that much company on tap? Do I want to follow people or be followed? To stalk or be stalked? That might have been the question.

Two key things changed my mind. Last summer at New Writing Worlds, the Norwich international writers' conference, a young Russian poet revealed that she had compiled an entire book of 140-character poems. Was this specious or interesting? I didn't think she, personally, was specious, so the clear alternative was that she, and therefore it, was interesting. But only in a remote way.

The second was the enthusiasm of my fellow poet in China, Pascale Petit. She felt it was a great way of circulating valuable information, not just in terms of the Arab Spring or our own dear riots of looting, but in distinctly cultural terms. Perhaps so, I thought. Then, why not? And finally, OK.



The form is genuinely interesting. Even with the recourse of abbreviation it imposes severe limits on what may be said. It is clearly not a medium for developing an argument or drawing a conclusion. Surely, then, it's just telegraphese. You could be telegraphese on FB, you could be so in an email, but you don't have to be. Here it is demanded.

But there can be subtlety even in a telegram. Peccavi, wrote General Napier in his one-word telegram of 1843, meaning, literally, I have sinned, though, wit that he was, his true meaning was I have (taken) (the Indian province of) Sind. It is an apocryphal story but exemplary in its way. It tells us something about the possibilities of translation, ambiguity and density.

Not every sentence has to be informative. Syntax is not a crude tool: it permits completion, incompletion, varieties of register, varieties of pitch and musical phrasing. It permits of density, association, enigma and echo. A little of it can go quite a long way.

Poetry and a wet black bough

There are short forms in poetry: the haiku, noted for its meditative depth; the distich, noted for its authority and firmness; the couplet, noted for its wit and crispness; and the quintain that can be quite elegiac. These are all set forms that may be explored within 140 characters. There is also Imagism and its flirting with preciousness but also its sudden sense of significance. I think of Pound's In a Station of the Metro: 'The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough' which is almost, but not quite, prose, though prose-as-poetry may easily follow from it.

Notation: this thing is like that thing

Poetry, conscious of itself as poetry, is one possibility then. Notation is another. The Pound poem is high-level notation, though the word 'apparition' alerts us to the fact that he wouldn't necessarily speak like that. The faces in the metro might have suggested petals on a wet black bough without quite such a clear poetic invitation. And that might be attractive, after all. We don't necessary want to be laboured into poetry, not in a Tweet. And yet we may want to feel its possibility, just as we feel it in life. We understand that life presents us with implied significances we wouldn't wish to labour but without which life would be relatively empty. The same goes for language, even in a Tweet. The language need not be relatively empty. It could just notate away, raising the stakes with a properly light touch. You just have to listen a little harder as you write.

Remark, footnote, link

This is not overtly concerned with either notation or poetry. It is merely conversation conducted in public. It can be conversation with another person on Twitter, or with a circle of the like-minded, or with a text read elsewhere. The Greeks had the dramatic form of stichomythia in which conversation is conducted through single lines of verse. In Twitter this can become a colloquy. Or a combined commentary. The abbreviation of links is vital. Other people's reading becomes, briefly, a common text. And there is not only some great reading out there but some great readers.

Jokes in a vacuum, the absurd categorised

The possibility of one-liner jokes is tempting. You can make your quip and stand well back.Or you can create or enter worlds of the absurd, worlds that comment on the apparent logic of syntax by turning their backs on it to create a pseudo-order. Somewhere between Beckett, Ionesco and the nostalgic comic strip there is a subterranean network of passages that are a delight in themselves.

Revolutions or riots on street corners

The handy utilitarian communications of street and hide-out politics are well known. This is much the same as the telegram, but much handier. Run. They're coming down Kensington High Street is exactly what it looks like, no more than that. Politically powerful, linguistically less interesting, it is in itself a one-note register that can nevertheless be hinted at in other contexts where it remains a simple register but gains a complex meaning

Context, context, context

Despite all the above everything one posts or reads on Twitter is against the background of normal tweeting, that is to say on the edge of evanescence and inconsequence and it's as well to remember that. Best not have vast heavy ideas that would sink as soon as launched. But who knows, perhaps life is worth one or two sinkings? And being on the edge of evanescence and inconsequence is not necessarily to be evanescent or inconsequent.


So I will carry on for now, and hope to learn something in the process and practice of it.

Sunday Night would have been... Ana Silvera

Ana Silvera, who we saw in Norwich last week, or the week before, who has a lovely voice, writes her own songs, plays guitar and keyboard and is very much - not at all surprisingly - on her way up. Latest work with Reverb Festival at the Round House last month, a new piece for herself and the Estonian Television Girls Choir.


Otherwise a day in, rewriting the Finzi for minor corrections, and rewriting, time and again the eight minute speech for the Hungary debate at the LSE on Wednesday. This entails Skyping and ringing friends who can correct errors or point out faults.

The rain has been pouring all day here. IN half an hour or so - this being Monday now - I will walk to the station and get a train to Norwich so I can pick up my Reading tickets.

It's wild out there. Leaves, branches, shaking and shuddering. The bush by the window has a fit now and then, as though it had come to the end of its tether. (It has no tether.) The sky is clearing but only to an aqueous grey-green that means every thought in its head is of more rain.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Off to London again + Marlie & Lukas x 3




And I am off to the LSE Festival in twenty minutes to discuss storytelling, poetry and translation with Marina Lewycka and Jeremy Sams.

Will report back.

Friday 2 March 2012

FB, Twitter & the Rest 2: Booking Your Face

Adaptability to new electronic worlds is all very well, but it is nothing without a streak of hard conservatism. As writers we love neologisms, word play and the whole dazzling funfair of language as she is spoke and bespoke, but we also have a certain interest in stability. We would prefer a word at the end of a paragraph to retain much the same bundle of meanings that it had when it appeared at the beginning of it. We know about the modifications of meaning undergone by any word on its journey through text, and as writers it is our business to know that, but we do rely on the stability of the range.

So a certain resistance to all major linguistic shifts is becoming. There is a proper delay before leaping into line. I resisted Facebook before going on to resist Twitter.

It wasn't the technology as such, more a sense of caution about a social fabric that seemed to involve so much sheer chat. My interest in chat as such is limited, not absent, just limited. I wasn't desperate for trivia, however human and charming and playful it can be. Writing is, as they say, a lonely occupation, though writing-work does not feel like loneliness. I am very happy working by myself. It is only in between the bouts of concentration that a desire for chat and trivia arises. It is like looking up from the desk and spotting a trusted face nearby.

Beyond the trivial aspect lies a part-moral, part-psychological quibble. The presentation of self involved in a Facebook page, especially if one has, however limited, a 'self' presented in books on the one hand and in person on the other, seems rather pushy. Self-advertisement always feels rather desperate, even abhorrent at times. It is not seemly to flog one's wares, even at poetry readings where flogging wares becomes ever more a necessity. I don't like it. On FB - and not only on FB - the wares are you. Your persona. Your party face.

It would be naive to suppose that having a face, however diffident or modest or averse to self-advertisement is, in its effect, self-effacing. A diffident presence is still a presence. It is still the self with its masks and watchful eyes. It is no use pretending that FB is not a performance. All social intercourse is performance. Nor is it any use pretending that the readers of the FB post are not there, it is just that, for a writer, the activity of writing and thinking through the material has to be more prominent than the thought of advantage or even the warmth of friendship. Writing is writing. It is always writing first, and anything else second. Technique is the test of sincerity, said Pound, and was right. In your writing you are what you are as a writer. And what are you doing right now? Writing.

Beyond that, both writer and reader know that FB is, like all social interaction, a game with a serious side which has just as much potential as a corresponding friendship or a small party to generate real friendship. FB friends can become actual friends and in fact have done in some cases.


But what kind of literature is FB? In terms of subject and interest it is as wide as the world of books and letters, as wide as the world of any human contact. In its means and manners it is more informal, generally briefer and snappier than the letter. It is not an essay but a series of remarks that can be honed to a delightful or at least honourable precision. It can address politics and make jokes. It can share music, films, and other interests.

FB can be a political and cultural lever. I have posted a great many links to news from Hungary on FB and have got into conversation with people about it. I have started clerihew- and limerick-chases. I have experimented with poems that are built on the use of square brackets. More recently I have twinned FB with Twitter and cross posted.

I doubt whether FB has, or is likely to have, a literature in the classic sense but I can imagine material produced or introduced there entering the literary bloodstream at some level. It is, after all, performative language that is aware of itself as some kind of shape. Having a quick mind - which has its disadvantages as well as advantages - I have enjoyed composing verse almost instantaneously. The verse had to have the same standards as poetry. In some respects FB has been a poetic scratching-post and may yet generate a new line in my writing.

It might. Publishing on FB is not the same as publishing in a regular journal. There is a a kind of dry-run sense to it, a built in obsolescence. I actually think of it as a place where genuine poems may be hung out to dry, as on a washing line.

What kind of literature is it then? Interim literature, is my best guess. One with its own forms and manners to be learned and explored, as any other kind of interim literature.


I know we are all making Mark Zuckerberg even richer. I know what is tacky about FB. I know what is glib. I know what is opportunistic. I think I know at any rate. I am a sceptical being not a cynical one. I know there are real eyes reading the words.

Next time Twitter.

Thursday 1 March 2012

FB, Twitter and the rest: a manner of speaking 1

From one perspective it's rather horrifying how the world plugs into one enormous website and talks till it is blue in the face. It isn't the meditative retreat often recommended for the spiritual, a term that might apply to artists - and to poets in particular - and it surprises me how readily I have adapted to it. Being sixty-three I expected to find this way of communicating somewhat inimical and it may be that at some stage I will feel I have to withdraw from it.

The way I justify it to myself is by regarding all such things as literary forms. It took me a little while to think - and more pertinently, to feel - my way around emails. A form is partly its manners, its way of behaving. I wouldn't have liked paper letters headed, Hi George, for instance. I don't suppose I'd like it now. On the other hand it would be quaint to have one signed, Your obedient servant (I have had a few of these but in clearly ironic spirit), or even Yours faithfully these days. Letters have evolved like everything else: nevertheless we understand their manner of formality, and when we come across love letters or letters of high drama it is their very breach of manners that moves us.

Two thoughts follow from this. First, that all communication works by conformity to, or deviance from, expectation. Once there is no expectation there can be no deviance, so reading becomes cruder. That is the absolute case though in practice people simply tend to alter their ways of close reading. All language is coded. We are continually learning new codes, new distinctions.

The second thought is that manners establish workable social relationships. So Hi George in a letter seems to be claiming a more intimate, brasher form of relationship than I feel willing to grant. It is like someone speaking within three inches of your face without invitation, and Auden had a way of dealing with such intrusions, writing:

Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.

I have to add that I myself rarely have the inclination to spit and am not quite so jealous of my private pagus or demesne as Auden was. But I understand. Oh yes, I understand all right.


Then come emails with their hybrid sense of formal approach on the one hand and dashed-off remark on the other. An email is not quite a letter, but not exactly a postcard either. Time plays an important role in this: there is an implicit propriety about a message that passes through appreciable time and space. Time is part of the pagus / demesne. Email has the potential to make time almost vanish, so one might be simply the equivalent of a nod to a tap on the shoulder. OK, we reply. Fine. See you there. Telegraphese, you might say. But email manners range well beyond the manners of telegraphs. In terms of direct speech it's possible that if English were one of those languages with distinctions between various forms of you, it's possible we might be on tutoyer terms with most of the universe most of the time.

So instantaneity changes language. Possibly because I am an immigrant from another language (with four versions of you as it happens) and have had to adapt so many times over the years that I have grown to enjoy the act of adaptation in itself, I have never been completely sure of my pagus or demesne and find the constant shifting into and out of focus quite exciting and pleasurable. (I think of a device like rhyme in much the same way: adaptation is essential to the thrill as well as to the process of discovery.)

[to be contd 1/3