Thursday 31 May 2012

Hungary: Philosophers cleared

Plato: 'foggy and useless'

From a friend in Hungary. He cites:

Agnes Heller and other Hungarian philosophers found 
not guilty of any criminal act – majority of the Hungarian 
press ignores the verdict.

Since the beginning of January 2011 the Hungarian philosopher and sociologist Agnes Heller and her “clique”* have faced accusations of misappropriating funds, along with half a dozen colleagues, 2 million euros for what were described as “foggy and useless” texts.

It was alleged that state funds had been used wrongly for research infrastructure, and according to one newspaper, “for translating Plato from Hungarian into Hungarian,” referring to a new translation of Plato into Hungarian.


The witch-hunt was initiated by two dailies that describe themselves as national conservative, the Magyar Nemzet and the Magyar Hírlap.

They are now keeping silent about the fact that no charges are being brought after the police investigations. The so-called accountability commissioner of the Orbán government. Gyula Budai, has also failed to comment.

 It is not known yet wether the Accused would sue for slander and/or ask for compensation at least for the damage of their reputation and loss of jobs.


*[The second case] is from Hungary where renewed nationalism has launched a hatred-driven and antisemitic-reeking media campaign against Agnes Heller and her “clique” (four other philosophers) as charged by influential Hungarian media investigating this “cosmopolitical” conspiracy. Agnes Heller, 81 years old, is a philosopher and a sociologist trained by Georg Lukács. She has taught in different countries including the United States (where, in the 1970s, she occupied the Hanna Arendt Chair at the New School, after escaping the persecutions of the communist regime. Since the beginning of this year, she has been accused of misappropriating, along with her colleagues, 2 millions euros for “foggy and useless” texts. Unsubstantiated charges try to slander her reputation, asserting that she has brought her fatherland into disgrace. In fact, nothing but her political engagement is being targeted. Like other intellectuals, she stood against the new Hungarian law that curtails the freedom of the media and denounced the authoritarian drift of the Viktor Orban administration.- International Sociologists Association via FB

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Holding Note

Monday was a late night because of a visit from Canadian poet and ex-student, Jenna Butler, and yesterday was London all day and night. The day for Poetry Review, the night for a latie call up to BBC Radio3 Nightwaves to talk about the films of Béla Tarr.

Back today for UEA then sheer exhaustion. I haven't had two clear days at home for over a month, I'll write a post tomorrow, picking up pieces and summing up.

Back to regularity after that.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Sunday morning is... Miles Davis, So what?

Let Sunday bloom.

The Forest of Forms: an Arvon course.

So what did we - that is to say Marilyn Hacker and I -  do? On Monday night we set a few haiku as a light exercise. We knew that a number of people on the course had already published quite substantially so would be pretty sophisticated. By way of starting point I took a few five syllable passages from Marilyn's work and offered them as first or last lines.

Tuesday morning was a joint session, on which Marilyn and I addressed the whole idea of form and explored what that might mean in this context. This isn't a fully scripted session - nothing is - so we were constantly filling out and modifying each other's ideas, joined by those round the table. First, however, people read the haikus. Then Marilyn asked students to add two seven-syllable lines to each to make a tanka; then in groups of three we wrote a renga, handing the sheet round between the 3 and the 2 lines, so in the end we had two tanka each, the writer of the first haiku adding the last tanka.  We discussed various other received forms, their characteristics, their rules and possible departures from rules. Marilyn gave us a tritina to write (a shortened ten-line sestina variation). In the afternoon we saw people individually for half an hour at a time. In the evening Marilyn and I read for about half and hour each, in four 15 minute slots.

Wednesday was Marilyn's session, which was primarily on the sonnet, though we began with some more renga and tritina. We looked at a number of sonnets, compared them, listened to them, then the task was to write a sonnet. Afternoon: tutorials. In the evening the visiting writer Vahni Capildeo came to read and talk. Vahni is such a remarkable writer and intense presence - someone with quite a different idea of form - that it was like throwing a firework into an enclosed space, a risk in other words, but after the first puzzlement the firework began to throw off rather fascinating and colourful trails of sparks and lent the course a kind of extra richness.

Thursday was my session, which was going to be on terza rima and, after the coffee break, on the sestina / canzone relation, but after people had read their ongoing sonnets and the time for terza rima, the second half was much shorter, so just enough to deal a little with the sestina and simply leave people with the pattern for the canzone (I having read one on Tuesday night). The terza rima exercise was to get each person to tell their neighbour about an incident or dream that the recipient would then turn into a terza rima anecdote. This was extremely productive by the end. I also gave out the invented words game, which was also very productive. In the evening, after the tutorials it was the students' turn to pick one or two poems from other people's work, to read it and talk about it. One round of 18 (including tutors) takes about 90 minutes, so there was a 2nd round, after which only the diehards remained. The rounds continued and I left at about 12:45 when three more people were going into round 7. This was exhilarating and delightful. They kept bringing in poems they enjoyed from all kinds of times and cultures.

On Friday morning one of the students was sitting by the barn furiously composing a canzone, which she finished in time for the morning session.  And so discussion and tutorials, the preparation of the anthology, and the students' final reading in the evening. It was a very high quality reading and people knew it, so the exhilaration  was understandable.


It is an intensive time for the tutors too, with no real time to think of anything but the course, the material and the way of delivering it. It is a 15-hour-a-day person-to-person engagement, each person different, each to be approached in a properly individual way. That takes a lot of concentration, but it's also a pleasure - at least I enjoy it. Moments of exhaustion and sleepiness last about 15 minutes but can be overcome. The tutors reach maximum psychological energy on Thursday, after which the students begin to take over. (I can practically feel them slipping into their own worlds through Friday.) Friday night is very much their night, their achievement.

It helped a great deal that Marilyn and I did the exercises we set including each other's. I always like doing  this because it is a way of learning and does produce new poems. It did this time too. It is these moments of concentration on our material that keep us sane, I think.

In the process of discussing form we were constantly seeking analogies for the process of working with them, so here are some analogies.

The sonnet is a room with fixed floorspace, moveable furniture and windows. The decor is entirely up to the writer. A door can lead to another room and so on. 
The terza rima is a set of train carriages, each clipping into the next. It travels. 
The sestina is a swirling of skirts, a conversation on a single subject that regathers itself at every turn in order to discover what the subject actually is, ending a little courteously. 
The canzone is like being inside a spin drier, in a vortex. Hearing it - being it - is to hear the beating of wings inside a chimney. 

Saturday 26 May 2012

Teaching form

The first question is whether one can teach anything at all, in the sense of passing on learning and experience. Why not just say to people: read that? That is if one's own reading is considered to be even faintly comprehensive.

I make no comment on that as I have been teaching a long time.

The next question is whether the stuff that makes you a poet (the books are there so you must be one, and a few prizes too to suggest some people are willing at times to confirm you in your belief that you are one) -  the 'stuff', whatever it is, that makes you a poet, is something you can pass on? And, while on the subject, whether passing it on is what you should be doing for, after all, it might be of little use to someone else, nor do you quite know what it is yourself.

The question that follows is whether the stuff you are talking about is actually the valuable thing. In this case, form.  Everything does, after all have form or it would not be perceptible. Given that, is it of sufficient value to explore the idea of regularity or repetition, since that is what is commonly perceived to be form? Repeat this, move that into a half-predictable place, and you have form. Because expectation - as created by repetition - and the breaking of expectation - is the nature of the game.

And beyond that there is the world of received form, whether that is the standard verse forms, the ancient ones revived, the new variations on the standard and revived - those old warhorses: the sonnet, the ballad,  the couplet, the sestina, the villanelle, terza rima etc etc etc - or the shift to classical metre, do actually do what we claim that they can do.

I am not going over the arguments for such things, as I have done so often enough. The arguments are good. But the point of them, the point perhaps of any argument, is not to convince or to justify, because at bottom we know argument is just argument, not the full and actual state of affairs. Arguments must be made because we have to see elements and processes clearly, not because they are the truth.

Do I believe that my years of formal writing are the product of an argument? No way! I do what I do because it seems to have been in my nature to do it. Not that I am arguing from a given nature: I am arguing from retrospect. Not so much Vonnegut's So it goes, as So it seems to have gone. Adding only the words: for better or worse.

Friday 25 May 2012

Why no posts

I couldn't post because the computer in the office tells me my site has been infected - but the address it gives for the site is not the correct one. This is on my own laptop that can get on to the system in the office. I'll do a summing up post on my return.

The Totleigh course is very good. Lovely to teach with Marilyn Hacker whose work I have long known and admired. The last two nights have been late, talking, reading poems (not our own but from books).

Today is the last day. The sun is out. Yesterday it reached 30C. Today looks like going the same way. Constant twittering of birds: martins, swallows, sparrows, blue tits, coal tit (I think).

More work to do.

Monday 21 May 2012

From Totleigh Barton 1

Early rising, morning train to Kings Cross then Paddington where I meet Marilyn, then the train to Exeter, We start cold and warm in ever brighter sunlightwhere we are picked up by taxi and driven to Totleigh.Tthe fields glossy with light, the hills, the trees filling the space, burgeoning, blossoming, billowing, bosoming like a crowd of early Palmers. We meet a flock of sheep about to turn into a field. The front rank turn round and cause minor chaos. The taxi backs up and eventually the flock is driven forward, a moving rug.

Down here the barn has been completely renovated. Everything looks clean and trim, the lawn cut. The subject is form. Tonight the tudents talk about themselves, their reading and their experience then, by way of light exercise we ask students to write related haiku or tanka. Tomorrow we both talk on our experience of form and set a few more exercises..

Tired now. More tomorrow.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Sunday night is... Traffic 1972

Mr Fantasy Traffic with Stevie Winwood, 1972.

I think there was an old Music Hall phrase, 'Leave no turn unstoned'. It applies here.

We had this LP some years back and might still have it. The voice is unmistakeable. Rock was heading off into supergroups and prog rock and psychedelic rock and stadium rock. Winwood was seventeen when he first sang this way in the Spencer Davis Group about six years before. It's the black soul voice cropping up Handsworth, just as Dusty Springfield's black soul voice turned up in London.

I like this sound where it is, in England (Springfield was Irish but born in London) and in slightly unlikely places. There is a certain pathos to it, something strange and reaching. It wasn't, after all, the kind of voice British singers had had till then, and not too many others went with it at the time though you could make an argument for Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon and Joe Cocker and maybe Paul McCartney at certain moments. In effect it was a freeing of voice, a raising of possibilities. It wasn't Otis and it wasn't Wilson Pickett. It was the Britain of the lost future.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Saturday frolics

Preparing to teach Arvon course with the great Marilyn Hacker as fellow tutor. Plus packing off corrections to corrected proofs of Poetry Review. Plus clearing desk. Plus finishing commentary on splendid Alison's fable, plus writing letters to people who send me poems.

And then Wymondham Abbey to birthday Ken's concert where they're doing Sarah Law's text on Margery Kempe and my own Tom Hickathrift as set by Ken - it's mostly his music. Good spirited performances by singers, Hickathrift a laugh. Evening full of bonhomie, and as we're ending with a brief sermon and hymn, of bondieumie too.

Missed the dramatic ten minutes of the Champion's League Final, the other 110+ mins of Bayern missing the Chelsea goal while Chelsea yawn and adore their fleas in the floodlights (credit to Ted Hughes's Jaguar).

Here endeth... But that's Larkin now. I am about to remove my cycle-clips in awkward reverence for sleep.

Friday 18 May 2012

Frozen Music: Processional

Image from here

This - or a part of it - was going to be used at some stage but was then dropped. In writing on this scale I always write more, then it can be cut to requirements, so the dialogue part might or might not have been sung, in whole or in part.

Frozen Music: a processional for two sides of a street
Architecture is frozen music

Like a building blazing with life
Like buildings that join hands across a street
Like voices linked in the air in fancy knots
Like a tug of rope in the throat
Like chains, like chimes we sing

Feet pattering up the street, I swallow them.
Eyes flickering over doors, I offer myself to them.
Who’s looking?
What’s cooking?
When she left the house it was dark in the morning.
When they returned it was dark in the evening.
And he rose from his chair and slammed the door tight.
And the radio came on with the sound of whistling.

All whistling. (Or another sound if whistling is too hard, & change last line)

And they rose on a gust as if through the chimney.
So the eldest poked the ashes while the youngest was dreaming
The police called round, they beat at the door.
Three blind mice ran across the floor.
Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
The owl in the shop blinked. I was alone.
The books and coins in the window, the marquetry of the pavement.
The dead are out shopping. They’ve gone to the market.
Jenny is expecting her third. Rose her fifth. 
You have to watch the river behind you. It’s always at your back.
You watch the river at night when it is glittering and black.]

We are the river, the stream under the water.
We are the bricks and the flint in our bones.
We are the voice that breaks in the air when the birds sing.
We are the street and the river, the blood in our veins.
We’re pumped through the body by the heart in your possession.
We emerge from your mouths like breathing aloud.
We are the street and the river, the noise in the lungs.
We are passing away as we all do in passing.
We are street and river and voice.
We are passing.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Singing the City: Chorus for St Andrew's Plain

Chorus for St Andrews Plain

This is our city

This is what we stand on,
the ground we occupy
at midday, in the middle of things,
in the stream of time that flows round us and through us.
Here we have come, from this place and that place,
to be where you find us,
where we find ourselves,
singing out of the heart of the city.
This is our city.
From Northwick to Norwich
From gata to gate
From woollers to fullers
Pitch, wine and millstones
Carpenters, brewers
From market to cathedral
From no tower to Cow Tower
Dragon Hall to Strangers Hall

From cats to canaries
From plague through to riot
From smallpox to typhoid
From leather to theatre
Silk, shoes and mustard
From trams through to buses
From library to library
From friary to Forum
This is our city.
This is what we stand on.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Morning Canticle

Written for The Voice Project's Singing the City

Morning Canticle

First light, as if for the first time
The postman rises
The baker rises
The doctor rises
The mother rises
The living rise
The dead rise

All rising and risen.
First light, as if for the first time
On the grass
On the streets
On the walls
On the clocks
On the living
On the dead.

All rising and risen
First light, as if for the first time
On the forehead
On the eyelid
On the mouth
In the throat
On the breathing
On the breathless

All rising and risen
First light, as if for the first time
On the firstborn
On first seeing
On first walking
On first running
On first speaking
On last speaking

All rising and risen
First light, as if for the first time
In this city
In this quarter
In this street
In this alley
In this backyard
In this stairwell

All rising and risen all light.

Monday 14 May 2012

On a certain kind of despair 3: attraction and approval

My first two posts on despair in terms of gender attracted a few very kindly answers, and particularly from kindly women who are, I think, primarily concerned to assure me that they don't dislike me because I happen to be a man. I firmly believe them and am grateful to them though I think their approval is founded in exceptionalism, their arguments hinging on their opinion that there are nice men who have a bad time because of the assumptions about maleness that I had been writing about. And I like and respect them for their views. It's just that their understanding of male niceness is conditional on men being funny, or useful or a bit crazy or a bit dim (no introspection) in other words on not quite being men with traits that might once have been recognised as virtues, either because they never were virtues, or, in so far as they were virtues, men didn't actually possess them. I mean in the way that the men who went down with the Titanic were really worthless because they only did so because the captain was pointing a single pistol at them all. They possessed no virtues: the captain was the exception.  I am individually comforted by the kindness. I promise not to go out and self-harm right away.

Looby then writes an interesting comment regarding his gender upbringing in the seventies:

Specifically, its most unwelcome effect was to vilify any expression of sexual or physical attraction on the part of the man. It froze attraction in guilt and political opprobrium. Glances at an attractive woman in a sexy skirt were surreptitious and reprehensible--a sort of asceticism, the gains of which eventually became unclear as it very slowly dawned on us that almost all women appreciate compliments on her appearance or dress done with aplomb, wit, or delicacy. 

I wouldn't bet on it, Looby. The safest thing may be simply to say that they look 'well'. The rest can be considered intrusive. You can't really say anything about appearance unless invited to do so and then you have to know what to say and must do so with aplomb, wit and delicacy, all of which you undoubtedly possess.  Other than that the only proof of attraction is Mae West's gun-in-the-pocket homage, which is, you must remember only homage, and that such homages must be handled with even greater aplomb, wit and delicacy. Quite who wields the power in that relationship - Mae West or the gun - is never easy to establish, but power it is.

The story of attraction between the sexes will never be fully told, partly because the stakes are too high in terms of vulnerability, hypocrisy and self-esteem, and partly because, I suspect, it would require the greatest tact and precision in language and the world is not set up that way. The aplomb, wit and delicacy Looby talks about are not natural to war zones and despite forty years of war I don't think it is quite safe to emerge from the bomb shelters even in hard hats,  brandishing white flags, when every week I can read articles or hear views about how dreadful we are as a gender. Individual virtues we may be allowed: collective ones, never.

Looby ends on a more positive note:

I'm hopeful a more honest and sympathetic view of male-female relations will emerge. I see my 13-y-o daughters interacting with boys on an entirely different and more confident way than I remember. They expect more from men but that's no bad thing.

My suspicion is that Looby's daughters may be interacting with boys in freer and easier ways but I wonder about the boys they are interacting with. The girls may be expecting more of them, but how are the boys to understand what that more is and whether they are capable of giving it when they have no idea what to do with their virtue-free boyishness in conditions where such boyishness as might once have been regarded as a virtue is now recalibrated as vice? The boys won't tell us what they feel because they instinctively understand - I don't accept that it is entirely learned behaviour - that the kind of confidence they will need to get through life cannot begin with tears. 'If only you were more like a girl' is not advice that can be taken because, as many have pointed out, you will never quite be a girl: you can only be a failed girl. Boys will brazen things out, nor do I think that is a bad thing. All energy is convertible and self-discipline can be life-saving.

I don't think people recognise the need in males for female approval, starting with their mothers. That gender approval is only incidentally forthcoming, and only in terms of exceptionalism. The need for female approval is deep. In sexual terms the best praise for a man is the female climax: failure to produce it is not a female failure but a male one. I don't think you will find alternative opinions to the fore today. The virility test is key in a man's self-respect. Virility requires self-confidence. The rest is guilt and an unfocused violence, or a retreat into non-contact.  Self-confidence requires self-respect but there's only so much you can do for yourself. Boys in gangs work on the principle of mutual respect - respect is the favourite word - and the need to gain it by whatever means. Those are dangerous waters, and often, after an an initial splashing about, people go under.

My hunch is that now they start underwater and cannot rise to the surface. That, at least, is my concern, having occasionally felt in danger of drowning myself at various points.

It is a tempting to try to write the story of attraction and desire as best I can, though it would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible. The reason for the despair was only last week after all. The sand on which one is trying to draw fancy diagrams is in fact land-mined. Naturally it will be assumed that your design in starting is because you want to speak against women, and however I deny it, the IED charge of misogyny will be just a foot away in any direction.

That's hard because I like my kind women - I always have, and individual women are generally, if not always, wonderfully kind - and am mindful of, if not entirely bound by, their approval. I like individual women very much indeed and am happy to recognise that that is part of the package of being a woman.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Sunday morning is Ben Webster, Stan Tracy, somewhere...

A sunny Sunday morning. The leaves just beginning to sway over the rug in the yard. The sun still climbing so the flints in the wall seem to take on a chalky extra dimension. The sky an unimpeachable blue, the curtains more thrown back than drawn. You can almost smell the silence.

And then Ben Webster some time in the early sixties, with Stan Tracy on piano. Somewhere over the rainbow, at the far end of the very blue sky, moving over the waters of the north Norfolk coast, in  a place where the smoke is eternally clearing.

UNESCO City of Literature & The Writers Centre: in praise of Norwich

The essentials are here in Sam Jordison's Guardian piece where he tells us:

The name is an honorarium as much as anything. There is no pot of gold at the end of the several-year-long bidding process, just an impressive sounding label. The title is granted in perpetuity. Norwich  will be plugged in to a network of existing cities of literature (the other five so far are Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Dublin and Melbourne ) and will also be expected to reach out to others hoping to put their own bids together. 

But what will it do for the city?

Yet while the concrete benefits are perhaps amorphous, Chris Gribble, chief executive of the Writers' Centre Norwich, the organisation that put together the bid, is keen to stress his delight and the other benefits the award will bring. "It allows us to identify in a way no other city in England can...

There will, of course, be 'literary events and readings' and big international festivals and conferences. And other things:

There is, for instance, a plan to build a large international centre for writing in Norwich – which will provide space for more readings and events, but also contain a small flat for a writer in residence, and a large cafe and writing space...  Just as interesting is the ongoing translation of Meir Ben Elijah. Meir was a resident of Norwich and part of its thriving medieval Jewish community in the 13th century – until a blood libel and subsequent pogrom destroyed his life. He wrote his community's suffering in moving detail, although few knew about his work until it was rediscovered in (curiously) a Vatican library 700 years later and the fact that is being translated now is a direct result of the research that went into putting together the Unesco bid. 

Sam also points to the literary history of the city starting with Julian of Norwich, a very good source for more of that being the website Literary Norfolk (you'll find me here) - there really has been a great deal. The famous Creative Writing Course, on which I have had the honour to teach, is another major factor, as is the less-sung and much undervalued undergraduate Cultural Studies (and subsequent names for the same course) at what is now NUCA (some dozen or so of the writers who passed through that have now published books or are shortly about to). 


The Writers' Centre has been a phenomenon. It has grown year on year in both ambition and achievement.  The director, Chris Gribble, has been an inspirational, tireless figure, co-ordinating, promulgating, generating and driving forwards. The team is terrific. They have attended to the great  and established without neglecting the apparently small and new because they can see that the latter is where growth comes from.

As for myself, I came to the area to write and deliver a poetry course at the art school. Clarissa established her studio in the butcher's shop that is our house in Wymondham. Norwich has something of the air of Bruges, or Cambridge without the colleges: it is beautiful and lively without the self-conscious chic of a desperate tourist town. It is small enough to be readily comprehensible without being parochial. In the last fifteen years it has become more international with the good fortune of having developed at a time of easier relations between cultures. Norfolk was cheap when we moved in.  The sea is not far away and the streets and cafes are full of writers, readers, artists and musicians. We have been here long enough now to recognise some faces at every cultural event or indeed in most streets, while being aware that there are many more who are new to us. Norwich can be a very intelligent looking city.

Every so often I feel a little melancholy as though I had exhausted my usefulness here. Then I want to move away to live either in a cottage in the wilds a long way from anywhere or in a small inner city flat either in London or some other European capital where I can pop down to the local cafe and spend my latter years reading and scribbling. I want something to be totally new and blank-slate. I expect that is primarily the awareness that I am approaching sixty-five in a year and a half and the sense that it must mean something. I want to think and read from scratch and maybe build a bigger word-castle than I have yet done, something that is the shape of the world as I guess it to be.

Whether that will happen or not, I will have been very lucky to have lived and worked here with such remarkable people, in a city that is discovering itself as a place not in a forgotten pre-industrial corner of England but possibly somewhere at the heart of things in the human spirit. That, I think, is what - apart from the institutional, commercial or branding aspect - the UNESCO status actually means.