Friday 9 October 2015

This is the House the Word Built:
A recording of the poem

This is my own home recording of the poem commissioned by Writers Centre Norwich on the occasion of the official opening of Dragon Hall, Norwich as their new home. It was written in the second half of September and performed yesterday, National Poetry Day on 8 October 2015

The text of the poem is in the previous blogpost. It was very much intended for oral performance. Hence the recording

Thursday 8 October 2015

This is the House the Word Built

This is the house the word built

And the word was with God and was God
    and the word was the house where the priest was,
      where the friars, the abbey, the earth and the river,
         the town and the sea and the sky was - 
           where the river reflected the town and the sky
               and the house the word built.

This is the rich man who built his house where the word was, 
   his hall-house, his passage, his arch and his doorway, 
      his windows, his attic, his fireplace and screen-wall,
          all in the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

This is the smokehouse, the fish, the wherry and staithe
   behind the house the word built,
      the staithe that was built on sea and sky and river and music
         in the town with the house the word built.

This is the trading hall, this the undercroft,
   these are the dragons, the witches, the roofbeams,
      the house of the treasurer, the property of the businessman
         the house of the mayor and mayor again
            that was built with the money and fabric
               the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And this is the property - the valuable rentland the trade-hall became
   when the trader-the mayor-the businessman died
      and sold it for the sake of his soul that he might ~
         not be bound too long in purgatory
            in the house the word built

And this is the slow descent into poverty - into multiplication -
   into tenements and foul yards - into cottage and labour -
      into industry and intimacy - into river and sky -
         into shoes into dresses into vests into brickstacks -
            into one-hundred-and sixty five adults and children
                in the grounds of the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And here’s the first pub, The Three Merry Wherrymen - and here The Old Barge ~
   with its boozers and braggers, its buxom and ballocky, its bread and its bacon,
      like all the great barges or ships of dead fools whom God the great word 
        sént on their way into broad bucking waves ~
           of the night with the scurvy, the syphilis, the TB, the ague
             all brewed in the house the word built.

Here’s Agnes Palmer aged ten in mid-century, still here at eighty in 1911
   and here’s her dead father, and brothers: William, Samuel, Ellis, Edmund & John,
     and here are the rags for rag-pickers, and here are the women waiting in doorways 
         in the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And here are the poor - stumbling dead-drunk down the alley - 
  here’s crowds for the football, shopkeepers, bulldozers, slumclearers, developers, 
     the Old Barge still floating~down the river of the word, into Dragon Hall -    
         the city all changes, surviving in squares and streets 
            and houses the word built.

And this is the art that we live in and walk on and breathe in and pass through,
   these are the doors of the word, and the words that pass through them, 
      this is our barge and our wherry and staithe and the words that we owe  ~
         to those who first spoke them, since that is what art is,
             the speaking of the house, the listening of the house ~
                to the voice of the house that’s the voice of the river,
                   the sky, the sea, the music, the town ~
                      of the house that we live in,
                         the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

*This celebratory poem was commissioned by Writers Centre Norwich and read on National Poetry Day for the official handover of Dragon Hall to WCN
The historical background was provided by Richard Matthew. The poem traces the history of the original site through its buildings but chiefly the people who inhabited them, from the Church through to business in the 16th and 17th centuries, to a slum, to a pub, and into the present. The italicised lines were said by the audience.

Monday 5 October 2015

At Dromineer:
Between languages


The very last event of the Dromineer Literature Festival was an hour or so of Irish love poems performed and partly written by two Irish language poets, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh and Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, introduced by Dave McAvinchey with harpist Laura Hogan. This was in the keep of the castle, one floor up and open to the cold so we were all advised to dress warmly.

The poems, ancient and modern, were all written, and read, in the Irish language to an audience of Irish speakers, some being also read in English translation, but all glossed and introduced in English. I don't think the English was a piece of courtesy to Clarissa and I, possibly the only non-Irish speakers in the place. Some of poems were even given out on sheets with some English translation - not fully poetic translation - but close enough to follow.

At first I followed the sheets as best I could but slowly, as the programme moved on, I spent more time simply listening to the sound, looking to discern rhythm, dynamic, pace, alliteration, rhyme: in effect the music of the verse. The more I listened the more it communicated. The evening, having been introduced by a harp piece and the Irish poems having occasional harp accompaniment, ended with the harp, first with a beautiful and delicately played solo piece, and at the end with a song, a love lament, sung in English by the harpist, Laura.

I was a little tearful at the end of it all and wondered what exactly it was that moved me. The answer to that is as complex as the occasion itself, and indeed as the situation that produced the occasion and all other such occasions.

It is rather too much to think about in a form as small as this but some thinking is useful, starting, in reverse order, with the situation and the occasion, then moving back to my own self at the end.

The obvious starting place is the relationship between history and language. Like all small languages - meaning spoken by relatively few people, and I include Hungarian among such languages - Irish is and has been vulnerable for a long time. That vulnerability is a product of political power. Just as Hungarian might have disappeared as a written language in the eighteenth century so Irish might have disappeared because colonial power in both cases has always demanded control of language. Control the language and you control thought. Besides, it makes everything so much simpler in administrative terms and always has done. A lingua franca is necessary for cohesion. But of course it oppresses. Irish is a survivor language because people have given their passion and energy to help it survive, and it could only survive in face of the controlling power language, in Ireland's case, English.

So when Billy Ramsden's almost first words to us were: I hate English, it made sense in that context while constituting a kind of challenge to us, visitors from the hated enemy. The irony is that Billy writes his poems in the hated language, a language that, as I remember, Michael Hartnett once said was "fit only to sell pigs in". Chaucer sold pigs, Shakespeare sold pigs, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Swift, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats etc were all, by that token, merely sellers of pigs.

However, it is hard, if not impossible, to write poems in a language that one does not love and distrust, and indeed love must come first, distrust second.

How to do that when the language is the instrument of your historical oppression? One ought perhaps to ask the various Latin poets of the Roman Empire the same question. Billy's - and Hartnett's - statements are evidence of conflicted love in that sense. The political is at war with the poetic and, because the political is intensely felt, the gesture of hatred must be stated to precede the engagement with the language, just so that the listener, if from the territory of England, should know where he is regarded as potentially standing.

It was fascinating and moving to hear that strange conflicted-love articulate the desire to tear itself away from it. Both languages were moving together but it was the Irish that was being rightly celebrated and uttered. English was a functional prop most of the time.

It was I think, an important part of the emotional power of the evening that the poems read were love poems, poems of the sufferings and pleasures of love, which are much the same the world over, for however we attribute the establishing of romantic love as a tradition to the Troubador poets of the Crusades, it is impossible to feel that no romantic love existed before, that no one felt the pains, regrets, delights, ecstasies and losses of desire and attachment before the identifying of a form that embraced its realm of feeling in terms of rules, manners, language, and rites of passage.

Love poems are not the same as rebel songs. They are not anthems of the tribe: they invite individual identification with individual, if archetypal, experience. You do not have to be of the tribe to love, and indeed many tragic love stories are those of love across conflicting tribes. And because the poems we heard were love songs they included us all. So we, Clarissa and I, from our own very different and complex historical perspectives, felt enabled to share the poignancy of both the music and poetry. The modality of the music was not strange, after all. We have heard and continue to hear traditional Celtic song. Most nights on BBC Radio Three will include a few tracks based on such modality and they sing to us too, in our own displaced bones.

Fierce patriotic feeling has always been a problem for me. I feel its exclusion wherever I am, whether in Hungary, England, Ireland or anywhere else. I am nervous and edgy in its presence. It smells too much of self-mythologising and self-pity. It offers a cosy version of hatred. But it stands for something else too, for the familial, for the capacity of the family to welcome strangers. It sings the hearth and the community of families.

Nevertheless, patriotism and tribal loyalty carry the sense that our enemy's enemies become, perforce, our friends. We go to see Norwich City play their home games and are in some way part of a family in doing so. We note that the most hostile reception is reserved for our nearest rivals Ipswich Town. We are aware that the hostility is partly play, partly the positive channelling of conflicting emotions. There is no political tension between Norwich and Ipswich but the Norwich crowd is pleased to hear of an Ipswich loss to any other team at all. It is tribalism on a psychological level. In Ireland though, because of the unequal historical power relationship with England, there is both political and psychological cause for tension and the cause lives on through the creation and perpetuation of identity. 'We are who we are by definition against the enemy: that is the comforting fire of our cohesion'.

Those of us who, through long historical circumstances, are never quite to be included in the tribe - and there are growing numbers of us, we train-travellers of the unrooted soul - find the insistence on clear identity and clear antagonism problematic.

Every language articulates the diversity and intensity of a specific human social experience. The death of a language is the death of a part of the human race, an element of its soul. To hear Irish as something loved, articulated, moved into music, fully echoing with human fate, is bound to be moving even for an outsider - even for an outsider from the hated place - because it echoes a deep longing. But the singing of the last song, in English, also meant something and not just to us outsiders: it moved the Irish audience to the degree that some of them sang along with it.

What are they to do with this feeling?

Straight after, one local man - a very nice man - reminded me of Billy's words, repeating them exactly. Why remind me, I thought. Why right now? I had been moved by the experience of Irish. We had actively chosen to come to hear it. No one made us come. We weren't even fully English (Clarissa is half Scottish and was born and brought up in the Far East). Was this a statement, a challenge, or a kind of question? If it was to be regarded as a form of question ('So what do you think, eh?) what answer could I possibly give that might satisfy him or me?

So what did move me about the evening? It was, I think the glimpse of the psychological point at which two languages might exist in one place. How, after all, to sing a song that moves you in a language you hate? The very act is a reminder of pain. Which leaves the idea of hate. The hate was in one pocket, the song in the other. You could take out either. You could flash me the first before producing the second, but just to be sure you could flash it again after.

Saturday 3 October 2015

At Dromineer:
Distressing the bones

It has been busy since the last entry. Last night was the reading with Billy Ramsell, Pascale Petit and I. Today it was my workshop in the morning, and, as they say, my pleasant task to introduce the launch of new publications by Breda Wall Ryan, Victoria Kennefick and Maeve O'Sullivan in the afternoon. It all went very well indeed, but me telling you so without you being there is not of much value.

Let me ask myself questions instead. Were Billy and Pascale and Breda and Victoria and Maeve, and the ten poets in my 'masterclass' (essentially a workshop) - including Victoria and Breda - really good? Yes, of course they were. (They really were.) And was the welcome and organisation of Eleanor Hooker (also in the workshop) and all her volunteer team marvellous? Yes, you can bet your life on it. Really. I could give more detail on Billy's energetic, coiled recitation by heart of his strongly lyrical but tough work, or say, as I have done before, that Pascale is a sui generis poet of the magical, animistic and tragic with a brilliant visual imagination, but adverting to this so briefly and lightly will seem somewhat like blowing kisses into the air. Nevertheless, these things are true, so please assume them.

I could say more - and did - about Breda's work where emotional intensity presses through richly detailed lines that lodge in the ear and about her sense of the world as bitter and dark but full of verbal pleasure and close observation. I could tell you that Victoria is an exciting and thoroughly blown-through poet whose work feels fresh on the pulse, but also carries a lightly-registered but deep apprehension of what can lie below. I could perorate on the haiku as a form that has established itself in the English language as a medium of meditation in which perfectly ordinary and apparently incidental things hold still and allow us to look through them as in Maeve's poems. And, there! I have made a gesture towards it and I mean it, and you will see I am registering something that is - at least as far as I can gauge - really does exist.

I hope you will forgive me if I now return to what has concerned me directly, in so far as it was part of my own reception. That takes me back to the reading on Friday.

It was back in the Nenagh Arts Centre theatre and was introduced by the poet Thomas McCarthy who is one of the great men of Irish poetry and literature generally. We each answered a few questions from him before our individual introductions and readings. Thomas is a great poet of great reading, knowledge and understanding, so it very much interested me what he would say about me. It turned out that, in his view, I am primarily a European rather than an English poet. He was very generous, beyond hostly obligation, in his evaluation.  I was, naturally, flattered and delighted with the generosity and it gave me to think on the difference between being an English and a European poet.

I think what Thomas meant was that my sensibilities were formed by experiences outside England, which is probably true. Although I have spent close on fifty-nine of my years in the country of my family's refuge and only eight in that of my birth, no doubt the lives and expectations and some of the deepest instincts of my parents were passed on to me: the family house remains the family house even when it is far removed from home, which was probably why that first return visit to Budapest in 1984 made such a huge impression on me.

What were my parents' expectations and instincts? The world had behaved savagely to them: the world might therefore be expected to act savagely again. What precisely was the world? It was the urges, prejudices, passions and furies of those around them; of societies, try how they might, they could not be a full part. It was an unstable world whose grip on order was tenuous. What once seemed to be solid buildings were lying in ruins around them. What were once families were now bloody severed  or missing limbs. They felt, if not quite alone, part of an entity they did not fully want to claim. The very language they spoke was spoken against them: it imprisoned and tortured them so when they escaped its clutches they were relieved yet bereft. It was their individual strength that saw them through, not their societal strength, but there were other individuals, some even stronger perhaps, who did not make it. That which offered security was perhaps overvalued  if only because its supply was short.

As a child one resists the values of one's parents but one cannot help learning and internalising them so they become the walking spectres of the imagination. The instincts one consciously resists are all the more real for being knowingly resisted.

And is this so with me? I don't know but I do recognise something of the spectral as I describe it above. In describing it I make it real. The time accumulated since then, the good life stored in the bank of security takes precedence, of course. One has a life to live and obligations to the immediate necessities of the world and all one has learned to love in it.

One question that has arisen a few times here at the festival was whether it is possible to write happy poems - poems of, or about, happiness? I think the question first arose out of Billy's work but did so in the course of the book launch. It is a hard task, Billy had said when Thomas asked him about it in public. After the reading, in the pub, we talked about the idea that happiness wrote white, a thought I attributed to Paul Valéry, wrongly, since it was Henry de Montherlant. What if, I suggested, one wrote white on dark paper? What if happiness was to be seized because that which is not seized does not convince us that it is happiness? What if happiness was not something one wrote about - although one might - but what the achievement and shaping of some response to life actually was. The poem then was not about happiness: the fact that such a thing as a poem can exist at all is the happy thing. The awareness of brevity is embedded in the poem about happiness in the same way mortality is embedded in poems about life and vigour.

The very fact that I speculate about such things is, in its way, evidence that what I psychologically inherited from my parents continues on it spectral rounds and produces instincts and values that are the ground out of which poetry might spring.

And perhaps does so. The Europe of Central Europeans, of Central European Jews particularly, of which Thomas spoke, and at more of which he hinted, means something like that. It is a field of expectations and values that point to an unattainable security. It is, necessarily, a spectral place: fugitive ground on which good is something seized and lost. It is a harsh, erratic disciplinarian that can disorder the bones of Paul Celan should it see fit.

But we all know that, don't we? In our different places, at our various points on the map and the clock we recognise it. Some of us will have some more recent historical experience of it.  Or if not the experience the memory trace of it.

There is no hierarchy of dread. One does not deserve, or get, medals for one's apprehensions.  A Europe of apprehensions seems intensely real to me. Maybe it disorders my own bones in a much smaller way than it did Celan's.

But let me, since I work out of England, in English, be less dramatic about this. Let us agree, not on the grand term 'disorders' but on something more delicately poised, more modest, something more like 'distresses' perhaps. Something there is that distresses the bones. Yes, I think that is probably fair.

Friday 2 October 2015

From the Dromineer Festival:
Peter Sheridan and community

In Nenagh Art Centre Theatre

I have made many visits to Ireland and was the first International Writer Fellow at Trinity College in Dublin for three months, of which I am very proud - and, needless to say, I had a very good time, as indeed I have with all my other literary trips here, from Clifden, Sligo and Galway through to Listowel, Limerick and Tralee, not to mention Dun Laoghaire and Gort. It was as if I had a relative in the country, and maybe, in someways, I have.

I wouldn't say it was a relative I knew well, nor do I now, but Ireland has always been a hospitable and warm-hearted welcoming relative. I sometimes think being Hungarian by birth has helped: two small countries with some similarity in their histories. So here I am again for the Dromineer Literary Festival where I am to read with Pascale Petit and Billy Ramsell, be interviewed by Thomas McCarthy tonight, run a masterclass tomorrow, and introduce a poetry launch of publications by Victoria Kennefick, Breda Wall Ryan, and Maeve O'Sullivan tomorrow.

Arriving last night we were met by Eleanor and Bernie at the airport and driven to Nenagh, which is the noise our children made, and now our grandchildren make,  when playing at police and ambulance cars. In that sense it is doubly familiar. The wide streets, the small shops with the dark rich colours and Celtic style signs, the stone, the dark green of the grass, the morning mist, the shops that go back and back, as I remembered from previous visits when, in a different place, in another inn, about four rooms back from the main bar Ciaran Carson was singing and playing.

Brian's B and B where we are staying is very comfortable and the food is angelic, Brian's daughter being home from Florida where she is a top pastry cook. Brian himself makes bread. We are the only guests here at the moment but others will arrive this afternoon.

Last night we were offered the option of seeing Peter Sheridan perform his one man play, '44 Seville Place', which is based on his memories of living in a poor part of Dublin and runs the chronology from the early fifties to 1970, preceded by prologue involving a missed movie production that would have starred Sean Penn, and involved a drive across the US with him.

The theatre is a very simple affair with far too high a stage so Sheridan performed, unamplified, from floor level. He doesn't need much, just a cardboard guitar and a real one. He is a very assured performer and raconteur, seamlessly weaving together anecdotes of early and late childhood, the amusing and the tragic, full of cultural resonance for an audience who were mostly of the right vintage and well prepared for a performance as intimate yet as bold as this. The local references mostly lost me, all I remember is that Dublin looked one way to me in the 1980s and quite different by the late 90s. Dublin had become an international city quite different from the relatively monocultural place it had been some dozen years before.

Intimacy and monoculturalism are twins: we trust what we know, we know what we trust. It tends sometimes to have a slightly excluding-while-welcoming sense to me if only because I know - as I do in England too, though in a different way - that being in a place is never quite the same as being of it.

So Sheridan's virtuosic trawl through Dublin life, and by that token Irish life too, was familiar to me in the sense that I already had the general picture and have had it for some years. The characters step out of a landscape I have visited before. They rise and perform. There's the church cracking down, the school with its harsh ways, the dodges, the whispers, the bawling, the early death, the first love, the family (always the family) and the singing (always the singing) though in this case the songs are by Lennon and McCartney. And, while Sheridan sings snatches of songs in a fine baritone voice, we end with community singing, everyone joining in with When I'm Sixty-Four.

It is what the tribe has been through and survived. It is what has held it together and kept it going. In the film of the tribe this is the scene from It's a Wonderful Life when the suffering gives way to the close warmth of true friends.

Life is myth: but what else is there?