“An artist is someone who should raise questions rather than give answers. I have no message.” (Michael Haneke)

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and the theme is Messages. I fully endorse this choice, primarily because I didn’t have to think twice about which retro pop video I could shoehorn into this post:

Arguably any poem is a message, but I’m lazy don’t believe in shying away from the obvious so I’ve chosen two poems that are titled as messages. Nothing kills a poem like analysing it to death, hence not one of my typically waffling posts this week 🙂

Firstly, back to the 8th century and prolific poet Wang Wei (I’m not sure who translated the poem, but I took the version from here). I chose it because it also references autumn, which is apt right now for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Message to P’ai Ti

Cold and blue now are the mountains
From autumn-rain that beat all day.
By my thatch door, leaning on my staff,
I listen to cicadas in the evening wind.
Sunset lingers at the ferry,
Cooking-smoke floats up from the houses…
Oh, when shall I pledge Cheih-yu [the great hermit] again
And sing a wild poem at Five Willows?

I love the simplicity of the poem, and how evocative it is of a slightly melancholic moment taken to reflect at the end of the day.

Secondly I chose Message by Dorothy Richardson, because it echoes Wang Wei as it also picks up on autumn, and ends with a question, this time to a silent interlocutor rather than the self. I also chose it because I’m really enjoying reading about Jane and Sarah’s experiences reading her Pilgrimage series, but I haven’t yet got round to these novels…

Seeing in flight along the lifting wind,
Like sudden birds peopling an empty sky,
Those last crisped leaves so long you had passed by –
Where dark they hung that had been fire behind
The pasture whose scant blossoms kept in mind
Our summer now grown gold for memory –
Did you remember as you saw them pass,
Flutter and sink, sully the silvered grass,
That each forsaken stem bears, fast asleep,
An eager bud to tell the tale of spring?
Will you forget, hearing darkness weep,
How each hour moves toward their awakening?

I liked how this poem concentrates on one action, a leaf in the air, and yet weaves a wide experience around it, structured in quite a complex way. The iambic pentameter (more or less, Richardson plays with rhythm a bit) echoes Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I just adore. The message of this poem is one I need to remember – I find the dark days of winter hard-going, so I will remind myself how each forsaken stem contains an eager spring bud in those seemingly never-ending grey days of January and February…

To counteract my comparative reticence in this post, some indulgence to finish. A second – yes, second! – 1979 pop video. Happy Thursday 🙂

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“Summer, summer, summertime.” (Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince)

On Monday this week the weather forecasters seemed fixated on the fact that it was the start of something they called ‘meteorological summer’.  If you live in the UK & looked out of the window at that point, there was only one sane reaction to such news:

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Because frankly, even by British standards, the weather’s been a total washout. (btw, this week’s GIFs are dedicated to fellow book blogger Lady Fancifull 🙂 )  However, it has brightened up considerably throughout the week and as I write this I can smell my neighbour’s barbeque, so it looks like maybe the weather forecasters’ optimism wasn’t so misplaced after all. I like to imagine the meteorologists are now running round the studio thusly:

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So here is a post to celebrate the start of the meteorological summer. Which in the UK should be good for at least, ooh, another 5 days or so 😉

Firstly, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972, my edition 2003 Sort Of books trans.Thomas Teal) which I won from a giveaway hosted by the lovely bookarino at Dawn of Books.  Apparently this was Jansson’s favourite of her novels for adults (she is best known for the Moomin series) and it’s a wonderful read.  The premise is simple: a series of vignettes detailing how a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia spend a summer together on an island in the gulf of Finland.

“When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind.. ..They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy.  It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.”

Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but Jansson evokes real meaning through the layering of small moments to create fully realised portraits of two complex, stubborn, loving, life-embracing women.

““Listen,” Sophia said. “I don’t have time to stay here with you – I’ve only been swimming twice today.  You won’t be sad now, will you?”

“I want to go too,” Grandmother said.

…They helped each other climb out of the canyon, and then they circled around the hill…off to one side of the channel marker, there was a large, deep pool.

“Is this alright?” Sophia sked.

“It’s fine,” Grandmother said.  She bared her legs and stuck them in the pool.  The water was warm and pleasant.”

There is a wonderful gentle humour running through the book, and also sadness  – Sophia’s mother has died, the elderly grandmother is aware her time is short.

““What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered.  “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda.  “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother.  “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.”  They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk, Move over.””

Bookarino’s enthusiasm for Jansson is infectious, as is Kaggsy’s, and I definitely plan on reading all her books for adults (and maybe a Moomin or two too…)

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If, like me, you live in a city, summer may not immediately bring to mind the heady waft of night blooming jasmine and the soothing chirp of crickets.  So I’m eschewing pastoral evocations of summer in favour of a short poem about London in summer, ‘August’ by Tobias Hill (from Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, 2007):

when pigeons like dei ex machina

descend improbably out of the air

 

wobble like airships skimming through the tops

of trees which sink under their tea-pink weights

 

until each grandee bungee-jumps or bellyflops

downwards in great soap-operatic terrifying swoops

 

into the sweet dark shining feather-bedness of the fruits

When the first sunny days appear, those of us used to greyer climes seem to behave with the mania of the pigeons in this poem.  It’s a glorious sight to behold, as city-dwellers sunbathe on patchy grass verges next to dual carriageways, pale blue skin gradually glowing vermilion; lager and sausage rolls sweating in plastic carrier bags beside them. Ah, the summer idyll….

I got my hair cut today (moulting in the warm weather) and the titular song from this post started to play on the radio.  My hairdresser pronounced it a classic but said her favourite summer song was this:

“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Today is World Poetry Day. Of all the events taking place, I think my favourite is the opportunity to Pay with a Poem for your caffeinated beverage of choice.

As the concept of World Poetry Day is so epic, I thought I’d look at a poem from this genre to start.  This style of poetry seems to have fallen out of favour since it’s heyday in ancient Greece, but a notable exception is Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990).  Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey & Iliad, Omeros is set in Walcott’s home of St Lucia, telling the story of various inhabitants, including the fishermen Achille and Hector.

“Wind lift the fern. They sound like the sea that feed us

fisherman all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,

the trees have to die.’ So fists jam in our jacket,

 

cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers

like the mist, we pass the rum.  When it came back, it

gave us the spirit to turn into murders.”

Written in terza rima (used in another epic, Dante’s Divine Comedy) Walcott manages an extraordinary feat in Omeros: a sustained long poem of stunning imagery and elegant writing which also tells a story.

“as I brushed imaginary sand from off my feet,

turned off the light, and pillowed her waist with my arms,

then tossed on my back.  The fan turned, rustling the sheet.

 

I reached for my raft and reconnected the phone.

In its clicking oarlocks, it idled, my one oar.

But castaways make friends with the sea; living alone

 

they learn to survive on fistful of rainwater

and windfall sardines. But a house which is unblest

by familiar voices, startled by the clatter

 

of cutlery in a sink with absence for its guest,

as it drifts, its rooms intact, in a doldrum summer,

is less a mystery than the Marie Celeste.

Walcott is also a deeply political writer, engaging with the history of the Caribbean and all that entails.

“Once, after the war, he’d made plans to embark on

a masochistic odyssey through the Empire,

to watch it go in the dusk […]

 

but that was his daydream, his pious pilgrimage.

And he would have done it, if he had had a son,

 

but he was an armchair admiral in old age,

with cold tea and biscuits, his skin wrinkled like milk”

Omeros is absolutely astonishing in its ambition, breadth, artistry and intellect. Derek Walcott was a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in 1992.

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(Image from: http://repeatingislands.com/2014/02/02/derek-walcott-60-years-of-poems-mix-anger-ambivalence-and-authority/)

Secondly, from breadth to brevity, Ezra Pound’s Alba.  If poetry is language stripped down to the essentials, Pound strips poetry back to the bare bones.  I think In a Station of the Metro is one of the most perfect pieces of writing I’ve ever read, but I chose Alba as it’s less well-known. OK, so he was a massive fascist, but I try and forget this as he distils language to such sparse beauty. An alba is part of the aubade tradition of poems, concerned with lovers parting at dawn.

“As cool as the pale wet leaves

                                     of lily-of-the-valley

She lay beside me in the dawn.”

That’s it.  The whole poem in its entirety.   I really hope you like it.

I realise I’ve chosen two poems written by men , so to redress the balance I’ll end with a retelling of part of another epic (Ovid’s Metamorphoses): the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading ‘Mrs Midas’ from her collection The World’s Wife.

“Remember, remember the 5th of November: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!” (Traditional, British)

OK, so I’m a day late, but that’s practically on time compared to how late some of my other posts have been.  I’ve met my own low standards. 5 November is Guy Fawke’s Night in Britain, where we commemorate the foiling of an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and kill the king in 1605 by, er, setting fires and letting off fireworks. We used to burn effigy of the plotter Guy Fawkes (who was discovered with all the gunpowder) but that and kids asking you for “a penny for the guy” doesn’t seem to happen anymore – which is fine with me, it was a bit gruesome for my delicate sensibilities.

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Anyway, the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill the Protestant James I to put a Catholic monarch on the throne, so I thought this week I’d commemorate the plot through books rather than pyromania and look at work by Catholic writers.

Firstly, Ben Jonson, frenemy of Shakespeare, who actually had dinner with the plotters but somehow managed to duck suspicion and went on to become a writer for the court of James I. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, while imprisoned for killing fellow playwright Gabriel Spencer in a duel (he’d previously been imprisoned for suspected sedition – he had quite the life). Jonson converted back to Anglicism in 1610, but the poem I’m going to look at sees him wrestling with his faith while still a Catholic.  Much of Jonson’s writing doesn’t carry well across the ages – he was heavily satirical and our knowledge of early seventeenth century politics and theatre-life has waned somewhat. However, this poem, written when his first son Benjamin died of plague aged just seven, captures such grief and pain as to be recogniseable today:

On My First Son (1603)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

There’s a theory sometimes advanced that parents in this period were so used to losing their children that they met their deaths with equanimity.  Jonson’s poem shows how totally misguided this is.  He writes in heroic couplets, showing how deeply felt this is for him; the poem is epic in style, if not in length (the short length thereby reflecting his son’s short life).  Jonson finds himself tormented in faith rather than soothed by it; he knows he should be glad his son has “scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage” but can’t help feeling he has to pay for the sin of loving his son too much, and grieving the loss; he is left with the questions that form the middle of the poem, rather than answers.  The answer Jonson finds for himself means this is a poem that captures two tragedies – the death of the seven year old, and a father so consumed by pain that he wishes he had never known parenthood: “O, could I lose all father now!” determining to close off his feelings in future: “As what he loves may never like too much.” Jonson was egomaniacal about his work, so when he says “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”” There is no higher acclaim he can give the seven year old. Truly heart-breaking.

Secondly, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks (1963, Penguin, my edition 2013).  Like the titular girls, this novel is one of slender means, only 142 pages in my edition.  But although it is a short novel and very funny, it is not fluffy or disposable.  It tells the story of a group of women living in the boarding house the May of Teck Club, when “long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”.  Thus, the slender means, but they also have other slender means; the girls are obsessed with calories and being thin enough to attract a husband.  I would normally find this sort of behaviour intensely irritating, but it is testament to Spark’s writing that I didn’t – it’s 1945, options are limited for women, and they are using the means at their disposal to improve their lot.  They are pragmatic rather than vain and foolish.

“And they realized themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means.”

Selena is beautiful and promiscuous, trying to decide which of her lovers to marry; Joanna has abandoned romantic love for reciting poetry and giving elocution lessons, Jane is fat (which she hates) and intellectual, and writes to famous authors in an attempt to get autographs for her strange employer.  I was quite fond of Dorothy:

“Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of those phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’[…] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers.  Come to the wedding.’”

As this passage shows, Sparks humour is acute, incisive, and packs a punch.  She captures dark circumstances and behaviour with such a light touch that is ultimately a lot more shocking than from within an unrelentingly bleak novel. We know that Nicholas Farringdon, drawn into the May of Teck circle, became a missionary and subsequently died in Haiti, but we don’t know what prompted the conversion.  As The Girls of Slender Means builds towards its denouement, Sparks doesn’t spell out the totality of the impact of the events in 1945.  The novel is more powerful for this; the women and Nicholas remain partly unknown: to themselves, to each other, and to the reader.

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“My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately everybody drinks water.” (Mark Twain)

Today is National Poetry Day, and the theme is Water.  I’ve chosen two contemporary poets who wrote on this theme (one poem and one collection of poems).  Mainly because I really like both the poets and they were who immediately sprang to mind, and also because I felt a bit bad about getting all Renaissance on your asses in my previous post.  Twentieth/twenty-first century language only this week, I promise!

Firstly, “Swimming to the Water Table”, from Neil Rollinson’s first collection A Spillage of Mercury (Cape Poetry, 1996).  Rollinson is famed for his unashamedly sexual poetry, but the theme of this poem couldn’t be more different.  “Swimming to the Water Table” deals with the modern day echoes of the Moors Murders.  I’m not sure how well-known these brutal, tragic events are outside Britain, so if you don’t know, there’s a link to the Wikipedia page here.  This is not a pleasant subject matter, but I think Rollinson treats it with sensitivity.  If you’d rather not approach such things, do give it a miss and scroll down to my second choice of poems.  The poem begins:

“After hours of silence and the velvet

of peat cloughs, the road

from Manchester cuts the moor

like an act of violence.”

I think this is hugely clever.  Rollinson is not going to write about the murders themselves – that would be hideous and entirely inappropriate.  Instead he creates the bleak, eerie atmosphere on the moor where the children are buried, and a sense of attack.  The noise of the main road, the assault on the person and senses, the sudden impact of it, manages to evoke the violence without in any way glamorising it.  The sound of the language, with the hard ‘c’ of “cuts” and “acts” creates for the reader the same sense of jolting into harshness that the speaker has experienced with the road, as we are forced away from the softness of “velvet” and “peat”.

The speaker is told where he is and reminded of what has taken place there:

“…I can picture

the gaunt, blonde murderess, smoking

a cigarette, watching the road,

Brady unrolling the carpets, cracking

puns with every strike of the spade.”

Again, I think Rollinson is so skilled here at evoking without explicitly detailing:  the shocking indifference of Hindley as she smokes and watches elsewhere,  the “cracking” and “striking” of Brady, enactor of the most sickening violence imaginable.  Rollinson is not shying away from what they did, and the verbs in this passage do not allow the reader to shy away either.  At the same time, we’re not in the midst of the brutal acts themselves; this is all we need, gory details would be sensationalist and intrusive. 

So where is the water?  In these final lines:

“…The bleached

rib of an animal curls from the ground

like the heart of a flayed orchid.

Under my feet, the bodies of children

swim to the clear, sweet water table.”

I find this ending incredibly powerful.  The animal rib shows the death that surrounds the moor, and a strange beauty that exists in the place – a flayed orchid is such an oddly violent, unsettling image.  The idea of the bodies in the water table is both haunting and deeply upsetting, but at the same time, by having them swimming, not floating, the children are granted an independent agency. I think Rollinson uses the water imagery to reclaim for the children something they were denied in life: a final peace and tranquillity.

Secondly, a whole collection with a recurring theme of water, What the Water Gave Me: Poems After Frida Kahlo by Pascale Petit (Seren Books, 2010).  For this collection, Petit took on the voice of the artist Frida Kahlo, and created poems around her paintings.  There are six poems throughout the collection named “What the Water Gave Me”. The painting by Kahlo of this title looks like this:

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(Image from:  http://www.paintinghere.org/painting/what_the_water_gave_me-7293.html)

In “What the Water Gave Me IV” Petit layers image upon image to capture the multitude of scenes in the picture; it is 34 lines long but only one sentence.  It begins:

“The bath I lie in like a sarcophagus,

the water that’s about to become kerosene

the surface I have to keep absolutely still

so my body can slip through it

like a reflection passing out of a mirror”

You can have a look at the picture and see what you think Petit is doing here, I don’t want to kill the poem by insisting the meaning I see is absolute.  But I will say I think she captures the surrealism of Kahlo’s pictures with the notion of kerosene and the escaping reflection, and the odd, visceral yet detached relationship Kahlo has with her body.  The kerosene also moves towards the underlying violence in Kahlo’s work.  When she was 18 Kahlo had a severe accident when she was travelling on a bus.  The severity of her injuries left her in agonising pain her entire life:

“the ulcers and craters, the giant

one- legged quetzal pierced by a tree,

my toes and their doubles, their blood-red nails,

the ex-votos to give thanks for surviving

twenty-two fractures, the miniature parents

on their atoll far off as my thigh,

the Empire State Building spewing gangrene

over my shin, that no perfume can mask

so no-one will visit

the life led dying”

I think Petit does a great job of capturing one form in another here, giving words to visual art.  The shortening of the last two lines creates an emphasis to demonstrate the impact on the person of all the extreme imagery, and I think they are lines of real pathos.  The layering of image upon image without a break creates a momentum that drives towards the final line:

“a steel handrail breaks off and hurtles towards me.”

This effectively evokes how for Kahlo, the accident is lived over and over, forever in the present tense.  Its repercussions sent ripples through her entire life, and the impact of that steel handrail was devastating: it pierced through her abdomen and womb, meaning that although she wanted children, she could never carry one full term.  As she lies in the bath, as she lives her life, she lives the accident.

You can read some more examples of the poetry in the collection on Petit’s website, here.

Well, this wasn’t the most cheery subject matter, but I think both the poets are huge talents and their poetry is really powerful, so I hope this post wasn’t too depressing!  Do check out their other poems/collections, they’re well worth a look.

Here are the poems with a glass of water (sorry to be so prosaic, but hey, it represents the theme, right?)

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