“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.

derek-walcott

(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.

“Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name./Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.” (Robert Burns)

Saturday is Burn’s Night, in honour of Scotland’s favourite son, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  I’m posting today however, because tonight I am going to a Burn’s Night supper.  This will consist of Arbroath smokies, followed by haggis, tatties and neeps, followed by clootie dumpling, followed by an argument as to whether I’m going to dance at the ceilidh.   Although I have two left feet I quite enjoy a dance, but my suggestion that we do it before a three course stodge-fest has been met with derision.  Needless to say, I think I’ll be lying down in a corner while the more hardy among my number whizz around in Celtic fashion. To celebrate I’ve chosen a novel written in Scottish vernacular, and a poem by a Scottish writer. I like them both so I hope Burns won’t find me to be one of the “cutthroat bandits” he refers to with such derision. Slainte Mhath!

Firstly, Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2002).  This was Anne Donovan’s first novel, and it is a confident and accomplished debut.  It tells the story of Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, who becomes interested in Buddhism.  His desire to put his newly-discovered beliefs into the practice of his daily life cause strain in his relationships with his wife Liz and daughter Anne-Marie, and all three lend their voices to individual chapters to tell the story.

Jimmy learning to meditate: “It was as if ah’d never felt ma body afore; felt the tightness in ma airms and legs, the openness of ma chest, the wee niggles that ran aboot inside me that usually I never even think aboot. Then as ma breathin slowed doon and ah sterted tae feel mair relaxed he took me through each person in turn.  That was the really hard bit because as each feelin came up he tellt me no tae judge it.  Wi Anne Marie ah just felt ashamed that ah’d let her doon […] Then Liz. That was haurd too cos ah love her – always have – but somehow ah cannae get her tae unnerstaund how this is that important tae me. There’s a gap openin up between us. Ah can feel it and ah’m scared.”

The relationships do start to break down, but Donovan is very even-handed and you don’t apportion blame, you can just see how it’s happening as people grow apart.  The first person narrative from all three characters means you can empathise with them all.  Liz doesn’t always behave in the best way, but I still felt sympathy for her as she struggles to make the life she wants:

“It was five o’clock in the morning but ah didnae want tae go back to sleep in case the dream started again.  It wasnae the most frightenin dream ah’d ever had but it was confusin.  Usually if ah have a dream it’s dead obvious what it means, but this.  Ah leaned back on the pillows, shut ma eyes and the feelin came back tae me; the cauld of the water beneath ma feet, the panic as ah started tae sink and the relief as ah sprung up oot the water, the green castin an eerie light all round the sky and this dark, shadowy figure waitin for me on a rock on the other side.”

And between them both, their daughter Anne Marie.  After she plays her parents a song she’s made with her friend:

“And ah was dead chuffed that they liked it but efterwards, sittin in ma room, ah kept feelin that there was sumpn missin. As if they hadnae really got it. And ah really wanted them, no just tae like it, but tae unnerstaund it.  And ah didnae think they did.”

And that really is the crux of Buddha Da.  It’s about how the people we love may not always be the ones who really understand us.  It’s about the gaps that exist even in our closest relationships.  Donovan writes with real affection for the characters, and so these themes aren’t depressing.  It’s a warm novel about living with imperfections and muddling through together. If you’re interested in Scottish vernacular novels, two famous examples you may want to try are Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, and How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.

Secondly, a poem by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who was born in Glasgow.    I love Duffy’s writing, and she’s managed the rather astonishing feat of writing decent poems within her remit of commemorating national events. Warming Her Pearls (from Selling Manhattan (1987)) was written long before she took office, and is one of her more famous verses.  However, I still went ahead and chose it rather than something more obscure, as I do think it’s brilliant.  You can read the full poem here.  It is spoken in the voice of a maidservant to a rich society woman:

“Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress

bids me wear them, warm them, until evening

when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them

round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her”

This to me is a good example of Duffy’s writing: accessible, simple language to convey an unconventional literary voice, in this case, a maid’s erotic love for her mistress.  The power dynamic of the relationship with its “bidding” and the rope of pearls adds a slightly BDSM element, and Duffy plays with the idea of power throughout the poem.  The maid is emboldened by her desire outside of social class, rather than cowed by it.  I love the following image:

“[I] picture her dancing

with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent

beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.”

The insidious nature of the maid infiltrating her mistress’ life through her body odour is so clever, slyly humorous and evocative; the idea of bodies betraying themselves is carried on in the next stanza: the soft blush seep through her skin/like an indolent sigh.   The tenderness with which the maid approaches her mistress, a reflection of her feelings, is wonderfully evoked through this beautiful language.  Warming Her Pearls is as delicate and subtle as the situation it portrays.

Finally, a little bonus, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, this is from The World’s Wife, where she imagines the stories of the wives of famous men.  ‘Mrs Darwin’ is one of the shortest, so here it is in its entirety:

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.

I said to Him –

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

I could end with a picture of the books, but I doubt Burns would approve of such a prosaic choice.  Instead, here’s one of the most Scottish things you’ll ever see:

Image

(Image from http://www.sattlers.org/mickey/culture/clothing/kilts/hallOfFame.html)