August 06, 2013

The Gypsy and the Poet

by Peter Blegvad for cover

John Clare, Wisdom Smith and Me

I’d finished a trilogy of books for Carcanet, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. What poet really does? I had been invited by New Networks for Nature, an alliance of creators whose work draws strongly on the natural environment, to perform at their annual gathering. My reading took place in Helpston Church. Afterwards, I sat down by John Clare’s grave and had a little chat with him.

Back home, I re-read Jonathan Bate’s biography then I read Clare’s Notebooks. Because Clare thinks nobody’s going to be reading them, he sounds more at ease with himself - a real, living voice surges through. He sows the earth for unwritten poems and even for an unpublished prose book about the natural history of Northamptonshire called Biographies of Birds and Flowers.

The Notebooks also show the presence of Gypsies in Clare’s life. I am partly Romani, I write in Romani dialect, and am alert to anything Gypsy. Clare liked Gypsies. He liked them at a time when it was acceptable for a clergyman to write in the local paper, “This atrosious tribe of wandering vagabonds ought to be made outlaws and exterminated from the earth”. Gypsies liked the poet back: ‘As soon as I got here the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encampd near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper we had a desent round of merriment for a fortnight’. A fortnight of merriment is not gained unless the Gypsies trusted this local poet - with his fiddle and pen – completely.

Clare also sought them out for stories, songs and tunes. And one character keeps cropping up in the Notebooks, a Gypsy called Wisdom Smith: ‘Finished planting my ariculas—went a botanising after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever—got the tune of “highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it’. Wisdom was the catalyst. Next day, I went into my writing shed and found Wisdom Smith sitting in the chair, waiting for me, and I seemed to step into him, or he stepped into me. Some days I found John Clare waiting with his friend. This triple team could write a lot better than I could alone: they could turn sonnets and make them an outdoor form, an unenclosed space for singing the world into being. Clare’s example, with Wisdom Smith’s energy and – yes – his wisdom, forced me to make a step-change and write poems about the the life of love.

I allowed myself to be taken over and to trust in that transformation completely. Emmanual Levinas wrote how ‘I am most like myself when I am most like you’. It is true that once upon a time the action of writing used to take me over so completely it obliterated me. But, newly, sometimes painfully, I felt myself to be more myself than ever. Yet here I was, taken over by a gypsy and a poet. I felt as if I had lived three lifetimes, transcending the self and entering a near-constant state of negative capability that allowed me to escape the “literary” - and write from a wild love of the world and for life:

Worlds

It is pleasant as I have done today to stand

... and notice the objects around us

‘There is nothing in books on this’, cries Clare.

‘I do not read, brother’, states Wisdom smiling,

‘for I will not bother with Mystery.

Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?

Look’, hums Wisdom Smith, ‘in the inner domes

of ghost orchids - how the buzzing rhymers

read light with their tongues; or in this anthill -

nameless draughtsmen crafting low rooms, drawing

no fame - except the ravening yaffle,

or fledgy starlings bathing in their crawl.

I see these worlds - lit worlds. I live by them’.

The wood-ants sting. John Clare shifts foot to foot:

‘I did not know you gave me any thought’.

‘This? All this - is nothing, John’, laughs Wisdom.


February 12, 2013

The Far Field by Theodore Roethke

The Far Field by Theodore Roethke
I

I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

II

At the field's end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery, --
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found in lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for young birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole's elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, --
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, --
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.

-- Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Thinking:
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
Believing:
I'll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.


II
The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, --
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, --
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.


IV

The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around, --
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.
A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born falls on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, --
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

January 31, 2013

Almost Happiness

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/dec/14/customs-house-andrew-motion-review

A review of Andrew Motion, The Customs House, Faber and Faber, £12.99 Hb / £9.99 ebook, ISBN: 978-0-571-28810-6

Reading Andrew Motion’s lucid, brilliant, melancholic poetry collection The Customs House I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s moodily captivating essay ‘One Green Field’ in which Thomas realises how, ‘Happiness is not to be pursued, though pleasure may be; but I have long thought that I should recognize happiness could I ever achieve it... I never achieved it, and am fated to be almost happy in many different circumstances...’. The Customs House is a strong, searing and sad book. I think it is certainly his most achieved collection. It signals a central change to the way he is thinking and feeling in language. He is letting the world back into him. Not the public world and restive politics of the Laureateship, but a private world of understanding, humility and love. Andrew Motion is developing a late style that is far more open to possibility, one that is ‘almost happy in many different circumstances’:

The last colour to see when the sun goes down

will be blue, which now turns out to be not

only one colour but legion – as if I never knew.

from ‘Gospel Stories’

Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. I would argue (and I have heard the poet state as much) that Motion’s stint as Laureate pushed him to abdicate the rights of his poetry to the reality of that public responsibility. Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’. The Customs House possesses and is possessed by a bare, pared-down tone stripped of hubris and unashamed of its fallibility. Andrew Motion has fully returned from the public exile of self-conscious art. He returns scorched but wiser. Like the poets of The English Line – Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas, Philip Larkin, Motion himself - the mature subjectivity of tone is of course a never-to-be-realised happiness, a restlessness of feeling, a scarred understanding that yields fine, heart-rending language and the grace and pressure of precise memory:

Now wind has died in the lime trees

I have forgotten what sense they made,

but not the leaf the wind dislodged

that fell between my shoulder blades.

‘Fall’

Motion’s poetry has always possessed an affecting tonal vulnerability. It is a quality that draws a reader closer - and to his famously hushed presence when he reads in public. It is a silence made of unwritten sentences. Of the feel of not to feel it. Almost (if not quite) of self-annihilation. Yet it is also the brilliance of concentration in which both tone and image lean into each other without falling, and hold each other and proffer some slight consolation. Like his hero Edward Thomas, Motion can create images and tones of such word-carried, world-wearied sadness that you accept their truth while simultaneously believing in their fictive grace. Truth and beauty: those dissimulators. Andrew Motion used to be their master. But in poem-sequences such as ‘Gospel Stories’, ‘Whale Music’, ‘A Glass Child’ and ‘The Death of Francesco Borromini’, Motion is now – in his late style - humble before them. The Customs House is redemptive. He has served his term. These poems are true poems.

Is the music of his poetry as finely judged as their tone? The first section of this book is something of an experiment. It comprises a series of war poems. These are ‘found poems’ – which is to say (Motion notes) ‘they contain various kinds of collaboration’. And the collaborations find their origins in oral and written reportage, and in war-time stories from veterans of the World Wars and the recent and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, in ‘The Golden Hour’ (which refers to the time required to keep a traumatised patient alive in surgery), an army surgeon addresses the reader:

For instance: one patient I remember had been in a blast situation

with no visible injury but we were not ventilating very well at all.

I put two openings in both sides of his chest with a big scalpel blade;

then I could stick my fingers in, and knew his right lung was down

because I could not feel it. However, I was now releasing trapped air

and the lung came up again. He has responded within the golden hour.

Because I could not feel it. The verbal truth of the war poems is fascinating in that their poetic music is almost completely surrendered in order to honour the spoken clarity of factual experience. This requires a sensitively engineered ear for line-break. Some of the material swings close to the prosaic, yet Motion’s deft lineation and deletions work double-time to preserve the true sense of natural speech. And Motion is generous as a translator of experience. He allows the hard-won details and voices to carry their own poetry. The voices of the war poems shift from the panoptic to a microscopic focus. Tight scenes possess intense light and energy. There is no desire to press a bright-red anti-war poetry button; no call for the trickery of literature; and no call above the quiet truths and sensibilities of those on the front-line. In terms of poetry and in terms of truth, The Customs House is an honourable, humbling achievement.


January 20, 2013

Mayakovsky Takes the Room: a review of “The Slanting Rain”

Mayakovsky1

‘I want to be understood by my country, nothing more.

but if I fail to be understood – 

what then?,

I shall pass through my native land

at an angle, in vain,

like a shower

of slanting rain.’

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The Ferguson Room in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s renovated Stratford site is spare of decoration or furnishing. Diminutive, serious-looking it feels like a boardroom without a board table. Tonight it had been set up for stand-up, yet felt bare, faceless and business-like. The audience huddled at the tables (the temperature tempted no-one from their coats and hats). Sitting no less than a yard from the small, low, lit stage, we listened to faint strains of Shostakovich and, in a distant room, the children of Stratford-on-Avon cavorting in a play-room near a lovely if Arctic bar.

Then the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky strode in from somewhere behind me, megaphone in hand, his jacket brushing my shoulder as he whipped on to the stage, stalking the space and surveying us all quietly (“taking the room”, as he later put it), asking us if we liked poetry and reading us a poem. A quiet, almost Georgian piece. He read with slight respect. A certain bemused if worn beauty arose in the room. Certain lines beguiled: ‘While blizzards bonfire / underneath the windows’. “Did we like the poem?”, he asked. Few dared put up their hands (although I did, persuaded to quiet curiosity by the blizzard image). Mayakovsky demurred, scowled, exploded. With a burst of fury he dismissed the piece (which was by one of his ‘peasant-loving’ contemporaries), screwed the poem up and threw it to the floor – from where I later retrieved it.

“The Slanting Rain” is a one-man play in which the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is brought crackling into life by actor Ed Hughes. This touring production blasted into the RSC Stratford this week and, despite some of the grimmest weather of the winter, seems to be playing full houses. Ed Hughes’s depiction and enactment of artistic and political fury is remarkable in its power. His performance is a true tour de force.

What is really remarkable about the play, however, is the grace of his fury, the projection that Mayakovsky was a double-act within himself, tearing himself to pieces – individualism versus collectivism; private versus public (the play is very moving on Mayakovsky’s long-term love affair with Lily Brik); and the addiction of performance versus the solitude of composition - “ten lines a day”, he glowered, gloomily turning to me, “and ten lines was a good day!” I smiled back at the poet, but worried for him. (I worried for myself.)

Mayakovsky2What happens to a popular artist when their moment had passed? When their younger contemporaries view him as a has-been or, worse, a sell out? There are fascinating pictures of Mayakovsky in his well-tailored suits, sporting his famous yellow coat, a workers’ poet-god among the factory floors of post-revolutionary Soviet Russia. “Do you like my coat? It made me stand out like the sun”. I am not sure we liked the yellow coat, but the poetry, woven into every speech, was beautifully carried and dramatic. And that was one of the singular strengths of the script: it trusted the poetry, it let it breathe and unravel and capture the room.

We will never know if this is what it was like to be one among the adoring ‘five thousand’ who flocked to Mayakovsky’s readings (the people’s poet toured the country in the 1920s like a rock star) but it is always interesting to be reminded of the power of poetry at particular moments of history. “Poetry is the heart”, Mayakovsky intoned. And later, “But love is everything”.


January 03, 2013

'My Eyes and Ears are Still Full': Judging the 2012 T.S.Eliot Prize

This piece first appeared in a shortened version inThe Guardian.

Judging the T.S. Eliot Prize has become no less of an undertaking than the Man Booker. Prose may be longer but poetry is denser. This year saw 131 poetry collections arrive in early September, some as marked-up proofs bearing the handwritten corrections of poets. How their precisely perfect notations reminded you that every one of these manuscripts was the labour of years – and the labour of tears. I arranged my world around reading them, and I read every single one. My life was put aside for two months; certainly any thought of writing poetry was removed. It has been the strange and compelling time. The process of submitting myself to this huge whirl of words has been self-annihilating. I was not myself. I became all eye and ear.

eliot.jpg

What do you hold on to? It helped that I had already reviewed over 40 of the submitted books this year during a manic reviewing programme for Poetry Review under the editorships of George Szirtes, Charles Boyle and Bernardine Evaristo. I already knew, for example, how much I liked a lot of the stuff coming out this year from Salt Publications, Nine Arches Press, Seren, and the brilliantly-named Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. I was disposed to read harder into the volumes of some of the more fugitive presses. I don’t care if a collection is from Picador or Waterloo Press or Two Rivers Press. I stood to attention and gave every poetry book its due.

I subjected each book to a series of physical and aural tests. Listening in on a poem, I read aloud (sometimes to myself or to Warwick University students); or I read in total silence; and sometimes I read against silence. I placed headphones on my ears and filled my mind with other music – Mahler, bird calls, The Beatles – and then I read a poetry book at the same time to test which music sang more strongly. I also took the poems into the fields and read them while I was walking. If they could make me stop walking they were doing very well (that test goes for people too). In these ways, and several others, the number of books was reduced to around 20. A whirlpool of words rang in my mind.

Which books did I love but which failed to win through to the shortlist? My personal favourites included Abi Curtis' The Glass Delusion, Jon Stone’s School of Forgery, Lesley Saunders’ Cloud Camera, Richard Price's Small World, Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, Andrew Motion’s The Custom House and – all three judges loved this one - William Letford’s astonishing debut Bevel. And what of the shortlist? You have to remember that of the 10 books there are 4 that are already pre-chosen, the Poetry Book Society Choices from Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. What we were selecting were 6 books by 6 poets. I am proud of them all. Stand to attention, Sean Borodale, Gillian Clarke, Julia Copus, Kathleen Jamie, Jacob Polley and Deryn Rees-Jones! I salute you all. I agree with Michael Longley in saying there's nothing clichéd about our list, that we went with the words on the page. But we also went with the sounds, and my ears and eyes are still full of them.


December 20, 2012

My Elizabeth Jennings story (because it is Christmas)

I liked Elizabeth Jennings and I like her poems. When I was 30 I directed my first poetry festivals. WhileEJ programming I made a decision to ask women poets to read at most of the events. I drew no attention to this engaging balance. I thought the programming made its own point. At one festival, of the 24 poets performing, 21 were women poets. The three men were programmed into one event of their own which I called “Three Male Poets”. I bought myself a Stevie Smith tee-shirt and set about hosting (my tee-shirt bore a photo of Stevie Smith; there are edgier versions available; see image below). The main performance space was a little… well, it was dull. So, using what came to hand from skips and photocopiers and craft shops, I built a high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries. This provided a lively backdrop to the performance area, and gave better lighting and perspective for performer and audience. What happened next? The readings were packed. Sometimes I had to turn people away. And they were really angry at being turned away. Why? Because some of the women poets I had booked simply did not get asked to do readings because these women were – women and some were old. Thus, these readings were rare appearances. In fact, there was a mini-riot before the reading by Elizabeth Jennings because of numbers trying to press in through the door. I had met Elizabeth from the train three hours earlier. Immediately we clicked. She jabbed her finger to my chest. ‘You’re wearing my *friend*!!!’ . Anyway, I introduced her to the keen, standing-room-only audience. She rose to the occasion and read with clarity, magic and total power. As the reading went on so more people took advantaSSTge of the fact we were all listening to Elizabeth to sneak in through doors and windows. By the time she came to read her final poem the room was overfull. And the audience exploded with applause when she finished. So enthusiastically! Their rapture took Elizabeth Jennings by surprise and she slipped and fell backwards. With a puma’s speed (I was 30), I was under her, breaking her fall and catching her in my arms. The applause grew louder. But as I caught her we both collided with the ‘high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries’. This wall of wonders trembled for a second and then, like the finale of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, collapsed around us. ‘Like an allegory’, cried Elizabeth Jennings. And the audience exploded again - and picked her out of my arms - and carried her away to be loved and adored like the hero she was.


October 23, 2012

Shortlist for 20th T.S. Eliot Prize Announced

The Poetry Book Society is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Judges Carol Ann Duffy (Chair), Michael Longley and David Morley have chosen the shortlist from the record number of 131 books submitted by publishers.

Simon Armitage The Death of King Arthur Faber

Sean Borodale Bee Journal    Jonathan Cape

Gillian Clarke Ice Carcanet

Julia Copus The World’s Two

Smallest Humans Faber

Paul Farley The Dark Film Picador

Jorie Graham P L A C E  Carcanet

Kathleen Jamie The Overhaul Picador

Sharon Olds Stag’s Leap   Jonathan Cape

Jacob Polley The Havocs  Picador

Deryn Rees-Jones Burying the Wren Seren

Chair Carol Ann Duffy said:

‘In a year which saw a record number of submissions, my fellow judges and I are delighted with a shortlist which sparkles with energy, passion and freshness and which demonstrates the range and variety of poetry being published in the UK.’

Poets’ biographies

Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and lives in West Yorkshire. He has published nine volumes of poetry, including The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs, both published by Faber in 2002. He has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Sunday Times Author of the Year, one of the first Forward Prizes and a Lannan Award. His bestselling and critically acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber) was published in 2007. In 2010 Armitage was awarded the CBE for services to poetry. His last collection, Seeing Stars (Faber), was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize.

Sean Borodale

Sean Borodale works as a poet and artist, making scriptive and documentary poems written on location; this derives from his process of writing and walking for works such as Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass, 2003) and Walking to Paradise (1999). He has recently been selected as a Granta New Poet, and Bee Journal is his first collection of poetry. He lives in Somerset .

Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff , and now lives with her family on a smallholding in Ceredigion. Her collections of poetry include Letter From a Far Country (1982); Letting in the Rumour (1989); The King of Britain's Daughter (1993); and Five Fields (1998). The latter three collections were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has also written for stage, television and radio, several radio plays and poems being broadcast by the BBC. Gillian Clarke's most recent poetry collection is A Recipe for Water (2009). In 2008 she published a book of prose, including a journal of the writer's year, entitled At The Source, and was named as Wales' National Poet. In 2010 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Julia Copus

Julia Copus was born in London in 1969. The World’s Two Smallest |Humans and her two previous collections, The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery, were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A radio version of the sequence ‘Ghost’ was shortlisted for the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She works as an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund.

Paul Farley

Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965. He won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1996 and his first collection of poetry, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Ice Age (2002) was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and won the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003. In 2004, he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation’ poets. Further collections are Tramp in Flames (2006) and The Atlantic Tunnel: Selected Poems (2010). He currently lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster . He also writes radio drama, and several plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio. Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2008 (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His book of non-fiction, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness (2010), written with Michael Symmons Roberts, won the 2009 Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction.

Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Rome . She has published nine collections of poetry in the UK with Carcanet, most recently Sea Change (2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers ' Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University . She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland in 1962. She has published several collections of poetry, including: Black Spiders (1982), The Way We Live (1987), The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), and her selected poems, Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead, was published in 2002. Her poetry collection, The Tree House (2004), won the 2004 Forward Prize (Best Collection), and was a PBS Choice. A travel book about Northern Pakistan, The Golden Peak (1993), was recently updated and reissued as Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002). She lives in Fife, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2010 was appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Stirling University .

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco . Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. The Dead & the Living (1983) received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004) and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her last collection, One Secret Thing ( Jonathan Cape , 2009) explored the themes of war, family relationships and the death of her mother, and was also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at New York University .

Jacob Polley

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. Picador published his first book of poetry, The Brink, in 2003 and his second, Little Gods, in 2006. His first novel with Picador, Talk of the Town, came out in 2009 and won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob was selected as one of the Next Generation of British poets in 2004. In 2002 he won an Eric Gregory Award and the Radio 4/Arts Council ‘First Verse’ Award. Jacob was the Visiting Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College , Cambridge , 2005-07, and Arts Queensland’s Poet in Residence in 2011.

Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones was born in Liverpool in 1968 and was educated at the University of Wales , Bangor , and Birkbeck College , London . She is an Eric Gregory Award winner, and her collection The Memory Tray (Seren, 1994) was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Her other collections of poetry are Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998), Quiver (Seren, 2004) and Falls & Finds (Shoestring, 2008). She was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2004. Her critical work includes a monograph on Carol Ann Duffy, and the book of essays Consorting with Angels which accompanies Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005). She lives in Liverpool.


October 08, 2012

Harry Mathews' "Septina

Fascinating post by JoAnne Simpson Growney, a poet and mathematician, from her blog. She writes:

Can sestina-like patterns be extended to other numbers? Poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud of the OULIPO investigated this question and he considered, in particular, the problem of how to deal with the number 7 of end-words - for 7 does not lead to a sestina-like permutation. Rombaud circumvented the difficulty (see Oulipo Compendium -- Atlas Press, 2005) by using seven 6-line stanzas, with end-words following these arrangements:


123456 715243 674125 362714

531672 457361 246537

In ‘Safety in Numbers’, Oulipian Harry Mathews has followed Roubaud's specifications - and Mathews' septina also uses the words one, two, three, . . ., seven as end-words.


Safety in Numbers  by Harry Mathews

The enthusiasm with which I repeatedly declare you my one
And only confirms the fact that we are indeed two,
Not one: nor can anything we do ever let us feel three
(And this is no lisp-like alteration: it’s four
That’s a crowd, not a trinity), and our five
Fingers and toes multiplied leave us at six-

es and sevens where oneness is concerned, although seven
Might help if one was cabalistically inclined, and “one”
Sometimes is. But this “one” hardly means one, it means five
Million and supplies not even an illusion of relevance to us two
And our problems. Our parents, who obviously number four,
Made us, who are two; but who can subtract us from some
mythical three

To leave us as a unity? If only sex were in fact “six”
(Another illusion!) instead of a sly invention of the seven
Dwarves, we two could divide it, have our three and, just as four
Became two, ourselves be reduced to one
– Actually without using our three at all, although getting two
By subtraction seems less dangerous than by division and would also
make five

Available in case we ever decided to try a three-
some. By the way, this afternoon while buying a six-
pack at the Price Chopper as well as a thing or two
For breakfast, I noticed an attractive girl sucking Seven-
Up through an angled and accordioned straw from one
Of those green aluminum containers that will soon litter the four

Corners of the visible world – anyway, this was at five
O’clock, I struck up a conversation with a view to that three-
some, don’t be shocked, it’s you I love, and one
Way I can prove it is by having you experience the six
Simultaneous delights that require at the very least seven
Sets of hands, mouths, etcetera, anyway more than we two

Can manage alone, and believe me, of the three or four
Women that ever appealed to both of us, I’d bet five
To one this little redhead is likeliest to put you in seven-
th heaven. So I said we’d call tomorrow between three
And four p.m., her number is six three nine oh nine three six.
I think you should call. What do you mean, no? Look, if we can’t
be one

By ourselves, I’ve thought about it and there aren’t two
Solutions: we need a third party to . . . No, I’m not a four-
flusher, I’m not suggesting we jump into bed with six
Strangers, only that just as two plus three makes five,
Our oneness is what will result by subtracting our two from three.
Only through multiplicity can unity be found. Remember “We Are
Seven”?

Look, you are the one. All I want is for the two
Of us to be happy as the three little pigs, through the four
Seasons, the five ages, the six senses, and of the heavenly spheres
all seven.


Mathews' poem is found - along with 150 other maths-related poems - in the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008), collected and edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Simpson Growney.


September 29, 2012

The Day of the Beginning of the New Book

brit_camp.jpg


September 28, 2012

A Farewell to English

The new home of the Warwick Writing Programme

This road is not new.
I am not a maker of new things.
I cannot hew
out of the vacuumcleaner minds
the sense of serving dead kings.

I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.

from 'A Farewell to English' Part Seven by Michael Hartnett


'Song'

Wasps and bees crack against the windowpanes.
Insects never learn about glass.

No more can I see through your absence.

Any stone flung in a river
Shatters the moon's reflection.

May we be reunited.

John Riley, 'Song'.

September 23, 2012

The Crowd



And today, as you walk to the match, I am beside you.
Proud to be alive. Proud to be walking beside you,
to take our seats together.
And you know my name. You know all our names.
We are beside and between you,
our souls, invisibly visible.

We are waking. We are smiling.
We are walking in your hearts.
And we are prouder still to know today,
tomorrow, next week, month or year
you will not chant us down again.
You will not chant us down in our sorrows.
You will not chant us back into the earth.

For we left the earth where we thought we were alone
yet we are beside you, laughing and singing and unbroken.
If you were to hear me among the crowd
you would hear a song.
Were I to pass invisibly among your jostling arms,
or carried to earth, you would hear me singing with you.
If I took you to one side and told you 'you were my brother',
what would you sing to your brother?
If I took you to one side and told you 'you were my sister',
what would you sing to your sister?.
You are my brother and you are my sister.
Nothing can kill me, for I am the crowd.

And the sun shone over Merseyside, over Manchester,
over the Pennines with its skylarks and brightening becks,
over Penistone and Stocksbridge and Hillsborough.
Liverpool fans in their buses - cheering the roof off -
anticipation, faith in the day and the song of life
no stronger than your own, just scousier.

You will not chant them down again.
You will not chant them down in their sorrows.
You will not chant them back into the earth.
And today, as you walk to the match, they are beside you.
Proud to be walking beside you, to take your seats together.
And you know their names. You know all their names.

We are walking to the same match.
We are walking on the same road.
We are arriving at the same gates.
We are waiting. We are laughing. We are singing.
And we do not know it but this is joy.
Nothing can kill us, for we are the crowd.


September 13, 2012

The day after the Hillsborough Disaster

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-19586393

As a lifelong Liverpool FC supporter I am heartened but not surprised by what happened in Parliament yesterday & in the media today.

On the day of the Hillsborough disaster I watched Liverpool supporters arrive in their coaches as they came through Deepcar. They were happy, excited, sober. The sun shone. I waved, cheered.

An hour later, an old man staggered from his terrace house. The sound of the match on the radio through his open door.

‘Something terrible is happening’, he said. He held my arm: ‘It is terrible and nobody is doing anything’.

Next morning I drove through Hillsborough to Sheffield. Graffiti everywhere. Huge letters: ‘HILLSBOROUGH. SOUTH YORKSHIRE POLICE NOT TO BLAME’.

I stopped my car in disbelief. Who else but the police could have carried out such an act and got away with it?

The point is: the day after the Hillsborough disaster we all of us knew what the truth was.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-19586393


September 01, 2012

Vernon Watkins

Vernon Watkins - 1906 - 1967

Heatherslade Residential Home 1, West Cliff, Southgate, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA3 2AN

Poet. He was born in Maesteg, Glam., but the frequent postings of his father, who was a bank manager, took the family to live at Bridgend and Llanelli before they settled, in 1913, in Swansea. Ten years later they moved out to Redcliffe, Caswell Bay and finally, in 1931, on his father's retirement, to Heatherslade on Pennard Cliffs. It was the shoreline of Gower, which he knew as a resident from the age of seventeen and had often visited previously, which was to provide the illustrative material of Vernon Watkins's poetry, the more nostalgically because, after a year at Swansea Grammar School, he was despatched first to Tyttenhanger Lodge, Seaford, Sussex, and then to Repton School in Derbyshire. Both his parents were Welsh-speaking but Vernon, a victim of that contemporary parental belief that it was necessary to escape from the parochiality of Wales, never spoke or learned the language. The only Welsh source he was able later to use in his poetry was the story of Taliesin, of which his beloved Gower provided a variant.

At Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read French and German, he found the course's emphasis on criticism to be uncongenial and, despite satisfactory examination results at the end of his first year, decided to abandon Cambridge and tried to persuade his father to allow him to travel to Italy in order to acquire experience for the poetry to which he was already committed. His father's response was unsympathetic; in the autumn of 1925 Vernon Watkins became a junior clerk in the Butetown branch of Lloyds Bank in Cardiff. Associating poetry with the idyllic experience of his last eighteen months at Repton - retrospectively a golden and heroic society - and desperate at both the need to grow up and the glum reality of a working life, he suffered a nervous breakdown which necessitated his removal, after six months' absence, to the branch of Lloyds Bank at St. Helen's, Swansea, so that he could live and be cared for at home. He remained in that employment, except for military service during the Second World War, until his retirement and he lived the rest of his life at Pennard. He always spoke of his nervous breakdown as a 'revolution of sensibility': his poetry, when it came, was to be devoted to 'the conquest of time', by which he meant, at first, the immortalization of the Eden-like memories of youth and the validation of all that he had known and loved. The 'grief' he felt was the genesis of all that followed. Gradually the paganism of the Romantic poets who had nourished him (despite the Christian background of his home) gave way to Neoplatonism (with the idea of the replica and the moment which is all moments) and that to a more Christian, if always unorthodox, view of life. The defeat of time was integral, in his view, to the function of the poet.

His first volume of poetry, Ballad of the Mari Lwyd (1941), appeared after he had left the bombed town of Swansea for service in the RAF Police: the title-poem is a striking adaptation of the familiar Welsh folk-ceremony to the validation of the dead. The Lamp and the Veil (1945) consists of three long poems (one to his sister Dorothy) and was succeeded by Selected Poems (1948), The North Sea (translations from Heine, 1951) and two collections which are his most successful, The Lady with the Unicorn (1948) and The Death Bell (1954), the title-poem of which commemorates his father. He also published Cypress and Acacia (1959) and Affinities (1962); Fidelities (1968) appeared posthumously, although the selection was made by the poet himself.

Although a meticulous craftsman and as much a master of poetic form as Dylan Thomas, by whom he was for long overshadowed, Vernon Watkins became nevertheless a very different kind of poet - a modern metaphysical, whose insight-symbols from the Gower shoreline carried his 'grief' towards an immortality which, in Christianizing itself, gradually calmed the original impetus. His later poetry maintained its formal excellence but the weakening of the emotional impulse, a tendency to short-cut the metaphysical argument and an increasing emphasis on the centrality of the poet's role make it both less accessible and less attractive. Much of his best work is a response to three traumatic experiences: his nervous breakdown, the destruction of old Swansea during the blitz, and the death of Dylan Thomas. His overall achievement throughout a lifetime of 'toil' makes him one of the greatest of Welsh poets in English as well as one of the most unusual. At the time of his death in Seattle, during a second visit as Professor of Poetry at the University of Washington, his name was being canvassed, with others, for the Poet Laureateship. After his death, Uncollected Poems (1969), Selected Verse Translations (1977), The Breaking of the Wave (1979) and The Ballad of the Outer Dark (1979) were all put together from a mass of unpublished material, while I That Was Born in Wales (1976) and Unity of the Stream (1978) were selections made from his published works. The Collected Poems were published in 1986.

(Information taken from Meic Stephens’ New Companion to the Literature of Wales, University of Wales Press, 1998)


August 11, 2012

The Site

after Mandelshtam

Why am I trailing you,

now through a pine-wood, now

through the words I write,

going nowhere fast?

There’s a gypsy encampment on the steppes,

newly moved in—sharp fires gone

by morning; the stamped ash

surrenders no clue or forwarding address.

I am in the pinewoods, trailing you.

There you were, like memory, a shackle.

Cling to me, you said.

Voronezh, January 1937


July 02, 2012

The Gypsy and the Poet – images and experiments

hedgehurst by pb

In my last poetry collection "Enchantment" I asked Peter Blegvad to come up with images that would intervene in the book, proving breathing spaces between sections and textural moods. If you know the book you will know he came up with great work (see PB's 'Hedgehurst', left).

Well, my new poetry book is completed.

It is called "The Gypsy and the Poet" and once again I am thinking about images that will work with the poems, not illustrating them - but extending from the poems in some manner that enhances and deepens the tone of the whole book, the conversation between the poems, and between the poems and their readers.

I need to experiment with images on the blog for the next few entries and am meeting with Peter again next Wednesday. What do you think of these? What do they say to you? What might they evoke or invoke?

Watching the stars

hedgelaying


June 14, 2012

Judging the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize

T S Eliot

I am delighted to be one of the judges of this year's T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. I am also honoured. Eliot was one of the first poets whose work was read aloud to me by one of my early mentors. The poetry has stayed with me ever since.

T S Eliot Prize 2012

The Poetry Book Society is delighted to announce the judges for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry. Carol Ann Duffy will be Chair and the other two judges will be poets Michael Longley and David Morley.

The judges will meet in October to decide on the ten-book shortlist. The four Poetry Book Society Choices from 2012 are automatically shortlisted for the Prize. The Spring 2012 Choice was The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage (Faber) and the Summer Choice was The Dark Film by Paul Farley (Picador). They will be joined on the shortlist by the PBS Autumn Choice, Place by Jorie Graham (Carcanet), and the Winter Choice, which will be announced in August.

The T S Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings will take place on Sunday 13 January 2013 in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. The 2010 Readings were held in this new venue for the first time and were a great artistic and audience-building success, attracting 2,000 poetry lovers, one of the biggest audiences for a single poetry event of recent times. The winner of the 2012 Prize will be announced at the award ceremony on Monday 14 January 2013, where the winner will be presented with a cheque for £15,000, donated by Mrs Valerie Eliot, who has generously given the prize money since the inception of the Prize. The shortlisted poets will each receive £1,000.

The T S Eliot Prize Reading Groups scheme will enable reading groups and individual readers to read the shortlist. Specially commissioned reading group notes, together with three poems from each shortlisted collection, will be made available to download from the PBS website. The scheme will target both poetry reading groups and fiction book groups.

The T S Eliot Prize Shadowing Scheme, run by the Poetry Book Society in partnership with the English and Media Centre’s emagazine, will offer A level students a chance to engage with the latest new poetry by shadowing the judges and taking part in a writing competition.

Last year’s winner was John Burnside for his collection Black Cat Bone (Cape). The judges were Gillian Clarke (Chair), Stephen Knight and Dennis O’Driscoll.

The T S Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society's 40th birthday, and to honour its founding poet. Now celebrating its twentieth year, the T S Eliot Prize is the ‘world’s top poetry award’ (Louise Jury, The Irish Independent). The Prize is awarded annually to the writer of the best new poetry collection published in the UK or Ireland. It is unique as it is always judged by a panel of established poets and it has been described by Sir Andrew Motion as ‘the Prize most poets want to win’.

Previous winners (in chronological order) are: Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon , Mark Doty, Les Murray, Don Paterson, Ted Hughes, Hugo Williams, Michael Longley, Anne Carson, Alice Oswald, Don Paterson (for the second time), George Szirtes, Carol Ann Duffy , Seamus Heaney, Sean O’Brien, Jen Hadfield, Philip Gross, Derek Walcott and John Burnside.

The Prize is generously supported by the T S Eliot Estate. 

This year marks the second year of generous three-year support from Aurum, a private investment management firm which manages funds for charities, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and private individuals, and which supports a range of charities.  

  … ends

For further information please go to http://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/projects/4/

Or contact: Dave Isaac or Chris Holifield at the Poetry Book Society

tel 020 7831 7468 emails david_isaac@poetrybooks.co.uk, and chris@poetrybooks.co.uk

Notes

Judges’ Biographies

Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955 in Glasgow . Her poetry collections include Standing Female Nude (1985); The Other Country (1990); Mean Time (1993), which won the Whitbread Poetry Award and the Forward Poetry Prize; The World’s Wife (1999); Feminine Gospels (2002); and Rapture (2005), which won the 2005 T S Eliot Prize. Her latest collection, The Bees (2011), was shortlisted for the 2011 Prize. Her children’s poems are collected in New & Collected Poems for Children (2009). Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate. She lives in Manchester and is Creative Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University .

Michael Longley

One of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, Michael Longley CBE was born in 1939. Longley’s 1991 collection, Gorse Fires, won the Whitbread Poetry Prize. Subsequently, The Weather in Japan (2000) won the Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry, the Hawthornden Prize and the 2000 T S Eliot Prize. Longley’s recent publications include Snow Water (2004) and Collected Poems (2006). His latest collection, A Hundred Doors (2011) was a PBS Recommendation. In 2001 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Michael Longley is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and he was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007 to 2010.

David Morley

An ecologist by background, David Morley’s poetry has won many awards. His most recent poetry collection Enchantment (2010) was a Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year chosen by Jonathan Bate. The Invisible Kings (2007) was a PBS Recommendation and TLS Book of the Year chosen by Les Murray. His next book World’s Eye is due from Carcanet in 2013 followed by his Selected Poems in 2014. A leading international advocate of creative writing, David wrote The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (2007) and co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing (2012). He is Professor of Writing at the University of Warwick . His website is www.davidmorley.org.uk.


May 15, 2012

It is to keep the lightning out

shag

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.


May 13, 2012

In Just Spring

Reed BuntingBirds on Warwick University recorded on campus 13th May 2012: Blackbird, Blackcaps (nesting), Reed Bunting, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Crow, Rook, Magpie, Starling, Greylag Goose (chicks), Canada Goose (chicks), Coot (chicks), Mallard (chicks), Moorhen (chicks), Swallow, House Martin, Common Gull, Green Woodpecker, Grey Heron, Wren, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Chiffchaff, Robin, Woodpigeon.


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