February 27, 2012

We love the things we love for what they are: Hyla Brook by Robert Frost

Hyla Brook

BY June our brook’s run out of song and speed.

Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,  
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet  
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

February 10, 2012

The Story of The Writers’ Room Deep Space Telescope

In its new home

See that telescope in the middle of this photograph?

This powerful Russian telescope, currently on loan to The Writers’ Room at Warwick University, has been on a fascinating literary journey.

In the early 1990s it was acquired by the poet Simon Armitage. Scanning the night skies above his native Huddersfield, Simon began writing a sequence of fifty poems. The titles were taken from the constellations he observed through this telescope’s lenses. However, his poems did not take stellar observation as subject. Cunningly, Simon used the names of the stars and their configurations to stimulate personal poems about family, relationships, work and loss. These poems were published in his collection Cloudcuckooland which he read from at Warwick University in 1999.

During the early part of the 21st century, Simon sold the telescope to the novelist Monique Roffey. Monique was then working as Centre Director of the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Monique used the telescope to examine the brilliantly dark skies of Devon and gain inspiration.

The telescope occupied the Arvon Foundation offices for many years, sometimes being used to prompt poetry and stories during the weekly creative writing courses that took place at the centre. Many writers pass through the doors of Arvon at Totleigh; and hundreds of authors will have “played about with”, or used, this telescope during that fertile period in its journey. During this period David Morley taught a number of Arvon writing courses and greatly admired what he then christened the Armitagescope a.k.a. the Roffeyscope.

Later, Monique Roffey left Arvon and became a full-time writer, taking the telescope with her. She moved to central London , to the famous Black Sheep Co-op, and wrote the fiction (and non-fiction) that made her name and led her, later that decade, to become one of our most renowned and generous writers.

In 2005, Monique contacted David Morley to explain she was moving on to her own flat, and the telescope was too bulky to make the trip. It might have faced a sad end. So, Monique and DM arranged a ‘gift economy’ exchange: Monique wished to learn how to write poems with a little guidance from DM, and in exchange DM would adopt the telescope so long as he could somehow get to and through London , rebuild it and collect it. Which he did. One memorable rainy Sunday morning in Spring.

The telescope needed some TLC by this time. DM reconditioned the lenses, cleaned the scope inside and out, and gave it a coat of paint for good luck. The telescope then lived in DM’s writing studio for six years, making occasional sorties into his garden to study The Great Galaxy of Andromeda. These studies led to the creation of an elemental poetry workshop ‘Nightfishing for Poets’ which examines the universe and how various phenomena within it have acted as templates for the making of oral ‘literature’ in the shape of creation myths.

DM believes Warwick University's Writers’ Room is the natural home for this historical piece of literary-scientific equipment. It is not a theatre prop. It is not trivial. It is a powerful Russian. Deep space. Telescope.

And it can see the face of God.


February 07, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday to a Great Inventor

Dickens


February 01, 2012

Publication Day for The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

from Jonathan Bate's FCUPoreword to The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

On Criticism and Creativity

Creative writing has been the subject of university level study in American universities and colleges far longer than it has been within British higher education. The common pattern in the American system has traditionally set the ‘writing program’ apart from the critical, historical and theoretical work of the ‘literature’ department. Typically, the writers will be employed for the drudgery of instructing students from almost every discipline in ‘freshman composition’ (how to structure an argument, a paragraph, even – remedially – a sentence) and then be rewarded with some small group teaching in which, at a more advanced level, they assist the aspirant writers of the future in the improvement of their novels, stories, scripts and poems. The academics, meanwhile, will teach a freshman survey course of the kind that used to be known in the trade as ‘from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf’ but that is now more likely to be a guided tour of competing theoretical approaches to the subject and to include a high proportion of contemporary, often international, literature; they will then teach other, more advanced courses in their specialism, which could be anything from Shakespeare to the Victorian novel to some aspect of literary theory to postcolonial women’s poetry. In terms of their ambitions for publication, the ‘writer’ will be working on, say, her latest novel and the ‘academic’ on a learned conference paper that will later be worked into a critical book for a university press. It is not unknown for the writers and the academics to neglect each other’s work and even to view their counterparts down the departmental corridor with a degree of suspicion.

There is no inherent reason why there should be such a division between criticism and creativity in English studies. Consider the higher level teaching of music and art, the disciplines of writing’s sister arts. University degrees in music do not confine themselves to questions of form, history and cultural context, as English degrees often do. They have an emphasis on technique and on practice that is rarely encountered within a traditional English degree. The serious student of music will be expected to read music, to play an instrument, to hear a shift from major to minor key. Similarly, the serious student of art will be expected to know about perspective, to discover the different properties of different materials, and (one hopes) to draw in a life-class. It is not usually demanded of literature students that they should be skilled in the literary equivalents of such techniques as playing a scale, composing a variation, sketching a nude: they are not habitually asked to scan a line of verse, compose a sonnet or sketch a fictional mise en scène. An education in the art of writing is often regarded as marginal to an education in the art of critical reading (as the agenda of most English departments used to be) or the art of cultural poetics (as the agenda of most English departments has become). But it is precisely this gap – an education in the craft of putting together words, analogous to the craft of putting together musical notes – that creative writing programmes can fill.


January 30, 2012

Walking Underwater

This was the poem selected for the 2011 Montreal International Poetry Prize, “Walking Underwater” by Australian poet Mark Tredinnick.

The winning poem was selected by former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion from a shortlist of nearly 50 poems. “This is a bold, big-thinking poem, in which ancient themes (especially the theme of our human relationship with landscape) are re-cast and re-kindled. It well deserves its eminence as a prize winner,” said Motion.

When asked to say a few words about the Montreal Prize, Mark responded: “This prize celebrates the making of poetry everywhere, in particular all of the shortlisted poems. To win it feels completely improbable. It’s a huge delight and an honour I’ll try to keep living up to in my writing.”

Walking Underwater
By Mark Tredinnick
Click here for the MP3.

For Kim Stafford

There is this quietness that hangs over North America.
As if all the days were double-glazed against themselves.
It’s uncanny. Tectonic. A kind of grief, a kind of pain
In waiting. Some sort of business unfinished. I feel it here
In the northwest, especially, though it stalked me in Toronto:
A slender quality of northern light, I guess, my southern
Self’s unused to, transposed into a season of suppressed sound,
A penumbra of silence cast by too much history, too much
Ecstatic landscape, too many plot points resolved at gunpoint,
And it feels like my life’s been lost here from the start.

I’m sorry: I’m talking out of my mood, which is jet-lagged
And dreaming heavily of what it used to think I loved.
There are plates subducting other plates on the mantle
Of my mind; there is disquiet and illness of ease. But look,
Out your windows the prayer flags have stopped
Praying, and moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen. Come out with me, you say; let’s wander
Up the river. Let’s see what N’chi wana has to say about
The light… Which turns out to be a lot, and most of it profane—

The cock and the cunt, for instance, Neruda’s entanglement
Of genitals, right there, gargantuan in basalt, and wrapped in Douglas
Fir on the south bank—and glorious. The robins along the Eagle
Creek drainage seemed convinced it was spring, but the cloud
That streamed downriver on the back of the teal-blue water
And the rising wind and the narrow road coming unstuck beneath
Our feet, were all busy putting winter back in place. And for two
Hours you schooled me in the art of walking underwater; for two
Hours we carried a bright conversation all the way to the falls
And back again in rain that fell like disappointment on my head.

If you’re going to call a mountain range The Cascades, this is
What you’re going to get—their very name on the map
A long walk in the rain. But it was worth it; it nearly always is:
The afternoon crying out the grief the continent had spent
All morning—all last century, so far as I can tell—trying not to
Confess. The watershed was a Japanese watercolour at risk
Of running off the canvas, the big water carrying its muted palette
Down to the sea and taking a good part of me with it. The gorge,
It turns out, is a green sermon left largely unsaid, and as we drove
Out of it, evening lay on the river like half the psalms I never knew.

Note: The Columbia River is known by many names to the people who
live along it. To the Chinook of its lower reaches, it is known as “Wimahi”;
the Kwak’wala-speaking peoples of the river’s middle reaches call the river
“Nch’i-Wana”. Both “Wimahi” and “Nch’i-Wana” mean “the big water” or
“the big river”.


January 20, 2012

John Clare's 'The Mouse's Nest'

Harvest Mouse nest

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Seamus Heaney describes this poem as 'seven couplets wound up like clockwork and then set free to spin merrily through their foreclosed motions'.

John Clare

John Clare


December 31, 2011

A Happy New Year to One and All

Take a flower


December 01, 2011

Is Brendan Kennelly Essential?

Pile of books

Brendan Kennelly is certainly an essential poet but his editors, Michael Longley and Terence Brown, have done him a favour by distilling his burgeoning oeuvre to the 110 poems in this book and 36 poems on a CD (Kennelly is a highly skilled spoken word artist).

This is a strong introduction to Kennelly, and the editors are refreshingly candid about the poet’s lyric and epic strengths as well as his occasional failures of rigour (there are worse crimes than over-writing or writing too much).

What comes across in The Essential Brendan Kennelly is the poet’s spiritual generosity, a tonic sense of wonder and a project that allows new readers to reach the core of Kennelly’s poetry without being tripped up by thirty slim and not-so-slim volumes.

The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley with CD of poems read by Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 160 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-904-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 28, 2011

'How Snow Falls'

‘Married to Poetry… in Love with Prose’Flaky

Peter Reading’s Vendange Tardive and Craig Raine’s How Snow Falls have a strong sense of reaching shore after testing experiences, losses, voyages. Yet these latest collections by Peter Reading and Craig Raine arrive at styles of expression that are as comparably and incompatibly different as absence and presence. Peter Reading is absent from his work, his grump ghost and voice notwithstanding. Reality is favoured by Raine, even when it cannot be borne. But this written reality is made from himself, from remembered and imagined feeling. I know that, for a critic, subject should be secondary to style. I cannot help but feel that style in How Snow Falls is partly sacrificed for the purposes of shock:

…two days before she died, a question:

would I pluck the hairs out of her chin?

There were none on the ward,
so I bought some tweezers down the road.

Every time a hair was plucked,
she sighed, almost like someone being slowly fucked.

Yes, she said, yes. Yes.
The last pleasures of the flesh.

‘I Remember my Mother Dying’

As Kate Kellaway has observed the details seem not so much intimate as disinhibited. Raine’s early poetry possessed a poise of exactitude through its artistic inhibition: the poet edited himself very tightly; selflessness of vision made his metaphors ring with invention. His images extended how we might see, connecting with the reality of things, there being no reality but in things. There is still plenty of poetic CGI for those who like the spoils of eye-made art: ‘Ski lifts tireless as a trail of ants’; ‘The firs are herring-bone with snow’; ‘Trinity lawn, effervescent with hailstones’. Raine claims in this book that although he ‘will always be married to poetry’ he has ‘fallen in love with prose’, and the recent passion shows in the length of the book, an occasional breeziness of technique, and the privileging of subject.

It seems presumptuous of me to state of a writer and editor of his accomplishments but I think Craig Raine is a far better writer and editor than he is allowing himself to be. How Snow Falls might have been a shorter, sharper book. The final poem ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ releases brilliant, buoyant, elegiac energy (imagine a Martian Poet recreating Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’). But ‘A la recherche’ is a poem published ten years ago in book form by Picador (How Snow Falls is advertised as his first collection in a decade.). As Peter Reading is super-selective ‘eschewing utterance’ when there is nothing to say, Craig Raine is generous, but generous to a fault.

How Snow Falls, Craig Raine, Atlantic Books, hb., 168 pp., £14.99, ISBN 978-1-84887-285-1

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 24, 2011

Cunning, Precision… and Weight Loss

Claire Crowther spent several years as an editor and journalist in the weight management industry. TheMoon Scale subject of her pamphlet-length sequence Incense is body fat, a subject ‘relevant to many readers but rarely written about’ sayeth The Blurb of Truth. Crowther’s chosen poetic form is the ‘aptly named’ fatras. The fatras arose in the fourteenth century France from the body of another form the fatrasie, ‘a type of verse that exploits the unreasonable, the ridiculous and the grotesque’ according to Lambert Porter’s essay La Fatrasie et le Fatras (1960). The subjects of these old poems were surreal five centuries before Surrealism: a cheese sneezes, an onion brays, a basin chants a vigil, a flying castle sews an oven. Such medieval play demanded medieval rigour. In the fatras, two lines, evocative and courtly in tenor, launched the following eleven lines, furnishing the first and last lines and giving the poem its phrasal momentum and framing. Rule one for the fatras was to begin sharply and finish shapely; rule two insisted that reality is dreamlike. Hence this new example of the form from Claire Crowther:

Ask a woman who’s lost four stone

from side to side like a throat cut.

Ask a women who’s lost four stone

of (mostly) fat:

what is the difference?

Capacity to jump and run?

‘Sure. But – as if snow melted

exposing tracks in tarmac

and the weediness of old

grass, this soaked ground –

my age has been uncovered.

Drawn mouth, a neck scored

from side to side like a throat cut.’

‘Untitled’

Crowther’s conflation of fat and fatras could, at first glance, appear whimsical, even too insistently willed. My view is that this entire sequence is a minor revelation - an almost outrageously blessed ravelling of traditional form and contemporary subject. The subject is treated with truth and respect, yet the old form is given fresh tone and turn. Although Crowther follows the form’s strictures to the letter, she is shrewd too, carving her own patterns. ‘Let Us Now Praise Adipose Tissue’ recreates the shape of ‘Two long chains/of fatty acids linked/by a glycerol backbone’. This poem also demonstrates deeper strengths in the language chosen: Crowther uses scientific terminology to cunning poetic purpose, and she also uses that precise language accurately. Like Marianne Moore, she is able to locate the poetry asleep in the language of science, even dare I say in the language of weight management.

Incense, Claire Crowther, Flarestack Poets, 28 pp., £4.50, ISBN 978-1-906480-27-1

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 18, 2011

'Now I Know What Love Is’ – In Memory of Peter Reading

Vendange Tardive grapes are left on the vine to dry and concentrate, creating exquisite dessert wines inHilbe Island the Alsace region. The term means ‘late harvest’. I do not imagine this is the last we shall be hearing from Peter Reading, not when there is no escaping what follows winter. For older poets, age might break or make you into seeing yourself and your work with more exactitude. I imagine age might feel like exile yet provide the solace of arrival. Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. Speaking 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’. Peter Reading has conducted most of his poetic career since Work in Regress (1997) in this late style. Vendange Tardive is a taut example of mature subjectivity, stripped, tellingly, of ego: ‘when there is nothing’ he writes in a Wittgenstein-like fragment, ‘eschew utterance’.

The volume opens with a modest plea: ‘For the attention of Penelope Reading (Nunc scio quid sit Amor)’, Reading acknowledging that we write – in fact, we behave - with more exactitude when, with Virgil, we know what love is and have set ourselves to serve its purpose, even when we also know love can neither save us or the world. Vendange Tardive offers the modest assurance that love and wine can console while the human world splatters about in an abyss of its own bloody making. The world is too much with us and is getting worse and worse and worse:

The rhetorical ‘How goes it, old boy?’;

the unnerving response:

‘Infinitely sad, old warrior,

infinitely sad – I’ve just heard…’.

[Untitled]

I cannot picture an oenologist becoming a nihilist unless he or she were producing plonk for some poisonous purpose. In an age of mass cultural plonk, Peter Reading’s poetry is vigilantly harvested and casked. David Wheatley has called Reading the world’s worst nihilist and he is correct. Peter Reading is too fine-tuned a technician; he is too funny a comic even at his blackest and gloomiest (he is poetry’s Eeyore of the eyesore); and he is still writing without tedium, derangement or barrel-scraping. I admire him for not stopping writing - despite or because of publishing Last Poems in 1994. There is no abdication of art’s rights in the late work of Peter Reading. His eye for the natural world, his sense for artistic detail, for order and for the beguilement of verbal pattern, vies with defeatism:

 Hilbre, winter, high tide.

Over the West Hoyle, hurl and white swash, and above,

the sky the colour of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate.

And the long-ruined sandstone lifeboat station brine-lashed,

the slipway thrashing the saline assault into spume.

from ‘Maritime’

Vendange Tardive, Peter Reading, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 56 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1085224-884-0

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 15, 2011

Voices for Nature

Writing about web page http://www.birdwatch.co.uk/events/event.asp?e=13270

dawn

Voices for Nature is a major gathering of writers, artists, poets, musicians, historians, scientists and film-makers, all of whom have one thing in common: they draw their inspiration from nature. This year’s gathering/symposium, the third in a series of annual events, takes place in the beautiful Lincolnshire town of Stamford, at the Stamford Arts Centre on Friday 18-Saturday 19 November 2011.

Voices for Nature is organised by New Networks for Nature, a recently founded alliance whose goals are to challenge the low political priority placed on wildlife and landscape in this country and to celebrate the central role played by nature in our cultural life.

The event runs over two days and features a hugely impressive roster of talks, including keynote speaker, the acclaimed poet and novelist Ruth Padel, as well as Pete Cairns, founder of the 2020 Vision photographic project, and the author Richard Hines, who trained the kestrels used in Kes, the film by Ken Loach and Barry Hines. The day will also include presentations by sound recordist Geoff Sample and Professor Tim Birkhead author, academic and co-founder of New Networks for Nature.

On the second day, Voices for Nature moves to the nearby Helpston Church, famously associated with the great 19th-century poet John Clare. The day’s event is held in association with the John Clare Society, and speakers include award-winning poet David Morley and the celebrated artist Carry Akroyd, whose recent work has been inspired by her exploration of Clare Country.

Voices for Nature is the first meeting open to anyone. If you wish to attend one or both days the charge is £30 inclusive. Bookings will be handled by the Stamford Arts Centre, tel: 01780 763203.

For more details or information email info@newnetworksfornature.org.uk or mark.cocker@virgin.net.


November 12, 2011

Leaf–Worlds

A Water Measurer‘As Clear as Water’: Ink, Sweat and Tears on “Enchantment”

Angela Topping reviews Enchantment in “Ink, Sweat and Tears”, 2nd November 2011

This book is aptly titled: it certainly does bring the reader under Morley’s spell. The first poem is an elegy for Nicholas Farrar Hughes (Plath’s son). Morley recounts a simple and beautiful memory of going for a walk with Nick, in which he befriends two horses. Morley’s reputation as an eco-poet is well deserved for this one line alone:


where leaf-worlds welled from all the wood’s wands.


This is such an elegant and visual line. The alliteration works really well with the imagery, such as ‘wands’ which is a perfect description of the young whippy branches but with the added resonance of magic which wants to conjure Nicholas up and relive the moment of his happiness. ‘Welled’ is a lovely word as the young branches are moist and full of sap, with the added resonance of tears filling the eyes, and ‘leaf-worlds’ recalls Blake’s ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’. The next poem, ‘Dragonflies’ contains dazzling language to match these insects, through skilled deployment of internal rhyme to the imagery of ‘sparking ornaments’. Each poem in this water sequence opens out into the next one. And these poems are as clear as water, so clear primary school children would enjoy them and be charmed by them. I am with Orwell on the notion that good writing is like a pane of glass, and like Keats in the pursuit of ‘negative capability’. Morley shows us beauty we can focus on, rather than us watching him seeing the beauty. That is a mark of the truly great poet.

‘The Lucy Poem’ is a remarkable imagining of the life and thoughts of a human ancestor, dubbed ‘Lucy’ for the light shed on our past , but more scientifically Australopithecus afarensis who lived 3.2 million years BC. Intellectually Morley’s research is admirable, but the poem connects with us on a deeper level. We see the planet as it was in the past through Lucy’s eyes, and its beauty is strange and startling:

 


when those mountains
bloomed from underworld lodes
springing geladas led their fat
appetites to the snow-caps
muscled like woolly gods;


The poem follows Lucy as she takes a walk through the terrain, and the poem’s short, springing lines and long stanzas perfectly suit this narrative, because each line makes a stride and each stanza break a change in landscape. Lucy is on a quest for water, and she finds it through the sense of hearing. This makes a satisfying close to the poem. Even if Morley had not taken an epigraph from Wordsworth for this collection, the link with that great Romantic poet is unavoidable through the name Lucy.

‘Chorus’ celebrates the birth of a son to the Morley family. The joyous tone is achieved by using Whitmanesque long lines of observation, focusing on bird song and bird behaviours. It is best described as a hymn to morning. As society becomes increasingly secular, poems like this and ‘The Lucy Poem’ reach out to everyone and provide spiritual sustenance without religious agenda, as does ‘Proserpina’. Morley does not seek to be obscure; everything we need to know is in the poem, such as the reference to Ruskin:


… to attend as Ruskin did
to Malham Cove when the stones of the brook were softer
with moss than any silken pillow;


And I love the assonance and consonance of the phrase ‘silken pillow’ which creates the tactile sense of the softness through the repetition of the l sounds.

Morley also draws on Romany heritage to remake traditional stories, for example ‘Hedgehurst’ in which he gives a voice to a half human half hedgehog youth from a traveller children’s story. This long poem holds the reader because of the freshness of the language, the aptness of the metaphor and the music of carefully orchestrated sounds:


Whose is this scorned skin?
What weather rouses me
to lag my limbs with lichen
to fold fresh thatch around me?


There are a number of Romany poems in this collection, forming a core section. All repay reading aloud and all are spellbinding. I can’t help thinking of John Clare and his fascination with the ‘Gypsies’ from whom he learned fiddle tunes. Morley gives the reader a powerful insight into a culture which is often secretive and closed. The circus sequence, ‘A Lit Circle’, gives voice to many of the circus entertainers such as Zhivakos the Horseman and Mashkar the Magician. Morley’s language glitters and delights, when he captures the excitement of the performances tempered by the sorrows of the travelling life and the inevitable changes which will threaten this world of magic and bravado. This language is enhanced by the inclusion of Romany words which lend their own music and exoticism to this gliding, gilded poetry.


Morley includes unobtrusive notes in the back of the collection, which acknowledge his source material and help the reader to access information. Although this is a complex book in many ways, and the third in a series, I find the poems have just the right amount of challenge for the reader. Morley is a quiet poet whose work is to be savoured and mulled over, by a fireside on a winter’s night or swinging in a hammock in the midst of the natural treasures which he interweaves throughout his work. Ever inventive, yet true to himself, Morley is a marvellous poet.

....reviewed by Angela Topping


November 08, 2011

Our Singing Language

Our Singing LanguageDale Farm friend

There is no pure Romani language: there are several living, vivid, ricocheting dialects. These dialects sometimes take a loan from other tongues: language is absorbed as it is travelled through. The porosity of Romani dialects can seem to resemble the porosity of English except for one distinction. English, for all its riches, is a language of colonisation and globalisation; Romani, for its treasures, is a language of the invisible or enslaved. The Gurbet Romani dialect for example is influenced linguistically by centuries of enslavement of the Roma in Romania (the group term Gurbet means foreign work or aliens).

The Gurbet Roma group, like the Kalderaš and Lovara, is known for independence and entrepreneurship. A number of writers have arisen from it, the most prominent being Ilija Jovanović whose first collection of poems Bündel/Bodžo was published in Romani (and German translation) in the year 2000. News from the Other World: Poems in Romani is a bilingual selected poems by Jovanović. The book opens with the writer’s memories of childhood – accounts of the casual, unconscious racism of non-gypsy “friends” - as well as a short history of Roma people. The body of the book is made up of poems about settlements, hazards of travel, identity, love, childhood and salvation. These make for strong if, at times, severe reading: dark notes abound, duende is evoked and Jovanović’s Romani diction has fine, wry attack. Romani is phonetic, so you can listen in to his voice through reading the poems as you find them. To get the flavour of this poet, try sounding the buzz-note consonants and dammed-up internal rhymes at the close of ‘Lost World’:

Traden amen pe sa o them.

Amen džas thaj džas

ni džanas kaj thaj dži kaj.

(They chase us across the whole world.

We move on and on, having no idea

when this will end, or where to go.)

Jovanović writes of Romani as ‘our singing language’ and Romani certainly possesses qualities, as with English, that pass beyond meaning: the sound of sense, the sound of sensuality, and the sound of a group’s shared sensibility. The poems are capably translated by Melitta Depner. My sole criticism is that the concentration and energy of Jovanović’s dialect sometimes carry abstractedly or blandly into English. The poet’s attack and duende are what vanish in translation. To take a fairly typical example from the poem ‘I Have No Home’: the syntactical crackle, alliterative strut and resignation registered by the line-break of ‘Čořope, bokh, maripe, mundaripe / traden ma than thaneste te džav’ registers in translation as dejected prose: ‘Poverty, hunger and violence /drive me from place to place’. The Roma are indeed a victimised people, but do not wish to behave or sound like victims - or be ventriloquised into that role. What I am saying is that the poems work best in Romani, but you do not need to be a Romani speaker, nor a specialist in the Gurbet dialect, to get something out of this attractive and truthful book of poems. It is probably a tiny miracle such a book has been allowed to exist and it is a welcome addition to Romani writing in English translation.

News from the Other World: Poems in Romani, Ilija Jovanović, Francis Boutle Publishers, pb., 152 pp., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-903427-54-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


November 07, 2011

Incarnations of the Wild

Hedgehurst by Peter Blegvad

‘Incarnations of the Wild’, Poetry London on “Enchantment”

A review by Sue Hubbard in Poetry London, Summer 2011, No. 69

SUE HUBBARD WRITES: "When I was a child one of my favourite poems was ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’, a Scottish Border ballad written around 1720. It seemed to suggest a parallel, unregulated world that sat alongside my own rather constrained, suburban existence. The words spoke of the unfettered pleasures of an alternative life close to nature: exotic, sensual, dangerous even. Something of this atmosphere is evoked in David Morley’s new collection Enchantment.

"It begins with an unconventional sonnet sequence in memory of his friend Nicholas Hughes, distinguished professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who died by his own hand at the age of forty-six. This not only flags up Morley’s own role as an ecologist and naturlist, but links him to the poetry and imagery of Ted Hughes, whose mythic relationship with the natural world hovers behind these poems.

"The Wordworthian epithet at the beginning of the book ‘with rocks, and stones, and trees’, also suggests a connection with the elemental. The close observation of a water measurer – that spindly insect which can be seen slowly walking around on the surfaces of ditches and ponds, apparently pacing out the distance between points – reveals a specialist knowledge of fauna that avoids the trap of much romanticised nature poetry. Dragonflies, mayflies and Alaskan salmon are all closely observed here. In ‘Proserpina’, Morley refuses the easy bien-pensant terms of environmentalism – ‘I could write a cliché about conservation here / but I won’t and I won’t because I can’t – understanding that the mess of the external world, all too often, mirrors a deeper internal disquiet:

It is true

That what we waste bends back to grind us. My rubbish

Is also here in me, and I shove and shovel it around

Every day, sometimes alert to its weight and stench

But most of the time too busy or bored to see or scent

The wealth and ruin of evidence, its blowflies, the extended

Families of vermin.

"But it is the second section that takes me back to that childhood excitement of ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies. It begins with ‘Hedgehurst’, a poem based on a traditional Romany story taken from Duncan Williamson’s Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, about a creature that is half-hedgehig and half human. Spoken in the voice of the Hedgehurst, the tone is incantatory, ancient and pagan:

What weather rouses me

to lag my limbs with lichen

to fold fresh thatch around me?

"Like some John Barleycorn or Green Man, the Hedgehurst appears as the incarnation of the wild:

I had kenned from my wrens

how to cave-mine my call,

to speak through soil, make

speech slither through a hill...

"In the later, more obviously narrative sequence ‘A Lit Circle’, Morley creates a series of monologues spoken by various circus folk, including the ringmaster, clown and strongman. Fizzing with Romany and Parlari (the unwritten language of fairgrounds and gay subculture), his language conveys a sense of what it means to live on the margins of mainstream society. As ‘Demelza-Do-It-All’, who has an act as a barrel walker [as well as fifteen other acts, DM] says, ‘down in the industrial estate with my sister for small animal food, / the vet for the dogs’, she saw ‘swastikas scratched on every circus poster’. Romany traditions and superstitions, along with a fierce pride in their itinerant way of way of life, are graphically drawn in ‘Songs of Papusza’:

The straw of which a Romany gives birth is burnt. A gypsy dies;

the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.

They’re unclean.

"In these strangely evocative poems where a blacksmith creates a girl from fire and a mother slides her fairy-baby into a waterfall, David Morley taps into myths and folklore to weave a series of spells reinventing the oral tradition of poetry and returning it to fireside and hearth."


November 04, 2011

Taken Away, Teacher's Notes for a Workshop

Writing about web page http://sounds.bl.uk/resources/teachersnotes.pdf

This document is taken from the British Library website cited in the entry below this. There are also some good workshops based on poetry by Mimi Khalvati, Moniza Alvi and Saradha Soobrayen.

Teacher's notes

Taken Away

OVERVIEW

David Morley’s... writing often addresses Romani culture and uses Romani language. Frequently he writes poetic narratives which blend traditional story-telling with the hard concrete realities of urban life, writing about difficult situations with the lightness of a magical realist touch. In this activity students will think about tone and language, updating a fairytale to a twenty-first century context, and mixing contemporary diction with archaisms and clichés.

INTRODUCTION

This poem’s title ‘Taken Away’ helps the content of the poem work on many levels. It is about a child who has been taken away from his parents, but the exact details of the story are murky – is this about death (even possibly murder) or the taking away of a child by others who fear the parents can’t look after it? Ask the students to work through the poem, making a list of narrative events. What do they think is happening? When is the poem set? The same poem contains ‘fairy baby’ and ‘postman’; the child is ‘like a seal’ and ‘drinking whiskey’ – what happens when we mix language, time and situation like this? What’s the mood of the poem?

TASK

Bring in a pile of children’s books that contain nursery rhymes and fairytales. Also bring in lots of newspapers. Firstly give out the children’s books and ask the students to open them randomly and write down ten words or phrases that they think carry the tone of the story or rhyme and make us feel like we are in a magical world. Then give them the newspapers and ask them to choose ten words or phrases that are totally contemporary and put us in the twenty-first century. The students then have to choose one fairytale or nursery rhyme and find a story in the newspapers that somehow relates to it. They should then write a narrative poem, updating the fairytale to the modern day context and make sure it contains at least 5 of their magical words / phrases and at least 5 of their contemporary newspaper words / phrases.

If they want to really push themselves and help their poem gain momentum, they should write the poem in 4 line stanzas, with an alternate line rhyme scheme XAXA XBXB XCXC etc.

However, the poems will also be fine, unrhymed and in a different shape - perhaps try copying David Morley’s poem using long lines and irregular stanzas.


Between Two Worlds: Teacher's Notes for David Morley's 'Taken Away'

Writing about web page http://sounds.bl.uk/resources/teachersnotes.pdf

Taken Away

 

Taken Away

The mother places her baby at the waterfall’s brim.

She waits for the moon’s climb.

They’d been hard at the hay with a blunt scythe between them

circling and slashing for hours under blanking sunlight

with the cradle nestled and nooked on the one hayless place.

They’d had their breakfast, porridge and milk and tea,

scones, cheese, whatever they had. Their picnic things

were scattered on the green knowe around the cradle

as if plates and pots and pans had been tossed out by the baby.

The wife shadows her husband with a wide wooden rake

weaving and whirling his handwork as he worries the hay loose.

You know how a man makes bouts of hay with a scythe

and round and round the field in close and closing spirals

he rounds on the hayless knowe and that one white cradle

with cups and greaseproof wrappings pallid with butter;

like a maze of mauve leading into a green eye and an unseen

staring gap among the eye’s blades. Some small wind shoves

the grass as if a snake were sidling.         The parents are heads down.

Their muscles move with each other as if they were making love.

Round he goes, and round she goes, a buzzard’s marriage

on a thermal. Then a cry goes up as if the soil were screaming

or the wind were wounded on nails of brittle straw. A cry

neither parent has heard and cannot stem with any known thing,

not milk or love or kiss or words or food. The young doctor

from across the glen hears the child’s call across five miles.

He rides towards it as if the cry were a fire rising in the fields

but all his knowledge’s clear water will not quench the child.

And so it goes for the fever of three thickening months

except at the wick of midnight when the baby closes down

as if his switches had been thrown, or some wires scissored

in his throat. Tethered by their child, the parents thaw into sleep

only to freeze awake at dawn as the cry bursts back alight.

Folk keep away. Folk catch that cry in their cattle’s eyes; taste

its scum in their milk and mutton.   

At summer’s flow, the postman

deaf with listening to a lifetime’s stories, strode into their cottage,

downed a dram, and drank the scene into his memory: salt water

damming a child’s throat, a cry that would not cease for love.

He stayed with him all day. The parents scrammed for provisions

and the cure of quiet. As the door slammed and their footfalls

slapped into the lane, the postman turned to the baby and the baby

sat up asking if they had gone and, if his parents had gone

would that now mean he could get up at last—and get up he did

as if he were a young man sternly sick of his own board and bed.

He could stand and speak. The child’s voice was dark and thrown

as if four corners of the room were talking with him or through him.

The child clenched the whiskey bottle and downed enough to throw

a horse. He drew a long straw and slit it to the note of a flute.

Then he played the long day through, making the postman drink

deeper and harder than he had the head or height or heart for.

A moon widened on the windows; a garden gate squeaked

cringing on its hinges; the parents poured through the door

to find their child crying in his cot like a seal left on some low ledge

of the Atlantic; and the postman pointing at him, adrift or bereft.

‘He’s not here, your child. He’s not anywhere. He’s taken away.

He told me everything, how you left him to the cloud and sky,

left him to the harebell and the grasshopper and the cow parsley,

left him in grazed gaps between grass, to skylark and to hoverfly,

while you worked, if that’s what you were doing.’       They knew

one cure, one pure matter passed from their grandmothers.

When midnight massed itself over breakers and shore,

when the tide of the day had flown, mother, father and friend

headed by torchlight up the headstream on the high moor.

The mother slides her fairy-baby towards the waterfall’s brink,

taut-shawled, his baby arms pinioned like a wrapped cat.

The child’s mewling, breathing the breath of the chilled spray

slaping up from the trout-brown pool at the fall’s foot.

The father and their friend are behind her, egging her on,

baying that it’s for the best, that their child isn’t in the child.

The moon bends a bow behind a cloud-castle then shoots

its light-arrow through a slit across the waterfall’s rim.

 


October 25, 2011

'It Dives into the Burly Water'

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

That kingfisher jewelling upstream

seems to leave a streak of itself behind it

in the bright air. The trees

are all the better for its passing.

It’s not a mineral eater, though it looks it:

it doesn’t nip nicks out of the edges

of rainbows. – It dives

into the burly water, then, perched

on a Japanese bough, gulps

into its own incandescence

a wisp of minnow, a warrior stickleback.

- Or it vanishes into its burrow, resplendent

Samurai, returning home

to his stinking slum.

Norman MacCaig


October 19, 2011

The Lucy Poem

Lucy

‘The Lucy Poem’. Most environmental research depends on the establishment of a time-line: how far back in the history of the planet can we go to find information that we can analyse in order to make reasonable predictions? And, taking these historical timelines together, how do they interact and inter-twine? I first found myself writing about the future until I realised that such images neither consoled nor could describe accurately the climatic possibilities opening before us. The science of global warming alerts us to the realisation that such catastrophes lie behind us in history as well as before us; that everything affects another thing; and that, however much we have transformed them, climate conditions are beyond good and evil—our weather is not a moral climate. In order to find a truer time-line for writing a poem about global warming, I began thinking about previous climatic transformations, and how our ancestral species dealt with them. I settled on the story of ‘Lucy’, the famous Australopithecus afarensis of Ethiopia dating to 3.2m BC, the heart of the Pleiocene Era. Who were her family or tribe and what were their stories? Where was ‘Lucy’ going the day she died? In her mind - and it was likely to be a considerable mind - how might ‘Lucy’ narrate the world around her? Her world and that of other creatures of her time (including large predatory civets and mass populations of antelope) were under unimaginable threat. Unlike us, ‘Lucy’ knew nothing about it nor could she or her kind have done anything to prevent the coming changes. Our evolution came about because the world of ‘Lucy’ was utterly transformed - the activity of nearby supernovae caused the destruction of the ozone layer. The changes wrought to the planet tipped the Pleiocene era into the Pleistocene. What ‘Lucy’ left behind for us to unearth was her presence, not her name. Her presence was the story, a time-line that predicted our own present. The story and name of ‘Lucy’ represents our story but with these differences: we have a time-line, we possess a little knowledge, and we know that our ability to continue the story of our own species lies in our hands.


October 06, 2011

Moment When a Poetry Happens

RIP Steve Jobs


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