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June 10, 2016

Everything is Poetry

On handReview of "The Gypsy and the Poet"

by Stone and Star

David Morley's most recent collection, The Gypsy and the Poet… is a unique tribute to one of the most celebrated poets of the English countryside, John Clare. Many of the poems make up an ongoing dialogue between Clare and a mysterious Gypsy named Wisdom Smith.

Wisdom Smith appears briefly in John Clare's notebooks, and Morley uses this as a starting point for a series of playful, joyous sonnets made up of springy, alliterative verse which occasionally turns sombre (as when Clare says "Were poems children/I should stamp their lives out" and Wisdom Smith responds "Then do not make them", in 'My Children'.) I found myself wondering if Wisdom Smith was simply another aspect of Clare's complex personality (or is Clare another aspect of Wisdom Smith?) and if the sequence was a sort of Yeatsian dialogue of self and soul. This is particularly the case towards the end of the collection, as Clare descends into madness and the corporeal reality of the two figures' encounters becomes more doubtful. I think the poems can be read either as real encounters or as aspects of one personality, but in any case, the two characters have much to teach each other. Each sees the world at an angle that the other finds challenging, and so they bring each other to new understandings, even if it's through banter and mockery:

'I do not read, brother,' states Wisdom smiling,

'for I will not bother with Mystery.

Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?'

(from 'Worlds')

Wisdom Smith gets Clare to live in the moment, in the natural world; Clare gets him to look more seriously at poetry.

'Poetry is in season,' laughs John. 'Rooms woven from wound wood

are like rooms of woven words.' Wisdom looks at Clare - hard.

'Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,' smiles the Gypsy.

'You are wrong,' dances Clare. 'Everything. Everything is poetry.'

(from 'Bender')

The poems are highlighted by English and Romany epigraphs, which heighten the impression of a dialogue between two cultures, both at home in the natural world, but in different ways.

The book is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are the John Clare and Wisdom Smith sonnets. The central section is made up of a variety of nature poems, including pieces which became part of the Slow Art Trail in Strid Wood, poems based on birdsong and painted on bird boxes, and shape poems. I am not really a fan of shape poems in general, but I saw all the poems in this section as a kind of extension of John Clare's (and David Morley's) notebooks and his observations about his life in the natural world. These poems are a record of what is happening around us, often unperceived, and they go a long way to show us how complex and intertwined the natural world is. Two poems, 'Fight' and 'Ballad of the Moon, Moon' are based on Lorca and his rich, strange perceptions of the Gypsy world.

The Gypsy and the Poet is a book to be taken out and read in the fields or the forest, but if this isn't possible, it can at least take the reader there in imagination and provide new insights into our relationship with the natural world and with other cultures, all wrapped up in some very colourful, distinctive and haunting verse.

BARDEN TOWER (David Morley)

I have heard a tourist claim this view

as though she had bought it at cost -

an expensive mirror. Unseen and ornately

ivy throws its ropes across the leaf-litter

shifting a forest's massive furniture;

the moss robes veil the thrones

of fallen oaks; trees flare with lichen;

Autumn smashes rainbows across

the woodland floor. You may never

have seen these trees more brilliantly

than when you turned your eyes

to that hunting lodge and sensed the light

kindle a million leaf mirrors.

In his woods near Lake Tuusula

Jean Sibelius shaped symphonies

from the speech of trees; firs bowed

violins while his swans sailed, keening.

Before his death a solitary swan

veered over and made him her own.

I am close to you who once shared this view.

This is not my sky, my flight, my words. This is not a mirror.

Poem © David Morley, 2013. Artwork © Peter Blegvad. Used by permission.

January 31, 2013

Almost Happiness

Writing about web page

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.


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”


‘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”.

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