Archive for January, 2012


22 January 2012

The news that Matthew Hollis is apparently now favourite for the Costa Book Award for his biography of the poet Edward Thomas is good news for poetry. It sent me back to an article Hollis wrote about the writing of ‘Adlestrop’, which is now one of the best known poems in English.

Most of Thomas’ poems were written in a furious rush in the last few years before he was killed in France in 1917, with the encouragement of the great American poet Robert Frost, who had become a firm friend. And most of them drew on his notebooks, which were full of short vivid sketches of things he’d seen.

‘Adlestrop’ was published a few weeks after his death, but the trip it was based on took place three years earlier, when he went by train with his wife to visit Frost, then staying in England. The notebook, wrote Hollis, contains this passage about the train’s halt at Adlestrop:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel . . . one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view[.] Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Most of the poem came quickly to him, but he struggled with the first verse. This is the published version:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

It took him several drafts to settle on the class of train. It started as an express, then became a steam train, then just a train. By the final version, wrestling with the fact that the train had made its unscheduled stop, he’d gone back to ‘express’. As Hollis explains:

The train had to be “express” and not “steam” if it was to pull up “unexpectedly”, he reasoned; though about this word, too, he had doubts, and tried “Against its custom”, before he hit upon exactly the word he was looking for: “unwontedly”.

Unwontedly. It’s one of those words which even native English speakers have problems with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way:

“In a strange, unwonted, or unusual manner; unusually; uncommonly”

So the manner of the stopping draws attention to the other uncommonnesses in the poem, such as the absence of people on the station (“No one left and no one came”), which reminds us that Thomas wrote only indirectly about the Great War, but it is often present through absences. “His real subjects”, wrote Robert MacFarlane in a review of Hollis’ book, “were disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness.”

The station itself was closed in the 1960s, after Beeching’s axe destroyed chunks of the British rail network. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, for as Edward Thomas said later in the poem, he saw ‘only the name’.

The picture of Adlestrop Station at the top of this post was taken in 1961. It is from Wikipedia Commons. The copyright on this image is owned by Ben Brooksbank and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. Richard Burton cn be heard reading the poem on Youtube.


Dancing Gershwin

14 January 2012

One of the first pleasures of Strictly Gershwin at the Coliseum (it was someone’s birthday treat) was seeing – as the curtain rose – that the orchestra has been lifted out the pit and placed across the back of the stage. It was, immediately, a reminder of the big bands of the Jazz Age, of which Gershwin was unaguably the greatest composer.

Do ballet and jazz mix? The answer is: mostly. Ballet and show dancing are very different, as Darcy Bussell was reminded when she set out recently to recreate some of the great dances of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The first is straight limbs and square ends, the second is more hips and bends. The dancer’s centre of gravity is in a different place.

The ballet sequences which worked best were the ones which allowed ballet to do what it does best – a a visual and physical interpretation of a piece of music. An American in Paris was all colour and movement, a tale of love found, lost and found again. Rhapsody in Blue was more stylised, more formal (as seen in the photograph at the top of this post), but also added a dimension to the music. A moment’s digression here: Gershwin kept procrastinating over writing the piece, until the bandleader Paul Whiteman, for whom it was being written, simply announced the concert at which it would premiere, forcing Gershwin to get on and finish it.

Some of the songs didn’t respond so well to treatment. The story of The Man I Love or Someone To Watch Over Me is all in the lyric, so dancing it as well added little. On the other hand, the more open lyric of Summertime made for a fine interpretation.

The company was augmented by a couple of champion ballroom dancers, whose tango, improbably to It Ain’t Necessarily So, was one of the highlights of the show. But the warmest applause was for the tap dancers. I don’t know if it’s because tap dancing came of age at the same time as jazz, and remains one of America’s great contributions to dance, but when they were on the energy levels in the theatre increased decisively.

But back to the orchestra. There’s nothing quite like a 30-piece big band playing jazz standards, and the programme reveals that – as with the dancers – the ENO orchestra was augmented by jazz specialists, who led each of the horn sections. You could hear it as they traded dirty notes in some of the numbers, which reminded me of lines from Carl Sandburg‘s fine poem, Jazz Fantasia:

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,
moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a
racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang!
you jazzmen…

Kudos, by the way, to the ENO Box Office. There was a problem with my tickets, which may have been my fault, and they swapped them in an instant for tickets elsewhere which had just as good a view, and without any of the eye-rolling or customer blaming you sometimes get in such circumstances.

The picture at the top comes via Georgina Butler’s blog, and is used with thanks.