Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Christmas Eve

24 December 2016

firstchristmascard

The blog posts from the poet, Helen Mort, which I follow, are always a pleasure to read. Her final post of 2016 pointed me to “Christmas Eve,” by the West Midlands poet Liz Berry.

Here’s an extract:

And it’s Christmas soon, abide it or not,

for now the pubs are illuminated pink and gold

The Crooked House, Ma Pardoes, The Struggling Mo

and snow is filling women’s hair like blossom

and someone is drunk already and throwing a punch

and someone is jamming a key in a changed lock

shouting fer christ’s sake, Myra, yo’ll freeze me to jeth

and a hundred new bikes are being wrapped in sheets

and small pyjamas warmed on fireguards

and children are saying one more minute, just one, Mom

But better, as Helen Mort suggests, to listen to Liz Berry reading it out loud on Soundcloud, where somehow she sounds like a Black Country Dylan Thomas bringing her town and its people to life, unsentimentally, at Christmas time in the 2010s. Four minutes you won’t regret.

The image at the top of the post is of the world’s first Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843, and used here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under a public domain licence.

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Voskhod over Edinburgh

21 August 2016

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When I was seven, my father took my brother and I out onto the street outside our house to see a Soviet spacecraft whose orbit of earth took it directly over Edinburgh. I think I was seven, at least, but I could be wrong about that, and I think it was the autumn, and although I could check the details, that’s not the point, because this is about the memory. It still seems, at this distance, an other-worldly experience, a moment of wonder. It was still the age of Red Plenty, at a time when the Soviet Union was leading in the space race, before American arms expenditure bled the economy dry. But in truth, it wouldn’t have mattered much whose spacecraft it was; the wonder was because it was up there flashing across the sky and we were able to watch it from the street right outside of our house.

This memory is prompted by finding while tidying a poem I photocopied years ago which captures, more eloquently, the same sense of wonder. From memory, although the name is not on the photocopy, it’s by the Scottish poet Alan Bold, who died suddenly in 1998. Bold was interested in both radical politics and technology (and if I have this wrong, please let me know.) Judging from the internet, it also seems to be out of print, so I trust that the publishers will forgive me from reprinting it here.

On Seeing Voskhod Over Edinburgh

On a cold October night

Edinburgh’s sky was punctuated,

Not by a divine presence,

But by the stabbing cigarette-end-like apparition

Of three men in a spaceship.

I looked out from my house

In a hundred-year-old tenement

And felt that Komarov, Yegerov and Feoktistov

Were fellow travellers of mine.

For it’s a long way from Zazakhstan to Scotland

And it’s a long way my house is from Voskhod.

Yet I saw

The stabbing cigarette-end-like shape,

I watched as the red light flashed

Across the sky.

For four minutes we Scots saw

The scientific age in action.

And as we retreated back into our tenements

And thought once more of slums,

We also saw that an alternative existed.

(Alan Bold)

The image at the top of the post is from the website Spacefacts, and is used with thanks.

Dying together

20 December 2015
Occupy_Design_z2

Poster for COP-21 in Paris, by Occupy Design.

For all the small spliters of optimism from the Paris COP-21 talks (and symbols and rhetoric do matter), the whole process reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Swansong,  published earlier this year in The Guradian. Brecht wrote it about the long shadow of nuclear war, but physics has multiple ways of dealing with hubris.

 Swansong, by Bertolt Brecht

      Let the last inscription then run
      (That broken slab without readers):

The planet is going to burst,
Those it bred will destroy it.

As a way of living together we merely thought up capitalism.

Thinking of physics, we thought up rather more:
A way of dying together.

(Translation by John Willett)

The image at the top of the post is from the Brandalism project, and is used with thanks. It hacked Paris poster sites at the start of the Paris conference and replaced the posters with new images. 

A little bit of butter for my bread

24 November 2013

A few weeks ago, a chore landed on my desk. It had started somewhere near the top of the company, and been rapidly bounced down through the layers before it skittered to a halt on mine. Someone asked me about it, and I said, well, the king told the queen, and the queen told the dairymaid, and then the dairymaid went to ask the Alderney – and then I realised, from the blank looks, that no-one had a clue what I was talking about.

This might be a generational thing, and the taste for A.A.Milne’s children’s poems, written in the 1920s, died out sometime in the ’60s or ’70s. Or it might just be me, or rather my family, because my father used to love that particular poem, even reciting it all from memory from time to time. (And no-one could call him a fussy man).

So here it is, for younger readers, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.

The King’s Breakfast

By A.A. Milne

     The King asked
     The Queen, and
     The Queen asked
     The Dairymaid:
     “Could we have some butter for
     The Royal slice of bread?”
     The Queen asked
     The Dairymaid,
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “Certainly,
     I’ll go and tell
     The cow
     Now
     Before she goes to bed.”
 
     The Dairymaid
     She curtsied,
     And went and told
     The Alderney:
     “Don’t forget the butter for
     The Royal slice of bread.”
 
     The Alderney
     Said sleepily:
     “You’d better tell
     His Majesty
     That many people nowadays
     Like marmalade
     Instead.”
 
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “Fancy!”
     And went to
     Her Majesty.
     She curtsied to the Queen, and
     She turned a little red:
     “Excuse me,
     Your Majesty,
     For taking of
     The liberty,
     But marmalade is tasty, if
     It’s very
     Thickly
     Spread.”
 
     The Queen said
     “Oh!”
     And went to
     His Majesty:
     “Talking of the butter for
     The Royal slice of bread,
     Many people
     Think that
     Marmalade
     Is nicer.
     Would you like to try a little
     Marmalade
     Instead?”

     The King said,
     “Bother!”
     And then he said,
     “Oh, dear me!”
     The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
     And went back to bed.
     “Nobody,”
     He whimpered,
     “Could call me
     A fussy man;
     I only want
     A little bit
     Of butter for
     My bread!”

     The Queen said,
     “There, there!”
     And went to
     The Dairymaid.
     The Dairymaid
     Said, “There, there!”
     And went to the shed.
     The cow said,
     “There, there!
     I didn’t really
     Mean it;
     Here’s milk for his porringer
     And butter for his bread.”
 
     The Queen took
     The butter
     And brought it to
     His Majesty;
     The King said,
     “Butter, eh?”
     And bounced out of bed.
     “Nobody,” he said,
     As he kissed her
     Tenderly,
     “Nobody,” he said,
     As he slid down
     The banisters,
     “Nobody,
     My darling,
     Could call me
     A fussy man—
     BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Limestone country

5 April 2013
I was following a guidebook on a short walk in the Brecons, and came across this description:

“The bustle of the valley is left behind. In front lies a a lunar terrain of limestone crags, pockmarked by quarries and loose rocks.”

It’s by Alastair Ross, whose walking guides in the Kittiwake series are ideal for a casual walker like me. The village still has a  (just about) working quarry, and the station building is still standing, even if the remaining quarrymen’s houses are now home to the South Wales Caving Club and the railway line is long gone.
 
There’s a hidden history here, of the 19th century opera singer Adelina Patti, who paid for much of the station. Patti, who commanded at the height of her career fees of £1,000 a night (then a colossal sum) was rumoured to have been a mistress of Edward VII, and was for a time the flamboyant owner of the nearby Craig-y-nos Castle, which she equipped with a private theatre and a billiards room, and invited musicians and billiards players alike to come and stay.
 
But I digress. The phrase in the guidebook, and the sudden change to the bleaker limestone landscape, reminded me of Auden’s early poems, strongly inflluenced by the former lead-mining area he would walk in in the Pennines. This is the first part of The Watershed, written in 1927, when Auden was 20, and the earliest poem to make the cut in the Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson:

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed

On the wet road between the chafing grass

Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

Snatches of tramline running to a wood.

An industry already comatose,

Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine 

At Cashwell raises water; for ten years

It lay in flooded workings until this,

Its latter office, grudgingly performed. […]

 
The photos in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Concision

1 March 2013

Stick2

I’m indebted to my colleague Walker Smith for pointing me to this New Yorker article by Brad Leithauser article on concision. It’s actually quite long, given the subject matter, but I just wanted to pick out a couple of things here while recommending that you go and have a look at the whole thing.

The first is a haiku – concise by definition at 17 syllables – by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, from The Haw Lantern:

Dangerous pavements.
But this year I face the ice
With my father’s stick.

Leithauser’s commentary:

[T]he poem evokes a complex, compromised psychological condition. There’s comfort in the notion that Father is sheltering us with that stolid stick of his. And there’s anguish and vulnerability in the implication that the stick has been transferred because Father has died—recently, within the past year. As we set off from home into the freezing outer world, all sorts of emotional accommodations must be discharged.

One other thing I enjoyed was the way he elegantly sidestepped the notorious New Yorker fact-checking department (his brackets):

(Someone told me that Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.” I like this quotation so much that I’ve never dared to confirm it; I’d feel disenchanted to learn it was bogus.)

I don’t know either, and I’m certainly not going to go and look. I’d be as disappointed as he would be if I discovered she didn’t say it. But the whole piece is a writerly pleasure.

The image at the top is from the blog Between Fashion and Death, and is used with thanks.

‘My children’

22 December 2012

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I know: you wait for ages for blog posts mentioning Poems on the Underground, and then two come along more or less at once.

But I was tidying up a bit ahead of Christmas and found a slim volume called World Poems on the Underground, published as part of London 2012’s cultural festival and given to Tube passengers. Don’t let anyone tell you that there aren’t compensations for travelling on Europe’s most expensive transit system. (That’s English irony, before I get any comments.)

Anyway, the booklet contains one of my favourite Poems on the Undergound, one that I’d transcribed when I first saw it, by the Kurdish poet Choman Hardi, who now lives in London.

My Children

I can hear them talking, my children
fluent English and broken Kurdish.

And whenever I disagree with them
they will comfort each other by saying:
Don’t worry about mum, she’s Kurdish.

Will I be the foreigner in my own home?

Choman Hardi

It’s from her collection Life For Us, published by the essential Bloodaxe Books. There’s an excellent interview with Hardi by Benjamin Morris at Textualities.

Double bass

25 November 2012

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I went to see the David Murray Big Band and the Jay Phelps Quartet on the last night of the London Jazz Festival, another reminder, as if one were needed, of how accomplished jazz players are. In among the rest of it there were a few fine bass solos. By chance I’d seen on the Tube the previous day – for the first time – John Fuller’s fine poem about double bass players, capturing the paradox of the bass, the essential awkwardness of the playing and the grace of the sound.

Concerto for Double Bass
He is a drunk leaning companionably
Around a lamp post or doing up
With intermittent concentration
Another drunk’s coat.

He is a polite but devoted Valentino,
Cheek to cheek, forgetting the next step.
He is feeling the pulse of the fat lady
Or cutting her in half.

But close your eyes and it is sunset
At the edge of the world. It is the language
Of dolphins, the growth of tree-roots,
The heart-beat slowing down.

(John Fuller)

The painting at the top of the post is ‘Bass Blues’ by Ann laForge, and is used with thanks. It, and other jazz-themed paintings can be found at her website. Thanks to Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog for the tip.

Ahkmatova’s Requiem

22 September 2012

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It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.

As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,

One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.

This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.

And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.

The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Another country

7 May 2012

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I’ve had the miners’ strike more on my mind since I went to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, because the exhibition includes his famous reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave, when police cavalry charged protesting strikers.

So when The Guardian published some poems from Jubilee Lines, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (she has commissioned a new poem for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign) I turned first to the mid-80s. Sean O’Brien, whom I’ve written about here before, a child of the north, had claimed 1985 with a tough and unforgiving poem called ‘Another Country’:

Whenever someone sagely says it’s time to draw a line,
We may infer that they’ve extracted all the silver from the mine.

O’Brien’s poem starts with a epigraph from Auden, ‘Get there if you can’, the title of a 1930 poem. Here’s an extract:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below…

Auden was born in York and brought up in Birmingham, but was fascinated by underground workings and mining machinery. This early poem – not included by him in his Collected Poems – was written on a visit to the north-east of England, where O’Brien now lives and works. It is one of several from the period that dealt with the decaying or lost landscapes of the early industrial revolution.

There are obvious echoes here of the industrial landscape that Britain has lost since Thatcher’s campaign de-industrialise the country (I use the word ‘campaign’ with care here) of which the calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers was such an exemplary part. And echoes too, in O’Brien’s title, of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel of loss, and of class antagonism. London, now, is the other country, as it milks the rest of Britain of resources.

But no matter what you do, history doesn’t vanish. (I had this argument once with an uncomprehending career coach who told me I could put the history I was embedded in to one side and simply ‘move on’ in the modern, deracinated, non-place manner. I was uncomprehending too). And this is how Sean O’Brien ends his poem:

Where all year long the battle raged, there’s “landscape” and a plaque,
But though you bury stuff forever, it keeps on coming back:

Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War,
That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.

No matter how hard you try to tramp it down, the dirt insists on coming up through the roots.

The image at the top is a screenshot of Mike Figgis’ film of Deller’s reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave, from the Bureaux blog, and is used with thanks.