Archive for the ‘Poetry & Song’ Category

Hay books


Is there a place
here for the spirit? Is there time
on this brief platform for anything
other than the mind’s failure to explain itself?

(R S Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990, page 362)

Given my recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and even more because of my recent re-encounter with R S Thomas it seems a very good time to re-publish this post from 2013.

A couple of weeks back Poetry Review (PR), the magazine of the Poetry Society, dropped through my letterbox. I skimmed through it quickly to see if anything immediately caught my eye. It had an article about a poet I have too long neglected after buying his Collected Poems in 1995. The poet I’m talking about is Thomas – not Dylan, but Ronald Stuart.

The article is by Gwyneth Lewis. It hooked me straightway.  She begins by saying how much she had initially been repelled by his work, and not just once. The first time she couldn’t accept his portrayal of the Welsh: then she discovered that how he had described them wasn’t really how he saw them which she summarily dismissed as bad faith (PR Summer 2013, page 92), ‘So, for a second time, I thought I’d wiped my hands of his work.’

But that was premature. On meeting him she was taken by his charm and subsequently by his later themes (op. cit.: page 93), such as ‘the Machine as an enemy of  man.’ She quotes Thomas in an interview (ibid.):

It is not pure science and religion that are irreconcilable, but a profit-making attitude to technology…  If pure science is an approach to ultimate reality it can differ from religion only in some of the methods.

For me this was an irresistible mixture of the Bahá’í idea that religion and science are completely compatible and of McGilchrist’s antagonism to the ‘machine mind.’

And as if that was not enough she quotes him liberally in ways that strengthen the attraction, for instance (ibid. page 95):

I have this that I must do
One day: overdraw on my balance
Of air, and breaking the surface
Of water go down into the green
Darkness to search for the door
To myself in dumbness and blankness…

Another obsession of mine.

During her article Lewis mentions a book that Thomas had edited in 1963: The Penguin Book of Religious Verse.  The poets she lists Thomas as including create such an unlikely congregation that I felt I just had to get hold of a copy of this book. What on earth were Byron and Swinburne doing in a book of religious verse, for example?

I had to place my plan on hold for a while until the friend in the photo at the top of this post came on a visit. We planned to go to Hay-on-Wye, the world’s biggest bookshop, occupying as it does virtually the whole of the town. And I knew that in this town lay a delightful poetry bookshop that seemed stacked to the rafters  with secondhand poetry books. And I also knew that in the middle of her stay rain was forecast for the whole day – a perfect time to spend indoors between shelves bending under the weight of every possible kind of book.

hayonwye-booksellersIn the afternoon, after a light lunch, with a soft rain falling, I left my friend with her preferred temptations in the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, and headed off to the Poetry Bookshop. After a couple of wrong turns brought on by the difficulty of managing an umbrella and a map at the same time, I found intoxicating shelter among thousands of poetry books. I was on a mission not only to find the Thomas anthology, but also to track down books by a poet I had never heard of until recently – Jorie Graham. I found examples of her fusion of metaphor and metaphysics without much difficulty – but that is another story.

After that I found the shelves stacked with anthologies, but with no sign of the Thomas book, even after much bending and kneeling. So, after what seemed an eternity of unwanted yoga, I decided to defy my conditioning as an Englishman, and ask the proprietor if he had a copy of the book I was looking for.

‘It’s on the top of that set of shelves over there,’ he said before diving behind his desk again.

And there it was indeed in plain sight, its tiny size compensated for by the vibrant purples and reds of its cover. It was carefully encased in a transparent plastic jacket. I picked it up gently and opened it carefully as the years had browned and dried its pages giving them the feel of fragility. I looked inside the front cover. The label read ‘£15.’

‘It’s a first edition, then,’ I shouted in shock to the owner.

‘That’s right,’ he smiled. ‘And it’s never been reprinted since to my knowledge. It’s very rare. I’ve never seen another copy.’

I was a bit stunned.

‘It’s not the kind of book I usually buy,’ I explained. ‘I read books with a highlighter pen in one hand and a pencil in the other.’

‘You can’t buy that then,’ he shot back. ‘I couldn’t allow it. Attacking a book like that with a highlighter pen – it’s unthinkable.’

I was in a quandary. I really wanted the book but how could I gain possession of it with a clear conscience when my intention was to take it away and deface such a national treasure?

I turned over each and every page and the names of a pantheon of English poets passed before my eyes: Hopkins, Thompson, Herbert, Skelton, Byron, Donne, Vaughn. The list went on and on. I had to have a copy but couldn’t buy this one, not because he had said in jest that I mustn’t but because I couldn’t let myself. I’d feel too guilty to enjoy the book. It’d stay on my shelves in its plastic tabernacle far too holy to be disturbed until they buried me with it.

‘I’m looking at every page,’ I told him, as I slowly leafed through the slender volume.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he murmured sympathetically. ‘At least you’ll have experienced it and will have something to remember.’

I got to the end of the book knowing I wouldn’t buy that one, but that I’d have to find another copy somewhere that I could buy. There was no escaping its pull on me.

I paid for my Jorie Grahams and went out into the street. The rain had stopped. I got out my iPhone and checked on Amazon. £32.  Perhaps I should have bought the book after all. I nearly went back but something stopped me.

When I rejoined my friend after nearly an hour she was amazed I’d come back so soon. ‘You’ve only been gone five minutes,’ she exclaimed. I empathised. Time stops in libraries and bookshops.

When I got back home I went straight onto the web after unloading my purchases from the car. These included a couple of books on William James, another of my current obsessions, and a biography of Teilhard de Chardin.

Frustratingly there were no sites that had soft copies of the book that I could download permanently. I trawled some more. Then, as if by magic hardly daring to believe my eyes, I found a hard copy at GBL books. £4!  I looked again. £4. It was real. The blurb said it had the previous owner’s name inside the cover – obviously another book vandal. It was also a bit stained along the bottom apparently.

Perfect for me. Not a national treasure I couldn’t carry around in my bag. Not a precious relic that I needed to handle with white gloves. Not an illuminated manuscript I couldn’t lay an unlawful pen upon.  Instead, something I could interact with, without fear, in the same way as I related to all my books when I wanted to absorb their contents. And all I had to do was press a button and send a cheque. And the lady behind the site explained in her response to my phone message that when she received the cheque she’d send the book, and when I phoned her to say I was happy with it, she’d cash the cheque. All in all a delightful experience.

Too good to be true? Not a bit of it. The photograph below proves that I have now in my possession to paw and peruse as I please, this rare and never since republished classic exactly as described and about which you may hear more later.

I can’t think of any better way to close this post than to quote from Thomas’ introduction (page 9):

Roughly defining religion as embracing an experience of ultimate reality, and poetry as an imaginative presentation of such, I have considered five aspects of that experience: the consciousness of God, of the self, of negation, of the impersonal or un-nameable, and of completion. . . . The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

Relig Poetry

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Things have been a bit difficult lately – three colds in three months. Really fed up with it. Not sure why my immune system is misfiring. Will be finding out soon from the GP.

Books have always been reliable companions for me. No surprise that this has left traces.

I can still remember 1975. It was my first job in mental health. I hadn’t been there long before the Deputy Manager shared her impressions of me.

‘You’re doing quite vell but you know vot you’re problem iss?’ She had a slight Austrian accent.

‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ I lied as a dozen possibilities leapt instantly to mind.

‘You talk like a Buch.’

‘Shouldn’t everyone,’ I thought but did not say.

Things haven’t changed much since then I think. I number books among my friends and most of my closest friends love books. Bookish is my mother tongue.

So anyone who knows me well would know where I might go to lift my mood: Hay-on-Wye.

It was good to end up in one of my favourite haunts if only for a short while, though it was a bit tedious driving there along the slow and winding route I had decided to take for some strange reason. Maybe I thought it would make up in the picturesque for what it lacked in speed. This proved a delusion as the hedgerows en route blocked off most of the view.

We drove back along wider roads.

We only had time for one bookshop and a coffee. When this is the case it’s a no-brainer which shop to head for – the cinema bookshop.

My time spent grazing there will feed my appetite for reading for a week or two.

In the end, I was sitting, well-pleased with life once more, at a table in the Shepherd’s ice cream and coffee parlour, with my small crop of books spread across the table well away from my cappuccino.

The view from the window was more like a painting, the lines were so sharp and the colour was so bright.

I had hoped to find some books on David Jones but my search had drawn a blank. I had at least found a book on Alice Neel and a biography of William Blake.

The only other downer in the cafe was the father at the next table, with his wife and two young sons, who never lifted his head from his mobile phone from when we arrived until they all left.

After being so enthused by a recent BBC programme, I was pleased to get hold of the book on Alice Neel as my attempts to buy a collection of her watercolours had failed so far. It is shortly to be reprinted though. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy her only recent biography as the reviews weren’t all that good and the price was quite high. For a mere £2 the biography hard back by the Belchers was quite a bargain.

Getting the biography of Blake was a bonus. My interest has been reactivated by my reading about the art and poetry of David Jones, who is referred to by many as the modern Blake. Peter Ackroyd’s work is usually readable and informative so this should be a pleasure in store.

The last purchase was a complete surprise. While I was busily brevitting on the upper floors for books on David Jones, my wife had stayed at the stacks near the entrance and was waiting for me with further temptations when I emerged from my expedition into the interior. Maybe there is a lesson to learn there – by going too fast into the depths I might often be missing something important at the surface.

She grabbed my arm as I was about to walk into reception to pay and pointed to a blue pile of books at the end of a nearby shelf.

‘I thought you might be interested in that,’ she confidently stated.

Dylan Thomas!

What amazed me was that these were the paperback centenary editions of his poetry that only came out in 2016 at a price of £16.99 in Waterstones. I’d decided to wait and see, much as I admired and enjoyed his poetry in my 20s: even though the book I recently reviewed on The Death of Poets re-whetted my appetite, it had not done so strongly enough to make that price seem worth paying. To find all his poems here for a paltry £6.99 made buying a copy seem irresistible.

Fragments of his lyrics flew into my mind. ‘Now I am a man no more no more/And a black reward for a roaring life,/(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),/Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room/I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw–’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,/The night above the dingle starry,/Time let me hail and climb/Golden in the heydays of his eyes,/And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns,’ and ‘in my craft or sullen art.’

It is perhaps worth quoting the last poem in full before I close this post.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Now which book of my £12.99 haul should I read first?

It shouldn’t take me more than a month to decide.

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As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)

My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011. This is the second and last.

Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.

Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.

He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.

I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:

. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.

I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.

[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home

(Rain: page 6)

The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:

In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of

“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”

do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:

I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost

the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream

(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)

The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and  rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)

Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world  without imposing it on us.

It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.

That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.

You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities.  And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.

Related articles

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My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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The first crossword puzzle, created by Arthur ...

The First Ever Crossword Puzzle

One of the highest services [poets] perform is to reacquaint us with our true feelings which we put away in our need to manipulate our workaday world.

(Roger White from Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle – page 3)

This is almost my last word for now on the subject of obscurity in poetry in the wake of my reading ‘Deaths of the Poets.’ There will be some passing references next week!

The combination of a butterfly mind, a long todo list and a busy calendar has made it hard for me sometimes to find a space for reading poetry. So, I made a resolution recently to choose unread books of poetry off my shelves, one at a time, to read from cover to cover no matter how long it takes.

The first poet to fall victim to this rather mechanical process is UA Fanthorpe (UA stands for Ursula Askham, by the way). I recently bought her New and Collected Poems. It’s not been easy to keep to my resolve. My creativity seems to find its most consistent expression in the fabrication of excuses over why I cannot do something so simple. I have stuck to it though. I’ve managed to stop production at the procrastination factory long enough to get to page 409 out of 508.

Along the way there have been deserts, pages and pages of poetry that failed to touch me either because my mood was not right or maybe the poems in question were less than her best. But her best poems become oases that more than compensate for the Saharan passages.

As one such oasis gives an interesting slant on my rant against puzzle poetry, I thought it well worth including.

When you understand that a river is a flower
You have begun. Friday, of course, is a man,
And a duck means nothing. Victim of gin
Is not an alcoholic, nor revolutionary
Political. Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry,
And the 6-50’s found in the first three villains.
Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,
Perhaps, can be, are warnings; damaged isn’t serious . . .
(page 278: New & Collected Poems)
This is not a brick wall puzzle poem. It is perfectly clear what the poet is doing – she’s embedding crossword clues into her lines.

The simple ones at the start make sure we’re in no doubt about what she’s doing. Later, the clues get more testing. This group – “And the 6-50’s found in the first three villains./Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,/Perhaps, can be, are warnings . .” – took a few re-readings to disentangle. Sadly I’m still stuck on the solutions to:

. . . . . . . . . . . . Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry . .

Any help forthcoming in the comments section below would be greatly appreciated.

Why would she include clues in this way?

Because the voice of the poem is a person with a dying child using crossword puzzles to console herself during the long hours of waiting in the hospital. The experience of the clues in the first stanza helps draw us into the this same state of mind.

This adds poignancy to such later passages as (pages 279-280):

. . . My baby’s local language
Is anguish. Shrieks are all she says.
I pray. Frank pays: neither does any good.
Only the reliable riddle that comes each morning,
Its answer the day after. (More
And more cavalry casualties? (8,6)
Mounting losses.) Although it comforts,
Each answer bears my darling’s dying too.

William Tyndale, just before being burned at t...

Tyndale’s Burning at the stake

The reference to prayer is interesting. Though she mercilessly mocks superstitious and self-righteous piety along with other unappealing frailties, her ability to identify with deep and compassionate spirituality in even the most distant places is uncanny as is shown by her moving dramatic monologue in the voice of William Tyndale, whose early translations provide the foundations of the King James version of the Bible. The words are spoken as he waits for death in a cold and candleless prison cell:

But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills,
And down on the dear preoccupied people
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows with their sopping decks
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched,
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river,
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.
(Page 296: op. cit.)

Because a dying child and religious persecution are still part of our lived experience, these poems are deeply moving. The intermittent reinforcement of priceless gems like these will certainly see me to page 509 of this book and be enough to spur me on to the next, I hope.

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Language is the medium of the poet. One has only to turn to the words of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to discover its purpose: “. . . the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key.”

(Roger White on Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 8)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the last of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

Incredible as it may seem, there is a link that Fuller is able to make between the skeletal ‘Ties,’ discussed in the previous post, and a full-blooded poem by Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain. The link is the reference to ‘white storm birds.’ John Fuller, in his book Who is Ozymandias?, describes Hardy’s poem as (page 213) a ‘celebrated account of sacred family moments, seasonal change and death.’ Clearly the fact that we don’t know who precisely ‘He, she, all of them’ are does not diminish the human impact of the poem in the slightest. There is enough of the living tissue of human experience there to make what it describes come alive in the reader’s mind.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no ; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is not one of Hardy’ best poems but it clearly illustrates that anonymous pronouns need not confuse and putting some flesh on the bones, far from weakening its effects, adds to a poem’s power to convey an experience.

I’d like to end though on one of Hardy’s best and most popular lyrics to illustrate another important point for me which is that accessibility is not incompatible with depth.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In the end I have chickened out of tackling the two poets who challenge me the most – Bunting and Hill. I felt that it would be better to use poems where every reader of this post can easily find a brave attempt to bring them to life and judge for him or herself whether I have been unfair. In the end, Fuller, in spite of my liking for him as a poet and my respect for his having attempted what I regard as the impossible, fails to convince me I am wrong. I will continue to look with great suspicion at poets who, to huge adulation in some cases, parade before us as though it were a living poem what I see as a bag of bones. The Emperor in this case not only has no clothes: he does not even have any flesh.

If I am right this is a confidence trick which is seriously damaging the potential poetry has for stirring the hearts of the generality of readers to higher understandings of the human predicament, as I believe Hardy’s does in spite of his own bleak view of what to him is our pointless universe. Every failure to fulfil the potential of a poem is such a waste, such a betrayal, and I regret such failures deeply when I come across them and find reading them immensely frustrating, in case you hadn’t noticed.

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It remains the task of poetry to translate into words, with intensity and economy, the inexpressible with an immediacy that is not achieved in other art forms.

(Roger White Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle – 1989 – edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 2)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the third of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

The cover of Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems.Several previous posts have been exploring the purpose of writing in general and poetry in particular (see the links at the bottom of this post to know more). Recently I have been trying to pin down exactly what my problem is with much of modern poetry. I wish to focus next on what might seem a relatively minor even petty problem – all too often I haven’t the faintest idea who the poet is talking about. The reason it matters to me is that this is a symptom of the same problem as I have been discussing already and it’s one all too often encountered in various forms in our reductionist culture. In attempting to be intense and economical the poet’s process of distillation leaves so much out it bleeds the poem dry.

To illustrate this, the other poem I wish to focus on from Fuller’s intriguing book Who Is Ozymandias? is discussed on pages 225-233. The section title is ‘Who Is You?’

Here is a late poem by Ian Hamilton, called ‘Ties’, unpublished until his posthumous Collected Poems (2009):


You are harvesting dead leaves again
But don’t look up.
The trees aren’t your trees now
And anyway, white storm birds sing no song.
Inside the house
He’s playing genealogies again,
The usual curse:
His, yours, theirs, everyone’s. And hers.

To describe this poem as a skeleton would flatter it. It’s the fragment of a jawbone from which the reconstruction of a living poem is virtually impossible. Fuller goes a long way towards acknowledging this . . . (page 226)

It is an extreme example of the puzzle that readers frequently have when faced with naked pronouns: who are all these people, and above all, who is ‘you’? An extreme example, yes, but it is a puzzle commonly found in the starkly reduced lyric form favoured by Hamilton.

. . . but tries valiantly to resurrect the moment that produced these almost fossilised fragments of dentition. A blow by blow account of the exact nature of this struggle is given at length several pages later (pages 230-231):

Lowell . . . was a crucial influence on Hamilton’s conviction that the personal experience of the poet has an absolute value for the poem emotionally, as a biographical truth. Such a formula sounds like a commonplace of post-Romantic poetry, but after the impersonality of much modernism it became a distinct trait in the later twentieth century.

Hamilton’s ‘Ties’ relies entirely on this conviction, so that the reader is forced to construct a story. How would it go? The trees that ‘you’ are gathering dead leaves from beneath (perhaps in a photograph that the speaker has found) are no longer ‘your’ trees now. Whose are they? They must in a sense belong to the woman referred to in the dramatically crucial final sentence (And hers’). This woman has not only inherited the trees, but also the curse of the ‘genealogies’ that the ‘he’ is ‘playing’. In such a baleful context ‘playing genealogies’ can’t simply be the innocent tracing of family trees, but must have the metaphorical force of an obsessive preoccupation with the past, which the ‘curse’ turns into a matter for rebuke. To imply such a rebuke, Hamilton shifts from the first person of the first four lines to the third person of the last four. The implicit ‘I’ looking at the photograph is turned into the ‘he’ criticised for dwelling in the past. So we imagine two women, the one who used to gather the dead leaves, and the other, who appears to have displaced her, the one who resents the past. The dead leaves of the tree (compare the ‘family’ tree) imply that the first woman may also be dead.

So much is merely logical. The extension of the mysterious pronouns into ‘theirs’ and ‘everyone’s’ follows naturally from it: the ‘curse’ of the obsessive memory of the irrevocable past is not only a problem for these individuals as individuals, but it is a problem that they must share, and it is our problem, too . . . .

In the margin of page 226 I have growled, ‘Teasing at the puzzle doesn’t make a poem of this anymore than reading tea leaves tells us anything about the future.’ I respect Fuller’s learning and admire his tenacity but read his failure to make a poem of it into such expressions as ‘the reader is forced to construct a story,’ ‘perhaps in a photograph’ and ‘So much is merely logical.’ Logical it may be but sufficiently coherent and emotionally meaningful it most certainly is not. This is not the combination of creativity and empathy that successfully extends the compass of my compassion as I read, which is what I think I can fairly expect of a poem that purports to convey an important moment of this poet’s life.

Fortunately, Fuller points to a place where just such a combination can be found. But more about that on Thursday.

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