Wislawa Szymborska

I was sad to learn that Wislawa Szymborska, one of my favourite poets, died yesterday in Krakow, aged 88.

Her total output was small – when she was awarded the Nobel prize she had published barely 200 poems, and in her lifetime published something less than 400 poems – but, like their author, the poems have a quiet authority and always brought a new way of seeing.

Take Cat in an Empty Apartment for example, a wonderful poem about the death of a friend – from the point of view of the cat:

Die — You can’t do that to a cat.

Since what can a cat do

in an empty apartment?

Climb the walls?

Rub up against the furniture?

Nothing seems different here,

but nothing is the same.

Nothing has been moved,

but there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,

but they’re new ones.

The hand that puts fish on the saucer

has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start

at its usual time.

Something doesn’t happen

as it should.

Someone was always, always here,

then suddenly disappeared

and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.

Every shelf has been explored.

Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.

A commandment was even broken,

papers scattered everywhere.

What remains to be done.

Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,

just let hims show his face.

Will he ever get a lesson

on what not to do to a cat.

Sidle towards him

as if unwilling

and ever so slow

on visibly offended paws,

and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

[Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

Posted also in memoriam of Barney, faithful family dog who you can see at the coast at Kimmeridge in the masthead above, and who in his own way was quite fond of cats, who also died yesterday.

Exile’s Letter

I was reading ‘My Heroin Christmas’, one of the essays in Terry Castle’s excellent The Professor and Other Writings, and an aside took me to this astonishingly beautiful poem by Ezra Pound, a ‘translation’ from the Chinese of Li Po.

Widely considered the greatest poet of China, Li Po wrote the poem in about 760 AD whilst in exile. It takes the form of a letter to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

Pound knew ittle Chinese himself, and the translation is based on notes on the original poem made by Ernest Fenellosa, an American scholar who studied Chinese poetry while living in Japan.

The poem first appeared in ‘Cathay’, published in 1915, and containing, according to its title page ‘translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.’ However, it is not a good idea to look at the poems as literal translations – in fact, as the prominent Pound scholar Hugh Kenner argued, to do so is to miss the point.

Pound sought to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template

… maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.

Also included in Cathay was Pound’s ‘translation’ of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’, written in roughly the same historical period and, thematically, very similar. In the ABC Of Reading (New Directions, 1960) Pound wrote that he considered ‘Exile’s Letter’ and ‘The Seafarer’ the two greatest poems of the eighth century.

Art Pepper (and/or his wife with whom he wrote the book) used the lines

What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

as the epigraph for his autobiography ‘Straight Life.’

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

The intricate web of love

I’ve been reading the Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, a Virago paperback I picked up in the Oxfam bookshop a while back. On the strength of her writing here, she is much underrated and deserves a wider readership.

For example, this wonderful entry for 16 Feb 1950  on the cremation of her mother:

… Nora’s small purple coffin coming out of the hearse; the one bunch of brilliant spring flowers on it. Out of such bare material, out of mere birth and death, we spin the intricate web of love, we distil it from these poor bones and ashes, and with it conceive the tale that is told and ended when we die.

Followed the next day with:

It is a curious sensation to get one’s mother by post; and rather hastily I took her upstairs and unpacked a small violet cloth-covered casket, with a shiny name-plate (good lettering). After breakfast Evans & I buried it with some moss and snowdrops under the cherry tree …

Writing with a rare lightness of touch that captures the spiritual and often disconcertingly practical dimensions of the death of a loved one.

Running through the diaries is her account of the intricate, and tangled, web  of her love affair with Valentine Ackland, with whom she lived in Dorset.

It’s odd reading a published diary that unfolds in a landscape and towns and villages that you know well. It adds an extra poignancy when you know the hotel at Yeovil Pen Mill station to which Sylvia retreated, heartbroken, when another lover of Valentine’s came to stay at their house. I will have to call in and see if they are aware this fine writer was a guest at the hotel in the late ‘40s.

My room looks out on the main road, with buses – behind is the station. I have a view of the laundry, some public trees, and a poor, almost real wood. I have a choice of a bentwood chair, an easy one that is not easy, and the window sill, which is best.

 

New Directions

The new year is an invitation to assess what’s working, and what’s not. But for every new direction you commit to, there’s the road not taken – and the thorny problem of being happy with the choice you make.

Robert Frost’s famous poem on this theme (‘The Road Not Taken‘) dramatises this moment of choice and, according to comments made by the author at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1953, was inspired by

“a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”

The Road Not Taken‘ was first published in Frost’s collection Mountain Interval in 1916, almost perfectly midway between publication of ‘Swann’s Way’ (Du côté de chez Swann, 1913) and the first part of ‘The Guermantes Way ‘ (La côté de Guermantes’, 1920), of Proust’s ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’:

For there were, in the environs of Combray, two “ways” which we used to take for our walks, and they were so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door according to the way we had chosen…

(Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin translation)

The great reading journey, in search of lost time, that I plan to take again in 2011.

These Poems, She Said

I had known of Robert Bringhurst only as a typographer and author of the excellent ‘Elements of Typographic Style.’ But he is also a wonderful poet, as the sharp, witty and penetrating  These Poems, She Said demonstrates.

Love means love

of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.

Read the poem here. It is from Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst.

Waiting for the Barbarians

I have always loved this poem by C P Cavafy, about the fear and confusion of change, of the new, of having to take responsibility.

The poem has a light touch, sympathetic yet taut and uncompromising, and perfectly satisfies Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as ‘news that stays news.’ It’s never seemed more timely. This is the best translation I think. Read it here.

Song for Adam

A desperately sad day, but a beautiful day also, and a beautiful ceremony. This poem, and the violin solo, brought tears to the eyes:

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make men better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear:
A lily of a day,
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night;
It was the plant, and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures, life may perfect be.

Ben Jonson

The merry merry month of May

I have been meaning to write about the merry merry month of May, and its derivation, since April. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t written about it, not simply because I’ve been massively busy with new work, but because it’s just not a question that interests me enough. Look around you is probably the answer, and perhaps one of the poems in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, published in 1600:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;

So the poem for this month is from (the poet laureate) Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Rapture. I have chosen the poem ‘You‘; you can read it here.  Then buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Incidentally, isn’t ‘Rapture’ a beautiful word? The sound of the word alone carrying its meaning.

Also what made me sit up this week was the South Africa Today series of articles in last Sunday’s Observer, which I have just caught up with. The piece by Rian Malan is wonderfully caustic, the article by Albie Sachs full of quiet beauty, but best of all the farewell note written to Margie Orford by Rashied Wewers, the oldest member of her writing class in Victor Verster maximum security prison:

I am

A book with a damaged cover, but what is

Written between the lines could save a country

From a disaster.

Spring in the rain

This month’s poem celebrates the beginning of spring and the clocks going forward (in the UK). A hugely influential poem, which I never tire of reading and thinking about, and which is very easy to memorise due to its brevity. Language at its most controlled, charged with meaning.

Click to read The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and some background material.

Love-making by Candlelight

This is a fine winter poem by Scottish poet Douglas Dunn, from his collection Northlight published (by Faber) in the late ’80s. I was reminded of it when I saw a copy in our local Oxfam bookshop last week, and reproduce it below.

His poems create a vivid sense of lived reality and are imbued with a generosity of spirit that awakens the heart and mind.

This is the sexiest poem in the collection and there’s a wonderful physicality about it; in the flickering candle light the two lovers exist in this moment of time – and outside of time, connecting past, present and future.

It reminds me of  Candle Mambo, a gorgeous song by Captain Beefheart –

When I’m dancing with my love, the shadows flicker up above
Up above, the shadows do the Candle Mambo

If you don’t know it, check it out on your favourite listening source; well worth a detour.

On a more traditional note, there’s also a good poem (in Northlight) on that classic pastime of Christmases past at the family home: The jigsaw. Here, a couple of short extracts from Jig of the Week No.21:

Under optimum conditions – the room quiet
In fireglow, rain lashing on nocturnal glass –
I start an old American puzzle.

…..

On junior versions of wet, wintry nights
Around Christmas, I tried to be patient.
A jigsaw on a white enamel tray
Encouraging pictorial wanderlust –
My father’s ear close to the wireless set’s
Hummed murmuring of Cold War ’49,
My mother sewing, my brother fast asleep.

Which just leaves me to wish you, dear Reader, a very happy Christmas.

May all your candles be lit, and your jigsaws complete.

Happy Christmas!

———

Love-making by Candlelight

by Douglas Dunn

Skin looked like this two hundred years ago
When Candlelight lapped the erotic straw
In hilly farms where windowed candlefire
Burnished imperfect glass. Portending haws
Hung on the leafless bush, amazement’s bud
Red on the acres of nocturnal snow
As uplands rose to tufted winterlight,
In their celestial altitude
The eighteenth-century stars.

This is how it must be, shape-shifting fire’s
Impatient nudity and ours
On the big bed. A molten vividness
Dismantles gender and the way it move
Identifies a married venery
Timeless in the bedroom of the species –
A Pictish smile, a medieval kiss,
A whispered pre-industrial draught
On our contemporary bed.

Played on by fire, those clustered cornice grapes
Outwit their plaster: cornucopia’s vine,
Pompeian opulence, rumours
From far back, echoes of Florentine
Intrigue, Renaissance footsteps in the hall
Where gossips overhear indelible
Echoed courtships; and these Muscovian furs
Were linen until fire reshaped
Their transient destiny.

Hands dipped in light-and-shadow-cast
Ledas and satyrs on the bedroom wall.
A candleflame’s a silent chatterbox
And cinematic book: bestiary candle,
History candle, yellow metaphor,
Venereal fire. Open the curtains now
And add a star to what we do and say
Past midnight in our only country,
Our private anywhere.

Who else is looking at the Firth tonight
Drowsy with afterlove? Local Tristan,
Indigenous Iseult, and Dido sees
Aeneas in a navigation light.
Dog-collared Abelard walks Heloise
Among the gravestones, yews and cypresses.
An Orphic nightbird cries ‘Eurydice’ …
Love, touch my heart with who you are
And sleep, history, sleep.

Love-making by Candlelight by Douglas Dunn is from his collection Northlight published in the late 1980s.

Remembrance

The British poet and novelist Richard Aldington is probably best known as one of the three ‘original Imagists’, with Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, but always known as H.D. At this time she and Aldington were married).

In late spring 1916 Aldington was conscripted and on June 24th left London for Dorset, where he was stationed for military training until December.

As the day for embarkation draws closer you can sense the growing tension in this letter to George Plank (a friend of H.D.’s) dated November 15th in which he writes of
“them bloody, bleedin’, fuckin’ trenches … I wish I wasn’t a soldier; I do, George, I do. But if you’re a good boy you shall have all my medals to play with / When I get back / When I get back / To my o-o-old Ken-tucky / home!”

In another letter to Plank, on the eve of departure, he writes:

“off to France in a couple of hours; … I have a conviction that I shall be killed, but it doesn’t worry me except for H.D. You must help to find her another husband, some nice Yank of cultured opulence who’ll not bore her too much.”*

In fact, though wounded on the Western Front, he survived. His most immediate literary response to the war was his collection of poetry Images of War, published in 1919, which included the poem The Lover, in which he synthesizes fear and desire.

*Source: Louis Silverstein’s H.D. Chronology, Part Two (1915-March 1919)

The field of poppies

Clubmen’s Down, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, was recently spectacularly transformed into a carpet of poppies.

The owner of the field, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, described the multitude of poppies as “the beneficial fallout of organic farming. They are ecologically and pictorially a wonder, but agriculturally a bit of a disaster.”

The field had been left as grassland for seven years, but ploughed for turnips for winter feed for sheep this year. This disturbed the poppy seeds, enabling them to germinate, and the very wet July and August, followed by a very dry September, provided the perfect growing conditions.

We went walking to see the field a couple of Sundays ago; it was a truly extraordinary sight.

untitled

There’s an argument, and a good one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, and it looks like we’ll be living with it for a long while yet.
What’s left to say about it? I have chosen a poem, by Wislawa Szymborska which, although
although the event described varies in the particular, brilliantly succeeds in evoking the chilling aspect of

There’s an argument, and a persuasive one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with the aftermath of this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, with no clear end in sight.

I’m writing this at the same time as, eight years ago, I had stopped work, transfixed by the pictures unfolding on the TV; that day when out of the same clear sky everything was suddenly different.

What’s left to say? What needs to be said. For which I have chosen a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. Although the action it describes is tellingly different in one key aspect, I know of no other piece of writing that more brilliantly captures the chilling randomness inherent in acts of terror, and cuts through to the humanity of its victims. Read The Terrorist, He’s Watching.

50 up

We have just published the 50th issue of Tears in the Fence, magazine of poetry and prose.

Published 3 times a year, we have editorial bases in England, France, Australia and the USA and subscribers around the world. David Caddy is the Editor, with associates Sarah Hopkins and Tom Chivers; I am responsible for the design and production.

At 164 pages, the 50th issue is the largest yet and features poetry and fiction by, amongst many others, Elizabeth Cook, John Welch, John Kinsella, Peter Riley, Sarah Connor, Alexis Lykiard, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Todd Swift, Rupert M Loydell, Lucy Lepchani, Jeremy Reed, Juliet Cook, Adam Horovitz, Gerald Locklin, Lynne Wycherley, Donna Hilbert, Martin Stannard and Iain Sinclair.

There is also a ‘hand’ from Loose Packed by Lee Harwood and John Hall. Loose Packed is a set of 52 related fragments, with no fixed order for their reading. They are planned for publication as a pack of playing cards by Acts of Language,  and have been exhibited in 52 different 6 x 4 inch frames, in four differently coloured suits.

Here’s a bit from ‘Take Stock Now…’ in the latest TITF:

Under a vast sky

This restless house

That road

(these tiny objects)

Things to cling on to

For more information and subscriptions, see (and join) Tears in the Fence on Facebook.

50th issue celebration

To celebrate the 50th issue there is a free event on Saturday 5th September, 3.00pm – 8.00pm at The Bell, Middlesex Street, London E1 7EX.

Confirmed readers include Elizabeth Cook, Brian Hinton, George Ttoouli, Sarah Hopkins, Todd Swift, Ian Brinton, Hannah Silva, Vahni Capildeo, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, James Wilkes, Tom Chivers, David Caddy.

This event is in association with Penned in the Margins.

Be drunk

‘You have to be always drunk’ wrote Baudelaire, and how right he was. Right now, I’m drunk on this frozen landscape, and drunk on trying to capture its beauty and the play of light in the crisp, rosy dawn.

Drink in the moment. Cold pastoral!

Be Drunk

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Louis Simpson

Cold stream