George Szirtes

In one of the Forward poetry books, possibly the ‘best of the first ten years’ one, I found a poem by George Szirtes called Backwaters: Norfolk Fields. When I read it I had a strong reaction of ‘this is how I would like to write’.

That was a little while ago, and I don’t think that I would still single out Szirtes as a model. But the reaction is still worth recording. I really like metrical, rhyming poetry, and the excitement was reading fresh, contemporary language in a metrical framework – Backwaters is a poem made up of twelve sonnet-stanzas, but the language didn’t have the stilted, backward-looking quality I associated with a lot of contemporary formal verse. Looking at it now, the use of language seems less radical than it seemed at the time, but I still think this is a fabulous poem. I might give a fuller response to Szirtes’s work later, but for now, here’s S1, 4 & 5 of that first poem I encountered:


Backwaters. Long grass. Slow speech. Far off
a truck heaves its load of rust into a yard
next to a warehouse full of office furniture
no one will ever use, unless to stuff
some temporary room when times are hard.
Across the fields the sweet smell of manure.

We’re years behind. Even our vowels sag
in the cold wind. We have our beauty spots
that people visit and leave alone, down main
arterials and side roads. A paper bag
floats along the beach. Clouds drift in clots
of grey and eventually down comes the rain.

We’re at the end. It might simply be of weather
or empire or of something else altogether.

[… two stanzas omitted here …]


The WI stall. Jams, flowers. White
hair scraped back in the draught of an open door.
The butcher’s. He knows you by name. He calls
your name out. His chopping block is washed bright
by the morning sun. The solicitor
down the street. His nameplate. War memorials

with more names. Rows of Standleys, Bunns,
Myhills, Kerridges. Names on shopfronts: bold
reds, whites and blues in stock typography.
Names on labels tied with strings to shotguns.
Names on electoral registers. Names in gold
in the children’s section of the cemetery

by the railway cuttings. Willows, faint blue
in the afternoon, light gently whistles through.


Too easy all this, like a fatal charm
intended to lull you into acquiescence.
think karaoke. Sky. The video shop.
Broken windows. The sheer boredom. The alarm
wailing at two am. The police presence.
Pastoral graffiti on the bus stop.

Think back of the back of beyond “beyond”. End
of a line. The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel.

This is your otherness where the exotic
appears by a kind of homely conjuring trick.

[… another seven stanzas omitted here …]

  • Post Category:Culture


I’m re-reading ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I read it through once and have made various abortive attempts to re-read since; this time I’ve got most of the way through the first volume (of three) so hopefully I’ll finish.

I still think Proust is a joy to read. Sometimes. The passages describing places, people and social situations are fabulous – vivid, atmospheric, barbed. But the endless philosophopsychologipontificating is bugging me a bit this time. When you’re reading the third page of a discursus about the narrator’s developing love-interest in Gilberte, framed in terms of the particularity of individual experience and the distorting effects of emotion and memory on our perceptions, and the content is remarkably similar to a similar discursus about ten pages ago, and another five pages before that, and several dealing with Swann’s love for Odette; and you know that in the next volume you’re going to go through the whole thing again with the narrator and Albertine – well, chewing your own arm off becomes a tempting option.

Proust’s musings are a key part of the book, of course. I just think an occasional intervention from a strong-minded editor might have tightened the whole thing up a bit.

  • Post Category:Culture

Isaac D’Israeli on poets

At Curiosities of Literature, Isaac D’Israeli’s thoughts on poets.

I thought this bit he quotes from Charpentier was particularly entertaining:

“Men may ridicule as much as they please those gesticulations and contortions which poets are apt to make in the act of composing; it is certain however that they greatly assist in putting the imagination into motion. These kinds of agitation do not always show a mind which labours with its sterility; they frequently proceed from a mind which excites and animates itself. Quintilian has nobly compared them to those lashings of his tail which a lion gives himself when he is preparing to combat.”

  • Post Category:Culture

Christopher Logue’s Iliad

War Music is Logue’s long-running version of the Iliad. Which I’ve been reading recently. Bits of it can be found here, here, here, and here.

I guess the most obvious thing to comment about in WM is the relationship to Homer (use of anachronisms, scenes cut, others added). But actually I think the most interesting thing is the possibility that it offers an exciting new model for contemporary narrative poetry. It’s a film in verse, rather than a novel in verse. It reads like a cross between a screenplay and a poem.

Some specific qualitites of WM wouldn’t suit all subject matter or all poets – the terseness, the metre, the layout on the page, the varied line lengths. But the cinematic aesthetic – the way it’s dialogue heavy, the ‘cuts’ between long shot and close up, the use of simple visual details to set the scene – could presumably be adapted. In setting out to write a narrative poem, one could perhaps do worse than to actually storyboard it as though it were a movie. We’re brought up with cinema, so the techniques are deeply familiar to us.

Anyway, that aside, I’d recommend the poem.

  • Post Category:Culture

more middlebrow

Perhaps the difference between the US and the UK is simply that, over here, being an intellectual has never had any social cachet.

  • Post Category:Culture

middlebrow again

A post at Whimsy Speaks alerted me to some more web chatter on the middle-brow, including a NY Times column on the subject.

What startles me is that so much of the commentary (in, for example, the post and comments at Pandagon), is quite clearly aimed at the idea of a socially aspirational category, not an intellectual one. So Jonathan’s examples of Starbucks and Target, which I just thought were an odd quirk of his, turn out to be quite typical. Martha Stewart is cited. If Starbucks is middle-brow, presumably my home-ground Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is high-brow. A high-brow cup of coffee. Hmmm. What they really mean is presumably that Starbucks is middle class.

And yet Americans still refer to the British as class-obsessed. Martha Stewart seems to me to be a good example. I’ve never seen anyone who is has so openly built a career on stoking people’s social insecurities and then selling them the cure; and I can’t actually think of a comparable British personality. There are hundreds of programmes on TV about improving your home and garden, what to wear, and what to eat, but none of them seem to have that stifled, buttock-clenching aura of gentility. Which isn’t to say that the UK is a snob-free haven, just that the American self-image on matters of class is sometimes a little skewed.

I really shouldn’t be attempting US cultural commentary, of course – I just don’t know the country well enough.

  • Post Category:Culture

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman doesn’t appear to differentiate between ‘UK’ and ‘England’. Still, he’s an American, so perhaps it would be too much to expect.

  • Post Category:Culture

Jonathan Mayhew on ‘middlebrow’

Jonathan has been commenting on the middlebrow. But his blog doesn’t allow anonymous comments and I don’t have a blogger account.

I found Starbucks and the designer teapot peculiar examples (not that I know the teapot or teapot shop in question). For me, low/middle/highbrow implies a specifically intellectual judgement. The relationship between your taste in coffee and your taste in literature seems strained to me – it makes it more into a judgement of someone’s social class. Or urbanity. Perhaps the word he’s looking for is ‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘highbrow’.

That’s not the same thing as saying that we are all differently-browed in different areas. I have low-to-middlebrow taste in films, but fairly highbrow taste in literature, and it seems reasonable to make the comparison. My taste in coffee seems a quite different subject.

I also think his description of the middlebrow as ‘addressed to a wider audience that wants to “improve itself”‘ is patronising and misguided. My sense is that the middlebrow audience just enjoys art at a particular level of accessibility and intellectual content. The idea that people watch Pride and Prejudice on the telly because they want to ‘improve themselves’ seems ridiculous to me. Rather, they’ve found the level at which they find art to be enjoyable. Two disclaimers: I don’t think that level is determined by intellectual capacity but by their priorities and tastes. And I don’t think that high-brow art is always better than middle-brow or low-brow art.

[publishers apparently have a category called ‘faux-brow’. Like The Girl in the Pearl Earring, which is romantic fiction, but with a historical, arty theme and a more expensive cover.]

  • Post Category:Culture

‘Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson’ by Paula Byrne

I picked up Perdita at the airport on the way to Egypt. It’s the biography of Mary Robinson, who was an actress, the most beautiful and fashionable woman in London, who became famous as the mistress of the Prince of Wales (and later Charles Fox and Colonel Tarleton, among others). Then, after she developed rheumatic fever and largely lost the use of her legs, she re-invented herself as a poet, novelist, playwright and radical feminist. Coleridge thought she had genius and particularly admired her ear for metre, she was chummy with Godwin and Wollstonecraft. And so on. Entertaining stuff.

Woolf on Chaucer (again)

Because it’s been bugging me ever since I read the essay Aruna told me about.

This example, for me, sums up what’s wrong with Woolf’s approach to Chaucer:

“But there is another and more important reason for the surprising brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. But Chaucer says outright:

Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.”

Now both of those quotes are from the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not the everyday story of farmyard folk, it’s a sophisticated piece of literary parody. It’s a fable told in the language of a medieval romance. The chickens are described in terms that would be more suited to Lancelot and Guinevere:

“His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled, as it were a castel wal.
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon,
Lyk asure were hise legges and his toon,
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym as of colours;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire
And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
Of Chauntecleer loken in every lith.”

It’s as inappropriate as a Beatrix Potter story retold as a gumshoe thriller. But that’s the point – it’s a joke. Chaucer describes Chaunticleer as though he were a great knight (comparing him to jet and coral and castle walls), and applies classic courtly love vocabulary to Pertelote (fairest, damsel, courteous, debonaire); but at the same time he reminds us that these are chickens –

“This gentle cock had under his rule seven hens, to provide all his delight, which were his sisters and his concubines”


“Courteous she was, discreet and gracious, and companionable, and bore herself so beautifully since that day she was seven nights old…”

Later on the chickens have arguments about dreams, prophecy and medicine, with reference to, amongst other things, Cato, Cenwulf, Scipio, the Book of Daniel, Croesus, the medieval theories of the bodily humours and astrology. In other words, all the panoply of medieval scholasticism; and again, putting it all into the beaks of chickens is a literary joke.

The bulk of the story is told at the level of the chickens – they are full characters in their own little world, as is normal in fables. But Chaucer frames the whole story with bits of description at the human level, in order to emphasise the joke by effectively pulling the camera out to reveal that these courtly lovers and scholars are indeed just chickens in the coop of an aging peasant woman. The first part of that framing, at the very beginning, is where Woolf gets her quote about the sheep called Malle. There’s another similar passage at the end where the fox has just caught Chanticleer and run off with him:

“This sely wydwe, and eek hir doghtres two,
Herden thise hennes crie, and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And seyn the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away;
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha! ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man,
Ran Colle, oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand,
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered they fered for berkyng of the dogges,
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so, hem thoughte hir herte breeke;
They yolleden as feends doon in helle,
The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees for feere flowen over the trees,
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees,
So hydous was the noyse, a! benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box,
Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped,
And therwithal they skriked and they howped,
It seemed as that hevene sholde falle!”

The lines quoted by Woolf are, in fact, comic counterpoint to the rest of the Tale. They’re not even representative of the poem they’re in, let alone Chaucer as a whole. In giving the name of the sheep, Chaucer was being deliberately banal for comic effect, because farmyards were no more regarded as a ‘poetic subject’ in the C14th than when Woolf was writing. More typical of the period would be Chaucer’s other great work (other than the Canterbury Tales, that is) – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a long chivalric poem about love and honour set in the Trojan War.

So how did Woolf misread the NPT so badly? Because, I would suggest, she had a completely narrow view of the Middle Ages. She seems to have completely bought into the Pre-Raphaelite/William Morris/Merrie England view of the period, which was always somewhere between a romanticisation and an outright lie. Because she has this idea that the period was one of simplicity and directness, she only sees half of what’s going on. Chaucer was, often, a very direct writer – but he could also be ironic, indirect, and nuanced. Much like Shakespeare, who sometimes did metaphysical speculation and sometimes did knob jokes.

  • Post Category:Culture

‘Blood and Roses’, ‘Being in Being’, ‘Don Quixote’

some thoughts on Blood and Roses, Being in Being, and Don Quixote

I recently finished Don Quixote (the new Edith Grossman translation). I read about half of it in my teens, before getting sidetracked, and decided that the 400th anniversary was a good time to have another go at it.

DQ is a great idea for a character, and Sancho Panza has his moments as well, and it stands up pretty well for something written in 1605, but… to be honest, I found it repetitive and a bit tedious. It felt like the same joke over and over again, and the characters didn’t develop as much as they could have. It’s also, considering that it’s famous above all as character-based humour, very literary and very rooted in its period. I’m unfamiliar with the romances that it is parodying, and that distances the whole thing. I also found it odd that, in a book which pokes fun at someone for believing in the literal truth of an earlier literary tradition, there are pastoral episodes about nobles going off into the woods to live as shepherds which seem to be treated unironically. It’s a familiar literary convention, of course, from Shakespeare (As You Like It, I think), but I found it hard to tell whether the pastoral episodes really were unironic or if I was just missing the joke. Perhaps it’s better in Spanish.

Being in Being is one of the volumes of Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Haida oral poetry – in this case the collected works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (The Haida are the native inhabitants of Haida Gwaii – i.e. the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific North-West). I find the poems generally quite intirguing, for their insight into the culture and the oddness (or differentness) of the literary conventions, but quite difficult to grapple with. The narrative logic of them wasn’t apparent to me, and even with Bringhurst’s notes and having read the introductory volume (A Story as Sharp as a Knife) I was aware of how much I was missing. I’m sure all sorts of details were supposed to carry some kind of significance that passed me by. There are all sorts of appealing aspects, though, like the way that the characters (most of whom are spirit beings) put on the skin of a person or animal to become that animal; or the way that, if an object is half blue-green and half reddish-brown, that means it will turn eveything upside down (literally or metaphorically) because those are the colours of the mallard, which up-ends to eat.

The stories are quite messy, structurally, very geographically rooted (many of the characters are the spirits attached to particular places in Haida Gwaii), and it seems, quite flexible according to who’s telling them and the occasion. I imagine that they give some idea of what the Greek myths would have been like when they were originally told, but we get them through the filter of hundreds of years of literacy and a couple of millennia of artistic response. As a result, not only do they tend to have a sheen of white marble about them, but they tend to be very tidy, canonical versions with very clear narrative logic. It may be that the assumption – that one early myth-telling tradition will be much like another – is a false one anyway. Perhaps the hunter-gatherers of the Peloponnese had a quite different way of telling stories.

One thing – after having watched Ray Mears making a birch-bark canoe from scratch on TV the other day, I did at least have a clearer idea of things like splitting cedar and tying things with spruce roots. Now if he could just make a program about fishing for halibut and hunting whales from a dug-out canoe using traditional tools.

Blood and Roses is a book I’m reading about the Paston family from Norfolk. They are famous in medievalist circles because a large selection of their personal correspondence has survived from the C15th. I have a copy of the selcted letters, but never got very far with it. Helen Castor has used them to produce a more conventional bit of history writing, supplying the context and helping you keep track of all the people (including the three different John Pastons). It’s still quite dry and repetitive – they spend most of their time up to their necks in legal disputes about land ownership – but once I got into it I found it quite involving. They were newly wealthy gentry; William P was a miller’s son made good as a successful lawyer, and the book mainly conerns his son and grandsons. So not exactly toilers in the fields, but still ‘ordinary people’ in that they weren’t important historical figures. It was the time of the Wars of the Roses, of course, and very turbulent. You do get a sense of how all of society – including the law – was tied into a system of patronage and influence, and that influence could be erratic, capricious, subject to political expedience, and corrupt. And of course, in a time of civil war, people could gain and lose influence extremely rapidly. And the Pastons were strong characters whose personalities emerge clearly from their letters.

  • Post Category:Culture

categorizing poetry

Some of the po-bloggers have been wrangling the avant-garde again. And, more generally, the (un)usefulness of putting poems/poets into categories.

The Silliman avant garde / School of Quietude dichotomy is just annoying. For the loaded (insulting) terminology, but also because the more he and JC explore it, the more it sounds like a division based on personality type rather than poetics.

But leaving aside such intentionally provocative distinctions, all categories – by period, school, technique, or whatever – can distort history as well as helping us understand it. They exaggerate the similarities within a category and disguise those between categories. They also imply that those features which are typical of a category are also the important features.

For example, Modernism was typified in all the arts by, among other things, formal experimentation and a conscious break with old ways of doing things. But the fact that formal experimentation was typical of Modernism doesn’t mean that Modernism has any exclusive claim to it. There’s a tendency to want to take some earlier experimental writer – GM Hopkins, say, or Arthur Hugh Clough, or Melville – and try and claim them as a proto-modernist, as though their experimentation was itself evidence that they were some kind of precursor. But if Clough, why not Sterne? Milton? Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Wyatt?

It would be interesting to know if the established categories would be re-discovered if we started again from scratch. Let’s take Romanticism. It’s an uncontroversial category which is often seen as the most profound cultural shift since the Renaissance. But, as a thought experiment, if you took a clever but ignorant reader – an undergraduate, probably – and gave them lots of poetry from the mid-C17th to the mid 20th, without any notes, criticism or biographical information, just names and dates of poets and the poems they wrote, would they spot Romanticism? Would the pattern emerge from the data clearly without any need for extra context? Would they pick the same date for it happening? Clearly they would identify trends and shifts in fashion, but would they pick up on this radical discontinuity of thinking and aesthetics which we are told happened at the turn of the C18th/19th? Would it be clear to them that Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats formed a group, or would they emphasise a continuity that goes ‘Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Clare, Browning, Tennyson’ and draw a stronger connection from Blake to Shelley? With Byron lumped in with Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, perhaps.

And is the ‘without context’ clause unfair? If so, why? I know it seems unfair to try and understand writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth without access to what they themselves said they were doing, and the people they said influenced them, but if the influence isn’t detectable in the finished poem, perhaps it’s a red herring.

My guess is that Romanticism would be spottable, though the details might come out slightly differently – but it would be an interesting experiment. And I think less important movements and groupings would turn out to be less distinct and more arbitrary than we appreciate.

  • Post Category:Culture

theory and poetry

I started thinking about this (again) because Emily Lloyd (poesy galore) commented on the commonly-suggested idea that form is oppressive and patriarchal.

I find that particular idea somewhat bizarre. I can entirely understand that someone would take the aesthetic decision not to write formal poetry because of its cultural associations; by writing in metre, you are writing ‘in the tradition’ in a very obvious way. And ‘the tradition’ is just shorthand for ‘huge amounts of cultural baggage’. But relecting form because of its cultural associations is a very different thing to rejecting it because of some intrinsic quality of the technique. And I can’t see how language arranged into patterns is oppressive.

But that wasn’t really what I was going to say. It’s not just feminist rejection of form – all pronouncements about poetry, by everyone from Aristotle to Coleridge to me, are partial, narrow, one-sided and oversimplistic.

But today, I’m not seeing this as a bad thing. Probably because the sun is shining. Whatever gives someone the impetus to write is a good thing. Whether you choose to reject form for its pivotal role in the phallogocentric military-industrial-literary complex, or you write formal poetry in order to subvert the tradition, or just write formal poetry because you like the sound – it’s all good. The quality of the resulting poetry doesn’t seem to be dependent on the coherency of the theory. At least if someone is motivated by some intellectual or political agenda, their work may gain some energy and focus from it.

I just had an ice-cream in the park.

  • Post Category:Culture

Josh Corey makes a funny

This made me laugh:

‘we are forced to rely on extra-poetic determining factors like affiliation or manifestos or statements of poetics to reliably recognize the avant-garde’

Still, full marks for honesty.

  • Post Category:Culture

Robert Creeley RIP

Robert Creeley died. I’m not familiar with his work.

There are lots of poets whose work I don’t know as well as I should, of course. But I’m always surprised by how little poetry crosses the Atlantic. You’d think it would be a quite naturally international activity.

  • Post Category:Culture

Caravaggio – the final years

No, really, that’s what the exhibition was called.

I suspect a few Caravaggio-related poems will turn up during napowrimo, because I can’t afford to waste material. It had me thinking, though, what would the poetry version of chiaroscuro be? The effect of chiaroscuro in a painting – to highlight a few points and draw the eye to them – is of course something that language does very naturally. But would there be a way of writing that be analogous to the contrasting areas of light and dark? And what would the effect be?

  • Post Category:Culture

Cloud Atlas

I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s structurally odd – six stories which are all set in different historical periods and linked – but not causally.

i.e. the first strand is written as a journal, and the second has a character who finds the journal in a library and reads it, but is otherwise unconnected. It has the first half of all six narratives chronologically and then finishes them off in reverse order – i.e. 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1 – so it ends with the one it started on. There are themes that run through, but still, it’s basically a book of shortish stories arranged in a gimmicky way.

Even so, I think it does, on balance, feel more like one work than six. And a lot of the writing is very good, though some strands are more successful than others. I still can’t decide whether the whole manages to be more than the sum of the parts. Does the result justify the gimmick? The historical sweep of the book, taken seriously, implies a kind of importance – it is a narrative on the Grand Scale. But actually it’s several narratives on the small scale.

I’m going round in circles (rather like Cloud Atlas). I am glad I read it, but not as impressed by it as I was hoping, given the reviews.

I’ve also just read Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, by Lauren Slater. I read it in a couple of sittings, because it was readable and interesting, and I’d certainly recommend it, without feeling it changed my view of the world. That might seem like a high bar to set, but considering that I know relatively little about experimental psychology, there was room for it to teach me stuff. In the event, most of the experiments were more-or-less familiar from other reading. I suppose psychology has quite a high public profile.

Next up – the new translation of Don Quixote. January 16th was the 400th anniversary of the novel’s publication, and as I didn’t finish it when I tried reading it as a teenager, I thought this was a good time to have another go.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 10 – Ralegh

As you came from the holy land – Sir Walter Ralegh

As you came from the holy land

  • Post Category:Culture

Turner Whistler Monet

I went to Turner Whistler Monet at the Tate today.

The three artists are brought together because of shared interest in light, water, and shared subject matter – the Thames and Venice. Turner was an influence on the later two, as well.

It’s hard not to think of it as Turner vs Whistler vs Monet. In which case I think Whistler would win, on the basis of the paintings on display – though I have seen more impressive Turners and Monets in other exhibitions. Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ were fab – very controlled, very simple, but absorbing. Monet came out worst; compared to the Whistlers and Turners, the fussiness of his brushwork seemed distracting, the colours bordered on the vulgar and the composition seemed a bit haphazard. Having said that, when the Monets were just right – or when I was in a more receptive frame of mind – they were lovely.

I went to have a look at the other Tate Turners later, and it’s really only the late paintings that invite comparison with Impressionists. The interest in light and atmosphere is clearly there in the early stuff, but he hasn’t developed the extraordinary colour-handling yet, and isn’t willing to let the light effects take over the painting to the point that they become the subject. It’s quite interesting that some of the late paintings that most interested the Impressionists are actually unfinished; he worked by laying down all the expanse of colours, then adding some details at the end to turn the painting into a lake scene, or Venice or whatever – but quite a lot survive which are just arrangements of colour. Even when he’d finished them, he didn’t always add very much, so it would be interesting to know what he’d think of people admiring them as paintings in their own right.

The TWM exhibition had some information about Mallarm

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 9 – Yeats

High Talk by W B Yeats

Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.

Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

I only recently realised there were people who didn’t like Yeats. Hearing their objections did at least encourage me to look at his work more critically. The complaint is that he is grandiose, a posturer, a blusterer. I can recognise that about him; he plays the part of the Big Poet, and the attitude can grate. I also think that, at a time when we tend to value gritty authenticity in art, we’re suspicious of someone who is such a glamoriser.

With the McCartney sisters just back from the USA, it’s tempting to focus on the dangerous glamour of Yeats’s nationalism. But actually, he brings glamour to every subject he touches. Partially it’s the lusciousness of the language, but it’s the treatment as well. Take Among School Children. Imagine if Larkin had written a poem about visiting a schoolroom as an aging local worthy, and reflecting on lost youth and mortality; perhaps it would have been bleak, perhaps it would have been wryly humorous. But it certainly wouldn’t have managed to reference Plato, Leda, Quattrocento art, Alexander the Great and Pythagoras.

Anyway, I recognise the fairness of the accusation. I generally prefer the sparer late poems to the floweriness of things like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and I’m sceptical in the face of some of the more outlandish poems, like Sailing to Byzantium. But I think you can be pretty ruthless in stripping out the overly twee and the overly showy, and still be left with more great poems than any other C20th poet.

One of them, I think, is this one. In some ways it is guilty of exactly the showy gesture-making that makes me wary elsewhere – he’s boasting about and justifying his showmanship with striking and dramatic images; images which, perhaps, don’t mean much. But I love it anyway, for the long lines, the spareness of the language, and the striking imagery. Perhaps it’s because the poem’s central metaphor is rooted in reality, rather than some mystical vision of Byzantium, or faerie Ireland. I like the Crazy Jane poems for the same reason – they feel rooted, physical and placed.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 8 – Clare

The Crow by John Clare

How peaceable it seems for lonely men
To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky
Over the woods and fealds, o’er level fen
It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh
Behind the neighbouring woods — when March winds high
Tear off the branches of the huge old oak
I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by
And hear them o’er gnarled forest croak
Then sosh askew from the hid woodman’s stroke
That in the woods their daily labours ply
I love the sooty crow nor would provoke
Its march day exercises of croaking joy
I love to see it sailing to and fro
While feelds, and woods, and waters spread below.

Because sometimes it’s enough for a poem to be joyful. It happened to be The Crow, but it could have been one of dozens of Clare poems.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 7 – Coleridge

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison by Samuel Coleridge

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;–that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven–and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight : and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path across the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

There are days when I think that Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner are Coleridge’s most important poems, for their uniqueness and strangeness. And other days when I think that Gothic pantheism, for all its crowd-pleasing melodrama, was really a dead-end, and it’s the conversation poems like this one which really matter.

There is of course no need to make a choice.

As a birdwatcher, I’m always intrigued by the different ways that ‘nature poets’ (Clare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Lawrence, Hughes) look at nature. I do mean ‘look’; it’s not just the different spin people choose to put on their experiences, it’s what kinds of thing they see. Shelley doesn’t see the skylark at all, but a blithe spirit – a metaphor, in fact. Wordsworth seems to see landscapes; he’s the classic fell-walker type, who sees the great sweep of the hills but doesn’t see the flowers under his feet (unless there’s a host of them). Coleridge has much more of an eye for detail. The Nightingale is a really accurate poem about a birdwatching experience.

This poem also represents much that’s been a malign influence on poetry in the past 200 years, though. The effusiveness (19 exclamation marks in this poem), the emphasis on personal emotion, the sentimentality – even in this poem I think they could be toned down. Still, I find Coleridge a very likeable figure and I think writing like this needs to be recognised:

Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;–that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 6 – Larkin

Cut Grass by Philip Larkin

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

I know that for some people – Matthew Caley, for example – Larkin represents everything that’s wrong with British poetry and Britishness: parochial, reactionary, old-fashioned, pessimistic, unambitious, and nostalgic. And there’s truth in the caricature – his poems have a fairly narrow frame of reference, he’s politically and technically conservative, and gloomily misanthropic.

But he only reads as old-fashioned if you equate ‘modern’ with ‘modernist’. He may be writing in metre and rhyme, but his language doesn’t stray into the archaic or strain for the poetic. The poems read as of their time – the mid/late C20th. I also think his poems are tougher and more clear-eyed than the nostalgic, parochial image might suggest. His own prejudices are never far away, but they don’t seem to swamp the poems. When you read a lot of Larkin poems together, the cumulative effect is misanthropic and reactionary; but the poems taken individually are more thoughtful and more detached than that.

He’s also just very very good at writing poetry. His poems are not generally flashy, and it’s possible to underrate how well he maintains a natural, almost colloquial voice within quite demanding stanza forms. His vivid, immediate description is also more sophisticated than it appears.

When I made a comment earlier that I seemed to have chosen a lot of minor poems by major writers, this was one I had in mind. But I’ve changed my mind. It may be shorter than Whitsun Weddings or Church-going or Aubade, but it’s still a major poem. The colour-theming of white and green, the use of dimeter, the play of vowel-sounds, the eerie way it makes the stillness of summer into something deathly – great stuff. It actually makes quite an interesting companion piece to the Marvell, though I wasn’t thinking of that when I chose it.

Next up – This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.

  • Post Category:Culture