Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Tuesday poem: ‘Backcountry’

Monday, June 20th, 2011

by Louis Jenkins

“When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful,
policeman, priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car
with official lettering on the side. If that isn’t to your taste you
could join the revolution, wear an armband, carry a homemade flag
tied to a broom handle, or a placard bearing an incendiary slogan.

At the very least you should wear a suit and carry a briefcase and a
cell phone, or wear a team jacket and a baseball cap and carry a cell
phone. If you go into the woods, the backcountry, someplace past
all human habitation, it is a good thing to wear orange and carry a
gun, or, depending on the season, carry a fishing pole, or a camera
with a big lens. Otherwise it might appear that you have no idea
what you are doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no
particular reason for being here, no particular place to go.”

I hadn’t encountered Louis Jenkins’ prose poetry before last week, when the great British actor Mark Rylance won a Tony Award in New York for his extraordinary performance in the Broadway production of “Jerusalem”. And as his acceptance speech, he recited (if that’s the right word in this context) one of Louis Jenkins’ poems – as, I discovered, Rylance had also done when he won his first Tony Award in 2008. So I looked up Louis Jenkins and fell for his work in a heartbeat. It contains that alluring combination of apparent craziness and sanity that builds and contradicts itself so cleverly that at first it seems to encourage laughter, uncertainty and the suspension of disbelief in equal measures and ends up striking a deep and resonant note of truth. I can’t imagine what I’ve done without Jenkins’ work all these years.

“Walking through a wall” is the poem he recited in New York last week, and it’s a humdinger of a poem – worth seeking out, and if you do have a look at Louis Jenkins’ website. But to keep you amused meantime here’s a YouTube recording of Rylance reciting ‘Backcountry” to the Tony Awards audience in 2008. I particularly enjoyed the almost palpable audience reaction in the background building in confusion, near-hysteria and uncertainty as they try to work out what the hell he’s doing. (You can imagine the whispers running through the auditorium: is he mad? could he be drunk? what is happening? To which the answer is simple: nope, none of the above, he’s just reciting a poem by Louis Jenkins…)

One thing – I assume that Jenkins’ poems are supposed to be presented justified right and left – well, try telling that to WordPress. I did everything I could think of, and it wouldn’t work. You’ll just have to imagine the poem in that fashion, and close your mind to that irritating little hanging “cell” that I also couldn’t get rid of …

My thanks (and apologies for the layout blips) to Louis Jenkins for permission to post his poem.

Now maybe you’ll have a look at the Tuesday Poem web page and enjoy the other poems.

Tuesday poem – Ithaka

Monday, May 16th, 2011

by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
- with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

This probably sounds rather childish, but ‘Ithaka’ is my favourite poem in the whole world. I loved it when I first read it almost thirty years ago, and I love it more every time I read it, finding new subtleties and sadness, and further layers of truth and irony and resonance. It has become absolutely My Poem, over the years. I’d like to have it read at my funeral, please.
C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was the ninth child of rich Constantinople merchants. He was educated in England and Alexandria, but moved back to stay with his grandfather and two brothers in Constantinople when the family business collapsed, and then returned to Alexandria where he lived and worked (as a government clerk) until his death.
Cavafy wrote in modern Greek, which I do not know at all, and so I am forever in debt to his poetic translators. This particular translation has remained my favourite version through the years, and there are several others, the most favoured of which these days being Daniel Mendelsohn’s masterwork, the new translation of all Cavafy’s poems published by Knopf in 2009. I admire Mendelsohn’s work enormously but I don’t love his version of ‘Ithaka’ in the way that I love this one – and Mendelsohn spells it ‘Ithaca’ which is probably more accurate but to me removes a layer of the magic associated with the ‘Ithaka’ spelling. I’ve long since lost track of where this translation originates, but I reproduce it here with awe and gratitude.
Cavafy’s style is unemphatic, almost throwaway. His language has been carefully constructed from everyday speech, as though the smallnesses of human life – and also in this case the larger significances of Odysseus’ journeys – are being inspected and celebrated in a breathtaking journey through the language and mystery of the human heart. Such wisdom.

There are other lovely Cavafy poems, and you may know and love some of them – but this is the one for me.

I hope you’ll look at the Tuesday poem blog, if you’re not already there, and see what other poems people have posted today.


Saturday, April 9th, 2011

I have discovered (a) my link to The Guardian’s website from yesterday’s post about the Poetry Book Society got corrupted and doesn’t work, and (b) that anyway, The Guardian hasn’t put Carol Ann Duffy’s poem of protest about the Arts Council cuts in the online version of today’s paper. So I’ve typed it out myself, believing as I do that this is news and not a copyright issue, and here it is – if you’re not familiar with what the British Arts Council has recently done, or with some of the references, you’ll have to look them up separately (The Guardian gives a helpful set of footnotes, but again, only in the printed paper).

Anyway here it is – properly angry, immensely clever, entirely brilliant. What a woman, and what a poet. ( And if you don’t get the reference to Louis MacNeice’s original, you can find his inspirational poem here.)

A CUT BACK, by Carol Ann Duffy

It’s no go the LitFest, it’s no go up in Lancaster,
though they’ve built an auditorium (still quite wet, the plaster)
a bar, a bookshop, office space … well, they won’t need wheelchair
All we want is a million quid and here’s to the Olympics.

London’s Enitharmon Press was founded in 1967,
but David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine are writing now in heaven,
with UA Fanthorpe, John Heath-Stubbs; dead good dead poets all.
The only bloody writing now’s the writing on the wall.

It’s no go the national art, it’s no go cake with icing.
All we want are strategic cuts, it’s no go salami slicing.

It’s no go the Poetry Trust, it’s no go in East Suffolk;
Aldeburgh’s east of Stratford East. As Rooney says, oh f-fuck it –
because it’s no go First Collection Prize, it’s no go local writers.
We’ve been asked to pull the plug, the rug, by coalition shysters.

National Association of Writers in Education?
No way, NAWE, children and books, the train’s leaving the station.
It’s no go your poets in schools, it’s no go your cultures.
All we want is squeezed middles and stringent diets for vultures.

It’s no go the pamphlet, the gig in Newcastle no go.
All we want is a context for the National Portfolio.

Three little presses went to market, Flambard, Arc and Salt;
had their throats cut ear to ear and now it’s hard to talk.
They remember Thatcher’s Britain. Clegg-Cameron’s is worse., the least of which is verse.

It’s no go the avant-garde, it’s no go the mainstream.
All we want is a Review Group, chaired, including recommendations.

Stephen Spender thought continually of those who were truly great;
set up the Poetry Book Society with TS Eliot, genius mate.
But it’s no go two thousand strong in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Phone a cab for the Nobel laureates as they take their curtain call.

It’s no go, dear PBS. It’s no go, sweet poets.
Sat on your arses for fifty years and never turned a profit.
All we want are bureaucrats, the nods as good as winkers.
And if you’re strapped for cash, go fish, then try the pigging

The Poetry Book Society needs your help!

Friday, April 8th, 2011

As you’ll probably know if you live in the UK, the Arts Council has decided to withdraw all funding from The Poetry Book Society from April next year. As you might also know, The Poetry Book Society is a widely respected and internationally unique organisation that selects outstanding poetry collections for readers and libraries, and which also – through its own bookshop sales – is an immensely significant source of revenue for poetry publishers, and so also for poets.

The Arts Council’s funding choices must be very difficult in these tight financial times but this is a very bad, sad decision. The PBS was established by the Arts Council at Stephen Spender’s suggestion, and both T.S. Eliot and Philip Larkin served on its board in their time; it still has enormous prestige in a world where poetry is often the neglected child of the writing world. And the society continues to make a genuine difference to poets and poetry, and it is desperately important for it to continue to operate. Honestly, you guys, it really matters.

There are several things you could do to help, and I hope anyone reading this post who cares anything at all about poetry will do at least one of them.

1. To sign the petition to the Arts Council asking for a restoration of funding, click here.

2. To buy a poetry book through their online bookshop, click here.

3. To read about the PBS’s work, or even better to become a member of the PBS, click here.

3.  To read the letter that over 100 poets have sent to the Arts Council in support of the PBS, click here.

4. To email Dame Elizabeth Forgan, Chair of the Arts Council, to express your dismay, here’s the email to use:

6. To read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem of protest in The Guardian tomorrow, wait until the site for Saturday’s paper is up and then click here.

The city of ruins will rise again

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

It’s hard to think of anything other than the Christchurch earthquake. I have friends with family in the area so there’s been a fraught time of waiting to hear – most are now accounted for, and that’s a relief. Other friends have emailed me to pass on good news (Margaret Mahy’s fine, which I hadn’t even thought to worry about; Maurice Lyon’s friends are also OK and that’s also great to know.) But there’s still one Tuesday Poem poet unaccounted for: all we can hope is that he’s fine and just hasn’t got power for the internet or a cell phone connection Fingers crossed for you, Andrew.

Unless you’re on the spot it’s difficult to imagine just how hard it is for everyone without power or money (no ATMs) or sewage supplies, and having to dig out the liquefaction thrown up by the shallowness of the quake, and children and pets crazed with fear, and the continuing aftershocks.

One Tuesday Poem poet posted Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics for ‘My City of Ruins’, which is an anthem of encouragement with a chorus of hope that I’ve been singing since I read the post: look for it here.

There is a blood red circle

On the cold dark ground

And the rain is falling down

The church door’s thrown open

I can hear the organ’s song

But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins

My city of ruins

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

And everyone I know sends love and thoughts of courage. Kia kaha, people of Christchurch.

One fine road trip

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

We’ve just been on a terrific road trip into central Florida from Key West. I do love a road trip in any circumstances and this was as good as they get: easy driving on quiet backroads, good weather (OK, it was a bit nippy to start with, but it warmed up later and I stopped thinking wistfully about the snuggly cardigan I’d left behind) and lovely people and places to meet along the way.

One of the games we played in the car was a comparison between Good Things in the UK and those in the USA, but the latter came to mind so thick and fast that we stopped making the comparison and just enjoyed the ones we were experiencing. (Some examples. Clean loos absolutely everywhere, even in places that in other countries you might think twice about visiting. State parks in abundance, and all with excellent facilities like picnic tables and no litter, plus genuinely helpful signs & leaflets, and volunteer staff filled with enthusiasm. Food in little cafés and restaurants along the road delicious and cheap. And in supermarkets, if a piece of wrapped fruit – papaya, say, or pineapple – says “ripe and ready to eat” you know what? It absolutely is.)

One of the first things to catch my eye was this plantation of palms, spaced with such formidable regularity as though the UK’s Forestry Commission had been at work.

I was also amused by this pedestrian push-button instruction: a street called Shade is rather sweet, especially in a town (Sarasota) where there are many streets with names like Shade or Shady, and I also like the one called Ringling. (The circus of the same name used to have its winter quarters here, and there’s an enormous complex of museums and galleries bequeathed to the city by the astonishingly rich John and Mable – yes, Mable, spelled that way against expectation – Ringling.)

The main destination of this trip was to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic homestead at Cross Creek.(It’s a State Park! With great facilities!) She’s a writer I’ve admired for years, and yes you have heard of her – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel was “The Yearling” – and the visit was a big treat for me. The house is lovely, and now restored to look largely as she left it, but her orange groves were neglected and have now returned to a tangle of dense hammock growth. Still, the State Park people have planted a few token orange trees in her yard: here’s one of them.

And two road trip signs that are worth recording:

A sign in front of an ankle and foot injuries clinic that said: “Walk-in appointments available”.

And a piece of graffiti:

“Save the Earth. It’s the only planet with chocolate.”

Paddle faster!

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I have always had a great affection for bumper stickers, which segues into an equally affectionate regard for witty graffiti. Many years ago, when I was a young and mostly foolish person masquerading as a free spirit, I made use of the unusually long journey coming up from London’s Hampstead underground station to street level by writing a graffiti of my own on the lift wall. (“If work were a good thing, the rich would have grabbed it for themselves long ago.” And please note, with admiration and respect, my use of the subjunctive.)

Anyway. The classic Key West bumper stickers are SLOW DOWN, THIS AIN’T THE MAINLAND and ONE HUMAN FAMILY, both fine in their way, and if my bike frame had space for either of those I would stick it on.  Last time I was in town I saw what immediately became a new favourite: PADDLE FASTER! I HEAR BANJO MUSIC! (And if you’re too young to get that reference you need only to rent a DVD of ‘Deliverance’. When you’re old enough, of course.)

Again: anyway. There is now a new jeep in town plastered in good bumper stickers, and yesterday I finally remembered to (a) take my UK iPhone out with me so I could photograph the jeep if I saw it, and (b) search the known hangout spots for this particular jeep.  So here are some (OK, not very clear – sorry) photos of the results – my favourite is WELL BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY, although WILL WORK FOR WORLD PEACE and  YOU CAN HAVE EVERYTHING BUT WHERE WOULD YOU PUT IT?  have a lot going for them. too.

But maybe the best of all isn’t on the jeep at all, and as far as I know isn’t yet a bumper sticker. It’s a notice in the kitchen at the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture in London, and it says this:



Tuesday Poem: The Ferlew

Monday, January 31st, 2011

As I understand it, a British poet called Jenny Lewis came up with (or perhaps perfected, I’m not sure which) this poetic construction. It’s an amusing one to play with, and very satisfying to accomplish – in much the same way that round songs and folk dances please the participants. This one is by Roger McGough.

IN CASE OF FIRE by Roger McGough

In case of FIRE break glass

In case of GLASS fill with water

In case of WATER wear heavy boots

In case of HEAVY BOOTS assume foetal position

In case of FOETAL POSITION loosen clothing

In case of CLOTHING avoid nudist beach

In case of NUDIST BEACH keep sand out of eyes

In case of EYES close curtains

In case of CURTAINS switch on light

In case of LIGHT embrace truth

In case of TRUTH spread word

In case of WORD keep mum

In case of MUM open arms

In case of ARMS lay down gun

In case of GUN, fire

In case of FIRE break glass

If you are reading this on my blog you might like to go to the Tuesday Poem site and look at other contributions. But you might already be there, checking out the sidebar contributions from other poetry members. Enjoy your Tuesdays, dear readers, either way – I’m still on Monday morning time, so I still have the pleasure of a Tuesday to come!

Tuesday poem, Secret Santa edition: ‘Christmas Baubles from Northland’

Monday, December 20th, 2010

In one of those enchanting, life-affirming synchronicities, I’ve been paired with Elizabeth Welsh in the Secret Santa edition of the Tuesday Poem. It’s a lovely way to come back after a five week absence, I can tell you!

Elizabeth Welsh is an editor, writer and Katherine Mansfield academic based in Auckland, New Zealand. In her role of editor, she holds a number of positions, as the New Zealand literature expert for Routledge Academic’s online resource ABES, the academic copy editor for the Journal of Asia-Pacific studies, educational copy editor for the animal rights organisation SAFE, and editor of The Typewriter, a poetry initiative in its third year, dedicated to publishing quality emerging New Zealand poets.

Creatively she writes poetry and short stories and has been published in a variety of online and print publications. Her creative inspiration comes (predominantly) from the New Zealand landscape that she loves to explore.

This particular poem is part of a collection that she would love to have published, which focuses on simple experiences in the landscapes that she grew up in. ‘Christmas baubles in Northland’, quite simply, expresses her returned visits to Northland and to the small but thriving arts communities based there. It is a reflection on how our Christmas ornaments and festoonery make their way to our pine trees and mantelpieces. Watching glass baubles being made in sweltering temperatures beside a tiny harbour reminds her of summer and Christmas time.

And here it is – a beautiful poem, set in my favourite part of the world.

Christmas Baubles from Northland

by Elizabeth Welsh

And then we came home. You bought me liquid

amber bubbles on the quayside banks of

the Hatea river that year.

We had been there before, stood in those rooms

with furnaces at over a thousand, while viscous orbs

became elastic skins full of almond,

rose, indigo, coral and sea-green air.

Paddles beat at the soft glass,

while water-soaked fruit wood curved each molten daub.

And then we came home. You took me

along the harbour, past the glassblowers and the clock museum

and reminded me of Hatea baubles.

Please visit The Tuesday Poem for more Secret Santa treats.

Tuesday Poem: The Voice

Monday, November 8th, 2010

THE VOICE, Thomas Hardy

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear?  Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness

Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.

Yesterday afternoon I caught part of a programme about Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Thomas Hardy and was reminded of this poem, which he wrote after Emma, his first wife, died. They had been living separate lives for years and Hardy was in love with another woman, but Emma’s unexpected death was – Tomalin asserts – the moment when Hardy became a great poet. Overcome with sorrow and remorse, he began a series of poems of which ‘The Voice’ is one. It’s such a wail of grief and regret, freighted with painful memory. I love it, especially on a cold, dark autumn afternoon here in London.

If you’d like to look at other poems in the hopes they’ll be more cheery than this one, and with any luck at least some of the New Zealand entries will reflect the lightness of spring,  check out The Tuesday Poem blog.