Friday, 30 November 2012

Yeats and Amichai: the best, the worst and trampling the garden

Like many other atheists, I was following the Church of England’s vote on women bishops with appalled fascination.  The motion in favour failed in the house of laity partly because the conservative evangelical wing of the church had organised to get its representatives elected, with such a vote in mind.  This is one of those news stories for which these two lines from Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ seem especially appropriate:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I love the tone of half-disengaged, half-horrified distaste.  Maybe, in the case of the CofE, the best will now acquire some intensity.  Why does the Church spend so much time agonising on gender issues, rather than concentrating on what’s happening to the world? I sometimes ask an Anglican friend of mine. Ah we do all that, she says, but it doesn’t get reported in the media!

In fact, I love the whole poem, which is 93 years old.  1919: the mindset behind this poem is post-First World War, post-Russian Revolution, and not least, in Ireland, post-Easter Rising.  One interesting aspect is its apparent ambiguity about revolution. But the main thing is that the poem refuses to be interpreted too easily, despite the forthrightness of many of its statements, and so it opens rather than closes the mind.  Here it is (hand-typed from Yeats’ Collected, not copied-and-pasted off the internet, in case you’re wondering).

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The only newspaper I buy regularly is the Guardian on Saturdays, and (like many other atheists) I enjoy Giles Fraser’s column. Recently – in the context of Israel/Palestine – he quoted from a poem new to me but immediately unforgettable. Here are the first few lines of Yehuda Amichai’s short poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell, ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

This makes me think: yes, I need to remember that sometimes.  And then: but extremists are always ready to trample the ground (see Yeats, above, and organised religion) which makes it hard for anyone to stop them without doing the same.

I have just been mentally trampling the ground over this: Cameron prevents climate change expert from heading the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  (One can register to read 8 FT articles a month for free; I tend to forget to read mine, which is a waste – the FT isn’t wholly given over to Mammon, though it has less space for high quality political analysis than it used to.) 

Oh, for the poetry equivalent of Steve Bell & co to capture such crass, devious stupidity, concentrate our fury and make us laugh at the same time… And where is Yeats when we need him?
And had he been visiting the British Museum's Assyrian galleries?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Aldeburgh: highs, lows and the spine of a poem

I wrote about Ko Un last time. Above is a photo of him and his translator Brother Anthony. All photos are by Peter Everard Smith.  

Aldeburgh is history by now, two weeks ago. I‘m going to write a little more about it anyway... know I should have done so earlier, but haven’t had time.  Now it’s a gorgeous Sunday morning, I’ve cleaned the house (well, some of it) and swept leaves up (some of them).  The midday sun is coming in low through the window, making hollyhock seed-head and vine-leaf shadows on the wall.    
The 2 Michaels
One of the Highs was also a Low, and took place at the end of the Masterclass, the annual on-stage workshop, which I enjoyed all the more as an audience member because I was in it last year. There were three very interesting poems, and the usual perceptive audience participation. Sponsor Michael Mackmin of The Rialto magazine stood up to thank Michael Laskey (who was on stage as he chairs the Masterclass) and Joanna Cutts for all those years of editing Smiths Knoll. I was so pleased he did this; everyone was lamenting SK’s demise in the café and the corridors, and it was good to have an occasion to applaud them both.  Which we all did, at length. Anthony Wilson’s blog has a very good account of why.

More highs:

The reeds at Snape, rustling and rattling. 

Julia Copus’ talk on the spine of a poem – extremely cogent, though I wanted to argue with her proposition. This was summed up in a quote from Philip Larkin, on Thomas Hardy (I’m not sure if this is verbatim, but it’s close): “Each poem has a little spinal cord of thought”. 

The spine, said Copus, can be built entirely of images, and doesn’t need to be verbalised.  The spine is there as thought associated with the images.  She referred to Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit drawing, which can’t be seen as both at once, but when looking at it as, say, a duck, you have the idea of the rabbit in mind too.

Or the spine can be explicit.  Copus quoted John Donne: working on the poem’s frame is like the beating-out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as a stamp upon the gold.  And Robert Frost: “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”.

Copus used two examples.  Larkin’s ‘The Mower’ is structured as a narrative, with the central thought in the last two lines (like the final couplet in a Shakespeare sonnet). Once one has read to the end, the description and narrative in the rest of the poem become images of that final thought.  Sharon Olds’ ‘My Son the Man’ consists of a chain of Houdini-related images of confinement.

Copus gave us some words from three poems, and asked us to vote on which one of the three was by a beginner. Most of us got it right…  Anyway, I wanted to argue with the spine theory not because I don’t think it’s a very useful way of analysing a poem, or critiquing one’s own or other people’s drafts – I do think this – but because (a) I don’t like Poetry Rules, and (b) it seems to exclude experimental poetry, and probably some not-so-experimental poetry too. A poem may not want to have a spine at all; or it may want to have a different shape, instead of a line or concatenation; or it may want a broken spine.   

Young Poets
More highs:

Walks on the beach at Aldeburgh.

Young Poets. Warsan Shire, Rebecca Perry, Andrew McMillan, Caleb Klaces. All very different, and very good, and read well.

Ingrid de Kok reading her poem “The archbishop chairs the first session”.

Brother Anthony of Taizé’s talk on Korean poetry, which included some beautiful quotations.  One was about the sky reflected in a bunch of grapes, but I’ve lost it.

There were more.  And I missed some; I didn’t go to so many events this year.

Low points:

One aspect of the Anthony Thwaite / Christopher Reid discussion on poets whose work they can’t be without. They name-checked many poets, going back in time and from Serbia to Brazil (Andrade, who sounds well worth exploring). They probably thought they’d been wide-ranging. But one barrier was higher than Mount Everest and beyond all considerations of time… they didn’t mention a single female poet! Depressing, but not surprising – a reminder that there are still some for whom the canon is all male. 

Damp feet (see previous post).

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Aldeburgh, Snape and Ko Un

It was a very enjoyable weekend, though from now on trips to Aldeburgh will be nostalgia-filled. The festival has moved from the High Street to the shopping mall.  Sonofabook /Charles Boyle has written very pertinently but sympathetically about what it was like, and festival lifespans in general.  

Q&A: Naomi Jaffa and Ko Un (in black), with two-way interpreters Brother Anthony and Ko Un's wife Lee Sang-Wha. Photo by festival photographer Peter Everard Smith.
Ko Un created Aldeburgh Moments whenever he appeared.  Saying in his Q&A, if things aren’t good enough in here, go and look at the reeds and the tears will start to flow. Taking a slug of red wine and giving us a song. Talking about losing half his generation…  HALF HIS GENERATION in the Korean war, from which time, he said, he’s been inhabited by a lament for the dead, who sometimes are the ones who write. Not talking much about being in prison; not talking at all about trying to commit suicide, or putting acid in his ears to block out the ‘noise’ of the world. How could those things be talked about? That’s all in the Poetry Paper, in a piece by Brother Anthony of Taizé, his main translator. The two of them read together at the main Sunday reading. Ko Un applauded Brother Anthony each time he read out a translation, so we started doing the same; after a few times, Brother Anthony, his modesty increasingly outraged, gently brushed away the applause…

Ko Un’s reading style was full of loud/soft drama – Korean style, maybe? It helped communicate the emotion in a language impenetrable to almost everyone there, and keep us listening.  At one point he leant right in to the microphone to deliver three lines or phrases in a row that all began with P, reminding us that P is a plosive. 

Here’s a poem he read, one of ’24 little songs’:

Do I have the love of one person
that can wash away the hatred of several people?
I had been opening an umbrella,
but I closed it again,
and just welcomed the rain.

A first look at First Person Sorrowful, the Bloodaxe volume (translated by Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-Wha) that was launched at the festival, confirms the sense from Ko Un’s reading that his poetry is hugely varied – political, metaphysical, mystical, human, lyrical, quirky, funny.  And this book only covers the last ten years of his life-as-a-poet, which started before the Korean War. Teenager Ko Un was walking home along a country road (in our village all we did was work, eat and sleep, he said) and found a discarded book of poems written, it turned out, by a leper-poet. He spent the night reading it. He felt it was meant for him, and decided to write like the poet, about things that related to his own life.

I was going to write about this year’s Aldeburgh Moments, but Ko Un has run away with me. Maybe next time.

Back to Aldeburgh/Snape. One of the weekend’s low points was when, through some intangible combination of circumstances, Snape became a term of abuse. It can be hissed very nicely: Snape, Snape, Ssssnape!

“Me, I think they should have stayed in Aldeburgh, and fixed the roof” says Charles Boyle – exactly. That’s what lots of us thought. But I don’t think they were given a choice. Not that any of the Poetry Trust staff or volunteers would ever say so, they are all far too professional – and so kind, hospitable, intelligent and helpful as always. And they had organised things extremely well which must be difficult in a new venue.

The Snape venues were all lovely.  If only one could lift them up and plonk them down in Aldeburgh, without their corporate and commercial carapace or their indifferent eating places. The river and marshland is beautiful, but it’s not the sea, the sea, the sea, which breathed in and out all night through the attic window as I lay awake in Aldeburgh (Aldeburgh syndrome = over-excitement leading to sleeplessness). 

Snape feels enclosed.

No river photos, I forgot to take my camera there
The thing that annoys me most is that the festival now discriminates against those without cars. It is un-green. No grant-administrating bureaucrat can deny that this is a backward step. I’m sure they’ll adapt the shuttle bus arrangements next year, but that won’t address the principle, or solve the practical problems.

These include having to plan for the whole day, and not being able to go back to one’s accommodation for a quiet hour or two. Not being able to browse the High Street for cafes, friends and shops (Aldeburgh businesses can’t be pleased). I had damp feet the whole weekend, because of going for a walk at Snape each morning between the bus arriving and my first event. I also spent Sunday in dirty jeans as I slipped in the mud! though that was quite funny, unlike the damp feet. Wellies next year, and a bag to carry stuff around. A friend wanted somewhere quiet to write/think, but there wasn’t anywhere under cover – hopeless.

One friend suggested there should be a boat service up the river, from Aldeburgh to Snape. Brilliant. If you agree and were there, put it in your feedback survey!

I know I wasn’t the only person who didn’t use all my tickets because I needed to escape Snape. Next year I’ll go, barring disasters, but book fewer tickets, allowing plenty of time for Aldeburgh. 

Ah, but at least I’ll be going.