Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Tuesday Poem: W.S. Merwin - A Life in Poetry

W. S. Merwin is one of the most interesting of the older generation of American poets.  I'm fascinated by the way he uses phrasing and line breaks to do away with intrusive punctuation. 'Poetry,' he says, 'is about expressing something inexpressible'. Yet we go on trying. This is a wonderful video in which he talks about his life, his preoccupation with landscape and the imagination, and about his grief at what we are doing to the natural world. 'We are losing a species every 2 seconds.'   And unless 'nuts like us' try to do something about it, it will only get worse.  He quotes Thoreau, 'In wildness is the preservation of the world'.

I have Merwin's collection 'The Moon before Morning', poems of reflection on connections with place and our relationship with the natural world.   One of my favourites is 'Homecoming'.  This is how it ends:

". . .  and I looked up to the clear sky
and saw the new moon and at that
moment from behind me a band
of dark birds and then another
after it flying in silence
long curving wings hardly moving
the plovers just in from the sea
and the flight clear from Alaska
half their weight gone to get them home
but home now arriving without
a sound as it rose to meet them"

W.S Merwin 'The Moon Before Morning'.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Sunday Books: The Inklings didn't have an inkling .... about women

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom called Literature with a capital L.  The borders were very strictly controlled by Guardians, who were predominantly white, male and upper middle class, educated in boys' schools and male-only Oxbridge colleges.  If you were a woman, a person of colour, or a member of the working class, it was virtually impossible to get past these Gatekeepers. For decades their notion of what Literature was, and who could write it, was The Law in publishing.

 I’ve just finished Grevel Lindop’s excellent biography of Charles Williams, the third ‘Inkling’ and an influential figure in thirties and forties literary and theological thought. Grevel does a beautiful job of fleshing out the nervous, fragile body of the man as well as analysing a brilliant and unique mind.

Williams was an unusual member of that exclusive Oxford club, the Inklings.  A working class London boy whose strange vowels and missing consonants continually proclaimed his plebeian origins, Williams didn’t even have a degree. But he had been working, since he left school, at the Oxford University Press, gradually rising through the ranks and becoming a published author as well as a respected editor.  He was gifted, eccentric, and charismatic - he mesmerised both men and women.  Williams’ literary works are almost all out of print now, but Grevel Lindop ranks his Arthurian poems among the best in the twentieth century and there are intriguing glimpses of his novels. Williams is definitely a candidate for the ‘best first line’ award for an opening sentence; ‘The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.’

I found Grevel’s biography both fascinating and saddening.  It accurately portrays an academic and literary world dominated by men; in particular men moulded by single sex (often boarding) schools, who had been brought up to equate the feminine with weakness and irrationality.  Men who were, through the confused morals and religious teachings of the time, distrustful of and confused about their own sexuality.  The Inklings were supreme examples of the species - Tolkein’s sexless and idealised characters in the Lord of the Rings, which has an absence of women and a heroic male comradeship myth at its heart; C.S. Lewis’s guilt-ridden musings on ideal love, literature and religion (an unmarried man who wrote a treatise on marriage as well as the Allegory of Love); and Charles Williams who believed that sexual frustration fuelled literary inspiration and required the odd, mild spanking to get his work off the ground.  In the wider literary landscape there was Eliot, celibate for much of his life, identifying with the mythical wounded Fisher King, John Middleton Murry whose sexual hangups could provide fodder for an entire psychiatric conference, F.R. Leavis, described by ex-student Stephen Fry as ‘a sanctimonious prick of only parochial significance’  . . . etc etc  These were the influential literary figures of the thirties and forties (and beyond).

Literature was a men’s club. Charles Williams neglected his wife and child (the pram in the hall was an enemy of male creativity as well as female), for hours of heated discussion on poetry, theology and abstract ideas in smoky all-male rooms.  When his wife Florence accused him of infidelity, it wasn’t for adultery, it was because her mind had become unimportant to him. She referred to her rival as ‘the virgin tart’ and felt that she herself was there for only One Thing. ‘I very much loathed being used as the inhabitant of a brothel which was my humiliating lot for years.’ Marriage to Charles Williams reduced Florence from a bright, impulsive and ambitious girl to a ‘harassed housewife’ and mother of a ‘frequently ill’ child.  Williams’ son suffered from depression and was never able to establish an independent life.

Williams was obsessed with the mythical and mystical.  He belonged to secret ritualistic organisations including the Rosicrucian inspired Order of the Rosy Cross, and the Morning Star (an offshoot of the Golden Dawn).  Not surprisingly he became pre-occupied with the Arthurian legends. These had their roots in more ancient pagan mythologies in which women played a more powerful role which had been stripped out in the Christian sanitisation of the stories.  In these later versions women appear as temptresses and witches, trying to distract men from their real goals in life - which are male solidarity (Guinevere threatens Lancelot’s relationship with Arthur), truth, purity and the pursuit of the Holy Grail.  Women represented earth, reality, bodily processes, rather than heavenly aspiration and the life of the soul. Only a saintly virgin, untainted by sexual desire, could be excepted and presented as an ‘ideal’ of femininity.

This is all generalising a bit, but it was difficult then, (and still is) for a woman rooted in her own cycles of fertility and the realities of human procreation and development, to take much of it seriously, since she was excluded by the source material as well as discussion of it.  And very few women had the education, or the ego, to force the male establishment to take them seriously.  Charles Williams had a large following of female acolytes who attended his lectures and fell in love with him almost as a matter of course.  Some of them were summoned to his office at the OUP for a bit of ritual punishment with canes, swords and pencils, whenever he had a literary emergency.  This was never on the level of Fifty Shades - a bit of mild S&M that appears to have been consensual.  One has to wonder what else was going on inside the hallowed offices of the distinguished Press!

The Third Inkling is a very readable book which wears its meticulous research lightly - and that’s no mean feat. It raises some important and troubling questions.

If you’re interested in the current gender imbalance in the literary world, this is an interesting survey:


Also by Grevel Lindop

The Opium Eater - A Life of Thomas de Quincey
A Literary Guide to the Lake District
Travels on the Dance Floor
Selected Poems, Carcanet Press
Luna Park, Carcanet

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Tuesday Poem: Winter Migrants - Tom Pickard

a mass of moth-eaten cloud
threadbare and spun across
a bullish moon

an animal wakes
when I walk in winter,

wrapped against
a withering wind,


on a Solway flat

winter migrants gather
in long black lines

along a silver sleek

heads held back,
            thrust toward
an onshore rush

occasionally cruciform,
in a flying wind

as though
in obeisance
              to the sea

retracing steps
           washed out
by whimpering silt

each tide a season
in the pecking mall

they call as I approach,
          an upright spelk
on their shelf,

           gathering my notes
and theirs

we scavenge
          ahead of our shadows

waiting for what

the tide brings in
or leaves out

          hedged cloud
edged gold

on silver slates
       of sand

         leaps of light
surrender water

      from rivulets
       from rage

repealing waves

a curlew’s
      estuary echo

          but you
      and the wind’s

Copyright Tom Pickard
Source: Poetry (February 2016).
Published by the Poetry Foundation

Solway Firth - tide out
This is a beautiful evocation of a winter's walk on the Solway Estuary. I liked the structure of the poem - the way the lines stagger down the page, imitating the leads of water through the sandy estuary.  There are some beautiful Cumbrian words - 'spelk', a word for a splinter of wood, usually lodged in your flesh. The Curlew's cry, which will always mean home to me, haunts the poem.   I love the images - 'silver slates of sand', the 'pecking mall'.  Wasn't sure about a 'silver sleek', but imagine a thread of water in the sand, silvered by the light.  The long lines of migrants made me think of other migrants, refugees, struggling through mud and cold water - a tide of hunger and need.

Tom Pickard is a much neglected British poet - a powerful northern voice - described by Allen Ginsberg as '...one of the most live and true poetic voices in Great Britain'.  I first came into contact with Tom when he was running the cutting edge Morden Tower poetry events in Newcastle and hearing him read has always given me pleasure.  Tom was mentored by Basil Bunting, as a young poet,  before embarking on a career that involved editorial work, film and documentary making - living in London and Warsaw before returning to his northern roots.  He has published an amazing number of collections.  The latest is called hoyoot: collected poems and songs and is published by Carcanet Press.   'Hoyoot' is geordie for 'throw away', 'get rid', 'chuck' etc!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Poetry, Politics and Ben Okri

It's been a lively weekend.  On Friday I caught a train to London to take part in the Magma poetry magazine prize celebration at Keats House in Hampstead.  The weather was beautiful - clear blue skies - and the trees were coming into bud and the birds were singing. London at its best. The poetry was good too;  Daljit Nagra was this year's judge and the winners for 2 categories of prize - from USA and UK -  included Lucy Ingrams, Maya Popa, Soul Patel, Maggie Smith, Paul Bregazzi and Barbara Hickson.  The special mentions also got to read their work, and they included some stunning poems.  Daljit Nagra was honest enough to say that out of the huge number of poems submitted, the 8 poems eventually selected  for each prize could have been in any order - the ordering was entirely subjective.  But I don't think I could have disagreed with his decisions.  Among the special mentions for both categories were Robert Hamberger, Mario Petrucci, Lesley Saunders, Rebecca Watts, Neil Ferguson, Simon Richey, Catherine Edmunds,  Polly Atkin,  and Louise Vale, as well as myself.  3 of the UK poets came from Cumbria - Barbara, Polly and me, so there must be something special in the air! These are some of the prize-winners (not intentionally ordered by height).
Neil Fergusson, Robert Hamberger, Daljit Nagra, Barbara Hickson, Paul Bregazzi, Lesley Saunders, Kathleen Jones
Saturday I was back on the train for a series of events at the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick. On Sunday morning novelist Salley Vickers was giving the Royal Literary Fund lecture on Shakespeare.  I didn't think that there was anything left to say about the Bard, but Salley had the audience riveted and I learned a lot. She was very impressive.  Business and Economics editor at Channel 4, Paul Mason, recently resigned because of the politics of broadcast media, was terrifying as he talked about a Future after Capitalism. He gave a damning view of the press as it is at present, in the hands of oligarchs and a political elite, all pursuing their own agendas rather than serving the public with information.  Another crisis is inevitable, he said, and conditions will get much worse than we could ever imagine.  Our future is in co-operation and a much more local outlook.  And don't trust the banks (or the government!) with your money.
Paul Mason (whatever it says on the board) and a long queue to sign books. Photo Gwenda Matthews at Bookends
But the final event of the day, at the end of the Festival, was Ben Okri talking about storytelling.  It is, he said, fundamental to the human psyche, pre-dating, perhaps, even our use of tools and technologies. As soon as human beings had language, they had story. He talked about the 'transgressive' quality of stories and the mysteries at the heart of them. "Stories are never what they seem.  They are whispers from beyond the invisible screen of existence." He talked about the importance of the imagination and allowing children creative play.  "Imagination dreams that which knowledge makes real . . . A people can only create what they can imagine."

The magical Ben Okri - photo Gwenda Matthews at Bookends

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Kirsty Gunn: My Katherine Mansfield Project

Yesterday was International Women's Day and I spent it at the Words by the Water Festival of 'words and ideas' in the beautiful Theatre by the Lake looking out over Derwentwater in Keswick.

Skiddaw from Derwentwater. Photo copyright David Welham, 'I Love the Lake District' FB
I had the real pleasure of chairing an event by the New Zealand writer Kirsty Gunn, who was talking about her latest book from Notting Hill Editions, called 'My Katherine Mansfield Project'.

It is a patchwork of fiction, memoir and reflection, written over the several months she recently spent in Wellington, New Zealand - the city where both she and Katherine were born and brought up - the city they both left as young women to come to England to become writers.

The resulting book is completely unclassifiable, in terms of genre, and is beautiful to read. The reflective sections are perhaps closest to the essay format - journeys of exploration through Kirsty's thoughts and feelings as she confronts both her past and Katherine Mansfield's, as well as her responses, in fiction, to some of Mansfield's most seminal stories.

It's one of my favourite books by Kirsty Gunn, partly because of the Mansfield link, but also because it is a wonderful piece of writing.

I also like her novella The Boy and the Sea and I'm an admirer of her most recent - Scottish - novel, The Big Music.

Kirsty is currently living between London and Scotland, where she is Professor of Creative Writing at Dundee University, so her reflections on the idea of Home and Belonging were very interesting.  She knows very well the feeling of returning 'home' only to find that you are a stranger in your own country.

Notting Hill Editions are a wonderful 'boutique' publisher - I met the managing editor after the event and was very impressed with the passion and the dedication.  They produce beautiful books.  Take a look. 

The Words by the Water Festival is on until Sunday with a wide variety of writers talking about their work.  There's something for  everyone.  I'll be back on Sunday introducing novelist Sally Vickers, who is giving the Royal Literary Fund lecture this year.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Travelling to the Edge of the World

It's nearly a year since I set off for the remote islands of Haida Gwaii off the northernmost coast of British Columbia.  I thought I was going to write a few poems, hug some ancient trees, enjoy some profound peace and quiet, learn more about Haida mythology, and get in touch with the soul I'd lost in corporate Britain. What happened was quite different.  The people I met, and the stories they told me, led me to write another book - part travel journal, part history.

Some books just demand to be written, and Travelling to the Edge of the World was one of them. It was written out of passion and commitment. Like most First Nation people of north America the Haida were the victims of cultural genocide, perpetrated by a colonial government, on an almost unbelievable scale. It was referred to as the 'Great Dying' and it reduced a population of more than twenty thousand down to only five hundred.  Bill Reid - one of the most famous Haida artists - wrote that 'It is one of the world's greatest tributes to the strength of the human spirit that most of those who lived, and their children after them, remained sane and adapted.'
One of the rotting totems at Skedans
I was taken to see the abandoned villages of the south islands, with their fallen houses and rotting totems and I met the young people who spend weeks voluntarily living in primitive conditions to protect their heritage from looting and vandalism. The Haida have survived and today they are one of the most prominent First Nation people leading the environmental movement in Canada to prevent their homelands from being exploited and polluted by oil companies and large corporations who don't have to live in the environments they destroy.

The Haida have produced what they call their 'Land Use Vision' - a document which embodies the principle of Yah'guudang, which is about 'respect and responsibility, about knowing our place in the web of life, and how the fate of our culture runs parallel with the fate of the ocean, sky and forest'. The 'Land Use Vision' is a blueprint for our survival.  The Haida still know how to live in harmony with the world around them without destroying it. They have important things to teach us.

A wild and beautiful place - Inner Passage from Cormorant Island
And I met some wonderful people - a nonagenarian still running his own business, helped by a twelve year old boy; a poet married to a bank robber; an ex coastguard turned environmental activist; as well as artists and artisans, loggers and fishermen. British Columbia is a wild and wonderful place. But beware - there are bears in the woods!

A black bear I encountered on the beach

Travelling to the Edge of the World is available as an ebook, for an introductory offer.  The paperback and i-book will be released at the end of March.  You can buy it here. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Words on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day and this is what is in the TBR pile beside my bed. I have another one on Kindle!

There’s non-fiction - Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns; poetry - Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty, Grevel Lindop’s Luna Park, as well as collections by Margaret Atwood and Robert Hass; fiction includes Elena Ferrante (I’m half way through), Anne Enright, Tove Jansson and the wonderfully named ‘Manual for Cleaning Ladies’ by Lucia Berlin.  My favourites so far are the Margaret Atwood poems; 'Morning in the Burned House',  Tove Jansson's 'Winter Book', and a series of memoirs and reflections by NZ writer Kirsty Gunn; 'My Katherine Mansfield Project', which is really about exile and belonging.  But as I read through the pile my preferences may change!
New text from the Epic of Gilgamesh discovered in Iraq - one of our earliest written stories.
Books are my life - I’m surrounded by them, and I earn my living from them. I can’t think of a world without poems or stories. Recently I was intrigued to find scholars admitting that the fairy tales they sometimes scoff at were many thousands of years old. It's taken them all that time to admit what was evident even to the Brothers Grimm? Archaeologists have long found evidence of major historical and geological events in our mythologies. Noah and the Flood is just one of them; the legend of Atlantis another. Telling stories is as old as human history, as old as language.

Tomorrow sees the launch of the Words by the Water festival of ‘Words and Ideas’ in Keswick.  I’ve been invited to the launch party and look forward to meeting up with friends and fellow wordsmiths. Ten days of indulgent bookishness at the beautiful Theatre by the Lake. A glorious wallow in words - and scenery! If you can, do come - the Lake District needs every extra tourist it can find.

Lake Derwentwater from the Theatre by the Lake

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

‘Six Winters,’ Tomas Tranströmer

In the black hotel a child is asleep.
And outside: the winter night
where the wide-eyed dice roll.

An élite of the dead became stone
in Katarina Churchyard
where the wind shakes in its armour from Svalbard.

One wartime winter when I lay sick
a huge icicle grew outside the window.
Neighbour and harpoon, unexplained memory.

Ice hangs down from the roof edge.
Icicles: the upside-down Gothic.
Abstract cattle, udders of glass.

On a side-track, an empty railway-carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.

Tonight snow-haze, moonlight. The moonlight jellyfish itself
is floating before us. Our smiles
on the way home. Bewitched avenue.

(trans. © Robin Fulton)
From 'För Levande och Döda', 1989.

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer loved writing haiku, and the three line poems above, though they don’t exactly fit the Japanese form, are clearly linked to it. Like much of Tranströmer’s work, the lines are stripped down to essentials and some of the images and ideas have to be teased out like riddles. They leave a huge space for the reader's imagination.

These winter memories are a child’s eye view of the world near the Arctic circle. The wind from one of the most northern inhabited islands - Svalbard - 'shakes in its armour' of immobilising cold.  Icicles dangle from the gutters like harpoons or cow’s udders, ‘upside-down Gothic’; the poet wanders down a ‘bewitched avenue’ transformed by winter. I love the image of the moon as a jellyfish floating in the dark ocean of space.  And the idea of the ‘elite dead’ also resonated with me; in England only the rich could afford headstones.  The poor were buried either in unmarked graves, or with a wooden cross which quickly rotted away.

There’s an alternative translation of this sequence, by John F. Deane, but because Tranströmer writes in such a pared down way, there are only minor differences. He's a good poet to translate because he’s so precise and leaves little room for a translator’s personal interpretation. A couple of year's ago I translated a few of his poems, including 'Midwinter', and it was an instructive exercise. My favourite translations are by Robert Bly, who was a friend of the poet.