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- 02/28/13--05:49: _Guardian Books poet...
- 02/28/13--10:47: _Manchester Internat...
- 03/01/13--04:43: _Guardian Books poet...
- 03/01/13--09:45: _Hill of Doors by Ro...
- 03/01/13--09:56: _Manchester Internat...
- 03/01/13--16:05: _From the archive, 2...
- 03/02/13--03:00: _My Brother's Book b...
- 03/04/13--02:39: _Poem of the week: T...
- 03/04/13--19:55: _Adelaide Writers' W...
- 03/06/13--11:29: _The poems and punch...
- 03/08/13--03:14: _Poster poems: Choco...
- 03/08/13--05:05: _Guardian Books podc...
- 03/08/13--05:56: _International Women...
- 03/11/13--01:00: _Lucretius, part 8: ...
- 03/11/13--06:41: _Mont Blanc by Percy...
- 03/12/13--02:59: _Selected Poems by T...
- 03/12/13--14:00: _Country diary: Wenl...
- 03/15/13--10:30: _Quick Question by J...
- 03/16/13--17:02: _From the Observer a...
- 03/17/13--01:00: _Guardian Books podc...
- 02/28/13--05:49: Guardian Books poetry podcast: David Harsent reads Yannis Ritsos
- 03/01/13--04:43: Guardian Books poetry podcast: Jackie Kay reads Edwin Morgan
- 03/01/13--09:45: Hill of Doors by Robin Robertson – review
- 03/01/13--16:05: From the archive, 2 March 1949: Follow that poet
- 03/02/13--03:00: My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak – review
- 03/04/13--19:55: Adelaide Writers' Week - in pictures
- 03/06/13--11:29: The poems and punch-ups of By Grand Central Station
- 03/08/13--03:14: Poster poems: Chocolate | Billy Mills
- 03/08/13--05:05: Guardian Books podcast: Australian writing at the Adelaide festival
- 03/08/13--05:56: International Women's Day: books quiz
- 03/11/13--01:00: Lucretius, part 8: teachers and pupils | Emma Woolerton
- 03/11/13--06:41: Mont Blanc by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 03/12/13--02:59: Selected Poems by Tony Harrison – review
- 03/15/13--10:30: Quick Question by John Ashbery – review
- 03/16/13--17:02: From the Observer archive, 14 March 1971: the genius of Stevie Smith
- 03/17/13--01:00: Guardian Books podcast: Irish writers for St Patrick's Day
David Harsent reads three short poems by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, in his own translations
Biennial festival's premieres include Maxine Peake reciting The Masque of Anarchy and Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare role
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A string of world premieres will be among the highlights of this summer's Manchester international festival. Events will include: a ballet featuring 11 tonnes of bone dust instead of dancers; a concert inspired by the poems of Michelangelo; and a performance of Percy Bysshe Shelley's savagely political 1819 poem The Masque of Anarchy – within a stone's throw of the site of the Peterloo massacre which inspired it.
Many of the events have already sold out. Tickets for Kenneth Branagh's return to Shakespeare and to Manchester after more than 10 years, playing Macbeth in a deconsecrated church, went in four minutes and almost crashed the festival's website.
The festival's last night, 20 July, will be relayed live on a big screen to 5,000 people in a nearby car park – but those tickets are also expected to sell out instantly. All the concerts by the group the xx have also sold out – unsurprisingly since they are performing not in an arena, but in a specially built 60-seat room.
Slightly to his surprise, festival director Alex Poots has found that this fourth biennial festival – of which the Guardian is a media partner – will be a darker affair, with many of the artists concerned with a world that looks bleaker to them in terms of politics, power, freedom and money – or the lack of it.
The stage and screen actor Maxine Peake, star of Silk, and Shameless, will perform Shelley's great 91 verse epic – without a book, she confirmed nervously – a shout of rage against the authorities who in 1819 sent a cavalry charge into a crowd of 60,000 unarmed men, women and children demonstrating for electoral law reform, killing 15 and injuring hundreds more, and incident she called "a bedrock of Manchester's history of radical politics". The event also led to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, which in turn became the Guardian.
The performance on 6 July will be preceded by a debate hosted by the economist and BBC presenter Evan Davis, entitled Are we Powerless?.
Peake, who recently returned to live in Salford, challenged her peers to do more to support the regional arts. "They won't like me for saying this, but if instead of sitting in London and signing petitions against arts cuts, they actually got back out into the provinces and made performances, made exhibitions, we could bring about a real change."
The festival has a track record of seeking out unconventional new spaces, which Poots admitted has led to him stalking the streets shaking doorknobs and peering through hoardings – which is how he found a huge half-derelict former train station, the Mayfield Depot, abandoned since 1986, which will come back to life as a vast festival venue.
The depot will house a spectacular performance, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, which will incorporate a concert – the band's first since 2010, and their only UK show this year – in an event being created by Robert del Naja of the band, the film-maker Adam Curtis, designer Es Devlin, and Felix Barrett of theatre company Punchdrunk.
The depot will also house one of the more startling events, a centenary performance of Igor Stravinsky's chilling score for The Rite of Spring, with a 100-piece orchestra flown in from Russia. The original ballet, choreographed by Nijinsky, sparked riots. This reimagining by the theatre director Romeo Castellucci will replace the dancers with 11 tonnes of bone dust eddying and billowing in a giant glass box.
Another legendary director, Robert Wilson, will be working with the actor Willem Dafoe, and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is better known to some as a silver-haired character of Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and The City. They will be working on The Old Woman, based on a 1930s absurdist novella by a Russian writer, Danill Kharms, who would die a few years later in a prison camp, aged just 36.
It will be more of a home coming for Josie Rourke, who will be bringing her new Donmar Warehouse company in a play based on the epic match between the chess master Garry Kasparov and the computer Deep Blue. Although she comes from Salford, the last time she worked in Manchester was as an office temp trying to pay off her student loan. "My granny never saw anything I did in theatre," she said sadly, "I wish she was still alive."
• Manchester International Festival, 4-21 July 2013
Jackie Kay rounds off our series of poets choosing their favourite poems with verses from Edwin Morgan's Love and a Life
A collection full of flinty beauty uses Christian and classical fable to explore the divided nature of humans
Robin Robertson has taken the epigram for his fifth collection from the French painter/poet Francis Picabia, who reminds us that "the greatest man is never more than an animal disguised as a god". It's an apt choice for a book that concentrates on the conjunctions between the brutish, the human and the divine. The first poem, based on one of Fra Angelico's Annunciation paintings, dramatises the moment when the Christian God takes human form. There's something sinister about the creature through whose intercession this comes about, who comes from the garden to the loggia where Mary sits on a simple wooden stool and leaves "no shadow, no footprint in the dew". Is he more than human, or less? Like the painting, the poem freezes a single brief moment in which everything changes, linking Fra Angelico's lines of perspective with the event's construction in time: "They hold each other's gaze at the point / of balance: everything streaming / towards this moment, streaming away."
For Mary, her "over-shadowing … by a feathered dark" is something morally uncertain, a matter neither for celebration, in the traditional Christian reading of the scene, nor yet exactly regret. It is simply a fact that, being powerless to change, she must accommodate as best she can: "How will she remember the silence / of that endless moment? […] She will remember the aftersong / because she is only human. / One day / she'll wake with wings, or wake / to find them gone."
The following poem also deals with a "Coming God", but in this case it's Dionysus, in one of several pieces here based on the Dionysiaca of the fourth-century Greek poet Nonnus. Here, rather than reveal himself to humankind, the young Dionysus grows up among goats, deer and bears and forges his own relationship with wild nature. Later in the collection, in "Dionysus in Love" – with its echoes of the temptation of Christ, the fall of Satan and the story of Icarus – the satyr Ampelos's attempt to emulate Dionysus's mastery of wild creatures is bound to end in tears, even for the god "who never wept". And so it does, albeit with the not inconsiderable consolation, for humanity, of the invention of wine, as the dead Ampelos is transfigured into the first vine.
The world of Robertson's poems tends to be one governed by unfathomable and harsh impulses and imperatives, whether they're dealing with mythic characters or those from our own reality. In "1964", a series of vignettes from the poet's childhood, we're confronted by "a fox / nailed to a fence-post: the tricked god / hanging from his wounds"; boys scrap viciously among the graves in the kirkyard; and cats cry in "that dreadful way they have, / like the sound of babies singing / lullabies to other babies".
Whether it's Dionysus's protean transformations or the bodies of the dead being reclaimed by nature, matter is constantly churning into new shapes, decaying and reforming in an endless and inescapable cycle. The sea, in "Corryvreckan", does something similar, with the Hebridean whirlpool's "walls of water, each as tall as a church door, / endlessly breaking on the same point – / each wave swallowing its own form / and returning, re-making itself, chained there / on its own wheel".
Translated into the realm of art, of a humanity that likes to consider itself civilised, these things become dismal indeed. Robertson draws, as he has done previously, on the life of Strindberg in the exuberantly misanthropic "Strindberg in Skovlyst". Here the Swedish playwright, renting rooms in the Danish manor where he will write Miss Julie, finds himself in a human menagerie in which any distinction between human and animal is blurred, at best, and everything is presided over by the house's mad châtelaine: "Like magic, rabbits hop out of coal-scuttles, / turkeys squabble in the bath-tub, eating soap. / With a flourish, she reveals / a litter of white kittens in a drawer / then, shyly, from the front of the sky-blue / off-the-shoulder dress she wears each day, / she pulls a duckling …" But for Strindberg, all this is merely so much grist to the artistic mill: "A three-hander, then, with this shambles for a stage: / this home to pestilence, cluster flies, blowflies, men / and women […] my crucible will turn this all to gold. / In my head, when the gales are riding wild, / I steer towards catastrophe / then write about it."
In truth, though, there's not much consolation to be found in art; for the critical intelligence, bound to the knowledge of both an unremittingly Hobbesian reality and the inevitability of its own extinction, perhaps the best to be hoped for is the fate of the lobster in "A Quick Death": "The forecast is for stormy weather […] it's the same for us all in the end – / a short journey: eyes first / into the fire."
Thematically, Hill of Doors is of a piece with Robertson's superb 2010 collection The Wrecking Light, which was shortlisted for the big three prizes (Forward, Costa and TS Eliot). There are similar dreamscapes, abandoned houses, echoes of an extinguished human presence reclaimed by nature, and a similarly flinty beauty to the imagery. It's perhaps a little more uneven than the earlier book, with a couple of poems striking what seems to me an uncertain note, but no doubt it will be in the running for prizes, too, and deservedly so.
Actor Maxine Peake, film-maker Adam Curtis and artist Inne Goris speak about their roles in Manchester International Festival 2013
We English, when it comes to literature, have always been more interested in Lives than in Works
We English, when it comes to literature, have always been more interested in Lives than in Works. To-day we gather our reward: the wealth of biographical gossip is by now so great that there is no need to waste one's time on Works at all except for detective purposes.
There they stand, the solemn ranks of Standard Works, but their sober dignity does not fool us any longer. We know now some of the things that went on behind those prim bindings. Did you hear the one about Wordsworth? The proper study of mankind is man and probably it would not be too difficult to get something quite new and really startling on Pope which would make reading him more comfortably irrelevant than ever. Not that we are out for scandal, necessarily. Oddities are always a good line in these jolly chats over the literary fence. Browning (did you know?) had one microscopic and one telescopic eye; with the one he could watch things on the horizon, while the other was able to read small print by twilight (not, presumably, at the same time). This is the sort of thing we really like to know in order to avoid feeling out of touch.
Byron has been exceptionally well covered; there never was any need to read Byron. His popularity was always due to the fact that one has been able to dismiss him as an energetic but somewhat vulgar writer, and get down to the Life without even blowing the dust off the Works. Later research in particular has done wonders, but we return with undimmed pleasure to the Shelley letter in which he describes the curious Byron establishment at Ravenna, which consisted, not counting servants, of ten horses, eight large dogs, five cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, five peacocks, two guinea-hens, and an Egyptian crane.
Who, wonders Shelley, were all these animals "before they were changed into these shapes"? The game, of course, is to try to guess, with special attention to the claims of Caro Lamb and the Countess Guiccioli. It is far more amusing than crossword-puzzles.
May not even the great Johnson show an Achilles' heel? There is one chance, at least, of checking on him. It seems astonishing that nobody has thought of it before. "I'll have a frolic with you," he said to his friends on a famous occasion. Why has no one traced exactly where they went and what they did that night, with a detailed sketch-map? Devoted research has tackled and solved problems as tough as this before: surely our literary detectives have missed an opportunity. Who knows but that here might be a chance to explode the biggest reputation of all, with a roar that would set the shelves of the twopenny libraries deliciously quivering for years?
These archive extracts, compiled by the Guardian's research and information department, appear online daily at gu.com/fromthearchive
Maurice Sendak's last book is a beautiful but devastating tribute to his brother
Over a career spanning seven decades, Maurice Sendak illustrated more than 90 books, but when he died last May at the age of 83, tributes were dominated by one: Where the Wild Things Are, which turns 50 this year. The thousands of perfect pen strokes on each of its pages are a far cry from My Brother's Book, Sendak's last complete book and a rare one aimed at adults. It retains the vivid watercolour palette that characterises most of his work, but deploys it in a much looser, more sketchy style, which nods to the menace of Sendak's beloved William Blake and the whirling vibrancy of Marc Chagall.
What My Brother's Book does have in common with Sendak's works for children is a primal feeling of terror, in a disorientating, dreamlike realm. Here, these elements combine in a sparse elegy to Sendak's older brother Jack, also a children's author, who died in 1995. In the poem, two brothers, Jack and Guy, are, like the Sendaks, driven apart by a cataclysm. Jack is exiled to "continents of ice – / A snow image stuck fast in water like stone. His poor nose froze"; while Guy is sent spinning around the world and sky. Peril is everywhere, in malevolent-looking foliage, red-glowing forests, a polar bear many times larger than a man – but the greater danger comes from within, the anger and grief that fuelled Sendak throughout his life. This is a beautiful tribute to "his noble-hearted brother/ Who he loves more than his own self", but both devastating and devastated.
Poetry through cinema is expressed in Forsström's intensely visual work, inspired by film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky
This week's poem, "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses," is by the Finland-Swedish writer, Tua Forsström, translated from the Swedish by Stina Katchadourian. It's the first poem in her 1998 collection After Spending a Night Among Horses, which is included in the four-part Bloodaxe collection of Forsström's work.
The poems in After Spending a Night Among Horses are inspired by the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky and are interleaved with quotations from Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, and from his prose-book, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Tarkovsky once said, "There is only one way of thinking in cinema: poetically." Forsström expresses the reverse idea, of thinking in poetry cinematically. The collection itself is a montage, and many of the individual poems, like this one, draw on a similar technique, combining different settings, seasons, voices and moods in one imaginative sweep. All have a dream-like and open-ended quality.
In fact, the collection opens with five verses from the film-maker's father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky – some melancholy stanzas, based on Per-Arne Bodin's translation from the Russian, beginning "Now the summer's gone/ as if it never was./ It's still warm in the clearing./ But that's not enough." This is followed by a quotation from the character of the wife, spoken to the camera at the end of Stalker: "Of course it's quite possible that I'm inventing this after the fact. But that time, he just came up to me and said: 'Follow me,' and I did. And I've never regretted that. Never." Both voice themes of compulsion, restlessness and sacrifice.
Forsström's first line "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses" is like a camera direction. The image is arrestingly visual, with implied contrasts of colour, temperature and movement. While the rose-garden appears literally frozen in time, the scene elsewhere is busy, with the whirling unseasonal snowflakes and the speaker's excited, abbreviated thoughts: "Didn't bring my boots and scarf … don't know what to do with all this light!" She's not simply talking to herself but to the film-maker, testing her poet's material against his cinematic vision: "You wouldn't approve of the colours./ It's too striking, Andrei Arsenyevich, too/ much, too much of everything!"
There's a tension between abundance – too much colour, too much light, too much to remember – and the concentration and "cutting" needed for making art. But, if art is represented by the frost's grip on the iconic rose garden, destruction must be the inevitable result of such preservation. Perhaps the attraction of cinema is that it combines art with apparent fluidity and process. But creative limitations are suggested by the references to the flight and crash of the hot-air balloon at the beginning of another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev. Originally, Tarkovsky had shown a peasant attempting flight with home-made wings, and the poet seems critical of his editorial decision. Depicting the "aerial balloon, a clumsy/ creation cobbled together from rope and rags," the translation catches the contraption's awkwardness in its alliteration: clumsy/ creation/ cobbled/ropes/rags. It's not immediately clear how wings would have been an improvement.
The memory triggers thoughts which seem rather abstract and personal. "Before, I had a lot and didn't remember. Difficult/ to stick to the subject. Difficult to stick to the subject. /Hope to return. Hope to return to the principle/ of wings." These repeated statements are like memos to self. Perhaps they allude to abandoned poems, and plans for future poems. Several themes from "The snow whirls …" will be explored later on.
The memory of the high twittering heard from a Benidorm hotel, for instance, is reprised in a poem where the speaker hears caged willow warblers singing from a barber's shop. Perhaps the birdsong in "The snow whirls …" is associated with hearing the news of Tarkovsky's death. The hare, though it belongs to the "zone" of the frozen rose garden, is also out of place when it almost hops into the "entrance hall here at the Foundation." These poems value the effects of dislocation, but, read sequentially, they strike up echoes with each other. Another poem begins "It doesn't usually snow in Central Sweden in October." This helps explain "the hare's calendar," and its implied disharmony with the seasonal alterations caused by humans.
Before the hare appears, the poet quotes a passage from Sculpting in Time where Tarkovsky apparently comments on Stalker, "The zone is a zone, the zone is life,/ and a person can either be ruined or survive when/ she makes her way through this life. Whether she makes it or/ not depends on her self-esteem." The poem's gently sceptical tone elsewhere destabilises a quotation which could almost be a banal homily out of a self-help manual. "Self-esteem" becomes credible, though, if translated into artistic independence and conviction.
In the end, the poem owns up to a traditional expression of piety, again suggesting Rublev, but with a characteristic twist: "one should/ not constantly give thanks, one should definitely give thanks." Maybe this chimes in with the earlier desire "to return to the principle/ of wings." The strong colours at the end bring us back to the frozen roses. Defiantly contrasting the leaden Swedish lake with the body-and-blood, white and red of the snow and roses, the poem also evokes the shift from black-and-white photography into glowing "sovcolour" near the end of Andrei Rublev.
Forsström has said that she writes every poem 50 or 60 times, and that she often travels with her notebooks to a foreign city in order to complete a poem. "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses" seems to open a poetry workbook, to show us an intriguing display of raw material. It's a series of comments, notes and sketches for future writing, held together by the casual but constantly-renewed conversation with Tarkovsky. There are moments of lyric concentration and heightened rhythm, but they're held in a framework of increasingly long and enjambed lines which seem to exert an outward pull. While the imagery of snow and roses recalls Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow," Forsström's vision of the world's incorrigible plurality is far more discursive. There's really no zone, it seems to say, and no magical room, even for the poet: there's only the journey.
The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses
The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses.
Didn't bring my boots and scarf, leafing
through books, don't know what to do with all this light!
You wouldn't approve of the colours.
It's too striking, Andrei Arsenyevich, too
much, too much of everything!
You exchanged the wings for an aerial balloon, a clumsy
creation cobbled together from rope and rags, I remember so well.
Before, I had a lot and didn't remember. Difficult
to stick to the subject. Difficult to stick to the subject.
Hope to return. Hope to return to the principle
of wings. The fact remains: the freeze preserved
the rose garden last night. 'The zone is a zone, the zone is life,
and a person can either be ruined or survive when
she makes her way through this life. Whether she makes it or
not depends on her sense of self-esteem-' A hare
almost hopped into the entrance hall here at the Foundation,
mottled against the snow; it's October in the hare's calendar.
You seem to be a moody sort of person
and it's possible that none of this is of interest to you.
On the other hand, you yourself complain fairly often.
I'm writing because you are dead and because I woke up
last spring in my streetside hotel room in Benidorm to that wonderful
high twittering. One shouldn't constantly say one is sorry, one should
not constantly give thanks, one should definitely give thanks. Lake
Mälaren like lead down there. The rest is white and red.
International authors from Thomas Keneally to Madeleine Thien and Tom Holland have been speaking and debating at Adelaide's Writers' Week, where they were photographed by Alicia Canter
The destructive love affair captured in the cult novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept always puzzled Laura Barton. She reveals how she finally unravelled the mystery
It was in a bookshop that Elizabeth Smart first fell in love with George Barker. Thousands of miles away, Barker was teaching at a university in Japan at the time, but that day in Better Books, on London's Charing Cross Road, Smart came across his poem Daedalus and was instantly smitten. "It is the juicy sound that runs, bubbles over, that intoxicates til I can hardly follow," she wrote in her diary of that first encounter. Although they had yet to meet, although he was still only words on a page, she declared him the love of her life.
What followed was by any standards an extraordinary relationship, a mingling of love and infatuationplayed out across continents, carrying the pair from California to London, from rural Ireland to Essex, taking in breakups, reunions, poverty and the glorious mayhem of the Soho scene along the way. It was also a relationship that Smart would document in her 1945 work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – a novel that straddled poetry and prose and garnered a cult following. When it was reissued in 1966, Angela Carter described it, in the Guardian, as being "like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning".
But, for all its furious romance, it was also a relationship that has confused many, riddled as it was with rows, alcoholism, absences and affairs. "I never understood my mother's love for my father," their son, Christopher Barker, wrote in this newspaper. "Even when I was younger, their relationship perplexed and baffled me. They would knock lumps out of each other, he usually flouncing off in a huff to return later in gracious manner, and the cycle would begin again."
This year sees the centenary of both Smart and Barker's births – she to a wealthy family in Ottawa, Canada; he into markedly less plush environs in Essex. Smart, who was expensively educated and well-travelled, began writing poetry at an early age. Barker meanwhile had dabbled in a variety of odd jobs before pursuing writing, but by his early 20s found himself feted by TS Eliot and published by Faber and Faber.
It says much about Smart's spiritedness that, on the strength of his poetry, she set out to meet and marry Barker, conjuring up a correspondence with him via the writer Lawrence Durrell. The fact that Barker was already married did little to quell her ardour: she paid to fly both the poet and his wife from Japan to California, where she had joined a writers' colony. And so their affair began.
Although they never married, Smart bore Barker four children, and their liaison raged across many years. Both drank heavily and had other lovers, Barker fathering a total of 15 children by four different women; but even in their later years, when Barker had remarried, they stayed close. On Smart's death in 1986, her children discovered, under her bed, every memento of her relationship with Barker.
Recently, while putting together a Radio 4 documentary about the couple, I made an attempt to unravel the great tangle of their partnership. It was hard, at first, to warm to Barker, an incorrigible liar inflated by self-regard, who refused to choose between all the women in his life. While he basked in the glow of being a celebrated yet penniless young poet, Smart's career sat in the shadows, as she took a job in advertising to support their children.
I read Christopher Barker's account of his parents' relationship, The Arms of the Infinite. He speaks of a childhood yearning for his father's presence that would later turn to rage and resentment. I spoke to Fay Weldon, a former colleague of Smart, who recalled how Barker had abandoned his family in a French hotel when he was unable to settle their bill. It was impossible to see him as much more than a self-indulgent cad, and I felt a lick of satisfaction when I learned how Carter had confided to a friend that Smart's work had been fundamental in her founding the feminist press Virago, fired up by "the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in the position to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it might contain. By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls would be more like it, I should hope."
But it was also difficult not to feel frustrated by Smart, a woman so intoxicated by the poetic idea of love that it brought an apparent perversity to her actions – at times deserting her children to be with Barker, nigh-on prostrating herself before him. Yet slowly, I began to see that this whirling, impractical love was something of a muse to her: that she was in many ways the designer of the entire relationship. And through her eyes, it became easy to understand Barker's charm, and the wit and the humour that united them. The couple's other son, the poet Sebastian Barker, talked of the perpetual spark between them, of how Smart would travel 50 miles on a moped through severe gales just to see him.
I realised that throughout their relationship, the idea of Barker was as important to her as the reality: the journey through the storm was as important as the arrival at his door. What kept them together was what had brought them together – a simple love of one another's words. First in his poetry, then in their written correspondence, and through Barker's encouragement of Smart's own writing. In a letter to her once, he spoke of reading By Grand Central Station, calling it "a catherine wheel of a book". It seems to me the perfect description not only of that work but of the great spark and flame of their relationship.
Rich, but not in this instance unhealthy, this month I want to binge on your sweetest poetic treats
What with Easter falling in March this year there's only one kind of egg I have in mind for this month's Poster poems; I'm talking about chocolate eggs, of course. There are many aspects of the European conquest of the Americas that are to be deeply regretted, but few of us are so pure in our scruples as to be able to lament the introduction of chocolate into the Old World.
When it arrived in Spain in the 16th century, chocolate was very much a luxury and its consumption was to remain the preserve of the wealthy for 200 years or so. It is hardly surprising, then, that in its early appearances in English poetry it serves as a symbol for everything opulent. In the second Canto of Pope's "Rape of the Lock" it is associated with the luxury of Belinda's morning toilet where its scent serves as an ironic mock-heroic equivalent to the fumes of hell that accompany the punishment of Ixion.
In "To Mr F Now Earl of W", Pope's friend and fellow-poet Anne Finch uses the dark nectar as shorthand for the Augustinian beau monde, a world of indolence and disdain for such a theme for poetry as a woman's devotion to a mere spouse.
By the time Thomas Hood was writing, chocolate was a more affordable everyday commodity, thanks in the main to the efforts of a number of Quaker families: Rowntree, Cadbury, and Fry among them. Hood's "A Friendly Address To Mrs Fry In Newgate" concerned a member of one of these families, Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney, a social reformer who set up a school in the old women's prison and campaigned against capital punishment. Clearly Hood did not approve of Mrs Fry's reforming zeal, but he couldn't help a passing word in praise of the family chocolate.
Perhaps because of its relative novelty, chocolate plays a peripheral role in these poems. By the early 20th century, chocolate had become an everyday treat for most residents of the western world. This newfound ubiquity can also be seen in the more prominent role the sweet stuff plays in poems where it is mentioned. "Harlem Sweeties" by Langston Hughes is a confectionery litany in praise of Harlem girls in all their glory. Chocolate is moving centre stage.
Michael Rosen's "Chocolate Cake" introduces another note, that sense of guilt that often accompanies a major overindulgence, especially a furtive one. How many of us can honestly say that we never sneaked down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to indulge our taste for sugary, milky cacao only to wake up regretting it next morning? Or is that just me?
You might argue that chocolate cake is not, strictly speaking, chocolate at all, but I prefer to take a more inclusive view. If you like chocolate, then you're almost obliged to like chocolate cake, ice cream, biscuits and, if you're Ron Padgett, chocolate milk and the pleasure of watching someone make it for you.
But of all the poets I've come across in my chocolate poetry egg-hunt, the one who was most straightforwardly celebratory is Dorothy Porter. Her poem called, simply, "Chocolate" is another love poem in which chocolate and the beloved become as one. In "Lawns", the speaker, who is "off the wagon" on a four-bars-a-day habit, declares "chocolate/is my valium", a shield against the stresses of a world bemired in incomprehensible order.
And so this month the theme of the challenge is chocolate in its multifarious splendour. Solid, liquid, hot or cold, by itself or as an ingredient in your favourite dessert, for its own sake or as a symbol for something else: chocolate poems are for sharing. And if you're one of those rare souls I've heard of who don't like chocolate, you could write a poem explaining your extraordinary reasoning. Now, there's a challenge.
This time, we're looking at the world from an Australian perspective. Publisher Michael Heyward introduces us to an ambitious project to republish all of Australia's lost classics, while critic Geordie Williamson regrets the demise of "ozlit". We rediscover the veteran novelist Christopher Koch, author of The Year of Living Dangerously, and meet some of the rising stars in the Antipodean poetry firmament. We take advice from fans of the Adelaide festival as to what books we should be reading, and we go in search of the new Aboriginal literature.
Reading list (if you can find them)
The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson (Text)
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP)
Flood by Tony Birch (UQP)
Lost Voices by Christopher Koch (Fourth Estate)
Blue by Pat Grant (Giramondo)
Man Wolf Man by LK Holt (John Leonard Press)
Josephine Wroe's poetry has appeared in publications including Best Australian Poems, and her second book of short fiction Tarcutta Wake is published by UQP.
Fiona Wright can be found at www.sydneypoetry.com
Composed by Jherek Bischoff is available on the Leaf Label in Europe or Brassland in the rest of the world
As the long struggle for equal rights is marked, test your knowledge of the writers who've broken through the glass ceiling
Lucretius's didactic poetry addresses a single person but cajoles his readers to heed his lesson, as he learned from Epicurus
Lucretius's poetry is didactic, that is, poetry that aims overtly to teach something. So the poet is not just a poet, he is a teacher, and the reader is his pupil. As Alison Sharrock has pointed out in a work on another didactic poem, Ovid's Art of Love, didactic poems have a slightly different relationship with their readership, because they make clear that, when reading the poem, we have a job to do: "didactic poetry makes explicit the activity of its readers by purporting to teach – someone".
That "someone" in the De Rerum Natura has a name: he is called Memmius and is usually identified with a wealthy Roman aristocrat and occasional holder of political office, C. Memmius, tribune of the people in 66BC. Epicureanism, with its suggestion that the pursuit of political power is pointless torment and that wealth is nothing compared to tranquillity, might seem an odd topic to address to such a figure; but there is no point preaching to the converted, and Lucretius's choice of Memmius to talk thus seems an apt one.
Lucretius addresses Memmius by name; even when there is no direct address to him, Lucretius writes the de Rerum Natura as a conversation, using the second person singular throughout: "you might think …", "you must be careful …", "if you believe this, then …". From the way he talks to his reader, we can be clear that he expects certain things from him, both positive and negative.
For example, as readers of the poem, we might be unhappy to discover that he thinks we are on occasion like silly children, scared of the dark, and so needing the light of Epicureanism, or afraid of taking our medicine, and so needing the bitter difficulties of philosophy to be sweetened by a coating of Lucretius's poetry. We might be annoyed to discover that, like a dinner party guest who doesn't know when to call a taxi, if we don't agree with Lucretius he will simply hound us with argument after argument, as he promises to in his first book, claiming his only concern is he'll get old and die before he's finished badgering us into agreement.
Then again, we might be flattered when he spends a lengthy passage refuting a whole host of philosophical rivals, as that implies we won't simply roll over and accept his theory without his having dealt with the others that we have heard of, or encouraged when he assures us that we are wise enough to follow the tracks he has set us without the need for the multiple arguments he goes on to threaten us with.
Of course, Lucretius simultaneously builds up a picture of himself as a diligent teacher, stuffed to the gills with examples and proofs, knowledgeable about rival philosophical systems and sympathetic to what we need to understand the truth of the universe. But Lucretius is merely a pupil himself, having learned from the master of compassionate and human learning, Epicurus.
That Epicurus is the master is abundantly clear from the De Rerum Natura. Three of its six books begin with eulogies of the man whose discoveries are such that he ought to be regarded as a god, according to the start of book five, and is, in book six, the single greatest thing that Athens ever produced. Lucretius, in contrast, claims he is scarcely up to the task: a swallow compared to a swan. He writes not to compete with Epicurus – that would be like a race between a bandy-legged kid and a thoroughbred racehorse – but out of love and respect for a man who, in his first book, is pictured as the first mortal bold enough to look heaven in the face: unafraid of thunderbolts or dire rumbling from the sky, he burst open the gates of the world and rescued mankind from its pervious condition, lying on the floor groveling and cowering in the face of unfounded superstitious practice.
This glorious and glorifying picture might seem to sit a little uncomfortably with Epicurus's philosophy. He encouraged his followers to live unknown, not seeking after glory or political power; yet it seems that a form of "hero cult" of Epicurus operated, with reflections on his courage in the face of his own painful death and celebrations of his birthday. But Lucretius is not encouraging us to worship Epicurus so much as use him as an example and inspiration for the good life. His praise of Epicurus fits his genre, too. Didactic poetry was regarded as a division of epic, and Epicurus offers Lucretius the ultimate epic hero: the man who marched beyond the ramparts of the world, as Lucretius puts it in book one, and freed humanity when it lay in chains by taking on the mysteries of the universe, and winning.
The snowy peak and riven Alpine landscape turn the Romantic poet to thoughts of meaning, perception and eternity
Shelley was just short of his 25th birthday when he began drafting "Mont Blanc" in July 1816. It was published the following year in the volume he and Mary Shelley jointly compiled, History of a Six Weeks' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. While sometimes described as an ode, the poem is more intellectually rigorous than the title implies. A superb, sometimes personified portrait of the Alpine landscape, "Mont Blanc" also traces a journey through philosophical and scientific concepts that had yet to find a modern vocabulary. The mountains, falls and glaciers are not only geological entities as an explorer would see them or spiritual embodiments as they might be for Wordsworth: they inspire radical questions about meaning and perception.
"The everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves/ Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom/ Now lending splendour, where from secret springs/ The source of human thought its tribute brings/ Of waters …" So Shelley begins the short, almost introductory first stanza with a complex metaphor. The mind is carved out by perceptions as the earth is carved by watercourses that begin as "secret springs". Stanza 3, the extract I've chosen for this week's poem, takes the meditation to a deeper level.
The previous stanza has addressed the ravine: "Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down/ From the ice gulfs that gird his secret throne." Like the River Arve, the verse is sinewy and spacious. Thrilling description captures the movement and sounds as well as the shapes of the landscape. But it is the nature of this "power" that troubles Shelley. He has embarked on the poem almost as a test-drive, through dangerously sublime conditions, of his own atheism.
"Mont Blanc" is a direct response to an earlier poem by Coleridge, "Hymn Before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni". This is far more Ode-like in character. The tone is consistently elevated and the poet reiterates his belief that the "signs and wonders" of the natural world "utter forth God". Coleridge had begun the poem after climbing Scafell Pike during a solitary Lake District tour in 1802. He concealed the actual setting because, he said, the poem contained "ideas etc. disproportionate to our humble mountains". Less forgivably, he incorporated the text of a poem by the Swiss writer Frederika Brun, without acknowledgment (Coleridge, Selected Poems, edited by Richard Holmes, p.317). It's little wonder that the pious declarations sound so jarring and uncharacteristic.
While both Coleridge and Wordsworth are critiqued in "Mont Blanc", enquiry is more important than attack. Stanza 3 signals a meditative turn, as Shelley considers the possibility that the unconsciousness of sleep and death is visited by "gleams of a remoter world". Shelley is clearly not concerned with the afterlife in a Christian sense, but with a richer source of mental reality, possibly one that today would be equated with the subconscious mind. His rhetorical questions hang unanswered in the vast landscape, and "… the very spirit fails …" A similar vocabulary occurred in stanza 2, referring to "the strange sleep/ Which when the voices of the desert fail/ Wraps all in its own deep eternity …" The "desert" – not sand, of course, but the rocky Alpine wastes – seems ultimately mysterious because no human has left an imprint there. The hunter responsible for the "bone" carried off by the eagle is not human – it may well be the wolf of the following line. These images of rapacity no less than the shapes of the outcrops themselves seem to give rise to the exclamation: "How hideously …" Again, when Shelley personifies the formation of the mountains, he alludes to destruction rather than creation: "ruin" is all the "Earthquake-daemon" has taught her young. Shelley may not quite have stripped the landscape of deities, but he has stripped it very surely of sentimental charm, with those triple-adjective rockpiles reinforcing the lesson: "rude, bare and high", "ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven".
Nature's lessons depend on the learner. So the "mysterious tongue" of the wilderness can teach either "awful doubt or faith so mild/ So solemn, so serene, that man may be/ But for such faith with nature reconciled". Some critics take "but for such faith" to mean "by virtue of such faith". Bruce Woodcock, editor of the Wordsworth Poetry Library's The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley (2002), takes this view, noting that in the earlier draft Shelley had written "in such a faith". The reading of "but" as "except" in the later version would be possible, but it's more likely that Shelley intended faith to possess a certain healing power at this juncture of his thought.
Towards the end of the stanza, for the first time in the whole poem, Shelley apostrophises Mont Blanc itself. There's a hushed moment of near-religious awe. "Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal/ Large codes of fraud and woe …" But it's the political reformer in Shelley who projects on to the mountain a voice capable of abolishing systemic corruption. He can go no further with this idea of a near-divine voice: after that, it's to an ideal of privileged human understanding that he turns.
The concept of mind as a helpless natural force comparable to glaciers, rivers, winds, etc is a difficult one for an idealistic and reforming imagination such as Shelley's. While travelling, he would sign guesthouse registers as "Shelley – Democrat, Philanthropist and Atheist", and under "destination" write "L'Enfer" (Woodcock, p.viii). At the end of "Mont Blanc", framing that final rhetorical question about meaning, he evokes a chilling kind of hell. God's absence is no problem. But a "vacancy" that denied imaginative resonance to our perceptions would be the ultimate bleakness. It's almost as if the young poet had foreseen the hollow materialism of a secular age not unlike our own: "The secret Strength of things/ Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome/ Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!/ And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,/ If to the human mind's imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?"
III (from Mont Blanc)
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl'd
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap'd around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr'd, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil'd;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
Three decades on, Tony Harrison's angry but exquisite poetry still has the power to chill
Had you been listening to Radio 4 one evening a few weeks ago, you would have been transported back to the mid-80s, as you heard Tony Harrison reading, in full, his most famous poem, "v". What has dated from it? I suppose, or hope, there is less racial tension in Leeds now, and that gravestones aren't quite so routinely defiled (for one thing, LUFC's fans are now acclimatised to enraging despair). But there are lines in it that still chill: when the skinhead whom Harrison is sparring with notes how the gravestones he's spraypainting with obscenities all refer to the jobs the dead once had, he says "When dole-wallahs fuck off to the void / what'll t'mason carve up for their jobs? / The cunts who lieth 'ere wor unemployed?"
That hasn't changed, not really: and "call-centre worker" isn't something you'd want on your gravestone either, as my own experience has taught me. In "Divisions", a kind of throat-clearing rehearsal for "v", published in the collection The School of Eloquence in 1981, he sees the same tattooed "dole-wallah's and says "but most I hope for jobs for all of you" – it took less than four years for that hope to disappear.
The joke, both grim and fruitful, is, of course, that Harrison writes in exquisitely metred rhyme, in verse that has obviously had a great deal of care taken over it to make it look artless. That's a pun Harrison relishes: he worries whether his fluency is heartless – say it in a Yorkshire accent – and he has, for most of his career, been agonising over the gap between his parents', and his people's, education and his own. He is always wondering aloud whether he is disgracing the memory of his parents by doing what he does for a living, and by "always" I mean not only in his poetry but in interviews.
This could in itself become something of a bore, an act of perverse self-aggrandisement, like one of Monty Python's Yorkshiremen, but Harrison's eloquence is itself so master-craftsmanlike that all objections are blown away. Look at the final couplet of "Self-Justification", the poem that precedes "Divisions". Recalling the jeers of the boys who thought liking poetry made him a cissy – and also recalling his stammerer Uncle Joe, who could set type faster than he spoke, he writes (and this has to be transcribed exactly, not with a slash for a line-ending):
aggression, struggle, loss, blank printer's ems
by which all eloquence gets justified.
That is more than just clever (printers' jargon: "justified"=line-endings aligned): that is technique, articulacy and inarticulacy coming together all at once. The gaps in the second line may also as well be the catches in the throat as you read it.
Harrison finally became properly famous, or as properly famous as a poet can be, in 1987, when the Daily Mail, on hearing that the poem was to be broadcast on Channel 4 (which, younger readers ought to know, was once an innovative and interesting TV channel), went batshit because of its bad language. The irony they missed is that their own response to Harrison's verse is one that Harrison had clearly anticipated ever since he started publishing. The paper tried to reignite the controversy when Radio 4 broadcast it again this year (after 11 pm). Thankfully, we're more grown up now; or perhaps we care less. How many, I wonder, came to know and love Harrison's work because of that paper?
Anyway, you have to have this collection on your shelves. Of living poets, only Geoffrey Hill, in my opinion, surpasses him. Harrison's Collected Poems comes in at 474 pages; this is 200 fewer. A Collected Works, on the other hand, would run to many volumes, and none of his stage or film verse is included here. Nor is an index, either of poems or first lines, which seems a trifle shabby. The cover is nice, though: it's a tree, with fruit on it. Harrison likes writing about fruit, although I'm not sure about his coinage "fruitility", in the poem of that name.
Wenlock Edge: For reasons only known to the farmer, this field of old pasture was poisoned with herbicide. Now, after days without rain, the field was being ploughed
The sound that filled the space around a bend in the lane was electric. A high-pitched whine vibrated through cold air as the machine backed along the other side of the hedge. Without smoke, chug or bounce, this new tractor was a cold and bloodless beast. The plough turned robotically, dropping into the meat of the field. Without resistance, the wakes of earth folded themselves on to the surface, opening to dark birds and a chill wind bringing snow. For reasons only known to the farmer, this field of old pasture, once parkland, was poisoned with herbicide. It became sicker and sicker as the green jaundiced and dulled. Now, after days without rain, the field was being ploughed. There was a brutal feeling about this, a cynical act guided by the nihilism at the heart of modern agriculture.
Only a few days ago there was one of those wonderful moments when the world seemed wildly joyful: a brimstone butterfly the colour of primroses; a goldcrest making clouds of yew pollen; bees among the warming stones; birdsong ringing through bright sunshine. It was a feeling of golden, cockeyed optimism we'd not had since last autumn. Now a bitter wind drove in from the Arctic with the ruthless efficiency of the tractor. Swirls of snow began to organise into little hail-like grains, stinging seeds scattered into the ground but wouldn't take. Birds followed the plough as if it were a funeral. Local rooks and jackdaws rose and settled to pull grubs and worms from shiny slabs of flesh in silence. The geese on the pond were quiet, as were the hedge birds. Hazel catkins shook against the harsh colours and sounds of the tractor. There was no sense that such an act against the body of this land could be resisted and that its past and all its dark secrets shouldn't be turned over, picked through and sold. This ploughing was an inevitability, the result of what TS Eliot called "Tumid apathy with no concentration … whirled by the cold wind / That blows before and after time."
An entertaining and supple collection of comic poems about urban New York scenes
With its exhilarating changes in register, its elusive journeys, ambitious vocabulary and, more than anything else, its intoxicating sense of fun, there's a renewed vigour to this latest offering from one of America's most accomplished poets. Here we have 63 entertaining, often comic, poems that relish the open play of language, the bravado of a tongue-in-cheek dancing on the edge ("we wove closer to the abyss, a maze of sunflowers. The dauphin said to take our time").
Quick Question is dedicated to the painter Jane Freilicher, a testament to Ashbery's long-standing friendship with her stretching back to a close-knit group of artists and poets in early 50s New York. It was out of this coterie that a new sensibility arrived in American poetry, an enticing mixture of the comic and flamboyant. Ashbery has said that at Harvard in the late 40s he first realised that "nothing was too silly to bother with", that fun and high camp were worthy poetic goals. Sixty four years later, he's delivering perfectly pitched spins on this heady combination – "She was startling in her new headdress./ Oodles of trolls performed the funeral litany."
The new book, at times, offers glimpses into his early enthusiasm for the ornate, rarefied worlds of the English novelist Ronald Firbank– "The caveats, God help 'em, were by this time so deep/ in denial the servants never saw them again,/ or realised they were missing." And the outrageous is never far away – "He came like the Johnstown flood./ It was worth waiting for."
But Ashbery's poems are remarkably flexible and supple, evoking a much wider range of tones and possibilities. "Silent Auction" moves from camp to something more ominous, especially through its reworking of "Twas the night before Christmas" – "Wow, kitty, that sure/ looked real, you've got to admit, and I in my wrapper// and Mama in her cap put out stories about the new/ mood that slurped above the horizon." Playing with quotations, stock phrases and nursery rhymes is a device he employs throughout – "Everywhere that Mary went/ dynasties collapsed amid gnashing of teeth."
Pieces such as "Card of Thanks" display Ashbery's very different penchant for mystery and melodrama, a nod towards his recent translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations with its venomous declarative sweep – "O it seemed subtle, whatever was hissing/ like a vulture over the town. You're going to feel well,/ giants of rhetoric, devastating in the now."
But there are also more direct and moving poems here. "This Economy" is an outstanding piece of writing. It begins with a playful moment of empathy – "In all my years as a pedestrian/ serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me/ thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels." Yet this quickly transforms into a lyric quietly addressing the problem of seeing into others' lives. New figures hover on the periphery as the poem portrays a miniature history of the US – "how we elaborated/ ourselves staggering across tracts". It then takes up a repeated phrase, echoing the technique of listing people and situations that Whitman employed to suggest the vastness and epic sense of the States: "Somewhere in America there is a naked person.// Somewhere in America adoring legions blush/ in the sunset …"
The language here moves from the intimate to the cinematic, before Ashbery delivers an image in which the poem itself becomes a commodity and steps into the landscape – "Somewhere in America someone is trying to figure out/ how to pay for this." It's very much a lyric of the moment, tentatively exploring how nations perceive themselves and each other as financial structures, and the countless small-scale decisions that make up such systems. The poem continues, carried forward by the impulse to open further doors, to let in more light – "Somewhere/ in America the lonely enchanted eye each other/ on a bus."
This gift for constantly shifting register and scale sustains the collection as a whole. Everything remains invigoratingly at sea – "whatever stops playing is the enemy of the incomplete". The final poems of Quick Question play games, however, not only with the inevitable completion of the book, but also raise the issue of Ashbery's entire career. He is now 85 and has been steadily publishing since Turandot and Other Poems in 1953. The penultimate lyric "Postlude and Prequel" (the title perfectly embodies Ashbery's desire to keep things open, to have his cake and eat it) is about a long-standing friendship, like Ashbery's with Freilicher – "with long awaited words from back when we were/ friends and still are, of course".
It is a poem brimming with everyday life, the ordinary details of urban New York – the availability of tickets for an event, heavy traffic, the benches of Central Park. But it is also a work about fragility, about being under threat, surrounded by hints of finality and loss – "Perturbing elements/ listen in the wings, which are coming apart at the seams."
Yet, in the end, the collection is dominated by surprise and energy; the wonderful opening of "A Voice from the Fireplace" ("Like a windup denture in a joke store/ fate approaches"); the delighted onrush of "Bacon Grabbers" and "Saps at Sea"; the rich textures of "Suburban Burma" that deliver a typically wayward invitation difficult to resist – "Don't try this at home. On second thought, come in,/ your tumbling face ungladden. And see what happens."
A tribute to the poet Stevie Smith, whose childlike vision made her both lovable and formidable
It would have been pleasant to begin this tribute with some description of Stevie for the benefit of those who never saw her. There must be many people in whose lives she plays an important part, people who love her poems and have dipped into them so often that something of her way of seeing the world has become instinctive with them too, but who have no personal impression of her. And now that she is gone and her work will remain, distilling its strange and healing essence, there will be more and more people who wonder what she, the woman Stevie Smith, was like, and fewer and fewer, and ultimately none, able to tell them.
Unfortunately, to describe her would be beyond my powers. Perhaps no poet can be described in prose; Stevie, at any rate, was that rarity, a truly indescribable person.
If I say she was a little bird-like woman with a fringe of brown hair, quick in her movements and with an expressive, humorous face – but her eyes were eloquent far beyond the range of mere expressiveness or mere humour – no, it won't do. If I say that, in the last decade of her life when I knew her best, she was an old woman with the face of a child, that might take us a little nearer, for she was alive with the spontaneity, the freshness, the wisdom of childhood. What is any artist but an adult in whom the child has refused to die – even though he may have the mountainous, painfully acquired experience of a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare? But partly because she was small and thin, Stevie's childlike qualities survived in her appearance as well as in her mind, giving her that unity of being which made her at once lovable and formidable: what she felt and wrote and imagined, she was.
As for her poetry, its most immediately striking feature is the perfect marriage of form and content. Since she perceived the world by the light of an imagination as undeflected as a child's, traditional poetic form would have hampered her like a frock coat on a mermaid; mere formlessness, on the other hand, would have failed to convey the ritual element in her message. Though formally a sceptic in religion, she had a strong sense of the numinous that pervaded everything she wrote; she saw humanity as rooted in nature, and she accepted nature with a completeness that acknowledged its terrors and menaces as well as its beauty and serenity. (If I had to pick one poem to illustrate this, I would pick "River God", about the river Mimram in Hertfordshire.) With unerring instinct, she found her own individual poetic vehicle for this vision: free-running, variable lines with strong rhymes, and a diction in which the familiar and domestic took on an aureole of wonder and, sometimes, of dread.
The world is a sadder and poorer places because Stevie has gone from it, but it is happier and richer because she lived and did her work.
To mark St Patrick's Day on the Guardian Books podcast, we've put together readings from a selection of great Irish writers.
WB Yeats begins with a reading of his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree", recorded in 1937. Next comes George Bernard Shaw with a recording made 10 years earlier – an extract from his talk "Spoken English and Broken English". Then we jump 50 years ahead to catch up with Liam O'Flaherty at the National Poetry Centre in London, reading the opening of his short story "The Mermaid", and hear Sean O'Casey talking about his life and work in an interview recorded in 1962. We finish with WB Yeats back in 1927, with an introduction to a BBC programme, Poets in the Pub.
The Spoken Word: Irish Poets and Writers is published by the British Library, price £20.00. The recordings are copyright of the BBC or the British Library Board.