From my Poetry Bookshelf – Philip Gross

I own two books by Philip Gross – The Water Table (winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009), and Love Songs of Carbon (from 2015), both published by Bloodeaxe Books. I’m not quite sure why I only have two of his collections. In my opinion he is one of our best contemporary poets.

I grew up in Somerset, so a lot of his location – based writing has deep resonance for me (Gross was born in 1952 in Cornwall), and The Water Table in particular is centred on the South West of England, with a particular focus on the Bristol Channel. Not only poems of place, but there is also elemental poetry about water itself.

Here’s Gross reading Severn Song, the final poem in the collection;

There are poems of environmental change – Atlantis World and Elderly Iceberg off the Esplanade, which begins with the lines;

Last night it came knocking, a first
since the end of the Ice Age. A stray eddy brought it,
a backhander from the Gulf Stream. It was heading
inland, could it be to spawn?

Other highlights (for me at least include a long poem which lifts off with observations in a retail car park (Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA), and a sequence running through the book (Betweenland I to Betweenland X) which as their titles suggest, explore the spaces between land, water and air.

A body of water: water’s body

that seems to have a mind (and
change it: isn’t that what makes
a mind, its changing?) not much
prone to thinking – rather, thoughts
curl through it, salt or fresh, or hang

between states: sometimes gloss
the surface with their oil-illuminations.

(from Betweenland I)

There are other poems of course, on other subjects, but this is a collection that is held together by water and how it connects us to our past and who we are. A good review can be found in the Guardian here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/23/philip-gross-poetry-eliot-prize

You can buy it on Bookshop.org here:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781852248529

There is an excellent review of Love Songs of Carbon , Philip Gross’ eighteenth collection in the Wales Art Review here:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/poetry-love-songs-of-carbon-by-philip-gross/

It’s another superb collection, and as with The Water Table, it’s a book I highly recommend.

As with The Water Table, it’s on my poetry bookshelf at;

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781780372587

This collection explores different themes, predominantly of ageing, and the language is, as with The Water Table word perfect. Take the first seven lines of A Walk Across a Field

A week of snow, slight melt, refreeze
and it comes to this: the ground
withholds consent
to every step;

it has us grappling, gasping, at each other,
like the fond emergencies
of young love.

To quote Michael Symmons Roberts & Moniza Alvi, writing in the PBS bulletin

‘The writing is sinewy, urgent and resourceful. The poet is a master of form, deploying his visual and aural patterns for emphasis, as if the page were a musical score. The absolute poise of the lines carve a way through the knotted difficulty of the raw material’.

Interested in finding out more? I’m going to finish with the classic social media / blogger’s faux pas, with a link away from this blog, but it’s worth it. You can read, and hear, a lot more of Philip Gross’ work via his website, at;

https://www.philipgross.co.uk

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest post in my From my Poetry Bookshelf series. Any thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Empty Nest – Poems for Families – Edited by Carol Ann Duffy

My youngest child was 18 at the end of last week. Today is Father’s Day. Both events have prompted me to revisit this collection of poems for families, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, which I was given as a present earlier this year.

As with all good anthologies it includes a wide range of poems from across the centuries, that are as relevant now as they were when they were written – Here’s one from Charles Kingsley, writing in the mid-19th century

A Farewell

My fairest child, I have no song to give you;
No lark could pipe in skies so dull and grey;
Yet, if you will, one quiet hint I’ll leave you,
For every day.

I’ll tell you how to sing a clearer carol
Thank lark who hails the dawn on breezy down;
To earn yourself a purer poet’s laurel
Thank Shakespeare’s crown.

Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long;
And so make Life, Death and that last for ever,
One grand west song.

Personal highlights include two lovely poems written by Jackie Kay to her son – Gap Year and Piano 4pm, which make me want to buy her Bloodeaxe selected poems, and stunning Eavan Boland contributions including The Pomegranate, which starts as follows;

The only legend I have ever loves is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.

Poems on letting go feature strongly as you would expect, such as Walking Away by Cecil Day Lewis, written for his son Sean, which if you don’t already know it starts with the following stanza;

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with the leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

and ends with these lines:-

How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Or Stephen Spender’s To My Daughter

Bright clasp of her whole hand around my finger,
My daughter, as we walk together now.
All my life I’ll feel a ring invisibly
Circle the bone with shining when she is grown
Far from today as her eye are already.

But this isn’t just a book of parental reminiscence, there are poems written for parents – Charles Causley’s Eden Rock makes an appearance, as does Yvonne Reddick’s witty Things My Father Told Me, there are poems for lost children, such as Sharon Olds’ devastating To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now and William Stafford’s For a Lost Child which finishes with the lines;

I found your note left from a trip that year
our family travelled: ‘Daddy, we could meet here’.

We are all changed by parenthood, and I know that when my son leaves for university in a couple of months time it is going to hit me hard. As W.S Merwin writes in Separation (this is the full poem so I hope it’s OK to share it here);

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its colour.

Back to Empty Nest. This really is an excellent collection of poems, suitable for poets or non- poets alike. It’s widely available, including on Bookshop.org here;

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781529028683

The last poem in the book is Shard, by Ella Duffy, (Carl Ann Duffy’s daughter) which ends

You danced on the road, blowing kisses,
giddy with seeing me,

your daughter, blinking my small light
down on the city;

the space between us swollen
and homesick, a mile long.

After the last year and a half, the poignancy of words like this comes into even sharper view.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Tiger – Cliff Forshaw

In addition to books on my poetry bookshelf, I also have a lot of pamphlets, including this one by Cliff Forshaw, published by Happenstance Press in 2011.

Pamphlets are a great way for poets who haven’t had a collection in print to pull together an initial selection of work, or for other writers to create a smaller thematic collection of poems.

Tiger falls into the latter category. It is 22 pages long, and themed around the now-extinct Tasmanian Tiger. I ordered this, partly due to an interest in the subject, and also due to wanting to see what the Happenstance Press publications were like, since I was planning on submitting a pamphlet’s work of work myself.

This, like the other Happenstance press pamphlets I own, (I haven’t ordered any for some time, but will do at some point when funds permit), is very elegantly put together, with a crisp and clean layout.

Tiger comes out of a writer-in-residence period in Hobart in 2004, (memo to self to check whether the Tasmanian Writers Centre are still offering these!), and starts with the following poem;

Loop
62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film. 

Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns 
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.

It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps 
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.

You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched 
together in a loop of black and white.

Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out. 
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition 
compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.

You can watch Forshaw introducing and reading the poem on YouTube, shared by The Poetry Archive, through the following link;

There’s also a Guardian article which goes into this particular poem in detail here;

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/22/poem-of-the-week-cliff-forshaw

and you can watch the clip that inspired Loop here;

It’s one of the strongest poems in the pamphlet, and the one that has been shared the most online – presumably as a result of the Guardian choosing it as one of their poems of the week.

The second poem, Barcode, brings us up to date with the Tasmanian Tiger’s contemporary relevance;

Barcode
 
Extinct, this creature’s everywhere
from CD sleeves to bottled beer.
With trademark stripes, it zebras out
between the gums’ abstracted light.
They’ve even tigered my hired Mazda’s plate.
Everything’s branded. Tasmania – your natural state.

Now you see them. Now they’re gone.
Did this tiger’s go-faster stripes
aid recognition in the loping pack?
 
Eucalypts, eucalypts at speed,
late sun flickers through those trees:
at the tarmac’s edge, off-cuts of fur, strange weeds.
 
Billboards, stores along the newly-metalled road:
ironic ads, that hide’s barcode.

I’ll not reproduce anything else from Tiger, as it is still available for sale from Happenstance Press here;

https://www.happenstancepress.com/index.php/shop/product/24-tiger-cliff-forshaw/category_pathway-14

The other poems, also mostly in the form of sonnets, expand on the themes of man’s interaction with this now mythical ghost of an animal. There are poems about museum specimens, roadkill, shadows glimpsed beyond headlights, and a jaunty final poem which connects the Tiger with another long-dead Tasmanian, actor Errol Flynn – I’m not 100% sure about this last poem – I can understand the desire to lighten the sequence, but I wonder about how it fits with the rest of the poems. But that’s a minor quibble and more a reflection on my personal taste.

Both Barcode and Loop , which have been shared elsewhere online, are also available in Vandemonian, a full length collection about the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, (an earlier name for Tasmania), which was published by Arc in 2013. I don’t own it yet.

For more detail on Cliff Forshaw and his work (he is both a writer and painter), go to http://www.cliff-forshaw.co.uk

As for Happenstance, you can see their current range of collections here;

https://www.happenstancepress.com

You’ll not see anything from me there – my submission was, rightly, rejected. It was disjointed and simply not good enough. Most of the poems I submitted needed serious editing, and that’s being kind. Only one, (Bird in Hand – which you can find elsewhere in this blog), made it into my first collection.

But what I did receive from Helena Nelson, who owns and runs Happenstance Press, was a very thoughtful and detailed rejection letter, with notes on most of the poems I had submitted. She summarised by saying that there ‘was something there’ with my writing, but I was ‘trying too hard’.

If you happen to stumble across my blog Helena, then thank you. Your rejection letter had a lot of influence on a writer who was still trying to find a voice, even back in 2011/12.

And that brings me to my final point. Poetry publishers need support. They need people to buy books, pamphlets and magazines. Without this they cease to exist. So if you haven’t bought any books for a while, or subscribed to a magazine, then please bear this in mind! Small-press independent publishers of poetry in particular need our support right now.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – The Poetry of Birds – Edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee

Repeat that, repeat

Repeat that, repeat,
Cuckoo, bird, and open ear wells, heart-springs, delightfully sweet,
With a ballad, with a ballad, a rebound  
Off trundled timber and scoops of the hillside ground, hollow hollow hollow ground:
The whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a sound.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I heard a cuckoo yesterday. I can’t remember how long ago it was that I last heard one. It prompted me to revisit this brilliant collection of bird poems. Repeat that, repeat sits alongside other Cuckoo poems by Auden and Wordsworth.

The Poetry of Birds is organised by bird rather than poet, which makes it easy to see different writers’ approaches to the same subject. Here’s a couple of poems about crows as an example;

The Crow 

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

John Clare

This is followed , after a poem by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, by Ted Hughes’ Crow and the Birds, which ends with the following lines;

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud
And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun
And the wryneck crooked in the moon
And the dipper peered from the dewbello

Crow sprawled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream.

With eighteen poems, John Clare features heavily in this collection, hardly surprising, for a poet noted for his observations of nature – his biographer called Clare “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.

But this book has an excellent variety of poems and descriptions of birds. I loved Paul Farley’s The Heron, which open’s with the lines;

One of the most begrudging avian take-offs
is the heron’s fucking hell, all right, all right,
I’ll go to the garage for your flaming fags

cranky departure…

or how about this two line poem by Paul Muldoon?

Plovers

The plovers come down hard, then clear again,
for they are the embodiment of rain.

Of course there are plenty of poems where the bird is an extended metaphor for something else;

The Shrike

When night comes black
Such royal dreams beckon this man
As lift him apart
From his earth-wife’s side
To wing, sleep-feathered,
The singular air,
While she, envious bride,
Cannot follow after, but lies
With her blank brown eyes starved wide,
Twisting curses in the tangled sheet
With taloned fingers,
Shaking in her skull’s cage
The stuffed shape of her flown mate
Escaped among moon-plumaged strangers;
So hungered, she must wait in rage
Until bird-racketing dawn
When her shrike-face
Leans to peck open those locked lids, to eat
Crowns, palace, all
That nightlong stole her male,
And with red beak
Spike and suck out
Last blood-drop of that truant heart.

Sylvia Plath

There are excellent notes at the end of the book on each species described, which can add significantly to an understanding of a poem’s true meaning. For those that don’t know, a shrike is a small, unassuming-looking bird that hunts insects and rodents, often spearing them on sharp branches so as to eat them on a piecemeal basis at a later or more convenient time. I’ll let you guess who, or what, The Shrike is really about.

The Poetry of Birds contains a nice mix of famous and less well known poets and poems, and finishes with a group of more abstract / mythical bird poems. The final poem in the book is, fittingly, this one;

”Hope” is the thing with feathers’

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

I was a bird-watcher as a child. Like most who took up this hobby, it hasn’t really left me. If you are of a similar mind, then you probably already have this book. If you don’t get hold of a copy. You won’t regret it. And if ornithology isn’t of interest? This is still an excellent collection of disparate voices that will expand your knowledge and breadth of reading. You can’t go too wrong with a book like this.

The Poetry of Birds is now perched on my virtual bookshelf at Bookshop.org

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

Wallace Stevens – Poems Selected by John Burnside

John Burnside, of whom I have not written yet, is one of my favourite poets, which is one of the reasons I got this book. It’s one of a series of poet – to – poet series Faber collections, where a well known contemporary poets writes about, and chooses a small selection of a another poet’s work. Like most, if not all, of the other books in this series it is now out of print (so doesn’t appear on my Bookshop.org page – my attempt to cover some of the hosting costs of this blog – currently at £6.40, which really isn’t going to help that much!).

It’s a small selection – 126 pages in total – not really enough to cover more than an introduction to a poet’s work. But in some ways for an unfamiliar reader it’s a better option. Not as daunting as a collected poems, and, as in this case, a good way to see how a particular poet’s style has developed over time.

This is particularly the case for someone like Wallace Stevens, who is perhaps most remembered, at least, here in the UK, for his earlier poems, primarily those published in Harmonium, his first collection. Harmonium was published in 1923, when the poet was 44 years old.

Harmonium includes The Snow Man, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier, and perhaps most famous of all, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which starts as follows;

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

IV
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

The literary scholar Beverly Maeder writing for the Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens speaks of the importance the author placed upon linguistic structure in many of his poems. In this instance, Stevens is experimenting with the application of the verb ‘to be’ in its many forms and conjugations throughout the 13 cantos of the poem. As Maeder states, the poem “uses or even focuses on ‘to be’ in seven of its thirteen variations on the blackbird. The blackbird is pictured in a different situation and articulated in a different grammatical context in each fragment’ (Beverly Maeder Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens).

Another interpretation can be found here on the poem analysis website;

https://poemanalysis.com/wallace-stevens/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird/

There are plenty of others. But Burnside asserts that ‘Far too many of us still see Stevens as the poet of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘ and ‘The Snow Man‘ but, as fine as these are, he was much more than that’. This selected collection includes some of the longer sequence poems written towards the end of his life, and shorter poems from his final collection. One of the most well known of the former is An Ordinary Evening in New England, which in thirty-one cantos of six three line stanzas is an extraordinary piece of writing, an extended meditation on what is imagined and what is real. A lot of Stevens’ poetry is about poetry itself (usually a turn-off for me), and is challenging and difficult to fully understand, but then isn’t that the point? Not just with Stevens’ poetry, but with poetry, and life generally? The Twelfth stanza reads as follows;

XII

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

One poem that, unsurprisingly isn’t included in this book, and also seems to be overlooked by others is ‘Like Decorations in a N….. Cemetery’ – a long poem about death and disintegration into nothingness. Apparently it should be read as an ellipsis, as in (My Poetry is) Like…., and it’s been described as a modernist masterpiece. But I can’t get beyond the vile title, which compounds the use of the N word, (I originally wrote the poem title here in full, but am uncomfortable in having it anywhere on my blog), with a negative appropriation of what is, (or was when it was written in the 1930s), an African-American tradition of grave adornment.

Of course Stevens was a product of his time, something that those commentators who acknowledge this racist language are quick to point out, but does that mean we can give a free pass to someone whose response upon learning of Gwendolyn Brook’s winning the Pulitzer Prize: was to say, apparently to a shocked reaction from those others in attendance, “Who let the coon in?”

Apart from the aforementioned title, (the poem itself doesn’t appear to be as discriminatory although I’ve only read it the once, so I may be missing something), his poetry is generally seen to be ambivalent towards those of other ethnic backgrounds, as opposed to being openly hostile. His upbringing and non-poetic life as a highly successful insurance businessman meant he had little interaction with non-whites.

Of course racism was commonplace in America at that time, (and still is of course, as recent events clearly illustrate), but where do we draw the line with poet’s beliefs and attitudes to others? What about Eliot and Pound’s anti-semitism? Or Pound’s (and for a short time Stevens’) support for Mussolini?

Outside poetry, do we discount Miles Davis’ music because of his violent misogyny? Or what of contemporary musicians such as Morrissey, Ian Brown or Noel Gallagher, and their comments on Covid, or politics (or in Ian Brown’s case pretty much anything!).

Then there’s the allegations of transphobia against JK Rowling and the reaction from fans who said they couldn’t read the books any more – there are, as you’d expect, a lot of articles on that particular controversy online. If you want to find out more then try this summary from the Scotsman website as a starting point;

https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/jk-rowling-twitter-why-harry-potter-author-has-been-accused-transphobia-social-media-platforms-2877977

So where do we go from here? Can we separate the person from their art? Should we? Even with contemporary artists it’s difficult – adding the prism of time makes it even harder.

There’s a good article on Miles Davis here – and how the author tries to deal with their conflict over loving the music and hating the actions of the person who made it

https://music.avclub.com/miles-davis-beat-his-wives-and-made-beautiful-music-1798242163

Or perhaps we should acknowledge the flaws of the individual as a way to have a deeper understanding of their art, as this article on Picasso, who like Davis had, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant attitude to many of the women in his life;

https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/art-politics/the_picasso_problem_why_we_shouldnt_separate_the_art_from_the_artists_misogyny-55120

I keep going round in circles on this – ultimately we all have our own lines beyond which we won’t go, (I’m old enough to have seen Gary Glitter in concert and quite enjoyed it in a mock-ironic way, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near his music now), but I think we have to try, where possible, to separate the person from their art, whilst acknowledging the reality of the creator of the work and try and help, in our own small way, towards the dismantling of abhorrent views and attitudes in current and future generations.

You can admire Guernica, A Kind of Blue and An Ordinary Evening in New England without admiring their creator as an individual.

As for Stevens, it’s instructive to bear in mind that following her award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks was on the awards panel for the award in 1955. When the other two votes were split between e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens, she gave her casting vote to Stevens. If she was able to separate the man from his work, perhaps we should be able to do so (see this following article and comments on the poetry foundation website for details).

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2008/02/wallace-stevens-after-lunch

What do you think? Let me know.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Moniza Alvi

I own two of Moniza Alvi’s seven collections, Europa and At the Time of Partition.

Many of the poems in Europa, (published in 2008), relate to ancient and modern traumas, including enforced exile, alienation, rape and honour killing. It’s centre-piece is a re-imagining of the story of the rape of Europa by Jupiter as a bull, whereas At The Time of Partition (2013) is a book length poem set at the time of partition between India and Pakistan. These are obviously weighty and serious subjects, but there is a lightness of touch and clarity of language which makes them both accessible and readable.

Not all of her poems are about such issues. One of her most well-known earlier pieces is as follows;

I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro.

Barely distinguishable from other dots, 
it’s true, but quite uniquely placed. 
And from my dark centre 

I’d survey the beauty of the linescape 
and wonder — would it be worthwhile 
to roll myself towards the lemon stripe, 
Centrally poised, and push my curves 
against its edge, to give myself 
a little attention? 

But it’s fine where I am. 
I’ll never make out what’s going on 
around me, and that’s the joy of it. 

The fact that I’m not a perfect circle 
makes me more interesting in this world.People will stare forever — 

Even the most unemotional get excited. 
So here I am, on the edge of animation, 
a dream, a dance,a fantastic construction, 

A child’s adventure. 
And nothing in this tawny sky 
can get too close, or move too far away.

Born in Pakistan, Alvi grew up in Hertfordshire. She is a freelance tutor and writer living in London, who often runs courses for the Poetry School. I’ve never taken one of them, though perhaps with my current rate of poetry acceptances I should!. I have only heard excellent things about them. Follow the below link for details.

https://poetryschool.com

As for her own poetry, in the Poetry Book Society bulletin, Kathleen Jamie and Hugo Williams stated that…Alvi’s voice has achieved a relaxed naturalness, a fluidity which allows her to present these delicious, extraordinary poems as though it were easy.

The central poem in Europa , in 25 different segments is superbly written. There is an excellent article on this particular sequence from the Guardian, published back in 2009

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/aug/03/poem-of-the-week-moniza-alvi

The Guardian article shares a few of the segments. It’s a powerful poem that builds with significant narrative pace. Alvi’s use of line breaks and the segmentation of the poem is particularly effective in both separating each element and building the tension and momentum.

As for At The Time of Partition, it uses a similar fragmentary approach, as in this sequence which I have taken from the Poem Hunter website – I hope it is OK to reproduce here (I only share poems or significant parts of poems that have previously been shared online).

Take notice of the precise language, imagery and line-breaks. None of this is showy, none of it is overwrought;

Part 4: Ever After 

Ever after 
she heard it as an echo 

in her inner ear, disembodied, 
as, in a sense, all voices are – 

We’ll take him, Shakira.He can travel with us. 

You’ve enough on your hands 
with the other four. 

There are places still 
on the second bus, inshallah! 

At that swollen moment 
there was a shadowy unburdening
because at that time, perhaps 
any child was a burden. 

How she would wish 
as the weeks and the months 

and the lifetimes churned on 
to undo Take him, 

to force back the heavy, rusted 
hands of the clock – 

God’s clock held by God’s hands 
in permanent view. 

Say your goodbyes, ticked the clock. 
No time to lose. 

But who was left for goodbyes – 
her Hindu friends, the friends of friends? 

A stream drying up. 

How to say it? 

It was hard to sit on a cane-seated chair 
on her old verandah and sip tea, 

the conversation curdling 
like milk for the weekly paneer. 

Tomorrow we will be gone. 

The risk of departing 
and the risk of remaining 

weighing much the same. 

Was the worst goodbye to the house? 

The house was her second skin, 
hardier than her first, 

an island in the deafening, tumultuous sea. 

She was married to its daily rhythms – 
the kneading, the sweeping, the praying . . . 

Under duress, 
it was dauntingly calm. 

And Ludhiana itself, the Old City 
and the New – 

the Civil Lines with their flowering trees. 
The Christian Medical Hospital. 

The cloth factories and the temples. 
The neighbourliness of the lanes. Her lanes. 

Bleeding internally, the city 
tried to appear whole 

for a final goodbye – 

as, they would gather and wait 
appear whole 

under Hindu sun and Moslem rain 
Hindu rain and Moslem sun. 

Nothing was wrong with the clock. 
The clock ticked on.

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/from-at-the-time-of-partition-2/

There’s an audio recording also available at the above link.

You can also hear Alvi read her poems here;

https://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Between-two-worlds-poetry-and-translation/024M-C1340X0013XX-0000V0

This is a 48 minute reading, which includes a recital of the first poem I have shared in this post, I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro.

What more is there to say? This is beautiful written poetry that speaks of fragmentations of society and disparate connections, of loss and despair, but also of redemption, of finding a way. It’s not surprising that both Europa and At the Time of Partition were nominated for the TS Eliot prize.

Both these books are as relevant in subject matter now as they were when they were written, and both repay repeat readings. Highly recommended.

You can buy them direct from the publisher, (Bloodeaxe), or of course from my Poetry Bookshelf at Bookshop.org here: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Peter Reading – Perduta Gente

1989. The year the wall came down. Tiananmen Square. Exxon Valdez. A year bookended by George HW Bush becoming president and Ceausescu being deposed. I remember watching the latter in my grandmother’s house in Portchester Road, as we went there most Christmases. Such. A. Long. Time. Ago. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn’t.

Today’s book from my bookshelf is a case in point. Published in 1989, Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente, with its’ central theme of homelessness is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps more so, after forty years of the sham of trickle-down economics, and the last ten years of austerity. Even after the magical thinking and ridiculous economic self-harm of Brexit, the UK is still the sixth richest country in the world.

A famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi springs to mind here: ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. So how do we stack up here in Britain? How do we treat our destitute, our disabled, our ill? We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for David Cameron. We vote for the rich getting richer. We vote for those who come down hard on asylum seekers. We vote for those who want to commercialise the NHS, who cut funds for social services, welfare and education. Well enough of us do.

I’m not going to try and understand why people vote the way they do. I’m sure that many who vote Conservative are compassionate, caring and kind individuals. However, as Reading states;

Don’t think it couldn’t be you –
bankrupt, batty, bereft,
huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard
spin-drier carton,
bottle-bank cocktails and Snow soporifics,
meths analgesics,
beg-bucket rattler, no-hope no-homer,
squatter in rat-pits,
busker in underground bogs
(plangent the harp-twang, the Hwaet!
Haggard, the youthful and handsome whom I
loved in my nonage;
vanished, the vigour I valued;
roof-tree and cooking-hearth, sacked).

Bankrupt, batty, bereft –
don’t think it couldn’t be you.

Peter Reading was born in Liverpool in 1946, and was educated at the Liverpool College of Art. After graduating he taught for a few years before obtaining a job as a weighbridge operator at an animal feed mill in Shropshire – where he remained for 22 years until he was sacked for refusing to wear a uniform when a new owner took over. He liked the work because he said that it gave him time to think.

He was a prodigious poet – writing a total of 26 collections. These collections were unusual because they were fashioned more like novels with themes and plots and often featured: characters, newspaper cuttings, letters, found poems, crossings out, different type-faces and pieces of prose. The poems that did appear were often untitled. He once said: ‘The concision of poetry appeals to me, but the novelist’s job – big-scale serious tackling of things, as in Dickens and Smollett – is something I try in a smaller way to get into what I do.’

The above two paragraphs were taken from this biographical post on the Poet’s Graves website.

https://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/reading.html

Perduta Gente is filled with anger, power and compassion. As with his other work, it’s a mix of untitled poems, prose pieces, snippets, collages of newspaper clippings and headlines, and handwritten diary entries;

Or this;

Some of the poems are written in the vernacular of the street, or at least in Reading’s interpretation of it. I think this is a way to try and bring their voices and experiences to life.

gizzera quiddora fiftyfer fuggsay
mistera tellya
tellya da missiziz fugginwell whatnot
fugginwell ampute
afer da nackerup arm

I’m not sure how well they work, compared to some of the others here, but they broaden the scope and language in what is a relatively short collection.

Incidentally there are no page numbers in Perduta Gente. It is a book that is not meant to be read in any particular order. You dip in and out. It is unstructured, rootless, a collision of styles and formatting. Which fits well with the subject matter.

One thing I have tried to do with my weekly blog posts is illustrate the sheer range of poetry available. I know a lot of people who say they don’t ‘get’ poetry, it doesn’t speak to them. My reply is that they just haven’t found the right poet yet. As for Perduta Gente, It’s safe to say that if you are looking for gentle, easy reading, lyrical poetry, then this isn’t the book for you.

Newspaper, wrapped round the torso between the
fourth and fifth jerseys
(night attire proper for doing a skipper in
icy December
under the Festival Hall),
carries a note to the Editor, from ‘Ex-
Soldier’ of Telford,
outlining plans to withdraw
DHSS cash from those
no-fixed-abode parasites.

Wound round a varicose indigo swollen
leg, between second
and third pair of trousers (which stink –
urine and faeces and sick),
Property Pages delineate bijou
River-View Flatlets
£600,000 each.

The house prices may have increased, but so has homelessness. Where is the anger? Why are we so accepting of this?

Perduta Gente is out of print, so if you want a copy you’ll have to pick one up secondhand. You won’t find it on my bookshop.org page.

You can, however, listen to an audio recording of Perduta Gente here;

What do you think? Do you prefer poetry that is less angry, less politicised (in the small ‘p’ sense of the world), and conservative (in the small ‘c’ sense)!. Or should there be more writing like Perduta Gente being published now? How does what you’ve read here compare to the contemporary poetry you see in magazines, online publications and new collections and anthologies?

And for those of us who write poetry. Do we take enough risks with our own writing, with the subject matter, language used or poetic form and structure? What if we don’t want to? Does it actually matter? Can it actually achieve anything? Maybe that’s something for a future post.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – John Kinsella – Armour

The Australian poet, John Kinsella, has written over thirty books. I only have Armour, which was published in the UK by Picador on 2011. My copy arrived as part of the Poetry Book Society membership I had at the time. The back blurb states that Armour is a beautifully various work, one of sharp ecological and social critique – but also one of meticulous invocation and quiet astonishment, whose atmosphere will haunt the reader long after they close the book.

Many of these poems are of rural Australian life, of man’s interaction with nature. They speak of environmental change, but not in an in-your-face polemical way. The first part of Easterlies, a three poem sequence, reads;

We fear the brouhaha of mood
and tones of inaction, to decamp,
to extract myths from country
and myths hard let go from reading

a vicarious sense of being,
of having come from wherever
myths implant. Dust stings.
We are blinded by howlers.

The long seeding grasses
suddenly dry. Shaken empty.
From whips to whispers. Exhausted.
Freshwater snakes huddling,

desiccated at the riverbed.
Toads, deep buried, vulnerable
to evaporation. Scattering
of salt deposits.

To call upwind
is to singe lips and perish,
no matter how loving
your speech:

we must hope,
fire-risk, a cold lunch
read on the table.
Grit in our mouths. Fire.

When writing about nature, Kinsella often uses scientific terms – as an example, Owl, which as with the excerpt above comes from Armour ;

Owl

Massive owl in redgum surprised
in heavy moonlight by my passing:
a barn or boobook, quite different
though even a grey-white glow
could not illuminate identity.

So I went back to the place today;
a thin dead branch, not much more than a twig,
that took your eerie weight, phantom bird.
And below, an answer. A component
of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole.

A vengeful or indifferent or hungry bird
perched in calculation? Whatever the answer,
I went again tonight to see if your hunting
took you there: opportunistic or logical.
And clouds sweeping over the harsh moon,

what weight their stains would bear.
But you were not there; and why should you be?
It’s spring and the mice are opening gateways
everywhere: a vast burrowing and surfacing,
the small weight of their bodies adding up.

I found a critique of the language online – you can read it here;

I can see where the writer is coming from, but my take is slightly different – I suspect that this is partially about a conscious rejection of anthropromorphic language, and about trying to root the poetry into something more solid, more calculated, a different kind of real. Having said this, some of these lines do jump out -‘A component of the algorithm’ , ‘perched in calculation’ , ‘opportunistic or logical’. But maybe that’s the point?

There are poems of family – such as Yellow , a brilliant poem that starts off with his son coming home from school angry because he has been put into ‘Yellow Faction’ that catches alight in a completely different direction (you’ll have to buy the book to find out!), and three poems about different kinds of armour – a knight’s suit, a metal horse, and Durer’s drawing of a Rhinoceros.

There is also an Elegy for Dave McComb, the singer of Perth-based band The Triffids, who died far too young (aged 36). The Triffids were a highly regarded band that failed to get the breakthrough they deserved. McComb’s writing often encapsulated the space and dust of Western Australia, particularly in Born Sandy Devotional, probably their best album, although Calenture runs it close.

Anyway, I digress. an Elegy ends with the following four stanzas;

Staving off inevitables,
we watch from ashen tables,
sing higher than Norfolk pines,
this gifting us, this turning

inside out, an aubade
to sunset, horizon’s loud
cicatrice, as soothing as a road
torn wide open:

travel jars the mind
and that’s the sign
of the times, the crowd
standing still in flight,

to look out on morning:
good morning, good morning:
and I am reminded
how to know, to listen.

Within this poem there are references to McComb’s music, which you would not get unless you were a fan of The Triffids, the Black-eyed Susans or McComb’s later solo work. I’m sure there are plenty of other references in other poems that I haven’t picked up on – including those where scientific language has been used, as a counterpoint to the comments by Charles Whalley in the post I shared earlier.

As for why I pick up this book fairly often? I took Armour on a family holiday to France. I was going through a pretty challenging time, but whenever I sat down with it I was transported to another place on the other side of the world, that I have never visited, and probably never now will. Perhaps that’s why I keep going back to it.

I didn’t manage to travel as much as I wanted to when I was younger, getting caught up in work, a career and everything else that goes around it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been a sucker for poetry, and music, that evokes a certain place.

You can find Armour at Bookshop.org – it’s on my poetry bookshelf with other books I rate, including some previously written about and others that I have yet to comment on.

https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/richardwilliamspoetry

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. Any comments appreciated!

I’ll finish, why not, with a link to one of The Triffid’s best songs;

From my Poetry Bookshelf – The Oxford Shakespeare Complete Sonnets and Poems

Anyone reading these poetry bookshelf posts will have seen that I haven’t, as yet, written much about any of the canonical poets, those who everyone says are the best, the most important, those you must read to get a proper understanding of poetry.

The truth is I’m a little intimidated about doing so. I know that it will expose my lack of reading, my lack of education (I only took English to O Level at school – as part of a misguided career plan to become a surveyor). I have therefore, never properly studied literature, and so have huge gaps in my literary knowledge.

I could, in theory, study for a masters degree, since I eventually got a BA in Humanities, focussing on History or Geography, but due to government funding cuts for higher education that avenue is no longer open to me. I don’t have a spare £10K lying around that I could use for this purpose.

Whilst it’s not a huge issue for me personally, it’s worth thinking about all those other people whose life choices have been shrunk because of this. Not just in literature, but in music, theatre, art. The last ten years of Conservative Party led austerity has been at the expense of the opportunities for so many people to learn new skills, to open their minds to different ideas and experiences, whether for career or pleasure. But we all know that by now.

As an aside, I have to assume that anyone who votes Conservative is perfectly happy with this, as they no doubt must be with austerity policies in general. Still at least the national debt has been reduced significantly since 2010 (allowing for Covid of course). Oh wait.

Anyway, enough of the rant. Back to Shakespeare. I bought this book because I am reading at an event celebrating his birthday next week, and I wanted to choose a suitable poem or sonnet. Apart from the really obvious ones, (Sonnet 18 for example) , I haven’t actually read many of them.

Are they all equally brilliant? Clearly not. But how do we judge what is, and what isn’t good? How much of our assessment is based on our own prejudices, and our own reactions to the previous assessments and criticisms of others? There’s an interesting article on the Poetry International blog which goes into this – it’s about the apparently much unloved Sonnet 145. You can read it here.

I’ve chosen Sonnet 50;

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek (my weary travel’s end)
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say
“Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend.”
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan
More sharp to me than spurring to his side,
For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

I picked this sonnet because of my own ambivalence towards Shakespeare whilst growing up – we were taken to see some of the plays from quite a young age, usually RSC productions, either at Stratford or the Barbican. I can’t remember much about the ones I saw, though I’m sure this has no reflection on their quality. But I associated going to the theatre with the disintegration of my parents’ marriage. Looking back I’m pretty convinced that it was subconsciously also the reason I chose to take A level Maths , (which I failed), instead of English.

A good few years ago I wrote a haiku which appeared in Orbis Magazine;

On being taken to watch Akira Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth for my twelfth birthday when all I wanted to do was go to the football

deceit and hubris
lead to lengthening speeches
everybody dies

Obviously the whole poem is a joke – haiku’s don’t have titles and my parents never took me to see Macbeth, nor any Japanese film versions of it, but there are undercurrents of truth – about family break-ups, about how we are sometimes blindsided by our own interests and passions to what others want, and how we can over promote something to the point that it can have the opposite effect on those we are trying to share it with.

I suspect this is why my wife doesn’t appreciate Portsmouth FC, Tangerine Dream’s challenging early 70s music, or for that matter the complete back catalogue of Black Sabbath. Though as I sit here listening to Iron Man on this sunny spring morning, I do believe there is still time for her to change her mind.

I think this may well be the first poetry blog post about Shakespeare that also references Black Sabbath. If you know of any others please do let me know!

As it happens I found my own way back to Shakespeare through Akira Kurosawa. I saw the incredible Ran, (his version of King Lear), at a near-empty cinema in the West End of London shortly after it came out. It’s a mind-blowing film that is really worth watching on the big screen if you ever get the chance. There’s a good review in the Guardian of the 4K restoration that came out in 2016. It’s one of my favourite films.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/28/akira-kurosawa-king-lear-story-ran-4k-restoration

And here’s the official trailer for the film;

Anyway, back to Shakespeare. Sonnet 50 is one of a pair. Sonnet 51 reads as follows;

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer, when from thee I speed:
‘From where thou art, why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.’
O what excuse will my poor beast then find
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind:
In winged speed no motion shall I know.
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire (of perfect’st love being made)
Shall weigh no dull flesh in his fiery race,
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:
‘Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run and give him leave to go.’

Obviously both poems are about leaving and returning to a lover, but there’s much more to them than that. You can read far more detailed analyses of these poems elsewhere – far more detailed than you are going to get from my ramblings at any point!

The Oxford Shakespeare The Complete Sonnets and Poems does have notes on each sonnet, helpfully shown on the page opposite that of the sonnet itself, along with a 158 page introduction, so this may be all you need, but if you are after something shorter, about say a particular sonnet, then there are plenty available online.

As a starting point should you be interested in finding out more, here are a couple of short ones for each sonnet. There may well be better analyses out there, but these also give suggestions for further reading.

I have come to appreciate Shakespeare’s work far more than I did when I was younger. Maybe I just needed time, to go on my own journey. What about you? As for the sonnets themselves, what do you think of them? Do you have a favourite? I’m still reading through them so any suggestions would be very much appreciated.

Please let me know in the comments.

Actually the same applies to Black Sabbath, Tangerine Dream and the films of Akira Kurosawa. We are all still learning, there’s always something new to see, to listen to, something we have somehow missed. Last week I listened to Tangerine Dream’s Atem, which is a sonic exploration of the history of the Earth in reverse. It’s the album before their most well-known work – Phaedra – and so despite being championed by John Peel on it’s release in 1973, tends to be ignored today. I thought it was brilliant.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rambling blog post. Most of the books mentioned in My Poetry Bookshelf are available on Bookshop.org – I have a page where they are all saved. If you do buy anything from this page then I’ll make a small amount of commission from each purchase, which goes towards the running costs of this blog. Last time I checked I had made £6.30 in total, so it’s hardly making me rich, but it all helps!

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Poems for a World Gone to Sh*t

I was given this book as a Christmas present a couple of years go. It’s a relatively small (144 page) collection of poems in five sections – moving from what the f**ck through to life is still f**king beautiful. Subtle it is not.

Many of the poems are obvious selections – and have appeared in plenty of other anthologies over the years – the book starts with Larkin’s this be the verse and follows with an excerpt from Macbeth. The range is reasonably broad – alongside Byron, Dickinson & Eliot, we get Hollie McNish, Lemn Sissay and Kate Tempest.

Once you get part the attention grabbing title, it’s a good introduction to a wide variety of poets and poetry styles and has some justifiably well-known and revered poems in it.

One criticism is that there is an awful lot of space between each poem – as an example, one stanza from Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy gets two pages for five lines of poetry. Mind you they are brilliant – and with the latest revelations of what senior members of the Conservative party have been up to since they came to power in 2010 they are particularly appropriate for me to share today;

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

Despite this criticism of the book’s layout, Poems for a World Gone to Sh*t , like all anthologies opens the reader up to poets who they wouldn’t otherwise read, and has a good mix of subjects – ranging from rage to joy. Hopefully the title, marketing, and seasonal placement in bookshops will have introduced poetry to people who would not normally read it.

It’s worth considering getting a copy if you have a recalcitrant non-poetry lover in your household. Leave it on a side table somewhere, or in a bathroom maybe – I suppose with its title this is the most appropriate place to put it! Who knows – this book might just be what is needed as the starting point for some much-needed poetry conversion therapy. Your non-poetry lover may well be reading The Waste Land a couple of months later!

I still pick it up from time to time – with the world the way it is at the moment, most of the poems are as relevant now as they were when the book was published, and when they were originally written.

As for poetry anthologies generally, which ones do you rate? Which do you give to non poetry-loving friends? Let me know in the comments.

I’ll finish with one of the more optimistic poems in the book – by Robert Louis Stevenson – one of those writers whose poetry can get missed in the clamour for what’s new.

Escape at Bedtime

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog and the Plough, and the Hunter and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.