By MICHAEL CAINES
As I mention in the latest episode of TLS Voices (embedded above), the Gloucester-born Ivor Gurney is an odd case among the war poets. . .
By MICHAEL CAINES
Whitechapel art gallery hosted the London Art Book Fair for the sixth year running last weekend, and a very fine affair it was too . . .
By DAVID COLLARD
The W. H. Auden Society Newsletter has appeared more or less annually since its inaugural issue in April 1988. Plain in layout, wonderfully rich in content, scholarly but not academic, it's an indispensable omnium gatherum of all things Auden – eccentric, eclectic, unpredictable and endlessly fascinating.
My favourite Newsletter item dates back to the fourth issue (October 1989) when a young Toby Litt, long before he achieved fame as a novelist, contributed a dazzling little essay entitled “From ‘Acedia’ to ‘Zeitgeist’: Auden in the 2nd Edition of the OED”. (Before I go any further I have to gratefully acknowledge my debt to his essay as a source for this blog.)
Litt begins his piece with a quotation from Auden, taken from an interview in 1971:
“One of my great ambitions is to get into the OED as the first person to have used in print a new word. I have two candidates at the moment, which I used in my review of J. R. Ackerley’s autobiography. They are ‘Plain-sewing’ and ‘Princeton-First-Year’. They refer to two types of homosexual behaviour.”
Photo: Andrew Kötting
By MICHAEL CAINES
"on the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass by the road side which seemed to taste something like bread . . . I remember passing through Buckden and going a length of road afterwards but I dont reccolect the name of any place untill I came to Stilton where I was compleatly foot foundered and broken down . . ."
John Clare, when he wrote these words, was recalling a time when he had been between ayslums. That was in the summer of 1841. Escaping from High Beach, the private asylum in Epping Forest to which he had gone voluntarily a few years earlier, he had headed north, in the belief that Mary Joyce – his "phantom bride", Iain Sinclair has called her, "already buried in Glinton churchyard" – was waiting for him.
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
The poetry pamphlet is thriving. Fears about digital poetry killing off print editions are, for the moment, happily unfounded. On Tuesday night at the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, now in its fifth year, poets and small presses were celebrated for their inventive, high quality contributions to, and ambitions for, this traditional art form, described by Marina, Lady Marks, whose late husband founded the prize and who continues generously to support it, during the welcome speech as “a complete and total expression of the universe” in up to thirty-six pages.
When the writer Jackie Kay judged the inaugural awards in 2009, she said of pamphlets, “their very smallness [makes] them feel special. There’s a great value, particularly in today’s world of blurb, blog and baloney, in keeping things brief. The pamphlet marks a new poet’s potential in a rather dignified way. It’s the wee malt as opposed to the big pint”.
Pamphlets, or “chapbooks”, are one of the first and, arguably, best places readers can encounter poetry and discover new and established poets. What is most interesting – particularly to this year’s judges, Tanya Kirk (lead curator of Printed Literary Sources at the British Library), Judy Brown (poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust) and our own Thea Lenarduzzi (of the TLS) – are the different ways poets and publishers interact with the form. Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, one of the shortlisted publishers, spoke on Tuesday evening about how pamphlets offer what books do not: for example, The Sun-Artist by Susan Connolly, which Shearsman published this year, consists entirely of visual poetry; and pamphlets can accommodate “long pieces that over-tip a conventional book layout”.
Flarestack Press received the award for Best Publisher and were praised for their "impressive local outreach". They support local poets and this year collaborated with illustration students from Birmingham Institute of Art, leading to pamphlets filled with sympathetic typography and design.
And then we moved on to the prize for Best Poet. Kim Lasky, who was nominated for her collection Petrol, Cyan, Electric, gave a serene reading of her science-inspired “Newton Sees the Seventh Colour”. Her precise writing style eloquently reflected (and refracted) the character of Newton, sitting at his desk: “you barely flinch, intent on experiment”. The best line, “as if rainbows were simply mathematics”, neatly applies to the unfathomable/fathomable process of writing, reading and understanding poetry.
Kim Moore’s nominated pamphlet, If We Could Speak Like Wolves, according to the judges “displayed with total assurance how ordinary settings hide the mysterious, bizarre and sometimes frightening”. After a five-hour train journey from Cumbria to the ceremony at the British Library, Moore was prompted to read her poem about a trip from Barrow to Sheffield. Witty observations of the train carriage (the twenty-five-year-olds on their phones talking about their fears of dying; chewing gum stuck on the table; and loos that will never smell fresh) ended with the image of a man dribbling on the speaker’s shoulder suddenly waking up with the rattle of a drinks trolley, shouting “I’ve got to find the sword”.
Neil Rollinson’s collection of monologues, Talking Dead, was wonderfully original. In it, first-person narrators chillingly speak of their, often violent, deaths – though Rollinson assured us that “it’s not a dark book, it’s a hopeful book”. In “A National Razor” (what the French call the guillotine), the poem’s persona feels the “lip of the blade” and hears the “innocent wood” groan. The chop is followed with more bizarre imagery, the speaker’s head lolling in a wicker basket: “I felt the blood run down my chin” and a man “put his fingers through my hair”.
The winning poet, David Clarke, was chosen for his “dark, political brooding”. “He takes risks and pulls them off”, said Thea Lenarduzzi. As Andrew McCulloch observes in his article (printed in this week’s TLS) about this year's pamphlets, “Clarke’s unflinching engagement with all that is fraudulent, artificial and cheap is backlit by a fundamental humanity”. Inspired by his adolescent obsession with the singer Edith Piaf, Clarke’s reading of “My Night with Edith” reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s excremental poems, with its image of a woman, whose name the speaker can’t quite remember, unfastening her stockings, “ripped off your sling-backs”, “your phony wig”, “your threadbare accent”. Unlike Swift’s personas though, the speaker here had “no regrets”.
By MICHAEL CAINES
Remembrance Sunday approaches – the moment when newspapers make the costly mistake of forgetting that not all war poets are out of copyright (Robert Graves, for example, only died in 1985), and others, monotonously schooled in Wilfred Owen et al, groan at the familiarity of it all, and think of Captain Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth, sick, or so he claims, of “this damn war: the blood, the noise, the endless poetry”. . . .
Sound advice for poets appeared in the TLS recently, in the form of “English Provincial Poetry” by Miles Burrows: the would-be versifier is counselled to refrain from quoting Dante as an epigraph (“This will look / Like pampas grass in front of a 1950s terraced house”) and given constructive suggestions about the objective correlative (“This could be a sunset, often a wild bird . . .”).
Also, Burrows advises: do not use the word “gyre”. “This can produce a severe reaction / In some readers. The same goes for ‘desolate’. . . ”.
How right he is. “Gyre”, however, has had many fans, going back beyond W. B. Yeats to Bishop Joseph Hall (who writes of the life of scholarship: “others run still in the same gyre to weariness, to satiety; our choice is infinite”), Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson (who has now reached Huntingdon).
Yeats can perhaps only be blamed for the rise of “gyre” as a noun; it’s Lewis Carroll’s wabe-gyring (and wabe-gymbling) “slythy toves” who made it popularly quotable as a verb.
Taking a “route one” approach to its continued usage, Google’s Ngram Viewer suggests that there are now more gyres than ever.
Ah, that William Butler Yeats and that Lewis Carroll have a lot to answer for.
And in the TLS? There have been a fair few gyres one way and another over the years, many of them Yeats-related. Under that great influence, and going against all Burrows-derived wisdom, Ronald Bottrall put the word into a poem that also recalls Dante in its use of terza rima, “Anniversary”, in 1956:
By fire we are preserved from the foul gyre
That kindles, fridges and consumes its being
In selfish heat and cannibal desire.
But what if it’s 1967 and you’re trying to think up a headline for a review that begins with a whole paragraph about touring London in circles, “gyre by gyre as a pigeon plans its flights”? What headline would you give such a review?
Why, “Good Gyrations”, of course, in homage to the Beach Boys single released the previous autumn.
(Ah, headline writers have a lot to answer for, too.)
By MICHAEL CAINES
On April 23 the Institute of Ideas hosts the first in a proposed series of literary evenings on the subject of “great books”. They’re certainly beginning with greatness: not only Keats’s poems but his letters, too, with their deep stores of delight: “I will clamber through the Clouds and exist”, for example, his way of describing to Haydon, in 1818, his plans to “see all Europe at the lower expence”; or, the following year, his demand to Fanny Brawne to ask herself “whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom”; or, a year on again, his lament that he cannot “leave my lungs or stomach or other worse things behind me”.
The illustration above, however, comes from quite a different kind of tribute or commentary on Keats: the first in a four-part comic by P. M. Buchan and Karen Yumi Lusted inspired by "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". It has a modern setting, and comes with a “back-up essay” by Miranda Brennan on Keats and feminism, and a link to a soundtrack by Brendan Ratliff. So it’s a far cry from asking, with Jonathan Bate, “What was he really like?”, as in this TLS piece from last year, or from following Keats through his correspondence, towards the clouds.
Instead – intriguingly, and on some pages wordlessly – this graphic Belle Dame draws on Keats's poem for its power. In the middle, Buchan quotes those deadly simple lines from the fourth stanza, the first spoken by the “palely loitering” knight:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
The first issue merely sets up the story, but I'm hoping its creators are considering a sequel – perhaps a sequel based on a sequel – i.e., on “The Enchanted Knight” by Edwin Morgan, with the rust “Flowering his armour like an autumn field”:
Lulled by La Belle Dame Sans Merci he lies
In the bare wood below the blackening hill . . . .
Edwin Morgan! Now there's a writer of great books for the Institute of Ideas.
by Thea Lenarduzzi
Journalists, students, proud parents and friends gathered around bowls of crisps (those ones with beetroot) and bottles of British sparkling wine last night for the launch of the UEA Creative Writing Anthologies 2012 at the LRB Bookshop in London. A selection of graduates read roughly three minutes’ worth of their work, the Tracy Chevaliers and Kazuo Ishiguros of the future; we listened.
By MICHAEL CAINES
Opening at random Gillian Beer's new edition of Lewis Carroll's poems, Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense, guarantees a pleasurable experience – not all of it nonsensical.
Take page 12, for example, where you'll find "Brother and Sister". A classic case of the sibling feud, the poem begins with a "calm" sister's rejection of advice from a "prudent" brother, and ends, via a detour into the kitchen to borrow a frying pan, in an excellent moral: "Never stew your sister".
Or there's the plain serenity of page 87: "All in the golden afternoon / Full leisurely we glide; / For both our oars, with little skill, / By little arms are plied . . .".
Or there's page 50, which confronts you with the musically marked-up "score" for "The Dear Gazelle": a stanza about the narrator's "infant son" fleeing Tooting School begins "pp" and ends "con spirito": "And serve him right, the little fool!". So far, so – sensical?
But there is also a pleasant surprise in the appendix of "Poems Doubtfully Attributed to Lewis Carroll": "Solutions to Puzzles from Wonderland, probably from another hand". As Professor Beer notes, these answers in rhyme may be the work of Mrs Gatty, the energetic editor of the family periodical Aunt Judy's Magazine, in which the seven puzzles (originally written for Carroll's young friends) and their solutions first appeared, either side of Christmas 1870.
That attribution seems more than likely. According to Christabel Maxwell's Mrs Gatty and Mrs Maxwell, Margaret Gatty greatly admired Carroll's work ("If you want to have a good hour's smiling do beg, borrow or steal Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", she told a friend; "It is the only dreamy dream I ever read, and it makes one feel as if one was asleep in a very fantastical world of animals all topsy-turvy"), and had shown how much she appreciated him a few years earlier, when she published a couple of his stories in her magazine and urged him to take them further – the stories duly grew into Sylvia and Bruno.
Here's one of Carroll's verse-puzzles; a familiar trick to some readers, I'm sure, but all good clean Victorian fun, all the same. Read on a little to judge the verse-solution for yourself. Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense will be reviewed in the TLS at a later date.
John gave his brother James a box:
About it there were many locks.
James woke and said it gave him pain;
So gave it back to John again.
The box was not with lid supplied,
Yet caused two lids to open wide:
And all these locks had never a key
What kind of a box, then, could it be?
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