Tag Archives: Poetry

Epic poetry and canine aficionados

21 Jul

Posting a few pictures as a last offering from my trip to Colombia:

The approach over Santo Domingo by cable car

The approach over Santo Domingo by cable car, with the city of Medellín beyond.

Wall grafitti

Wall grafitti, Santo Domingo

Bank note 'Mil Latinos sin oro'

Bank note ‘Mil Latinos sin oro’, Santo Domingo

Spanish Library, Santo Domingo

Spanish Library, Santo Domingo

The lettering on the banknote displayed in the wall graffiti suggests that a thousand poor die for each 1000 peso banknote in the idle republic – well, that is one interpretation – and it was displayed in Santo Domingo, once a zone of Medellín riven by incessant gang warfare. Now it is home to a stylish library, designed by the architect Giancarlo Mazzanti and built in 2006-7 with Spanish money (just in time, I guess: there won’t be any more of that coming for a while), which I visited with Jorge and Moya. The people in the library were very friendly and showed us the new theatre. There are lots of places for kids to play intelligent games and read books, but there weren’t actually many kids around, apart from a couple who tried tapping us for money in a playground on the way in.

Below, a solitary canine fan awaits the start of our reading last Saturday morning in the hot and lazy town of Tarso, three hours’ drive from Medellín.

My fan

And finally, a photo of the amphitheatre where the main poetry readings took place later the same day. This shot is from the closing recital, where the packed auditorium was composed of over 2,000 listeners of all ages. They sat there in the heat (the readings began at 4 pm) while the poets lurched their way through the marihuana fumes emanating from the audience to read their pomes (sic). I don’t know why, but the applause became louder and louder as the six-hour performance wore on. I’m certain this response had little or no bearing on the quality of the poetry, but it filled my heart with warmth and genuine respect for the Colombian people. After all they’ve been through over the past thirty years, withstanding a poetry recital of such epic proportions surely demands astonishing powers of endurance. I salute them.

Medellín International Poetry Festival, closing night

Medellín International Poetry Festival, closing night

The Question

31 Mar

 

THE QUESTION

 by Tom Pow

 

 

How do people live?

He was standing two in front of me

in W. H. Smith’s and what

he wanted to know was,

How do people live? He asked

the question as if someone

had given it to him as a gift -

his eyes shone with the wonder of it.

How do people live? He looked around

at us all, knowing the question to be

unanswerable, knowing that no one

had an option but to shake their heads

or to look down at their hands,

holding Heat magazine

or the day’s trivia or greeting cards

which laid claim to the most minor

matters concerning how people live.

Yet he must keep on asking the question -

though a couple of girls giggle,

a boy exhales testily

and a child begins to cry -

for it was never the same question

twice. Each time there was

a subtle difference to it.

How do people live? implied

something substantially different

to How do people live? It was

a question of weighting: one

suggested method, the other

a question of will. Clearly,

to him, it was all a mystery

and a miracle. And who was not

in the queue that morning

who did not feel something stir,

as that man, with the worn trench-coat

and the unkempt grey hair, asked

and asked again, How do people live?

How do people live nowadays?

This new inflection brought the question

close. How could it not, when each day

we saw the world burn, flags on fire,

hatred woven through the air? This question

had a smell. It was acrid -

gunpowder, dying seas, a last

sour gasp. The sound

was of languages falling silent;

children crying, a mother’s despair.

 

Then, like a ringmaster, he cracked

the whip of that first question again,

as if he had cleared the decks

of the clogging world and we heard

with a new clarity: How do people live?

The question deepened now.

He was rowing us out to the centre

of a loch, where the waters were so dark

as to be impenetrable. But it was the only question

worth asking, though asking it made life

seem chancy. How do people live?

Where was the next breath

coming from? We were climbers

on a cliff of blue ice. We’d slip.

Nothing surer. The space was terrifying.

We watched a lottery ticket float into it,

as worthless as everything, now

that all we wanted was to hold an answer

to us – it was all that could save us.

How do people live? There was no

David Attenborough to tell us

how to make huts, to invent fire,

to carve a hole in the ice. We were far out.

Unreachable. How do people live? What more

could he have done but ask the question -

though asking it gave no relief?

 

He nodded slightly in his shabby coat, then left us,

to invent fire, to carve a hole for himself in the ice.

 

 

From The Poem Goes To Prison – Poems chosen by readers at HMP Barlinnie, edited by Kate Hendry (Scottish Poetry Library 2010).

Brief from Nicaragua

15 Feb

At four in the morning there is a noise of riotous celebration from the nearby square, but I cannot be bothered to make it to the balcony to discover its source. Then there is an hour or so of quiet before the deafening screech of birdsong that signals both the beginning and the end of daylight in the tropics. From the trees circling the park hundreds of birds dance, joust, leap and dive in a frenzied avian fiesta.

 

Cloud forest at Mombacho

 

Yesterday began with an excursion to the cloud forest volcano of Mombacho – in which we saw howler monkeys

 

howler monkey from rear

 

and many birds, including the black headed trogon (trogón cabecinegro, in Spanish) pictured here,

 

Black headed trogon

 

after visiting two coffee plantations, sampling their delicious brews, and witnessing a possum asleep in a bucket

 

Possum in a bucket

Our excellent guide José, and friends, at Mombacho

 

- and concluded with an interminable poetry reading, extremely mixed in quality, but beginning with a single (new) poem by Ernesto Cardenal on the sacking of the museum of Baghdad, and ending with Derek Walcott, again reading a single poem, Sea Grapes. Between these two octogenarian maestros – and with one or two exceptions – a number of distinctly indifferent poets went on for far too long, though I will refrain from mentioning the worst offenders.

Granada is an extraordinary festival, which is growing in importance and recognition, but which needs reining in and the exertion of greater balance in the selection of invited poets. This year, like last, I have met some wonderful individuals, made new friends, and learned a lot, but have also had to listen to far too much bad poetry. Fortunately, Walcott’s Sea Grapes does not fall into this category.

 

 Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

 

Or you can listen to Walcott reading it here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The resentment and insecurity of the poet

8 Feb

 

Pedro Serrano points me towards an article in the current New York Review of Books, about William Carlos Williams. In it, Adam Kirsch mentions Williams’ sense – whether it was true or not – of having been scorned by Pound, and other acquaintances, writing: “I ground my teeth out of resentment, though I acknowledge their privilege to step on my face if they could.” T.S. Eliot comes in for some particularly harsh judgement: “Maybe I’m wrong”, he wrote to Pound, “but I distrust that bastard more than any writer I know in the world today.”

And yet, Kirsch, reminds us, “If you look at the lingua franca of American poetry today – a colloquial free verse focused on visual description and meaningful anecdote – it seems clear that Williams is the twentieth-century poet who has done most to influence our very conception of what poetry should do, and how much it does not need to do.” It might be added that D.H. Lawrence carried out a very similar seminal role in British poetics.

There is much else that is good to think with in this article, some of it coming from Randall Jarrell, an acute reader of Williams, whom he considered “an intellectual in neither the good nor the bad sense of the word.” I think I know what that means, but maybe not . . .

In his autobiography Williams claims that what drove him to write was anger – somewhat like Cervantes – and his anger was clearly kept warm by his self-doubt and insecurity, his dislike or loathing of certain contemporaries (especially Eliot, of whom he claimed, late in life, to be “insanely jealous”) and his fear that he was not considered an ‘important’ poet.

How terrible the tribulations – real or imagined – of the poet, how fragile the music.

 

 

 

 

 

Nicanor Parra at ninety-seven

17 Dec

Two weeks ago the Cervantes prize, Spain’s loftiest literary honour, was bestowed on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

Parra, at ninety-seven years of age, is without doubt the most influential of living South American poets. His career as an eminent physicist (he has been a visiting professor at Oxford and Yale) provided him with a livelihood and immunised him to some extent from the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime. A near-contemporary of Neruda, he considered his more famous compatriot’s poetry to be too flowery, too close for comfort to romantic egotism, and his own ‘antipoetry’ – a term that requires some unpacking – presents a “bleaker vision, prosier rhythms, and starker, surrealist deadpan humor”.  By the 1930s Parra was already asserting that what was needed was a vernacular poetry that related to ordinary life and which was accessible to the general public. These ideas, as manifested in Poesia y antipoesia (1954) had a huge impact on poets of a younger generation, especially those who were caught up in the politics of resistance. Parra began writing ‘antipoetry’ because, in his words “poetry wasn’t really working”; there was “a distance between poetry and life”. In a gracious twist, Neruda himself confessed to Parra’s influence on his own later work. It has been claimed, not unreasonably, that Parra’s method derived from his mathematical, relativist background, where he used minimal language and avoided metaphors and tropes in order to address his readers directly. However such assertions almost always sound reductive or cockeyed to me.

Parra’s later work is often a mesh of word association games, intentional cliché and spectacularly straightforward rants about the environment, inequality and corporate corruption. He is a ludic poet, while remaining a poet of intense seriousness. It may well be that his influence will be more lasting than either Neruda or his fellow Nobel laureate, the Mexican Octavio Paz.

Here are a few translations of his work:

 

 

 

 

OUR FATHER

Our father who art in heaven

Laden with problems of every kind

Your brow knotted

Like any common ordinary man

Don’t worry about us any more.

We understand that you suffer

Because you cannot set your house in order.

We know the Evil One doesn’t leave you in peace

Unmaking everything you make.

He laughs at you

But we weep with you:

Don’t be troubled by his diabolical laughter.

Our father who art where thou art

Surrounded by treacherous angels

Truly: do not suffer any more on our account

You must recognize

That the gods are not infallible.

And that we forgive everything.


 

(From ‘Bío Bío’)

XXII

 

CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM

 

Nineteenth-century economicrapology

Years before the Principle of Finitude

Neither capitalist nor socialist

But quite the contrary Mr Director:

Intransigent ecologist

We understand by ecology

A socioeconomic movement

Based on the idea of harmony

Of the human species with its environment

Which fights for a ludic life

Creative

egalitarian

                          pluralist

free of exploitation

And based on communication

And collaboration

Between the big guys & the little guys

 

 

 

MEMORIES OF YOUTH

What’s certain is that I kept going to and fro,

Sometimes bumping into trees,

Bumping into beggars,

I found my way through a forest of chairs and tables,

With my soul on a thread I watched big leaves fall.

But it was all in vain,

I gradually sank deeper into a kind of jelly;

People laughed at my rages,

They started in their armchairs like seaweed carried by the waves

And women looked at me with loathing

Dragging me up, dragging me down,

Making me cry and laugh against my will.

All this provoked in me a feeling of disgust,

Provoked a tempest of incoherent sentences,

Threats, insults, inconsequential curses,

Provoked some exhausting hip movements,

Those funereal dances

That left me breathless

And unable to raise my head for days

For nights.

I was going to and fro, it’s true,

My soul drifted through the streets

Begging for help, begging for a little tenderness;

With a sheet of paper and a pencil I went into cemeteries

Determined not to be tricked.

I kept on at the same matter, around and around

I observed everything close up

Or in an attack of fury I tore out my hair.

In this fashion I began my career as a teacher.

Like a man with a bullet wound I dragged myself around literary events.

I crossed the threshold of private houses,

With my razor tongue I tried to communicate with the audience;

They went on reading their newspapers

Or disappeared behind a taxi.

Where was I to go?

At that hour the shops were shut;

I thought of a slice of onion I had seen during dinner

And of the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.

 

 

 

THE CHRIST OF ELQUI RANTS AT SHAMELESS BOSSES

The bosses don’t have a clue

they want us all to work for nothing

they never put themselves in the shoes of a worker

chop me some wood kiddo

when are you going to kill those rats?

last night I couldn’t sleep again

make water gush from that rock for me

the wife has to go to the gala dance

go find me a handful of pearls

from the bottom of the sea

if you please

then there are others who are

even bigger wankers

iron me this shirt shitface

go find me a tree from the forest fuckwit

on your knees asshole

. . . go check those fuses

and what if I get electrocuted?

and what if a stone lands on my head?

and what if I meet a lion in the forest?

aw hell!

that is of no concern to us

that doesn’t matter in the least

the really important thing

is that the gentleman can read his newspaper in peace

can yawn just when he pleases

can listen to his classical music to his heart’s content

who gives a shit if the worker cracks his skull

if he takes a tumble

while soldering a steel girder

nothing to get worked up about

these half-breeds are a waste of space

let him go fuck himself

and afterwards it’s

I don’t know what happened

you can’t imagine how bad I feel Señora

give her a couple of pats on the back

and the life of a widow and her seven chicks ruined

 

 

FROM ‘NEW SERMONS AND TEACHINGS OF THE CHRIST OF ELQUI’

 

XXXII

 

Those who are my friends

the sick

the weak

the dispirited

those who don’t have a place to lie down and die

the old

the children

the single mothers

– the students, not because they are troublemakers –

the peasants because they are humble

the fishermen

because they remind me

of the holy apostles of Christ

those who did not know their father

those who, like me, lost their mother

those condemned to a perpetual queue

in so-called public offices

those humiliated by their own children

those abused by their own spouses

the Araucanian Indians

those who have been overlooked at some time or other

those who can’t even sign their names

the bakers

the gravediggers

my friends are

the dreamers, the idealists who

like Him

surrendered their lives

to the holocaust

for a better world

 

 

ROLLER COASTER

For half a century

Poetry was the paradise

Of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

And set up my roller coaster.

Go on up, if you want.

It’s not my fault if you come down

Bleeding from your mouth and nose.

 

 

Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 46, No 3 Winter 2010-11.

 

 

 

Radio Bards and an Homuncular Misfit

19 Nov

Saturday Morning Porridge

Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live.  I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.

Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.

The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.

The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.

David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making.  And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:

 

. . .  For a moment I thought

it might be the same bird that flew

from the glove of Mabon son of Modron

into the mouth of a shepherd

known to Henry Vaughan.

It had appeared as effortlessly as

a piece of clothing I never knew I had

until I bent to pick it up . . . .

. . .  Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain

but it didn’t go away and it did change everything

about that retreat I’d planned, considered

and thought I’d carefully arranged.

As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,

But it wouldn’t go. I tried

to be as fierce as a vixen

driving off her cubs.

Defied, the crow would glide into the trees

but return within an hour.

Soon it started waiting near my window.

 

Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:

 

One night, with the hostel

all asleep, I waited mesmerised

beneath the fig tree where

Brân the Blessed perched,

Both as Bendigeidfran

and as Branwen

son and daughter

of their liquid father Llyr,

whose half-speech I now learned.

While soft, slow, pearls of rain

sparkling by kitchen light

fell in glistening strings,

dollops of scintillating guano

puddled freshly opened oysters

on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.

 

The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.

Dog waiting for Blanco to stop blogging and take him for a walk, finally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation

9 Aug

 

All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.

 

 

 

Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.

 

Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.

 

From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).

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