Wednesday, 18 July 2018

TO THE HAIKU UNIVERSE AND BELONG



spring
the insistence
of a wren

This perfect miniature poem is by John Rowlands who lives at Tremadoc, just a few miles away from the National Writers' Centre of Wales (Ty Newydd, Llanystumdwy) where I spent last weekend. John Rowlands kindly donated a copy of his book knots of sand (Alba 2017) to each of us on the course.

When I told a friend of mine I was going on a haiku weekend she said "primary school poetry", but I'm pleased (and relieved) to say that I discovered from our tutors, Philip Gross and Lynne Rees, that there is much more to haiku than the juniors' classroom.

I had always thought of haiku as being in the 5/7/5 syllable format. This came into English from the classical Japanese form of 5 characters followed by 7 characters followed by 5 characters.  But Lynne pointed out that the characters were written vertically and they were not necessarily single syllables.  As well as words they could represent punctuation or instructions in how to speak the poem.

The weekend was titled Journeys into Haiku in Verse and Prose. Haiku provided a spring-board for our writing, rather than a straight-jacket.  We didn't have to stick to syllable counting or to three lines - we were aiming for that elusive moment conveyed in very few words.

We began with Lynne's "haiku generator".  We were given two pages of found phrases from poems and invited to combine them in pairs and see what emerged:

the room reflected in a window
homesick now for middle age

I knew that at some point there would be a renga - a kind of verbal tennis with two or more participants (in our case three - maybe a different sport would be a better analogy?).  I started off with 

captured in a moment
the hare
trapped in wood

inspired by the hare carved on a wooden beam in the Ty Newydd dining room.  Our poem travelled a circuitous route via river, sea and slate, children and old men, to end with Philip Gross's final couplet:

the hare set running in the wood
is running still

Haiku can be opened out into a longer poem - we were given the example of Billy Collins' poem "Japan", a meditation with variations on Buson's 18th century haiku

on the temple bell
a moth has settled
and is sleeping

We were encouraged to experiment with combining haiku and prose (haibun) - a form in which the distillation of the poetry and the clarity of prose can complement each other.  An afternoon walk down to the Dwyfor estuary was a great time to gather material (both linguistic and physical - wool, driftwood, feather, stone).  This is my first draft:

gate
path
pebbles
sea

blue gate
path
pebbles
sea

open gate
path to the shore
blue pebbles
sea

step through the gate
follow the blue path
pebbles lie on the shore
obstinate
sea

The stock fencing divides the landscape into little postcards of blues and greens.  Earth square makes me think of the carousel of colour charts in a paint shop where they will mix any shade as requested.  The fence has smaller squares near the ground to keep in the lambs and larger squares to keep in their mothers.  Stands of wool catch on the wire and spiders thread nets over the airy spaces.  In winter the sea flings storm-fulls of bladderwrack against the wire.

And that's as far as I got.

On Saturday night we had the usual participants' reading.  I read my traditionally formed Shetland haiku, entitled "Island" (we never discussed whether haiku should have titles).  (I should point out that "boost" is a place to draw up a boat out of the water.)


stone boost by the shore
boat's bow across earth's fiddle
sea in a man's eyes

salt water hones stone
sound-washed air blows in the sun
a woman leaves home

As there were twelve of us it was a good opportunity to read round my "Kalends" haiku.  Here is July:


as you climb the path
heather purples the hillside,
clothes the lonely stones

A most inspiring and enlightening week-end at Ty Newydd.  Thank you, Lynne.  Thank you, Philip.

On Twitter Lynne has tweeted some lovely pictures of the weekend together with her exquisite prose fragments: go to @hungrywriting






Sunday, 1 July 2018

A FESTIVAL BETWEEN SKY AND SEA

I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea

R S Thomas "Retirement"

This weekend I attended the festival held (mainly) in Aberdaron to celebrate the life and work of R S Thomas and his painter wife, M E (Elsi) Eldridge.  It is this westerly tip of North Wales that is most associated with the poems of R S Thomas.  As you drive down the steep lanes which lead to the village which ends at the sea, it is indeed a place suspended between sky and sea.  The festival went very well, thanks to the excellent organisation by Susan Fogarty (thank you, Susan!).  Here are some of my highlights.  (This is not an exhaustive list - there were a few events I couldn't attend).

Day 1:Thursday

The festival started with a fish and chip supper and an open mic poetry evening.  I'm not a great fan of open mics but I enjoyed this fairly low key one (that's a compliment) - no one tried to do a star cabaret turn!  Having been asked over the salt and vinegar, "Who were the Miss Keatings?" I read my Mirehouse "Beech Trees" poem and followed it with Gillian Clarke's "Fires on Lleyn" for its R S Thomas allusions and local geography.  Other participants read a good selection of poems, including Michael Longley's "Ceasefire" which echoed Clarke's allusion to The Troubles.  It's always interesting to see the apparently random connections which come up at open mic nights!

Day 2: Friday

The morning started with a visit, in the company of Llifon Jones, to Sarn Cottage at Rhiw (where R S Thomas wrote many of his later poems).  Llifon is the National Trust head gardener at Plas yn Rhiw.  The garden has been much neglected in recent years but now there are plans to restore it - with a light touch to provide good habitat for wild flowers and animals (the subjects of some of Elsi's paintings).  The views of the wide bay at Porth Neigwl were spectacular and I thought of R S Thomas's poem "Sea-watching":

                " ... There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled."

In the afternoon the sailing club meeting room was filled with an attentive audience listening to the American academic, Daniel Westover, speaking on the unusually titled "R S Thomas: Poetic Astronaut of God Space".  He spoke for two and a half hours (including 10 minutes questions).  I was most impressed with his meticulous scholarship which looked in close detail at the craft of  R S Thomas's poems (an aspect of his work which I have always admired). and how it reinforces and illuminates their meaning.

He gave an example from "The New Mariner".  The first line of the poem is

"In the silence"

and the line ends with silence - no following words on that line just the silence of the white paper.  Further down the poem are the words

"But there is the void
over my head and the distance
within ..."

The line breaks and white space after "void" and "distance" enact the meaning of the words and the void is visually "over my head" in the lineation of the poem.

In the evening Glyn Edwards shared his appreciation of R S Thomas's poetry in the atmospheric story-telling space of Porth y Swnt.  It was good to hear Jack Rendell, a young Aberystwyth graduate student read some of his work.

Day 3: Saturday

It was back to the sailing club on Saturday afternoon for Sam Perry's lecture on the relationship between the work of Ted Hughes and that of R S Thomas.  Two aspects that emerged were that both poets were rewriting creation myths (or myths of the fall?) and both did not shy away from the problematic subject of violence in the natural world.

In the evening there was standing room only in St Hywyn's church, Aberdaron, for a concert by Cor Meibion Carnguwch and harpist Morfudd Parry Roberts.  Cor Meibion Carnguwch grew out of a small group of Young Farmers singing for a competition.  They are now a fine young male voice choir with a varied repertoire of Welsh music.  They clearly enjoyed singing and were very good at it.  The applause at the end said it all - they had touched our hearts.

[You can hear my poem on Youtube by googling Mary Robinson reads Beech Trees]

For more about the R S Thomas and M E Eldridge Society go to
www.rsthomaspoetry.co.uk
or check out the Facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/groups/RSThomas/

Monday, 25 June 2018

BEYOND THE SUNSET

The Great Exhibition of the North was launched last Friday from the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside on the banks of the Tyne.  I hope it's going to a be a celebration of the North of England, and not just the North East.  The only mention of Cumbria I found in the media coverage was about the animation of Postman Pat (the stories' setting is based on Longsleddale).

Not all reaction to this latest creative industry razzmatazz event has been positive.  "The money the government has given the Great Exhibition is a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts local councils here have had to make as a result of Tory austerity". (Frank Styles, reported in The Guardian "Look North: Festival evokes long history of innovation and ideas" 23 June 2018).

In a somewhat perverse train of logic I found myself thinking of the idea of West.  West is the direction of sunset, of another world.  Facing his last voyage, Tennyson's Ulysses declared:

    "Tis not too late to seek a newer world
     ... for my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die"

Here on Penllyn, itself a finger of land pointing south-west, the sunsets can be spectacular.  Sometimes the whole sea is a blaze of magenta, reflecting the colour of the sky.  Norman Nicholson's poem, "Sea to the West", looks west from Cumbria.  It begins:

    "When the sea's to the west
      The evenings are one dazzle
                      .......
      Waves of shine
      Heave, crest, fracture,
      Explode on the shore"

and ends:

      "Let my eyes at the last be blinded
       Not by the dark
       But by dazzle."

From the British Isles West has been the direction of emigration - those driven by poverty, eviction, famine, discrimination or adventure to board ships crossing the Atlantic in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Now, in the 21st century there are still people heading Westwards across Europe driven by the force of terrible circumstances.

The West has been a place of pilgrimage - Bardsey Island, Whithorn, Iona, The Skelligs.  John Donne's poem "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" is a meditation on the poet's turning his back on the East, the place of the rising sun.  Paul Muldoon adapts  Donne's title in his "Good Friday, 1971, Driving Westward", a poem in which "all might not be right with the day" and going from East to West in that part of Ireland is also going from North to South.  Amy Clampitt's poem "Westward" describes her slog to Iona from London ("Iona an indecipherable/blur" in the rain) and ranges widely from St Columba to the Prairie

     "rimmed by the driftwood
      of embarkations, landings, dooms, conquests,
      missionary journeys, memorials".

There is a distinctiveness about the rocky Atlantic edge of the British Isles - it's where the strands of Celtic language survived in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish.

Gwyneth Lewis in "The Flaggy Shore" writes "Even before I've left, I long / for this place" and says the ephemeral landscapes in the clouds "make me homesick for where I've not been."  Her poem is in part a response to Seamus Heaney's "Postscript" (from his collection The Spirit Level):

     "And some time make the time to drive out west
       Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore".

This is a place where

     " ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
       And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."

Friday, 15 June 2018

AT THE EDGES OF THINGS

It is often at the edges of things that the most innovation - or emergence - occurs. *

Last week I spent a day on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), the island in the current, just off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The sea was calm, the sun shone.  From the boat I could see guillemots lined up on the cliffs and a few puffins over the water. 

I arrived in time to go to the Bird and Field Observatory for the daily opening of the moth trap.  I love the litany of names - yellow underwing, broom, carpet, plum tortrix, common pug, buff ermine - they are a poem in themselves.

I climbed the mountain, ate my sandwiches on the top and walked a circuit of the island, checking that the heart-shaped rope set into the grass on the west side was still there.  I met the poet, Christine Evans, who told me she was taking part in an event at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery.  It sounded interesting.

It was.  A few days later I went to the Llanbedrog gallery for Celf yw Natur/Natur fel Celf or Art is Nature, Nature as Art.  Hmmm ... I wasn't sure what to make of this nebulous title.  The day centred round art and ecology with talks by conservationist and artist, Ben Stammers (who has recently done a collaboration with poet Zoe Skoulding), naturalist and photographer Peter Howlett and artist Morag Colquhoun (whose project Trofannolismo is exhibited at the gallery at the moment).  Repeatedly Ynys Enlli became a focus for ideas and images.

We watched Moholy Nagy's short film Lobsters, an early marine documentary (1936) which ends surreally with a lobster tearing through a menu.  The day finished with a solo dance performance by the talented Simon Whitehouse.  The concentration was electric - both Simon's and the audience's.

In between each session Christine Evans read one of her poems.  She is an excellent reader and I admired the way the poems fitted in so well with the talks, for example "Enlli" -
     "We get to it through troughs and rainbows".

Ben Stammers presented some challenging ideas.  He said that unfortunately some people are "illiterate" about nature or suffer from "Nature Deficit Disorder".  He threw in the provocative idea that wildlife films, despite excellent content, have become entertainment.  Morag Colquhoun was uncomfortable with outsider third person narratives about people living or working "on the edge".  She showed her film of Colin Evans, the Enlli boatman, in which he voices his own opinion of Enlli life.  He said that the island has often been at the forefront of using technological innovation thanks to the lighthouse.

So many ideas and impressions - ecology, science, politics, history, art - all intermingling.  The day went too quickly - I wanted more time to discuss everything.

And a little postscript - today I called in at the Inigo Jones slate workshop near Caernarfon.  There's a giftshop with everything you might need made of slate (and some you never knew you needed - ?slate buttons).  But it also had an excellent selection of books.  Welsh publishers, Seren, had a bulging stand including a large amount of poetry.  I ended up splashing out on In Her Own Words - Women Talking Poetry and Wales, edited by Alice Entwistle.  It's a book I've been wanting to read for a long time.

* Morag Colquhoun, quoted from publicity for her Trofannolismo   
   project.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A TRAIN WALKS ON WATER

The train hesitates as if to pluck up courage to make its long crossing of the Barmouth Bridge over the Mawddach estuary.  The wooden viaduct looks precarious against its mountain backdrop.  The bridge was built over 150 years ago by Victorian engineers who sunk iron piers into the estuary's shifting sand and gravel to support the timber trestles which carry the track.  I look down and see footprints on the sandbanks.  The incoming tide is swelling the pewter-coloured water of the Mawddach river.

Suddenly I have a sense of recognition, not just of the physical presence of the place (I've crossed this bridge by train three times before) but also of a passage in W G Sebald's Austerlitz.  

Austerlitz is recollecting memories of seeing Barmouth Bay when "the separate surfaces of sand and water, sea and land, earth and sky could no longer be distinguished".

I look out of the window and see the wooden pedestrian walkway which runs alongside the railway bridge.  Austerlitz recalls a specific memory of walking out one evening along this footbridge.  He describes the incoming tide "gleaming like a dense shoal of mackerel, flowing under the bridge and up the river, so swift and strong that you might have thought you were going the other way out to the open sea in a boat.  We all four sat together in silence until the sun had set ... large numbers of swallows were swooping through the air."

It's a beautiful lyrical description but it's also a poignant memory of a lost time in Austerlitz's life.  The swallows seem to emphasise the ephemeral, and the brevity of existence.  "It was the very evanescence of these visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity," says Austerlitz.

The poet Lee Harwood often visited this area of north west Wales.  He wrote in "Cwm Nantcol" of those

" ... Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."

[W G Sebald Austerlitz (Penguin paperback 2011edition) p 135-6]

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

ON CLOUD NINE

'Those clouds aren't natural - they're man-made,' said the taxi-driver, glancing towards the horizon, 'they're all doing it, we're doing it, and the Russians, and the Americans'.  For the whole of the ten minute taxi ride I listened to his tirade against cloud engineering.  At the end of the journey he gave me his card and wrote a link to a website on the back.

At the time he seemed to be at the cranky end of science, akin to the observers of UFOs, but I remembered that one-sided conversation recently.  I've been reading the Richard Hamblyn's book Clouds.  The last chapter of the book is entitled 'Future Clouds' and uncovers a long catalogue of cloud engineering.  This includes American military aircraft covertly seeding clouds in the hope of causing flash floods along the Ho Chi Min Trail during the Vietnam war, and China seeding clouds in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to keep the Olympic Stadium rain-free (it was).  In 1977 weather modification for military purposes was banned by an international convention of 40 countries, but cloud seeding is still being used, for example, for crop irrigation and to induce early snow in ski resorts.

More (worryingly) uncertain is the effect on climate change of anthropogenic clouds - created by industry, shipping and aircraft (that solitary contrail scrawled across a blue sky is only the tip of the anthropogenic cloud).

I can't claim to understand all the science in Hamblyn's book but I was impressed by his knowledge of clouds in art, music and literature.  He prefaces his introduction with words from Wordsworth's Prelude (Book 1):

   'I look about and should the guide I choose
    Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
    I cannot miss my way.'

(It makes a change from the famous first line of 'Daffodils')

On a clear day I can see Snowdon from my kitchen window and love Wordsworth's description of emerging onto the summit above the clouds at or just before dawn:

   '... at my feet
    Rested a silent sea of heavy mist.
    A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
    All over this still ocean,'   (Prelude Book 10)

Hamblyn quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins' letter (to the journal Nature) beginning, 'The sky was striped with cirrus clouds like the swaths of a hayfield.'  There are several cloud quotations from 20th century poets.  Philip Larkin's 'high-builded cloud/Moving at summer's pace' ('Cut Grass') is an example of cumulus cloud.  Luke Howard, the man who in 1802 classified clouds under the names we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, strata) has inspired several poets, including Carol Ann Duffy ('Luke Howard: Namer of Clouds'), Billy Collins ('Student of Clouds') and Lavinia Greenlaw ('What We Can See Of The Sky Has Fallen: Luke Howard 1772 - 1864').

I was amazed to read about artificial clouds created by artists for art installations, including Antony Gormley's 'Blind Light'.  Timothy Donnelly's futuristic (or is it?) poem sequence The Cloud Corporation describes how

   'Fans conveying clouds through aluminium ducts
    can be heard from up to a mile away, depending on
    air temperature, humidity, the absence or presence

    of any competing sound'

and goes on to ponder why manufactured clouds produce more of a response than 'clouds occurring in nature'.

The appeal of clouds to poets is aptly stated by Alexandra Harris (Weatherland): 'Like a much redrafted poem there is no single authoritative version of a cloud.  The cloud-form is constantly revised and never finished' (see 'Is it nearly ready?' my blog of 28 May 2015).

Richard Hamblyn's Clouds: Nature and Culture (2017) is published in a lavishly illustrated paperback by Reakton Books.

* As for being on Cloud Nine - it comes from the Hon. Ralph Abercromby's 1896 cloud ranking.  It's the ninth (highest) cloud, the cumulo-nimbus.