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.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

WRITING WHITE

The Ordnance Survey shows the slate quarries as blank spaces, white paper.  The land has dropped out of the map.

I’m on a short writing retreat in Cwm Teigl in North Wales.  I’m staying in a log cabin owned by Elin, who runs the bookshop (Yr Hen Bost) a few miles away in Blaenau Ffestiniog.  She has lent me Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Gwasg Careg Gwalch 2013), a collection of poems by Sian Northey.  They are contemporary free-verse poems in Welsh, including a poem for Elin’s daughter.  They are short poems (fortunately!) and I read them, falteringly, and try to piece together the words.  The poems sound wonderful and the poet uses alliteration to great effect.  I am hoping my knowledge of the language will progress so that I can understand more of the words!    

Elin has a beautiful semi-wild garden – at this time of year it’s a riot of leafy green with splashes of colour from wild, cultivated and feral flowers.   I’ve brought a jumble of notes, my laptop and a stack of white paper.  I plan to get some writing done but this evening the outdoors is distracting.

I go for a short walk up the valley, following the Afon Teigl which chatters in the companionable voice of an upland stream tumbling over small rocks.  An occasional swallow swoops after flies and the sun is low on the horizon turning the water pewter.  Growing along the banks are tall spindly sycamore and ash trees, newly leaved (the oak before the ash this year).

The road is unfenced and ewes with lambs stare at me, or stamp their feet before making their way up the steep hillside.  Cwm Teigl has a different smell from the lush flowery lanes of Llŷn.  Perhaps it’s a combination of the short-grazed mountain grass, the new shoots of rushes, the acid soil.  It’s an upland smell of spring which reminds me of family picnics on the Berwyns, breaking the journey from Warwickshire to Llŷn when I was a child.  The ancient cars my father drove (an Austin 7 and later a converted Ford van named Noah’s Ark from its registration latters NOA and its variety of two and four legged passengers) always overheated at the top of the Tanat Valley.  We would pile out of the car for a picnic lunch while the engine recovered.

Cwm Teigl shows little evidence of the slate industry whose huge waste tips are so obvious a few miles away at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The cwm is a quiet valley – in half an hour’s walking I meet one walker and a cyclist.   A solitary car passes me.  The driver gives me a wave.   If I were to follow the road as it climbs up the slopes of Manod Fawr, whose screes and cliffs dominate the north west side of the valley, I would eventually reach the Manod and Graig Ddu slate quarries, the cartographer’s blank white paper. 


But for the next few days I hope that at least some of my white pages will be filled with words.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

'TO RHYME AND CHIME FOR A CHAIR'

Great to hear poet Twm Morys on today's Sunday afternoon poetry slot on Radio 4 today.  His programme explored and explained the intricate art of Cynghanedd in Welsh poetry and its origins as far back as the sixth century.  Basically Cynghanedd refers to the complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration in various poetic forms in Welsh literature.  Mererid Hopwood was one of the speakers - in 2001 she became the first woman poet to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod (after all those centuries!).  Both Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins used the techniques of Cynghanedd in their work.

A fascinating programme - you can catch it on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday night at 11.30pm or listen again on the BBC website.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

Welsh slate roofed the world.

This was no empty claim in the nineteenth century.  Look at rows of Victorian terraces and villas in most of our major cities and you will see them roofed with dark purplish-grey slate from North Wales. 

Yesterday evening I went to Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The pavements are slate, the buildings are slate, the roofs are slate.  Blaenau's fortune and decline were built on slate and the huge screes surrounding the town are the evidence.  Now the narrow gauge railway which once took slate to the harbour at Porthmadog is a major tourist attraction (run by paid staff and volunteer enthusiasts).  

But I was in the town for a book launch at Yr Hen Bost, a gem of a little indie bookshop, run by Elin. There are two floors of new and second hand books: books in Welsh, books in English, children's books, local books, novels, poetry and more.  So few bookshops stock poetry magazines these days so it was good to see the latest issue of Poetry Wales for sale.

Blaenau (or more accurately nearby Tan y Grisiau) is also the home of Cinnamon Press, which publishes some fine poetry and fiction, as well as Envoi poetry magazine.  I was at Yr Hen Bost for a double Cinnamon book launch.  There were over 30 people squeezed into the small downstairs room of the bookshop.  It was good to meet Cinnamon's proprietor, Jan Fortune, who introduced the two writers.  Adam Craig read from his novel In Dreams the Minotaur Appears Last.  The first long-sentence extract was a tour de force of stream of consciousness style writing while the second extract was a deliciously satirical description of a party in Paris in the 1970s.  

Michelle Angharad Pashley read from the prologue of her crime novel The Remains of the Dead.  The prologue had an edge which was almost unbearable - the kind of writing where you are 
frightened to read on but feel you have to in order to find some kind of explanation.  The second extract she gave us was about the discovery of a body which must have been the one buried in the prologue . . .

I had time to explore the streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog and discovered that the town has a rich literary history, now celebrated in the poetry, prose and sayings carved into pieces of slate.  There is information about writers who came from the town, including Gwyn Thomas, the National Poet of Wales (2006-8).

I stayed overnight and came back this morning on the train on the Conwy Valley line (another railway that had its origins in carrying slate).  The Saturday morning train was crowded with young teenagers on a day out, locals off to the shops at Llandudno and a few tourists.  The mist hung over the mountains surrounding Blaenau as we left and I took out my book to read.  The train plunged through the Ffestiniog Tunnel and emerged into brilliant sunshine in the high valley.  I closed my book.  The upland birches were tinged with green, there were splashes of bright yellow gorse, Dolwyyddelan Castle looked down from its imposing vantage point.  The clear blue sky was reflected in the water of the river.  As the train slowly made its way down the steep gradient the valley widened and became the Conwy estuary with acolourful shelduck out on the mud flats.

At Llanrwst - a large modern building near to the line was inscribed Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, publishers of Welsh interest books in Welsh and English (and publishers of the book I hadn't read because the spring morning was so wonderful).

www.cinnamonpress.com
www.blaenauffestiniog.org 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

BETWEEN LAND AND OCEAN

Ceremony

My mother,
     who could not swim,
would walk

to the water's edge,
     dip her fingers
in the waves

and touch the sea
     to her forehead
like a blessing.

© Mary Robinson 2015


I walk down to Porth Ysgo early on Saturday morning.  Does the heart slow down when watching the waves on the shore?  The tide is coming in, almost at the flood.  Water breaks in spray making little runnels on the cliff as it drains back into the sea.

There is something hypnotic about the relentlessness of each incoming wave, the way a large wave consumes a smaller wave, or the way a crest begins to tear until the water collapses and spills on the shore.

I'm relieved to see that someone (? National Trust) has done a tidy up.  There's hardly any plastic on the beach but there is a big heap at the bottom of the wooden steps (above high tide mark) that provide access from the top of the cliff.  Plastic containers, big plastic drums, fish crates, the inevitable drinks bottles; bits of fishing net, lengths of dayglo coloured rope, even a gas cylinder.  There is little that is useful - just a few planks and a wooden pallet. I wonder how/when/if this lot will be disposed of - removing it in a small boat would probably be easiest.

On the beach there's a line of seaweed deposited by the winter storms - long brown ribbons with stems ending in suckers.  Part of a chain-sawed tree trunk has washed up.  The grain is twisted and contorted (Spanish chestnut?).  The russet inner core of the trunk is rotten.  It reminds me of the 'Wooden Boulder' which the sculptor, *David Nash, filmed on its journey down the Afon Dwyryd to the sea.

The edge of the land, the beginning of the ocean; the fresh water of the waterfall dissolving into the salt water of the sea.  I am drawn to this in-between place where earth and water are in perpetual conflict and flux.  And for an hour on this bright spring morning I have the place to myself.


*David Nash's beautiful film of the boulder is on permanent display at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery at Llanbedrog. https:www.oriel.org.uk
or google David Nash and Boulder for information and pictures. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

AT LAST I CAN SMELL SPRING

It seems almost obscene to be writing about the Welsh spring when the news is so appalling each day and terrible events follow one after another in dreadful succession.  But to write about life and beauty is to take a stand against 'man's inhumanity to man' (and to woman and child).  To write about nature is a reminder, as the poet Michael Longley said in an interview with Jody Allen Randolph, that 'We share the planet with the plants and the other animals'.

At last I can smell spring - a compound of warm earth, crushed new grass, a difference in the air from winter's cold mineral breath.  Down the lane I discovered a patch of wood anemones (a slight musky smell) by the side of the road.  Or wooden enemies as my family called them when I was a child.  My botanist friend says they are an indication of relict woodland.  I try to imagine what the Peninsula would have been like when it was covered with trees (Samuel Johnson complained about the lack of trees when he visited Lleyn with Mrs Thrale in 1774).  How long ago were the trees cleared?  Millennia, I suppose.  There was a stone axe factory on Mynydd Rhiw - the spoil heap is still there.

A few days ago I went for a walk at Dinas along a rough track which I remember as being thick with huge clumps of primroses.  There were only a few plants dotted here and there.  I met a man with a beautiful brindled greyhound and we walked along slowly, discussing the dearth of primroses.

'Perhaps it was the cold wintry weather,' I ventured.

'No,' he said decisively, 'it's the unpredictability of the seasons now.'

Recently I re-read an essay* by poet and academic Harriet Tarlo - 'we cannot fail but find beautiful acre on acre of small plants'.  She includes some lines of her beautifully spaced poetry: 'new green on Black Hill / bilberry bright / against heather / celandine flash / between cloughs ...'  She then comments ''except often it's not acres but yards.  The acres are in the historical or future imagination.'


*  in Peat Matters: Locating Climate (Change) at the Interface of Art and Science (Northumbria University Department of Geography 2017) 



Friday, 30 March 2018

LEBANON - COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

What do you associate with the word Lebanon?

Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria.  I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.

In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts. 

On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize.  She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions.  She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.

Beirut is a centre for art and literature.  I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house.  There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.

Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase.  Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café.  I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry.  The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends.  By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift).  It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.

Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement.  Here are the two verses in English –
     How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
          of the youth and the new generation,
     while their opinion is still ignored?
and
     When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
          When is the endless flow
     of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.

But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things.  As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) .  At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside).  When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. 


So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

SNOW, WATER AND WORDS

There were still grubby snowdrifts by the side of the road last week when I went up to Cumbria for the annual Words by the Water literary festival at Keswick.

I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new and having the opportunity to hear some brilliant speakers.

Some highlights included Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear (a relative of the wife of my father's half-brother!) and the naturalist John Lister-Kaye not on the lives of wild creatures but on his own life.   The talk by popular linguist David Crystal was full.  His topic was the history and sociology of pronunciation and as usual he entertained and enlightened us.  My favourite talk was by the gently-spoken Christopher Nicholson  and was on the elusive summer snows of Scotland's mountains.

The Poetry Breakfast was a sell-out and all the croissants were eaten.  It's a strange phenomenon that open mics and workshops always seem to have a subtext or a hidden agenda - in this case it was elegies.  I resisted the temptation to read a poem about my  mother (being a switherer I had brought a handful of poems to choose from).  Instead I read a poem about the 'lollipop coloured gifts' we find on the shore - the plastic that gets washed up everywhere.  Not exactly a sea elegy but ...

Elsewhere there were few poetry sessions - the Write to be Counted anthology reading, William Sieghart (founder of the Forward prizes for poetry) talking about prescribing poems, and Adam Feinstein comparing translations of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's poetry before the showing of the remarkable and unnerving film Neruda (2016).  Blake Morrison, an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, talked about his new novel The Executor which includes poetry written as if by one of the characters.

Adam Feinstein judged the biennial *Mirehouse Poetry Prize.  Congratulations to Alison Carter for her winning poem 'Topiary'.

As I packed up the hire car yesterday morning snowflakes were falling again.

*The winning poem and the commended poems are up on the Mirehouse website  www.mirehouse.co.uk  (go to The House and then click on Poetry Prize and 2018 Poetry Prize Winners).  



Wednesday, 7 March 2018

WRITING AND MUSIC IN PEACE AND WAR

Peter Scupham was 85 on 24 February.  PN Review  celebrated his birthday with a bumper thirty three page celebration of the poet, teacher, book dealer, publisher, house restorer and "genius of activity".

The magazine printed a selection of his decorated envelopes which show a man with a keen sense of humour and a love of cats.  I was amused by the satirical cartoons drawn round postage stamps of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (the latter sporting a pinny and a handbag labelled "Blood and treasure").  A large fluffy cat on an orange rug adorned a letter to Dr Jane Griffiths at Wadham College ("College cats: series one").

Reading the contributions from friends and colleagues (including Anne Stevenson, Peter Davidson, George Szirtes and Grevel Lindop) I was struck by how much Peter Scupham is a great encourager.  Ex pupils praised an inspiring English teacher who refused to be limited by the curriculum.  John Mole wrote about the Mandeville Press, which he ran with Peter Scupham:
"Our editorial principles ... approaching poets who we felt had been overlooked or undervalued and publishing them alongside familiar 'names'.  We used the best quality laid paper and card that we could find".

The magazine included a selection of Peter Scupham's poems.  I thought at first that his work was unfamiliar to me, then I realised that some time ago I had copied into my notebook a quotation from "Prehistories":
"Ghosts are a poet's working capital.
  They hold their hands out from the further shore."

Robert Wells wrote "Peter told me that he has never begun a poem without finishing it".  That seems good advice, even if the finishing might take a some time.  I must tackle that little heap of half-abandoned poems in the wire tray on my desk.  Finish them or scrap them.

                                 *                       *                       *

A few days ago I heard on Radio 4 Douglas Adams' statement that 'Any fool can write, only a writer can cut.'  All that editorial fiddling is worth it.  I remember reading in Lyndall Gordon's biography of T S Eliot that the poet (an air-raid warden and fire watcher in the Blitz) bewailed the fact that while there was a war on he spent hours messing about with a few words. But the few words became Four Quartets.

The recent blizzards and extreme wind and cold have taken up much of the news but like a running sore the horrors of besieged Eastern Ghouta have refused to heal.

On the last day of February Syrian composer and qanun musician, Maya Youssef, featured on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row".  She has lived in the UK for five years and has written "Syrian Dreams" in response to the Syrian Civil War.  I was moved by her simple statement: "Before the War, there was music".

                         *                          *                          *

Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day.  Thanks to Kathleen Jones who has posted my poem, "The Women" on her blog "A Writer's Life".  You can read the poem at http://kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

GREY AND GOLD

A long grey train journey through the Welsh borders gave me a chance to catch up with my reading, including a recent copy of the poetry magazine, Stand.

I was particularly impressed with the poem, 'Van Gogh's Windmill', by the late Ron de Maris (a highly respected American poet and teacher whose work I had not encountered before).  The poem opens:

'Skies grey, clouds billowing black and in the tilted
      Field the grey slatted wood of a windmill,

      A crow perched on the blade, the blade wob-
bling as it turns, the post sunk in the mud of false
Spring.'

Then the artist appears - an unnamed 'he', laden with the  'weight of canvas and stretchers ... brushes and oils', his clothes 'spotted with colours'.  With consummate craft Ron de Maris welds detailed descriptions of the scene, the artist, the creative process.  He moves from the monochrome opening of the poem to the 'gold' (remember the sunflowers?) of the ending.

[You can read the opening lines of the poem on the Stand website www.standmagazine.org.  Go to the current issue 217 (volume 16 number 1) and scroll down the contents until you find Ron de Maris.  You can access the first five verses but after that you will have to subscribe to get the rest of the poem.]

                             *                   *                    *

I was reminded of this poem today as I watched the farmer ploughing the stubble field next to my garden.  As if from nowhere birds flocked to a newly opened food source:

      'Under a cascade of seagulls
Tumbling, blue clouds, buds of low trees sky

Blue'.

As well as the seagulls there were crows, rooks, a couple of buzzards and a handful of plucky lapwings who endured constant harassment from the herring gulls.  And the gold was a little patch of flowering daffodils under a hedge in a corner of the field.

                              *                    *                    *

My local paper (which comes out on a Wednesday) carried a feature on the forthcoming 90th birthday celebration of the renowned harpist, Dr Osian Ellis CBE, illustrated by a picture of the musician with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

I once sat next to Osian Ellis at dinner at Gregynog.  I was a naive 20 year-old student and he was (I think) musician in residence.  I remember asking him incredulously - 'Do you actually manage to make a living by playing the harp?'  He graciously replied that yes, it was possible to do this.

Now he is living a few miles away from me in Pwllheli, the market town of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The celebratory concert in Caernarfon will feature a celebratory poem by Mererid Hopwood, the first woman poet to win the Bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

A POEM FOR FEBRUARY

This poem is dedicated to my dog, Oscar, and my friend, Kathryn, who really did -

You asked for a poem about listening

How easy is it to represent a sound in words?
Take, for example, the sound of a dog's paws

on frozen leaves - a medium sized dog - and notice
how the pads spread apart.  The leaves are stiff
and the ice crystals abrade each other.
The dog does not press down hard with his feet.
As he walks a few grains of frost cling
to his paws.  When he runs he disturbs the leaves
so that they have a right side (frosted)
and an underside (unfrosted) like scraps
of satin cloth.  The dog's breath steams
in the chill air.  Far off to the south-east
dawn burns.  A heron studies the river.
Soon rooks will rise from their roost to begin
a day's forage in the fields.  And the sound? Crunch
is too sharp (boots walking on gravel). Crack -
no, that's pine resin in the fire.  Snap -
worse still - twigs, not leaves, under the same boots.

It's the sound of movement on a still morning,
the sound of a dog's paws on frozen leaves.

© Mary Robinson 2015
(First published in The Poetry Review vol 105:2, Summer 2015)


Thursday, 25 January 2018

STORM WARNING

Stimulating, thought-provoking, informative, intelligent and closely printed in double columns on A4 size pages: P N Review is towards the Radio 3 end of the poetry magazine wavelengths.  When I read an article by Rebecca Watts in my latest issue (239 Jan/Feb 2018) I wondered if the wider poetry world would pick up on it - and it has.

Rebecca Watts takes no prisoners in 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur'.  Performance poets Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all come in for criticism for the shallowness of their work - particularly Hollie McNish, whose Plum was sent to Rebecca Watts for review.  Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador (the publisher of McNish and Tempest) is a poetry establishment 'name'.  Watts accuses him of doing a U-turn from his 2004 denouncement of the 'populists' who have 'infantilised' poetry to his current endorsement of McNish and Tempest.

Do £ signs have anything to do with it?  T S Eliot said words to the effect that the aim of publishing poetry was not to make a profit but to make as small a loss as possible.  But Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey sold 1.4 million copies by May 2017.  It's not surprising that Picador want a couple of performance poets on their list.  

Watts attacks the way writing about poetry has shifted from assessing the quality of the work itself to the cult of the personality.  

The article has provoked coverage in The Guardian (23 January) and a discussion on BBC Radio 4.  It's not often that the media actually notices poetry!  I suspect we haven't heard the last of this particular storm.


*

Last Friday I went to Rhiw, one of my favourite places on the Peninsula.  In the Plas woods winter storms had uprooted several trees, some of them still in a state of half-dismemberment.  Only a month after the solstice the sun was low, beneath a threatening cloud cover.  

Every crease of Porth Neigwl's crumbling cliffs and every fold of Cilan headland were illuminated.  The tide was well out but I could hear the waves on the shore - white surfing breakers that make the beach so popular in the summer (though not without danger as its English name, Hell's Mouth, makes clear).  The sea was gunmetal grey, except where a shaft of light pierced a break in the cloud to make a pool of dazzling silver.

I took the dog for a walk in the woods.  Two men were taking broken slates off a roof and chucking them noisily into a builder's lorry.  Rain had gouged big ruts in the path.  There were a few snowdrops already in flower - a foretaste of the great sheets of white which will appear here in early February.  But under the trees the woods still smelled of winter.

*

I flicked on the car radio - it was Radio 4's obituary programme, Last Word.  I often wonder why more men die than women, but Friday's programme included an obituary of the poet, Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph was born in 1932 (the same year as Sylvia Plath).  She was a near contemporary of Elaine Feinstein, Anne Stevenson and Fleur Adcock.  

I first came across Jenny Joseph's poetry in the excellent Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets edited by Jeni Couzyn (1985).  
This was far more than an anthology.  It presented the work of 11 British writers in 230 pages.  For each poet there was a good selection of poetry , photographs, a short biography, and - this was the best bit - an essay on their writing.   No bleeding chunks here!

'Rose in the afternoon', 'Dawn Walkers','Women at Streatham Hill', 'Another old tale', 'In Memory of God', 'The inland sea', two extracts from 'Persephone' and ... 'Warning' were the poems selected.  

Jenny Joseph wrote in her introductory essay that when she was in her teens 'it seemed the absolute of fame that what one wrote should be so much a part of the world as to rise to the lips of any Tom Dick or Harry, Joan Liz or Mary, unaware of authorship, like sayings, like war songs, like ballads.'

Be careful what you wish for - this is exactly what happened to her poem 'Warning' which took on a feral life of its own, so much so that she told her publisher that she had grown to hate the poem.    You'll know the one - 'When I am old I shall wear purple ...'

I turned to Fleur Adcock's seminal Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987) and found just one Jenny Joseph poem - yes, it was 'Warning'.  Maybe Deryn Rees-Jones editing Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe 2005) would do better.  Slightly - she included 'The Inland Sea' and 'Ant Nest' as well as 'Warning'.  

In 1996 the W poem was voted the Nation's favourite poem (i.e., in the UK).  It is a pity when a poet becomes a one poem wonder and not recognised for the body of her work.  So I was pleased when one of my students asked if we could read and discuss some more of her poetry.  I incorporated the poems into the course under the heading 'What else has Jenny Joseph written?'

Friday, 19 January 2018

ANOTHER TWELVE YOU MUST READ

Scroll down on the right of this page, through Events, News and Recently Published and you will discover that there's a new list of Twelve Books You Must Read.

As usual this is a subjective, opinionated selection of some of the poetry books I have read over the past year.  Books that I have enjoyed and/or been challenged by.  

Limiting myself to twelve means that there are some notable omissions.  In particular four of my favourite poets - so I'll mention them here, which is a cheat's way of omitting them from the list.  Michael Longley Angel Hill, Philip Gross A Bright Acoustic, Thomas A Clark Farm by the Shore, Les Murray On Bunyah.

Here's the new list with accompanying 'puff':

R S Thomas Too Brave to Dream - a posthumous collection of poems written as a response to various art works (which are reproduced with the poems).  All the hallmarks of the poetry of R S Thomas - economy, simplicity, and those intuitive fractured line breaks.

Myra Schneider Insisting on Yellow: New and Selected Poems - readable, imaginative poems. 'Emotionally vulnerable, richly allusive and superbly poised between past and present' (Jane Holland).

Richard Price Moon for Sale - a roller coaster of emotions.  Witty, clever, funny, sexy, heart-stopping. You never know what is coming next.

Tom Pickard Winter Migrants - there is a distinctly northern feel (Pennines and Solway Firth) to this alert and original collection with its 'mercury whisper of tipped-in light'. 

Sinead Morrissey On Balance - another fine accomplished volume from Sinead Morrissey.  Is there anything this poet can't write about?  Is there any form she can't use?

Geoffrey Hill Clavics - read it to honour the memory of a great English poet (died 2016).  Beautifully crafted poems in shape and rhyme.  Hill is never an easy read but his work is a worthwhile intellectual challenge.

John Glenday The Golden Mean - there's a haunting quality of tone and content to these honed short poems without losing any of their edginess.  Includes powerful, sometimes shocking, translations from contemporary Iraqi poets who deserve to be heard beyond their own country.

Angela France The Hill - psychogeography meets poetry in these varied succinct poems (some with fine surreptitious partial rhymes) on the history and life of Leckhampton Hill near Cheltenham.  A wonderful and strange read.  'An essential contribution to the literature of landscape' (Claire Crowther).

Helen Dunmore Inside the Wave - how Helen Dunmore treasured life even as she lived in the shadow of death.  Poems of great depth expressed with clarity - if you read nothing else by this writer, read this.

Gillian Clarke Zoology - a bumper (by poetry standards!) 100 pages of poetry divided into six sections, including 'One Year' (the cycle of the seasons at Hafod y Llan farm in Snowdonia) and a final section of moving and powerful elegies.

Gerry Cambridge Notes for Lighting a Fire - uses the theme of light of explore 'desire, possession and memory' (HappenStance blurb).

Ruth Bidgood Black Mountains/Land Music - attractively produced back-to-back volume.  Here is the familiar Bidgood territory of a rural Welsh hinterland of deserted hills, empty lanes, ruined houses.  It is the loneliness of places where people seem to have withdrawn. She values this often overlooked landscape.

So there it is - now read on.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE OCEAN

My first visit to America.  For almost two weeks I swapped the western edge of the Atlantic for the eastern edge.

I went to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit my American daughter in law's family.  Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations).  It's not an island but it has more coastline per inhabitant than any other state.  Rhode Islanders joke that it's 3 per cent bigger at low tide.  And, yes, it's where the hens come from.

My main impressions were that most of my knowledge of America comes from literature and that everyone I met had a story of origins.  And the Cold.

I flew into Boston and as we travelled along the freeway from to Providence I spotted a U-Haul depot.  It brought to mind Amy Clampitt's poem 'Real Estate' with its striking opening lines
'Something is that doesn't
love a Third Avenue tenement'.
The poem describes the run-down area and the demise of a pawnshop -
'... Finally a U-Haul
truck carted everything off somewhere'.
When the conversation turned to baseball I envisioned the poet Marianne Moore in her big hat attending the Brooklyn Dodgers games.  A visitor from Florida made me picture the long Pan Handle ending in Key West, the setting of Wallace Stevens' great poem, 'The Idea of Order at Key West'.

Novels too, came to mind.  Talk of slavery was illuminated by my reading of Toni Morrison's novels and mention of the Civil War and its aftermath conjured up scenes from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

We visited Newport - in the late 19th century the playground of rich New Yorkers who built huge holiday houses on the edge of the ocean.  We went round the Vanderbilts' opulent mansion, The Breakers.  It was pure Edith Wharton - think The Age of Innocence.  The book Wharton co-wrote with the architect Ogden Codman (The Decoration of Houses) was on display, and Codman had been commissioned to work on The Breakers.

The clapboard houses in the snowy streets of Providence had a Scandinavian look and would not look out of place in Oslo or Bergen.  I  was reminded of the Scandinavian immigrants mentioned in Willa Cather's My Antonia.   In the same novel Cather describes the turf dugout that the Shimerda family lived in during their first winter.  During my visit it was cold in Providence - colder than in Alaska.  Bone-searingly cold, relentlessly cold.

*              *                *

I was struck by the way that almost everyone I met had a story of an 'elsewhere', either in their own lifetime or in earlier generations.

My daughter in law's family on her father's side had been Christian weavers in Aleppo and had settled in Patterson, New Jersey.  Her mother's family traced their ancestry to English and Irish immigrants.    I met a man who had been born in Seneghal and a woman whose mother had fled from the Ukraine in the time of Stalin.  The wide variety of restaurants in Providence reflected wave after wave of immigrants from different parts of the world.

But the voices of those who had inhabited Rhode Island before the settlers came were silent, preserved only in place names (we were staying in East Side very near to Pawtucket) and in the 1643 book written by Roger Williams, the founder of Providence.  The book was A Key into the Language of America, longly subtitled 'An help to the language of the natives in that part of America, called New-England.  Together with brief observations of the customs, manners and worships of the aforesaid natives in peace and warre, in life and death.'

On Thursday the storm came, shown on the weather map as a seething mass of bright blue, green, yellow and orange.  The blizzard raged all morning and afternoon - fine sifting powdery snow that blew like flour from a mill, muffling everything, rapidly covering footprints and tyre marks.  White seeped into everything, even finding a crack in the attic window frame and laying its trail on the steep stairs.  We were in 'lock-down'.  All flights were cancelled (including my return flight), schools and work places were closed, even the Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street was shut.  Someone coined a new meteorological term for the storm 'bombogenesis'.

The car was deposed from its rule of the city and the Providence streets belonged to those pedestrians who were brave/foolhardy enough to venture out and to the grey squirrels.   One night the temperature went down to 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Centigrade).

It was the kind of bitter cold Edith Wharton captured in her novella Ethan Frome.  Wales seemed balmily warm when I finally got home - three days late.