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This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

Print

 

 

 

 

Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

Print

 

 

 

 

Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

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THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

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Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

008

The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.

He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.

His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.

C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:

It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.

D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:

His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.

E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.

His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.

F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.

The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.

I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?

I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift…

You alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.

by Tom Deveson

I first heard of Angela Carter whilst browsing a bookshop in Edinburgh. As part of the build up to the publication of Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, edited by Rosemary Hill, the store had displayed a vast collection of Carter’s novels, and I was immediately attracted to one particular book cover. A pair of curvy legs in heels dominate the cover, smothered in the bold pink words of Nights at the Circus, like tattoos daring you to touch them. Briefly scanning the blurb, I was intrigued most by the idea of the half-woman, half-bird character of Fevvers (wonderfully named, don’t you think?). I had no clue that I would be taken on a journey across the globe; thrown into the insane reality that was the circus life.

Amongst the insanity that was the circus, I was most intrigued by Fevvers. A bold and brash woman, unapologetic with her rough Cockney slur, romancing her way through a list of the rich and famous, men who were equally repulsed as they were enticed by her feathered back. But most of all, what guided me throughout the entire novel was not knowing whether there was any truth whether she was truly half woman, half swan.

At the start, we are thrown into the deep end alongside reporter Jack Walser, who seeks out Fevvers to get her life story behind the circus antics. Starting by being abandoned on the steps of a brothel, I was led step by step through her life, from first discovering how to fly, to escaping the traps of freak show, seduced just as Jack was by the surreal, but somehow plausible, life she had apparently led. The theatricality of it all, added to her own characteristics, made it all seem possible.

Here was a woman that not only stands her own ground in the face of everything going against her, but has not had to depend on anyone else to do so. Inside my head at every page was a tiny me shouting “Yes, you go girl! Do what must be done!” It was beyond refreshing to read the life of a character, who genuinely did not care about what people thought of her. lays bare a strong and forward-thinking woman, ahead of her own time in how woman can be. Fevvers refuses to be restricted by those around her, male or female, in order to achieve what she wants from life – international fame and fortune, her wings providing the freedom needed in order to project her beyond the many restrictions set in front of her.

What is even greater is that Carter did not write Fevvers as a lone character in this way, multiple women within the novel become free from the boundaries initially set for them.

We see Lizzie, the close companion of Fevvers throughout the novel, becoming a strong voice of political activism after leading a life as a prostitute; Mignon, a shy and vulnerable young woman, escapes a life of abuse and oppression to be with the woman she loves. How can you not love how Carter wants us to see the independence and strength a woman is able to achieve?

It’s inspiring to see this in the pages of a book and I cannot wait to see how the sense of magic and freedom comes through in her poetry.

 

Charlotte Cole

Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…

Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.

I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:

‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower 

And Agamemnon dead. …’

 

One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?

So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.

Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.

Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:

Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…

Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.

A century later Dryden writes:

The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…

This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.

Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:

The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian
 Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto
‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides
 strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove

 

We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.

 

Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:

Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.

Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.

America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men — carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

Begin it when the two men first contending

broke with one another –

                                                                 the Lord Marshal

Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.

More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…

This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.

After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance. 

It’s good to listen to that ghost.

Tom Deveson, April 2016

Things Can Only Get Better?

You might not call Luton a lucky place. Its name used to be synonymous with the making of hats – straw hats and then felt hats dominated the thriving life of the town. But think of those old sepia photographs in which everyone, men and women, has a covered head; and then think of how all that changed. After World War I fashions underwent an irreversible alteration, and the industry suffered terribly.

Later it seemed as if car manufacture might be the town’s new economic salvation. I grew up not far from Luton, and in the 1950s many neighbours and school-friends’ fathers went to work at the Vauxhall plant, the biggest in the country. At one time it gave employment to thirty thousand people. It was noisy and huge and stifling in summer but it brought prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the UK drove Vauxhall Vivas. But car production ceased there just over a dozen years ago.

Even Luton’s leisure seems to have been tinged with disappointment. The football team –the Hatters – were big once; they were FA Cup finalists when I was ten. But not even Eric Morecambe’s well-publicised support – he used to call out ‘Luton for the Cup’ on impromptu occasions on television – could save them from sliding downwards until they were relegated from the Football League. And in the old 1970s Campari advert, Lorraine Chase replied to the romantic question, ‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’ with a scornful estuarial:‘Nah, Luton Airport’. It was as if Luton couldn’t even pretend to lay claim to anything classy. And as if all that weren’t enough, the July 7th bombers all set off to London from – yes -Luton.

Perhaps poetry has offered consolation for these woes? Well, I’m sorry, but readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now.ASJ Tessimond, one of the ‘lost voices’ of twentieth-century English poetry, wrote a curt verse letter to his agent:

Dear Hubert,

Bored, malevolent and mute on

A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton

And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double

Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,

Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,

Manic depressive madness growing madder,

Cretins with hideous tropical diseases

And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes

From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes

Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,

And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on

And on and on and on.

Yours glumly,

John

A few years ago, John Hartley Williams published a poem in the London Review of Books called Near Luton Airport. I grit my teeth and quote three stanzas:

‘…Taking refuge in a middle stall of three

where silence magnifies my urination

I piddle like a monk and think about my nation,

my thoughts entranced by liberating pee.

‘What’s that mean Squire?’ It’s what it means –

no more no less. Sorry if my words compose

involuntary ordnance of the brain that blows

your shoddy camaraderie to smithereens

as a mighty flushing of the whole urinal

provokes a backward leap, though much too late.

Do thoughts deploy the legs of fate?

With dampened trouser-cuffs, I go to face my wall….’

Enough already. I’ve known fine people in Luton and I’m aware of excellent things that happen there.

Poetry Parliament on March 20th ought to be one of them.

Let’s listen to the Lutonian litotes: ‘I am a citizen of no mean city.’

Poet in the City presents three events as part of Lutonia; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poetry Parliament and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The People’s Poet.

Tom Deveson, March 2016

 

A short story in four stages

 

Stage 1: I first met Stevie Smith in 1959 when I was eleven. Our junior school teacher gave us poems from this book to copy out and practise our handwriting:

http://www.penguinfirsteditions.com/OS1/D48.jpg

I bought the book, and on page 129 I found The Grange, with its seemingly casual opening couplet:

Oh there hasn’t been much change

At The Grange.

There followed what appeared to be a simple colloquial story of a big house changing hands. The opening lines recurred as a refrain. But in between came hints of something darker, more insidious:

They wouldn’t go up to the door,

Not after what happened to Fred’s pa.

And the final couplet was a resolution that resolved nothing:

But few goes that way somehow

Not now.

I took my cue from the anthology’s title and concluded that Stevie Smith – who was he anyway? – was comic and curious but probably no more than that.

Stage 2: In May 1964 I was in the sixth form, having thought no more about Stevie Smith in the interim, when our English teacher brought in a poem for us to discuss. It had appeared in The Guardian and was called How do you see?

http://www.ferretgerbil.com/howdoyousee.html

I’m afraid we weren’t very polite about it as a poem – even its less critical admirers feel bound to recognise that it’s prosaic in patches and over-long – but it dealt with belief in a far more interesting way than our official classes of religious education:

Oh Christianity, Christianity,

Why do you not answer our difficulties?

If He was God He was not like us

He could not lose.

Can Perfection be less than perfection?

Can the creator of the Devil be bested by him?

What can the temptation to possess the earth have meant to Him

Who made and possessed it?  What do you mean?

Exploring and twisting through a set of contrasts between ‘God’ and ‘good’, she concludes:

I do not think we will be able to bear much longer the dishonesty

Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in,

For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear

Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience.

I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children,

To be good without enchantment, without the help

Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true,

Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty,

And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody

It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody.

This was strong stuff for the time; I now thought of Stevie Smith as a writer of idiosyncrasy and some gravity, but apt to be precious and loquacious. I also now knew that she was she and not he.

Stage 3: In 1965, now aged seventeen, I found Thoughts about the Person from Porlock in an anthology:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176220

I’d read Kubla Khan and quite a bit more by and about Coleridge, so the title was an immediate lure. So were the first two stanzas:

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock

And ever after called him a curse,

Then why did he hurry to let him in?

He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong

(But often we all do wrong)

As the truth is I think he was already stuck

With Kubla Khan.

The beautifully judged half- or quarter-rhymes, the easy mingling of casual allusion and understated moral discourse, the conversational tone masking a deeper seriousness – all these offered an appeal I hadn’t yet found in her writing. And apart from a little touch of whimsy – ‘And had a cat named Flo’ seemed pretty unnecessary – it cut deeper and deeper:

I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock

To break up everything and throw it away

Because then there will be nothing to keep them

And they need not stay.

The stoical ending went a long way beyond poetry of mere exhortation; and a suffusing irony ensured it would be remembered:

There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do

Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

Stage 4: In 1968, I was now nineteen; one evening a university friend sang Not Waving But Drowning to his own guitar accompaniment. It was an extraordinary year in which to be young, but despite all the horrors of war and assassination and politics, I felt invulnerable. Then my friend made a botched and unforeseen attempt to take his own life.

I thought of the poem and the song it had briefly become and then the poem again. Now I knew Stevie Smith was a writer who was alarming in her modesty, grave in her comedy, wise in her foolishness, multifarious in her simplicity.

I’ve been reading her on and off ever since.

Tom Deveson, February 2016

 

Thanks for clicking through to listen again. Take a listen to some of the finest writers, politicians and artists from across the world sharing their experiences of poetry.

Body and Soul

Creative Journeys

Late Greats

Found in Translation

In Their Own Words

Other Worlds, Other Times

 

Curious

Curious? is a free weekend festival of knowledge and learning that will explode all over King’s Cross during the August bank holiday weekend.

The festival, powered by the Knowledge Quarter, will feature science workshops, fascinating talks, family-friendly music and dance, language lessons and live poetry. Wander through a maze of discovery and encounter live experiments, weird and wonderful music, and unexpected pop-up performances.

All activities are completely free and there will be something for everyone! Full details of rest of the programme will soon be available on the festival website.

Poet in the City is delighted to be presenting some fantastic poetry happenings at the Curious? Festival. Here’s what we’ve got in store:

POETRY PARLIAMENT – The Salon, Lewis Cubbitt Square, 4pm on Sunday 30 August 

Poet in the City presents the Poetry Parliament, a fantastic public performance in which leading spoken word poets tackle today’s burning political issues head on. Join Dean Atta, Caroline Bird, Deanna Roger and Anthony Anaxagorou as they bring poetry back to the public square and throw some rhythm and a spotlight on the politics of today. Austerity, gender, race; you name it, they’ve got something to say about it.

Politicians watch and learn – this is public debating with a difference!

CURIOSITY QUESTS – children’s poetry and family fun 

Joseph Coelho on Saturday 29 August: 12:30pm and 3pm (Conduit/The Crossing)

Kathy Henderson on Sunday 30 August: 12:30pm and 2:30pm (Vistors Centre)

Come and share the magic of discovery through poetry. Award winning children’s poet Joseph Coelho invites you to join him in a fantastic interactive family performance of poems from his award winning collection ‘The Werewolf Club Rules’. Play your part in a giant group poem, go on an imaginary bug hunt, and watch the amazing possibilities of words come to life before your very eyes.

In her poetry tours, acclaimed children’s poet Kathy Henderson will lead you on an amazing adventure into Kings Cross. What kind of city can you see? Where does your imagination take you? Join Kathy as she performs some of her wonderful poems on a special walking tour, and prepare to become star poets yourselves as we explore the magic lurking around every corner.

THE LOCATION:
The main site for the festival is centered around Granary Square and Lewis Cubbitt Square in Kings Cross. Full maps will be provided to festival goers.

***********************************************************************************************

THE POETS:

Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger was published in 2013 on The Westbourne Press.

Caroline Bird is an award-winning poet and playwright. She was short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections, Trouble Came To The Turnip, and Watering Can. Her fourth poetry collection, The Hat-stand Union, was published in 2013. Her new version of Euripides’s The Trojan Women premiered at the Gate Theatre in 2012 and Chamber Piece premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2014.

Deanna Rodger made a name for herself after winning the UK Slam Poetry competition, touring Germany and performing commissions in places such as, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing street and 2012 Olympic Team Welcome Ceremony. She acts, facilitates workshops and is a co founder of Chill Pill.

Anthony Anaxagorou is an acclaimed poet, prose writer, playwright, performer and educator. He has published eight volumes of poetry, a spoken word EP, a book of short stories as well as writing for theatre. Anthony is the founder of Out-Spoken – one of London’s premier monthly events for poetry and live music held at The Forge, Camden. He also founded Out-Spoken Press in 2012.

Joseph Coelho, Performance Poet, Playwright. . His plays have received special note from The Verity Bargate Award and The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. He has written plays for young people for Theatre Royal York, Polka and The Unicorn Theatres. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award 2015.

Kathy Henderson is a writer, poet and illustrator with many published titles for children. She has won many awards for her titles including The Kurt Maschler Prize. She is also an artist and printmaker and as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow has been teaching writing to university students. Her book The Dragon with a Big Nose was shortlisted for the 2014 CLPE Poetry Award.

 

 

 

It could be said that, in order to truly celebrate the work of a great poet, we should first look to the poets which inspired them.   Poet in the City will be doing just this at Southwark Cathedral on 21st May with their T.S.Eliot and Lancelot Andrews event, held to mark the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death.

Print

 

 

 

 

Eliot is a name well-known, both to poetry lovers and the wider world.  Lancelot Andrewes, less so. Born in London in 1555, Andrewes grew to become one of the finest theologians and scholars of his age, famed for his dazzling sermons, given to both the general church-going populace and to monarchs (he preached at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I).

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, captures the importance of this ecclesiastical figure:

‘One of the privileges afforded to the community at Southwark Cathedral is being the guardians of the bones of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes.  He lies at rest alongside the High Altar, one of the greatest bishops and scholars of the post-reformation Church of England.’

Andrewes’ success as a cleric was considerable. He was appointed vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate in 1588 and Prebendary and Residentiary of St Paul’s a year later.  In 1601, he was made Dean of Westminster.  He was also appointed Chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I, assisting at James’ coronation in 1603.  After becoming Bishop of Chichester and then of Ely, he was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1617 and Bishop of Winchester the following year. He died in Southwark, then part of the Diocese of Winchester, in 1626.

Andrewes’ tomb lies in the South Choir Aisle of the cathedral and attendees at Thursday’s commemorative event will be able to pay homage to this figure of considerable literary talent.  From the Merchant Taylor’s school, where he studied alongside the poet Edmund Spencer to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge where he graduated, Andrewes’ spiritual teaching and linguistic skills earned him the admiration of the literati of the time, in an era that gave rise to Shakespeare and John Donne, another celebrate preacher and poet of the age.  Indeed, it is said that, during annual holidays with his parents, Andrewes would engage the services of a master to teach him a new language; he thus acquired most of the European languages of the age.   Andrew Nunn continues:

‘It wasn’t just that he was a good bishop, or a diligent scholar, or a man of learning, or a man of deep faith, it was that he had the most incredible ability with language. He played a vital part in the process of translation of what we know as the King James Version of the Bible but even more than that his biographer styled him ‘an angel in the pulpit’.’

It is small wonder, then, that a man with such an ability with language should influence Eliot. In his essay on Andrewes (from the book, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, published by Faber & Gwyer, London in 1928) Eliot concedes that the writing of Andrewes is not immediately accessible, but worth the effort of deeper scrutiny:

‘…Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes take a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess. ‘

This mathematical, dissecting approach to language clearly resonates in the poetry of Eliot.  In ‘Journey of the Magi’ Eliot uses what is perhaps the most famous modern-day piece of writing by Andrewes to begin his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a long journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The above lines are taken from Andrewes’ ‘Sermons of the Nativity’ preached on Christmas Day 1622 before James I (Project Canterbury Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One).  What astounds the reader in these lines is their clarity and simplicity.  Eliot goes on to describe the journey of the magi in the same tone and pace, his words blending perfectly with Andrewes’ to lift an age-old tale out of its ancient pages, through the millennia and into the present mind of the reader. To read ‘Journey of the Magi’ is to understand that the events described took place in one’s own lifetime and not in a bygone age, the true sign of a gifted preacher and poet.

Andrewes’ telling of the story continues with a moving tribute to doggedness and determination in the face of difficulty that is again, strikingly modern in its simplicity:

‘And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.’

Of Andrewes’ linguistic skills, Andrew Nunn states:

‘He gave words wings, so that they could fly and nest in men’s souls.  It is no wonder then that T.S. Eliot became entranced with Andrewes and that the Bishop’s words should find a new home in so much of Eliot’s verse.’

It would be impossible to cover all of Andrewes’ work in one blog, but readers may be interested to learn of Andrewes’ sermons to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, given on subsequent anniversaries.  One particularly memorable passage reads:

‘…there was but a step between death and us.  We were upon the point of going to the hill, as was prepared, the traine, the match, the fire, wood, and all, and we ready to be the sacrifice, and even then and there…God provided for our safety, even in that very place, where we should have been the burnt offering;’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes is not the only Southwark Cathedral mark of remembrance of Eliot’s literary and, possibly, spiritual mentor.  As Andrew Nunn tells us: ‘In the beautiful stained glass in the Cathedral Library overlooking the river and close to London Bridge, of which Eliot wrote in ‘The Wasteland’, is a portrait of Andrewes and phrases borrowed by Eliot from the Bishop.  It is a marriage of minds and souls and together they draw us deeper into the mystery of God.’

When I visit to view this window, the cathedral is already a welcome respite from the noise, heat and crowds of a Saturday afternoon in London.   The window, in the Gary Weston Library, was designed by Ben Finn as part of the millennium extension to the cathedral in 2001. To reach it, visitors pass through ‘Lancelot’s Link’ a glass covered internal street which connects the cathedral to its new millennium buildings.   The Link is a delight in itself, with the old cathedral walls and the remains of a Roman road on one side, the modern buildings on the other and a slate grey floor with the names of original parishes of the diocese stretching out beneath one’s feet.

Southwark Cathedral, I am told by one of the vergers, is the only venue outside a royal palace to be used by Elizabeth II to deliver her Christmas Speech, which she did here in 2006, also spending time with children in the library.

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The cathedral is nearing closing time, but one of the vergers kindly lets me into the library to steal a look at the window. It is worth the effort. Set above a small landing and staircase at one end of the library (which contains original copies of Andrewes’ work) and overlooking the Thames and the streets below, this alcove window of stained glass consists of 15 panels, or lights, depicting river and mercantile scenes, London Bridge, the original Borough Market, pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, scenes from the crucifixion and a portrait of Andrewes himself.

Flanked by scenes from the Annunciation and the Nativity to the West and from the Ascension and Pentecost to the East, the windows are vividly rendered with daylight caught in beautiful streaks across calm water in one scene and the wind whipping up stormy water in another.   Here, ordinary people load up carts with barrels and rugs from river barges and ships are depicted through the ages, against backdrops ranging from scarlet, deep blue, pale grey and cloudy white to lime greens and browns.

The artwork on the glass ranges from etching-style precision to murky watercolour. Set against a backdrop of May evening sunshine, the skill of the artist in depicting life in and around Southwark and drawing the eye to Andrewes as an important figure makes for a visual and thought-provoking delight that will remain with any visitor long after leaving the cathedral.

T.S.Eliot referred to Andrewes’ sermons as ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time.’  Furnished by a wealth of literary expertise, Poet in the City’s event will delve deeper into Andrewes’ influence upon Eliot, in the accompaniment of the prose and verse of these two masters, and visionaries, of the English language of the age in which they lived.

Ingrid Leonard

This blog is a space for poets and poetry lovers to discuss poetry events and to offer their insights and opinions on individual poems, collections and happenings in the poetry world. The bloggers are poets, Poet in the City volunteers, and a range of our fantastic friends and event speakers.

 

Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.

 

by John Dixon

An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson

‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.

There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.

Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.

A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.

After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:

‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,

Married to immortal verse,

Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes, with many a winding bout

Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,

With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

That Orpheus self may heave his head

From golden slumber on a bed

Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear

Such streins as would have won the ear

Of Pluto, to have quite set free

His half regain’d Eurydice…’

B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of