Everything Apart From Coloured Leg Warmers

Monday, September 29, 2008

End of term.

This was good while it lasted.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

This Side of the Blue

This Side of the Blue
by Joanna Newsom
from the album The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

Svetlana sucks lemons across from me
And I am progressing abominably
And I do not know my own way to the sea
But the saltiest sea knows its own way to me

And the city that turns, turns protracted and slow
And I find myself toeing the embarcadero
And I find myself knowing the things that I knew
Which is all that you can know on this side of the blue

And Jaime has eyes black and shiny as boots
And they march at you, two-by-two, re-loo re-loo
When she looks at you, you know she's nowhere near through
It's the hardest heart beating this side of the blue

And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers
And we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words
While across the sky sheet the impossible birds
In a steady, illiterate movement homewards

And Gabriel stands beneath forest and moon
See them rattle and boo, see them shake, see them loom
See him fashion a cap from a page of Camus
See him navigate deftly this side of the blue

And the rest of our lives will the moments accrue
When the shape of their goneness will flare up anew
And we do what we have to do, re-loo re-loo
Which is all you can do on this side of the blue
Oh it's all that you can do on this side of the blue

Saturday, March 31, 2007

the chalice

the cup it's half full of life
& half of death
half empty
half full
the cup is half full of wine
half full of water
blood, sweat and tears
transformed into brandy, lime - cordial, beer
half filled with joy
one half of sorrow
it's the cup of love and hate
will you quaff it?
"won't you empty it to its lees?"
"the dregs too?"
"yes, the dregs too."
the cup Joseph hid in his brother's sack
it's the Holy Grail
it's the female vessel

full of fucking and abstinence or sexual frustration
the plastic cover that holds the drink
of bittergourd juice and neem etc …

that my colleagues like to drink for health

tankard, pitcher, gob-let, glass

container, call it what you will
it's all this perhaps and maybe much more

it's the last communion, the eucharist

it's the cup that Jesus asked would be taken away deo volonte
oh do not ask what is it
let's just go and empty it
fully, thee that we bless
o cup (verb) the elixir of youth and the fountain of bliss
in the ever-quenching, everlasting kiss of the cross

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The trailblazer.

He'd always wondered why he'd been
born in rough terrain
where the Mountains towered like the Giants
in ancient, hoary Myths.

Then, one day, it struck him, like
a Bolt of wild lightning
that rumour had it, long ago,
had torn open a Gorge

That he was meant to
break down crags
and raze the Hills to Plain
till finally he stood upon
the rubble, rack and ruin.

The Blue Sky shining brightly down
upon the Land and Vale
for those who gently came after
to build their Haven Green,
raise up their Havens Green!

But not for him the Peaceful Lands -
He walked with Lions roaring.
The sounds of Battle were, 'tis said
what put him up to Song.
For he came in to clear up things,
To cut a swathe through Stone.

To clear a circle in the Wood
A/The Zone for/of the Fragrant/Harvest Green
Where the Shining City could be born
The Crystal City (, of) Morn

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Essay on He Never Expected Much

In 1895 the novelist Thomas Hardy, infuriated by the response of Victorian critics and the public to his novel Jude the Obscure, gave up writing novels and instead reverted to his first love, poetry. From that date until his death in 1928 Hardy produced a body of poetic work that is impressive both in quantity and quality. “He Never Expected Much” is one of Hardy’s last poems, as well as one of his most straightforward.

As with his fiction, much of Hardy’ s poetry is characterized by cynicism and the specific view that the world is a brutal, unfair and unforgiving place. This is certainly reflected in “He Never Expected Much”; while far from as shockingly grim as Jude the Obscure (in which a little boy hangs himself and his family) it presents a picture of the world that is far from flattering. If it is to be taken entirely at face value (and it is a poem that deliberately keeps its meaning direct), the poem is evidence that Hardy’s cynicism was a trait of his right from infancy. When he writes:

“Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair”,

it tells us that Hardy was an unusual child indeed. While the poem revels in rejecting the view that the world is perfect or even good, it provides an interesting twist by emphasizing that rather than suffering from a case of lost illusions, Hardy has never had his dreams shattered since those dreams were rather modest in the first place.

In terms of its structure, the poem fits well within the larger body of Hardy’s work. While written after the First World War (a war that had quite a profound effect in accelerating the revolution of modernism in poetry) it is tightly and traditionally structured, with the use of both rhyme and a regular rhythm. As with much of Hardy’s work (both fiction and poetry) it is both in its language and its setting firmly rooted in an almost pre-industrial rural England. Thus Hardy writes of lying “upon the leaze”, of clouds and hills, and uses traditional and rural words such as “haps”. Although the poem is itself written in the first person, the title is interestingly a third-person reference.

Hardy’s conclusion is that as “he never expected much”, taking the world’s warning that life was both unfair and often unpleasant, life’ s tumultuous course never truly shocked or rattled him, and he could “stem such strain and ache/ As each year might assign”. Yet to anyone who has read even a small portion of Hardy’s work, this is a dubious claim at best. The impersonal grief of Hardy’s novels and in particular the personal anguish of his most famous book of poetry, Poems 1912-13 (written after the death of his wife with whom he had had an uncomfortable and bitter relationship) are proof indeed that life’s “strains and aches” often caused huge outpourings of emotion from Hardy. Poems such as “The Going” and “The Voice”, while expressing the sentiment that Hardy did not expect to be so destroyed by his wife’s death, also express the extent of his sadness. And this profound sadness is evidence contrary to the claim he makes in “He Never Expected Much”, leaving his honesty to himself up for question.

It is also worthy of note that Hardy the poet, both in his use of traditional forms and in his Antiromanticism and cynicism was a great influence on the postwar Movement poets of the 1950s and 1960s of which Philip Larkin and D.J. Enright were leading figures. Larkin in particular was influenced by Hardy and was almost singularly responsible for reviving Hardy’s poetry as a major subject of study in modern literary criticism- Hardy had hitherto been regarded primarily as a novelist. Both Hardy and Larkin are prime influences on several modern poets, such as Vikram Seth.

essay on Where I Come From

Elizabeth Brewster’s “Where I Come From” is a poem that is rooted in Brewster’s childhood and early experiences in the rural Canada of the 1920s and 1930s. This is a trait of much Canadian poetry (although with notable exceptions, such as Margaret Atwood), although hardly one to complain about. “Where I Come From” is a wonderfully well-expressed work that on repeated readings reminded me of Robert Frost’s depictions of New England. Like Frost’s work, this poem is simple but not inelegant, subtle and understated, and undoubtedly effective. It is a poem that is enjoyable even if one does not look beyond its most obvious level.

The poem begins with a declaration: “People are made of places”. While this might be considered too sweeping a generalization, there is no doubt from the poem that whether or not all people share this trait of Brewster’s, she is certainly very much a result of the places she has lived in and that she most identifies with. The first stanza goes on to give examples of the kinds of places that “make” people: jungles, mountains, the sea and the city. It is with the last of these that the stanza is most concerned. The rest of the stanza consists of a description of the sights and sounds of city life that influence city-dwellers: here the poem is at its weakest, as Brewster’s images are rather generic: museums, glue factories, offices and subways at rush hour. Her city is unmistakably Western, and it would not be too far to go to say that it is Canadian. If so, her poem has renewed interest, as a comparison of two Canadas.

The second stanza is the poem’s heart. Here Brewster introduces us to the place that made her, and in her view made Canadians of her generation. Here her images are less cliched and her language far more evocative: witness such artfully constructed phrases as “blueberry patches in the burned-out bush” and the warm, romantic imagery of “battered schoolhouses/ behind which violets grow”. She closes the stanza by returning to her main theme, the link between nature and the mind. “Spring and winter/ are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice”, she writes, and it is central moment of the piece. This is what Brewster is made of; it is a poem that truly involves the reader, as she is inviting us to consider the places that made us, and to consider how exactly they did so. It is a truly important thought.

Indeed, “Where I Come From” is just as much about things unsaid as the writing itself. Does Brewster truly dislike the city (in my opinion, she doesn’t)? Are her memories of her hometown unreservedly affectionate? Is the poem an exercise in comparing two Canadas, the Canada of the past and the urban, multicultural Canada of the present? How exactly does the landscape affect the Canadian psyche (Brewster describes the place brilliantly, but its importance much more briefly)? How have Canadians changed with Canada?

Brewster’s omissions are, to my mind, quite deliberate. She doesn’t seek to explain everything but rather to invite the reader to think about what she has thought. Her words express those thoughts very effectively, and while it is rather a modest pleasure, it is a decidedly unambitious work and this is almost refreshing. To read “Where I Come From” is to undertake an exercise in the appreciation of subtlety, deep reflection and the quietest kind of beauty. If every reader of the poem uses it as a springboard for clear-eyed self-reflection of this kind, Brewster will have been remarkably successful. I have little doubt that this will be so.

essay on From Long Distance

‘From “Long Distance’- or, to give it its proper title, “Long Distance II”, is a deep, touching and impressively subtle poem by Tony Harrison. Born in 1937 in the North of England, Harrison is a poet known both for his left-wing political views as well as his first-rate command of rhyme and structure and use of colloquial language. While “Long Distance II” is anything but political, it impressively showcases Harrison’s other qualities. As it as one of two similar poems rather than an excerpt from a poem, it can be considered and examined as an individual piece of work.

The poem is concise and tightly constructed, with four quatrains, each with a consistent abab rhyming pattern. In this sense it is traditional, and in style if not in content Harrison could be linked to the Movement, an important group of English poets of his generation (primarily poets born in the interwar years, such as Philip Larkin, D.J. Enright and Thom Gunn). Yet this tight construction is no hindrance at all to his communication of meaning and emotion. The first stanza establishes his situation effectively, informing the reader of the background to the poem while also establishing several questions in the reader’s mind. It is indeed worth quoting in full: “Though my mother was already two years dead/ Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas/put hot water bottles her side of the bed/and still went to renew her transport pass”. This stanza does a number of things: at the simplest level it tells us of the death of the poet’s mother, and of the strange behaviour that his father exhibits, behaviour that one assumes is the result of “living in denial”. It also, however, evokes an image of working-class England: from the slippers warming by the gas to the transport pass it is a vivid and memorable set of images.

The next two stanzas are an elaboration of the theme. Thus we hear of more of his father’s “symptoms”, as well as the fact that he is internally somewhat ashamed and tries to hide his feelings both from his son as well as from the outside world. To my mind the most poignant and noteworthy lines here are “to clear away her things and look alone/as though his still raw love were such a crime”. These lines paint a picture of an abiding and deeply physical (“raw”) passion that his father is unable to shake off despite his best efforts. It is the first expression in the poem of an ultimate conflict in literature and life, the battle between the heart and the head or in Freudian terms between the id, the ego and the super-ego.

It is the final stanza that contains the twist, and it is the stanza that is by some distance the most important. It is the first stanza in which we are introduced to the poet’s own thoughts and practices, as opposed to his memories of his father. The first line of the stanza is a direct statement: “I believe life ends with death, and that is all”. It is a pronouncement that shows Harrison to be in opposition to his father, at least on the surface. Yet while the last two lines contradict it, it is no false statement or irony but rather an honest expression of Harrison’s inner confusion. A reader expecting to see the poem conclude with Harrison’s mystery at his father’s behaviour will be either surprised or disappointed by the last two lines, although to me they constitute a superb and supremely memorable ending. “In my new black leather phone book there’s your name/and the disconnected number I still call”, Harrison writes, and here we see him establish a true cycle, link himself to his father and make a profound statement about how love definitively defeats reason.
Even with such a potent and definite ending, Harrison leaves a number of questions lingering in the reader’s mind unanswered, although I see this as a strength of the poem. It is certainly a poem that left me reflecting about it well after I had read it several times. Are the “both” he refers to his parents? It may seem likely but it is by no means absolutely so. We are told precious little about Harrison’s own symptoms: how closely does his behaviour resemble his father’s? Does he regard his father as insane? And for me, most signficantly, how would I or any other person react in a similar situation? To what extent are the reactions of the Harrisons, father and son, normal? To paraphrase Octavio Paz, while there may be no answers, the questions are still important.

On Finding A Small Fly Crushed in a Book- essay

Charles Tennyson Turner is somewhat unfairly regarded as a lesser poet than his more famous brother, the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Although he was a vicar by profession and not known as a poet in his own lifetime, he wrote over 340 sonnets and, as “On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book” shows, was an accomplished writer in his own right.

The poem is a sonnet, but an adapted one that has a rhyme scheme that does not exactly fit any of the traditional sonnet forms: Petrarchan, Spenserian or Shakespearian. This variation (the “break” in meaning, that usually occurs after the octet, actually comes in the middle of the eighth line) allows Turner to express himself more freely, and at a casual glance the poem remains a typical sonnet. This is also evident in its seemingly generic title: the construction “On…” was extremely common among reflective poems of the 17th to 19th centuries. Yet “On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book” cannot be considered a generic or typical poem.

It is unusual rather in its rather daring choice of subject and its subtly radical message. As Turner was a clergyman in a very conservative era where the Church of England was one of the most powerful forces in British life, it is somewhat surprising that he should choose death as a subject, as opposed to his rough contemporary, the Jesuit Geard Manley Hopkins, who devoted the bulk of his work to the praise of God and all his creations (although this was also a highly radical theme in its own way). Turner lacks Hopkins’ linguistic inventiveness, but his poem is finely crafted and certainly decidedly unchurchlike in its approach.

The poem’s beginning belies its deeper character. “Some hand that never meant to do thee hurt” has killed the fly, begins Turner, and it seems like the beginning of a slight, modest poem about finding a fly. The third line, however, hints at Turner’s concern for the nature of man and his relation to life, as well as his abiding compassion for all things. “But thou hast left thine own fair monument”, he writes, and while simply stated is touching to see such honest and unironic feeling shown towards something commonly considered so petty and insignificant that the hand that killed it did so unknowingly.

The rest of the poem consists of Turner’s reflections on life and death and the similarities and differences between himself and the fly. He contrasts the fly’s more elegant death, that has left a beautiful (to him, although not necessarily to all readers) “lustre” on the page that he has opened, with the end of human life. The sight of the fly awakens Turner to the fact that his death rapidly approaches: “Our doom is ever near:/The peril is besides us day by day”, he writes, and one can clearly hear the echo of Marvell’s lines, “But at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near;”* although this is not a humorous poem even if it lightly written. Turner uses the metaphor of the closing book to refer to the death of both fly and human, and in this way equates the two as equal. Yet while they are equal, to him they are so rather different.

He sees no beauty or warmth in the remembrance of a human life that once was. Whereas the fly has left a lovely testament to its own beauty and spark, in Turner’s views memories, perhaps his own, are a poor equivalent to the fly’s legacy. In part, he sees this as because the fly has lived a “blameless life”, while he, even though he was a man of God by profession, clearly believes that he hasn’t. To see a fly as more blameless than a human is a view that is little short of revoulutionary in an era where Darwin’s theories were condemned not only because they repudiated Christianity but because, in Thomas Carlyle’s famous phrase, they were seen as “gorilla damnifications of humanity”.

“On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book” is a short poem that says little directly, but is also a poem that is rich with compassion, humility and an ability to appreciate beauty. These are great qualities not only of poetry but also of a human, and it is therefore a testament to the beauty not only of Turner’s writing but also of his thought. The enduring message, that death is a great and invincible leveller for both human and fly, reminded me strongly of an old Italian proverb that links the game of chess with death: “at the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back into the same box”.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The City Planners and The Planners

One common concern of modern poetry is the disillusionment of the artist and the intellectual for the supposedly soulless path of technological progress and industrialization. Two poems that subscribe to this school of thought are Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planners” and Boey Kim Cheng’s “The Planners”. The poems are indeed remarkably similar in ideas and tone, although the former is considerably more skilled, and the latter introduces themes more specific to the poet’s homeland. They are nevertheless thus highly suited for comparison.

Atwood’s poem is rich with irony and linguistic inventiveness. It is written in her trademark free verse style, with little structure or formality. In attacking the “bland madness” of the suburbs, Atwood begins by using humour; there is no denying the unusual effectiveness of the lines “what offends us is/the sanities”. The “us” here is however a rather weak word for “me”, since it is only her own view that the poet is discussing, and by grouping either the reader or a companion alongside herself she risks being dishonest. Nevertheless, to begin a poem in this way is indeed noteworthy and unusual, as is the idea of being offended by normal life. From the start she thus sets herself apart from the all-too-normal suburbanites, who are appalled by any departure from sanity.

Atwood then proceeds to describe and thus debunk these “sanities”, and it is here that she is most effective; in her contemptuous, gleefully ironic phrasing, we get an excellent sense of how puerile she finds the order and sameness of modern life, and at this point I even agreed. “The houses in pedantic rows, the planted/sanitary trees”...this truly seems like not the comfortable, safe existence that is from another perspective but like a boring, colourless situation. At the end of this second stanza, Atwood writes of a lawn mower, mockingly describing it as the most surprising or interesting thing that the suburb offers. It is the poem’s most powerful image and also the point where in my view the poem begins to fall apart. At this point Atwood proceeds to reveal the slight flaws in the rigid perfection, the signs that she sees as indicative of the future apocalypse, in which the suburban houses will be revealed as nothing more than insignificant, the epitome of nothingness. Atwood’s hyperbolic concluding stanzas describe the strangely self-important City Planners, who do not realize that far from being vital to the future of the world they are as empty and meaningless as their creations.

Atwood is quite right to point that suburbia amounts on level to nothingness. Her poem shines with wit and brilliant phrasing: the ability to coin a phrase such as “bland madness” is not one to be lightly disregarded. Yet on a second, third and fourth reading “The City Planners” is revealed to be a whiney rant, an exaggerated condemnation of something rather harmless. Atwood on the one hand claims that suburbia is a petty nothingness and yet is seemingly outraged by it. While the poem has many moments of linguistic brilliance, Atwood shows no restraint, assaulting the reader with rich and complex phrase after rich and complex phrase. And in the final analysis it is rather difficult to choose between subject, the small and unimportant but rational and pleasant suburb existence and the author, strangely offended, erratically brilliant and unremittingly hysterical. The residents of such a suburb would be rather bemused by this talk of “the panic of suburb order”; indeed they would think the poet rather unhinged. But this is indicative not only of the reactionary ideology of the suburbanite but also of the fact that Atwood has little to truly complain about. “The City Planners” is thus eventually a well-expressed nothing about nothing.

“The Planners” by Boey Kim Cheng at first offers more possibilities for interesting analysis. Unlike Atwood’s doggedly insular work, the poem deals not with Cheng’s personal hatred for his immediate surroundings but with his reflections on his home nation’s apparently soulless route of progress. It is unfortunate therefore that he lacks her poetic talent. It is, nevertheless, in many ways an interesting poem to study, and in this case successive readings greatly enhanced my appreciation of the work.

Cheng’s first stanza is largely descriptive- he sets the scene for his analysis of the omnipotent Planners and evokes the scene of modern Singapore, planned and executed with an exactitude that has no exception and is in direct opposition to the vagaries of nature. “Even the seas draw back/ and the skies surrender” writes Cheng, and this is not irony but mere exaggeration, for this is truly the kind of effect the Planners intend and achieve. It serves as a potent introduction for the poem, not yet introducing the poem’s meaning but yet providing the backdrop perfectly. One can only quibble with Cheng’s ridiculous phrase, “in the grace of mathematics”; if he believes that the exactness of the Planners’ creation is in keeping with the grace of mathematics, he obviously has very little understanding of the greatest of the sciences. Even if the line is ironic it still reveals a lack of understanding on the part of the poet.

The second stanza is also in many ways descriptive, but here for the first time the poem is also meaningful. While Cheng’s language tends to the cringe-worthy (witness such schoolboy uses of linguistic features as “All gaps are plugged/with gleaming gold” and “The country wears perfect rows/of shining teeth”), with constructions such as “Anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis” resembling either a list of Spelling Bee words or a clumsy song lyric, but certainly not good poetry. He is also a user of mixed metaphors, in the last two lines of the stanza, “The drilling goes right through/ the fossils of last century”, at best one of the worst of linguistic crimes. Yet here it is the meaning of the poem and not the language that best deserves inspection.

Like Atwood, Cheng has a certain disaffection for the scientific force of progress, although his distaste deals specifically with the case of Singapore. In this sense both poems can be considered anti-modernist and perhaps even post-modernist. “The Planners” examines Singapore’s attempt to shed its colonial past and emerge as a post-colonial nation not by embracing its pre-colonial heritage as Tanzania or the Democratic Republic of Congo did but by setting itself aside as a defiantly modern, scientific, unsentimental nation. Cheng’s description of this is fairly dramatic- he writes of “history” being “new again”, and being blasted away by the aforementioned drills. He has an important point, but ignores an equally notable one: that as a new nation that was a fishing village as recently as 1819 and is an amalgam of several different races and cultures, put together for the first time, it was completely understandable for Singapore to set its own course, although Cheng is free to disagree with that course. It is a similar to situation to Americans not seeing themselves in relation to their European past but in terms of their new land and that ultimate cliché, the American Dream. Cheng is far from subtle in revealing his discomfort with Singapore’s capitalist utopia, and one is certainly left with the image of a scary, inhuman state. Cheng is woefully let down however by his final stanza, which contains the appalling construction, “But my heart would not bleed/poetry.” It is here that Cheng makes his main point, that art and the concept of Singapore are mutually exclusive: it is worth nothing that at the time of writing he had left Singapore for the presumably more human society of Australia.

The common theme of the two poems is the discomfort of the artist with mundane, everyday life and with science-driven, apparently heartless modernist progress. In many respects I find myself in sympathy with the poets, and Cheng in particular. Yet examining the poems objectively, I must conclude that both are severely flawed: they are one-sided to the point of being myopic, display an extremity of tone that is not justified by their arguments, and in Cheng’s case, also characterized by a command of English that would be disappointing in a student. And my final and perhaps most important criticism that is that both poems are argumentative rather than evocative: hysterical rather than moving; and didactic rather than provocative. In my judgement these are literary qualities towards which the medium of poetry has never suggested itself. It is their presence that above all cripples the effect of both “The City Planners” and “The Planners”.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Going, Going

by Philip Larkin
from the book High Windows (1972)


I thought it would last my time —
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down:
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split-level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
— But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 café;
Their kids are screaming for more—
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer …
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts —
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely: but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs
I just think it will happen, soon.