In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, extracts from WH Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” were shared widely, in particular its opening stanza:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Over the past week, amid horrific and brutal images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the poem has again resonated around the world, this time via social media (which didn’t exist in 2001), and with the emphasis now on its final stanza:
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I’ve neglected this blog for a while now, and have a growing backlog of poetry books that I’m keen to write about — any of which would be a more rewarding subject than the landfill-fire of cultural vandalism unfolding at the University of Leicester.
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I picked up Laura Kilbride’s In the square (Punch Press, 2014) several years ago, but a succession of house-moves and other disruptions meant that I hadn’t properly read it until now. Which is my serious loss.
The book fell off the shelf while I was packing for a few days away, and I’ve been reading it obsessively ever since. It’s an extraordinary work: a thousand lines of intense, almost incantatory verse that seem propelled by their own sound-patterns and syntax even as they weave multiple conflicting meanings into a strange symphonic whole. Line after line pulls off the difficult trick of conveying its own necessity — the conviction that these words, and only these words, flow inevitably from the ones before, with an energy, harmony and syntactic strength that tirelessly keep bringing you back for more.
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One of the more depressing trends in public discourse about the arts (and, for that matter, education) has been the compulsion to justify what we do in economic terms: theatre brings £3 billion a year into the UK economy; reading poetry can relieve stress [and save you/the NHS money]; Shakespeare is an effective way to teach strategy to MBA students; etc. All of which is fine as far as it goes, but it cedes the argument by engaging on the enemy’s terms: for anything to have value, it has to translate into money.
This is partly a function of the funding landscape and the competition for scarce grants. But that in itself is symptomatic of an underlying cultural disease, against which the true value of the arts (if that term means anything) is directly opposed. Art is a form of serious play. It has no purpose beyond itself, and for this reason it can do things that everyday utile activities cannot. Poetry changes how we think and feel. In fiction we can encounter other minds; in music, pattern and form. The arts let us connect — tentatively, imperfectly, but profoundly — with what it means to be human. And they do that precisely because they have no other purpose. Continue reading →
I’ve been reading Peter Hughes’s Cavalcanty on a slow continuous loop since April, sometimes in longer binges but more often in snatched bursts on trains or station platforms. It’s an exceptional book and becomes more so with each re-reading, both a development of and a departure from his tussle with Petrarch in 2015’s Quite Frankly. Continue reading →
When I wrote about Claire Trévien’s first collection The Shipwrecked House in 2013, I had never met the author. Since then we’ve collaborated on readings and an anthology, been sounding-boards for each other’s scribblings-in-progress, and shared more than a few glasses of wine. So what follows can’t pretend to be an objective “review” of Claire’s second collection Astéronymes (and there are plenty of good examples of those already). But with that caveat, I wanted to put some thoughts down because I think this book is doing something genuinely challenging, and the more I’ve come back to it over the past year, the more convinced I am that it’s really very good indeed. Continue reading →
For a few months now I’ve been under the spell of the 16th century French poet Louise Labé — or, rather, of Olivia McCannon’s versions of Labé in Modern Poetry in Translation 2016/1. A Renaissance woman in both senses of the term and a feminist centuries before the word was coined, Labé also wrote poetry that, in the words of McCannon’s MPT introduction, “rewrites the male Petrarchan tradition, giving it a blast of positive, debunking energy, a strong female voice and an intelligent physicality.” Continue reading →
I spent Thursday at the excellent Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century colloquium, which Dr Emma Bridges and colleagues had organised at the Open University in London. Coupled with a train journey there and back re-reading Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon (of which more below), this made for a wonderfully myth-haunted day. Continue reading →
Last Thursday’s Oxford launch for Peter Hughes and Vahni Capildeo was by some margin the most fun I’ve had on licensed premises with a portable PA system. Both poets read brilliantly; the audience was engaged and responsive and laughed at all the right moments; the Oxford Wine Café’s friendly staff and delicious wines kept everyone suitably lubricated; and if the number of books bought and signed is any indication, the poems genuinely resonated with people. Continue reading →
I’m delighted to announce the Oxford launch of Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (a Poetry Book Society choice) and Peter Hughes’s Cavalcanty on Thursday 7th April 2016 at 6pm, The Oxford Wine Café on the corner of Little Clarendon Street and Walton Street, Oxford.
These are two of the most exciting books to have been published in the UK in recent months and I’ll have more to say in a future post about why I rate them so highly. But for now the essential details are:
– Doors open 6pm, readings at 6.30.
– Free admission and free wine while stocks last, but please let me know if you’re coming so we can cater accordingly (you can use the contact form here).
– The Oxford Wine Café, Little Clarendon Street, Jericho, Oxford, OX1 2HU