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:
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
Last week was bookended by opera. On Monday I sent composer Philip Sunderland the second full draft of the libretto for our March 2016 collaboration The Glass Knight, and on Friday I experienced the closest thing to secular transfiguration at the opening night of Longborough Festival Opera‘s magnificent Tristan und Isolde. Continue reading
For some people modernism ends with The Waste Land and a handful of extracts from the Cantos, after which poetry returns to its proper course via the Movement, Hughes, Heaney, the New Generation and onwards to today’s dominant voices.
The counter-position is that modernism never went away, and that (often at a distance from literary London) it produced some of the most powerful work of the past century: MacDiarmid in Scotland, Bunting in Northumbria, Hill & Prynne in their different orbits around Cambridge. Continue reading
I’m delighted that Modern Poetry in Translation have chosen my versions of three descents to the classical underworld as their featured poem of the month. You can read the poems here (and I’d also recommend exploring the wealth of other poems available on the MPT website). Continue reading
A few days ago David Wheatley tweeted in response to Joey Connolly’s essay on prize culture in the latest Poetry Review and said what I suspect a lot of people have been thinking: Continue reading
Last week an editor I like and respect asked for edits to two of my poems to correct for a couple of minor blemishes. In both cases the eventual changes were small, but for one of them it transformed the poem. A few comfortable words got excised and I found some less comfortable ones to replace them. In the process, the tone of the whole thing shifted (for the better). Objectively this is unsurprising, but I still found it odd how a small tweak at the end projected back into the rest of the poem and altered the extant rest-of-it.
By chance I then stumbled across a more profound example of the same thing in Geoffrey Hill’s early poem “In Memory of Jane Fraser”. Continue reading
For me, poetry is made from sound and only truly exists when it is performed (even if the performance comes from the silent voice in our own heads). This isn’t to downplay the importance of syntactic meaning, visual form or any number of other elements; but at its heart poetry is a form of spoken music (something I’ve argued before and will no doubt do so again).
I came across an interesting variation on this after meeting up with my former headmaster a few weeks ago. David Raeburn knows more about Greek tragedy as living, performed drama than anyone else I know. Continue reading
I’m excited (and mildly daunted) that next week we’ll be opening submissions for Other Countries, the anthology that Claire Trévien and I are co-editing as part of the Rewiring History project. Continue reading
Last week my wife and I ignored the flooding to travel to Cardiff for the opening night of WNO’s La Traviata – a revival of David McVicar’s 2008/2009 staging as part of the 2014 Fallen Women season. It’s a powerful production: late 19th century realism playing out across Violetta’s fallen tombstone (enlarged to a scale that’s not so much memento mori as a reduction of everything else on stage to fleeting memento vivere). Continue reading