Friday, February 26, 2016

notes on Lisa Samuels, Tomorrowland (2009) - 1

I'm a long-term fan of Lisa Samuels' poetry and I've written some enthusiastic pieces about it.

With Tomorrowland and its successors she moved to book-length poems, and that gave me some difficulties as a reader.  My lifestyle was much better adapted to thinking about short poems (less reading, more pondering). I didn't know how to get started on a book like this.

That all changed when I listened to the CD that accompanied Out of Everywhere 2, Emily Critchley's recent anthology of experimental writing by women poets. This included Lisa reading a section of Tomorrowland ("Landed Gently"),  a wonderfully eloquent reading set against a minimal but vivid soundscape.

This was something I could listen to again and again as I drove around on daily business. But I didn't have to listen more than once to be gripped by its steadily unfolding narrative of arrivals at remote islands: of living in the prospective mood: the seeding of new civilisations, cultures, colonies, epidemics... - a narrative more easily sensed over great sweeps than by burrowing in to small passages like the one I've transcribed below.

Was there, I emailed her, a complete recording of Tomorrowland?  Yes there was, a double-CD published in 2012. And now I've got it, and it's great.

[Image source:]


"hark the tui rises with perfume" ("All the buildings made of voices", p. 73)

Tui = endemic New Zealand passerine bird


           The blitz has eyes reacts to this extremity
So follow, as your unraveled testament reminds me
With its too-short cavalcade and surgeon's wheel.
A curious act of total newness deified by its dissenting flower --
(you cannot smell the newsprint pressed up
to your face, pervading) every Eula's short-hand town
Best-selling semi-fictional and grey.

Archaeologists love rubbish, after all, and we can't tuck
enough of Scotland in our spoil haps, nor Yorkshire cattletrap
third-year Mexican rubbish art dance cart manual
transmission, Japanese embroidery, American solids
and all the island habitats so Wittgensteinian.
We need some digging surface to find lies below
we need some secret networks with which to build sincerity
pikes for all our aching heads. We need a bluet sphere
to calm our material surfeit of indemni-cards, Freud and void
having convinced us they are totally in love with everything we might
imagine self to be. You have to ask who owns what and why.
The view you can't have is like 'I understand.'

"It's all good" (p. 19)

(My almost-random extract covers the end of a paragraph in which virtually all the lines are capitalized, and the beginning of another in which they aren't.)

Bluet = small delicate patch-forming herbs from N. America, esp. Houstonia - typically blue in colour and from a decorative point of view vaguely resembling lobelias or forget-me-nots.

Bluets, or Quaker Ladies (Houstonia caerulea)

[Image source:, photo by Janet Novak]


Thursday, February 25, 2016

F O T O, poems 11 - 20

near Övre Soppero

11.  (The lakes) 

The long hours fall faster
than an accident

in the days we pay for ¾
the days we meant.

12.  (Stray reindeer)

A lumbering bin with flies, funny and pettish;
while the herd ran in a groove on the fell, between mists,

you lay near the dwellings, where nobody knows your language,
where your antlers are sticks, and your eye a dim beast’s.

13.  (Cotton-grass ― Eriophorum vaginatum)

The softness of water but not the wetness,
silky fluff, tuvull.

It chops the air. Bed-linen
grew up from the dark pool.

14.  (Derelict shed ― Lainioälven)

There is no building to last. It lives
to be a hindrance when it’s empty.

A seashell though delayed on the gentle beach
trails its home-soul into nonentity.

15.  (The bygd)

In the crook of the river’s elbow
grows the human country, a flat pan

smoothed out by the ice
to write your name on, hembygdsman!

16.  (Flowery meadow)

Beside the river Lainio
the rainbow of spring

rolled into one with summer
is passionate from hard waiting

17.  (Laura walking away, Nordkapp Express passing by)

The river persists. Behind a single grasshead
it roars under the large sky. You swayed on tufty mesas

in a fringe of the meadow tousled with one-off paths,
and looped with camera-strap, were a swift gazer.

18.  (Brudborste ― Melancholy Thistle ― Cirsium heterophyllum)

From long rhizomes seventeen long rods
flare slowly in the warm, damp air; but not for us.  

I saw them ―.  pleading in colour like the mouths
of baby birds, or a mouth flushed for a kiss.        

19.  (Övre Soppero Birches)

This has been children’s land: here’s a ball, a clothes-peg;
a plank that bounces over a grassy crater...

And the trees are ringbarked, too; but the twickering crowns
dwell on it calmly, all their good and bad: their own nature. 

20.  (Mum and Dad, picnic on table)

After many years... these are the cups, blue and yellow!
Perhaps smaller. Taste it. Taste your tea.

The plastic is only a little scoured, it decays slowly.
(A blank screen crackled with faces ― finally me.) 


Back-story: the road-trip continues up through Lapland. Poems 14-20 are located beside the Lainio, a northern river. 

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (1915)

Anton Hansch, Alpine Panorama with a Waterfall 

["The sun grows dark" is the name of one of the many sections in Richard Strauss' final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony (1915).]

Adorno remarks about the opening:

"The poverty of the sunrise of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is caused not merely by banal sequences, but by its very splendor. For no sunrise, not even the one in the high mountains, is pompous, triumphal, stately, but each occurs faintly and diffidently, like the hope that everything may yet turn out well, and precisely in the inconspicuousness of the mightiest of all lights lies that which is so poignantly overwhelming." (Minima Moralia 72, 1945)

Someone on the Gramophone forum adds:

"As ever Adorno is so precise and insightful. The crass pomposity of Strauss' Alpine Symphony is, for me, quite the most superficial attempt to depict nature in all music. But then to quote Stravinsky 'I would like to admit Richard Strauss' music to whatever purgatory punishes triumphant banality'."

The Alpine Symphony had occupied a similar cultural role in Germany to, say, the Georgian poets in the UK. - A sort of whipping-boy, but perhaps with even greater animus. That the aged Strauss had not seen fit to exile himself from Germany during the Nazi era left bitter feelings. And as a Wagnerite he provided a convenient substitute - a subject on which to confirm one's moral high-mindedness - for those who found Wagner's own music too formidable to sacrifice. Then there was that Viennese chocolate-boxiness that was suddenly making everyone feel horribly unwell; and the alpen-worship, the homeland-soil-worship that had so easily been perverted, and programme music itself, which had long formed (with the usual glaring inconsistencies) a useful social fireside where wits could compete amicably in a spitting contest.

[What is perhaps as relevant - or probably a good deal more so - is Strauss' apparent reversal of his initially positive opinion of Schoenberg; this was from 1909 at which point Strauss' work is considered to take a more conservative turn...]

How variably the ear can hear things! I don't find the Alpine Symphony pompous - quite the contrary, I find it - breathtakingly - balanced. Where others hear second-rate musical ideas, I hear music doing things it had never done before ("The sun grows dark" being one good example). Where others hear superficiality I hear delicacy, where others hear crassness I hear originality. (- And I do consider myself fairly well-versed in the music of both crass pomposity and visionary nature-realization!) But never mind what I hear. What you might not expect from Adorno's words is that there are other ways of hearing this music. Straussians of course admire it; you'd expect that. More surprisingly there are others, like me, who admit to not really liking Strauss yet consider the Alpine Symphony something else altogether.

[- It is not adequately described as programmatic - long sections like the summit and the finale gradually dissipate their programmatic openings - they begin when you stop moving and your heart slowly stops its thumping, but then they transform into unapplied music.]

I feel embarrassed on Adorno's behalf, for this reason: the paltriness of the argument. Even supposing it true that Strauss's music is pompous and empty, even supposing it true that all sunrises are in some sense as diffident as Adorno claims, even supposing that all humans confronted with a sunrise register that diffidence and nothing else, even supposing that the human imagination had never conceived and never would conceive of sunrise as warmly triumphant - even so, can Adorno's argument be understood as anything more than the crudest naturalism? When the hidebound bourgeoisie filed through the Salon des Refusés laughing and poking each other in the ribs, Why, the sun was not green, the fields were not pink! .. - isn't that the intellectual level of Adorno's "precise insight"? Logically speaking.

But of course it's not about logic. What Adorno was writing about was triumph itself. Triumph, jackbooted at the Brandenberg Gate, Triumph that Prussian, Hitlerite, Roman old enemy had to be snuffed out altogether. Triumph was a deadly enemy, an obscene joke, Triumph must form no element at all in our conception of reality. When the empty rhetoric, the stale evil of Triumphalism was still heard on the concert-platform then one must make a demonstration. And one must.

When evil comes, artistic comprehension is one of the small things that gets ruined.

Yet Adorno, pupil of Berg, was a great music critic. Reading the passage again - by the way, the context in Minima Moralia doesn't help much - it begins to feel evident that Adorno's attack is pitched just where it is exactly because he does hear the splendour of that sunrise, and exactly because he does perfectly understand the relevance of Strauss' work to the country of the high mountains. He wants us to know that he knows what it's like on mountains. (25 years later, a mountain summit played a material part in Adorno's death.)

But can Adorno have been "wrong"? I don't think so. I believe the "banal sequences" that Adorno mentions without further specification were really there, though for me they are undiscoverable. It was like a tone of voice that grated - a tone whose meaning, far beyond anything so conscious as an intention on the composer's part, was then unmistakable. Contemporaries have a cultural hotline into the work of their time. Later the language of that moment gets lost.


Note 1. I also like the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, 1945. ...And the early Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Don Quixote....

Note 2. The "progress of a day" form was extremely popular. Below is an ongoing list of other works I've come across. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony could be suggested as a predecessor, though this doesn't really cover a whole day. As in Strauss's tone poem, the Vaughan Williams and Holst pieces make capital of the resemblance, in certain respects, of the calm of dawn to the calm of dusk; they can arrive at a satisfying ending that recalls the beginning, and the whole work is both preceded by and followed by the silence of the night.

Frederick Delius, Paris - The Song of a Great City (Night Piece for Orchestra), 1899. Obviously this isn't dawn till dusk, but it still seems part of the tradition.
Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2 ("A London symphony"), first performed March 1914.
Eric Coates, From the Countryside, 1915 (this is really just a small suite, but like the others it shows that there was now a rich musical language for suggesting different times of the day)
Gustav Holst, Hammersmith, 1930 (for military band)

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899) should also be mentioned, though it does not really cover a whole night.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

prelude to Kingsley

Last summer, I had a visitor from the north, my old friend Richard, now a professor. One of the things we did was have a walk round Avebury. After a sufficiency of stones and speculations, we went to have lunch at a little cafe behind the exhibition centre, and next door there was an interesting book sale. Despite the interest (the books were old, unusual and almost free), despite my determination to buy something, I had trouble finding exactly what I wanted, and the upshot was that I came away with Charles Kingsley's Poems, one of those lovely small-format hardbacks that are so handy for stowing in a backpack.

That summer day and its flowers now seem a long time ago, ( I remember seeing among the stones a nice group of the stemmed variety of Dwarf Thistle;  and as usual my heart throbbed faster as I mistook this for the great Wiltshire rarity Tuberous Thistle ...) - but now it's the shabby little blue book that has taken stage-centre.

It so happens I had never read anything by Kingsley before.  And so far all I've read is a verse play The Saint's Tragedy ; the first significant thing he published, apparently (in 1847).

I learnt this from Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism and the Emergence of Secular Culture , clearly an extremely interesting book by Devon Fisher published in 2012. Check it out on Google Books.

Kingsley was of course at one time an immensely popular author (besides being, eventually, chaplain to Queen Victoria), so his books (like Kipling's or Dickens') now form a deep geological layer in second-hand bookshops. Nevertheless I was rather surprised, visiting Laura Ashley in Bath yesterday, to find pages from an old biography of Kingsley being used as designer wallpaper. I picked up a few facts about The Saint's Tragedy there, too.

Browsing through clothes in Laura Ashley wasn't, of course, our only free Bath entertainment. We were also donating books to the Oxfam shop. One of my own donations was a large volume of Browning, which I opened in a valedictory way over lunch. It fell open at "The Heretic's Tragedy", a brilliant performance first published in Men and Women in 1855. I wondered if Browning remembered the name of Kingsley's play and if his poem obliquely comments on it: both works take a dim view of burning people at the stake, but that's not really a surprise. Kingsley's play is fiercely anti-Catholic; Browning shared the common sense of outrage that followed the re-establishment of the English Roman Catholic hierarchy (Universalis Ecclesiae, Sept 1850), but if "The Heretic's Tragedy" intends a glance at contemporary events it's artfully indirect.  (Kingsley in turn might have been influenced by the title of Browning's A Soul's Tragedy (April 1846) but that seems less likely.)

The stemmed variant of Cirsium acaule (Dwarf Thistle)

[Image source:,1, from John Crellin's excellent site. He took this photo not on the Mendips but at Charlton Mackrell in south Somerset.]

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Friday, February 19, 2016

W. B. Yeats: The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart

Willie Yeats in 1898, lithograph by Will Rothenstein

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]


All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

                                                (from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)

All the lines are enriched alexandrines (that is to say with extra unstressed syllables), but the first three are a specific music because of the strong medial breaks visually indicated by commas. They more or less split, amoeba-like, into restless trimeters.

This will be the most spirited part of the poem for many readers, with many detonations. In particular, setting “The cry of the child” directly after the word “old” is a wonderfully intelligent piece of concision – it tells us everything about how we are to hear this cry (in stark contrast to what it might connote): hopeless, hungry, and trapped in the cold years. But after all, the first three lines are only an introduction; we don’t know where this is going yet.

The fourth line has a quite different music. It flows from end to end, maximizing the enrichment (six accents but eighteen syllables). But though the auditory image of a rippling, unimpeded stream is certainly present, there can be no doubt that the climax of the line is “a rose”, which emerges with quiet definition at the point where, because of the preceding lines, we have learnt to expect a pause. I suppose it does not need spelling out that “a rose” blossoms in mid-line as in “the deeps of my heart”. [It is odd how this last phrase marries “the creak of a lumbering cart”, denying the opposition between them. This offers a subsidiary hint at re-integrating the lover into his surroundings and accepting the “wronging” as a natural event] 

The rose in European poetry since the troubadours is a symbol that has drifted a long way from its floral source. I suppose you assume, as I do, that this rose is red, but this idea leads not towards horticulture but towards an idealized image incorporating other complex enclosures; hearts, vaginas and heavens. It’s an image that blends the desired with the desire, so you may say that here the rose means what the lover is experiencing, which is created at least as much by himself as by the person he is addressing. It is what he is dreaming about; but it is also his dream.  

We are now clear about the relation between the opening lines and the rose of the title; they “wrong” it. Do they wrong the lover or his beloved? Is he really a victim, a nurturer, or both at the same time, or in fact neither? What is certain is that the rose is now associated with weakness, and if we feel that it might be less self-regarding to address the weakness of the child’s ignorant wailing and the ploughman’s grinding poverty, rather than feeling annoyed by them, we may not have much sympathy with the lover’s torments.

This reflection keeps coming back as we pick our way though the second stanza, which repeats the rhyme-sounds of the first stanza but without its force.  A wrong “too great to be told” feels like an inadequate expression, and the potential energy of “build” – qualified as it already is by being only a hunger to build – is further undermined by “sit” and “apart”.

But these indications of feebleness do lead to a subtly surprising outcome. When the last line comes round again, it now appears against a different background, and gains a certain paradoxical strength. If the rose seemed a bit pallid at the end of Stanza 1, it seems to glow at the end of Stanza 2. You might express the effect in these words: Nonetheless, it still blossoms. Perhaps all the more perfectly in adversity.  

As it might be: someone who feels their belief (opinion, philosophy, religion, love) slighted and collapsing continues to assert: Nevertheless, there is something in it .... there are many things we don’t understand .... somewhere, there is a happy land ... so that it is on the verge of ceasing to be a belief and remains only as a dream; then the persistence of the dream and the fact of the past belief provide a sort of testimony (at least in one’s own mind) that underwrites the long-desired Maybe. Yeats would later write of “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”, but in those very words would cling on to the sentimental romanticism of earlier days. Maybe it had after all hidden the key to transforming the world, though he had not found it.           


Thursday, February 18, 2016

F O T O, poems 1 - 10

View of Indalsälven

[Image source:]

1. (Indalsälven after five years)

Bare rock, and the winter, made this.
Absence made this, too.

I still go on calling it homeland.
Yes, sometimes I do.

2. (Summer cottage)

Sommarstugan glimmers, already solid with life. Once I hoped:
min mormor, too, might somewhere resist the winters

to greet us with trays of flowers as before...
hot from more gainful lands; shy, car-worn visitors.

3. (By Faxälven)

One morning years ago. Near the caravan Kalle
HOW! he would pounce and hoop and pounce

in the squeaking roadside grasses, here flies Kalle  
HOW! he would pin that mouse!

4. (A lake on the way north)

Finger on map: Ångermanälven leads, here, into Lappland.
V Ä S T E R B O T T E N S L Ä N. Trees, and a jagged gap

in the trees, and then more trees pass over the car and file away.
I woke up, and stared at the map. With what attention you sleep!

5. (Coffee-break)

And the car broke open with fever
to tumble us out and swim with the mosquitoes

in the air, in the world. Leaping clumps of heather.
To describe it: unfinished, the border where change grows.  

6. (The lay-by)

While we sauntered here
the trees never pondered us.

And what can I hear from needles and sap:
their no joy, no loneliness?

7.  (Laura wearing a logger’s cap)

A hat waits to become a hat.
It waits on the shelf

above the coat-hooks. It changes you
into someone else.

8.  (By the stream’s edge)

This grandfather rock. Dumbly, it takes it:
ice, torrent, ice, etc. Slowly, it wears into a hull.

I’m dipping my feet, I’m making a party.
Every bird and leaf flutters: nothing sits still. 

9.  (Laura holding an apple)

Hundred forests ¾ more than that, one forest;
behind each chord of spruce-horizons

are deeper, quieter chords... a pinebranch opens
on reedy, dancing water.  Not one green apple ripens.

10.  (Crossing the arctic circle)

I won’t often stretch to this. It is a real frontier:
northward, a sunny nail rides round midsummer night.

But a good country, also, lies an inch above my head.
There I go straight and handsome; I never read or write.


F O T O is a poem of 100 poemlets that I wrote about 15 years ago. Each of the poemlets corresponded to a holiday snap. The backstory in Poems 1 - 10  is that I and my friend Laura meet up with my mum and dad at the family cottage in the Indal valley, and the next day we all set off on a road trip to the far north of Sweden.

The statement at the end of Poem 9 is, somewhat to my own surprise, accurate. Neither the crab-apple Malus sylvestris nor the domestic apple Malus x domestica grow further north than central Sweden.

The nail in Poem 10 was, I believe, an unconscious memory of R.P. Lister's A Journey in Lapland, p. 124.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016


A word I came across while reading up about prospective summer destinations in the mountains of Jämtland.

He hadde a gay surplys
As whit as is the blosme vp on the rys    (Chaucer, Miller's Tale)

Chaucer would have meant blackthorn (or maybe hawthorn) in this case. Generally, "Rys" means twiggy, bushy, brushy material. The nearest one-word translation might be "spray" but that's itself a little bit old-fashioned now.

"Ris", "rys" or "rice" is a word that was common in Middle English but sadly has dropped out of standard modern English completely, though it still survives in some rural usage e.g. in parts of Scotland and the Orkneys.

In Swedish it's still a widely used word, reflecting a nation with much closer links to the forest. It's used in a great many contexts but perhaps especially about such very common sub-shrubs as bilberry, ling and dwarf-birch.

(In southern England the word survived longest when it was transferred to agricultural practices, for example to talk about the dry haulms of beans.)

Middle English Dictionaryrī̆s (n.(1)

Oxford English Dictionary, RICE, n.1  (Sign in with your library card to view)

Svenska Akademiens Ordbok, RIS, sb1

Definition 2 here is "grenvärk (på träd eller buske eller buskliknande växt) med många, jämförelsevis korta, mer eller mindre hopgyttrade grenar eller kvistar (stundom om själva grenvärket med bortseende från löv, blommor o. knoppar)" . Essentially this means: "stem-work (of tree, bush or bushlike plant) with many, relatively short, more or less agglomerated stems or nodes (sometimes the stem-work itself, setting aside leaves, flowers and buds).

This is helpful but it suggests the precision of a botanical description. "Ris" is a proper country word, invented by people who work with nature rather than make analyses of it.

"Risig" is typically used to comment on land that is difficult to walk on because covered in tough springy sub-shrubs.


But when I mentioned the word to my mum, the first thought that came to her was "Var snäll, eller smakar riset!" ("Be good, or taste the ris!"). My grandmother always kept a bilberry "ris" on the shelf that surrounded the hood above the kitchen stove (a place where you also kept boxes of matches and where you could dry cloths). It was a mainly symbolic instrument of chastisement, more commonly used for sundry domestic whiskings.


In both languages the word is homonymous with the word for one of the world's most important foodgrains. But "rice" in the latter sense derives from OF or Latin ("risa"), ultimately via Greek with analogues in Sanskrit and Dravidian. Whereas the spriggy word that I'm talking about here derives from common old Germanic (OE/ON "hris").


[Image source:]


Gathering birch-ris for the floor of a "kåta" (Same hut)

[Image source:$00403272/233/primaryMaker-asc?t:state:flow=58e0162e-2ec6-4b9f-a473-a96c8f95a55e . One of Anna Riwkin's hundreds of photos of Sami daily life,  taken in Swedish Lappland in about 1950.  The Moderna Museet has made them all available on-line. ]

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Leicester town

Rear: Whitney, Weider, Palmer. Front: Townsend, Chapman

[Image source:; photo from Disc (Jan 24th, 1970), an interview with Roger Chapman answering awkward questions]

My friend he's a tailor
Up in Leicester town

Leicester is, as we can hardly forget with its team currently atop the Premier League, a city. But it's also a county town, it has a town hall, and the expression "Leicester town" is traditional and still used. It's in Shakespeare (Richard III), and in ballads:

Now Wolsey was, in olden time,
    A man of high renown;
And I went forth to seek his grave,
    Close by fair Leicester town...  (Samuel Bamford, 1829)

When he arrived at Leicester town he went into an inn,
He called for an ostler, and boldly walked in;
He called for liquors of the best, he being a roving blade,
And quickly fixed his eyes upon the chambermaid... ("The Leicester Chambermaid", Anonymous)


My friend he's a tailor
Up in Leicester town
He works his own shop there
And I know he's all right now
He's got his way of thinking
Knows that I've got mine
There's mostly only one thing
We agree on all the time

We love our lives and our ladies
And we're sure that you love yours
We want to care for each other
That's what we're here for
He loves his lady and baby
And I'm sure that you love yours
So don't go pulling your switches
We don't need your wars

(Family, from "Lives and Ladies" by John "Charlie" Whitney and Roger Chapman)

The final track on Anyway (Nov 1970) is a double song on an anti-war theme. It begins with "Masters of War", then goes into a great, angry guitar solo*, then without changing rhythm subtly changes its mood to something more homespun and intimate, and starts over again with "Lives and Ladies".

Family's right-heartedness - a very masculine right-heartedness, certainly - had great authority for me as a teenager. And I still think of Family, along with Charles Dickens, as the moral teachers of my youth, far more than any real schoolteachers or dons.  This song, as Roger Chapman said in a pre-release interview, was not at all radical, it appealed to a wide social consensus: his mate was running a small business. Obviously Chapman's pals - the salesman and the tailor - in "Lives and Ladies", were portrayed in a pointedly un-rock'n'roll manner.  (Though as a matter of fact the salesman was the "Williamson" who co-wrote "Strange Band" with Chapman during an impromptu jam in his front room.) Chapman himself had been a musician for a decade, but a notably down-to-earth one.

A critique of "Lives and Ladies" could start from the observation that it came out of a nation who were scarcely threatened by any immediate prospect of war. More to the point, the song believes that if we care for each other then we can't be, by that innocent form of life, in any way promoting war. It imagined the world as unglobalized. Only a few people, at that time, certainly not me, had any inkling that the innocent pursuit of a caring domestic life in Britain had impacts elsewhere that might promote environmental damage, injustice, poverty and conflict. War has its masters, no doubt, but war is also what happens when ordinary people who would like nothing more than to be left alone to care for each other are so desperate and so frightened that they have to fight.


*Those of us who admire Charlie Whitney as one of the greatest of rock guitarists aren't usually thinking of his solos; he was much more than a soloist, he was a musician. But Family's later albums did produce a sequence of wonderfully constructed and subtle solos, of which this was the first:

1. Lives and Ladies (Anyway, 1970)
2. Take Your Partners (Fearless, 1971)
3. Glove (Bandstand, 1972)
4. Ready to go (Bandstand, 1972)
5. Buffet Tea for Two (It's Only a Movie, 1973)

[Image soruce:]


Friday, February 12, 2016

Hjalmar Söderberg: Doktor Glas (1905)

Ulf Palme as Gregorius and Per Oscarsson as Glas in Mai Zetterling's 1968 movie

[Image source:]

Doktor Glas is a book that I thought about a lot after I'd finished reading it. Not because there seemed to be any problem with the reading that I needed to resolve. It was more that I needed to get away from the Doktor's own narration in order to gather my thoughts; so insidiously had Söderberg led me into seeing things from Glas' point of view.

Even then it came as a shock, leafing through the Swedish copy on my shelves, to find the editor discussing whether there is a psykopatisk element to the narrator's character. That notion seemed wrong, but what really shocked me was that up till that moment I hadn't even conceived the possibility of anyone thinking it. 

The comparison of Glas with the narrator of Chekhov's Shooting-Party (see my earlier post) is fascinating; by chance I read the novels successively. The contrast, too.

In Chekhov's book the transformation in our idea of the narrator (from "bumptious" to "a little self-centred" to "brutish" to...) means that by the end we can barely credit anything of what we were told earlier; the whole narrative reveals itself as a journey into a diseased mind, its veracity entirely compromised.

Not so in Doktor Glas. In this book the transparent veracity of the narrator, inasmuch as he lyrically relates his personal impressions and the summer life of Stockholm - these pages (the bulk of the book), being a significant, perhaps the most significant, aspect of its great power ... well, Dr Glas as narrator remains almost, if not quite, untainted by our realization - we are apt to bury it, it's so inconvenient - that he has after all committed a murder. We continue to interpret the sentence "Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn't true" as rather understating, if anything, the extreme honesty of the narrative. Whereas Chekhov's narrator (though perhaps ultimately intending a confession) fills his pages with subterfuge, Glas seems never to hesitate about confessing anything that he knows to confess.  

The question about truth arises, nevertheless. It becomes, in this case, not a matter of honesty but of whether Glas is capable of assessing other characters accurately. Generally his insights are strikingly keen, but no book makes it clearer that such keenness is never absolute, may indeed imply correspondingly exceptional blindnesses; above all our doubts concern Glas' view of Gregorius and his wife. Glas makes no bones about it; he finds Gregorius loathsome, and finds him loathsome long before Mrs Gregorius talks about the marriage. Glas is, we feel, ready to condemn Gregorius on any grounds whatever. As for Fru Gregorius, Söderberg's book is a pitiless examination of the illusions of love. Through the very transparency of Glas' own descriptions, we see that Fru Gregorius is not at all like the image of the loved one that overwhelms Glas' imagination. Pejoratively, you might say she is more shallow, more ordinary (Glas is definitely not ordinary). Glas in love completely ignores the commonsensical view that one might phrase in this way: After all, she has proven unfaithful, she has taken a lover... But the book is a moral minefield here. If Glas' own judgments are plainly skewed, he is also entirely successful in destroying our faith in such conventional social judgments. But what, for instance, do we make of this?

The very first time I ever saw her it struck me how unlike all others she is. She isn't like a woman of the world, or a middle-class wife, or a woman of the people. Mostly the last, perhaps; particularly as she sat there, just then, on the church steps, with her fair hair free and bared to the sun, for she had taken off her hat and laid it beside her. But a woman from a primitive folk, or one that never existed, where class distinctions had not yet begun, where "the people" still had not become the lower classes. A daughter of a free tribe.

Does this really say anything concrete about Helga, or is it just what Glas would be bound to think about any woman he fell in love with? Or  -  Isn't it merely the truth about every woman, the truth that only love discovers? Or does it reflect the situation in which Glas finds Helga - discontentedly not free -, which makes her seem paradoxically all the more kin to a freedom that preoccupies her and ought to be her birthright? 

In a way Glas' moral crusade seems to be terribly (yet somehow comically) misguided, the bubble of a perfervid imagination; yet who doubts that Fru Gregorius has a right to her own choices, to happiness and freedom? Glas is unable to give her happiness or her own choices, but he does give her freedom. And because he doesn't tell her what he's done and doesn't seek to take advantage of her, there is indeed something heroic about what Glas does. It might even be that, after the book is ended, Helga might find a happiness; a bourgeois kind of happiness that the un-besotted Glas would probably pour scorn on.

If the book continues thus to revolve in our thoughts, in another way this is satisfying; we perhaps don't need to make final judgments about characters that, as the book shows us, we can never entirely know.

There's another way in which Söderberg reminds me of Chekhov, who commented on the difficulty of eliminating a pistol-shot from his plays. Aesthetically this novel seems to require its murder (really, such an implausible kind of murder for anyone to commit) in order to be a complete image; that's an aspect of its era. A few years later Joyce and Proust would show how to do without this. Söderberg's era is characterized by this essential cheapness.

I actually read the book, not in my own Swedish copy, but in Paul Britten Austin's 1963 translation, reissued in 2002.

Some translation notes:

July 2

What's the matter, I asked. The word "ovillkorligen" ("inevitably") has been omitted.

- Last night he raped me. As good as raped me.
- I natt tog han mig med våld. Så gott som med våld.
 (Literally, "took me by force, as good as by force" - but rape in Swedish is våldta.)

What does Fru Gregorius mean by her qualification? Gregorius seems to have mentally bullied her into submission with talk of duty and emotional blackmail about his salvation. So the most likely sense is that, though he did not actually use physical force, the effect was the same: she was bullied into doing something she did not want to do. It's significant that Glas never thinks of Helga refusing to comply, even with the excuse of her health - in this marriage, that is apparently not a possibility - Gregorius' power is absolute.

How reliable is Helga's account? She has a powerful motive for exaggerating the brutality of marital attentions that have become hateful to her. Yet it is certain that Gregorius at any rate begs for, and has, sex with his wife while believing that this seriously endangers her health; he effectively confirms this by his reaction later. My reading is that Helga does pour out the truth; that a doubt about her honesty here would make the novel less interesting, not more so. But she has not told her husband that she hates him, and he of course would utterly reject the imputation that he has raped her.  

But how would it look if the rich brought along artistically embellished silver cups and the poor, maybe, a brandy glass?

This is part of the comic report of Gregorius on the communion-question. The original has "ett brännvinsglas" - brännvin being a general term for strong spirits, typically a vodka flavoured with spices such as caraway.  "Vodka-glass" or "shot-glass" gives a better idea of the class-connotations in this imaginary sacrilege of the communion service. Though Gregorius is a conservative or at any rate prudently conventional priest, he is also a man of the world; there is something of gusto and of plain-speaking in this clerical chatter.  Gregorius comfortably conceives his doctor as a brother-professional. As a matter of fact Glas does lead, to outward appearance, the clubman's life of a male professional. It is only within that he sees himself so differently.

Impossible to decide, whether he's more fool or fox.

"mera får än räv" - more sheep than fox. It remains difficult to decide. Though Glas succeeds in duping Gregorius, though he may well associate Gregorius's despised views with a sheep-like stupidity, yet Gregorius' worldly success (like his sexual drive) does, we suspect, make Glas feel a little inferior - though this he does not know to confess. We come away from the book with very little solid idea of how Gregorius really thinks about anything. In certain social contexts he is, we imagine, very shrewd. Yet there is no clue that he has any conception of his wife's, or Glas', inner lives.      


A year after the publication of Doktor Glas, John Galsworthy's A Man of Property also turns on a marital rape, though Soames Forsyte, at least as troubled by his own act as Gregorius, doesn't of course call it that. Ibsen lies behind both novels. Galsworthy's novel is notable technically for limiting its points of view to members of the Forsyte clan - sometimes admittedly stretching credulity to achieve it. The points of view of Irene and Bosinney are excluded, and some have criticized this as preventing empathy with Irene's difficult situation. But the idea I suppose is to put the reader in the position of the family - and of Soames in particular: to experience to the full their frustrations and to recognize that such things as they do, we also have the potential to do.

Another analogue, of sorts. Gregorius, even through Glas' unfriendly eyes, makes a far more acceptable impression on us than the instantly hateful lawyer Robert Dempster in George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" in Scenes of Clerical Life .

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lee Harwood / Intercapillary Space / Anne Stevenson

My plan's worked. I've tricked myself into churning out an essay (of sorts, anyhow) without too much painful or protracted introspection.

The trick was to dash off a whole lot of separate posts (loosely about early poems of Lee Harwood)  and then jam them all together. The final outcome is now up on Intercapillary Space.

The effect is colourful, at any rate. I suppose this type of approach wouldn't work for a lot of poets. But for Harwood it seemed to. It was as near as I could get to emulating Harwood's own lightness of touch.

I'll leave the original posts up, for now, because they still belong. But at some point I might take them away and leave the Intercapillary sculpture teetering alone in space, without scaffolding.

One upshot of this hasty publication is that I don't feel I've really finished thinking about Harwood, not even for now.

Here's a sample of later Harwood. It re-orients things, but I didn't want that in the essay, I'd have got overwhelmed.

I want nowhere else
but to he here,
whether crouching in a stone windbreak
on a cloud bound summit,
or coming off the slopes battered and soaked
into a dark soft tunnel of forest.
(A strange form of pleasure you may say.)

But just to be here in this place.
The deserted remote valleys
dotted with ruined farms,
hawthorn and rowan growing in their hearths.
Climbing higher to the empty cwm
with its small slashed black lake.
And on up the slopes to the bare rock ridge
and the summits again.
Nowhere else.
It’s that simple, almost.

(Lee Harwood, from "Waunfawr and after")

Waunfawr is on the southern edge of Snowdonia. Mynydd Mawr is nearby.

Mynydd Mawr from Foel Rûdd

[Image source:]

Harwood was not a doctrinaire alternative poet. In the intro to his Selected Poems he thanked Anne Stevenson and he also dedicated at least one poem to her.

Anne Stevenson, I must explain for non-poet readers, is emphatically a name that belongs to the other side. Which means that I don't know her poetry at all well.

Googling brought me to a 2010 volume of Voyages over Voices: Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson, ed. Angela Leighton.

Everything is so different in the mainstream! I don't mean the poetry itself, that's a given, but the way people talk about it. They quote Frost, Yeats, Stevens and Bishop as authorities.

I get taken aback by John Lucas ripping in to Rosemary Tonks' poetry. Then there's John Redmond being savage about Anne Stevenson's own poetry.

You never really get this in alternative circles. It's idle to pretend we all like each other's poetry, but we sure don't see much point in saying so. If there's a body of work that does nothing for me, I just don't mention it. I'm waiting to see if I get to like it. For a lifetime, if necessary.

When we alt-poetry types are savage, (and privately, we sometimes are: we don't always keep a united front) then it's always about politics. For me it's axiomatic that if you criticize a poem, you criticize its author and the basis is, in a broad sense, political disagreement. For Lucas and Redmond, however, the situation seems to be quite different. They have a clear but apparently apolitical idea of "major" poetry. Of course it is a value-laden idea, full of great moral discriminations. But the way they use it affects me, nevertheless, as ultimately judgments of deportment : whether a given poem knows how to behave. For Lucas, Tonks, passim, does not. For Redmond, Stevenson too often tries to fake uncertainties that she doesn't really feel; I'm not quite sure if the worst offence is staging self-doubt or, perhaps, being so lacking in self-doubt that you need to fake it.  I'm the more taken aback, I suppose, because in both these rather random cases it's men criticizing poems by women. It probably is an unfair impression. I would probably have to walk through the door and join the mainstream poetry community before I could think fair thoughts about mainstream poetry debates. That isn't likely. I hope it's useful, at any rate, sometimes to mention the view from the corridor.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lee Harwood, "Question of Geography"

"Question of Geography" has a three-part structure. The structure trembles a little, it's alive - "I can't remember... the details obscured..." - but for the purposes of now we'll stick with those three parts. Each describes a landscape experienced by Harwood at some time in his young life: call them "once", and "another time", and "now". This analysis makes the three seem more disentanglable than they really are. Really, the poem's discovery is a continuous argument. Nevertheless, here's the middle bit.

Ridge in the distance       everything the same
as before                  it must be
The moors edged with pine woods
in the south-west province     a repetition
but the cathedral town unchanged
It makes no difference who was there
all inevitably reduced to the question of
geography or memory

The text operates not with particularity but with the suggestion of particularity.  The landscapes are all different, that's the point of them, yet they must, we feel, have a lot in common with each other. (The repeated idea of a ridge-line confirms this.)

In this middle part of the poem the particularity of what is seen becomes momentarily clearer ("moors edged with pine woods"), just when the particularities of time are at their vaguest: we could easily suppose this was a scene being glimpsed in the present, until mention of the third scene dispels that idea. When, then? Unlike the two outer scenes, it isn't connected with a time of year.

Ashbery and Harwood are both very fond of the phrases "a question of" or "a matter of". They use the phrases in a gorgeous myriad of ways. But to generalize, these phrases assert a fixed point (e.g. geography, in this case) but not a proposition, only a preoccupation.

Never more subtly than here, when the postscript "or memory" immediately undercuts the apparent definiteness of the title phrase, and instead seems to shimmer with all of the earlier elements that were not geographic. I'll come back to that.

At the end, the poem gestures at drawing together its threads and making manifest its discovery, at least about how the two remembered landscapes underlie the present scene.

the others seeming somehow irrelevant in the present excitement
but still real like a very sure background
- you paint over the picture and start on
the new one      but all the same it's still there
beneath the fresh plains of colour

That last line resonates with hidden energies. It makes us pause for a long moment.

But the poem is not in fact purely about landscapes. All around its edges, reticently undefined, are other people. "our garden".. "house" ... "months gone by"... "a repetition" ... "It makes no difference who was there". These very faint footfalls, the experience and the thoughts inflected by other people, become amplified after reading other Harwood poems from the same era.

It matters because it changes the subject of the poem. The poem is not only about change of landscapes but about a lifestyle of impermanence, a lifestyle without "marriage" or "family" or "home", but with changing lovers and changing places. If there's even a certain briskness in that "you paint over the picture", then you might wish to call it a poem about ending relationships. Further, it's a poem about viewing the permanent, "the cathedral town unchanged", from the perspective of impermanence: already with a tint of the ridiculous about it, or at best experienced as "the present excitement".  It's one of the quietest, but one of the defining, British poems of the 1960s.

 * "the south-west province".  Harwood uses the expression several times in poems of this era. It momentarily unsettles location by calling up some Waleyan translation of Li Po; maybe it's Harwood's light-touch joke. But there's no real disguise: you don't get cathedrals in Sichuan. In Harwood's poetry, generally, it isn't about reserve (far from it), it's all about reticence. Which makes so much possible in these poems.

That is, if the distinction between "reserve" and "reticence" can really be maintained. That's one of the questions we need to be asking about Harwood today.

Harwood reading the poem (very beautifully, too)

The full text of "Question of Geography" isn't available on-line.

But here's some poems that are:

"Soft White", "The Final Painting", "The 'Utopia'", "The Words"

"Forestry work no. 1", "Love in the organ loft", "The nine death ships", "Boston Notebook: December 1972", "Massachusetts or On visiting Walden Pond, 1st January 1973", "Portraits 1-4", "The destruction of South Station, Boston", "Nineteenth Century Poem", "Boston Spring", "Old Bosham Bird Watch", "Portraits from my life", "London to Brighton"

"Claret label", "A poem for writers", "Bath-time", "Text for two posters by Ian Brown", "O, O, O,... Northern California", "Coat of arms on wall in ancient city", "Hand from an Exeter cloud", "Summer Solstice", "The artful", "Waunfawr and after", "Cwm Uchaf", "On the ledge", "For Paul/ Coming out of winter"

Mark Ford in the Guardian, celebrating the Collected Poems, and quoting "Rain journal: London: June 65". 

Lee Harwood (photo by Elsa Dorfman)

[Image source:]


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

midnight cloudglow

You should burn some more fuel to post yourself on the spot.

Cruising down off the Cotswold at jct. 17, it's coming up midnight.

Black with the blackness of recent rain and the moon in its final quarter.

Yet not all so dark. Far in the distance, beyond the lias vale,

an orange glow lies over the orange lights on the Bassett ridge,

and it's natural to suppose

that the one must account for the other.

But later, about the time that the chevrons begin, this constellation

splits, the beacon-lights to our right, but the cloud-glow moving sharply left.

Of course, it's Swindon's fountains of light and bus-route,

these thousands can colour the sky;

Bassett is just an outpost.  The living hours accumulate

all that reckless consumption of getting by daily,

the seizure of our long rich projects,

and shoot it up into the night-clouds.

The glow is a paler orange drape all round us,

since now,  we've come off at jct 16

and we're driving down parades of light, with regular

roundabouts, and everything is quiet in the way that towns can be quiet,

with the few late cars, and the foxes barking in the broad verges,

and in the homes the blue flicker of filmed action,

and the steady glow of smartphones

presenting tiny aspirational flows of light,

capsules of being belle of the ball,

imagined just the way it might have been in the days

before we were timesliced. A drinks-can rolling round and round in the carport,

and some late couple, walking the foot-way from somewhere,

as if from innocence.

These unremarkable hours

after the poem is over, when life and its congruent roads mock,

as with phosphur, the belleship breaking on the black, wet alarm.

Who can live long in the ormolu way?  And brutes, you know,..


Sunday, February 07, 2016

Almond (Prunus dulcis)

One of six neglected almond trees along the back road of Cheney Manor Industrial Estate. Trading estates are often good places to look for things, because of the neglect. And no-one minds you getting close to take some photos, especially when the office behind is derelict. (Most of the almonds we see are in small private gardens and then taking pictures of them feels a bit wrong.)

Photos taken 5th February 2016 (a very early year).

Back in the autumn I saw quite a few fruits on these trees. I tried eating the nuts; they were just about OK.

My translation of a poem (momentarily featuring almond-blossom) by Karin Boye from her posthumous collection The Seven Deadly Sins, 1941:

The blossom Bitterness

Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how full you now appear
with ripe golden honey,
for all your bitter cheer.
How weighed down with your gifts,
which the almonds in the field,
so gentle and correctly dressed,
surely never yield.

Affliction and benediction:
each receives his own.
I cannot take life’s measure,
but I know that you were mine.
Your cup contained fire.
Your nectar was like gall.
Seven griefs you brewed for me,
and I drank them all.

Blossom blossom Bitterness,
how rich at last your freight
of warm golden honey,
which is like the sun’s light.
Faint with sweetness, here I stand
in all your gift’s brightness.
I will exult with Adam, and
with Job I’ll witness.

Blomman bitterhet

Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur står du nu så full
av guldmogen honung
för all din beskhets skull.
Hur dignar du av skänker,
som ängarnas mandelblomma
väl aldrig kunde bära,
den blidhyllta fromma.

Plåga och välsignelse --
var har väl sin.
Inte vet jag livets mått,
men vet att du blev min.
Din kalk var som eld.
Din saft var som galla.
Du bjöd sju bedrövelser,
och jag drack dem alla.

Blomma blomma Bitterhet,
hur blev du sist så rik
på varmgyllne honung,
som är solljuset lik.
Här står jag, matt av sötman
i din klarnade gåva.
Med Adam vill jag jubla.
Med Job vill jag lova.

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