Thursday, June 30, 2016

Today's Daily Express

The gutter press may have won the war, but they still lose the odd battle...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

När skönheten kom till byn (When Beauty came to the village)

I'm not sure if I bought it in a loppis (= junk shop) or if it was a treasure inherited from the summer cottage, but either way this has lain in the rarely-visited "outsize" department of my bookshelves for quite a few years now, along with various books about the Swedish mountains, Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, proceedings of the Thai-Swedish society, Francis Rose's Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns, maps, screenprints etc.

It's in some ways a typical publication (1943) from the golden age of Sweden's ballad era. It consists of words and music (arranged for guitar and piano) for a dozen "visor" (songs). The most famous troubadour of this era, Evert Taube, wrote both words and music.  In this case the music is by orchestral composer Lille Bror Söderlundh (he later scored many films), and the lyrics are, with one exception, by other people. Nine of the texts are by the poet and song-writer Nils Ferlin.

The striking jacket is by Gocken Jobs, the sister of Lille Bror's wife Lisbet Jobs. The sisters were a talented pair of ceramicists who later branched out into designing fabrics, etc. (Initially because of shortages of ceramic materials during WW2.) They re-used the name of this collection, När skönheten kom till byn, for their important exhibition of 1945. "Jobs Handtryck", their joint venture into fabric design, is still iconic to many Swedes.

The "visor" of this era were founded in a proletarian folk tradition but had become art-song. Taube was from a relatively upper-class background. Söderlundh and Jobs were a high-achieving couple in Stockholm. But the bohemian Nils Ferlin had come from a relatively poor background, and Moa Martinson, who contributed one lyric to the collection, was a definitively proletarian writer.

It's tempting to dismiss these popular songs as fiddling while Rome burnt. That would be a bit unfair. Artistic life in a neutral country is never going to seem very heroic, but there was some political engagement in this case. Three years earlier, Söderlundh had written music for an anti-Nazi ballet. And Ferlin's poems often bore a sharp satirical edge.

Here's a quick translation, with quite a lot of guesswork, of the title song. (The Swedish is very slangy and full of difficult idioms.)


När skönheten kom till byn då var klokheten där,

        When Beauty came to the village, Wisdom was already there,

då hade de bara törne och galla.

        there it was just thorns and bile.

Då sköto de efter henne med tusen gevär,

       They shot at her with a thousand guns

ty de voro ju så förklokade alla.

      because they were all so wised up.

Då nändes de varken dans eller glädje och sång,

      There was no dancing or joy or song

eller något som kunde vådeligt låta.

      or anything that might sound dangerous.

När skönheten kom till byn -- om hon kom någon gång,

      When Beauty came to the village, if she ever did come,

då ville de varken le eller gråta.

      they wished neither to smile nor weep.

Ack, klokheten är en gubbe så framsynt och klok

      Ah Wisdom is an old bloke so far-sighted and wise

att rosor och akvileja förfrysa.

      that the roses and aquilegias get frostbite!

När byfolket hade lärt sej hans ABC-bok

      When the village-folk had learnt his ABC

då upphörde deras ögon att lysa.

      then their eyes ceased to shine.

Hårt tyngde de sina spadar i åker och mull,

      They banged their spades hard in the field and loam

men fliten kom bara fliten till fromma.

      but their work only benefited work.

De räknade sina kärvar --for räkningens skull,

      They reckoned their sheaves, for reckoning's sake

och hatade för ett skratt och en blomma.

       and they hated a laugh or a flower.

En gång skall det varda sommar, har visorna tänkt,

      One day it will be summer, so the ballads claim,

en dag skall det tornas rymd över landen.

       One day the blue heavens will move over the land

Rätt mycket skall varda krossat som vida har blänkt,

      Much shall be shattered that has gleamed far and wide

men mänskorna skola lyftas i anden.

      but mankind shall be raised up in spirit.

Nu sitter de där och spindlar så smått och sa grått

      Now they sit there and spin webs so small and so grey

och kritar för sina lador och hyllor

      and chalk (accounts?) for their barns and their shelves

En dag skall det varda sommar, har visorna spått.

      One day it will be summer, so the ballads predicted,

-- Men visorna äro klena sibyllor.

       But ballads make poor prophets!

Hear it sung in Swedish on Youtube by Gisela Nordell: . The melody is fresh but sharp, a major-key waltz tune with a recurring minor third.

Here's an English adaption by Christer Caramon. I don't know anything about him but he seems to specialize in English versions of famous Swedish songs. A delight!

Textile design by Gocken and Lisbet Jobs, 1945

[Image source:]

One of Lisbet Jobs' best-known designs, Aurora (1956)

[Image source:]

The Jobs style was based on botanically accurate and distinguishable plants. See e.g. the Herb-Paris in the top illustration, or the Water Avens here. I suppose the umbellifer in the middle is Heracleum sphondylium (Hogweed - Björnloka);  the white-flowered ssp. sphondylium as opposed to the yellow-green ssp. sibiricum (which is actually the more widespread ssp in Sweden).

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Tomorrowland 5

The Argument

The second difficulty is the sphere itself
As I plunk on an inclined plane

These are the opening lines (p.11).

They hint at the illustration on the jacket, Camille Martin's "Hieroglyphic Night". At least, that seems to show a figure plunking on an inclined plane, while in the distance we observe the rather troubled sphere of a moon.
Subsequently, the word "sphere" makes a number of what seem like quite important appearances in the poem.

"we need a bluet sphere" (IAG, p. 19)
"You see our love desire laughter whom
I recognize most thoroughly ensphered" (NOM, p. 38)
"as Jack unspheres on Fasti with a tender disregard" (TBC, p. 91)

Reading The Argument as a whole it's apparent that the plane is also an airplane, e.g. "when the four bumps hit the ground" (p.12).

It's notable that the last part of one section often preludes the next, and that's the case here. In this last part the surroundings become recognizably urban, and here we get our first glimpse of Eula:

"With Eula mobilizing narratives in a café" (p.13)

(WhatsApping her friends, maybe)

It's All Good

The first full-length section is distinctly "metropolitan-inflected" (p. 15).

"Thus both about the city we did stroll" (p.15).

This may be the moment to say, what I keep forgetting to say, that there's a great deal of comedy in the early sections of the poem. We're not a million miles from The Ambassadors here.

"Our Eula" (p. 20) matches the first appearance, in the next section, of "our Manda" (p. 24).

By the end of "It's All Good" we've reached a space that may not be quite so uncomplicatedly "all good", and are looking back and out to wilderness, a suitable introduction to the next section.

Treasure Island

It begins with the "island gurney". Sounds like an animal or bird, but the only definition for "gurney" is a stretcher-trolley.

"Treasure Island" begins with the most sustained bit of island paradise in Tomorrowland. (There's also the outbreak of travelling euphoria that I mentioned in an earlier post.)

This nature poetry is, of course, not left unproblematized; to an extent it arrogates what it doesn't own.

While he takes his myth and puts it out there
In the literal sense, over again incorporating oysters
And their total inability to resist. (p.25)
The final part of TI focusses on ants.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Passing post

No post again today. I'll pick up speed again soon. I'm reading Othello very slowly, listening to Brahms' Requiem, also half-way through the Librivox War and Peace, and trying to learn to tell Poa trivialis from Poa pratensis at a glance. Reading of Hughes, Samuels, Smith and Out Of Everywhere 2 continues, as does Blood River (trip down the Congo). 

SMITH (Robert Ryan)
......I swear, you're beginning to make me

MACREEDY (Spencer Tracy)
All strangers do.

Not all. Some of 'em. When they come
here snooping.

Snooping for what?

I mean, outsiders coming around,
looking for something.

For what?


I just wish they'd leave us alone.

Leave you alone to do what?

I don't know what you mean.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Peter Hughes: Quite Frankly: After Petrarch's Sonnets (2015)

Not many poetry books have more appropriate jackets than this satisfyingly fat volume of disaffected laddish pseudo-rebellious whinges producing strangely potent moments of illumination. Read one or two of these sonnets and you'll chuckle, read ten and you start to wonder if there's more to this than a brilliant stand-up routine, but after say thirty the big poem behind all these instant-hit small poems begins to make itself insistently heard. So, appropriately, here's the start of 31:

well I'm sorry I've been out of touch
with you & me & most forms of the social
for what is it now time escapes me &
on I jog while ducking my own thoughts

like a dyspraxic boxer on acid
or Hercules chugging through the under
growth clawing the shirt of madness from his back


Hughes in the next poem assures us that his masterpiece could be appreciated as far afield as Norwich or even "the rougher parts of Cambridge", before hitting us with a sestet whose casual rhyming is thrown off with a shrug:

But you need to let me have my books back
I can't get on without the old masters
Italian English & American

I don't need all the academic cack
but I need my Dantes & O'Haras
my James both Rileys & Ted Berrigan


Not sure what John James (born in Cardiff) thinks about being treated as an English poet, mind, but obviously he does have that Cambridge connection, at least with the rougher parts. The "Rileys" here must be Peter and Denise. The latter's "A misremembered lyric" lurks beneath the surface of the poem on the facing page:

there are so many versions of Laura...

   ... almost everything evaporates
in the misremembered blues of her eyes
as the Scissor Sisters or was it Johnny

Hallyday so very nearly chanted
Julie London & Ella Fitzgerald
Eric Dolphy in Europe Volume 2

vous êtes formidables Charlie Parker
with strings Sinatra Where Are You
Laura won't you just tell Cincinnati


Most of this refers to the wonderful 1945 jazz standard "Laura" (music: David Raksin, lyric: Johnny Mercer) in which the haunted protagonist cannot quite recall her voice and perhaps only thinks he recalls her eyes. (According to Wikipedia there are more than 400 known recordings.)

Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall

And you see Laura on a train that is passing through
Those eyes how familiar they seem
She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura but she's only a dream

She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura but she's only a dream

At least that's the song recorded by Ella, Charlie, Eric and Frank; and above all Julie London, whose near-accapella version absolutely nails all the complex and even contradictory emotions within the song. Not a bad analogy for what Peter Hughes is about in Quite Frankly.

The Scissor Sisters classic is a different song altogether (won't you just tell Cincinnati?..)

French crooner Johnny Hallyday's Laura is different again,  a song that everybody in France knows and nobody in England does.

"Vous êtes formidables" (You guys are wonderful) is what Johnny tells the crowd as the opening chords strike up: I'm talking about the live recording you can find on Youtube. So it's obvious that Hughes the poet has been constructing this poem by doing an internet search of songs called Laura.

That slightly chilly sense of construction feeds back into what the lover is doing within the poem: his Laura, too, is only partly real, a lot of her is simply his eager imagination seizing on cultural essences and blending them together to compose an adored image.

Let's read some more!


Embarrassing as it may be for a former medievalist to confess, I've never felt the least inclination to spend time with Petrarch's 317 sonnets. Why would you? 317 artificial poems, medievally-courteous (i.e sexism but no sexuality),  in archaic Italian? When I might be reading Shakespeare's 154 sappy masterpieces, the greatest love poetry in English?

I guess I'm playing devil's advocate and I am sure there are good answers to this question.

But for now Hughes' Petrarch is likely to be the only one I know.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Europe: poems in potato bags

[Image from the link below]

Today's rabidly pro-European post is about poems sent in potato sacks from Frisia (Leeuwarden) to Malta (Valletta) and back (a link I saw shared on Facebook by David Bircumshaw).

Potato-growing is an important part of both Frisian and Maltese economies. Poems on the theme of potatoes were written in Frisian and Dutch by a bunch of local poets and sent in potato sacks to Valletta; then other poems in Maltese were sent in return.

All the poems (with English translations) are here:

Here's a bit of Arjen Hut's "Ierappel Bossa Nova" with English translation by himself ("Potato Bossa Nova"):

“der komt muzyk yn de ierdappels”
(fryske siswize)

hoekstra, westra, wielinga
watfoar ierappels moatte jim ha?

lady anne?
lady cristl?
lady blanca?

mei in dikke tút haha

foar bellefleur! annabelle …
picobello! michelle …

sis …

“there’s music growing in the potatoes”
(Frisian saying)

hoekstra, westra, wielinga
tell me
which type of potato do you prefer?

lady anne?
lady cristl?
lady blanca?

with a big fat kiss haha

for bellefleur! annabelle …
picobello! michelle …

say …


[Check out the features of some Dutch potato varieties here: 

BELLEFLEUR  early maincrop; fresh, rather floury; red



Here's most of another Frisian poem, by Harmen Wind ("Myn ierde" / "My earth" - English translation by Albertina Soepboer and Sue Smeding):

Beklonken klaai. De fuotfaach fan ‘e himel,
ûntfytmaan oan see, delbêde op sân.
Utstrutsen, keal, wiid iepen as in fâle;
ôfseame flakte yn ‘e skrale wyn. Ald lân.

Dat hjir. Dit dêr. In wrâld mei rûnom kime.
Wat stripen grien, wat rûchte mids it wiet.
Myn boaiem sil him nea oan bloed besibje;
myn gea jout romte oan wat komt en giet.

Moulded clay. The footpath from heaven,
cheated from the sea and placed on the sand,
spread out, barren and wide open as a trap,
roughed up flat in the chapped wind. Old land.

Here and there. A world surrounded by horizon.
With streaks of green, scrub land in the water.
My ground shall never be bound by blood,
my place gives space for what comes and goes.

Here's a bit of one of the Maltese poems, "alfa" ("alpha"), written and translated by Simone Inguanez:.

milwi tnej’ il-wied, qliel u srieġ
bħal meta qalbek – għoddha waqfet, bħal
meta minjafxiex, u ħadd ma semgħek – ħadd
ma lemħek tigdem minkbek ġandra
u titkagħweġ – patata susa, patata
ġlata | xtiewi infern : idejk imekku
fil-ħamrija / idejk jgħarblu / idejk jgħarrxu
/ jdejk jixirfu : farrett xieref – xafra / sa ma
anki wardiet wiċċek għandhom bixra

the ashes
bent double in the valley, floods or fires
like when your heart– almost stopped, like
when godknowswhat, but no one heard you – no one
saw you biting your parched elbow
and doubling over – rotten potatoes, frosted
potatoes / hellish winters : your hands rummaging
/ your hands sifting / your hands searching
/ your hands emerging : a hard scar – blade / until
even your cheeks look oblong


A nutritionist notes: It's good to reduce the carbs in your diet. Including potatoes. And it's good to reduced cooked oil, too. So eat less chips, but not by eating more bread!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Grasses in the business park

Alopecurus geniculatus

The business park in Swindon where I work (lawned, tarmacked and planted with low-maintenance shrubs), was formerly farmland, and before that damp grassland. The potential to revert to that state remains, as was shown when one of the buildings lay unoccupied for a number of years (e.g. here).

Now the water is safely penned in ditches, ponds and designated wetland. Here's Marsh Foxtail (Alopecurus geniculatus) , growing in a ditch that ribbons decoratively between office buildings.

Alopecurus geniculatus

(Photos 10th June 2016.)

A dainty little foxtail, growing on the surface of wetland, with kneed stem-nodes. The flowers are attractive at this time of year, with narrow green heads in bud, followed by anthers that are grey-mauve at first, changing to rust-brown before falling. The stems have bluey leaf-sheaths.

Alopecurus geniculatus

Alopecurus geniculatus

Festuca arundinacea

(Photos 10th June 2016.)

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) growing on a damp bank above wetland. In both the places I know it (here and in Shaw Forest Park), it is near but not beside water.

The large tufts, consisting of sturdy hairless leaves that are highly likely to cut your hands, somewhat resembles Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa, see below!), but the latter has denser tufts, the leaves are darker green and narrower.

I've just found out that Tall Fescue often, though not always, has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus which renders it mildly toxic. Mainly the benefit to the plant is to deter insects, but this property has been known to affect horses and to a lesser extent cows.

Festuca arundinacea

Festuca arundinacea

Festuca arundinacea

Just before flowering.
Festuca arundinacea 

Deschampsia cespitosa

(Photos 10th June 2016.)

Here's a couple of shots of Deschampsia cespitosa (Tufted Hair-grass) with the panicles just emerging, looking silky and graceful.  (Here's what it looks like later.)

Deschampsia cespitosa

As usual, its companion Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) can be glimpsed in the distance. Both species are plants of damp meadows.

Vulpia myuros

Finally a grass that owes nothing to the site's damp grassland heritage but is an increasing coloniser of the arid habitats (tarmac and paving) that humans prefer. This is Rat's-tail Fescue (Vulpia myuros). I took these shots a week earlier than the others, on 2nd June 2016, hoping to capture the messy star-like appearance of the plant in this moment just before flowering, when the flowering shoots are slanting out in all directions from the diminutive basal leaves.

Vulpia myuros

Vulpia myuros

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Friday, June 10, 2016

William Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (c. 1591)


[Image source: . Mark Arends as Proteus in a 2014 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Guardian review. Telegraph review.]

The young Shakespeare, it's fair to say, had some issues around women, if we're to judge from The Taming Of The Shrew (c. 1590?), The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (c. 1591?) and the Dark Lady sonnets of c. 1592. Of course these works and the issues they raise are all very different. In the present case the issue concerns not the female leads Julia and Silvia but the play's willingness to treat Proteus' threat of rape as too lightly resolved. We feel uncomfortable with Valentine's impulsive offer of Silvia to his friend though, of course, the main dramatic point of this is to comically prolong Julia's roller-coaster of emotions. Soon afterwards Valentine is fiercely repelling Thurio from his beloved. I think we had best see Valentine's silly offer as excessive and impulsive to the point of farce, something not to be taken too seriously. Then the play can rattle to its merry close.

There's no getting round the unpleasant but obvious fact that Shakespeare's era didn't see things the way we do. Rapes were the sort of thing that a gentleman might do, like killing a man in a duel or defaulting on gambling debts. These deeds were indisputably wrong but they didn't, in the eyes of society, turn the criminal into a monster; we sense a lack of horror. And the idea of giving up one's claim on a woman to a friend (without regard to her own views), is an even more familiar element in our cultural and deeply sexist past. A year or two later Shakespeare's own The Rape of Lucrece , with its intense examination of the psychology of both rapist and victim, may be said to be one small step on the long journey towards our modern viewpoint. But even in that brilliant poem, we can see that rape is condemned more for damaging a woman's honour (i.e. her value in the eyes of men) than as a violation of a woman's will, body and mind.

[In the theatre, where the play works really well and is as popular now as it ever was, these last-scene discomforts are easily got round and the 2013 Bristol Tobacco Factory production was said to end as a feminist triumph.]


What both Proteus' threat and Valentine's offer have in common is that they are extremely and unreflectingly impulsive. TGV is a study of youthful hormones at the flood. In the women this leads to adventurousness and decision; all for the good, unless you are a concerned parent; in the men it leads to less admirable consequences.  Especially Proteus, of course. His inconstancy leads to staggering betrayals of his bestie and his old love; not to mention the new one whom, in his frustration, he threatens to rape. The situation in which he does so is an isolated wild woodland immediately after violent and triumphant activity in rescuing her from other abductors. His blood is up. As Germaine Greer said, you don't trust men at such times.

In making this statement I'm conscious of the paradox, pointed out by Russell Jackson in the Introduction to the Penguin edition, that the text of TGV is notably lacking in the language of eroticism. This is true, but the language is a very different thing from the fact. In Romeo and Juliet the talk is salaciously dirty, except for Romeo's and Juliet's; the only two characters in the play who are actually in love. Those young lovers, like these ones, are almost prudish in what they say, but are full of what they feel. (There are a number of curious connections between these two plays.)

No surprise, therefore that John Guare's and Galt MacDermot's follow-up to the explosive rock musical Hair was Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971). It ran for over 600 performances on Broadway but was then forgotten; revivals are now becoming more frequent.  Here's a clip from the 2005 Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kathleen Marshall.


The play's first scene is an important one because it shows us the two male leads together. Valentine, wittily disparaging his lovestruck friend, is off on his travels. His name tells us that he'll soon be lovestruck himself. But the gentle Proteus, who will pray for his friend, and who tries, with only partial success, to defend his commitment to love, interests us more. When Valentine ends the scene between them, Proteus is left to confide to us his distinctly conflicted feelings about the position he's in.

Now there follows a dialogue with Speed, Valentine's man; like any dialogue with Speed, it's full of verbal tangling. The scene feints at the servant and master actually interacting so that the doings of the one affect the story of the other. (The dramatic potential of that idea is abundantly demonstrated in the Comedy of Errors.) But here, Speed turns out to be only teasing; his doubtful competence as a messenger has not prevented Proteus' message from reaching his beloved, albeit indirectly. And in fact Shakespeare doesn't succeed in involving the servants in their masters' stories: they function excellently as commentators, explicitly and implicitly, but they don't affect the action and Shakespeare found no role for them in the last part of the play.

Proteus could be any kind of gentleman here, playing the straight man to Speed. There's a feeling of something held back. His name suggests changeability, and we see the potential. He isn't a formed personality. It's important that both Valentine and Proteus are seen as very young men, adolescents in our terms. The scene needs to be played as straight as can be. The two leads should be seen as largely identical and lacking in definition: as gentlemen and nothing more. The potential of one for comedy and the other for tragedy shouldn't yet be clear-cut.

The "Two Gentlemen" part of the title makes perfect thematic sense."Of Verona" less so. Verona isn't even named in these early scenes, and it has no presence as a distinct place. The title's meaning refers to the later bulk of the play: they are then gentleman "of Verona" precisely because they're now living somewhere else. The title means, as it were, two gentlemen abroad.

[In fact, the text is haphazard about its Italian geography and when it does use the name "Verona" sometimes seems to mean "Milan".  It doesn't inspire confidence in the hypothesis that Shakespeare had travelled to Italy, except in his imagination. (Compare Othello, where Iago and Cassio describe each other as Florentine, each apparently thinking of himself as Venetian  - or anyway not Florentine.)  You get the impression that Shakespeare when composing tossed the Italian place-names about in quite a casual way. For him they belong to the mapless world of romance.]

Moreover, Valentine apparently takes a sea-voyage between these two landlocked places. The contemporary use of river bargesbin northern Italy has been mentioned, but such lines as the following don't suggest that Shakespeare is envisaging a river.


Go, go, be gone, to save your ship from wreck,
Which cannot perish having thee aboard,
Being destined to a drier death on shore.

Shakespeare makes the same familiar joke in the opening scene of The Tempest, at the opposite end of his stage career.


Julia and Lucetta. Julia's demonstration of the impulsive nature of young love, but here devoid of ill consequences. The idea that when a maid says no she means yes  is slightly disturbing (perhaps this too is part of the young Shakespeare's issues...).


Proteus' father Antonio is indeed somewhat peremptory. His rapid change of mind, and his then peremptory will, are features we will recognize in his son. Taming had its autobiographical material in the strolling  players and Warwickshire locations of its Induction. We wonder if the Gentlemen likewise contains autobiographical material in the theme of young men travelling for their education; Shakespeare's acquaintances, if not himself. Lucentio, arriving at Padua at the start of Taming, is doing the same thing; in the next scene, Petruchio is closer to Shakespeare's own situation: seeking his fortune "farther than at home, / Where small experience grows."


Valentine, a commenting Speed, and Silvia's device of getting Valentine to compose her love-letter to him. The play's first transformation is that Valentine becomes a lover, like Proteus. This transformation was highly predictable. Valentine's satisfaction ("I have dined") ends the scene in a sunny manner. But we already know that Proteus is on his way to Milan: and what will the highly predictable upshot of that change of place be?


Proteus and Julia, parting. An unexpectedly curt scene. It's surprising to find the contrary Julia of I.2  now so definitely Proteus' beloved; things are moving fast. Proteus' thoughts lead to gloomy presages, and the scene is cut short by Julia's wordless departure. The impression is of an epoch already concluded. But the suffering of the pair is sincere.


Julia, Proteus, Silvia, Valentine

[Image source: Photo by Dave Rossman, from a 2014 University of Houston production. Amelia Fischer as Julia, Kyle Curry as Proteus, Kiara Feliciano as Silvia and Crash Buist as Valentine.]


Thursday, June 09, 2016

If you could choose to stay a certain age forever, what age would that be?

A spreading thicket, well-established for some 20 meters along the bank of a disused railway viaduct in West Swindon.

Photos taken on 5th June, during one of our enormous roamings. (Moredon - Cheney Manor (lunch) - Swindon Town Centre - Canal Walk -Disused Railway - West Swindon District Centre (dinner) - Shaw Village Centre - Shaw Forest Park - Haydon Wick - tea and Facebook at refurbished McDonalds,North Swindon Orbital - Moredon.)

Obviously it's some kind of double-petalled variety of Rubus, but more than that I can't say: I'm not even sure if it's a blackberry (R. fructicosus agg.) or a raspberry (R. idaeus) or something else. (I'm not getting any suggestions from the Facebook Wild Flower Group either.)

Prickles few and weak. Three leaflets, appearing crenate (rounded teeth).

Young fruits.

Isn't the whole point of being alive that we grow and alter, that a still point can only be imagined?


Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris) gone creamy-lemony

Found growing in Shaw Forest Park, Swindon, on June 5th. (I also saw Tall Fescue and Salsify.)

This is a lemony-creamy variant of Ranunculus acris, found growing among the more usual yellow ones.  (It looked similar in colour, though not in habit or floriferousness, to the garden cultivar 'Citrinus'.)

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Monday, June 06, 2016

experimental and mainstream poetry in the UK

These are some emails I recently contributed to a discussion on the BRITISH-IRISH-POETS list on Jiscmail (the conversation, under the heading "Names", ran all through April and May 2016). My own principal interlocutor was the experimental poet Tim Allen; later I was also responding to Geraldine Monk, Peter Riley and Jamie McKendrick. For the purposes of this blogpost I'm just going to paste my own emails and leave the contexts to be inferred.

(What term to use for innovative/linguistically innovative/experimental/avant-garde/post-avant poetry?)

19th April:

Of course there's no simple answer. I think I've used all the terms at one time or another.

I think avant-garde is the most problematic because of particular historical associations, within poetry and beyond.

I kind of favour "innovative" or "experimental". (Linguistically-innovative seems to me an unnecessary clarification...) . Perhaps because those terms have the virtue of not having been taken up or associated with more exclusive groupings.

And a secondary virtue, it connects with experimental music (the term "experimental" is much more widespread in the music world). There's a hidden link there to what I consider the epitome of experimental poetry, UK stylee: John White ... Clarence Cardew ... the anti-University ... Bob Cobbing....

Of course I'd want to stress that the terms "innovative" and "experimental" are intended as descriptive rather than complimentary, they are not just an infantile way of bigging up one's favourite poets at other people's expense.

But these terms do seem to me to point to the most fundamental distinguishing feature of this body of work, compared with poetry as conceived by most ordinary people and as practised at all levels from primary school up to the poet laureate.

 (And - to attempt, like Peter, to head off inevitable debate on this score - this includes a host of poets that I admire and that at their best, I'm ready to agree, are as truly inventive and original as the best experimentalists, and much more so than the all-too-often-seen work that only apes innovative styles.)

Despite these provisos, there remains an essential distinction in the practice of writing poetry as conceived by the experimentalists (And, in fact, this might be said to include the terms "practice" and "praxis", borrowed from art college like so much else on the experimental side). Whether as reader, listener or writer we begin, as it were, with the assumption that the poetry is meant to be in its essence an experiment, a provisional project. Not so much the production of poems (love-poems, elegies, and all the other good things that poems can be) as an open-ended exploration of the possibilities of poetry. Isn't that simply it, really? ... [I might add that I wouldn't consider most of my own poetry to meet this criterion...]

21st April:

Hiya Tim ...

You are right of course. Within one's own praxis, whatever that is, there are only perhaps a few days when conscious of attempting an experiment; and these may be the least valuable days, since most experiments are failures. On the other days the practitioner is most likely doing more of what they do; a work that grows and evolves rather than leaping randomly about. So from the practitioner's own point of view, this work is not literally an experiment, for the most part. Even if, in hindsight, the practitioner's work as a whole comes to be seen as strikingly original or experimental. Even if the practitioner in question is a composer of "British experimental music" or "linguistically innovative poetry".

This makes me think about terms for groups of artists. They are terms of convenience, and the people they most convenience are the audiences, the students and academics, the promoters and sellers. The artists themselves generally don't have much need for such labels, and usually when saddled with one are painfully aware of all the ways in which it isn't particularly appropriate. (It's really with my reviewer's hat on that I feel the need for a term.)

Such terms can either be coined anew ("modernism") or they can deploy a word that already exists and adapt its meaning ("romantic") - not completely, but somewhat. The sight of a ruined priory above a waterfall on the Scottish borders is romantic. Anna Laetitia Barbauld isn't romantic in precisely the same sense as the Scottish view, nor is Samuel Rogers, or Wordsworth (maybe Byron is!), but still the word Romantic is useful as a way of connecting them to each other and at least it isn't totally un-apt. That's the most I would aspire to in the case of "experimental".

It's important too that any such term is value-neutral and that it encompasses not only the startlingly original pioneers of the genre but, just as important, the enthusiasts who write in the same sort of style yet without the same originality or urgency. Just as "Romantic poets" covers the full gamut from genius to slavish dabbler, so must the term I require.

For a term to be of any use to me I need to be able to use it without in-depth assessment of whether the poetry is good or not. I need a way to name what I can see from the most superficial assessment of style and manner. I want to be able to say, for example, that such and such a mag publishes experimental poetry. That's a useful and meaningful thing to say, entirely leaving aside the merits, originality and inventiveness (or not) of individual contributors.

Today I happen to be reading Lars Gustafsson (Swedish poet who died last week, recent Bloodaxe selection) and Lisa Samuel's Tomorrowland. I admire both to distraction, but the former I should call essentially traditional poetry (for all its originality and excitement), and the latter definitely experimental, innovative, or whatever. As a reader I find the encounter with these texts involves totally different approaches and expectations. Anyway, I'm rattling on, I think you and I are in agreement about the existence of this very clear distinction, it's only the choice of terms that we're still debating.

(Tim asked if I thought of experimental and traditional poetry as different art-forms or as part of a poetry spectrum in which intermediate positions were possible).

25th April:

I've spent a bit of time thinking about your question about the spectrum and I haven't come up with an easy or fully satisfying answer.

On the whole I tend towards the view that experimental/traditional is an either/or and best treated, almost, as separate artforms. That is, I see each form as having evolved its own rules, tactics, aspirations and the practitioner either does one or does the other, but you can't really do both at the same time. My analogy would be serial/tonal music as conceived by Schoenberg. He could compose either sort, but the procedures were so different that there wasn't really a middle position between the two. Either you had a tone-row or you had a key signature.

And on the whole I think this is the best model to describe the two poets I mentioned. If you use the "new sentence" (Silliman's valuable term), then the mind-blowing polyvocality of Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland becomes possible. But on the other hand the kind of things Lars Gustafsson can do with traditional narrative, anecdote, tone and irony and so on become unavailable. His art requires the "old sentence".

So with that kind of model in mind I am usually a little prejudiced against the hybridity promoted in recent years. But I think others might see it differently. I'm aware that the "new sentence" is only one aspect of modern poetry and that there are poets I care for very much (Lee Harwood, Peter Hughes spring to mind) for whom the on/off model seems entirely to break down, and when contemplating those poets a spectrum model of universal discourse seems to reassert itself.

May 4th:

Hi Tim,
Taken me ages to reply but not because I haven't been thinking about it.

>I see the spectrum or essential difference question as being like the wave/particle duality in electromagnetism
>depends what aspect you are measuring

>Narrative is more likely to be implied or fragmented, but it's still narrative as a device. Tone - whole areas of possible tonal manipulation are possible when a poet breaks out of the typical mainstream mode. Irony becomes something else, often twisting into something extreme. Etc.

Yes, there's a transformation. Naturally I agree with you that old excellences can still be found in new forms, - . But the transformation is radical, and it involves subtraction as well as addition. For example, the new sentence can go beyond traditional description in its extraordinary ability to suggest the multi-dimensional quality of lived experience. Still, there's a sacrifice in terms of definite assertion, though in another way the impression is needlesharp, transcending the potential of stated description. But much art and much that is possible is kind of dependent on that discursive basis. I'm not saying it well but that's how I see it.

>In the past I've put forward the idea that it is the modern UK mainstream poem that is the real anomaly within poetry as a whole, both with regard to the past and to poetry internationally, not the linguistically innovative.

I kind of have an inkling of what you mean, but it's a pity you haven't been challenged on it so I'll play devil's advocate. In all the nations whose modern poetry I have some faint acquaintance with (US, Aus, Sweden, Spain), the poetry that is most publicized, most studied in schools and most sold in bookshops is traditional poetry -. In Finland maybe the norm is more towards experimentalism but even in Finland there is plenty of what I see as mainstream traditional poetry. Is UK mainstream poetry so different in kind from what's marketed as poetry in other nations, or is their traditional poetry an anomaly too? UK Mainstream poetry appears to derive from an unbroken, respectable, well-anthologised tradition going back through the centuries (Anne Stevenson - Hardy - Keats - Milton - Sidney .... that sort of lineage). ....Horace, Catullus.... Also, does the anomaly idea apply not just to poets whose work we dislike and don't read but also to poets who I suspect you might agree with me in admiring: Elisabeth Bletsoe? Penelope Shuttle? Kathleen Jamie even... ?

I'm writing this not to be argumentative but because I'm eager to hear the other side of it. Maybe you've already elaborated on the idea somewhere.

[Tim's reply connected the anomaly with his own particular response: " my instinctive negativity to the poetry that began to flood the mainstream channels, both high and low, from the 80's onwards ". That generated a lot of replies and the conversation became more general. My own reply was delayed:

24th May

Sorry for the delayed response - I feel like an owl in daylight. I left the discussion at Tim's interesting and honest response to my questioning of his suggestion that UK mainstream poetry was in some way an anomaly.

My response has become rambling and I’m having to throw it ashore before another long interruption. I haven’t had time to tidy it. I apologise in advance for repetitions, slipshod expression, incoherence, tedium, and any inadvertent annoyance it may cause.

And Geraldine's suggestion of the term "exploratory" for the kind of writing that I've been calling experimental. "Exploratory" seems entirely accurate as description of the praxis of such an author as Lisa Samuels (my exemplar earlier in the conversation). My only hesitation is because "exploring" has become such a cliche of reviewers and critics to account in the vaguest possible way for what some or other artist is doing. “both books explore the relationship between public and private…”, “[Ang Lee] explored the relationships and conflicts between tradition and modernity, Eastern and Western..” Or, to come down a bit more to brass tacks, “Their poetry often has a neo-romantic character and trajectory that thrives on the natural world in order to explore human nature, especially concepts of social order, love and relationships.”, … (I sometimes think the term must have originated with educationalists talking about the developing child. And maybe in a larger sphere it exemplifies the neoteny that is said to typify advanced human cultures. Maybe the issues that Tim and I have with some contemporary poetry is a debate about problematic meaning of adulthood.... anyway, I'm going way off track here... )

But back to the anomaly idea. Most of what I might have had to say about this has been subsequently voiced by Tim himself, by Jamie and by Peter. The only thing I can really add is autobiography. I came to contemporary UK poetry very late, after many years delving in the past, as a mediavalist and enthusiast of everything up to about…. Say, 1870!. Something in the first year of uni had given me a thorough distaste and contempt , ignorant of course, for everything from Auden onwards. The only modern poetry I knew and cared about was in translation, Penguin Modern Poets from mainly Europe and Latin America. Belatedly, at the end of the 1980s, I felt provoked into seeking out the poetry of my own time and place. At first, like any High Street browser of the time, I thought Faber and Oxford was the place to look. Oliver Reynolds, Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, Douglas Dunn, Heaney, Mahon, Hughes, …. I struggled to like this writing, though I had hardly any sense of what I might like better.

Funny how that era has all gone now. No poetry world is static. You don’t find Raine and Reynolds in Faber any more. They’re reduced to Raine’s own Arete magazine, the natural heir of Ian Hamilton’s New Review, with Ian McEwan replacing Julian Barnes and John Updike. (Class and ideology do come into these things.) [ TLS readers are currently re-reading… Waugh, Powell, Proust (this is the current TLS blog)…] Alan Jenkins isn’t in Chatto any more, but Enitharmon. Douglas Dunn (who I don’t wish to suggest has any but a left-wing ideology) hasn’t published a book since 2000. But you will find Timothy Thornton in Penguin!

My overall view is that the feeling of distaste and hostility reported by Tim and to an extent experienced by myself is a proximity effect. Readers are thin-skinned at home, where they’re acutely sensitive to unexpressed meanings, but thick-skinned abroad, blithely unaware of possible causes of offence.

[Why did Adorno loathe Strauss’ Alpine Symphony so much? He’s unable to explain, and when we listen to the magnificent music now we can’t see it. But I don’t doubt that the offence was there for Adorno, he heard it as clearly as anyone who hears a tone and knows they’ve been insulted by it. (And sometimes, we get this wrong.) You can appreciate that, for Adorno, there was a lot at stake. ]

 As Tim rightly said (if I understood him right), the thing that offends is mostly not something said or meant personally by the poet in question, but something as it were encoded in his medium of expression. In fact the knee-jerk reaction may, if I can speak autobiographically, be more about an unconscious stylistic, a manner, than anything that the poet consciously put into the poem. That’s why it only takes three or four lines to identify. I’m thinking of identifying markers such as the particular use of the present tense. (

Though I am calling it a proximity effect I don’t mean that the reaction is not a real insight. I don’t think the mainstream poetry of today is really an anomaly (or if it is, that’s rather a compliment – I’m all for anomalous poetry) ; but it certainly is unique.

For example in its extraordinarily heavy usage of the word “He’d”. (Also” I’d”, “She’d”. But I did my Google searches on “He’d”.) Anyhow, the elided past continuous (short for “he would” or “he had”, both are equally characteristic).

A word that’s vanishingly rare in linguistically-innovative, exploratory, experimental etc… (Prove me wrong!) . It’s obvious that there’s some quasi-sociolinguistic lining-up here.

A word with a great deal encoded in it. As briefly as possible, you might say it means being persuaded that poetry can be made by rehearsing narratives of the habitual past in an informal manner. Of course that’s a reductive and prejudicial way of putting it. But a prejudice is what we are talking about. I frankly admit that it gets in the way of comprehending the specificity of the poems in front of me.

I’m not sure if this particular usage would be one of the things Tim dislikes, probably not, but I instance it as demonstration that what is reacted to is not merely imaginary, there is some demonstrable objectivity in the recognition of difference.

Manny Blacksher:

When he hastened
    back from lunch at one each day, his heart
    brim-full of blameless industry, he'd stop
    to buy cigars and chew the toothsome fat
    with Mister Stein, who'd bought the lobby shop
    with money found inside a fresh latrine
    in a dun field outside Dachau where he'd sat
    and seen a shadow snake like pain in sunshine.

Michael Donaghy:

He needed a perfect cathedral in his head,
he’d whisper, so that by careful scrutiny
the mind inside the cathedral inside the mind
could find the secret order of the world
and remember every drop on every face
in every summer thunderstorm.

David Wheatley (translating SEÁN Ó RÍORDÁIN)

You could see that he understood, and his fellow-feeling
for the pain in the horse’s eyes;

and that dwelling on it so long he’d finally stolen
into the innermost space

Simon Armitage (“Hitcher”)

We were the same age, give or take a week.
He'd said he liked the breeze

to run its fingers
through his hair. It was twelve noon.
The outlook for the day was moderate to fair.

Carol Ann Duffy (“Eurydice”)

He’d been told that he mustn’t look back
or turn round,
but walk steadily upwards,
myself right behind him,
out of the Underworld
into the upper air that for me was the past.
He’d been warned
that one look would lose me
for ever and ever.

[The lineage:
Thomas Hardy (“The Man He Killed”)

            "I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That's clear enough; although

            "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.

Wordsworth (The Ruined Cottage)
Five tedious years
She lingered in unquiet widowhood,
A wife and widow. Needs must it have been
A sore heart-wasting. I have heard, my friend,
That in that broken arbour she would sit
The idle length of half a sabbath day—
There, where you see the toadstool’s lazy head—
And when a dog passed by she still would quit
The shade and look abroad.

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Friday, June 03, 2016

F O T O, poems 81 - 90

Cirsium arvense (poem 88)

81.  (Evening meal in the kitchen giggling)

“Men Mika...!”  The beer rushes over the table, fizzing happily,
plates clatter, Mum and me are convulsed with laughter,

“Dreadful child,” she says. I am seven years old,
the trees stir in their beds, soon we’ll sit down to canasta. 

82. (The four of us at the table)

You ran back. Smiles roamed, like smoke-rings,
our wrists resting on the table-edge, hands above plates.

The shutter snapped and cropped half your face.
The only sound on the film is the clock saying: Eight.    

83. (In the hammock at night)

On the black lawn your feet thump the ground, invisible.
I’m singing, a few strong features perch in the night:

the pale windowframes, a flagpole, pine branches...
we don’t need to shush: to the north, you can still see daylight.

84. (Morning sun through the trees)

From out of the endless woods a gift exhales:
not the first day, but another day.

That is best. To wake again knowing how good
it is to be woken. To know and not to say.

85. (Farms in the valley thistles in foreground)

After school Mats still RRrrmms his moped
up and down the home meadow. He might not go.

A tractor conjures hay-pills, glossy and white;
you have to work them, you don’t have the things you own.

86. (Dancing down road playing mouth-organ)

Dull gleam of blacktop landing hard, I scuffed it
and re-launched zigzag, no music but what's squeezed

from my hands and lips, nothing but my life
to mark the road and leave it used.

87. (Singing and walking)

I love you singing. Then all your unsigned beauty
which stands in frames around me, that gallery

compacts like a shock, and from your belly
you cry something deeper, your reality.

88. (Playing mouth-organ in thistles)

Noon: the greygreen globes bristle with mauve;
the bees come, thousands browsing, on every roadside

the sugar of summer grows tautly, walls of it
shimmer across the valley where a seed strayed.

89. (T-junction)

The roads have captions, but not the forest.
You reached across dusty metal, to touch RAGUNDA

20, like wording on a top. The leafy place is
its own tense home, it also may be a bender...

90. (Flowers in belt)

Those yellow/magenta empires broke up into stalky,
tangible structures. I picked samples, I was a student.

It made a bunch, nodding in the warmth of your loaded belt.
Between pineshadows you swung, solid and different.


Back-story: Utanede. 81-84 Evening and morning at the cottage. 85-90 Walk with Laura on the western side of the Indal river (road through sunny farmland from Västeråsen to Hölleforsen). 

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

[Image source: (also linked below). L-R: John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins), Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), Hector David (Lee Marvin), Sam (Walter Sande), Tim Horn (Dean Jagger).]

Flying by Emirates to Dubai is my annual opportunity to watch something. On the way there I just read poetry and snoozed, but on the way back I eagerly flicked through the in-flight entertainment system and I ended up choosing to watch the Globe's Merry Wives of Windsor, a play I love but had never seen performed, and then a classic movie I'd never seen, Bad Day at Black Rock (Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan).

After I've watched my annual film I always want to rush off and read about it, but this can be frustrating because most of the stuff that gets linked to the movie databases isn't worth looking at.

Images of the cast:

Screenplay (by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman). Not quite identical to the final movie, but pretty close. (For example it misses Peter Wirth's comment, near the end, about not needing to be told who killed his sister.)

(The heading is wrong. The 1947 short story that the screenplay was based on was called "Bad Time at Honda". It was published under Howard Breslin's own name, contrary to statements that he used his pseudonym Michael Niall .)

History of the shoot:

More behind-the-scenes stuff, mainly from Millard Kaufman's perspective.

Book: The Lives of Robert Ryan

P. 147 describes Tracy as a political conservative who wasn't sure how well he would get on with Robert Ryan. Surprising, as the Behind The Camera piece (see above) talks about ill feeling between the "liberal" Tracy and the "arch-conservative" Walter Brennan.

Here's some appraisals I found interesting:
John Streamas: '"Patriotic Drunk": To Be Yellow, Brave, and Disappeared in Bad Day at Black Rock'
Susan Doll: 'Another Day in Black Rock'

[Image source: Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) confronts Liz Wirth (Anne Francis).]

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