28/06/2012 § Leave a comment

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

— Billy Collins


A thing I didn’t know about Brecht

27/06/2012 § Leave a comment

…he held the ‘professional’ lyric poet, working from magazine appearance to collection to anthology inclusion, to be a figure of horror and ridicule. When asked to judge a contest once, he scrupulously excluded all the professional poets, and awarded the prize to some fanzine-style verse-making about competitive six-day cycling.

From here.

We travel like other people

13/03/2012 § Leave a comment

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if travelling
Is the way of the clouds. We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.
And we said to our wives: go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey
To the hour of a country, to a metre of the impossible.
We travel in the carriage of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies.

We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon.
Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path
On you shoulders. Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee.
We have a country of words. Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone.
We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel.

—Mahmoud Darwish, b. 13th March 1941, d. 9th August 2008

Vergissmeinnicht: in memory of Keith Douglas

28/02/2012 § 2 Comments

[I meant to post this on Keith Douglas’s birthday on Friday 24th January, but I didn’t finish it in time.]

Keith Douglas, the greatest British poet of the second world war, would have been 92 today, had he not died during the invasion of Normandy. He was 24.

For a while, I was slightly obsessed with this picture of him:

His face looks so open, but you can’t really see what he’s thinking. He looks so carefree, but at the same time so confidently experienced.  There he is, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a war, younger than I was at the time. It seemed so strange to me that men of my age could just have marched off to war.

It must have seemed as strange to Douglas himself. His war poems are full of the conflict between the human being he is and the killer the war forces him to be: in Vergissmeinnicht, where he pictures the girlfriend of the dead German soldier (‘But she would weep to see today/how on his skin the swart flies move’), or in Cairo Jag, where ‘a man with no head/has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli’. 

Perhaps it’s best expressed in How to Kill:

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. 

The language is so direct, so close to ordinary speech but so much more precise and considered. He wanted his poems to be like reportage, for his experiences as a soldier to be recognisable in his verse. From his letters:

My object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in the line. My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present. When I do, I shall be so again, and glad to. I suppose I reflect the cynicism and the careful absence of expectation (it is not the same as apathy) with which I view the world. 

Cairo Jag, with its jarring contrast between leave-time pleasures in Cairo and the war-torn desert battlefield (‘the vegetation is of iron/dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery’), reminds me a lot of Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, where Simon Boulderstone moves back and forth between his tank crew and the dissipated British expat crowd of the Anglo-Egyptian Club.

I’ve often wondered whether Olivia Manning (another of my favourite writers) knew Keith Douglas; they must have moved in similar circles in war-time Cairo. The imagery is probably common to the North African war experience, but there are a few passages in Manning which directly echo Douglas’s poetry–the burned out tank that Simon Boulderstone encounters, for example, when he and his tank crew mistakenly believe the other crew are having a brew-up only to discover that they are corpses, burned alive as they tried to scramble free. Perhaps she had read Douglas’s poetry, or his memoir of the desert war Alamein to Zem-Zem.


His earlier poetry isn’t as visceral as the war poetry, but contains one of my favourite poems, Stars, with its shivery beauty and the menace, possibly, of the war that was shortly to come:

The stars still marching in extended order
move out of nowhere into nowhere. Look, they are halted
on a vast field tonight, true no man’s land.
Far down the sky with sword and belt must stand
Orion. For commissariat of this exalted
war-company, the Wain. No fabulous border

could swallow all this bravery, no band
will ever face them: nothing but discipline
has mobilized and still maintains them. So
Time and his ancestors have seen them. So
always to fight disorder is their business,
and victory continues in their hand.

From under the old hills to overhead,
and down there marching to the hills again
their campo extends. There go the messengers,
Comets, with greetings of ethereal officers
from tent to tent. Yes, we look up with pain
at distant comrades and plains we cannot tread.


Tim Kendall writes more about Keith Douglas on his War Poets blog, including an interesting note about Douglas’s influence on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. You can also read a review of Douglas’s letters on the Carcanet blog.

Modern declaration

14/02/2012 § Leave a comment

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of those loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers of  their alert enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

–Edna St Vincent Millay

And for more love poems for Valentine’s day, see here and here.

Monologue for Cassandra

05/02/2012 § Leave a comment

It’s me, Cassandra.
And this is my city covered with ashes.
And this is my rod, and the ribbons of a prophet.
And this is my head full of doubts.

It’s true, I won.
What I said would happen
hit the sky with a fiery glow.
Only prophets whom no one believes
witness such things,
only those who do their job badly.
And everything happens so quickly,
as if they had not spoken.

Now I remember clearly
how people, seeing me, broke off in mid-sentence.
Their laughter stopped.
They moved away from each other.
Children ran towards their mothers.
I didn’t even know their vague names.
And that song about a green leaf–
nobody ever finished singing it in front of me.

I loved them.
But I loved them from a height.
From above life.
From the future. Where it’s always empty
and where it’s easy to see death.
I am sorry my voice was harsh.
Look at yourselves from a distance, I cried,
look at yourselves from a distance of stars.
They heard and lowered their eyes.

They just lived.
Not very brave.
In their departing bodies, from the moment of birth.
But they had this watery hope,
a flame feeding on its own glittering.
They knew what a moment was.
How I wish for one moment, any,
I was proved right.
So what. Nothing comes of it.
And this is my robe scorched by flames.
And these are the odds and ends of a prophet.
And this is my distorted face.
The face that did not know its own beauty.

Wislawa Szymborska

trans. Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds

Wislawa Szymborska

04/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska died last Thursday aged 88 (Guardian obituary). I came across her poetry first in Daniel Weissbort’s anthology The poetry of survival and loved it for her matter-of-fact, rather serious, but conversational voice. Her writing is like overhearing the private conversation of a teacher you’ve always admired.

You can read her speech on receiving the Nobel prize here:

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriotMarie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” …

She carries on with the theme of ‘not knowing’ in this Guardian interview from 2000, found via the roundup of tributes to her on the Poetry Foundation blog. Also on the Poetry foundation blog, an old post translating Szymborska’s advice to would-be poets in a Polish literary journal:

To Marek, also of Warsaw: “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.” 

To Ula from Sopot: “A definition of poetry in one sentence—well. We know at least five hundred definitions, but none of them strikes us as both precise and capacious enough. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Inborn skepticism keeps us from trying our hand at our own. But we remember Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism: ‘Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.’ Maybe he’ll actually make it one of these days?” 

I posted her poem In praise of my sister on my old blog; tomorrow I will post another favourite poem, Monologue for Cassandra.


I Stood on a Tower

01/01/2012 § Leave a comment

I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing;
And I said, ‘O years, that meet in tears,
Have you all that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the knowing?’
Seas at my feet were flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old year roaring and blowing,
And New Year blowing and roaring.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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