Friday, December 19, 2014

Garrett Caples / Wittgenstein, a Memoir

Photo by Ian Crawford
Wittgenstein, a Memoir
How a teacher of philosophy turned one writer into a poet
By Garrett Caples

I came to poetry fairly late; that is, I was probably a senior in college before I could read it with anything like enthusiasm. This was a direct result of studying Wittgenstein with James Guetti, an eccentric, disgruntled professor of English at Rutgers University. Jim’s passions seemed to be gambling (horses, cards, dice), fishing, writing, and drinking. (A former football player at Amherst College, he also loved sports, but you didn’t bet on sports, because that was unsportsmanlike.) Yet somewhere along the way—after 1980, to judge by his published work—he added Wittgenstein to the mix of his obsessions, culminating in his 1993 book Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, whose publication fortunately coincided with the period during which I studied with him. Would I have become a poet without encountering this man and, through him, Wittgenstein? I’m inclined to say no.

Wittgenstein, of course, wrote very little about literature and even less about poetry. His efforts were principally directed toward clearing up philosophical dilemmas brought about by linguistic confusions. Most often, these confusions result from misleading analogies between different meanings of the same word. This conviction is so strong throughout his later work it compels him to devote much attention to the word “meaning.” His most famous remark on the subject occurs in Philosophical Investigations:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
            And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.
The second half of this remark is misleading out of context, for the overall thrust of Wittgenstein’s discussion in this portion of the Investigations is against the picture of meaning as primarily a matter of names and things. Implicit here is a critique of Saussurean linguistics in making the signifier/signified model the paradigm of meaning. He’s not suggesting such a model is never an appropriate explanation of meaning, but rather that it only sometimes is. Naming is only one way we use words.

But as Guetti points out in relation to the first half of the remark quoted above, Wittgenstein’s sense of “use in the language” is more active than simply equating a name with its bearer:
It will soon become clear that “use” for Wittgenstein is a quite restrictive concept: it is “use in” specific verbal situations and exchanges and sequences, and “use” to do or to achieve something, “use” that always has consequences. It is this practical and purposive “use in the language” that becomes more and more unquestionably, as his arguments develop, the measure of meaning.
            But that observation still does not communicate the strength and even the severity of Wittgenstein’s formulation. For if “use in the language” is not, as we might initially have supposed, “all sorts of things,” then a great deal of verbal behavior—all such behavior, for example, that seems purposeless or inconsequential or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, “idling”—cannot be considered “meaningful.”
“The consequences of this exclusion,” Guetti continues, “are enormous for how we think about language, and especially for how we conceive linguistic process in literary studies.” Certainly they were for me. What Guetti writes above seems very simple, but in the context of literary studies—where interpretation of “meaning,” however defined or ill-defined, remains the prime directive—it is difficult to conceive of a more radical proposition. For it is tantamount to saying, among other things, that works of literature have no meaning; that is, the “meaning” we speak of in literature is different in kind from the meaning of a word or a sentence in the context of a purposeful, real-world exchange. In the latter, the use of words has consequences, in that it gives rise to action, whereas in literature—even literature that seeks to inspire readers to political action—words lack direct application. When we speak of “meaning” in relation to literature, we quite often mean something like “significance” or “point,” but when we speak of, say, the meaning of a line of poetry, or a phrase within a line, we mean something more like interpretation or paraphrase. And this is where confusion is liable to arise, for we can also interpret or paraphrase a meaningful expression. But the difference remains, for, absent a need for clarification, we can use a meaningful expression as is, and there are “measures of meaning” with such expressions—actions, consequences—that literature lacks.

One caveat: I should be clear that Wittgenstein doesn’t purport to have discovered the essence of meaning in any phenomenological sense. Philosophy for Wittgenstein at this point is dealing with words, not things. Yet too, he isn’t claiming to have found thereal meaning of “meaning.” Rather, he’s restricting the term for philosophical use. The active and purposeful sense of meaning is only one of the ways we use this word, and other ways of using the word aren’t incorrect. But these other uses are, again, different in kind from purposeful use, and the restriction of the word “meaning” to this latter sense is simply to avoid confusion with them.

Nonetheless, particularly in relation to poetry, Guetti’s remark struck me with the force of a revelation. Indeed, at the time, I probably did take it as something more like a phenomenological statement. But no matter: the idea of poetry as meaningless proved to be the key that unlocked the seemingly impenetrable mystery of the art. Previously, I felt “outside” of poetry; it seemed so full of meaning, but how, as a reader, could you know if you got this meaning, and how, as a writer, did you put it there? What Jim did for me was turn the problem not so much on its head as inside out. For where literary criticism tends to speak of meaning in poetry as internal, something to be “unpacked,” in Jim’s classes the poem was empty, its words reaching out to possible meanings, much as Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations during a series of remarks on “understanding”:
Hearing a word in a particular sense. How queer that there should be such a thing!
             Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the first of a series in which a transition is made to thesesentences, pictures, actions.
This sounds very much like what occurs when you interpret the meaning of a line of poetry. You make a transition not to “actions,” as Jim pointed out, but definitely to “sentences” and “pictures” against whose backdrop a line of poetry might seem to take on a certain meaning. This is sometimes instructive and interesting to do, but at the same time it leads you away from the poem to other language that is not the poem. If you abandon the search for meaning, however, you’re more likely to stay with the poem, and this is the only way, finally, to learn how to understand poetry. And to “understand,” in the case of a poem, is not the same as to interpret its meaning, as Wittgenstein writes in one of his too-few remarks directly touching on poetry:
We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
             In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is only expressed by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)
To be sure, this remark is not limited to poetry; Wittgenstein is talking about understanding sentences generally. “Understanding a poem” here exemplifies those things we understand about sentences that specifically aren’t meanings of words, our comprehension of intonations and structures. Hence the analogy with a musical theme, which is all tones and structures without semantic values. The problem here is that our understanding of musical themes is difficult to articulate, precisely because meaning is not involved. “What is it all about?” Wittgenstein asks of a musical theme. “I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else that has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern).”  

One of Guetti’s strokes of genius was to link this aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought to the poetics of a writer who could be no more out of fashion in contemporary considerations of poetry: Robert Frost. In a letter to his friend John T. Bartlett, Frost writes:
A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.
             You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but—it is bad for the clothes….
             The sentence-sounds are very definite entities…. They are as definite as words….
             They are apprehended by the ear…. The most original writer only catches them fresh from talk, where they grow spontaneously.
It seems to me, as it did to Jim, who quotes this passage at even greater length in his book, that Frost is speaking of the very thing Wittgenstein grapples with in his remarks on understanding sentences. When I consider now that Frost wrote this in 1914, as Wittgenstein was just beginning his pre-Tractatus manuscript Notes on Logic, it kinda blows my mind. As it was, Jim’s juxtaposition of Frost’s “sentence-sounds” with Wittgenstein turned my head around, not simply about poetry but about writing, period. When I began to write “compositions,” as they were characterized in third grade, I learned you didn’t write the way you spoke, and this is both true—think of how “nonwritten” a transcript of conversation reads—and suitable advice for an eight-year-old writer. At a certain point, however, it is false, and bad advice. Writing is not speech, but both use sentences, and thus sentence-sounds—which is to say that written sentences need to be sayable, not merely to be elegant or effective but simply to be understood. Sentence-sounds, in other words, aren’t meaning but are intimately bound up with our understanding of sentences.

In terms of poetry, what I gleaned from this juxtaposition of ideas was to follow the sentence over the line. The line had me psyched out. With a poet of rhyme and meter like Frost, the line can bully your mind into blank incomprehension, whereas his game is to play his sentences against his lines’ almost brutal regularity. With unrhymed poems of variable meter, the line retained for me an aura as a unit that it often doesn’t merit. I was looking for reasons where there were none; if a line or a line break is noteworthy, it will declare itself, but otherwise, it’s not worth worrying about. Following sentences, moreover, was never a problem for me, not since learning to diagram them in fifth grade under the perpetually furious tutelage of an Irish Catholic nun named Sister Timothy. Reading poetry was suddenly easy; I had the grammatical chops, and Frost’s concept of sentence-sounds attuned me to those spoken intonations that animated the grammar. And the meaninglessness of poetry had eliminated the intimidation factor, for instead of approaching it with the forlorn hope that I could access its meaning, I let the poem come to me. It’s not for me to figure out a poem’s meaning but rather for the poem to convince me it has one. Or not, because I don’t demand that it have a meaning. I assume the poem is meaningless unless it convinces me otherwise. This is a far preferable state of affairs.
Jim Guetti died of lung cancer in early 2007, several months shy of his 70th birthday. In a memoir he self-published on iUniverse in 2005 called Silver Kings, he reveals that a cancer specialist saw an ambiguous mark on an X-ray of his lungs and wanted to perform exploratory surgery, but Jim refused. He’d calculated the odds of the occurrence of the rare type of tumor the doctor thought could be there against the odds of dying during surgery and decided he didn’t like them. Considering he’d already survived colon cancer before I met him, I was shocked by this decision, although, at the same time, it was very much him, the gambler. I didn’t hear about his death until a couple of years afterward. We weren’t close and had fallen out of touch. The last time we’d spoken, I’d called him to get his address to mail him my first book of poems, probably around 2000. I was curious to see what he’d think of it, if he’d recognize any of his teaching in it, but I never heard back from him. I figured that meant he didn’t like the poems, which didn’t surprise me, as I knew what I was writing was pretty distant from the poetry he enjoyed, though it occurred to me after reading Silver Kingsthat he may have been dealing with the cancer by then and was too busy trying to stay alive. I’d wanted him to see the book because I felt like my whole process of becoming a poet began by reading Wittgenstein with him. Until recently, I was under the impression I didn’t actually start writing poetry until 1994, after I moved to California to enroll in the graduate English program at UC Berkeley. But not long after readingSilver Kings, I discovered a notebook filled with poems from my senior year at Rutgers. Not good poems, and few complete ones, but it seems like I started trying out things based on what I was learning in Jim’s classes fairly immediately.

Jim had vast reservoirs of bitterness. Though he’d had 30-odd years as a full professor at a major research university and written three books of criticism—he’s still sometimes cited in studies of Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Chandler, and, indeed, Wittgenstein—he felt his career hadn’t gone the way he wanted. He didn’t like the way literary studies had gone. His one bid for literary glory—a novel about gambling calledAction (Dial, 1972) that still has a following among connoisseurs of the genre—was, he claimed, ripped off and made into a film called The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan. I can’t say whether or not this is true, but how many stories about gambling English professors who end up owing money to the mob are out there? Caan even looks rather like Jim does in his author photo for Action. (Jim was doubly offended because the film replaces horse racing with college basketball and, again, betting on sports was unsportsmanlike.) Still, despite his bitterness, he retained his enthusiasm for teaching. A surprising amount of Silver Kings is devoted to teaching, not so much about his own endeavors in the classroom as about those significant encounters in his life with teachers and coaches who helped him discover and develop abilities he hadn’t been aware he possessed. In the acknowledgments to Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, Jim thanks two of his own professors at Amherst—Theodore Baird and Armour Craig—for their role in his development as a thinker and a writer, saying, “The best teaching lasts.” It does.
Excerpted from Retrievals, copyright 2014 by Garrett Caples. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.
Originally Published: October 29, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tobias Hill / I was so hungry to write poetry

Tobias Hill: 'During the last novel, it was so difficult that I just caved in because I was so hungry to write poetry'

The award-winning writer tells Christina Patterson why his latest novel is set in a bustling (London) market and how he's been trying not to write about the capital for years
  • Christina Patterson
    • The Guardian

Tobias Hill
'With a novel you’re constantly walking into the unknown' … Tobias Hill. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
Tobias Hill doesn't have a mobile phone. He doesn't do Twitter, and he doesn't do Facebook, and he doesn't text because, without a phone, he can't. He has just got a website. It has, he explains, taken four years to get it up. "I'm not a technophobe," he says. "I think it's all rather incredible. But I think the business of the writer is to write." And write he has. Now aged 43 he is a prizewinning and critically acclaimed author of five novels, four volumes of poetry, a short story collection and a children's book.
  1. What Was Promised
  2. by Tobias Hill

He has suggested we meet at Chapel Market, just off Islington's Upper Street in London where there's one stall selling artisan bread and cakes, but mostly the stalls are selling what markets nearly always sell: cheap bags and clothes, fruit and veg, cleaning products, make-up and tat. And a Manze's Eel Pie and Mash Shop.
Hill this place because his new novel, What Was Promised, has a lot to do with markets, and because he once worked in this particular one. "It was the best holiday job I ever had," he tells me. "We'd come out here bright and early and sell our jogging bottoms and Batman T-shirts."
What Was Promised starts off in Columbia Road, of market fame, in 1948. Spanning 40 years, it tells the story of three families brought to the East End by the war. There's Solly Lazarus, the Jewish watchmaker from Danzig, and his beautiful wife, Dora. There's Clarence Malcolm, the "Banana King" from Jamaica, his wife, Bernadette, and Sidney, their son. And there's Michael and Mary Lockhart, originally from Birmingham, who both know not to ask too many questions about the errands Michael's paid to run. Their daughters, Iris and Floss, play with Sidney and with a boy who thinks he must be an orphan, and who says his name is "Pond".
All immigrants of a kind, the characters have to learn, as Clarence puts it, to live on their "wits alone". They live in Columbia Buildings, condemned by the council as a slum. As they struggle to make ends meet, their lives and stories intertwine, first in good ways and then in a terrible way that will change nearly all their lives. The effects of this are still being felt in 1988 when the novel ends.
"Markets are precious," says Hill, "and they're so easily destroyed. And they're not very English, which is why when people got off the boats in 1948, they would see this little slice of life, which could be anywhere. I wanted to get the sense of that and how that felt." Hill, who has been described by this paper as "contemporary literature's renaissance man", seems as comfortable with a 500-page novel as a short story or a poem. He brings his poet's eye for precision to the teeming life of the market. He talks, for example, about air that "tastes of old batteries", rain that "hardens down into the byways", "crizzling down the windows", and about a face "sunken as old meat". But his main theme isn't actually the market but the "collisions" the city throws up. The novel, like his last poetry collection, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, has Emerson's "cities give us collision" as its epigraph. "When people get exhausted by the city and want to escape," he says, "it's the collisions they want to get away from. I have," he adds, "been trying not to write about London for years."
If he's been trying, he hasn't been trying all that hard. In his first collection of short stories, Skin, which won the 1998 PEN/Macmillan award for fiction, he wrote partly about Japan, where he'd been living, but also about London Zoo. His first novel, Underground, published in 1999, as you might guess from the title, is largely set on the underground: and not just in the passages and tunnels that people still use. His next, The Love of Stones, switches between Victorian and contemporary London, as well as Tokyo and Istanbul. The Cryptographer, about a love affair between a tax inspector and "the world's first quadrillionaire" is set in the London of the future. Only his fourth novel The Hidden, published five years ago, is set largely outside London, in Greece.
His first poetry collection, Year of the Dog, which won him an Eric Gregory award in 1995, was, like Skin, dominated by images of Japan. His second, Midnight in the City of Clocks, moves between London and Japan. His third, Zoo, is nearly all about London, and was published while he was poet in residence at London Zoo. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, published in 2006, is pretty much a love song to the city. "London," he says, in the poem "November", "– there's a rhythm to the name, its ending an echo of its beginning, as if London were the name for somewhere full to the brim with its own echoes".
Rhythm is, of course, as central to prose as to poetry, but there's also the rhythm of structure, and plot. Hill's previous four novels could probably be described as "intellectual thrillers": in Underground, the central character is trying to track down the person who's pushing women under trains; in The Love of Stones, she's on a hunt for a missing jewel; in The Cryptographer she's investigating an electronic currency that seems to have been protected by an unbreakable code; and in The Hidden a team of archeologists hide, and eventually reveal, a terrible secret.
"Judgments and secrets are what make a good novel," he says, when I point out the pattern. But you couldn't describe his latest novel as a thriller. Was he trying to get away from the genre? "That," he says carefully, "might be true. People have expectations of what you are as a writer. And writers, on the whole, don't like to be classified. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to write a novel about people, rather than ideas."
What Was Promised is certainly a novel about people, and the people in it are much more powerfully depicted than the characters he's given us before. As a novelist Hill has been praised for "the sort of brilliance that leaves you short of breath" and described by AS Byatt as "one of the two or three most original and interesting young novelists working in Britain today". Before he was picked in 2004 by the Poetry Book Society as a Next Generation Poet, and by the Sunday Times as a Young Writer of the Year, he was nominated by the TLS as one of the Best Young Writers in Britain. But he hasn't always been praised for his characterisation. Penelope Lively said that Katharine, the central character in The Love of Stones, "remained a shadowy creature". Sam Leith described Casimir, in Underground, as "a sort of ambulant potato". Did such comments play a part in his decision to write a novel about people?
"Absolutely!" says Hill. "They're quite right. My strong suits, coming from poetry, will naturally be description, which I love doing. It comes very easily, and possibly structure, up to a point. My weaker suits are character and dialogue, and that's why I've invested four years in this." And what, I ask, about plot? Presumably, with all those thrillers, he had to do some meticulous plotting in advance? Hill shakes his head. "I don't really plot, no. Do you know that lovely Ursula Le Guin book about writing? She talked about her novels having rhythms not like poetry, but huge rhythms, like mountain ranges – and that comes out of not knowing too much. When the plot grows out of the character, that's much harder, because you're constantly gardening, and trying to work out which bit needs to be trimmed."
In the past, Hill has said that he can't write poems and novels at the same time. Now, he does both. "During the last novel," he says, "it was so difficult that halfway through I just caved in, because I was so hungry to write poetry. It helped when I came back to the novel as well." And how different is the process? "I think," he replies, after a pause, "the poem and the short story have an affinity, in that you know it's going to be over soon. With a novel, there is no hurrying it. You're constantly walking into the unknown."
What Was Promised is about outsiders, but then nearly all Tobias Hill's work is about outsiders. His own family is a mixture of German-Jewish and British. His mother's German parents moved to Welwyn Garden City because "they thought in a new town no one would have any roots". His father's family were "goldsmiths and gunmakers and workhouse masters". One of his relatives, he says, "was a dodgy, irascible travelling land surveyor who once chased off an armed sailor with a shotgun and ended up going mad with syphilis".
Hill grew up in a "bookish household" in Kentish Town, north London, with a journalist father who made "intricate model boats" and wrote "rather good poetry" and a graphic designer mother who did "rather good pictures" and sang. As a child, he was obsessed with butterflies, gemstones and dinosaurs. His grandmother, he says, "was an avid collector of things". He hated school – Hampstead school, where Zadie Smith was also a pupil – but he started writing poems as a child, and was published by the time he was 20. Two years later, he went to live for a couple of years in Japan ("like another version of Britain. There's the same introspection, the same ritualistic tendencies, and tea.") When he returned to London, he had decided he was going to be a writer. "I came back with the idea that I would give it a real go, and move back into my old bedroom. I clomped round the house annoying my parents until they finally threw me out."
He met his wife, Hannah, at his father's memorial service when he was 26. In his poem "October", he writes: "I will never have seen enough of you." Now they have 14-month-old Kit. Hill teaches creative writing one day a week, but the rest of the time he writes. It sounds pretty idyllic. No wonder he writes in his poem "November", "all that brilliance was ours".
Hill is warm and polite, yet his work has often been described as clever but cool. "I know what they mean," he says. "I see people occasionally saying the same thing about Kazuo Ishiguro. What I feel about Ishiguro is that he's an intensely emotional writer, and either you get that or you don't. Obviously, I want people to get something out of this novel. I don't," he says, "want them to say I'm cold."

Monday, December 1, 2014

Charles Bukowski / My Cats

Charles Bukowski
My Cats
by Charles Bukowski

I know. I know they are limited,
have different
needs andconcerns. but I watch and learn from them.
I like the little they know,
which is so much.
they complain but never
they walk with a surprising dignity.
they sleep with a direct simplicity that
humans just can’t understand.
their eyes are more
beautiful than our eyes.
and they can sleep twenty hours
a day without hesitation or remorse.
when I am feelinglow
all I have to do is
watch my cats
and my courage returns.
I study these creatures.
they are my teachers.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer / Rhyme 21

Louise Brooks
by Grace Hamilton

Rhyme 21

By Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

"What's poetry?" You ask me as you lock
My pupil in your pupil of pure blue.
"What's poetry?" You're really asking me?
Poetry is just you. 

Louise Brooks
by Grace Hamilton

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Rima 21

¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poesía! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía eres tú.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer / Rhyme II

Photo by Alessio Albi

Rhyme II
By Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

A headlong flying arrow
Fired by a random hand
Not knowing where its trembling
Steel tip shall pierce and land.

A leaf from a dry tree-branch
Ripped by a crazy gust:
Unknowable the furrow
Where it shall fall at last.

A huge wave that the ocean's
Winds pull and push and lash,
Rolling with no idea
What beach it means to splash.

Lights in a hallway's torches
Burn, destined to expire,
None caring which possesses
The longest-lasting fire.

These things am I who travel
This world, who do not know
Where I am from nor whither
My willful feet will go.

Photo by Alessio Albi

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Rima II

Saeta que voladora
Cruza, arrojada al azar,
Sin adivinarse dónde
Temblando se clavará;

Hoja del árbol seca
Arrebata el vendaval,
Sin que nadie acierte el surco
Donde a caer volverá;

Gigante ola que el viento
Riza y empuja en el mar,
Y rueda y pasa, y no sabe
Qué playa buscando va;

Luz que en los cercos temblorosos
Brilla, próxima a expirar,
Ignorándose cuál de ellos
El último brillará;

Eso soy yo, que al acaso
Cruzo el mundo, sin pensar
De dónde vengo, ni a dónde

Mis pasos me llevarán.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tomas Tranströmer / Six Winters

Poem of the week: Six Winters by Tomas Tranströmer


This brief sequence of poems is a vivid illustration of the Nobel prize winner's singular gifts

    • The Guardian, 
Tomas TranstömerTomas Transtömer. Photograph: Jessica Gow/AFP/Getty Images
Tomas Tranströmer, the 80-year-old Swedish poet deservedly honoured last October with the Nobel prize for literature, is the author of this week's poem-sequence, Six Winters, translated by Robin Fulton. It comes from his 1989 collection, För Levande och Döda (For Living and Dead) and is included in a highly recommended New Collected Poems, published recently in an expanded edition by Bloodaxe Books.
These six short imagist poems are rather like extended haiku, a form in which the poet has always excelled. They may centre on a single image, or use surreal combinations of imagery, as does the first, with its haunting triad of black hotel, sleeping child and dice. In this poem, even the proportions of the objects seem altered. The dice, having eyes, are larger and more menacing than real dice, for all that "wide-eyed", in English, has connotations of innocence. Perhaps these dice are being rolled by a vast, unseen, malevolent hand? The atmosphere is that of the child's nightmare, transposed into the winter night beyond the hotel's walls. Terse syntax heightens the strangeness, with the colon in the middle line acting as a kind of portal, similar in dramatic effect to the haiku's traditional "cutting word".
In the second poem, we're deep in the Kingdom of Winter. The concept of an "elite of the dead" is ironical and appalling. It prefigures the subsequent reference to wartime. That this is an elite of conquerors is reinforced by the entrance of the armoured wind. The dead may be reduced to emblems of grim and silent stone, but the wind from icy Svalbard "shakes" in its armour, suggesting not fear or even cold, but vigorous movement, the brandishing of noisy weapons, fresh savagery.
There's a more anecdotal tone to the next poem. "Neighbour and harpoon" are kept separate, but the imagination adds them up to the cartoonish figure of a harpoon-wielding neighbour. Perhaps the child had a half-delirious notion of the icicle as a whale, and the neighbour as a local Ahab. The poet sets these images squarely before us, not trying to make sense of them. They are simple there, elements of "unexplained memory".
The image of icicle as animal is pursued further in the next tercet. Here again we get a haunting juxtaposition – the architectural "upside-down Gothic" and the weird cow whose udders are made of icicles and resemble glass.
The fifth takes us farther beyond the window-frame. Trains are usually comforting sights, belonging to the pleasures of childhood. This one has become a wild beast, though a heraldic one, holding "the journey in its claws". As in the first terect, we sense that events have been set uncontrollably in motion. The shape of the child's unlived life is already decided by forces that cannot be checked or altered.
Of course, there is no obligation to imagine we are still in the child's world at this point. The six winters are not necessarily consecutive. They may have been picked at random from the poet's memory: some may have simply been assembled with no autobiographical intent. They could also be read as the entire life-story, moving swiftly on at the rate of one winter per decade. They might be the omniscient narrator's different views of a single winter. It's up to the reader to decide the chronology, if it exists.
An obvious reading of the sixth poem, nevertheless, would suggest a post-childhood, post-war setting, that of adolescence and first love, or even maturity and marriage. The "snow-haze" and "moonlight" are romantic images, contrasting with the earlier surreal nightmare and Gothic humour. But a characteristic flick of the wrist produces the unexpected jellyfish. "Jellyfish moonlight" packs two nouns together: although "moonlight" is a noun that may do duty as a modifier, the substantive adds more force to the image. Having seen large white jellyfish stranded on the sands at Portmeirion last summer, I find the metaphor of hazy, mis-shapen moonlight a brilliantly accurate one.
The menace of future journeys has now been left behind, and, for the first time, there is the collective pronoun, "our", providing reassurance. The isolating dread has diminished in the pleasure of a new and shared perspective. What lies ahead is only an avenue, a slender element in the journey, but a promising one. The word "bewitched" might have been ominous, but instead it seems to imply a benign and beautiful enchantment effected by snow, moonlight and companionship.
Dreams and the transitions between different levels of consciousness are suggested by the poet's very name. They are Tranströmer's territory. He worked as a psychologist for many years, and his poems seem to me to be extraordinarily honest elucidations of the "secret ministry" of the mind. From the fascinating childhood memoirs included in the Bloodaxe collection, one might guess that Tranströmer, like a number of poets, could suffer from Asperger's (see, particularly, "Museums"). How impressive it is that he has never compromised on his singular perceptions, and that the resulting poetry is so luminous, and has yielded so much meaning to his readers.

Six Winters
In the black hotel a child is asleep.
And outside: the winter night
where the wide-eyed dice roll.
An élite of the dead became stone
in Katarina Churchyard
where the wind shakes in its armour from Svalbard.
One wartime winter when I lay sick
a huge icicle grew outside the window.
Neighbour and harpoon, unexplained memory.
Ice hangs down from the roof edge.
Icicles: the upside-down Gothic.
Abstract cattle, udders of glass.
On a side-track, an empty railway-carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.
Tonight snow-haze, moonlight. The moonlight jellyfish itself
is floating before us. Our smiles
on the way home. Bewitched avenue.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The best poetry of 2013

Adam Martinakis
The best poetry of 2013
From Fleur Adcock's Glass Wings to Train Songs edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson, Adam Newey rounds up the best poetry of the year
by Adam Newey
The Guardian, Saturday 7 December 2013

    Don Paterson
Don Paterson is co-editor of Train Songs. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
The poetic year was sharply punctuated by the death of Seamus Heaney at the end of August. It's hard to think of any poet more determined to stay true to the topologies of language, culture and identity, and in particular to the bogs, mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him, and his loss is incalculable. The coming years, no doubt, will see the publication of unfinished work, along with the scholarly editions, biographies and academic tomes that inevitably mark the translation from living poet to canonical great.
From last words to first books. The wellspring of poetry doesn't run dry, and two debuts in particular bear this out. Emily Berry's Dear Boy (Faber) fizzes with verbal inventiveness and fantastical, darkly comic storytelling; while Fiona Moore's pamphlet The Only Reason for Time(HappenStance Press) is full of elegant, gently piercing observations that build to a compelling portrait of love and loss and the overcoming of grief.
Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton
Still with new voices, Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe) is an excellent anthology of work by 60 young poets, some already very familiar names, some less so. Refusing to adopt the traditional role of editor as de haut en bas authority, Hamilton has achieved something that feels not unlike a crowdsourced anthology. Quality, inevitably, varies, but so, thankfully, do the themes, concerns and poetic strategies employed. There is much terrific work here and, as a snapshot of young, contemporary poetry in Britain, there's nothing better.
Somewhat further up the age range, three of my own favourite poets published collections this year. I love Robin Robertson's work for its austere beauty and the seriousness and intensity with which he realises his vision. Hill of Doors (Picador) is a companion piece to his superbThe Wrecking Light (2010): it portrays human conciousness caught between animal impulse and divine aspiration, trapped in a thuggishly material world that is oblivious to higher concerns.
Christopher Reid's Six Bad Poets
Christopher Reid's work, by contrast, I love for its wry and always well-mannered outsider's take on contemporary mores. With Six Bad Poets (Faber), he has produced another narrative sequence, along the lines of 2009'sThe Song of Lunch, and one that allows him to indulge his ventriloquistic panache. He clearly has great fun satirising the casually cruel, pettily incestuous world of poetry in which self-absorption is the keynote.
And a new volume from Maurice Riordan is always an occasion for celebration. The Water Stealer (Faber), published in the year he turns 60, is only Riordan's fourth full-length collection – this is a poet who refuses to over-publish – and the care and dedication he devotes to his craft pay off here. Inventive and mischievous as ever, and with a real assuredness of tone, The Water Stealer must be a strong contender for this year's TS Eliot prize.
Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot
As, no doubt, will be Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson), a spirited collection published as the poet turns 90. Inevitably, old age and an acute awareness of the passing of time and growing bodily infirmity make up a large part of it. But his humour most certainly isn't dimmed, with some boisterously bawdy versions of the 14th-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. Sinéad Morrissey is another TS Eliot shortlistee with Parallax (Carcanet), which fascinates with its interest in the processes of art, in what the artwork conceals as much as what it reveals. As the title suggests, this is a book about perception as deception.
Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson
Two further collections and an anthology are particularly deserving of note. Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape) deals in the flux of life, in change, decay and rebirth for a book of elegant poems of domestic life. In Glass Wings (Bloodaxe), Fleur Adcock is as clear-eyed as always in a collection that ranges widely over lost worlds, family histories and memories of childhood, but always maintains the art of seemingly artless observation. And Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson (Faber), is a joy. The reader might take issue with the editors' claim that the railway is "as  close as earthly things get to perfection" – as indeed do many of the poets and songwriters on board – but there are plenty of nostalgic pleasures to be had here.
Finally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book about how we read and project our own concerns, especially political ones, on to texts. Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry by John Redmond (Seren) is a salubrious corrective to those critics and academics for whom over-interpretation is a way of life. At which point, it seems best to say no more.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Winston Morales Chavarro

by Winston Morales Chavarro

Translated by Alaric Gutiérrez

My whole life is in the leaf of a tree
Through her my sap flows
Blood apexes of what I am
And what I lose when autumn comes.
In that leaf,
In any of a fir tree,
It is my song of wounded bird,
The pirouettes I stopped
As I grew older.
That leaf witness it all;
Of the winds I gave up
As I was putting down roots. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Berryman / Happy 100 th birthday

Happy 100th birthday, John Berryman

Despite a lifetime of chaos and alcoholism, John Berryman’s poetry is brilliantly funny. Sam Leith toasts his ‘pal’, whose work he has adored since he was a teenager
    • The Guardian, 

John Berryman
‘Life, friends, is boring’ … John Berryman. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Getty
The great American poet John Berryman would have been 100 today, had he lived. One of the things most people know about him is that he did not. He killed himself at 57 – after a lifetime of chaos, alcoholism, mental illness and extremely hard work.
During his lifetime he was competitive. One of his late collections was called Love & Fame, and he was very interested in both. When Robert Frost died in 1963, Berryman’s reaction was: “It’s scarey [sic]. Who’s number one? Who’s number one? Cal is number one, isn’t he?” Cal was Robert Lowell.
That was probably right. Since then, Berryman’s reputation has held up – though he has never quite been number one. He is, if this makes sense, a major cult poet – or a cult major poet; feted in part for the manner of his death or his association with a generation of poets who liked to think of themselves as maudits. But he is famous, and he is loved. I think he deserves to be more of both.
What he is most remembered for, though there are glories in his other work, is The Dream Songs, which you could think of as a poème-fleuve: he found (and there is an American tradition of this stuff going back to Whitman) an expansive, accretive, flexible open form that allowed him to somehow drift net the jetsam of a life and the flotsam of his place in the century.
Berryman set out the situation of the poem in an introduction to the 1969 edition (the first part of the poem had appeared as 77 Dream Songs five years previously):
The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof. Requiescant in pace.
After prentice work that saw him labour in the shadows of (among others)Yeats, Berryman found the form: a sort of broken sonnet in three stanzas. Lowell – under Berryman’s influence, it’s fair to assume – tried something similar with his big, open, much-revised sonnet-sequenceNotebook and History. But Berryman’s sequence was neither notebook nor history – it was a fantasia, wild, spiky, self-teasing, exuberantly free in tone. It evidences deep reading – Berryman was a scholar-poet and most of his life was spent in institutions, usually academic ones – but slaloms around literary decorum. “Rilke was a jerk,” he exclaims at one point. His protagonist Henry – “huffy”, in the first word of the poem – isn’t allowed the dignity of classical verse; and nor, for that matter, is classical verse. Henry’s “plights and gripes” are “bad as Achilles”.
Berryman, along with Lowell, was identified with the movement known as “Confessional Poetry” – and, like every poet ever identified with a movement, rejected the label. His life informed his poetry. And he did, notoriously, say: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” But it’s the art, not the suffering, that matters: as the title suggests, the material went through what Freud called the “dream-work”. The art redeems the suffering elsewhere.
Still, here is poetry that for all its eccentricities of diction and action, is close to life: “Henry, to some extent, was in the situation that we are all in in actual life,” Berryman said, “namely, he didn’t know, and I didn’t know, what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next. Whatever it was, he had to confront it and get through.”
Henry is in a state of perpetual transformation. Now he’s a cat, now he’s a yogi, now he’s a motorboat. Now he’s a crazed veteran holed up, First Blood style, in the mountains. He takes LSD. He meditates. He drinks. He gets on the wagon (“Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones”) and falls off it. He suffers hangovers (“Sick at 6 & sick again at 9 / was Henry’s gloomy Monday morning oh”) and gastric discomfort. Berryman was an alcoholic, and the poem does not leave that out: it is sometimes jokily evasive (“Man, I been thirsty”); sometimes full of shame; sometimes mired in horror, as in Henry’s recurring dream of having killed someone (“He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. Nobody is ever missing”). At one point, in a sequence of Songs called Op Posth, he dies; and that by no means shuts him up. Henry moans and mourns, he flashes and yearns, he rails against the Almighty (“God’s Henry’s enemy”), he clowns and sulks. And he lusts – oh boy does he lust. “Love her he doesn’t but the thought he puts / into that young woman / would launch a national product / complete with TV spots & skywriting … Vouchsafe me, O sleepless one, / a personal experience of the body of Mrs Boogry / before I pass from lust!” For Henry, “the sweet switch of the body” is an urgent call: he is “tasting all the secret bits of life”.
Berryman is (relatively) unusual among poets because he’s funny. Daniel Swift, who has edited some handsome centenary reissues of Berryman’s work for Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US (Faber, feebly, isn’t marking the occasion in the UK), suggests that his status as a minor major poet – his not quite getting his due – is in part down to this. People still don’t think funny poets are as important as the non-funny kind. But Berryman is the proper sort of funny: the funny that is involved with heartbreak. His friend Lowell called him a “great Pierrot … poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous” – and that seems to me an unimprovable description of the mix. The Dream Songs is a slapstick Book of Job. Most of what you might call the Greatest Hits – the lines and poem chunks most quoted in isolation – are funny. “Life, friends, is boring …”; “Bats have no bankers and they do not drink / and cannot be arrested and pay no tax / and, in general, bats have it made”; “Bright-eyed & bushy-tailed woke not Henry up”; “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.”
One of his lines – even though I have no idea to what it refers – makes me laugh every time I think of it.
– Are you radioactive, pal?
– Pal, radioactive.
– Has you the night sweats & the daysweats, pal?
– Pal, I do.
– Did your gal leave you?
– What do you think, pal?
– Is that thing on the front of yourhead what it seems to be, pal?
– Yes, pal.
But funny as Berryman is, he’s a poet of mourning. The Songs circle around and fret, as Berryman said, at “an irreversible loss”. The primary loss is Henry’s father, who like Berryman’s own biological father, John Allyn Smith, took his own life when Henry was a child (christened John Allyn Smith, Jr, the poet took his stepfather’s name). But grief, in The Dream Songs, is more general. Sunt lacrimae rerum. There is the grief of deep time: “a grave Sienese face a thousand years / would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of”. There is the anguish of losing contemporaries (“I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation”). There is the bewildering childlike fear of watching the older generation go (“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?”). And there is a primal sense of an irreparable “departure” – Berryman wouldn’t have been crude enough to identify it as birth-trauma or Man’s fallen condition – that afflicts not just Henry but all of us. As he puts it in the closing lines of the first Song: “Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang. / Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed.”
I have loved Berryman’s work since I was a teenager. And the species of love I have for it is quite different from that I have for almost any other poet. For several years I toted around a stained and wracked paperback of 77 Dream Songs in whatever passed for my satchel or hand luggage. My valediction and thanks to my favourite teacher at school was a hardback copy of Faber’s big blue edition of The Dream Songs. I spent a good chunk of the (small) advance on my first book on a US first edition of the 77. Before YouTube came along, I was searching sound archives and poetry libraries for recordings of him reading (there’s a great one from the Academy of American Poets, in which he tells a joke about a kid trick-or-treating and completely screws up the punchline). When my wife wants to give me a serious present, it’s a Berryman first edition. My cat, for Pete’s sake, is called “Henry” because of Berryman (Henry, in the poems, is frequently a cat: “I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly!”).
I’m trying to get at something about his particular appeal. People who like Berryman really like him. When Berryman fans identify one another in, say, a crowded party it tends to end in a quote-off and a fast friendship. There are 20th-century poets most of us will acknowledge as better, but there are few with whom one so strongly feels one has found, in Berryman’s preferred epithet, a pal. You find in him remarkable technical command, deep and riddling allusiveness, killer gags and an antic harlequinade of aspects and personae that recalls Looney Toons as much as it does The Waste Land. But you also find a voice: this character Henry, who is half Berryman and half not, and who lives on the page and speaks to you. The voice looks easy to imitate or parody – with its fractured syntax, its tics and ampersands – but, as many who have tried discover, it isn’t.
Is there another poet in the language who can be said to be so companionable? Berryman, and he was pretty plain about it, rejected TS Eliot’s idea of the impersonality of poetry: he talked about personality as an organising principle of the Songs. Berryman’s pre-Dream Songsbreakthrough, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, is half seance, half love-affair: the poet’s voice entwines with that of the 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet whom he conjures up, and they flirt. Another key to the directness of his appeal is the way in which he flouts John Stuart Mill’s old idea of poetry as being not heard, but overheard. Here is poetry that is not only heard: it buttonholes you.
About that blackface. I think it is fair to acknowledge that the racial politics of The Dream Songs are what academics like to call problematic. But it’s fair, too, to make clear that “problematic” in this case means complexly troubling rather than being a crude euphemism for “racist”. Henry is sometimes in blackface. The dynamic of his relationship with his unnamed friend is shaped by the call-and-response of minstrel patter. “Mr Bones” is a stock end-man (the clownish figure at either end of the semicircle in which minstrel performers traditionally sat), and the Songsare littered with “darky” patois. But we have to remember that as Berryman cautioned, “many opinions and errors in the Songs are to be referred not to the character Henry, still less to the author, but to the title of the work”.
I remember having a long argument, years ago, with a friend brought up in Washington who regarded any tinge of minstrelsy as anathema. The position I took was that this was a work of self-laceration and self-reproach – that here was a poet determined to put this character, halfway a portrait of himself, messily in the wrong and that blackface was a way of doing so; that her offence, directed at Henry and through him at Berryman, was in other words an intended effect. Not sure I quite buy that, now: it’s to under-read the poem, to ignore that, at the time of its writing, blackface was not as taboo as it is now, and not to acknowledge the prankish energy that the minstrel material gives it.
But I think it can be said with confidence that racial mockery is not the point of the blackface in the Songs, nor even a point of it. It is doing something different there, and such offence as it gives, well …
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry
– Mr Bones: there is.
Berryman’s only novel was about an alcoholic drying out. It was calledRecovery, and it wasn’t finished because he didn’t. On 7 January 1977 Berryman walked along the outside of the covered Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, climbed on the railing, leaned out and let go. Some accounts had it that he made a gesture something like waving goodbye.
Requiescat in pace. And happy birthday, pal.