Friday, September 1, 2023

Robert Graves / Reluctant War Poet


Robert Graves

Robert Graves, Reluctant War Poet

Review: Charles Mundye, ed., 'Robert Graves: War Poems'

Aaron MacLean
February 3, 2017

If it wasn't exactly the book that made him famous, the sales of Goodbye to All That certainly made possible Robert Graves' uncontainable and eccentric maturity—complete with the house in Majorca—and the means by which to ensure that his poetic art consisted not just of a "technical mastery of words" but a "particular way of living and thinking." A century after the events this autobiography depicted, it is still easy to see why it sold so well: it was and is an uncommon book. Narrated throughout in Graves' chiseled, ironic prose, it consists of unequal parts abject horror (the young Lieutenant Graves in a shattered wood robbing dead Germans of their great coats so that his men can have blankets, dodging clouds of undissipated gas as he goes), dishy amusements (T.E. Lawrence conspiring with Graves at Oxford to kidnap the Magdalen College deer), and frank sexuality—scandalous sexuality, at the time of publication in 1929.

What it doesn't contain much of is poetry, or accounts of the writing of poetry. The reader knows that he is scribbling the stuff throughout, but Graves the autobiographer keeps such business off stage. Despite this, moments essential to Graves' poetry and poetic career can't help but attract attention, like his first encounter with Siegfried Sassoon, who in 1915 was serving as another young lieutenant in his regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Inasmuch as Graves' account of this conversation involves Sassoon criticizing some drafts of poetry Graves shows him as being too "realistic," and showing Graves some embarrassingly sentimental verses in return, the moment falls squarely into the category of "dishy." Indeed, Sassoon was so upset at gossipy elements of the memoir, which he attributed to a bid for sales, that he was able to have the first edition suppressed, and subsequent editions revised.

Sassoon of course then saw heavy combat and began to write the brutally realistic war poetry that, in death, has remained the principal source of his fame, along with his own fictionalized memoirs. The same thing did not happen to Graves, who, despite almost always being counted among "the war poets," did not depend on membership in that club to maintain his reputation. This may be because Graves went on to be, well, Graves: controversial outsider and author of more than a hundred books including novels, translations, historical inquiries into the foundations of myth and religion, and of course poetry, most of which did not take war as its subject.

It may also be due to the fact that Graves actively resisted the status of "war poet." Charles Mundye, editor of a new collection of Graves' war poetry, outlines in a long and worthwhile introduction how Graves went so far as to suppress a fair amount of the writing he did in France, stating in 1941 that such work had been "too obviously written during the war poetry boom." Reading through the new edition, what is most striking is the heterogeneity of this young man's work. There are poems here that could easily be mistaken for something written by any other contributor to said boom—conventional war poems, if you will, combining the genre elements of horror and ironic reversal, and heavily influenced by the prevailing Georgian style. Graves' sonnet "Limbo" opens in the trenches, where "After a week spent under raining skies, / In horror, mud and sleeplessness" and where the dead bodies of fellow soldiers are stacked to build up the parapet,

…then one night relief comes, and we go
Miles back into the sunny cornland where
Babies like tickling, and where tall white horses
Draw the plough leisurely in quiet courses.

There are poems that have principally to do with poetry, like "Free Verse" and "John Skelton." There are also poems that clearly foreshadow Graves' interest in what he would term the "Old Religion"—the folk tales and rituals of England and Wales (Jack the Giant-killer, Lob, and so on) that, along with other European traditions, he came to believe transmitted the remnants of an Indo-European matriarchal ur-cult. Tied to such mystical concerns is the recurring theme of ghosts, as when, in "The Morning Before the Battle," Graves' narrator encounters his own wraith before him in a garden, and finds the fruit he has been eating "to clotted blood / Was transubstantiate…"; or when, enjoying a hearty dinner well behind the lines, a group of fusiliers is surprised to see their dead comrade Corporal Stare swagger up the street,

Just like a live man—Corporal Stare!
Stare! Killed last May at Festubert.
Caught on patrol near the Boche wire,
Torn horribly by machine-gun fire!
He paused, saluted smartly, grinned,
Then passed away like a puff of wind…

This last poem corresponds to the account in Goodbye to All That of a Private Challoner, whose ghost Graves claims to have seen. ("Corporal Stare" is a clear case of poetic license: much easier to work with, rhythmically and metrically, than "Private Challoner.") Having been killed in May at Festubert, Challoner "looked in at the window" where Graves and his fellow soldiers were enjoying a celebratory meal, "saluted, and passed on," leaving as his only trace a smoking cigarette on the street, as in the poem.

Written more than ten years after the fact, one has to wonder what role the act of writing the poem about Stare had distorted the memory of the actual "encounter" with Challoner—memories, especially those born of trauma and stress, are unstable concoctions, and the creative act has a way of looping back and flavoring the well of recollection with its own inventions. One also wonders whether or not a broader version of this concern had something to do with Graves' resistance to being seen as a "war poet," and his skepticism of the "war poetry boom," as he put it. The way that this school—Sassoon, Owen, Thomas, Winters, and so on—interpreted their own condition had quickly become the accepted way to understand the experience of modern war. It is probably fair to say that it remains the accepted way through to the present, even if later generations of war artists lacked much of the cultural equipment that the original set brought to bear. However true—and there was a lot of truth to it—such a dominant interpretation has a way of being a straitjacket, of containing honest impulses, and twisting them to what readers expect in a "war poem." And in life, let alone in poetry, Robert Graves did not intend to be contained.


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Jumbo Kingdom by Antony Huen

Photo by Chi (in Oz) on Flickr

Jumbo Kingdom

14 AUGUST, 2023

The set for a Macau scene in a Bond film,
the backdrop for Godzilla’s invasion,
the survivor of a large fire but now
it’s gone like a polar iceberg.
On YouTube, large fish tanks, staircases
like the one Rose strolled down, photos of
Elizabeth Taylor… but I only remember
Stephen Chow in the ornate restaurant,
the hand emitting qi to heat up the clay pot.
A bowl of steamed rice with char siu on top,
now a popular dish in char chaan tengs.
On a barge moored on the Regent’s Canal,
I’d order jasmine tea and egg tarts, and
rice rolls for Philip and bao for Lizzie.

Antony Huen
is an academic and writer from Hong Kong. His poems have appeared in Dark HorsePoetry WalesPN Review and elsewhere. He was shortlisted for the inaugural Poetry London pamphlet prize.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Poem of the week / In the Evening by Anna Akhmatova

‘You are alone with your love’ … detail of Amedeo Modigliani’s sketch of Anna Akhmatova,
drawn during their brief love affair.

Poem of the week: In the Evening by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by the late Richard McKane, this strikingly love-deprived love poem is a fine example of the author’s intense focus on personal experience

Carol Rummers
Monday 17 April 2017

In the Evening

There was such inexpressible sorrow
in the music in the garden.
The dish of oysters on ice
smelt fresh and sharp of the sea.

He said to me ‘I am a true friend!’
He touched my dress.
There is no passion
in the touch of his hands.

This is how one strokes a cat or a bird,
this is how one looks at a shapely horsewoman.
There is only laughter in his eyes
under the light gold of his eyelashes.

The violins’ mourning voices
sing above the spreading smoke:
‘Give thanks to heaven:
you are alone with your love for the first time.’

Josef Brodsky, a close friend to Anna Akhmatova in her later years, extolled her reclamation for poetry of the territory of the 19th-century Russian novel. This seems to me exactly right about the early verse, and helps us imagine how fresh, perhaps even revolutionary, it would have seemed to her original readers.

Akhmatova was to evolve, over her long, embattled but intensely patriotic writing life, into a poet of witness. Richard McKane, who translated this week’s poem, wrote: “It is my belief that the Akhmatova poems of the 30s and 40s will become the texts of poetry under repression.” If there’s rather more unhappy competition to represent repression than this allows, it reminds us of the continually searing power of Akhmatova’s major, innovative works such as Requiem. Her strongest focus is nonetheless constant throughout her writing: personal experience, whatever the sociopolitical contexts.

An Acmeist from the beginning, Akhmatova avoids symbolism and excess in a poem that might easily succumb to both. Her small, astute observations of human behaviour and concrete, everyday details are neatly laced, in the original, by strain-free rhymes. Crisply metrical in Russian, poems such as In the Evening are merciless to translate into English. There are few metaphorical ambiguities in which to hide. The translator reproduces the rhyme scheme at his or her peril, and the skippy rhythms at risk of mortal humiliation. McKane’s choice of simple diction and a free-verse line retaining the stanzaic structure, is quietly astute.

In the Evening comes from Akhmatova’s second collection, Rosary (Chetki, 1914). While a popular success, it earned her some abusive literary criticism that later gave ammunition to Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s culture minister, who characterised her as “half nun and half whore”.

There’s little of the “nun” in the openly frustrated eroticism of In the Evening. Akhmatova was three years married to the poet Nikolai Gumilyov: the marriage didn’t last. He’s not necessarily the figure in the poem, though he distinctly reminds me of the husband imagined in another sardonic poem, He Loved Three Things Alone … In the aesthetic elegance of the garden setting, the male admirer of In the Evening seems the perfect expression of aesthetic refinement without warmth.

The initial emphasis on the violin music seems to lend the whole piece cinematic qualities. McKane picks up on the specifying word “such”, often sacrificed in other translations, and its colloquial force as an intensifier helps realise a voice – and a means of accepting the seeming exaggeration of “inexpressible sorrow”. The strings fade down but seem to continue, sotto voce.

The male speaker may not be lying when he describes himself as “a true friend”: the poem resists judgment. Still, there’s an implied dissonance between his claim and what the speaker desires – expressive “passion”. He is handsome (if that brief mention of the gold eyelashes is indicative) and appreciative of his companion’s beauty, but fatally amused by their roles in the romantic scenario.

I like the repetition of “touch” in the second stanza. Sometimes, even for the poetry translator, opportunity knocks and a limitation in the new language becomes a strength. The Russian words are related but distinct. The English tells us more forcibly that the lover would touch the woman’s body with no more passion than he would admiringly feel the fabric or tailoring of a dress.

The cat, the bird, and the “shapely horsewoman” in the next stanza, are all aestheticised objects, animal potency subdued in an appreciation that implies subjugation. They’re stroked now, not merely touched. The paradox is that the reader is pressed to share the same viewpoint. We see and stroke these creatures, too. And then, in the last clever “stroke” of stanza three, the aesthete himself becomes objectified.

In our imaginary film sequence, the strings fade up again. And what they “sing” is cruelly mocking, in this context. They are addressing other lovers, more passionate, less critical, luckier than the protagonist and her partner. No such consummation awaits our leading characters. The evening sours and saddens: this is a love-deprived love poem, with a possible hint of darkening political weather, too, in the image of “spreading smoke”. Again, the plain word-choice works best. The Russian verb, “to spread”, can also be translated as “to creep”. The less metaphorical choice evades personification or confusion with the (slightly) serpentine male character. Akhmatova’s poetry cannot always sound understated in English, but, as usual, McKane tactfully mutes the strings wherever possible. The original Russian can be compared here, alongside a different translator’s interpretation.

This version of In the Evening is from the Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated and edited by McKane. The selection was originally a slimmer volume, published by Penguin/OUP in 1969. Although aimed at the general reader, the edition McKane revised and expanded for Bloodaxe 20 years later (most recently reprinted in 2016) includes interesting textual notes, a thoughtful, glasnost-haunted introduction, and translations of some of the poet’s vivid short prose.

McKane died in December 2016. He was both a poet and an accomplished translator from a number of languages, pre-eminently Russian and Turkish. His premature death signifies a sad narrowing of literary horizons in the UK.


Friday, August 11, 2023

The Gift of Slam Poetry

The Gift of Slam Poetry

A short history of a misunderstood literary genre and the world it created.

the greatest Americans
have not been born yet
they are waiting patiently
for the past to die.

—Saul Williams

Joshua Bennett
April 26, 2023

Harold Bloom once stated in an interview with The Paris Review that poetry slam is “the death of art.” I like that. The gravity of the statement feels like its own commendation. But I would like to offer here that poetry slam is more accurately described as the art of death—the art of dying to oneself. You can hear the resonances of this approach in some of the descriptive terms of the slam, nowhere more vividly than in the role of the sacrificial poet: the first writer to touch stage during a slam.

The work of the sacrificial poet is to perform just before the first competing poet of the first round to “calibrate” the slam’s five judges. These judges are chosen at random and have no prior relationship to the poets involved, or even to one another. Each judge is asked to score participants’ poems on a scale of zero to 10. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the average of the three remaining scores is announced as a poet’s score for a given round. Thus, the highest score one can achieve is a 30. The order in which poets perform is determined by choosing numbers or letters from a hat, or bowl, or whatever other receptacle is on hand. Audience members show their approval of a performance by applauding (or snapping, or shouting the occasional “Amen”) and their disapproval through booing, hissing, or even, in certain venues, jangling keys.

Poetry slam is one of the few examples we have of a “language game” (to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous term, but not exactly the way he means it) that is explicitly named as such. One that is carried out in public, constantly, all around the globe. For Wittgenstein, a language game is implicit in our communication, and sometimes serves an explicitly pedagogical function: for example, simple operations, “by which children learn their native language.”

Slam, of course, is a language game in a different, though related, sense. It is a place to play with words, and that is the entire point of the gathering: to think aloud under pressure and work out arguments in ensemble. It is a space where we craft a new order of symbols together: time penalty (points deducted for a poet going over three minutes), indie (a solo performance by a poet), group piece (a collaborative performance by two or more poets), anchor (the last poet you send up in a bout involving multiple slam teams), leadoff (the first poet you send up in a bout), blocking (the choreography behind a given poem)—an order that consists of words that sometimes have a related meaning in another context, but once transferred to the world of slam take on new life, undeniable vibrance.

Like most games, it can sometimes get out of hand in the high heat of competition. Like any game worth its salt, it is first and foremost a place to make friends. The language game of poetry slam, then, of the poetry slam scene, is one in which we are educating each other in another way that the social world all around us can sound, look, and feel. Collectively, the members of a scene are building their own world, pillar by pillar, stone by stone, where public acts of passionate utterance are not strange and unexpected, but a natural part of the fabric of one’s life.

Icompeted in my first poetry slam slam in 1999. I was 11 years old at the time. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was with my mother in the Yonkers Public Library over by Getty Square, which I had only been to a few times, and knew best from the distant remove of my yellow school bus zooming past the building each day. The library was located just across from the Hudson River. It was not too far from a small museum that bore its name (the Hudson River Museum), as well as a middle school named after the museum (the Museum Middle School), which has since been closed and is now named for its proximity to the river (Riverside High School). The passage of years is strange that way. The carousel of names calls to mind one of my favorite lines from Susan Stewart: “Everyone knows that time is water / and, deeper, knows that water / erodes away all stone.” The flow of time is undefeated. The names on the buildings change, but the natural world wins out. The river stays the same.

I don’t remember what my mother was reading. But she helped me whenever I had questions, even if only in the form of telling me to look something up on my own, or think about it, a classic refrain of hers that grated on my nerves for years (“I’m asking because the thinking isn’t working!” I would say, visibly exasperated by the limits of my childhood cognition). After two or three hours at the table, we closed our books and headed downstairs to the lobby floor. I saw the stage with a microphone stand and flyer asking passersby to sign up for a “poetry slam” and thought little of it. I loved poetry, and had already been writing it for years, but had no idea what a slam was. Plus, I was ready to go home. The late morning and early afternoon spent studying had taken its toll. True to form, my mother had different plans. “Let’s sign you up, Joshua.”

There were already three rows of people seated in chairs across the library lobby for the competition. The sign-up list was full except for the last two or three slots. The lone microphone stand stood like a silver specter at center stage. I was frozen in place. “I know you can do it,” Mom said. “I cannot,” I clarified. “Gifts are meant to be shared,” she said, in pretty much exactly those words, because that’s how she talks. I had no retort ready for this unexpected gem of moral philosophy.

The slam was hosted by a librarian, which made sense to me, even though none of the librarians I knew back then would ever let anyone be this loud in a library. By contrast, this host—let’s call him Rob—encouraged the most unrestrained atmosphere possible: cheers of approval, applause, stomping and snaps, the entire gamut of effervescent praise. Then he explained the rules. This slam, unlike the standard I would grow accustomed to in the coming years, would have only two rounds. Eight of us had signed up in total. Four poets from that first group would move on to the second round, where they would recite another poem. The top three winners would be chosen from that second round of competition. My stress redoubled. The two-round structure meant that I couldn’t perform the same poem twice. I whispered news of this unforeseen conflict to my mother, hoping we could leave the library on a technicality. Maybe stop by Carvel for ice cream on the way home. Pistachio for her, Rocky Road for me, as was our way.

But instead of patting me on the head and ushering me outside, my mother assured me that I was mistaken—that I had overlooked something important. In one of the notebooks I brought to the library that day was a handful of poems I had scribbled in the margins during school. Whether she had somehow noticed this over the course of the day, or simply knew that my penchant for daydreaming and love of poems intersected in those middle-school spiral notebooks, I’m still unsure. But I went onstage with renewed confidence.

The host called my name. I walked up to the stage in the polo shirt and corduroys that back then were my daily uniform. “Hope and Love” was my first poem. It scored well, and I made it to the second round, where I competed against a man named Marcus—who had on a black durag, black pants, and black sweater; I remember his name because Marcus is also my brother-in-law’s name, and 1999 was the year I met him, too—and an older gentleman who read poems off a single piece of paper, freshly torn from his legal pad. For the second round, I went to the notebook and read with as much energy as I could muster. The crowd applauded, and the second poem scored about as high as the first. At slam’s end, I took second place, and was awarded a small gold-plated trophy of a man with a torch in one hand and a scroll in the other. I carried my trophy to the car and into the house later that afternoon, before placing it into the china closet: our family place of honor.

I now realize, for what feels like the first time but probably isn’t, that I was the only child in the slam that day. My mother had signed me up to compete against adults, in a game I knew nothing about, simply because she knew how much I cared about the craft. Or perhaps, in stark contrast to the well-worn adage in slam that “the point isn’t the points, the point is the poetry,” my mother’s aim in enlisting me for the competition that day had little to do with poems.

What I see now, much more clearly from the vantage of the future, is that getting me to read my poems—like getting me to act in plays, or recite Bible verses from memory in front of the sanctuary of our church—was about helping me practice not being afraid to speak all of the time. The “gift to be shared” my mother insisted upon was not only literary. There was something that’s harder to pin down she wanted me to believe in and develop: the sense that I was someone with a voice, with a vision and a critical worldview, and that these were not things to be kept to oneself forever. I could be unafraid to be known. I could practice vulnerability in public and be met with something other than fear or malice. I could take that risk and come out on the other end alive.

Years later, this would be the essence of the pitch I made, as an arts educator, to parents unsure of how something like poetry slam could be of any benefit to their child: “Slam is a vehicle,” I would tell them. The thing in and of itself has value, of course. But my sense has always been that the core competencies slam teaches—to memorize, to read text at the speed of everyday language, to speak with conviction and clarity in a brief window of time—are universally useful, no matter your field of endeavor or professional dreams. On that stage, for three minutes at a time, you can be whoever, whatever you want. That practice of everyday metamorphosis through embodied performance is a beautiful, necessary thing.

There are many historical precursors to poetry slam that helpfully contextualize its influence and impact. But even in the 20th century, in Chicago, the birthplace of slam—the scoring, the judges chosen from the audience, the three rounds, the cash prize—there was already an ongoing series of competitions sponsored by a man named Al Simmons, who created the World Poetry Association in the early 1980s. The WPA put on “poetry boxing matches” which took place in actual boxing rings, with timed rounds and the like. These Chicago bouts would eventually travel to New Mexico and be held at the Taos Poetry Circus, under the mantle of the Heavyweight Poetry Championships. Famous winners of the competition included everyone from Ntozake Shange to Quincy Troupe (who won it twice), alongside any number of poets who blurred the boundary between stage and page and, what’s more, showed great skill as improvisers (there’s a round in the Heavyweight Championships that requires this) that is worthy of admiration all on its own.

Which brings us to the period when poetry slam as we know it now was born: 1984–86, the years during which a construction worker and avant-garde experimentalist named Marc Smith would get together on Monday nights with a group of friends, colleagues, and strangers at the Get Me High Lounge on Chicago’s West Side, for a performance competition that inaugurated—but in some ways bears little resemblance to—what is now known across the world as poetry slam. Those nights at the Get Me High, for one, featured costumes and music and props, all of which are now explicitly banned for the most part in organized slam competitions across the country. There is little mention in the early annals of slam of anything like time penalties, for instance, which are now a crucial component of every level of slam, and regularly make the difference between who does and does not take home a win in an individual bout, even at the highest levels of competition.

The Get Me High Lounge was the first space that allowed Smith, a white, working-class writer in his late 30s, to consistently book whatever sort of performance work he wanted, including vaudeville, comedy, and more traditional poetry readings. Eventually he happened upon a format that seemed to resonate deeply with the crowd, which was a kind of mock poetry battle, where poets would have their work judged by strangers in the audience, first by jeering and applause, and then by scores. This early format stuck.

For those first two years, Monday nights at the Get Me High were a wild success. So much so that Smith was eventually able to create a cabaret show called the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on the North Side, where he would debut the format that we are most familiar with. The Green Mill was eventually purchased by a club owner named Dave Jemilo, who was familiar with the ensemble through their performances at another venue he owned in the city, the Deja Vu. When he bought the bar in 1986, he thought they would be an ideal fit for Sunday nights, where the ensemble could host, on a weekly basis, the experimental new poetry show they had been working on. The Green Mill was where the term “poetry slam” was coined and its rules first devised, though the famous “So what!” response to Marc Smith introducing himself as host was a holdover from the Get Me High.

In Smith’s own words, this practice began because “it was important to remind everybody taking the stage, including myself, that we were on equal footing with everyone else.” But there’s an important irony here. By opening each slam this way, Smith also guaranteed his place in the lore and practice of the form. No matter where you are, every time there is a slam, there is a chance that he will be mentioned. He has, in this way, guaranteed that his name, his contribution to an ancient practice of storytelling, lives on in his creation. Even when he is not present. In this sense, “So what!” cuts in multiple directions from the very start. It is both a refusal and a reminder. A monument in the form of embodied practice.

Though competition was eventually the primary draw for local audiences, the Green Mill also featured plays, dance performances, and live music. It was a haven for all of the performing arts, not just poetry. In the beginning, in fact, the slam was simply added on as a kind of afterthought as the final set of the evening. It was the closing event of the night, and offered two distinct prizes: either 10 dollars in cash, or several Twinkies (the Twinkies came first, and the money was viewed as a later upgrade).

Over the next four years, poetry slam spread its wings across the country, finding one of its most secure footholds at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where Miguel Algarín and its other founders collaborated with the poet, curator, and eventual record label executive Bob Holman to create a slam of their own in the early 1990s, adding a new wrinkle to the format. As a result of a combination of slam victories on Wednesday and Friday nights throughout a given season, a poet would eventually be named the Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion (in those days, the title even came with a crown and purple cape). The first of these poets was chosen in 1990: Paul Beatty.

Poetry no longer needed to be treated like a museum piece or school lesson. It was as dynamic and exciting as any of the other performing arts. And so it was: The National Poetry Slam was born, and the planning began immediately for the following year.

Joshua BennettJoshua Bennett is a professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Owed and The Sobbing School, as well as a book of criticism, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man.