Thursday, June 28, 2018

My hero / My English Teacher by Andrew Motion

Peter Way at school 1941. Photograph courtesy Radleian Society

My hero: 

My English Teacher by Andrew Motion

In his introduction and previously unpublished poem, the former poet laureate recalls how Peter Way, who died last month, nurtured his love of literature

Andrew Motion
Saturday 9 April 2016

I’ve yet to meet the writer who didn’t have an inspirational English teacher. Mine was Peter Way: Mr Way for five school years, then Peter for the next 40-odd. Our classroom paths first crossed when he began teaching me English at A-level in 1967. At that stage I had no great interest in literature (no one in my family had much time for books), and no expectation of going to university (no one in my father’s family had ever been); two years later, reading was at the centre of my life. This was his gift to me – and he gave it without ostentation, always speaking modestly and carefully, in such a way as to make poetry (in particular) seem an endlessly ingenious thing, but also as natural to the species as breathing. He lent me books from his own library, encouraged me to write my first poems, helped me to prepare for my university entrance and afterwards managed the transition from teacher/pupil to close friend/close friend. It’s no exaggeration to say that in certain ways he gave me my life – as I’ve also said in the poem that follows, which I wrote the day after his death on 30 March.

In Memory of Peter Way

My teacher, who reached down inside my head
and turned the first lights on. Who gave me Keats
to read, which turned on more. Who made me
read. Who made me write. Who made me argue
for the truth in things themselves. Who told me
manners maketh man. Who let me question
even the things he said himself were true.
Who gave my life to me, by which I mean
the things I chose and not inheritance.
Who showed a quiet voice can carry far.
Who took the gratitude I owed to him
and changed it into friendship. Who was kind.
My teacher, who died yesterday at peace –
his hardest lesson and the last of these.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Robert Burns / 'Comin' Thro the Rye'

'Comin' Thro the Rye'

Robert Burns' Poem

The poem, "Comin Thro the Rye," by Robert Burns is probably best known because of Holden's misinterpretation of it in The Catcher in the Rye. He tells his fantasy to his sister, Phoebe (he's the "catcher in the rye," rescuing children). The reference in The Catcher in the Rye has prompted writers and scholars to take a look at the source. Here's the complete text of the poem.

Comin Thro the Rye

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draigl't a' her petticoattie
Comin thro' the rye.

Comin thro the rye, poor body,
Comin thro the rye,
She draigl't a'her petticoatie,
Comin thro the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,[r] Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

Portrait of obe Postma from his collection Fan wjerklank en bisinnen (Drachten, 1957) 

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

In 2018 Leeuwarden is not only capital of the province of Friesland, but also European Capital of Culture. 
To celebrate this special year I shall be writing a series of blog posts on our holdings of Frisian literature throughout the year. As it happens today (29 March) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Friesland’s best known and most prolific poets: Obe Postma.
He was the son of a farmer from Koarnwerd, Friesland. The Frisian landscape in which he grew up became his life-long inspiration for his poetry, even when he moved to Amsterdam to study mathematics and physics. He would never live in the countryside again, teaching mathematics and mechanics at the HBS (Higher Civil School) in Groningen for his whole working life. After retirement he moved to Leeuwarden, where he died in 1963.
A Frisian landscape: ‘Nieuwebrug ‘, oil on canvas by Bonne Dijkstra, reproduced in Sjouke Visser (ed.) Het Friese landschap (Harlingen, 1986) LB.31.b.309
Postma’s career as a poet took off relatively late, at the age of 34, but continued right up to his last days, spanning six decades. In 1918, at the age of 50, he published his first collection of poetry:Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben
Cover of Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben (Snits, 1918) 011557.l.33
His early career is characterised by poetry about the Frisian landscape, which earned him the accolade of ‘Poet of the Frisian Landscape’. Postma is sometimes seen as a ‘naïve’ and nostalgic, even ‘provincial’ poet, but this ignores the fact that he was deeply influenced by literature and philosophy, as well as by his scientific background. He knew what was going on in the world of poetry, both in Friesland and beyond. He combined a sharp eye for the simple day-to-day realities, such as a flower meadow, with a feeling for the sublime, with ‘beauty as living principle within the cosmos, the infinite that penetrates the finite, the absolute in the relative.’
Postma saw in Emily Dickinson a kindred spirit. He placed her alongside Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë as one of the greatest female poets. Dickinson’s lack of sentimentality, her sober choice of words, range of subject matter, but perhaps most of all her love of nature appealed to him. In his literary notes Postma writes: ‘She has played a unique role in restoring to poetry those important characteristics of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion.’ Like no other poet Dickinson expressed most clearly his ideas about what ‘nature’ is and what ‘culture’. He writes that in order to grasp this, ‘ I need to go to Emily Dickinson’s bees.’ 

Above: Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Murmuring of Bees’, from The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (London, 1975) X.909/40625. Below: Obe Postma’s translation, ‘Ut Natûr’, from Samle fersen (Baarn, 1978) X.950.11642.

The British Library holds one anthology of Postma’s poems in English translation, published in 2004. ‘Easter Monday’ is an example of Postma’s early work in which he shows signs of his later philosophy, setting his senses wide open to the wider context in which his beloved Frisian landscape sits.
‘Easter Monday’, originally published in 1927, in De Ljochte Ierde (Snits, 1929) X.909/88993. Translated into English by Anthony Paul and published in What the Poet Must Know (Leeuwarden, 2004) YK.2006.a.1764.
Marja Kingma , Curator Germanic Collections.
References/further reading:
De dichters en de filosofen, ed. Philippus Breuker en Jan Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2008). YF.2009.a.25393
Emily Dickinson in leven en dood, ed. Philippus Breuker and J. Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2009) YF.2011.a.6038. I am particularly indebted to Albertina Soepboer’s article on Postma and Dickinson in this collection (pp. 62-75)
In útjefte ta gelegenheid fan de ûntbleating fan de búste fan de dichter en wittenskipsman Obe Postma (1868-1963) ed. Geart van der Meer, Jan Gulmans. (Ljouwert, 2014). YF.2017.a.9947
 Posted by Susan Reed at 1:16 PM

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Maya Angelou and me / Adapting her memoirs brought me eye to eye with an icon

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou and me: adapting her memoirs brought me eye to eye with an icon

She lived a sensational life – but it was her assumption of her equality that made Maya Angelou radical, as I rediscovered when turning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings into radio drama

Patricia Cumper
Wed 13 jun 2018

’ve been adapting novels and plays for radio for well over a decade. And I’ve adapted wonderful work: BelovedThe Darker Face of the EarthSmall IslandThe Color Purple. But adapting the work of Maya Angelou for BBC Radio 4 was the first time I dramatised a memoir. I am used to ferreting out the intentions of the writer between the lines of a play and among the events in a novel. With Maya Angelou’s memoirs, she was right there in front of me, looking me in the eye. It is a bold adapter who wouldn’t feel intimidated. It would also be a foolish one who didn’t grab the opportunity to bring her words to the ear.

The intimacy of radio meant that having Maya’s words spoken by a narrated version of herself was a given. Without the distraction of visuals, life in the deep south during Jim Crow, the characters hustling on the streets of postwar San Francisco, a teenaged Maya driving over the Mexican border having never driven before, and her life as an expat in Ghana can all be imagined and savoured. But there were decisions to be made about which moments would take to being dramatised, which ones should be reported, and which should not be included in this adaptation. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to make these omissions.

Some adaptations involve giving the audience a series of glimpses of the core events in the story and tying them together as best you can. Others are like producing the best line drawing you can achieve from your observations of an oil painting. About halfway through the process of recording the episodes of Maya’s first and most famous volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsit occurred to me that what we were producing this time, in great and careful detail, was a quilt: a stitching together of vivid scraps of the story of her life to create a representation for the audience that we hoped was both complex and subtle.
An adaptation is not a purely academic exercise. It can also be a deeply emotional experience. There are huge recognisable commonalities between the historical black American and Caribbean experiences: the transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath, discrimination, racism, learning to exist and thrive in societies where the financial and social structures are biased against progress. These are also societies that created cultures that protected, strengthened and uplifted themselves; that created new musical and dance forms, that blended languages, that invested in passing on a body of rich folk wisdom, that transformed religious worship from obedience to resistance. I was born and raised in the Caribbean. I recognised these aspects of Maya’s story.

As a black woman, she spoke directly to me about everything from body consciousness (I, too, am tall and gap-toothed) to the difficulty in negotiating relationships with black men. She pulled no punches in describing the choices she made in her life. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she was raised by her grandmother, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, was a teenage mother, worked as a short-order cook, a waitress, a dancer, a brothel madam and a prostitute – all before she was 20. Sensational as all that sounds, there is not a word of self-pity in her memoir. Compassion for her youthful self, perhaps, but never self-pity. Instead, what shines through is her powerful intellect and incredible talent, her ability to observe the world around her and to look inside herself with the same compassionate objectivity.
There is also a grand and dangerous idea at the centre of her work. She grants herself what the world around her was unwilling to: equality. It is what Beyoncé does when she performs the Black Power salute at the Super Bowl. It is what Childish Gambino does when he creates a video in which he personifies his country in This Is America. When Stormzy calls the government to account, or David Lammy lambasts the Home Office treatment of the children of the Windrush generation. Angelou is part of the wellspring from which these public figures drank. They have assumed their equality and not waited for it to be granted to them.
Maya Angelou in 2008.
 ‘She pulled no punches’ … Maya Angelou in 2008. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
Quotes from Maya Angelou pop up on my Twitter feed at regular intervals. She is very quotable. The story of how Marguerite Annie Johnson became famous worldwide, forged careers as a memoirist and poet, singer and composer, civil rights activist, lecturer and public speaker, and downright national and international treasure, is well known and gives hope to many from all backgrounds and persuasions. She is inspirational. Her death was mourned worldwide. Her work, though absolutely rooted in place and time, is timeless in its celebration of our common humanity. My job was to find her in the pages of her books, to help put her words into the mouths of some of the UK’s leading actors, and not to look away from the fierceness of her gaze. To instead bring the audience into the celebration of the human spirit in all its complexity and glory that drives and defines the words of Dr Maya Angelou.