Category Archives: Literature

John Berryman as seen by Eileen Simpson

Well with social distancing in vogue, John Berryman may not be an entirely inappropriate choice for this, my 1000th post! Lots of my friends are writing Haikus which is very good practice, I think for trying to count syllables. So reading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth, here is my effort about Berryman at Harvard during the war, an early period in their marriage after a cold winter:-

The late spring drove ice

and snow away.Trees were in

leaf, John returned books.

There is a very useful and interesting review of this book by the London Review of Books by Christopher Reid https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v04/n22/christopher-reid/john-and-henry

Personally, I find Simpson’s book well written, with engaging descriptions of a wide variety of poets; Delmore Schwartz, R.P.Blackmur and Robert Lowell among others. It shows the struggle of Berryman to deal with his difficult upbringing and offers a vignette of academic life at Boston and Harvard as well as the pressure of life on the dole in New York. Eileen Simpson became a psychotherapist and she shows both considerable insight and sympathy for the young poets she met.

Philip Levine on Lowell and Berryman

 

Here is a sonnet by Berryman and I would be interested in what you make of it;-

Great citadels whereon the gold sun falls
Miss you O Chris sequestered to the West
Which wears you Mayday lily at its breast,
Part and not part, proper to balls and brawls,
Plains, cities, or the yellow shore, not false
Anywhere, free, native and Danishest
Profane and elegant flower,—whom suggest
Frail and not frail, blond rocks and madrigals.

Once in the car (cave of our radical love)
Your darker hair I saw than golden hair,
And where the dashboard lit faintly your least
Enlarged scene, O the midnight bloomed… the East
Less gorgeous, wearing you like a long white glove!

 

Suggestions for reading material when confined to barracks

Ex-Premier Harold MacMillan’s reputation has had it’s vacillations. However, many recall his stoically reading in a trench Aeschylus’ Prometheus in Greek. So whatever isolation we are advised or requested to endure in our very much more comfortable domestic surroundings, suitable reading matter might become Chicken Soup for the Soul. Glancing around the town’s charity shops and my own bookshelves has given me the opportunity to select some books suitable for longer reading. Here are my suggestions:-

A Pacifist’s War by Frances Partridge

Diaries by Frances Partridge, dating from 1945-60, which provide an account of her association with the Bloomsbury group and focus on her life at Ham Spray in the Wiltshire downs with her partner Ralph, where they exchanged visits with a variety of notable friends. It is an engaging read set against the backdrop of uncertain news. The pace of life in the country in wartime is described with underlying courage and compassion.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

This volume is listed as a New York Times Best Seller as well as a Sunday Times Bestseller by a prominent journalist and broadcaster, Tim Marshall. When you are felling imprisoned and suffering from severe cabin fever then the spatial constraints of geography assist a useful understanding of the consequent political history. This is what one Amazon reviewer  writes, “I found this book to be an excellent concise summary of how the political world has developed to where it is today. I found the section on Russia particularly interesting and it opened my eyes to some factors driving the current position.The author has an incredible grasp of world affairs and our history. It made me wish I had spent more time in this area and has given me a thirst to spend more time in future.
It has turned me into even more of a dinner bore as I am now able to explain the background behind many of the current world conflicts with such confidence that I go unchallenged! “(Tri Jules)#

Fabled Shore – From the Pyrenees to Portugal by Rose Macaulay 

The author wrote, when this book was published in 1949, “A Greek mariner from Marseilles compiled in the sixth century B.C. a topographical sailing book of his voyage from the Lands of Tin in the northern seas, down the western coast of Portugal and round the Sacred Cape, and so along the southern coast of the Iberian peninsula, through the Pillars, and along the Mediterranean coast to Marseilles, his home. The later part of this sailing book, from the Tartessos region (near Cadiz) to Marseilles, had great detail, describing each bay, each cape, each port, for the benefit of those Greek merchant mariners who adventured and trafficked down that far and fabulous coast to the Pillars of Hercules, and beyond these into the dark and questionable Atlantic where the silver mountains stood back from the Tartessian shore.”#

Fluent in Greek and Latin this book is fluently written and also an introduction to Rose Macaulay’s novels and other writings. There is an interesting biography of Macaulay –

Rose Macaulay: A Biography by Sarah LeFanu

1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

Well, it was the year of terrorist activity and also the return of the plague but this is book, now available in paperback, traces Shakespeare’s life and times from the autumn of 1605, when he took an old and anonymous Elizabethan play, The Chronicle History of King Leir, and transformed it into his most searing tragedy, King Lear. Well researched and written this is a,fine sequel to the author’s earlier book, 1599.

If, however, you prefer to take it on the chin you could always read Thomas MannDer Tod in Venedig in German or even Albert Camus’s La Peste in French. You might be better off reading Proust in the original if your language skills are up to it- I have an easier version;

Image result for les temps perdus en BD 

 

 

 

Rimbaud on “Ophelia”

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville in northeastern France on October 20, 1854, the second son of an army captain, Frédéric Rimbaud, and Marie-Cathérine-Vitalie Rimbaud, née Cuif. He had an older brother, Frédéric, born in 1853, and two younger sisters: Vitalie, born in 1858, and Isabelle, born in 1860.

Here is a translation of the first and second section of his poem, Ophelia. It rather reminds me of some parts of Alice Oswald’s poetry:-

I

On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily ;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils…
– In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort.

For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters ;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow.

The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her ;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings ;
– A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars.

II

O pale Ophelia ! beautiful as snow !
Yes child, you died, carried off by a river !
– It was the winds descending from the great mountains of Norway
That spoke to you in low voices of better freedom.

It was a breath of wind, that, twisting your great hair,
Brought strange rumors to your dreaming mind ;
It was your heart listening to the song of Nature
In the groans of the tree and the sighs of the nights ;

It was the voice of mad seas, the great roar,
That shattered your child’s heart, too human and too soft ;
It was a handsome pale knight, a poor madman
Who one April morning sate mute at your knees !

Heaven ! Love ! Freedom ! What a dream, oh poor crazed Girl !
You melted to him as snow does to a fire ;
Your great visions strangled your words
– And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eye !

 

Political GDB

I think the stupidity of Brexit and it’s aftermath has left me with a sort of “gueule de bois”. Yesterday’s bêtise was nasty Dulwich boyo, Farage on television and radio- vindictive and seemingly energised.

La gueule de bois ou GDB est une sensation inconfortable qui se manifeste à la suite d’une consommation excessive de boisson alcoolisée. Elle apparaît 6 à 8 heures après la consommation d’alcool, lorsque l’alcoolémie diminue, et elle atteint un maximum lorsque l’alcoolémie redevient nulle.

Now this phrase came out of the currently available Paris Match. There in relation to the worker’s cafe, la Rotande, which seems to be closing in historic Montraparnasse . The magazine now seems more expensive as the pound sinks.It is now three quid!

There is in Paris Match some interesting material on the rise of the extreme right in Italy. So, rather ironically, it would seem that despite first appearances, this creeping authoritarian populism is a widespread European phenomenon. The international element of traditional and democratic socialism somewhat muted.

 

Elizabeth Jennings’s Poem – Answers

I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear:
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

Jennings was a devout Catholic and it seems that religious themes are present in her work and in this poem in particular.

The Last of the Fire Kings -an extract from Derek Mahon

Five years I have reigned
During which time
I have lain awake each night

And prowled by day
In the sacred grove
For fear of the usurper,

Perfecting my cold dream
Of a place out of time,
A palace of porcelain

Where the frugivorous
Inheritors recline
In their rich fabrics
Far from the sea.

I find these few lines deeply even profoundly moving.  The whole poem may be found at http://www.troublesarchive.com/artforms/poetry/piece/the-last-of-the-fire-kings 

There it states,”Derek Mahon’s reference to an ancient curse can be construed as referring to the weight of tradition in Northern Ireland and the legacies of division and violence.” However, it is the mythological images that it conjures up and which I do not fully understand which particularly appeals to me. Although it may help a little to know that a frugivore is an animal that thrives mostly on raw fruits, succulent fruit-like vegetables, roots, shoots, nuts and seeds. It can be any type of herbivore or omnivore where fruit is a preferred food type.

For those interested in an analysis or interpretation of the whole poem, there is a PhD thesis from Durham at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/108461.pdf

By Severn – Ivor Gurney

  1. If England, her spirit lives anywhere
    It is by Severn, by hawthorns and grand willows.
    Earth heaves up twice a hundred feet in air
    And ruddy clay falls scooped out to the weedy shallows.
    There in the brakes of May Spring has her chambers,
    Robing-rooms of hawthorn, cowslip, cuckoo flower —
    Wonder complete changes for each square joy’s hour,
    Past thought miracles are there and beyond numbers.
    If for the drab atmospheres and managed lighting
    In London town, Oriana’s playwrights had
    Wainlode her theatre and then coppice clad
    Hill for her ground of sauntering and idle waiting.
    Why, then I think, our chiefest glory of pride
    (The Elizabethans of Thames, South and Northern side)
    Would nothing of its needing be denied,
    And her sons praises from England’s mouth again be outcried.

by Ivor Gurney

Brise Marin par Stéphane Mallarmé

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir ! là-bas fuir! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux !
Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe
Ô nuits ! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai ! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature !

Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs !
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages,
Sont-ils de ceux qu’un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots …
Mais, ô mon coeur, entends le chant des matelots !

Stéphane Mallarmé, Vers et Prose, 1893

Image result for mallarme

This lovely poem reminds me a little of the Breton crabbers that came into St Ives in the 1950s and 60s.

Herbstwanderung

Herbstwanderung

Golden und rot leuchtende Blätter
in tief stehender Sonne.
Farben explodieren
verschwenderisch
trunken
vergehend.

Reife Früchte
Beeren unbekannten Namens
aromatische Fülle
Ahnung von Fäulnis.

Vögel sammeln sich
Kraniche ziehen
Wespen umsummen das Obst
Waldtiere bereiten sich vor.

Altweiberfäden zeigen sich
in schrägen Sonnenstrahlen,
auf Spinnweben glitzern Tautropfen,
ein Blatt dreht sich herabfallend
in seiner farbigen Schönheit.

Es riecht feucht
intensiv
erdig
nach Pilzen
nassem Holz
Tannennadeln
sich zersetzenden Blättern
Wildschweinen.
Dieser Geruch:
unvergesslich
Heimat.

Ich sammle bunte Zweige
die letzten Blüten
Äste mit Beeren
anmutige Gräser –
sie werden das Zimmer schmücken.

Bald sind die Zweige kahl,
tragen die Äste nur noch sich selbst
die Gräser hängen,
sie haben ihre Schönheit überlebt.
Die Vase bleibt leer.

Bald wird der weich-feuchte Waldboden
frosthart
Schnee bedeckt die abgestorbenen Blätter.
Die große Stille zieht ein.

Text from Renate Augenstein

Under the influence of both Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas

It is always a pleasure to discover a new poet as I did when I came across the following book locally, which I strongly recommend for its style and elegance ;-

The spirits have dispersed, the woods
faded to grey from midnight blue
leaving a powdery residue,
night music fainter, frivolous gods
withdrawing, cries of yin and yang,
discords of the bionic young;
cobweb and insects, hares and deer,
wild strawberries and eglantine,
dawn silence of the biosphere,
amid the branches a torn wing
— what is this enchanted place?

From The Dream Play
By Derek Mahon

More may be found at www.poetryoutloud.org/poems-and-performance/poems/detail/92168

Image result for derek mahon