Wednesday, May 28, 2008


It's raining and raining and raining.
The stink of the wet vegetation
anointing the air
is causing a stir.
A diesel pulls into the station.

Some sparrows live under the eaves,
quick tokens of our lives.
It's true we don't know
our neighbours. They go
in and out with inhuman moves

The cranes are arranging the city
and I think that there's nothing so pretty
as tumbledown houses
deprived of their trousers
surviving the death of the city.

A wheelbarrow propped on its end
gives the garden spirits a tent.
The rain's steady drum
's a metallic boom,
a tin roof, a taciturn friend.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Yet more Benn

And this - variations on Benn's famous 'Gesange' (umlaut walkabout alert), specifically of Babette Deutsch's famous translation (which I won't post here as it is so widely available):

Variations on a Form by Gottfried Benn

O that we were our Tsarist predecessors.
A little clump of dimwits in a country house.
Then life and death, and tea and cards and talk
would still be something really very nice.

A landlord’s agent or a simple dunce,
wig-wearing, plump, yet strong-toothed like a vice.
A peck of grain, a goose, an evening with a girl —
help yourself, old boy, we’d chortle; don’t think twice!

Despicable, the sergeants and the commissars.
Preferment, justice, farming, all are vile.
We are such effective bureaucrats,
but write off-duty ditties in a lumpen style.

The arctic inlet. The woods’ darkling cries.
The grave stars, huge on the rumbling tanks.
The submarine rises soundlessly from the lake.
And the shore is bleak. And always Joseph rants. —

O that we were the pioneers of English botany.
A scene of livewires in the Civil War.
Then wort and reed and buttockspur and clod
might be our contribution to the lore.

A leaf of alga or a massive fungal bloom,
piquant and swollen like my lady’s womb.
Angel’s-wing or fly’s-head orchid; name
and name and name. But still the sense of doom.

Despicable, the walkers and the lists,
taxa, knowledge, hybrids in a vial.
It makes me sick: we play too much the gods
yet my heart stops at the sun on a sundial.

Standing water. The yet unsurveyed wood.
Tiny stars among the flowering snowdrops.
The bug squats nameless on the tree’s bark.
I pin it in a drawer. And there it stops. —

O that we wear our Primal Scream t-shirts.
A little line of speed in a pub bog.
Then drink and sex, and pregnancy and birth
would matter less than our next trip to Prague.

A Rizla paper or a simple pint,
gassy and full in my rooted clutch.
Gulls alongside the boat, a schoolgirl giving head.
I learn ‘a coffee shop’ in Dutch.

Desirable, the lovers and the mockers,
daring, longing, hopefully we smile.
We are such sickly, such corrupted gods.
One of us vomits halfway down the aisle.

The gentle harbour. The lack of dreams.
The pop stars, transient as summer snow.
We shuffle blearily towards the waiting coach
and we’re ashore. And off to buy some blow. —

O that we were our primate ancestors.
A little bunch of apes at the forest’s edge.
Then life and death, and pregnancy and birth
would mean chewing constantly on roots of sedge.

A life as alpha or a simpering runt,
airborne yet tethered by its four-limbed clutch.
Swinging a handy rock, smashing in a head
would be our culture, thank you very much. —

Disposable, romantic love, ideals.
Opinions, voting, principles, in vain.
We shun the sick, and let corruption grow
yet flatter ourselves with more than monkey-brains.

Banana splits. The forest’s frenzied dreams.
The distant stars in their grand inscrutable shapes.
The shadows leap wordlessly through the trees.
Our wide eyes stare. And we are also apes. —

Odette, we were in our prime. Alan says so.
A little club of two in a warm bed.
Then life handed us a permanent breach
via that plump nymph you’d asked me not to wed.

I leave for Calgary or somewhere soon.
When safely out I’ll make for you. I clutch
a girl on a swing, it’s what I reckon by.
But we’re altered long ago, and stuff. Your touch —

Dispensed my uppers and my downers,
a spare, long without hope, forlorn, I
prepare such sick, such abrupt words.
I’ve lived my life backwards, I realise.

Gently I replace the handset. An answering machine.
The grave stares. You bother me no more.
In my pants I sleep through the sound of the trees,
sure that this is me always. And then old Alan calls. —


Saturday, May 24, 2008


Just found the following lurking as a draft in blogger, and I'm posting it without editing. I think what I meant to say, but never got round to, was READ GOTTFRIED BENN - he's awesome and crackers. I've no idea why the title is Humbug.

This weekend I read a great little four-page essay by Gottfried Benn on 'Pessimism'. Even in four pages there's lots to provoke, horrify and confuse. Benn's such a combative writer that it should hardly be surprising that he's read in English as little as he seems to be. Certainly when I asked a postgrad reading group to look at some of his prose the reaction was hostile - and not only hostile but puzzled.

I think that there are two reasons for that reaction, both stemming from Benn's refusal to tow the intellectual line. First, his politics - no, his whole intellectual position and outlook - is opposed to the liberal orthodoxy of the last century or so. When you talk about writers being controversial, you need some sort of measure - here I don't mean that Benn believes in authorial intention or suspects the methodology of presentism: I mean that he was associated with or at least not vocally opposed to Nazism, is scornful of political philosophy (a crucial lingua franca in academia) per se, accepts quite cheerfully the continued and inevitable suffering and death of humanity, and refuses the moral constraints that are traditionally (if silently) imposed on the writer and intellectual. He won't play the game - and this brings us to the second reason that Benn makes uncomfortable reading in the professionalised world of contemporary letters: his style is idiosyncratic, histrionic, extreme, and rhetorical, in opposition to the dominant style, which is moderate, sober, and uses a regulated jargon.

I don't mean to pick on academics. There are good reasons why, for example, a regulated jargon is useful: it allows connections to be made between disciplines, topics and periods; it allows for systematising, so that the same concepts can be applied more than once; it allows us finally to say what critical words actually mean, even if in doing so we reduce their meaning (a necessary bargain, some of the time). Perhaps more dangerously, it allows the material of literature and philosophy to be treated using the techniques more natural to scientific humanities like sociology. Lastly - and this one is a real double-edged sword - it provides for people (well, academics) to grasp, pick up and use complex theoretical and ideological frameworks without constantly going into the murky depths to see how things work. Yet sometimes going down there is bracing, useful or necessary.

The problem with Benn is that he is an extremist in an age which sees that as a perjorative term. The contemporary moderation of the political parties seems to me to be mirrored in an ideal of moderation in matters of the intellect: one of the virtues of the intellectual/academic/writer is balance, and one of the vices is excess. One has to weigh things up and come to a judicious conclusion. Such an approach makes sense for the individual (who would be wilfully wrong?), but as a general tendency in the culture at large it becomes a motor towards homogenisation.

The thing about the thing about you know who

In a small room I have a shelf of books which I dabble in when I'm in there. Recently I've been dipping into The Thing About Roy Fisher, a collection of essays published by Liverpool UP, and going to Fisher's most recent Collected as and when poems are mentioned. Today I read one about the anatomy of a plant/poet ('Every Man His Own Eyebright', classic Fisher drollery), reread 'Staffordshire Red', his poem addressing Geoffrey Hill (must read more Hill), and reread 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan', a thing I never tire of (well, I daresay I could, if pushed to a ridiculous extent):

And that thing is his mood
a feeling violent and ordinary

that runs in among standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity

that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious

find corners everywhere

Ace. I want to have a go at 'A Furnace', his long poem that everyone raves about, but I can't give it the sustained attention it needs at present, this month, this summer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Turgenev vs Dostoyevsky, or God how I love 19th century Russian fiction

I've been in between books for a few days, partly because I have been trying and failing to drum up the will to read John Cooper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance. Various people whose opinions I respect rave about him; on the other hand a 1,100-page novel about the holy grail, complete with watercolour of a ruined abbey on the cover, sounds dreadful.

In the meantime I've been reading a few stories from the Penguin Book of... I mentioned a few posts ago. It really is a cracker. The one by whoosit-Annibal about pond-dipping particularly stood out (can you tell that I don't have the book to hand?). Turgenev's 'The Knocking' was in there too, from his Hunter's Notebook, and when I found a copy in Oxfam or somewhere I bought it and was looking forward to it.

Then, at the last moment, I found myself buying copies of Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead and The Adolescent, and thought of Turgy went out of the window. The editors of the Penguin anthology say something disparaging about Turgenev, something about 'the sentimentality which mars much of his work', but I wouldn't say that that was his problem. It's just that he's a safe pair of hands - lyricism gentle realism - who gets blown out of the water by the other two. The more I think about it, the more Demons seems like a rewrite of Fathers and Sons - not so much a parody as a trumping. No wonder they fell out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Found Gothic

in invisible ink on a bit of paper slipped into a second-hand book


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sea Watches - Peter Riley

Attempting to fill one of the many gaps in my reading, I read 'Sea Watches' from Peter Riley's The Llyn Writings last night. It's a series? sequence? of eight sections, each section having eight stanzas of six lines. The stanzas are numbered, suggesting that each section is itself to be seen as a series of shorter pieces, rather than simply an eight-stanza poem. Certainly this could work earlier on, where each stanza relates to, but seems independent of, the preceding ones - though later on the stanzas becomes more interconnected.

There are passages and effects in here that I like a lot, and it's interesting to see how the poem does some very familiar things and some which are less familiar. The tone is heterogeneous - what seems to me a basically modernist calling into service of whatever phrase or register does the job, rather than (something which seems more traditional) a tone defined by fidelity to a 'voice' or a setting. Yet the effect is not so much an impersonal, inyerface modernism as something strangely personal, as if the poem or poet's distinctive 'voice' is revealed in the editing intelligence which marshals the various tones. And since Riley is happy to meditate and mediate, I'm partly reminded of a Romantic poet - going to a place, observing it and himself in it, and extrapolating. (This could be awful, but generally it works very well.)

Some excellent lines (driving along thinking about being dead, 'At a bad cliff corner the family leaps at my throat'), but on the whole I think the effect is cumulative, with geographical and psychological detail arising and chiming between stanzas and between sections. My favourite is section II ('Sandlogged'). The contrast between geographical and natural detail and human activity is partly brought out by a contrast between an elemental or mythical register ('Look how the wasps wallow in their graves'/Bathing is ripe blackberries, drinking their blood') and a social and sometimes bathetic one ('people. blurring over the sands like brush-/strokes, shouting and lying'; 'the pleasure zone'). The ugliness of a phrase like 'the pleasure zone' can be offputting, till Riley brings the two registers together:

Beyond the pleasure zone the cormorants skim steadily
over their door to success crying at a pitch
Of failure (this is the solitary walk between crowds
On the clifftop pastures) and those crazy birds rush
To and from their island capital, unable to deceive
Themselves out of constant pleasure, constant thrall.

The nearness this comes to anthropomorphism is what makes it. It isn't 'ooh, look at the cormorant, they're happy in comparison to us', but something much slighter and more dangerous - the cormorants are put beside us as both similar and dissimilar, and we learn something to our comfort and about their peril.

There are some funny line-breaks going on. 'Brush-/strokes' above enables the rhyme scheme (the end-words of alternate stanzas rhyme, i.e. ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL), but this sort of contortion becomes obtrusive at times. Maybe you just have to live with it in a longer poem, but that's hardly a satisfactory conclusion. At the same time there are some line-breaks of rare beauty. For example:

Fields of wheat and pasturage halting at the level
Sea, where the fish shoals move in and out of reach

- where taking 'sea' over to the next line places it with (in) the sea, and ensures the land and sea are separated cleanly as the text implies.

That's all for now of my amorphous first reactions.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Not as good as The Enigma of Arrival

Well, I wrote 31 poems over April, give or take the flimsiness of some of them - plenty of drafts to work on, throw out, find again in three years' time, etc.

I've just finished VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, 'his comic masterpiece', as the blurb oddly has it. Odd because the comedy seems subservient to the overall realist intent - an element of the style rather than an end in itself. This is one way that Naipaul writes like Dickens, whose influence he alludes to both here and elsewhere: there's the tragi-comedy of Mr Biswas's serial failure (failed masculinity is a dominant theme); but there's also the comic detail used to sketch character, or strictly caricature. For example, the Tulsi brother-in-law Seth is identified with his cigarette holder - early on in the novel it seems to reflect his power and authority, but later the contrast between it and his poorer clothes becomes absurd. It seems particularly Dickensian, the use of a material tag to sketch and limit a character, transforming into something more complex as the character but not the material tag develops. (But I can't think of an example from Dickens offhand...)

In the end A House for Mr Biswas is not as good as The Enigma of Arrival, but better than Half a Life (aka half a book (miaow)). I don't crave endings/triumphs/closure. The Engima of Arrival, a book which opened my eyes to the ways it is possible to write about landscape using people as a setting (as opposed to the other way round), certainly offers nothing of the sort. But Biswas is perhaps just too long. The relentlessness of his fate (delivered in the prologue for good measure) is awful and thrilling, but the last 150 pages are a long last straight to plod down with him.

I'm also enjoying Peter Riley's The Llyn Writings (the missing circumflex sends its apologies), bought on the strength of the fantastic poem that sits at the front of his website.

The Penguin Classics Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida is excellent. it contains older classics like Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades', Gogol's 'The Overcoat' (translated here as 'The Greatcoat'), Dostoyevsky's 'Bobok' and Leskov's 'The Steel Flea'. (But I disapprove of excerpting Lermontov's 'The Fatalist' from A Hero of Our Time; a bit reader's digest-y.) Then there are lots of later, mainly shorter pieces. The pick of the ones I've read so far is Leonid Dobychin's 'The Father' - two short pages and absolutely breathtaking - lucid. deceptively simple stuff, worth the entrance fee on its own etc etc.

What next, though?