Thursday, 21 October 2010

Eventual After-effects of Travel

    As I mentioned in a previous post, at the end of last year I went travelling through Asia and Australia for several months. With my usual elephantine gestation-period, poems based on those experiences have only just started to filter through and coalesce from journal-pages and jottings, hopefully to form a fairly heterogenuous sequence of linked texts. In striving for an equilibrium between the spontaneity or sketchiness of my original words and later redraftings (with their inevitable perspective of ruminative hindsight), what has emerged so far is a focus and enquiry into the act of ongoing observation and experience itself, the two-way traffic between the unfamiliar newness of travel and how a) to record this in appropriately fresh language/style and b) to relate it to previous knowledge and experience; esp. in my case, the grieving-process I was going through and seeking to move beyond (not, however, to labour this and lurch into confessional territory.)  
   This stint of travel also initiated numerous directions for subsequent reading. This year I've been attempting an overview of Australian poetry, chiefly through the hefty Penguin Book of Australian Verse and the heftier Collected Poems of Les Murray. The Penguin anthology throws up a lot of surprises. There seems to be a roughly parallel development with the historical lineage of American poetry, whereby the nascent culture is at first in thrall to Old World paradigms (in this case of course the Miltonic and Shakespearean traditions of English verse) and then gradually shakes them off and establishes its own themes and registers with an increasing sense of self-assertion and boldness, until it appears in more recent decades that its indigenous poetry has a greater diversity, vitality and adventurousness to it than that of its debunked colonial forebear (still perhaps too often hemmed-in by the past).

Kenneth Slessor
   After the first 50 pages of derivative 19thC material, the first really interesting Australian poet is Christopher Brennan, who apparently corresponded with Mallarme and attempted an intellectually ambitious kind of post-Symbolist narrative in texts like The Wanderer. I'm inclined to agree with the editor Harry Heseltine who (in the Introduction) calls Brennan "a great poet manque" and accuses him of "over-writing" - the failure, however, must be accounted a brave one, and Brennan very much (in pre-WW1 Sydney) "out of key with his time".
    The promise evidenced in Brennan's proto-Modernist work seems to reach a slightly later fruition in the poetry of Kenneth Slessor (1901-71), which is clearly immersed in early Eliot and perhaps early Stevens but at the same time has a marvellously vibrant, rich-sounding, wry voice that is all its own. In fact this poem of his, 'Metempsychosis' (the word or concept out of Ulysses perhaps), is something of a masterpiece, bristling with verve and imaginative empathy, what Eliot's 'Preludes' should have been like if they weren't engloomed by their author's contempt for everyday working-class life:

        Suddenly to become John Benbow, walking down William Street
        With a tin-trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place to eat,
        And a peajacket the colour of a shark's behind
        That a Jew might buy in the morning...

        (  ) Wake in a shaggy bale of blankets with a fished-up cigarette,
         Picking over Turfbird's Tattle for a Saturday morning bet,
         With a bottle in the wardrobe easy to reach
         And a blast of onions from the landing...

    Slessor leads the way for a succession of other strong poets who both learnt from Modernism and forged a distinctive manner beyond it: RD Fitzgerald, AD Hope, Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright. What's also really interesting as the century moves on is the development of a tradition of social satire directed against the perceived philistinism of Australian culture. One could perhaps theorise about the formative historical juncture at which a nation's poets most vehemently question and castigate a recently-emerging state: in England and France this happened as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas such a young country as Australia seems to have experienced this robust self-analysis during the last century. If we think of Peter Porter's satirical poetry of the '60's, which seemed novel and fresh in the context of the limp post-Movement English scene, it looks less unusual alongside excellent contemporaries like Bruce Dawes and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, at least some of whose output was very much in a satirical vein. (The laudatory notices that met Porter's passing-away earlier this year attested to his ability to extend his range and in his later years write what was widely-held to be a compendious and far-reaching poetry.)
   Turning briefly to Les Murray, we see how he too has tapped into this tradition of social comment, although perhaps less happily. I'm only halfway through the Collected, but to me it's almost become a rule of thumb with Murray that when he writes of the natural /farming world, his poetry is almost always compelling and alive; yet when he turns to Australian society and history, it tends towards the cumbersome or dull. An interesting point of comparison in the anthology is between Murray and his near-contemporary and friend Geoffrey Lehmann: both have poems about pigs in the book ('Blood' and 'The Pigs' respectively). Murray's piece is evocative of the sounds and smells of farm-life, realist in a Heaneyesque sort of way; certainly a decent poem - but Lehmann uses the image of the pigs (we are never sure, since the poem's set in Tuscany and there's a mention of a toga, whether this is an imaginary scenario or based on memories or reading) both as themselves and as the springboard for a disturbing, gripping dream-poem eddying with dark currents and possible sub-meanings. Frankly it makes the Murray poem seem limited and one-dimensional.


Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Celan in London

    Very interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about Paul Celan's links with London, centring on his poem 'Mapesbury Road' :


I had read the poem, but it was only listening to this programme that I realised I knew Mapesbury Road quite well, being fairly near my former college in Queens Park. It seems strange to think of Celan in such a familiar, local context - I particularly liked the story about him looking for an orange shirt for his small son in the London shops.
    However, one might question the whole process of regarding a Celan poem (as Toby Litt and the programme-makers seem to) as a "mystery" that can be teased out or perhaps even solved by biographical and geographical delvings. Surely we are lapsing back into the "intentionalist fallacy" if we try to explain away the elliptical resonances of Celan's work in this way. Does knowing there is a magnolia-tree in the garden of the house in Mapesbury Road where Celan stayed in 1968 bring us any nearer to an "understanding" of the lines about "the magnolia-hour's half-clock"? Worse, did we really need one contributor's wholly conjectural interpretation of the "black woman" at the beginning of the poem as the memory of a night-club singer Celan had seen in Antwerp many years before, singing the song made famous by Billie Holliday, 'Strange Fruit', which contains a reference to "magnolia blossom"?! (I guess some people make careers out of this kind of belletristic - and ultimately self-aggrandising - fabulation.)
   We should remember what Celan said when asked for an explanation of his poems: "Keep reading".

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Between Jobs

   I'm currently between teaching jobs and, while job-hunting in an unfavourable climate and waiting for a new CRB to come through, trying to knuckle down and make the most of this long-awaited opportunity for writing,editing and sending work out.
    It would be wonderful to make a living from writing, but I certainly don't seem to be one of these 'professional authors' who can knock out 1000 lines a day before lunch (even Martin Amis in Money mentions writing every morning between 7 and 12, then reading the rest of the day) . When the work is progressing well, you hardly notice time passing and the days seem remarkably brief and full. But on other, more restless occasions the physical inactivity of writing, as well as the prolonged retreat into your own mental cloister it involves, can leave you curiously at odds with social reality and - by its standards - often dissatisfied at the intangibility and perhaps purely subjective appeal of what little you've achieved.  And then at the same time of course there's the distracting, dispiriting question of "marketing", of viewing your work with an eye to it's possible commodity-value...
   Coleridge: "With no other privilege than that of sympathy and sincere good wishes, I would address an affectionate exhortation to the youthful literati grounded on my own experience( ): never pursue literature as a trade...Three hours of leisure, unannoyed by any alien anxiety and looked forward to with delight as a change and recreation, will suffice to realise in literature a larger product of what is truly genial than weeks of compulsion. Money and immediate reputation form only an arbitrary and accidental end of literary labour." (Biographia Literaria, XI)
    Mark E Smith: "If it wasn't for The Fall, I'd be at home right now trying to motivate myself to write, but probably doing every other thing possible not to write. Fucking around with this and that. Going to the pub. Watching TV. It's that old writer's dilemma." (Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith) 
    (Or in my case, looking up old music videos:)                                   


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

And A Russian Rilke

 For a contrasting perception of Rilke and his reputation, I've just reread Letters Summer 1926: Correspondence Between Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and Rilke (OUP), a remarkable circle of communication between three of the last century's most significant poets. At this time they were geographically and circumstantially distant: Pasternak stuck in Communist Moscow, trying to support his wife and child on what litttle money he could make from writing; Tsvetayeva struggling as an emigre housewife in France; Rilke in a sanatorium in Val-Mont, Switzerland, suffering from what was to prove irreversible leukemia.
   What's remarkable and refreshing about these letters (and so foreign to all contemporary discussion of poetry) is the rhapsodic, passionate, often ecstatic tone in which all three address and praise not only each other's work but each other as poets; a continual sense of the binding, almost religious importance they attach to poetry,a belief in its regenerative function all the more admirable within a context of pan-European discord and deracination.
    The two younger Russians clearly regard Rilke as a luminary and model for the ambitious Modernist lyric-poetry they were engaged upon: "For Tsvetayeva and Pasternak, Rilke's poetry was the highest proof that in this divided and distorted world there exist real and immutable values not to be measured by pragmatic standards" (Introduction). Tsvetayeva in one letter calls him "poetry incarnate". For his part, Russia had always held a totemic significance for Rilke: he travelled there as a young man, met Tolstoy and developed a huge reverence for the earthy humility of peasant life - he even attributed his experience of Russia as the starting-point of his mature poetry, that grasping of the centralness of "thingly utterance" ("sachliche Sage"), of the numinous within the quotidian, he always adhered to.
     The correspondence between Rilke and the Russian poets was in fact initiated by Pasternak's father, the composer Leonid, a friend from Rilke's Russian days - we recall the tantalizing childhood-memory at the beginning of Safe Conduct (Pasternak's superb set of autobiographical sketches, dedicated to Rilke) of seeing off on a train a vaguely-recalled German-speaking figure. Ultimately one feels a little sorry for Boris: he writes one reverential letter to Rilke on the back of his father's, in which he quite selflessly makes an epistolary introduction to Marina Tsvetayeva ie. can she write to you? Rilke replies to Pasternak, giving him his blessing as a poet - Boris is so over-awed he keeps the letter in his breast-pocket for the rest of his life. But Marina then rather takes over the correspondence and makes it her own, showering Rilke with compliments and breathless superlatives, while Boris - from diffidence and tact, knowing that the older man is unwell - holds back and in fact never actually writes to Rilke again.
    Rilke is obviously flattered by Marina's rapturous hyperboles and even writes her a poem - 'Elegy for Marina' - which Tsvetayeva later calls "the last Duino Elegy" though it hardly matches up to the quality of the already-completed cycle. The degree to which  - in their far-flung poetic prose - Rilke and Tsvetayeva seem to be flirting with each other in their letters is interesting to consider - certainly the photographs of himself Rilke sends her show him in some oddly coy or kittenish poses (were spats ever deemed attractive, one wonders!) Ironically, in her final letter to him, it seems that Marina might be trying to suggest an assignation ("Dear one, when at some point you really want to, you write to me - a little beforehand, for I have to find somebody to stay with the children - and I'll come") without knowing that Rilke was by then in the terminal stages of cancer. He died on December 29th of the same year.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The American Rilke

   Apparently - mind-bogglingly - Lady Gaga has some lines from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet tattooed on her forearm: "Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?" (in German, naturlich). While first acknowledging that this is Rilke at his hyperbolic silliest ( think of all the important writers who for political reasons have been forbidden from writing but haven't in fact acquiesced and died but have either carried on doing it in defiance of authority or bided their time or defected to other countries), my other instinct was the hope that Lady Gaga might be solemnly forbidden from writing any more of her execrable nonsense-rhymes and that this prohibition might even (taking Rilke to the letter) lead to her woeful, poetry-bereft expiry. (Must I wear preposterous hats? might have been a more pertinent cause for heart-digging chez GG.)
    This is the most laughable/deplorable example I 've encountered of what seems to be a prevalent misprision of Rilke in contemporary America, apparently based not on very much actual reading of his poetry but on an agglomerated welter of quotes, biographical cliches and yes - that slight, somewhat uncharacteristic side-work - Letters to a Young Poet. The grossly sentimentalising and distorting misapprehension that he should be regarded almost as some New Age 'spiritual guru' avant la lettre - I guess Rumi is so 2006 by now - not only buys into the whole flawed concept of poems, in the supposedly unprecedented climate of anxiety or desolation we find ourselves in post 9/11 (how anxious and desolate was, say, late 1945 for any of the survivors of Hiroshima?), as emergency safety-jackets to bulk out our frail beleaguered egos with, it also seems to perpetuate the Victorian nostrum about poets being elevated quasi-mystics with a privileged access to spiritual values, saintly savants whose work must be innately "improving".
    The self-disproving irony is that during his lifetime Rilke certainly played up to the image of himself as a rarified ascetic with such a burdening excess of soul that during his later years he could only sit in the castles and chateaux lent him by aristocratic admirers sniffing roses and nurturing his much-vaunted solitude (I presume there were servants in attendance, but they obviously didn't count as human company), incubating the poetry for which he was but the humble conduit. You can see why Adam Jagajewski calls him a"spoilt, selfish sycophant" but in another way this is only one viewpoint: without this concerted self-immersion and indeed self-romanticisation we might not have the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, those marvellous adumbrations of inner process metamorphosed into symbol and replenished myth.
    While the import of the Elegies is indubitably anti-materialistic and counter-capitalist in ways that remain potently resonant ( for example, in the weird Germanic humour of "The Sex-Life of Money/ Full Anatomic Description/...How Money multiplies: Its generative organs: Money in mating, at foreplay" Tenth Elegy), Rilke's spiritual concerns are consistently ballasted by earthier ones, angelic presences by trees, animals and lovers. Nor is the giddying fluidity of the imagery reducible to a unitary "message" (those who look to poetry for messages and lessons are looking in the wrong place, I would argue); Rilke was less a teacher or prophet than a highly self-conscious artist who knew that complex, many-sided truths can only be embodied in the volatile linguistic energy of hard-won poetic form. As his translator Stephen Cohn says, "the shape of the Elegies is above all dialectical: no sooner does affirmation seem to triumph over despair than the balance is reversed...All things are shown in terms of one another".
   Going back to the earlier Rilke of New Poems and the Books of Pictures, you regain more of a sense of meticulous lyric craft unencumbered by the later stage-machinery of symbol and self-mythology. At this time of year, for example, I always think of those two absolutely beautiful poems, with their 'dying fall' cadences, Herbst and Herbsttag:
           The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
           As though distant gardens withered in the sky;
          They are falling, with gestures that deny.