Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In Their Own Words

    If you missed it here's the first part of an interesting new BBC4 series comprised of old BBC footage of 20th Century poets edited together in chronological fashion to form a (very) basic history of British poetry. The opening clips of Pound show what an amazing place the castle in the Tyrol he came to live in towards the end of life was: he seems serene there, as against the impression the last fragmentary Cantos and Donald Hall's Paris Review interview (1960 I think) give of an old man "mired in depression". Great to see Hugh MacDiarmid speaking on film, especially in the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum ("England must disappear") and equally RS Thomas talking in his flinty way about Wales and the way religion and poetry co-existed for him - were, in effect, one. 
     Auden on Parkinson is an amusing oddity, although Betjeman on the same programme is merely a low-brow showman (not shaman). And if I hear Dylan Thomas doing that ridiculous hammy singsong on 'Do Not Go Gentle' once more this year I'm going to scream:
   Afterword: the link to iPlayer is no longer live but you can catch the two parts of Great Poets In Their Own Words on YouTube. It's chopped into 15minute segments so I'm not going to provide links to all the parts.

Monday, 18 August 2014

'Measuring the Dead': McCabe's In the Catacombs

    Last summer I participated in the walk around West Norwood Cemetery which was the culmination of Chris McCabe's project reflecting on the resting-places and reputations of twelve poets buried there and examining  whether any of them warranted being rescued from the oblivion of the unread. As well as being a fascinating exploration of the lives of obscure writers (contextualised with intriguing tangential information from local historian Colin Fenn), it was a beautiful sunny day and the walk around the leafy, placid cemetery stands out in my memory as among the vividest moments of that long summer. I tried to capture a sense of this in the pictorial record I posted afterwards, Ephemeral Stones.
    A year later Chris's prose-narrative about the project - In the Catacombs: A Summer among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery - has appeared and its a compelling read in a diverting, Iain Sinclair-like compound-form: part-autobiography, part-poetry criticism, part-literary and social history, part-Gothic fantasy/prose-poem. The delineation of his research into the obscure poets' lives and works is illuminated by pointed insights into figures like Hopkins, Dickinson and Rimbaud - whose masterpieces very nearly escaped the posthumous acclaim we now accord them - as well as the formerly-lionised Tennyson and Swinburne whose august lines seem to be embedded within the intricate Victoriana of the cemetery. In following McCabe's obsession with deceased poets and their place within history and society we come to realise that this is very much a personal journey in itself, an attempt to locate himself and his work within the shifting currents of poetic tradition as well as a struggle for reconciliation with a past represented by memories of his dead father.
    It's encouraging to witness a comparatively young poet attempt to engage with the historically-grounded poetry of previous eras like this, disowning the unsatisfactory templates deployed by his contemporaries and disentangling the roots of his practice through a sensitive recognition of form and rhythm to gain a renewed sense of his own potential claim to literary posterity.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Coffee With Joyce

  As part of a camping trip to Istria in northern Croatia, I discovered this tribute to my favourite writer James Joyce at Cafe Uliks (Croatian for Ulysses) in the beautiful Italianate town of Pula. The bronze statue seems a substandard second-cousin of Gaudier-Brzeska's head of Ezra Pound - whether that's a deliberate reference given their connection I'm not sure.
   Pula was the first place Joyce lived in after he had eloped from Dublin with Nora Barnacle in late 1904, then called Pola and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He taught English here at the Berlitz School for some months before moving on to Trieste, the first city of the famous peripatetic trio of locations cited on the last page of Ulysses. It seems a suitably multicultural, polyglot meeting-place for a writer who incorporated so many languages into his prose: I recall there being Serbo-Croat and Hungarian words melded into Finnegans Wake from the time I studied it intensely although the references escape me now. The head of the Berlitz Schools in Pola and Trieste, the euphonious Almidano Artifoni, is immortalised in Ulysses by lending his name (somewhat improbably) to Stephen's music-teacher, to whom he speaks Italian in the 'Wandering Rocks' chapter.
    I also came across an allusion to Pula in Dante, Joyce's favourite writer:

"As at Arles where the Rhone sinks into stagnant marshes,
   as at Pola by the Quarnaro Gulf, whose waters
   close Italy and wash her farthest reaches,
the uneven tombs cover the even plain..." (Inferno, Canto IX, tr, John Ciardi)

  Basically Dante's drift is that Pola was the site of an extensive Roman cemetery (ie. a pagan sepulchre comparable to the one he finds in the City of Dis). Pula today still boasts some impressive Roman monuments such as the amphitheatre and Forum.