Archive for the 'July' Category

twenty-seven: Kathleen Jamie, The Tree House

Apologies for another late post; I’ll make it a short one, otherwise with being away with most of this month, I won’t get the chance to write anything.

Last week’s collection was Kathleen Jamie‘s The Tree House, which I picked partly because I remember poetry Andrew recommending it, and partly because of its beautiful title. Jamie won the Forward Prize for Poetry for it in 2004.

It’s a slim collection with, as you might expect from the title, the theme of human interaction with nature running strongly through it. Perhaps that was part of the reason I warmed to it instantly: I loved the dialogue with birds, trees, puddles, flowers; and I loved the shimmering clarity and conciseness with which she writes. Another one of those poets who I read and think, ah, this is what poetry is for me. I’ll have to dig out her first collection, Jizzen, which I have to confess makes me snigger.

There was quite a lot that I wanted to find out about: where is the specific wishing tree of the first poem? What are the traditions of Water Day? Who was Hölderlin, and should I read him? I plan to look some of these up, but the only frustrating thing was my lack of Scots dialect, which rendered a few poems incomprehensible.

Favourites – and I’ll list them all, although they seemed to be every other page – were ‘The Wishing Tree’, ‘Alder’, ‘Water Day’, ‘Before the Wind’, ‘The Swallows’ Nest’, ‘The Whale-watcher’, ‘The Buddleia’, ‘Daisies’, ‘Reliquary’, ‘The Brooch’, ‘The Puddle’ and this achingly beautiful, fragile sonnet, ‘Swallows’:

I wish my whole battened
heart were a property
like this, with swallows
in every room – so at ease

they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera

and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
in a mockery of pity
before winging it

up the stairwell
to stream out into light

The Tree House, Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2004)

twenty-six: Ted Hughes, Crow

When I was at primary school I won second prize in a citywide poetry competition. I was just as puzzled then as I am now by the question of what makes poetry work, and I remember being utterly perplexed as to why my poem might have done well (our whole class had had our poems entered).

Anyway, the prize was book tokens, and my teacher, Mrs McConlough, took me to a bookshop to help me choose a couple of books of poetry. I don’t actually remember having much say in the matter, but I came home with – strange choice for a ten-year-old? – two books of poetry by Ted Hughes. Admittedly it was two of his ‘nature’ collections – Flowers and Insects and River – but I remember both confusing me heartily.

So Dart was the first contemporary poetry I bought after that, I’m pretty sure, and last week’s Crow was the first Ted Hughes I’ve read since then, apart from the odd anthologised piece here and there, and a bit of Birthday Letters. It’s probably his best-known collection, and it’s pretty full on.

The poems were written between 1967 and 1973 (the edition I have includes some pieces not in the original 1970 edition), and, much more than any of the other collections I’ve read so far this year, it’s very much a sequence of poems. But it wasn’t until I read Kevin Hart in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry that I found out that the subtitle, ‘From the Life and Songs of the Crow’, is a clue to the fact that the poems are apparently part of a much bigger whole – an ‘epic folk tale’, written in prose narrative, punctuated with lyrics. Hughes never wrote this narrative, so all we have, along with the poems themselves, is what Hughes said and wrote about it. In his chapter in The Cambridge Companion Hart summarises the larger story as sketched out (presumably) by Hughes.

It certainly adds a fascinating edge to the collection, although I don’t think you need to know that the poems were written to be part of something larger, or know the story, to appreciate it. The character Crow certainly asserts himself as a trickster in a skewed world, without the ‘quest-romance’ that the narrative would have provided. Read as is, it’s satire, grim comedy – contesting creation myths and giving a particularly dark take on relations between men and women.

Even more interestingly, Hughes himself wrote that he wanted to write ‘songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple and super-ugly language’. He certainly succeeded. Hart writes that ‘the poems efface themselves as poems in order to give the impression of anonymous legend or myth’, and that ‘the poetic yield is certainly thin’. So, one of the best-known collections of poetry but a former poet laureate, and arguably one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, and we have to confess that it’s unpoetic… it seems rather apt, given Crow’s character and the tone of the book.

It is a very dark, very ugly, disturbingly comic collection. I’m sure I’ve read a few of the poems before, though I’m not sure when or where. Favourites, if you could call them that, included ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, ‘A Childish Prank’, ‘A Grin’, ‘Conjuring in Heaven’, ‘Dawn’s Rose’, ‘The Smile’ and ‘Crow on the Beach’, which made me wonder if it was Hughes’ response to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’

Hearing shingle explode, seeing it skip,
Crow sucked his tongue.
Seeing sea-grey mash a mountain of itself
Crow tightened his goose-pimples.
Feeling spray from the sea’s root nothinged on his crest
Crow’s toes gripped the wet pebbles.
When the smell of the whale’s den, the gulfing of the crab’s last prayer,
Gimletted in his nostril
He grasped he was on earth.
He knew he grasped
Something fleeting
Of the sea’s ogreish outcry and convulsion.
He knew he was the wrong listener unwanted
To understand or help –

His utmost gaping of his brain in his tiny skull
Was just enough to wonder, about the sea,

What could be hurting so much?

Crow, Ted Hughes (Faber and Faber, 1970, 2001)

I forgot to mention this when I first wrote this, but I think it’s worth noting: pretty poor from Faber that there’s a typo on the inside front flap. Tut.

twenty-five: Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury

Back in June I went to a poetry reading (where I heard Mimi Khalvati and Alice Major) run by two poets, Nancy Mattson and Mike Bartholomew-Biggs. This week I read Nancy’s latest collection, Writing With Mercury, published in 2006 by Flambard Press.

Nancy comes from a background that intrigues me: she’s Canadian, third-generation (I think) Finnish, and there’s something about both countries that compels me: I think it’s a vague idea of ‘the north’, although I’ve only visited Canada, and only once. Although the collection is very much an evocation of life in modern London, it’s suffused with a sense of the width and the purity of both landscapes.

Nancy writes astutely and humorously about the differences and dislocations of being an expat in a new country, with roots in yet another, and Writing With Mercury feels very rooted to a sense of place – London – though always hinting at other places. Finnish words are threaded throughout the collection in intriguing, riddling ways. Birds feature, become punning ways of understanding, remembering: in ‘Bitternness’, memory ‘is bittern’; in ‘Grouseness’, it becomes ‘grouse wing’.

What I liked most about Writing With Mercury was the sense you got of the poet’s own history and voice. There are lots of poems that deal with family history, dialogues between fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters; and there are lots of fantastically celebratory poems, both of freedom and of people. This personal remembering takes place within a larger context of a wider history, with ‘Fourteen Women’ and ‘Song for Canadian Dads’.

Favourites were ‘Winters of Authenticity’, ‘Old Baby Tales’, ‘When in Finland’, ‘Stones of New Finland’, ‘Inheritance’, Northern Way’, ‘Sod Hut’, ‘Miracle on Upper Street’, ‘Blackberries, Lumb Bank’, ‘”Tosi” is a Word for Truth’, and ‘Maze’, which is just beautiful – London become page:

What I miss is gravel
crunching under foot or wheel,
wide sky above
the road straight into horizon.

I want to walk the crease
of a prairie book, lines of wheat
as even type, all one size
the word gold over and over.

London’s a fused maze
of alphabets: wherever you walk,
each road, wherever it turns,
is utterly paved or cobbled crookedly.

A crazed typesetter has been at work
every night for centuries, his head
swirling with shadows thrown
on crumbling walls by candle-flame.

He has set every line diabolical
in a different font and size,
hot lead in higgledy-piggledy frames
and gutters overflowing with errata.

Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury (Flambard Press, 2006)

twenty-four: Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

I’ve always been slightly wary of Philip Larkin. He’s recently been voted the UK’s best-loved poet, and John Betjeman called him ‘tenderly observant’, but he’s always made me feel a bit squeamish: the poems I’ve read of his are either sneering in tone, or else unremittingly depressing.

But, well, he’s Philip Larkin, and I enjoyed The Whitsun Weddings. I was surprised by the opening poem, ‘Here’, which presented a much broader and more beautiful picture than I was expecting from Larkin, who everyone remembers, of course, for ‘Toads’ and ‘This be the verse’ – diverting when you’re a disaffected teenager, no longer satisfying a few years later – to my mind, anyway.

Although much of The Whitsun Weddings I did find quite depressing, and Larkin still seems quite old-fashioned to me, I did catch a glimpse of the tenderness and the poignancy that people write about. My favourites were ‘Here’, ‘Love Songs in Age’, ‘Broadcast’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Days’. Here’s ‘Home is so Sad’:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin (Faber and Faber, 1964, 2001)

twenty-three: Mimi Khalvati, The Meanest Flower

A couple of weeks ago I went to the first poetry reading I’ve been to in a while – Poetry ‘in’ the crypt at St Mary’s Church, Islington, where the two featured poets were Mimi Khalvati and Canadian poet Alice Major. It was a fantastic evening: both poets really engaged with the audience, I think, and made me want to read their latest collections (as well as write, too. I scribbled a few things down on the way home).

So: Mimi Khalvati’s latest collection, The Meanest Flower. It opens with a beautiful twelve-sonnet sequence called ‘The Meanest Flower’ that I really enjoyed – an extended meditation on childhood. I love these lines, from the first sonnet:

… Childhood,
swing your little bandy legs, take no notice

of worldliness. Courtiers mass around you –
old women all. This is your fat kingdom.

Khalvati is a master of very elegant – and zestful, too – form. As well as the many beautiful sonnets, she writes a lot in the Persian form of the ghazal (my favourite was ‘Ghazal: after Hafez’), which I hadn’t come across before, and the truly stunning sestina (I think? I’ll have to check) ‘On Lines from Paul Guaguin’.

It’s great to read poems when you’ve recently heard them read by the poet. My favourites were the opening sonnet sequence, ‘The Middle Tone’, ‘Scorpion-grass’, ‘Soapstone Creek’, ‘Motherhood’, ‘The Robin and the Eggcup’ and ‘Sundays’, which was heartbreakingly tender. Although it’s not very seasonal, here’s ‘Soapstone Retreat’:

Late summer sun is falling through the forest.
As if the forest knew it would soon turn yellow,
it shifts a little, stars in the creek below
signalling to the sunlight on its crest.

In the centre it is still. Still late August.
On the periphery, branches, leaves, follow
the scent of autumn. Like a woodfire slow
to get going after the stove’s long rest,

the forest stirs with ambivalent longings
for movement, stillness, as if its life were elsewhere
but its heart were here. And as cold nights near,

those last sweet sips at the cusp of the year
hang suspended in the balance as the flask swings,
hummingbird feeds and the sun sinks, stair by stair.

The Meanest Flower, Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet, 2007, Poetry Book Society choice)


Well, last month saw me finish all the collections of poetry I already had on my shelves (not including selections and anthologies) – which meant this month I could go out and stock up. Joy! I chose:

Mimi Khalvati, The Meanest Flower (Carcanet, 2007, Poetry Book Society choice)
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber, 1964, 2001)
Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury (Flambard Press, 2006)
Ted Hughes, Crow (Faber and Faber, 1970, 2001)
Kathleen Jamie, The Tree House (Picador, 2004)