Poetry of the Thirties

What so often happens to me in reading is thar one thing leads to another. As it should.

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I recently picked up a copy of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James at Readings and enjoyed most of the essays on poets that he’d felt were important to him over the years; Frost, Edgar, Eliot, Les Murray, Auden. James has a bit of fetish about form and all that, which is repeated a bit, but he always has something interesting to say. At one point, he waxes lyrical over a Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point and recommends the Penguin Classic anthology, Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

So, I dug out my old copy of that anthology and re-read the introduction and that poem and dippped into those poems from a decade haunted by the rise of fascism and the coming of another war. They are familiar names: Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Spender, but as Skelton says in the introduction, Auden ‘dominates (this period) from first to last’, and he certainly has more poems in this anthology than any other poet.

My favourite, Lay Your Sleeping Head, later published as Lullaby.

skelton

Coincedentally, picking up my copy of The Monthly today, I read Late Styles, a review by Justin Clemens of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past and Clive James’s Sentenced to Life.

The review labours to make the unsurprising point that Murray is a better poet than James, and takes James to task, describing his work in this collection as ‘sentimental’, ‘self-pitying’, ‘pretentious’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘narrow’ and ‘almost infantile’. My guess is that Clemens see himself as not shirking the truth of the review but really …?

I’d rather not end my thinking about poetry this week with the mean-spirited superficialities of the review of a dying man’s book, but go back to Auden again, and this poem, from 1937, which seems beyond politics, personal or otherwise.

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreadful cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless.

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden

Remembering Dylan Thomas

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I couldn’t let this year slip away without dedicating something to the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago in 1914, and who meant a lot to me when I was a young writer trying to develop my own voice, or grow out of his.

Thomas is a bit out of fashion now; that lovable, hard-drinking, hard-partying, womanising? thing looks a bit self-indulgent now, and his poetic legacy remains in some uncertainty; a lyrical poet or someone too in love with the sound of their own voice?

Still, for me, some of Dylan Thomas’s poems were always important, and I was drawn to their voice and lyricism as well as the sense of ‘place’ and the sea that has always mattered in my own writing.

For a little while, when we were first married, we rented an old weatherboard place that overlooked Port Phillip Bay and I spent a charmed summer writing poems that tried to sound like him. While I hope I eventually found my own voice, I still admired Thomas, and even named him in my 2011 list of My Top Ten Poets (though I might revise that list now a bit: Auden up, Donne down)

And, in that first literary pilgrimage, that first trip to Europe when the kids were little, Dylan Thomas was firmly on the trail, along with Wordsworth, Yeats, Eliot, Hardy, Austen, Shakespeare and Bronte. We travelled to Laugharne especially: had a pint of Guinness at the local (I did, the kids didn’t!) and then walked up the hill to the The Dylan Thomas Boathouse and the small, humble white cross of his grave.

Later, I taught Under Milk Wood to senior students and dragged my tattered old Everyman paperback version of his Collected Poems around with me a lot; I even remember someone asking me what I was doing with a book of poetry at a surfing competition at Bells Beach a one stage.

There’s some links below, if you want to read more about Thomas, and below that, one of my favourite Thomas poems, Fern Hill: the text and an audio of Thomas reading that poem.

And, I’ve dragged that copy of his Collected Poems out to look at again today too, before the year tilts away.

The Dylan Thomas Official Website

The Poetry Foundation site on Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas 100 Years Festival Site

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Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Re-connecting: Walking in the Briars

Most of the year for me is spent split between working in Melbourne and getting down to the Mornington Peninsula on weekends.

So, one of the things I like most about the holidays is the chance to be in one place for a while, and re-connect with some of my favourite places like the Briars.

I’ve blogged about the Briars before (do a search if you like) but I never get sick of the place, and the way the creek defines it as well as its sense of history.

Today I did the longer 4k loop and also walked out via the new Harrap Creek track for the first time. I’ve captured some of the moments below, but one moment I didn’t capture was seeing a big red-bellied black snake asleep by the side of the track. The trouble is, once you’ve seen a snake on a walk, you see them everywhere, in every shadow, root, branch or piece of broken bark on the track or just off it. It tends to take the meditating mind off the poetry a bit. Though, it did make me think, ‘have I ever written a poem about a snake?’, like D.H. Lawrence did? Looking back, it seems I have only had one go at it, this poem that was published in *Eureka Street* in 2011. Maybe it’s time for another go?

Late Walk Along Jerusalem Inlet

Rows of trees knee-deep in bracken
trunks green with soft moss
all dead or dying
a shovel shaped pit
the sound of water
some Mirkwood path
to a wide green place
where a house was
all ruined
broken rocks and bricks,
beside the broken oak tree,
a non-allegorical snake.

Below: The view from the bird hide

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The prophetic sign: this was exactly the snake I saw half an hour after reading this sign.

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Signs of former use; old fence posts from when this was farmland.

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Common farmland birds poster in the bird hide

 

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The boardwalk

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Spring Paddock Dam

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Balcombe Creek

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Below: Balcombe Creek
Nice to see it flowing after a bit of rain this week.

Below: Spring Paddock Dam
Listen carefully for the frogs.

The Ruined Maid


Funny how the mind works. Yesterday, I heard someone use the word ‘ruined’. ‘She’d been ruined’, someone said. It meant spoilt, given too much, had things her own way too much.

It’s not what Thomas Hardy was thinking of when he used the word, but my mind went to a Hardy poem I haven’t heard for years: ‘The Ruined Maid’.

It’s a lovely poem, as much for its tone as anything else. It seems a wonderfully modern sensibility for a poet we can sometimes think of as fusty or old-fashioned. I’ve added it to my ever note anthology notebook. It’s another reminder of how the people in the past were so much like us that perhaps our delusions of modernity are just that: delusions.

The Ruined Maid

BY THOMAS HARDY

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

— “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

— “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

And here’s a pretty good reading of the poem by Dame Peggy Ashcroft

Roman Wall Blues

It’s funny how one thing leads to another, in life, and in reading. And in writing too, sometimes.

So, sitting down at last to read Luke Davies prize-winning collection Interferon Psalms this week, which I’m luke-warm about (though I get what he’s doing I think, with all the Biblical language and over the top imagery, what they call on the back cover of the book ‘ an oracular language of incantation’) I’m drawn to something other than the Davies work I’m supposed to be reading, a reference to Auden in:

Soaking wet by Hadrian’s wall
I dreamed of sunlight and olive trees
And a comfortable pair of sandals.

[thus said the wise old Wystan Hugh] in Davies…

and I’m drawn back to that poem of Auden’s that I hadn’t read for years.

At first I thought the reference was from ‘The Fall of Rome’, a favourite Auden poem, but a quick refresh finds that Davies’ is referring to ‘Roman Wall Blues’, number 11 of ‘Twelve Songs’, written around 1937, the twelfth song being the famous ‘Some say that love’s a little boy … ‘.

I like Auden, the early things particularly. In my ‘favourite poems’ section of this blog, for example, I’ve talked about ‘Sonnet from China’ and a few others (including, to my shame, the same poem twice, Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’.!)

So, I was thinking, what is it about this poem that I like? Something of the personification of the great histories of the world into a disgruntled Roman soldier getting a cold in the rain in Scotland? Or, how the great forces of the world (empire, war, the march of history) stand up against time, cold, winter, the forces of nature and time? Landscape, ruins, the decline and fall.

Like the end of ‘The Fall of Rome’, where Auden cinematically cuts to the great uncaring herds of reindeers locked into their own vast migrations, and in other poems like Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ there’s something about the sweep of history, the fallibility of the human, the illusion of progress.

All those poems I’ve mentioned above are worth entries of their own, and maybe I’ll get around to that. But, here’s ‘Roman Wall Blues’, which I was reminded of by reading Luke Davies’s book this week. I’m an admirer of Davies work but not this one, but it was worth buying just to be brought back here to Auden

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

Photo: ‘Looking West along Hadrian’s Wall’ from Flickr by Tyler Bell

Larkin25

It’s twenty-five  years since the death of English poet Philip Larkin, and his city of Hull is putting on Larkin25, a celebration of his work. There’s street sculpture, theatre, readings and more. I didn’t realise that Larkin was particularly connected with any specific city; I just saw him as quintessentially English somehow, but all good writers come from somewhere. They are also trying to raise money for a statue to Larkin at the railway station from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. I like that idea!

I hadn’t thought about Larkin for a while, but I was working with a student last year who was studying Larkin for Literature and we worked through some of those key poems together. They still hold their own, powerful for me in that twilight-y kind of sorrow and remembrance in the tone somehow.

The site says:

The aim is to mark this significant anniversary in a way that is worthy of both the poet and the city with which his creative and professional life is most associated.

Larkin25 takes place over 25 weeks,
from 12 June – 2 December 2010

A lively and diverse programme of exhibitions, events and projects inspired by Larkin’s life and work and his passionate love of poetry, music, photography and prose will engage residents and visitors alike in a range of arts activity and cultural events.

The quality of the commemorative events will be world class, worthy of a great, internationally renowned, poet and of his adopted city. Using Larkin’s artistic achievements as a catalyst, Larkin25 will present spectacular city centre celebrations, new work commissioned specifically for the festival, readings, lectures, and a high quality programme of performances and exhibitions.

Larkin25 presents a unique opportunity to take a first look at Larkin, or to take another look at the life and work of this brilliant and complex man. We invite the world to participate in, and enjoy, what promises to be a remarkable year of commemorative activities.

There’s an interesting long article on Larkin and the forthcoming book of letters in the Guardian here and the Guardian’s gathering of Larkin stuff here

Enzensberger and ‘The Titanic’

I read a nice article in the Guardian this week about Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a poet I’ve liked for along time. I’ve put his new collection on to my Amazon WISHLIST.

I was reminded of my favourite Enzensberger collection:  his long poem, The Sinking of the Titanic. Timely, given that the Titanic Exhibition is currently in Melbourne and it was Enzensberger’s poem that got me interested in that story.