On Ted Hughes

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I finished the monolithic biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate this morning and thought I’d reflect on some of that. At 672 pages it’s an effort, but mostly worth it, except for some of the more arcane analysis, particularly close examinations of notebooks and notebook poems and some tenuous links between life and art.

It’s a bit of a defence of Hughes against the ‘Libbers’ and, despite the fierce instance of the value of Hughes’s work in its own right, he remains a figure connected always with his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a connection that’s evident in both the writing and the life lived forever after.

Bate argues that the release of Birthday Letters, late in Hughes’s career, marks a freeing up moment but Hughes didn’t live long enough after that to benefit from that clarity.

As a writer I was very interested in Hughes’s own working mode, his self-scrutiny and reliance on detailed notebooks, and observations of people and nature, many of which seem like poems themselves. This is an unauthorised biography, and it seems the estate did not give Bate permission to use poems in the text, behind the notebooks quoted a lot.

Most importantly, it’s drawn me back to a poet I thought very highly of when those first books came to my attention in the 1980s, and I pulled these two down from the shelf and re-read them both.

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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

If you want to communicate … write a poem

I like John Tranter’s poetry. Sheesh, he’s twice won my Warrick Poetry Book of the Year Award! But, in the discussion between him and Dennis Haskell reported in Australian Poetry (AP) recently, I guess I’d fall in line with Haskell’s belief. Not that I’m against modernism, but Haskell’s definition of what poetry is, sits more closely to what I understand poetry to be, and trying to be. AP reported:

At the Perth Writers Festival this year John Tranter repeated the idea about poetry he has consistently adhered to, “If you want to communicate, use the telephone”. While John has taken it from modern American poets, it’s an idea that dates from the period of Modernism, one hundred years ago. I want to argue that it’s a form of giving up, and that poetry’s most important role is still the traditional one of communicating a combination of deep emotion, complex thought and a spirituality that often seems to lie just outside the reach of language which constitutes the deepest expression of meaning available to humans. Since Modernism people have run away from poetry to the telephone, and the most urgent need of contemporary poetry is to get them running back.

It’s lofty, recklessly ambitious, even old fashioned but those words, ring true with me a bit:

Poetry is about “communicating a combination of deep emotion, complex thought and a spirituality that often seems to lie just outside the reach of language which constitutes the deepest expression of meaning available to humans” Haskell.

You can read more on the AP site, but you’ve got to be a member and I recommend anyone with a strong interest in poetry to join up. I wonder, what’s the best definition of poetry you’ve heard?

Fitzroy poems

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Picked up an old copy of ‘Fitzroy Poems’ by Pi O today, published by Collective Effort Press in 1989. Nice grungy, earthy work of a place that has just about disappeared now: the old Greek Fitzroy. At times it’s like these poems are in some strange dialect and the personalized typography doesn’t help.

Oddly enough though, it was the typewriter cut and paste feel of the typefacethat grabbed me, and made me grab this. It feels hand made, and the bookseller in Fed Square told mr that Pi O still calls past the booksellers at times. Of course he does!

The Top 10 Poets

I see that the San Franciso Chronicle is running a competition to try to find the Top 10 greatest poets of all time. Interesting.  They have some rules too and say:

It’s a ridiculous and futile project, but those are often the most fun. I fully expect to anger many and satisfy few (myself included).

Some parameters:
* Figures like Homer, the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Biblical Psalms, and other oral narratives are not eligible for this particular list. Questions of authorship are too complicated here. It’s hard to know who wrote what or how many people were involved in the final composition. So, even though this may be the most controversial part of this whole project, we’ll confine ourselves to those poets who wrote their own poems themselves.
* Poets who did or do not write in English are eligible. Though, again, issues of translation complicate things.
* Musicians have their own lists–dozens of them. So, for this project, no Bob Dylan, no Jim Morrison, no Springsteen, unless they have a separate life as a poet. Ryan Adams, for example, has published at least two books of poems. Jewel and Tupac (two sides of the same poetic coin?) have also written books of poetry. So, those works could count but their lyrics, not.

Greatest? Does greatest equal my favourites? Or historical epoch changing somehow?  My personal favourites would be quirkier and more subjective somehow, poets who’ve somehow touched me. If greatest means historically important, it’s a different list. The ‘official’ list of the Chronicle comes out in a few days but readers of this blog would not be surprised that my own personal list might include names like this:

  1. W. B. Yeats
  2. Robert Frost
  3. William Wordsworth
  4. T.S. Eliot
  5. John Donne
  6. William Blake
  7. W.H. Auden
  8. Dylan Thomas
  9. Thomas Hardy

Okay, I’ll stop there. Too many to fit into that next slot! What do you think? Is my list too modern for you? Or not modern enough? I’m looking forward to seeing how my list lines up against the final SF Chronicle list in a few days.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Book of the Year

What is this new European thing with two German writers winning my Book of the Year after the dominance of American writers. But Enzensberger is no sudden surprise. I’ve liked his poetry ever since I read his early book The Sinking of the Titanic. The image of the grand piano falling down the slanting floor of the grand ball room as the great ship lists to its fate, is one that’s so embedded in my psyche that I can’t remember whether he invented it or me but this book is just as good and may bring new images that will last. The subtitle of this new collection is revealing, ’99 meditations’ and these are much more inward looking and private poems than the grand metaphor of hubris. The book is summed up as a celebration of the ‘tenacity of normality in everyday life’.

Other Poetry.

Ron Pretty is an Australian poet who has been writing poetry for more than forty years and his latest book Postcards from the Centre, is just as good as anything he’s written. These are lovely, thoughtful, crafted poems and, continuing the theme of the cloud, there’s plenty of weather here too. But the greatest compliment I can pay this book is the one where I know a book has touched me: it made me want to write. Finally, I didn’t entirely ignore the American connection this year. Once again in NY I found a book that’s been on my Amazon wish list forever, Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall. It was good to revisit one of my favourite American poets again.

 

 

Celebrating the work of Evan Jones

I received news today of a n evening to celebrate the work of Melbourne poet Evan Jones, coming up at the Wheeler Centre on Dec 1. I encourage you to begin summer the way you intend to continue, with fine poetry!

This is to let you know that an evening to celebrate the work of Melbourne poet EVAN JONES will be held on Wednesday, 1 December 2010, at the Wheeler Centre, at 6 for 6.30 pm. You are most welcome to come along and help us celebrate.

The event will take the form of readings and short tributes by a number of Evan’s friends, and his recently launched (fifth) collection of poetry, Alone at Last!, will be available for sale. Its publisher, Picaro Press, has also brought out a reprint of Evan’s acclaimed second collection, Understandings, first published in 1967 by Melbourne University Press.

Apart from the guest of honour, there will be seven programmed participants: Jack Hibberd, Rob Riel, Philip Salom, Alex Skovron, Peter Steele, Tony Thomas, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. It promises to be a colourful event. Refreshments will be served.

Please spread the word. Our venue is the “Workshop Space” on the 4th floor of the Wheeler Centre, 176 Little Lonsdale Street (the south side of the State Library building). It should easily accommodate 50 to 60 people.