As the holiday season comes to an end, a short piece by the incomparable Seamus Heaney. (one of our first posts – Nov 2013 – is 5 wide-ranging essays on his work)
We seem to be on a roll with our poetry selections – this month’s choice, 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson generated as lively a discussion as the previous two poets we’ve looked at. This is Paterson’s latest collection for which he won the Costa Prize for Poetry. At first glance, a collection entirely made up of sonnets seemed a tall order but we found we liked this form – Paterson makes it work well. 14 lines is just long enough for effective scene setting before (sometimes) delivering a killer punch. Here he is on the subject of sonnets as short poems in an interview in The Herald in Scotland “It’s not going to give the reader the chance to get bored. But hopefully they will get to the end and think: there’s a lot more in this…..and read it again.” We certainly didn’t get bored and enjoyed teasing out the meanings in our discussion.
The poems may all be in the same form but their subject matter and construction is varied. There is a tenderly recounted outing with his sons (The Roundabout), a political yet personal account of a Palestinian father at the bedside of his injured son (The Foot), the banal questions the audience ask at a poetry reading (Requests) spiritual pretensions (The Eye) and the exquisite The Wave where The Wave itself is the voice of the poem “nothing in my head beyond the bliss of my own breaking, how the long foreshore would hear my full confession and I’d drain into the shale till I was filtered pure.”
Paterson has the knack of making the reader present to his subject matter – “on the steel bench knowing what was taking shape, she tried to stand” (Mercies) – we are immediately beside the steel bench in the vet’s surgery emotionally engaged in the life/death continuum of a much loved dog.
There’s a mid-book digression of a couple of pages of prose called The Version about a poet entering some sort of competition solely for the money and with the intent to be ironic. This backfires and his attempts at irony are lost in translation. Highly entertaining and unexpected in the middle of a book of poetry !
So poetry is alive and well in our quiet space upstairs at The Roebuck. Many thanks to Kay for suggesting 40 Sonnets.
Tuesday evening was full of surprises for us. Surprise that our usual venue was closed for redecoration so we took refuge in The Mitre. And surprise that a poetry collection by a complete unknown (well until she won the T S Eliot prize that is) turned out to be so good.
The overarching themes in this collection China, Chinese culture and Chinese customs intermingled with personal reminiscences. Sarah Howe is Anglo-Chinese and was brought up in Hong Kong for the first seven years of her life before moving to the UK. This gives her the outsider’s eye and ear for detail. In Crossing from Guangdong her description of the border guard at the checkpoint is particularly well-drawn “The lichen-green uniformed official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss, his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubbered steps, sways with careful elbows down the aisle.”
[There were barnacles……] is another very well-judged short poem. To say of such prosaic creatures “And when the russet tide came they opened themselves like unfamiliar lovers” is spot on; the reader has a very clear sense of the barnacle’s tentative response to the inrush of water.
The third poem we looked at closely was Tame – a rather gruesome fable based on the Chinese proverb “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.” We thought this felt like the reworking of a Grimms fairytale in a Chinese setting. Once we had discovered the story of Sarah Howe’s mother (see this TED talk ) Tame had an added poignancy.
There are some poems in the collection where she overreaches herself and she has been roundly criticised by the old guard. But taken as a whole this is a refreshingly different debut collection which we thoroughly enjoyed. Hat tip Ruth for suggesting it.
Pippa has very kindly written this review which brings into focus the highlights of Clive James’ recently published (April 2015) poetry collection (subject of our discussion on Tuesday evening).
Before I read these poems I knew of Clive James only as a witty and amusing broadcaster. How ignorant I was! In fact he has written much fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and in 2013 translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. This latest volume of poetry undoubtedly adds to his reputation.
The 37 poems of Sentenced to Life have all been written in the last four years, since James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, and many of the poems have a valedictory tone – the more so, because James apparently has no belief in any form of afterlife. But memories, where can you take them to? Take one last look at them. They end with you. (From ‘Star System’).
The poems are dedicated to Clive James’ wife Prue, and are shot through with feelings of loss and remorse – loss of life and of this world, which James imminently faces; and loss of the relationship with his wife which he has brought about by his infidelity. In ‘Balcony Scene’, he addresses his wife directly: Worse than a waste Was how I hurt myself through hurting you. And: There is a man here you might care to save From too much solitude. He calls for you. Here two opposing forces will collide – Your proper anger and my shamed regret – With all the weight of justice on your side.
Some of the poems return to childhood memories of James’ homeland, Australia, intertwining nostalgia with musings on his present predicament. ( ‘Manly Ferry’, ‘Cabin Baggage’ and ‘Tempe Dump’). A few have less introspective subjects such as the artist Nina Kogan (‘Nina Kogan’s Geometric Heaven’); or, filming elephants on safari (‘One Elephant, Two Elephant’). But it is the emotional perception and honesty of James’ more personal writing, especially in his acknowledgement of his past failings, which makes these poems so memorable and so touching. Here is a man who bravely wears his heart on his sleeve – and yet the poems are skilfully crafted, and do not slip into over-sentimentality.
A coda to last night’s excellent discussion
‘No one wanted to publish his early poems,’ Claire Tomalin wrote in the introduction to her Poems of Thomas Hardy (Penguin Classics, 2006), ‘but he kept writing verse during the three decades in which he worked as a novelist, always considering himself primarily a poet.’
She describes him as ‘essentially a lyric poet, working a great deal in his head’, by which I suppose she means that his poems were short enough to be remembered without being written down. She reminds us ‘that he grew up hearing ballads sung by country people’ and that ‘by the time he was a schoolboy he was going out with his father and uncle to make music for weddings and parties around the local villages’. There is, she says, ‘always an element of song around what Philip Larkin called the little spinal cord of thought.’
So there you have it. Thomas Hardy’s poems…
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