Late poems

I remember when High Windows was published in 1974 the excitement I felt in anticipation of reading Philip Larkin’s first collection of new poems in a decade. I remember also the feeling of disappointment I had in finding in it nothing new, nothing that he had not said already in The Less Deceived in 1955 and Whitsun Weddings in 1964.

But then disappointment is mainly what Philip Larkin wrote about. The word itself made an early appearance on the first page of his first book.

‘But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds’

are the pivotal lines in the middle of Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album, which concludes by regretting ‘a past that no one now can share’.

High Windows begins at the seaside where what he sees

‘Brings sharply back something known long before –
The miniature gaiety of seasides.’

The observation of an annual ritual had been a staple of Larkin’s poetry since, in Whitsun Weddings, after a train journey in the course of which he saw a dozen wedding parties standing on a dozen station platforms, he felt

‘A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’

Twenty years divides two more poems that are quintessential Larkin, both about the coming of spring.

‘On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.’

The metaphor in Coming could not be bettered but was certainly equalled by that in The Trees.

‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.’

All one can say about the poet of High Windows, which turned out to be his last collection, is that he was older. The wisdom had already been achieved and that was there too in its familiar guise of sometimes grudging, sometimes willing acceptance. Two metaphors, one from At Grass, the last poem in the first book, the other from The Explosion, the last poem in the last book, show how close his older self was to his younger one. The retired horses in the former

‘Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.’

In the latter, a miner who, on his way to that day’s shift, had stopped to take some eggs from a bird’s nest, appears to the wife who waits with the other wives after an explosion at the mine.

‘…and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.’

Those who like Larkin for his cynicism might consider that sentimental. It would be more just perhaps to see it as an expression of the need all human beings have for solace in the face of their own mortality, as in The Building which ends with hospital visitors in their ‘struggle to transcend the thought of dying’ coming each evening ‘with wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers’.

R.S.Thomas published more than twenty volumes at regular intervals throughout his much longer life, each of which surprised his readers. The Welsh priest left God out of his poetry to begin with. In his last collection, No Truce with the Furies, God is everywhere. The parishioners who populated his first books of poetry, Prytherch, Cynddylan, Davies, are just a memory. His struggles with them, with what he thought they might have to teach him, rather than he them, give way in his last book to his own struggles with God.

The poems that made his name as a poet, with the publication of Song at the Year’s Turning, though they took his parish as their subject, were always ambivalent about its true nature. Iago Prytherch is painted in A Peasant as ‘a winner of wars, enduring like a tree under the curious stars’. But in A Priest to His People he asks their forgiveness for his ‘initial hatred’ and concludes by telling them:

‘You will still continue to unwind your days
In a crude tapestry under the jealous heavens
To affront, bewilder, yet compel my gaze.’

In the end though he turns his back on them and his Valediction is anything but kind.

‘Unnatural and inhuman, your wild ways
Are not sanctioned; you are condemned
By man’s potential stature.’

He concludes with words that, if Christianity is about forgiveness, seem hardly Christian.

‘For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies
Into a sock to serve you for a pillow
Through the long night that waits upon your span.’

He addresses God in his last book with the same honesty and directness as he addressed Prytherch and the others in his first. Geriatric, the first poem in the book, is a reaction to visiting a geriatric ward.

‘What god is proud
of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
in a last desperate effort
to retain hold?’

Developing the image of the neglected garden as a metaphor of age (‘reason overgrown by confusion’) he sets against it (‘comforting myself, as I can’) the possibility

‘that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in’

but leaves us in no doubt that he knows which is the reality and which the poetic image (‘all dew and fragrance’) for the parson to comfort his congregation with. Except for the three lines that follow and give the poem its ending:

‘a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
than we can understand.’

The concept of a torn god is one that a humanist (though not, perhaps, a fundamental humanist such as the author of The God Delusion) can appreciate, if only as a way of describing the human condition. It is explored in other ways in other poems. In S.K. it is a theological problem, the S.K. in question being Søren Kierkegaard, whose questioning of the objective and subjective reality of God and his relationship to Him (or His to him) leads him to conclude that:

‘The difficulty
with prayer is the exchange
of places between I and thou,
with silence as the answer
to an imagined request.’

There are times when the poems remind one of Shakespearean soliloquies, asking questions (‘To be or not to be?’), testing hypotheses (‘Ah, there’s the rub!’), concluding more often than not with an inconclusive shake of the head (‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’). Reflections, from which comes the line that gives the book its title, is one such.

‘The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the deepest water,
if deep enough can drown.’

(Don’t be fooled. Write it down differently and it’s blank verse.) The inconclusive conclusion takes the form of a poetic sleight of hand by which the mirror is changed into a chalice

‘held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.’

The torn god, the shifting identity, enable the humanist reader to share in a religious experience which in the hands of another religious poet would be so remote as to be meaningless. The seventeenth century poets managed it no better and, as he says himself in Ressurections, it was

‘Easier for them, God
only at the beginning
of his recession.’

He describes Herbert and Traherne as ‘walking in a garden not yet polluted’. But with the immediacy for which Herbert especially is renowned (‘I struck the board and cried, No more!’) he asks, ‘What happened? Suddenly he was gone, leaving love guttering in his withdrawal.’ This short poem ends with an image of startling, metaphysical potency – God’s corpse.

‘And scenting
disaster, as flies are attracted
to a carcase, far down
in the subconscious the ghouls
and the demons we thought
we had buried for ever resurrected.’

There are, among the poems of religious questioning, of growing faith, poems of love too, love of his wife and love of others. Yet somehow, read together, they are all of a piece, the same voice in all of them. In one, The Morrow, the first verse is about climbing a hill the night after his wife’s death and asking,

‘Is she up there, the woman
who was the pawn that love
offered in  exchange for beauty?’

The next verse, the last, is about going back to his room and finding her there, ‘speechlessly enquiring: Was all well?’ You don’t need to share his faith to share in the moment or perhaps to recall similar moments in your own life. He concludes by giving his answer to ‘the world’s question as to where at death does the soul go’:

‘There is no need under a pillarless
heaven for it to go anywhere.’

You get the feeling, reading these late poems, that, unlike Philip Larkin, who had only so many poems in him, R.S.Thomas could have gone on forever. He says it himself in Swallows, bidding them farewell for another year, knowing they will be back on time next year.

‘Not like
me whose migrations
are endless, though my perch
be of bone…
a new singer of an old
song, an innovator
too regardless of time
for the time-keeping swallows.’

philip larkin 01   r.s.thomas 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 3 December.

On 10 December I will be writing about two plays that are better known as operas, Pelléas et Mélisande and Salomé.

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A Reader’s Diary, 19 November 2014

Arts Council England has been criticised lately for spending most of its money in London and giving the rest, like Maundy money, to selected poor people in the English regions. However just the criticism, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Money obeys certain laws, one of which is that it must be shared unequally.

If it were shared according to the principle expounded by John Ruskin in Unto This Last, one of his most radical and controversial essays, exactly the same amount would be given to each publicly funded arts organisation, large or small, wherever in England it happened to be. But then Ruskin was, in the old fashioned sense of the word, a communist. He was one of those Victorian idealists who grew more and more unhappy as they came to see that the world they had been unlucky enough to have been born into was not likely to change, in their lifetime or after it.

The principle on which public funding of the arts in England is based is of course quite different. Perhaps it isn’t a principle, perhaps it’s just a habit, but whatever it is its aim is to keep everyone as far as possible in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The big national arts organisations, like the English aristocracy of olden days, need a lot of money to pay their staff and keep up appearances. Nearly half of what England spends on the arts goes to ten big theatres, opera houses, orchestras, ballet companies and galleries. This is the least they can manage on. The rest is shared, unequally, between nearly seven hundred other organisations. Annual grants start at £40,000 and go up to £25,000,000. The big organisations are safe, too big to fail. Small ones come and go, but never turn into big ones. The arts funding system in England, whatever anyone might say to the contrary, is designed to maintain the status quo.

There is a perfectly simple alternative of which, I believe, Ruskin would have approved. It is to fund all the arts in the way that libraries, those excellent examples of Victorian idealism, are funded. Writers have always been expected to pay their own way, but readers for at least a hundred years have been able to borrow whatever books they wish to read from a public library. Art galleries in the great industrial cities of the north grew up in the same way, a product of the same educational vision, an idealistic, even communistic, belief in an educated working class as a prerequisite for a modern, civilised, enlightened country. The money did not go to the writers or the artists, except through the purchase of their works (if they were still alive), but to the building and upkeep of the places where people could, without paying, look at the pictures on the walls or take the books home to read.

This is so much taken for granted now that the wonder of it, the generous spirit that made it possible and the infinite good that has come from it, are too easily forgotten. So why should the same principle not apply to the other arts?

For a while, in the middle of the last century, it did. J.B.Priestley’s Good Companions was one way, Hampstead and the other Little Theatres another. Between the two was a well-travelled road on which amateurs and professionals passed in both directions. The Little Theatres were amateur reps. The Hampstead Little Theatre specialised in new writing. The Bradford Civic Playhouse, which I joined when I was fifteen, put on a new production every three weeks. Each production ran for a week, followed by a fortnight in which the theatre became an art-house cinema. It was where I saw not only my first Shakespeares, Ibsens and Chekhovs, but also my first Godards, Fellinis and Bergmans. If I had been ten years older, I would have seen Robert Stephens and Billie Whitelaw when they were still amateurs. I did see Gorden Kaye, when he was still Gordon Kaye and a regular in comic roles for the Little Theatres in Bradford and Huddersfield, before he turned pro and became a few years later a café owner in occupied Paris, René in the BBC Television series ’Allo ’Allo.

Most of the good actors did not turn pro but went on performing as amateurs in Bradford, Huddersfield, Hampstead and elsewhere. Most writers write part-time while earning their living in some other way. If that is what amateur means, most writers are amateurs. Charles Causley taught at his local primary school and retired, not very early, as Deputy Head and famous poet. T.S.Eliot worked at a bank, then turned to publishing. Teaching and banking used to be the employment of choice for writers, offering long holidays in one case, short working hours in the other and job security in both.

Any kind of state patronage of the arts is pernicious in its effect and undemocratic in its operation. The law of money in this case works like the law of pocket money. Artists who are given too much behave like spoilt children. They spend it on the wrong things (costumes) and if it is taken away they stamp their feet. Governments are not supposed to have favourites, as monarchs did in the past, but an Arts Council that chooses which artists to favour with its grants does just that. It should not be the job of the government or any of its so-called arms-length agencies to decide, as Stalin did, which artists should rise and which should fall.

The government should wash its hands of public funding for the arts. Its job is to support readers not writers, audiences not performers, democratic communities not cultural hierarchies. The false distinction between amateur and professional which state funding has encouraged in the performing arts should be allowed to wither. Without it, people will go on making music and putting on plays in the ways that they have always done in the buildings that fair-minded parish, town and city councils have always provided and which, with £337,000,000 a year to share equally between them, they could afford to spruce up.

The law of money should not apply in the world of the imagination. It is after all a world made up of lunatics, lovers and poets, the very last people you would want to trust with your money.

ruskin 03

My next post, Late Poems, will appear on 26 November.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 3 December.

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Always afternoon

It is clear from the very first lines of Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos-Eaters, that the interest of this brief episode from Homer’s Odyssey lay for him not in Greek myth but in modern life, not in Odysseus but in the state of mind of his weary companions. In the original, the tale is told by Odysseus himself and he, not unnaturally, takes centre stage. After nine days of battling storms at sea, he says, we took refuge on an island. The men he sent out to explore the island failed to return. ‘All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotos-eaters, to browse on the lotos, and to forget all thoughts of return. I had to use force to bring them back to the hollow ships, and they wept on the way, but once on board I tied them up and dragged them under the benches.’ He goes on to describe at much greater length their arrival in the land of the one-eyed Cyclops and his own cunning defeat of Polyphemus.

Tennyson lets Odysseus begin the story –

‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land.
‘This mounting wave will roll us shore-ward soon.’

– but then forgets him.

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.

What might otherwise have been an exotic adventure in a land far away is brought home, domesticated, by that one word, afternoon, and its associations for us with rest and peace. Imagine if an afternoon nap could last forever!

He goes on to describe the country in which they find themselves in words that are anything but domestic, but the word he planted first in our minds cannot be dislodged. The rhymes themselves keep bringing it back.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like the downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

A dozen more lines of sensuous description complete the picture, which he sums up in one of those lines that express both a feeling and a thought.

A land where all things always seem’d the same!

A line so surprising, so apt, that it deserves its exclamation mark. There follow three of the most striking lines that Tennyson ever wrote, weaving out of pure sound an unforgettable image.

And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

The image is developed in the next few lines until, as he does at moments throughout the poem, he brings us to another moment of stillness and finality.

Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then someone said, ‘We will return no more.’

The drama of the poem, from its first word, through the journey inland and the meeting with the Lotos-eaters, to this moment of decision, is further reinforced by the ‘Choric Song’ which follows. Third person narration in the past tense gives way to the immediacy of speech in the manner of a chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?

The song is a hymn in praise of idleness, or rather a lament for the life of toil to which man, since the Fall, has been condemned. In verse after verse, image after image, Tennyson evokes the sense of deep and lasting peace that comes from simply giving up. The chorus begins by comparing it to music –

Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes.

Why is rest denied to us, alone among all living things?

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?

Better to be a fruit or a flower!

The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

Please, they beg, just leave us here!

Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.
Let us alone.

And anyway, they ask, what would be the point in going back?

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives,
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold:
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

The hymn ends where it began.

Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

No wonder they wept when Odysseus forced them back. But Tennyson makes no mention of that. In his version, the crew stay where they are.

The poem for which Tennyson now is best known, perhaps the only poem of his which is still read, In Memoriam, begins and ends with a disclaimer. In the introductory verses, which were added later, he begs forgiveness of God and, by implication, of the reading public.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
  Confusions of a wasted youth;
  Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

In the epilogue (or epithalamium on the marriage of his daughter, who might have married his friend if he had lived, to someone else) he proclaims himself older and wiser –

Which makes appear the songs I made
  As echoes out of weaker times,
  As half but idle brawling rhymes,
The sport of random sun and shade.

In Memoriam AHH was a private poem written by a public poet. It is a collection of short lyric poems written while Tennyson was grieving for the premature death of his close friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. The Lotos-eaters, like all his others poems, is not lyric but epic. It tells a story. Many, like his Idylls of the King, are full-blown epics, in length as well as subject and style. Others dramatise a single moment in a longer story. Odysseus has a poem of his own, called by his other name, Ulysses, in which, at the end of his life, he expresses a desire for new adventures.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The idea of poetry as the expression of the poet’s own feelings has prevailed for so long now that anything else seems false. There are no poets in the so-called ‘public square’ only ‘public intellectuals’. It is a place that poets shy away from, perhaps because they remember what it did to Tennyson when his expression of private grief failed to find favour with a censorious Victorian public.

Today the raw emotion of In Memoriam is what we expect from poetry. In poem VII, when the sleepless poet goes out into the London streets to stand outside his friend’s house, we share in his sorrow and his despair.

He is not here; but far away
  The noise of life begins again,
  And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

No doubt some Victorian readers sympathised, but many regretted the loss of their poet’s stiff upper lip. The fact is that, in writing about himself, Tennyson was most successful, as in the verse quoted, when he wrote as he would if he were writing about somebody else. As a poet, an epic poet, a public poet, his task was to make the story come alive, to make the experience vivid and immediate for the reader. He does this in poem VII by showing us the ‘long unlovely street’ to which ‘at earliest morning’ he returns, just as he does in The Lotos-eaters by showing us the land ‘in which it seemed always afternoon’. Time after time, he surprises us with things that we feel we already know. No writer can do that without an awareness of the public and epic nature of poetry, as well as the private and lyric.

The moments when the lyric and epic strands in English poetry intersect are precisely those when English poets come closest to greatness. Story and song, public and private, coming together. The greatest English epic poem of all, by the greatest English epic poet, ends on a note of pure lyricism.

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

tennyson 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 19 November.

My post on 26 November will be about the late poems of Philip Larkin and R.S.Thomas.

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A Reader’s Diary, 5 November 2014

John Sutherland of The Times is quoted under the heading ‘Praise for The Lie’ in the paperback edition of the book as saying, ‘Helen Dunmore’s two resources are imagination and research.’ The former is something a novelist can hardly do without, but the latter has only recently come into fashion. How much research did Tolstoy do before he wrote War and Peace or Dickens before he wrote A Tale of Two Cities or E.M.Forster before he wrote A Passage to India? I don’t know, but I think the answer would be not much because it was what they knew already that made them want to write the book. A historical event, for a novelist, is a metaphor, the historical truth less important than the universal truth it embodies. Why would you consult someone whose principal skill is in making things up if what you want to know is what really happened?

What Helen Dunmore and other so-called historical novelists do, of course, is not the kind of research that historians do, but the kind that is needed to give their works of fiction a veneer of historical accuracy. What we get in The Lie and other books of that ilk is not so much history as period detail. On the first page, the smell of a First World War trench is described as ‘full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime’. Who but a novelist who has done her research would know about chloride of lime? Does it help the reader to imagine the smell? No, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to present the writer’s credentials as someone who knows what she is talking about.

Lists are a common feature of these novels and serve the same purpose. On page 3, a list of the vegetables growing in a vegetable patch: ‘early potatoes, turnips, carrots, beetroot, spring cabbages’. On page 22, a list of coins: ‘florins, some sixpences, a few joeys and a heap of copper.’ On page 23, a list of food for foraging: ‘Mussels on the rocks, samphire growing around the estuary in season, spider crabs and wild strawberries, blackberries, elderberries, bread and cheese from the hawthorn, new dandelion leaves for salad, chervil, nettles for soup in spring.’ The point is (and I can hear the creative writing class tutor saying this) to be convincing. Your characters must never smoke a cigarette, they must smoke a particular brand of cigarette. In The Lie it’s Woodbines or Players. It’s not enough for the hero to dry his hands on a towel. What kind of towel did people dry their hands on in those days? ‘I work up a lather, then swill my face and arms and dry myself carefully on the roller towel.’ (p213) Goodness! Is that really how people used to get washed? This writer really knows her stuff, doesn’t she?

The historical novelist’s obsession with period detail is one thing, but when the novel is written in the first person, in this case a survivor of the First World War, the effect can be incongruous. The narrative voice seems to belong less to a young man suffering from shell-shock than to a National Trust guide.

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld is a very different kind of historical novel. His imagined town, in which the experience of German Jews in 1939 is given a story-book treatment which makes the reality all the more vivid and horrifying, owes everything to imagination and nothing to research. The opening paragraph sets the scene.

‘Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of the forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by the vacationers. Two inspectors passed through an alley, examining the flow of the sewage in the pipes. The town, which had changed its inhabitants many times in the course of the years, had kept its modest beauty.’

Badenheim has its idiosyncracies, which the inhabitants, the vacationers and, following their example, the reader, come to accept.

‘Spring rose in a dark green haze from the gardens. The two local prostitutes, Sally and Gertie, put on summer dresses and strolled down the avenue. In the beginning the inhabitants of the town had tried to get them thrown out, but the campaign, which began many years ago, had come to nothing in the end. The town had grown used to them, as it had grown used to Dr Pappenheim’s eccentricities and to the foreigners who had insinuated themselves like diseased roots.’

The vacationers who come to stay in the town’s hotel and enjoy the entertainment organised by Dr Pappenheim find themselves, as the season advances and the inspectors go on with their work, less able to move freely outside the hotel. Rumours grow that they are to be taken back to Poland, where they once lived. They convince themselves and each other that they will enjoy that. On the last page, a train arrives.

‘An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. “Get in!” yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog – they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”’

Toytown Badenheim is a fictional creation, not a re-creation of Europe during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, but an imagined town whose reality contains within itself the unimaginable reality of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. The Jews themselves, trapped inside the hotel, are the holocaust deniers.

Trapped inside The Lie is a good novel, perhaps even a great novel, a work of imagination in which a First World War survivor hides from the real world in a world he makes for himself in an old woman’s cottage, burying her when she dies, hiding the truth of her death from the real world outside, living with the ghost of a friend who died in the trenches, suffering in the end the inevitable consequence of the lies and the deaths. Alas, too much research, too little imagination!

helen dunmore 01  aharon appelfeld 01

My next post will appear on 12 November and will be about Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters.

My next Reader’s Diary  will appear on 19 November.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for Christmas presents for book lovers, try Vive le Mole! the grown-up sequel to The Wind in the Willows.

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Poems with stage directions

Samuel Beckett’s plays are not often performed. Waiting for Godot comes along every now and then, but the others, especially the short ones, are as rare as one of those migratory birds of which a reported sighting is enough to set off a mass migration of bird-watchers. Having booked a ticket for a recent performance of three of Beckett’s short plays which at the last moment I was unable to attend, I felt like a ‘twitcher’ who arrives just after the bird has flown and can do nothing but get back in the car, throw the binoculars on the back seat and drive sadly home. But there the similarity ends, because although I was unable to watch the performance, I could at least read the plays.

Reading plays is an under-rated activity. My own reading of a play has often given me greater pleasure and taken me closer to the real thing than watching someone else’s production. Directors and designers seem increasingly to take the view that their task is not to give as faithful an account as possible of the author’s work, but to improve on it. Beckett himself made sure not only that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, but that it wouldn’t happen after it, by insisting and going on insisting in death that his plays should be performed his way and nobody else’s. The price of authenticity is scarcity, but only if you can’t read.

Each of the three short plays that I missed (so short that the whole performance lasted less than an hour and came with a warning that late-comers would not be admitted between plays) begins with a page or two of very precise stage directions. ‘Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow,’ is the first thing you read when you open your copy of Not I. On the first page of Footfall there is a diagram to illustrate precisely how M, the only visible character, paces to and fro along the front of the stage. In Rockaby Beckett gives instructions for W’s costume, eyes and attitude, the appearance of the rocking chair she sits in and its speed of rocking, the way the lighting should catch her as she rocks and the quality and volume of her recorded voice.

A reader should not be tempted to skim or skip the stage directions. It is as important to read them before you start and to understand them before you read on as it is to read the instructions that come with an item of self-assembly furniture. That was why Beckett put them all at the beginning, so that the lines could be read without interruption and everything put together in the right way. The lines properly assembled make a poem. To call these plays dramatic monologues would be to miss the point. They are plays in which dramatic action is kept to an absolute minimum, its place taken by words. Poems with stage directions.

The same is true of the longer plays, from which action, and sometimes movement, is also missing. Beckett’s stage is always as empty as he can make it. Waiting for Godot. Act One. A country road. A tree. Evening. Act Two. Next day. Same time. Same place. Endgame. Bare interior. Grey light. The aim is to to create a space in which only words matter.

In the short plays, perhaps more clearly than in the long ones, the essential characteristics of Beckett’s drama are revealed: one or two individuals, their histories partially revealed, not through action but through words, in particular by the repetition of certain words and phrases. Each play is a sifting of memory.

By the end of Not I we have pieced together some facts about the woman speaking, of whom all we can see is her mouth. She was born a month premature, she never knew her father, she was brought up in an institution of some kind, she is an elective mute, once or twice a year she breaks her silence in an involuntary and unintelligible outpouring of words, she suffers from tinnitus, she has experienced some kind of quasi-mystical revelation, she talks about herself in the third person, refusing vehemently (Beckett’s word) to accept that the person she is talking about is herself. Hence the title.

In Footfall what we hear is a dialogue between mother and daughter. We learn that the mother is about ninety, the daughter about forty, that in her adolescence the daughter began what has become a lifetime of obsessive pacing, that she is an insomniac, that the church is a favourite place for her to pace at night and that she has been known to do so during vespers. The picture that emerges is of someone who suffers from what would now be called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The recorded voice we hear in Rockaby describes a lonely woman looking out of her window at other windows, imagining but not believing in the possibility of there being someone like her behind one of them, until at the end she dies.

One of the characteristics of Beckett’s language in these plays is wordplay. In Rockaby for example:

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day

And a few lines later:

till the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
sitting at her window
quiet at her window

Throughout the piece slight variations on these phrases recur, creating in the end a pattern from which a recognisable story gradually takes shape.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
in the end went down
down the deep stair
let down the blind and down
right down

The effect is like that of a piece for piano in which the composer takes a simple phrase and develops it through repetition and variation. Each play has a structure which is as much poetic as dramatic, perhaps more. Rockaby is divided into four sections or movements, each ending with a line spoken first by the recorded voice, then by the recorded voice and the woman in the rocking chair together, followed by a long pause. In Footfall mother and daughter make parallel speeches in which a conversation between them is reported in the form of dramatic dialogue. The monologue which is the whole of Not I is divided into four more or less equal parts by a gesture made, each time less noticeably, by the silent and only half-seen Auditor.

The tension between words and action is inherent in all drama. The moments of despair which come when action runs out and which, in Shakespeare’s world, find expression in the repetition of one word, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing’, are, in Beckett’s world, the whole play.

Poems are meant to be read, whether aloud or in silence, but these poetic plays are meant to be performed. They should be performed more often. Performance rights, now that they are held by Beckett’s estate, are given sparingly and with as much insistence on the observation of his stage directions as Beckett himself demanded when he was alive. The plays won’t be out of copyright until 2060. Another forty-five years of reading poems with stage directions instead of seeing plays performed on stage. Another forty-five years of disappointment for Beckett watchers who don’t make it in time.

Lelia Goldoni in Rockaby

Lelia Goldoni in Rockaby

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 5 November.

On 12 November I will be writing about Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters.

Looking for Christmas presents for book lovers? Vive le Mole! is the grown-up sequel to The Wind in the Willows and might be just what you’re looking for.

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A Reader’s Diary, 22 October 2014

The Nobel Prize for Literature caused less of a stir in England this year, when it was awarded to French novelist, Patrick Modiano, than it did last year, when it went to Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. Last year, bookshops stood to benefit from additional sales of books that were already on their shelves. This year, with hardly any of the Frenchman’s books available in translation, the award was only of passing interest to the British book trade. After the initial announcement, the media lost interest too.

I have read only one of Modiano’s novels, but that’s one more than most people outside France. I have read only one of Munro’s books, which is less than most people but enough for me. My evidence base might be limited but I stand by what I wrote in my diary on 23 October last year. A review in the New Statesman which claimed that ‘these melancholy, autumnal tales of small-town Canadian life demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best’ was right about Munro but wrong about the short story, which ‘at its best’ can do much more than Munro has ever done. Her Nobel Prize citation described her as ‘a master of the contemporary short story’, which says more about the contemporary short story than it does about her.

Modiano’s Nobel Prize citation is ‘for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. (Perhaps some of these curious phrases work better in Swedish. What exactly is a life-world?) The only novel of his that I have read so far, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, lives up to the citation, though the memories it evokes in the mind of the narrator are of Paris in the years after the occupation, the years of his youth. The first sentence prepares the reader for the confusion and ambiguity that follow when the narrator begins his search for Louki, a girl he used to see sometimes in a café. ‘Des deux entrées du café, elle empruntait toujours la plus étroite, celle qu’on appelait la porte de l’ombre.’ Memory puts its own interpretation on events, gives meaning to things that in themselves are meaningless. What are we to make of the fact that the café had two entrances, of which she (whoever she is) always chose the narrow one, the one that was known as the door of shadow? What does the narrator make of it? He doesn’t say.

Most of what I have read about Modiano since the award was announced refers to him as a modern-day Proust, but that seems to me to be not quite right. In A la recherche du temps perdu Proust remembers everything perfectly, in Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue Modiano remembers everything imperfectly. After Proust there was Robbe-Grillet and Queneau. I was reminded, reading Modiano’s novel, more of L’année dernière à Marienbad and Zazie dans le métro than of Du côté de chez Swann. Proust’s art of memory is to awaken the past in the present, Modiano’s is to take the reader down the familiar and unfamiliar, confused and confusing by-ways that connect and disconnect us from the past.

There is actually very little of Proust in Modiano and a great deal of other European (but not English) post-war literature, which is where ‘ungraspable human destinies’ and ‘the life-world of the occupation’ come in. In the countries of Europe that were either occupied during the war or did the occupying, where resistance or collaboration were moral and practical choices, where after the war it was better to forget than to remember, the art of memory has a meaning which is lost on other countries and which has as little to do with Proust as with melancholy, autumnal tales that demonstrate the gentle power of the short story at its best.

Not long after I had finished reading Modiano’s novel, I discovered that he had written the screenplay for a film by one of France’s great film makers, Louis Malle. It was a film I had watched not long before, when I was revisiting my own cinema-going youth, a film set in Paris during the occupation, one of the most haunting and disturbing films I have ever seen, Lacombe Lucien. The purpose of tragedy, as the Greeks knew, is to confront horror. Malle’s 1974 film works like that and Modiano’s 2007 novel ends with such a moment, a sudden death, which he describes as an absence, a blank, which didn’t just cause him a feeling of emptiness, but which he was unable to look at, because it was like a dazzling light. ‘Et cela sera comme ça, jusqu’á la fin.’ And that’s how it will be until the end.

Most of the commentary on the Nobel Prize this year has, however, been concerned not with who got it, but who didn’t. Philip Roth missed out again and year by year the Swedish conspiracy theory gains in credibility. Perhaps Roth minded less this year than last.

patrick modiano 01

The next post on 29 October will be about three short plays by Samuel Beckett.

That will be followed by my Reader’s Diary for 5 November.

My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.

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Singing in chains

‘In spite of the danger of becoming the centre of a cult, Mr. Thomas has developed in his own way, exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences; a poetic process that has made him the English Rimbaud.’

This is how Dylan Thomas was described on the dust jacket of Deaths and Entrances, a collection of twenty-four new poems published just after the Second World War in the year of his thirty-third birthday. These poems amount to about a quarter of his entire poetic output and, with Under Milk Wood, represent the work of his mature years, mature in his case meaning his thirties, which turned out to be his final decade. They include nearly all the poems for which he is best known, with the exception of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which was written later and published first in an Italian literary journal and then in Collected Poems, 1934-1952.

‘In this new collection,’ the dust jacket note goes on, ‘the poet’s difficult idiom has become more familiar and authoritative. Without losing any of its pronounced personal qualities, it has gained in coherence of imagery, and a clearer traffic between reason and imagination. The result is a body of verse that should interest a wider audience.’

There is no point in speculating what difference another decade might have made. Deaths and Entrances is as good as it was going to get and gave us a handful of poems that could not anyway have been bettered. Dylan Thomas found his voice before he knew what to do with it and it was a singing voice. He denied having been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps because what he heard in Hopkins was something he knew already: that words have a tune independent of their meaning.

All of Dylan Thomas’s poems sound the same. When the sound drowns out the sense they are not good. When sound and sense go together they are unforgettable. In that respect, they are like hymns. The verses of his poems, like the verses of a hymn, all have the same tune and it is the tune that we recognise first. The syntax is so stretched and disjointed that, at first hearing, it is impossible to make sense of it. Take for example the first of the three verses of the poem from which the book takes its title.

On almost the incendiary eve
  Of several near deaths,
When one at the great least of your best loved
  And always known must leave
Lions and fires of his flying breath,
  Of your immortal friends
Who’d raise the organs of the counted dust
  To shoot and sing your praise,
One who called deepest down shall hold his peace
  That cannot sink or cease
  Endlessly to his wound
In many married London’s estranging grief.

To deconstruct that sentence in a search for meaning would be not just a hopeless task but hopelessly misguided. Better to read it as if you were in chapel or morning assembly, singing for example ‘Fondly my foolish heart essays’.

Fondly my foolish heart essays
To augment the source of perfect bliss,
Love’s all-sufficient sea to raise
With drops of creature happiness.

The tune stays in your head and with repetition, over the months and the years, the meaning, to which you have paid little attention in chapel or assembly, begins to emerge. Take any line out of the first verse of Thomas’s poem and ask whether it would be out of place in one of Wesley’s hymns: ‘And always known must leave… Of your immortal friends… One who called deepest down must hold his peace… Endlessly to his wound…’

Dylan Thomas tried hard not to be Welsh. He went to London, he worked for the BBC, he met Louis MacNeice, he assumed the voice of an English actor with which to read his poems. But his way of writing was bardic. His poems are sometimes like hymns, sometimes like spells, as in the sequence of emblem poems called Vision and Prayer (‘I / Must lie / Still as stone / By the wren bone / Wall hearing the moan / Of the mother hidden / And the shadowed head of pain / Casting tomorrow like a thorn’) or the children’s rhyme called Paper and Sticks (‘Paper and sticks and shovel and match / Why won’t the news of the old world catch / And the fire in a temper start’) or the spell to ward off death in the poem that came too late for Deaths and Entrances.

He used words to turn reality into myth. Sometimes myth and reality are at odds, as in A Refusal to Mourn, in which the reality of a child’s death in the blitz is made to serve the poet’s bardic purpose and lines like ‘I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth’ seem merely pompous. His poem about being a poet, In My Craft or Sullen Art, lovely though its phrases are, teeters too on the brink of pomposity. (‘I labour by singing light / Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages…’ etc etc.)

But where the myth grows naturally out of the reality, where the Hunchback in the Park is also a hunchback in a park, we begin to see what the publisher meant by ‘a clearer traffic between reason and imagination’. In these poems too we begin to see a different Dylan Thomas from the one ‘exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences’. The tortured syntax of the English Rimbaud begins at last to say what it means. Love in the Asylum surprises with the almost prosaic quality of its beginning.

A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds

An image sets the scene in the plainest of terms for On a Wedding Anniversary.

The sky is torn across
This ragged anniversary

A poem about waking up starts simply (‘When I woke, the town spoke’) then line by line builds up a nightmarish vision (‘a man outside with a billhook / Up to his head in his blood’) until the moment of waking returns with an image of death that speaks for itself (‘And the coins on my eyelids sang like shells’).

The last poem in the collection is Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas’s hymn to childhood. Here the exuberance of his word-play is a part of what the poem is about: ‘the lilting house… honoured among wagons… once below a time… the rivers of the windfall light…’ The six verses, like a hymn, sing the same tune. Each line of each verse echoes its equivalent in the verse before. Line 3 for example: ‘The night above the dingle starry… In the sun that is young once only… And playing, lovely and watery… Shining, it was Adam and maiden… In the sun born over and over… In the moon that is always rising.’ The real farm and the mythical farm of the poem are never far apart.

It was in these poems, where he was able to distance himself from his experience enough to see it plainly, that sound and sense came together. The sweep of a long sentence, the relationship of its parts often ambiguous, their ordering idiosyncratic (if not perverse), which is so characteristic of his poetry and could seem at times like showing off (which it probably was sometimes) is, in these poems, the thing that makes Dylan Thomas seem more like a composer than a writer. Fern Hill and Poem in October are tone poems. Under Milk Wood is a comic opera.

He might have wanted to be an English poet, but that was because Wales was a pigeon hole he had no wish to be trapped in. His best work was, in one way or another, whether he liked it or not, Welsh. Swansea, Llareggub, his father, his wife, his friends.

… though I loved them for their faults
As much as for their good,
My friends were enemies on stilts
With their heads in a cunning cloud.

They were the chains he sang in.

dylan thomas 03

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 22 October.

The subject of my post on 29 October will be Samuel Beckett.

My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.

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