Monthly Archives: November 2016
His chosen comrades thought at school
by Glenda Beagan
He is an icon now. How does one respond? There is no one to compare with R.S. Thomas, even remotely. In taking on the role of a prophet in the Old Testament mode he has become a thorn in our collective flesh, one we appear to find necessary, and however perversely, welcome. He speaks of his own marginalised state, perhaps disingenuously, for if his is a voice in the wilderness it is a voice which, at the same time, is strangely central, and one to which it behoves us to attend.
This handsome volume is impressive, awesome. It confronts us with a lifetime’s struggle with language, meaning, purpose. Upwards of five hundred poems are collected here. There is a fearlessness about them, a formidable integrity. There is also, connected closely with that of God, or those gods he postulates, a ferocity that can appall. As R.S. Thomas asks of his deity in ‘The Film of God’, I ask of him, bewildered and aghast.
What is the colour
of his thought?
In ‘Wallace Stevens’, he describes the wind that blows through the American poet’s work as hailing “From mortuaries of the cold heart”. The chill factor in R.S. Thomas is at least as strong. In reading and re-reading, despite my being surprised by sudden tendernesses I’d forgotten, as in ‘The Evacuee’ that “shy bird in the nest of welcome” who is taken to heart by “farm faces trying to be kind”, I keep coming back to a sense of terror, of dread, where the best that can be achieved is a grim endurance. No serious writer can evade the issues of existential angst, but the gods R.S. invents to account for the shadow, for the dark, and in which, it must be said, he seems to take a certain relish, operate rather as projections of the very worst aspects of a distinctly human nature. If God is in mankind as an image is in a mirror, this mirror tends to distort.
by Derek Mahon
God, you could grow to love, it, God-fearing, God-
chosen purist little puritan that,
for all your wiles and smiles, you are (the
dank churches, the empty streets, the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings) and
shelter your cold heart from the heat
of the world, from woman-inquisition, from the
bright eyes of children. Yes, you could
wear black, drink water, nourish a fierce zeal
with locusts and wild honey, and not
feel called upon to understand and forgive
but only to speak with a bleak
afflatus, and love the January rains when they
darken the dark doors and sink hard
into the Antrim hills, the bog meadows, the heaped
graves of your fathers. Bury that red
bandana and stick, that banjo; this is your
country, close one eye and be king.
Your people await you, their heavy washing
flaps for you in the housing estates –
a credulous people. God, you could do it, God
help you, stand on a corner stiff
with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun.
The playwright used to feel baffled in the face of poetry. All the more reason to compile an anthology of popular poets, from Hardy to Larkin
When I was young, I used to feel that literature was a club of which I would never be a proper member – as a reader, let alone a writer. It wasn’t that I didn’t read books, or even the “right” books, but I always felt that the ones I read couldn’t be literature, if only because I had read them. It was the books I couldn’t get into (and these included most poetry) that constituted literature – or, rather, Literature.
After a lifetime, these feelings of impotence and exclusion are still fresh in my mind. I have only to hear someone extolling the charms of Byron, say, or Coleridge, neither of whom I’ve ever managed to read, to be reminded of how baffled one can feel in the face of books.
Mindful of this, when, decades ago, I put together a TV series about poetry – featuring Hardy, Housman, Betjeman, Auden, MacNeice and Larkin – I didn’t make any bones about admitting what I didn’t understand or sympathise with. I’m all at sea with much of Auden, for instance, but feel less of a fool saying so, because that kind of plain speaking is a refreshing feature of Auden’s own literary criticism. Auden is an exception, though, because the poets and poems I chose are all in differing degrees accessible. This seemed to me essential. Obviously, any poem repays study, but if it is only to be heard once and without detailed exposition, then a poem should be understandable at first hearing.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
by W. S. Merwin
At my elbow on the table
it lies open as it has done
for a good part of these thirty
years ever since my father died
and it passed into my hands
this Webster’s New International
Dictionary of the English
Language of 1922
on India paper which I
was always forbidden to touch
for fear I would tear or somehow
damage its delicate pages
heavy in their binding
this color of wet sand
on which thin waves hover
when it was printed he was twenty-six
they had not been married four years
he was a country preacher
in a one-store town and I suppose
a man came to the door one day
peddling this new dictionary
on fine paper like the Bible
at an unrepeatable price
and it seemed it would represent
a distinction just to own it
confirming something about him
that he could not even name
now its cover is worn as though
it had been carried on journeys
across the mountains and deserts
of the earth but it has been here
beside me the whole time
what has frayed it like that
loosening it gnawing at it
all through these years
I know I must have used it
much more than he did but always
with care and indeed affection
turning the pages patiently
in search of meanings.
“Inheritance” by W. S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius. © Copper Canyon Press, 2008.
Bill Ellis and Graeme Hughes will read and discuss selections from W. S. Merwin‘s book, The Shadow of Sirius in our January 26 session.
Please note some minor changes in the schedule for 2017.
Should you choose to do so, you can now read the Roundhouse Poetry Circle blog in any one of 100 different languages through the Google Translate widget. Scroll to the bottom of the widget column on the right-hand side of the home page and select your preferred language, from Irish to Persian.
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” – George Bernard Shaw
“You can’t write an image, a metaphor, a story, a phrase, without leaning a little further into the shared world, without recognizing that your supposed solitude is at every point of its perimeter touching some other.”
—Jane Hirshfield, Academy of American Poets Chancellor (2012– ).
A final reminder that we will be reading and discussing the use of metaphor in poetry this coming Thursday, November 24. Please see the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of featured poems.
By Daniel D’Arezzo
Among poets writing in English in the mid-twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979) has emerged as one of the most influential—an influence not only on later generations of poets but on her contemporaries as well. Her oeuvre was not large: she published only a handful of books in her lifetime, and the poems were usually short; a longish poem like “Manuelzinho” has only 145 lines. She often wrote in recognizable forms, and her poems are loosely formal, with meter and rhyme, although she was not a slave to rhyme schemes.
Many readers will be relieved to know that Bishop’s poems make sense: she tells stories that are emotionally affecting; she doesn’t lecture the reader; she is witty, shrewd and tender without being sentimental. Bishop’s clear writing stands in opposition to popular notions of poetry as an abstruse art of vague, ambiguous language that invokes hazy ideas and inchoate feelings (which is actually a pretty good description of much consumer advertising). Poetry differs from prose in being more compressed; and when we read prose that is similarly compressed—dense with imagery, studded with active verbs and free of qualifiers, connectives and dependent clauses—we may feel that it is “poetic.” But what makes any writing, whether poetry or prose, especially vivid is its ability to make the world appear to the reader freshly seen, and that is achieved through accuracy.
Howard Moss (1922–1987) was a poet and poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1950 until his death, so he worked very closely with Bishop, who had a first-reading agreement with The New Yorker. Moss was a great admirer of Bishop and championed her poems at the magazine, although not always successfully. Moss did not have the last word on accepting poems, and for reasons peculiar to The New Yorker, the vote sometimes went against a particular Bishop poem, which she was then free to publish elsewhere.
Read the complete article
Please note that we have tentatively scheduled a session on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for September 28, 2017.
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
Shakespeare, Donne and Jonson are all represented in this punchy and sinuous anthology, chosen by Stoner author John Williams
The American author and academic John Williams wrote three acclaimed novels (he let his first be quietly forgotten): one set in the wild west (Butcher’s Crossing), one on the campus of a Midwestern university (Stoner, recently republished to great acclaim) and one (Augustus) about the life of the Roman emperor. That’s a wide spread, as far as subject matter goes; the fact that he also published this selection of English Renaissance poetry further demonstrates his capacity for making different eras vivid to us.
This anthology first came out in 1963, and, as Robert Pinsky says in his introduction, it soon becomes clear that it is a writer’s book, as opposed to an academic’s. The subtitle may be somewhat dry – A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson – though the poems themselves are anything but. This is a labour of love, not an exercise in scholarship and canon-building.
You can see what attracted Williams to this era, as the one thing his novels have in common is a concern for the proper use of good, plain language. English poetry in the 16th and early 17th centuries was at the top of its game. The big names – Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, all represented here – did not pop up in isolation. Poetry was in the air: everyone with any claim to gentility wrote it, and you couldn’t call yourself well rounded or gentlemanly if you couldn’t knock off an extempore verse (this was almost exclusively a male pursuit).