Category Archives: History

Poetry, painting and the world of Christopher Wood

Matthew Sperling

Poetry, painting and the world of Christopher WoodUt pictura poesis, Horace wrote sometime around the year 19 BC: as is painting, so is poetry. Few ideas have had longer careers in the history of aesthetics than this dictum. It has inspired much elaboration and also much disagreement; the Earl of Shaftesbury huffed and puffed, in his unfinished treatise of 1712, Plastics, to say that ‘comparisons and parallels between painting and poetry’ are ‘almost ever absurd and at best lame, constrained and defective’. He did little to slow such comparisons down.
The parallel between painting and poetry has also encouraged close relations between the two arts. A very small number of people have achieved great things in both (Michelangelo, William Blake, David Jones), but many more have mastered one art while aspiring to the condition of the other. Since poetry, which takes place in language, is a fundamentally temporal art, and painting, which takes place in form and colour, is a fundamentally spatial one, interesting things happen when they collide.

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Seamus Heaney, our dad the poet, by Catherine, Chris and Mick Heaney

For his family, choosing 100 poems from a long career, was weighted with memories

Deirdre Falvey

Seamus Heaney, our dad the poet, by Catherine, Chris and Mick HeaneyFive years after the jolt of Seamus Heaney’s unexpected death we are back at a moment. Back with Heaney, whose poems resonate with the rhythm of the lives of those he touched – casual reader, familiar student, his close-knit family. The public, the private; at this moment, two interlinked events. Nobel laureate and beloved public figure; family man and generous friend. The archive of work he donated to the National Library of Ireland in 2011 is being spun into a significant exhibition. And his family – his wife, Marie, and three children, Mick, Chris and Catherine, long adults now – have chosen 100 poems from his life’s work for a collection. Because they have made the selection, the poems echo publicly and privately. This is a moment all right, after an interval, luxuriating in his words.
Mick Heaney, who is also this newspaper’s radio critic, talks about looking at his father’s poems again and making these choices now. “To the general reader, which would include me in poetry terms, 100 poems has you well covered. But also, in the process, a poem can spark different things, and you can be drawn in for different reasons.”

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The Day Duke Raised: May 24th, 1974

Quincy Troupe

For Duke Ellington

The Day Duke Raised1.
that day began with a shower
of darkness, calling lightning rains
home to stone language
of thunderclaps, shattering, the high
blue, elegance, of space & time
where a broken-down, riderless, horse
with frayed wings
rode a sheer bone, sunbeam
road, down into the clouds

spoke wheels of lightning jagged
around the hours, & spun high up
above those clouds, duke wheeled
his chariot of piano keys
his spirit, now, levitated from flesh
& hovering over the music of most high
spoke to the silence
of a griot-shaman-man
who knew the wisdom of God

at high noon, the sun cracked
through the darkness, like a rifle shot
grew a beard of clouds on its livid, bald
face, hung down, noon, sky high
pivotal time of the flood-deep hours
as duke was pivotal, being a five in the nine
numbers of numerology
as his music was one of the crossroads
a cosmic mirror of rhythmic gri-gri

so get on up & fly away duke, bebop
slant & fade on in, strut, dance swing, riff
& float & stroke those tickling, gri-gri keys
those satin ladies taking the A train  up
to harlem, those gri-gri keys
of birmingham, breakdown
sophisticated ladies, mood indigo
get on up & strut across, gri-gri
raise on up, your band’s waiting

thunderclapping music, somersaulting
clouds, racing across the deep, blue wisdom
of God, listen, it is time for your intro, duke
into that other place, where the all-time great
band is waiting for your intro, duke
it is time for the Sacred Concert, duke
it is time to make the music of God, duke
we are listening for your intro, duke
so let the sacred music, begin.
Listen to Duke Ellington play “Take the A Train”
On June 28 we will read and discuss poetry inspired by music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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(For Dwight Macdonald)

Robert Lowell

The MarchI

Under the too white marmoreal Lincoln Memorial,

The too tall marmoreal Washington obelisk,

Gazing into the too long reflecting pool,

The reddish trees, the withering autumn sky,

The remorseless, amplified harangues for peace –

Lovely, to lock arms, to march absurdly locked

(unlocking to keep my wet glasses from slipping)

To see the cigarette match quaking in my fingers,

Then to step off like green Union Army recruits

For the first Bull Run, sped by photographers,

The notables, the whores … fear, glory, chaos, rout …

Our green army staggered out on the miles-long green fields,

Met by the other army, the Martian, the ape, the hero,

His new-fangled rifle, his green, new, steel helmet.


Where two or three were heaped together, or fifty,

Mostly white-haired, or bald, or women … sadly

Unfit to follow their dream, I sat in the sunset

Shade of their Bastille, their Pentagon,

Nursing leg and arch-cramps, my cowardly,

Foolhardy heart, and heard, alas, more speeches,

Though the words took heart now to show how weak

We were, and right. An MP sergeant kept

Repeating , “March slowly through them. Don’t even brush

Anyone sitting down.” They tiptoed through us

In single file, and then their second wave

Trampled us flat and back. Health to those who held,

Health to the green steel head … to the kinds hands

That helped me stagger to my feet, and flee.

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Clarify Me, Please, God Of The Galaxies

In Praise Of The Poetry Of Elizabeth Jennings

by Dana Gioia

Clarify Me, Please, GodThe English poet Elizabeth Jennings had the peculiar fate of being in the right place at the right time in the wrong way. Her career began splendidly. Her verse appeared in prominent journals, championed by Oxford’s new generation of tastemakers. Her first publication, Poems (1953), launched the acclaimed Fantasy Poets pamphlet series, which would soon present the early work of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Geoffrey Hill. Her first full-length collection, A Way of Looking (1955), won the Somerset Maugham Award and became the Poetry Book Society recommendation. She was the youngest poet featured in the first Penguin Modern Poets volume (1962). Meanwhile Jennings achieved enduring notoriety as the only female member of “The Movement,” the irreverent and contrarian group that dominated mid-century British poetry. By age thirty, Jennings was a celebrated writer.
“To be lucky in the beginning is everything,” claimed Cervantes, but Jennings’s luck did not hold. In the great expansion of universities and literary publishing following World War II, her Movement peers gained academic appointments, lucrative book deals, and critical esteem. Jennings’s career stalled. Her fame as a Movement poet proved a dead end. She never belonged in that Oxbridge boys’ club. She shared The Movement’s commitment to clarity and traditional form, but her politics were to the left of their mostly conservative stance. Deeper than politics, however, were two fundamental differences between Jennings and her peers. “I was a woman and also a Roman Catholic,” she later observed, “which meant that I wanted to write about subjects which were simply uninteresting to most Movement poets.” Her emotionally direct verse, which pondered love, art, and religion, had little in common with their detached and ironic attitude toward experience.

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Danse Macabre (Memento Mori)

Danse MacabreThe above image is an anonymous German engraving from 1635. An hourglass rests by the back foot of the smiling skeleton. A broken arrow sits beside it and there is another one in the quiver. It was a piece of art designed to hang at eye level so that the arrow—the one locked and loaded into the crossbow—was pointing directly at the viewer. In very old French, the inscription reads:

“Ma flesche (asseure toy) n’espargnera personne

Vous danserez trestout ce balet, que je sonnne”

( “My arrow (I promise you) spares no one

You will all dance the ballet of which I sing”)

Danse Macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based on an old French superstition. The text comes from the poem “Égalité, Fraternité…”, part of Jean Lahor’s (a pseudonym of Henri Cazalis) “l’Illusion”. An English translation of the poem follows:
Danse Macabre

Zig and zig and zig, Death rhythmically

Taps upon a tomb with his heel;

Death at midnight plays a dance air,

Zig and zig and zig on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is gloomy,

Groaning comes from the lime trees;

White skeletons move through the shadows,

Running and jumping under their large shrouds.
Zig and zig and zig, everyone is moving,

We hear the bones of the dancers banging,

A lascivious couple sits upon the moss

As if to taste ancient pleasures again.
Zig and zig and zag, Death continues,

Scraping without end his harsh-sounding violin.

A veil has fallen! The dancer is nude!

Her partner squeezes her amorously.
The lady is said to be a marchioness or baroness,

And the crude gallant a poor cartwright —

Horrors! And look, she gives herself to him

As though the churl were a baron!
Zig and zig and zig, what a saraband!

What circles of the dead, all holding hands!

Zig and zig and zag, we see in the crowd

King frolicking with peasant!
But shh! Suddenly the dance is over,

one pushes, one takes flight: the rooster has crowed;

Oh! A beautiful night for the poor world!

And long live Death and Equality!
Listen to Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà play Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.


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The First Epic Poem: The Descent of Inanna

Dr Oliver Tearle

The First Epic PoemWhat’s the oldest epic poem in the world? Did it all begin with Homer’s Iliad? In one sense, we can grant this as an acceptable proposition, but if we wish to trace the true origins of ‘the epic’ as a literary form, we need to go back considerably further into the very hazy early years of literary history.
For the epic began in the Middle East with works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a Sumerian king who possesses seemingly inhuman strength and who meets his match in the mysterious figure of Enkidu; this poem also, notably, features the Flood motif we also find in the Book of Genesis. But even Gilgamesh wasn’t the first epic. That honour should probably go to The Descent of Inanna.
The Descent of Inanna describes, as the title suggests, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although The Descent of Inanna is a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines, making it a little shorter than a poem like The Waste Land), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry (such as the descent into the underworld), and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of The Descent of Inanna here.
Read the complete excerpt from The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.

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Today In 1897

Oscar_WildeToday in 1897, Oscar WiIde was released from Reading Gaol after serving two years of gruelling hard labor, which inspired his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
From The Ballad of Reading Gaol :

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,

  We turned the dusty drill:

We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

  And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man

  Terror was lying still.

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Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Age of Brexit

by Dr Oliver Tearle 

TS Eliot's The Waste LandIt’s nearly a century since T. S. Eliot, having just turned thirty, announced his intention to write a long poem about the contemporary world. Several letters he wrote in 1919 see him declaring this ambition to move beyond the dramatic monologues of his first volume (most famously ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but also ‘Portrait of a Lady’) and the witty quatrain poems of his second collection (of which ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is a notable example). But what form this new poem would take, Eliot did not know at the time. He just knew that it would be longer than anything he’d attempted before.
Now, in 2018, returning to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a strange experience which reinforces the sense I’ve had for a long while that phrases and images from Eliot’s poetry read like some sort of uncanny prophecy of a future world which he couldn’t know. In 2005, shortly after the terrible tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and in the immediate wake of the 7/7 London bombings, including the Edgware Road bombing which killed six people, I remember reading ‘The Dry Salvages’ and being struck by the oddly vatic quality to Eliot’s lines, ‘When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.’ The way ‘When there’ shrinks to ‘Whether’ at the head of the two adjacent lines, and how ‘nations’ thins to ‘Asia’ at the exactly corresponding point in each of the two lines, made this already tight couplet seem positively watertight. What’s especially strange is that these lines come immediately after a long consideration of humankind’s fondness for divination and prophecy.
The ‘falling towers’ which Eliot refers to in The Waste Land, followed by a list of cities which had been the centres of great civilisations – Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London – but had now crumbled, take on a new meaning in the wake of 9/11. But it is not just the ways in which Eliot’s poem seems to foreshadow our own time. The Waste Land is a poem that resonates differently in the Britain of Brexit.
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On May 24, Bill Ellis will lead a reading and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.” See the SCHEDULE PAGE for links to texts and relevant articles.

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I Held A Shelley Manuscript

Gregory Corso

I Held A Shelley ManuscriptMy hands did numb to beauty

as they reached into Death and tightened!

O sovereign was my touch

upon the tan-inks’s fragile page!

Quickly, my eyes moved quickly,

sought for smell for dust for lace

for dry hair!

I would have taken the page

breathing in the crime!

For no evidence have I wrung from dreams–

yet what triumph is there in private credence?

Often, in some steep ancestral book,

when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples

and torched-skin mushrooms,

my cypressean skein outreaches the recorded age

and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,

pour secrecy upon the dying page.

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