Monday, August 17, 2015

'Vergissmeinnicht' by Keith Douglas

It is often said that there were no great poets of the Second World War. This isn't at all accurate, though is a view that has persisted. There was, for example, the Welsh poet Alun Lewis, who fought in the South-East Asian campaign and wrote some truly moving poetry, including 'Goodbye', a heartbreaking piece to his wife before he returned to the front where, it seems, he died, perhaps, by his own hand, though the exact circum-stances remain unclear. The poem ends:

Yet when all’s done you’ll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet. 


It is also often forgotten that T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets was written through the war years and while oblique, is a clear statement about how civilization rested in the balance at this time, though it's such a large-scale work that it deserves far more than a few lines of summary.

For me though, it is the work of Keith Douglas that stands above all others as an expression of the daily reality of 'soldiering'. Douglas fought in the North African campaign and wrote one of finest war memoirs in Alameim to Zem Zem. On leave in early 1944, and aware a 'big push' was coming, Douglas desperately tried to finalise his poetic works, then made a desperate search to try find a publisher in the limited time available to him. During this spell, he had an intensely strong presentiment that he would not outlive the year. In haste, he found an enthusiastic figure in the form of an Indian Prince who took on the task of publishing his work, though sadly this proved a disastrous choice (though he had no other) with his work effectively falling out of of print, almost immediately, and with no acknowledgement of its importance in the post-war years. It took several figures, including Ted Hughes, to rediscovered it in the 1960s and revive to small interest. It was subsequently republished by Faber but still remains somewhat under-represented and less know than it should be. A Complete Poems is now in print, thankfully.

Douglas's presentiment proved sadly true. He survived the D-Day Landings - and all the fortune that entailed - but was killed by a mortar shell while on a reconnaissance mission in Normandy three days later. He was twenty-four.

Here is a poem from his time in North Africa. Staggering to imagine, he was 23 when he wrote it. First a fine reading by Tom O'Bedlam of the piece, followed by the text. It's an extraordinary, beautifully tender and 'unblinking' poem about the nature of war. Vergissmeinnicht, translates as "Forget-me-not" from the German.


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Theodore Roethke - documentary

I've decided recently that rather than write about poetry and poets, I will to allow them speak to for themselves. On a personal note, Roethke's poem 'Papa's Waltz' was a piece I encountered at a crucial moment and gave me my first real poem. His poem, 'Elegy for Jane' is also very beautiful, even if his reading style is somewhat stilted. On the page, for me, it is a much more tender piece... Roethke was a highly influential poet in his day and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was born in Michigan in 1908 and died in Washington State in 1963.

So here he is in this rare film footage from the archives. It runs to 26 minutes and is well worth watching.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Levine, Berryman, Sexton - from the archives

Some rare and priceless footage from the archives about the Boston poetry scene in the late 50s. Philips Levine first talks about Lowell and Berryman, then some Berryman and Sexton reading. Believe me, not to be missed. I just love the freewheeling (non-media trained) nature of these poets, along with their profound commitment to their art.

So, firstly, the wonderful Philip Levine on studying with Lowell and Berryman at the University of Iowa.

This one is a clip is of John Berryman during his famous stay in Dublin in 1967.

Anne Sexton at home. If this was an arts programme today, most of this wonderful interview would've been cut. Something very carefree and honest about this.

And to end, Berryman reading  'Dreamsong 14', again in Dublin in 1967. He's clearly drunk as was his want. So: 'There sat down,once, a thing on Henry's heart' heavy...

Great that this stuff has resurfaced. Poets, and TV, were different then!

Monday, July 13, 2015

New Poem - 'Christine'

Here's a taster from my third collection, Summer Rain, which will be published in spring/summer 2016. Hope you like it.

I place a drop upon the slide                                      
then spread the blood along its length,
the bead smeared to a pinkish layer.
Not every day is bad, most bloods
are as they should be, the white
and red cells as portioned and populous
as the next, made luminous
and still by my microscope light.
I study what I see with an expert eye
count the cells in the feathered edge
and confirm the worst – the progress
of it there in the lens, spreading
inexorably from one cell to the next.
This woman I’ve never known
beyond her altered chromosome.
Soon she will be laid to waste
by what I spy in this Cyclops eye
she not knowing yet her fate
as she sits in a cafe somewhere perhaps
the rain drumming against the window glass
a dulling, restless metronome,                                                
she smiling as she picks up her cup,
telling her friend it will most probably
be fine. I have tried to be
as dispassionate as the lens’ stare,
this blood work I do too far
from the living world to feel real,
protecting me from my own fear –
that if I look too closely there,
I might see my own daughter’s hair
my mother’s smile, my husband’s
stare, the blue eyes of the one I love.
Today I try but cannot escape
the mortal flaw that I reveal. I turn off
the machine to a humming click
the backlight lingering a moment
then sinking to black – like the sky
my small office window frames
and the weight of news I must give

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Abroad Writers' Conference, Dublin, December '15

This one is some time off but just to say I will be giving an intensive two day poetry workshop (on 17th-18th December) at Butler's Townhouse as part of the Abroad Writers' Conference. As I understand it, natives of Dublin (or elsewhere in Ireland) can sign up for individual workshops and, of course, the full programme of events if they choose, though early booking is recommended! You can get the full details and contact information at the webpage below:

Butler's Townhouse, Dublin

The authors I am truly honoured to be teaching beside are:

MEDBH MCGUCKIAN Alice Hunt Bartlett PrizeROONEY PRIZE, short-listed POETRY NOW 
RUTH PADEL – 5 time winner of UK National Poetry Competition, shortlisted TS Eliot Prize 
BRITT TISDALE STATON Psychotherapist and Creativity Consultant


Here's a brief outline of the Workshop I will be giving at the conference on 17-18th December 2015

“Gravity’s Angel”
This workshop is aimed at those who have already written poetry and would like to explore in more depth both the general strategies that can applied to approaching subject matter and the more technical aspects of how the music of the poem can be used to ‘enact’ the meaning of the work. The morning sessions will be devoted to exploring certain key concepts using examples from poems as the basis for discussion among the participants, the spirit of which will be far more interactive than didactic. The afternoon sessions will be given over to work-shopping individual poems put forward by members of the group. The main thing is that there will be a relaxed ambiance through both morning and afternoon session and that we all enjoy it!

DAY 1: ‘Stillness, Movement’
In this session I’d like to explore with the group ways in which the music of poetry (rhythm and sound) can help to enact the ‘meaning’ of a given piece, including rhythmic techniques to create harmony or tension (or both at different points) in a poem, and musical techniques that again aid in reflecting the feeling, subject and tone of a given work.

DAY 2: ‘Image & Idea’
This session will focus on the ways in which concepts can be explored in poetry by employing different strategies as required. As someone who has extensively written poetry about science, I’d like to look at some approaches that can be useful in making such ideas move beyond mere abstraction. For me, I always try to avoid using footnotes for such poems and believe pieces should carry their own meaning and be comprehen-sible to a non-specialist. These notions and strategies naturally apply to ideas beyond science also.

Afternoon Sessions:
The afternoon sessions will be devoted to workshopping material from the group. Such sessions always throw up unexpected questions and discussions around given poems and the only requirement is that they are undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect and good grace. We learn from each other!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ó Bhéal Sessions, Cork, March 2015

Just a quick post to say my poetry reading at the Ó Bhéal Sessions, Cork, at the end of March was recorded and is now available as an MP3 from the Ó Bhéal website. 

I should point out that there was a very late kick-off time for this one and I tested quite a lot of new material on the audience, so it's not quite as fluent as I would like in a few places. Still, the only way for me to find my way into new work is to read it in public and I hope it's worth tuning into all the same. It runs to approximately 30 minutes in total. 

Photo: Linda Ibbotson

So here it is, with pub ambiance and clinking glasses to add to the atmosphere and generally late night vibe there was for the whole evening - and with a warm audience for company...

Special thanks to the organiser Paul Casey for all his wonderful hospitality during my stay in Corcaigh and also for making the recording available. You can find out much more about his endeavours at the Ó Bhéal website below. Truly, he is doing great work there and long may it continue.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Line of the Known & Unknown - essay

Essay commissioned for the exhibition ‘The Infinite Line [The Search for the Unknown]', 
Tactic Gallery, Cork City: 9th-22nd May, 2014. 


In 1819, John Keats wrote these famous lines in his long narrative poem, ‘Lamia’:

                        Conquer all mystery by rule and line,
                        Empty the haunted air and gnomèd mine –
                        Unweave the rainbow, as it erstwhile made
                        The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats was, of course, referring in those last lines to that towering figure of science Isaac Newton and how, for him, the rainbow demonstrated the reflection and refraction of light through moisture in the atmosphere to reveal the full glory of the visible spectrum. For Keats, such a description of this natural phenomenon robbed it of its former mystery, reducing it to mere explanation. It should be said, of course, that Romanticism was, in many ways, a retreat from 18th century rationalism and the rise in elevation of the importance of science during that era. Romantics such as Keats built their founding philosophy on the notion that it was more important to write of the feeling generated by encountering nature in all its wonder rather than by simply setting out to measure it by “rule and line”. However, the Romantics, by raising our experience of nature to the level of pure emotion, robbed it, in turn, of its necessary ambiguity and sometimes harsh modalities.

John Keats

Perhaps it is most surprising then, that it was that pillar of Victorian taste, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who first recognized that such an ecstatic view of nature (or ‘the pathetic fallacy’ as the critic John Ruskin also spoke of) didn’t quite coincide with the reality that presented itself to our discerning eye. He was right to be disturbed in what he saw as “nature red in tooth and claw.” We could no longer view the natural world as being there to serve us: it is indifferent to what we think of it and functions by its own laws. Clearly, this shift in perspective caused great shock, as well as the intellectual necessity to engage with an awareness of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as it grew ever more prominent.

With the rise of modernism in the early 20th century artists made a clear and abrupt fracture with the past and some of the quaint notion discussed above, striving instead for an accuracy of perception, which the American poet Wallace Stevens described as an “accuracy with respect to the structure of reality”. While all modernists were preoccupied with this notion, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite varied and even divergent. For Ezra Pound, the unit of such a reality was the Image, a truer basis he believed for art to build itself upon over the neat rhetorical devices and tidiness of old current (Edwardian) forms. T.S. Eliot took this further with explorations of fractured psychological states, recorded in works (such as The Wasteland) that shift from one fragmentary experience to another, searching for some form of order in the confusion of experience. And for others, like Stevens (again), reality was the product of the imagination as it encounters and, in turn, shapes the world. Only with this form of imaginative and constant engagement, he argued, could the dynamic order of the universe be revealed. These are hardly notions of accuracy that a scientist would recognise, even those faced by the New Physics of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics in the opening decades of the 20th century. The “rule and line” of art was still a somewhat different enterprise than that of the caliper and telescope.

Wallace Stevens

 But we may come to the question as artists: What are we being accurate toward in the end: the objective facts of the world, or our experience of being in that world? In recent times, we have come increasingly to think of accuracy as being synonymous with the precise, reproducible certainties of scientific truth, with Stephen Hawking stating lately that “science has made philosophy redundant”. One wonders what he thinks of the contribution of the arts to human knowledge. The great search, now, in science is  for what is popularly called a Theory of Everything. It is a deeply important undertaking and, should it ever be achieved, would be of unimaginable significance, both for science and society.

Having said that, should we not challenge such a grand – if not grandiose – term, the Theory of Everything. It seems to take a limited view of what we mean by that all encompassing word. Such an explanation would, in the end, simply be one of the material universe and the aspects of that universe described by physics alone. It wouldn’t help us decipher the genome, for example, or indeed, untangle the nature of consciousness. As such, it would ultimately have very little to say about the experience of living; that deeply subjective narrative in which we live out each of our lives.

For me, science is not just a steady procession of unassailable facts, produced dispassionately by purely rational means. It is also a process of trial and error, instinct and hunches, driven often by profound curiosity. The story of the history of our understanding of light itself, demonstrates this point well. Perception is so crucial to living everyday life as we all know yet, when used more precisely, it can become also an instrument of scientific inquiry as well as artistic scrutiny, as the three artists in this exhibit demonstrate in very different ways. But we cannot have perception without light and our ideas about light has had a long and interesting history.

Ibn Al-Haytham

The standard version tells us that in antiquity, Plato among others, proposed what is called the ‘Emission Theory’, arguing that light travelled from the eye to the object it perceived in a direct line. We clearly now know this to be wrong. What may come as a surprise was how long Emission Theory persisted, but also that it wasn’t, in fact, that giant Newton (again) who first overthrew it, though this is taken as the standard narrative in the history of science. No, this notion of light was proposed six centuries earlier by the Persian scholar Ibn Al-Haytham (popularly known as Alhazen) who conducted a series of experiments on light while under house arrest, proving irrefutably that light travels in straight lines from the object of observation to the eye, demonstrating this fact by creating (most probably the first) camera obscura in his small room by placing a heavy black curtain across it and making a small aperture at its centre, the rooftops and spiking minarets of Cairo projected upside down onto the wall opposite. It is this last detail - upside-down - that proves the assertion. Alhazen also first explained refraction, reflection, spherical aberration and the magnifying power of lenses, though sadly little if his work and findings were disseminated in Europe, and Newton certainly wasn’t aware of his forerunner. This is not to reduce Newton’s claim also on these ideas and he was, indeed, the first to explain the spectrum of light that Keats found so anathema to his sensibility and feeling for the natural world. For me, this history alone becomes a fascination in itself. It reminds us that science doesn’t always proceed linearly and is, in the end, also a very human undertaking. In short, there is a story to science that goes beyond a mere ledger of facts and falsities.

And where then does art stand in such a schema? It’s hard to know what possible direct function it may provide to science, at least within the realms of its own methodology. Some would say, I’m sure, it has nothing to offer at all. And for art’s part, does science unweave the rainbow as Keats’ suggested and rob nature of its direct power over our imaginations? Can artists exploit the insights of science and yet bestow on it to the quality of imaginative encounter?

Cassandra Eustace 'What Lies Between Repeated Differences'

I think it is fair to argue that while science offers no criticism of the arts, it also offers no real meaningful place for it in its own enterprise and perhaps this is at the peril of potential hubris. It is certain in recent years, that there is a kind of slippage going on in  science towards an attitude of all-knowingness – or, at least a quest and belief to reach such a point in the future. However, it does sometimes seem that this quest is pursued at the expense of (and respect for) other modes of knowledge such as art, myth and experience itself, furtively moving  towards a general disenchantment through explanation, both in terms of the natural world and our place within it.

This then, inevitably leads to the question: what is arts relationship to science and can it have a meaningful discourse with it? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Art also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent work, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem or any art-work can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living (even as it wrestles, at times, with abstraction), though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.

Richard Forrest 'Truncated Tetrahedron'

I would suggest that art that engages with scientific ideas helps us to explore and see (in a sense) both the wonder and insight that science has provided us with and in the process we may humanise such ‘objective’ knowledge as we try weave it into the fabric of lived experience. Art is uniquely placed to help us to make sense of our relationship to it, as well as asking the question: how do you live in such a world with such knowledge? A poem, for example, can be said to exist in a fictional space. Yet, it is accurate of something. The truth of imagination is just as important as the bare nature of the facts. The places we create in the imagination feel just as real as the concrete places we inhabit in our lives, yet imaginative accuracy is judged, as such, by a different set of criteria than the scientific connotation of that word. It deals with the contradictory nature of our inner lives, not just the outer one.

Roseanne Lynch from 'Exposures 1-7'

And perhaps by creating work that draws on science, as in this exhibit, we – as artists in different forms – are attempting, through such an engagement, to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some form of imaginative resonance, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our reality in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be experienced as well as understood. Science brings us new and deep knowledge of how the universe functions through theory and law, but as human beings we have a  deep desire and need to feel connected to both place and our place within it. It seems to me that science does not unweave the rainbow as Keats suggested all those years ago, but offers us both new knowledge and perspectives regarding nature that artists can examine and engage with at the level of the imagination as well as the cerebral cortex; and that in doing so, the two disciplines can create a meaningful exchange of perspectives and a balanced view of life, one that is accurate to the facts but also, crucially, felt.

The Infinite Line [A Search for the Unknown]

Maeve Lynch     
Sophie Behal      

Cassandra Eustace 
Richard Forrest
Roseanne Lynch

Art Photo Credit:    Roseanne Lynch