Friday, April 29, 2016

How E.E. Cummings Writes a Poem - by Nerdwriter1 (youtube)

In 1991, after finishing my third year at university studying experimental physics, I spent a summer working in Washington State in the US. On, my way home, I stopped off for a visit with an American friend who was then living in the East Village in New York. We had a wonderful four days hanging out and schmoozing, enjoying the boho atmosphere of the sidewalk book stalls and street-side cafes.

As I about to leave my friend gave me a copy of E.E. Cummings' work simply titled 100 Poems and on my return to Dublin I became obsessed with this collection and read it over and over (and to my friends insofar as you read Cummings aloud and for as long as they could tolerate my enthusiasm for it). It certainly acted as a very distinct counterpoint to the trials of studying advanced physics, especially as my final exams approached. Perhaps now, looking back, I can see how the cryptic, puzzle-making technique Cummings used so often - even in apparently straightforward pieces - attracted a science-minded acolyte such as myself, albeit tuned then to a totally different subject.

Recovering 100 Poems from my bookshelf now, I see that it is the most thumbed and battered poetry collection among all the others, sellotape keeping the spine - just about - intact. I was reminded of it again when I stumbled across this close reading of a poem by Cummings on youtube recently by someone using the (very apt) moniker nerdwriter1. It's a highly insightful piece and I particular enjoyed his examination of the use of parenthesis in Cummings' work (a very nerdy point in itself!).Oddly, seeking out 100 Poems today, I realised I haven't read Cummings for quite some time so thanks to this piece, was excited to revisit it.

So here is nerdwriter1's sharp-nosed analysis of 'i carry your heart', with audio from the poet himself:




Sunday, March 27, 2016

'In the Shadow of the Patriot' - poem

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the failed insurrection that ultimately changed public opinion in Ireland and led to the country's future independence from Great Britain as a self-declared republic. Many celebrations and state events have been taking place this weekend and will continue tomorrow. I haven't been asked to do any readings (I feel like the only poet in Ireland not to!) but, in truth, Irish history and Irish identity have never really been central themes for me as a writer. All that said, I feel very proud to have been born in an independent Ireland and very much appreciate the sacrifice of those now remembered in schoolbooks and whose statues populate the city streets of Dublin where I live.

So I thought today to post a poem from a new sequence I'm working on which explores the nature of memory and forgetfulness, both personal and cultural. To this end, here's a short piece from this new work (with all the provisos about the completeness of new poems that must apply). It's not a poem of Yeatsian grandeur in the historical sense nor is it intended to be, but somehow it feels indirectly apt in its own way to share, I hope. After all, those men and women who fought (and sometimes died) one hundred years ago did so, I believe, so that such casual moments among the living may happen in the shadow of their past. We remember them, of course, and live among their ghosts, but life continues on also. A hundred years on from the Easter Rising, here's my slant offering. I should add, it was written some months ago and not with today's commemorations in mind.





In the Shadow of the Patriot

The old quarter at dusk. The rain starts again.
A fire engine passes by to a rising and falling pulse, 
echoing down cobbled streets and alleyways 
rebounding against the tall windows and soot-grimed
red-brick buildings, the bars where the ghosts
of the dead linger, haunting the granite flagstones
with their long-lost footfalls... The late evening buses
pull away from pavements in turn, raindrops marking
fleeting circles in the puddled water of the drains:
and the young couple who stand by the statue
of the old Patriot, his hands and face weathered
to history and forgetfulness as they pull each other 
closer, their lips touching to warm softness.












Thursday, March 17, 2016

Theo Dorgan & Paula Meehan in Conversation - TV

It's St Patrick's Day so seems fitting to post something of interest about Irish poetry to mark the occasion. So here's a piece I spotted a few days ago which is a very engaging and wide-ranging conversation between poet, broadcaster and novelist Theo Dorgan and playwright and poet Paula Meehan, the current holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. The piece was recorded by HoCoPolItSo, Howard County Poetry & Literary Society, for St Patrick's Day last year. It's really worth watching and runs to 30 minutes with a full bibliography of each poet's work at the end of the show.






Sunday, March 6, 2016

Poems Upstairs: Science Meets Poetry - VIDEO

I'm delighted to be able to link to a video recording made of a reading I did with fellow-physicists Kate Dempsey and Iggy McGovern as part of the Poems Upstairs series at Books Upstairs, supported by Poetry Ireland. 

The reading marked the anniversary of Bequerel’s discovery of radioactivity and was introduced by Jim Malone, Robert Boyle Professor (Emeritus) of Medical Physics at Trinity College Dublin.

I read first, followed by Kate and then Iggy. There is also a Q&A and then we all read one final piece. The entire video runs to just over an hour and special thanks must go to Eoin McGovern for documenting the event.

So here it is. Hope you enjoy it, if you can spare an hour of your time.



The video file is too large to embed here but you can find the reading at the following link on Vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/157736102






Monday, October 19, 2015

'Rock Ammonite' at the 'Poetry & Science Hub'

This poem and commentary first appeared on the University of Liverpool's 'Centre for Poetry & Science' website, edited by poet Deryn Rees-Jones. More content on this very fascinating marriage of ideas can be found at the Poetry & Science Hub.


Rock Ammonite

The surprising simplicity of it
there among the shoal:
little earth-memory,
spiralling palimpsest.
It is the alpha and omega
of necessity, the first word
and the last of all
argument. And if the eye
is steady retrace the slow-
turning of centuries
and descend step-wise,
down the tight curve
of its spine to the centre
about which all appears
to turn. And there,
to close your eyes
and push one step further,
past language and origins
into the dark beginnings
of it all.

from In the Library of Lost Objects (Ward Wood Publishing, London, 2011) 



As the French theorist Gaston Bachelard points out in The Poetics of Space, stones represent a special place in our imagination. They are symbols of permanence, at least to everyone except a geologist, who would view them undoubtedly as dynamic. It is no surprise that the grand monuments of any great society – from the Neolithic ‘time chamber’ at Newgrange to the Arc de Triomphe – are made of stone. They are there to endure, to suggest power over time; to defy time for as long as possible.
We often think of ourselves as being in possession of a Self, as Jung would put it, or an Ego and Id as Freud claimed. In a way though, we have many selves. There is the weight of personal memory and the biographical self; there is the social self, which is probably the one that doesn’t make it into poems; there is also the set of ideas we have encountered and assimilated giving us, what we might call, a philosophical self. In my collection In the Library of Lost Objects I have tried to explore these different ‘selves’ in a way that they become interconnected and necessary to each other, the small or large personal dramas played out against the backdrop of an impersonal canvas: deep time as well as lived time.
If stones signify permanence, fossils represent a special case. They are life preserved in rock. As such they are a kind of double-image of the notion of permanence, giving us both a glimpse of what they were as living things, and their concrete existence in the present as “little earth-memories”. Their lives are short-lived, but through the process of petrifaction, they possess an after-life, surviving across vast tracts of time to present themselves to us behind glass in display cases.
This poem is based around a simple conceit: that the spiral form of the ammonite represents both its own cause and the spiral of evolution itself. We push back in time and “descend step-wise / down the tight curve / of its spine”. This brings us to the origins of life itself and beyond to the point of unknowing before “the dark beginnings of it all.”
In an earlier draft, that phrase “of it all” read “of the world”. The word world is one of most powerful in the language, yet here it seemed too abstract and general. The more casual “of it all” seemed to suggest something broader and bigger, yet more mysterious: life itself.
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When CP Snow delivered his famous lecture in 1959 on the “two cultures” – the sciences and the humanities – they seemed to him at that time to be growing ever further apart. It is an observation that is probably even more true now. I think to resolve this we need to understand that the science and the arts can live side by side and both serve a function, though it would be simplistic to say it is the same function. Science gives us objective knowledge whereas a poem can never be verifiable in the same way as a scientific argument is. It is not a theorem and its proof.
Yet, at the same time, I believe the best poems endure because they represents a different type of truth, though one that is more persuasive than empirical. It gives us a sense of the subjective and emotional nature of our daily existence. In other words, where science excels at giving us definitive, objective knowledge, poetry and the arts are the instruments of expressing the experiential nature of our lives – even when encountering something as seemingly abstract as a fossil, as I try to show in this poem.  I very much hope that poetry can engage with and be informed by the rich insights, vocabularies, and discoveries of science. As someone with a background in natural sciences, I draw on these subjects not just for effect but because they feel integral to the way in which I respond to, and write about, both the personal and philosophical aspects of life. In the end, all these things can connect and inform each other. That is my hope, at least.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' on BBC iPlayer

Just a quick post to mention that my poem 'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please, hosted by Roger McGough, on 6th September. Was a truly great honour to be included. The show will be repeated on Saturday 12th September at 11.30pm, but will be available (worldwide) on the BBC iPlayer for the next month or so. (See below link.) The theme is, indeed, bees and you'll find some really lovely pieces by Tagore, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Sean Barodale and Roger McGough, among others, as well as my own small offering, which ends the show. Insight, also, from beekeeper, Jeff Davey, between poems.


Poet and Presenter, Roger McGough


So here's where you can listen in, should you wish to. Link will go down on 12th October.


http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068sjpg


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Now that the link to the iPlayer is down, here's the text of the poem for anyone who might be interested.



The Beekeeper To His Assistant

You must understand from the beginning
that the hive is a mind and one
you will not comprehend. Behind
the frantic to-ing and fro-ing of the bees
order prevails: the honeycomb from nothing
builds itself by geometry alone, cell by cell,
the Queen its centre and circumference.
Even the pollen-drunk dance of the messenger
returned from gardens heavy with blossoms
is a kind of mathematical waltz, calculating
in each step the sun’s slow orbit through
the heavens. For all the talk of the nuptial flight
no one has ever seen it, though it must happen.
Once in early summer I did see the Queen hover
by the hive’s entrance awaiting the drones.
And they came, hundreds of them, greedy
for her scent. I saw them disappear into the shade
of the meadow in her wake. That was all.
When they returned to the hive at dusk
exhausted and sticky from their work, their wings
were snapped and they were thrown to the earth.
Not even the Queen can evade the will of the bees.
Unknowingly she gives birth to her own successor
incubated in the brood and hidden from her.
Without a sign her servants descend on her
in a swarm and she is smothered – by violence
the honeycomb becomes her honeyed mausoleum.
Yet despite these explanations I have told you
nothing. And the beehive has its secrets.
I live for those moments in late evening
beneath the lilac blossoms when the bees
gather in a cloud about me, buzzing flecks
of light like Einstein’s vision. It is a door
into the heart of summer where time
seems to slip away and is lived through.



'The Beekeeper to his Assistant' appeared in my debut poetry collection In the Library of Lost Objects, which was published by Ward Wood Publishing in 2011.



Monday, August 17, 2015

'Vergissmeinnicht' by Keith Douglas

It is often said that there were no great poets of the Second World War - unlike the First with outstanding figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen highly acknowledged, among others. 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 through the war years, 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 circumstances 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. 

1944


It is also often forgotten that T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets was written during the war years and while oblique, it is a clear statement about how civilization rested in the balance at this time, though such a large-scale work 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 the 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 another (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 him, 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 rediscover 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 a field 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.







Vergissmeinnicht


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.