Reading, writing, rambling...

Friday, 11 March 2011


Back to Edinburgh, to read at the Scottish Poetry Library. This part of the High St has become a special location for me; it's overlooked by my old school on Calton Hill, and I used to walk (or sometimes be sent on runs) down the goatwalk to play rugby or cricket on pitches that are now part of the Scottish Parliament landscaping. My first pubs were there or thereabouts too. Up beyond is Arthur's Seat, where I (possibly illegally) scattered the ashes of my father, then my mother. And now there's a Scottish Poetry Library, and I'm on the shelves! There was a big crowd too, testing the load-bearing of the mezzanine floor, and someone brought a copy of a book of mine from the 1980s to sign, so all kinds of connections were made and re-made. Thanks to Jennifer Williams and Alastair Cook, co-readers, and to the wonderful library staff. Pity it's all such a long way from Exeter!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

May (1)

Where did May go? Some of it was spent tramping a section of Hadrian's Wall, from Sycamore Gap to Vindolanda via Housesteads - a selection that highlit the Romans' dogged persistence in heading in a straight line, up hill and down dale, sinister, dexter, sinister, dexter, and building milecastles at intervals of exactly a mile, no matter how inconvenient the site. Add a strong headwind and you have quite a taxing 9 miles or so, necessitating the odd refreshment and refuelling stop in a pub. I bet the Romans - hardly any of them from Rome, but well acquainted with Spain, Germany and Romania - needed the odd winter warmer themselves. Incidentally, Bellingham, our camper van's resting place, seemed to have cornered the British population of siskins - one morning I counted 30 around a bird-feeder.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Alive alive-o

My wife's second cousin Tony went to Spain to paint, many years ago. He stayed to raise a family and teach English. Late in his life, we got an exhibition leaflet from him - he had an exhibition in Madrid, after so many years. He'd written: "At last I am alive again".

I thought of Tony, sadly no longer with us, when my new book of poetry (on the governing of empires)- my first for about 25 years - was published last week. I do feel more alive for it. I couldn't say that the intervening years were anything but fulfilling and happy - Ann and I raised a great family, I had some challenging and stimulating jobs, I travelled extensively, I have some dear friends. But now I can enjoy again the grace-notes that creativity adds to your life, and connect again to the ways of looking at the world I've been missing - enhanced by what another 20 years of experience can bring to the writing. I know that the game is getting well into the second half, if not approaching injury time, but I'm very glad to be involved again. Cheers, Tony.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Excuses and slight return

Bit of an absence - the allotment required me to put in some spade-time and the garden likewise, with an array of pruners, loppers and saws to boot. Major mutilation of any mammalian life-forms (especially self and wife) mercifully avoided. In there somewhere were some anxious days while we waited to see whether my daughter's flight to Iceland (yes, I know!) would take off last Monday and whether she'd arrive in a smoking wasteland, there to be stuck until some other mishap of biblical proportions finished off this hapless island. Luckily the flight was cancelled and (I speak as a Scot and a father) almost all the holiday money recouped. Meantime in the pub I'm surrounded by wistful folk who should be in Cuba or Thailand or the Czech Republic - and are ever more depressed to discover, going back to work, that there's so much to do they shouldn't have contemplated taking a holiday in the first place...

I've decided that armchair travelling is best for the next few weeks. I'm working my way, rather slowly it must be said, through Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road - slowly, because of the descriptive richness of the prose and the precision and acuity of the insights. A kind of melancholy, the rootless sadness of the inveterate traveller, hangs over the whole thing too. He's just coming to the bit of the road I've travelled on, between Tashkent and Khiva, through Samarkand and Bukhara. I wonder if he'll pause at what one of our party labelled Cafe Dunny, a stop by the desert highway with good shashliks and, at a distance, a wooden privy of what was judged to be - and we were all seasoned travellers in the lands of the former Soviet Union - unparalleled noisomeness. It was there that we picked up the receipt for the meal, written on a cigarette packet, that was later accepted by the EU for project accounting purposes...

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Small and smaller

Revising work may involve augmenting it, but in poetry more often than not you're reducing, slimming, refining - putting the language under maximum pressure. Basil Bunting recommended setting a poem aside for a spell, then taking out every word you can while preserving meaning and essence. The risk, of course, is that while you the creator are still aware of what has been pruned and can cross on those phantom bridges, other readers can be blocked or taken in the wrong direction. A willed ambiguity asks something of the reader - a more complex reading, a negative capability - but retains control; an unwilled one risks losing the poem in confusions.

Another aspect of multum in parvo I've noticed is that the smaller and more circumscribed by rules the form, the shorter the fuse. Haiku composition, so tranquil in intent, is in its English and American practice at least a landscape of Kurosawa-like mayhem. An insistence on 17 syllables or an acceptance that the difference syllabic structures of English can reasonably lead to fewer or more beats, a prescription of the necessity of season-words from approved lists or a looser vignette-writing without benefit of cherry trees - these and all stylistic points between have their partisans and hostiles. Exchanges on online lists - I used to belong to one - lead to many a list member getting the hump and their coats.

Yannis Ritsos wrote some memorable one-line poems - monochords - which I've been re-reading. At their best, these conjure up a whole mood, a narrative, from 9 or 10 words. I wonder what would happen, though, if every started writing them, and tried to excavate from Ritsos' practice a set of rules... Internet flaming agogo, I suspect.

And then, like the Invisible Shrinking Man, how small can you go? Concrete poetry got down to very few words indeed - a sentence, a phrase, a word. Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden at Little Sparta - and his paper output - works through context and juxtaposition and even typography - those and the prior knowledge of the viewer. Perhaps one of the impulses or tendencies of poetry, which cherishes language and its smallest components, is to use a single word in a way it has never been used before, with everything else a kind of advanced mark-up language.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Van Gogh at the Royal Academy

The current Van Gogh exhibition in the Royal Academy is huge and absorbing. Despite the large number of masterworks displayed, the heart of it is a selection of letters, in Dutch, French and English, in which Van Gogh describes with a hard-rending simplicity, clarity and enthusiasm his methods and ambitions. The 7 years he spent in England gave him a fair fluency in English, while at a certain point he and his brother Theo began communicating in French. It would be interesting to chart this linguistic switch against the change in his palette, so transformed by the colours of Paris and Provence.

Tormented genius, thwarted lover of the world, successful (eventually) only as a suicide and then as a posthumous reputation and market investment, the Lust for Life version of Van Gogh has elided the thoughtful, articulate man who could talked so clearly, so engagingly about his subject matter, his compositions, his marks. It also became clear (jostling for space in front of the letters, full of eager sketches of his latest paintings) that this was a well-read man, someone whose rustic tables were covered with books, whose head was full of ideas and debates. His interest in and indebtedness to Japanese art, the subject of an exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, is also highlighted. Try to get there, and try to have at least half a day.

On a personal note, it was delightful to spot, across a crowded exhibition room, the painting of a tree in blossom that I used to see and enjoy on wet weekends (not a rarity in the Edinburgh climate) in the National Gallery of Scotland. It's been with me for over 50 years, and I feel affectionate and proprietorial about it now.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Up guards and at 'em

Reading the scattered Web debate on whether the label avant-garde has any meaning in the post-modern world (or is that the post-post-modern world?), I was reminded that for most consumers of literature the partisan opinion on both sides of this argument would resemble (as Borges memorably said of the Falklands War) two bald men fighting over a comb. But it is a fascinating debate, not least for someone interested in the roots of words and phrases.

An avant-garde, in military terms, is the advance unit, the vanguard - first into battle, composed of the most hardened, reliable and resourceful fighters. For some reason, I'm visualising shakos and Napoleonic era moustaches. I'm not sure though how these qualities map across to ground-breaking artistic endeavour. Tough, not easily diverted, able to put up with being chronically misunderstood, prepared to risk the garret, sure - but do we want our avant garde to be reliable?Unreliability, unpredictability, the breaking of ranks - surely that's inherent in the cultural variety of avant-gardist? Napoleon would have had most of them shot.

Perhaps the metaphor becomes more appropriate when there's a citadel to be stormed. The first troops across the ditches and up the ladders used to be labelled "forlorn hopes" - an avant-garde composed of the super-ambitious, the condemned, the desperate, the renegade, sure to take withering fire and huge mortality rates. Ring any bells? Comparatively few would survive, but those who did could have their lives transformed - and could be credited with some of the transformations of victory. Though of course it was the main body of troops following on who built the breach of the walls into an established victory. Plus ca change (as Napoleon would have said)...

Then there's the post-avant-garde... no, I'm not going there just yet.