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Penguin Modern Poets #1 – Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R.S. Thomas

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And so I get to the end of the first volume of the Penguin Modern Poets! I’ve been ruminating as I read about the best way to approach writing about the books, and I don’t really intend to get into heavy poetic analysis, as I’m not really qualified to do that. Instead, I think I’ll just give a personal response to each poet and pick out some of my favourites to give a flavour of the books. So here goes volume 1!

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Penguin opened the series with some big-name poets: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is of course known for his fictions and his books about Mediterranean islands, and I’m not actually sure if I knew he wrote poetry as well; Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) is a poet I *was* aware of – I think I studied her at school, though I can’t actually recall which poems; and finally R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), a Welsh bard whose work I’m very familiar with, as I already own many of his books and love his verse! All would have been well-known at the time of publication, though I suspect that Thomas is possibly the name that readers would know nowadays as a poet.

Writer, Lawrence Durrell

So, to start with Durrell. Not surprisingly, his poetic style is quite dense and allusive, much like his prose work, and the subject matter is often set around myths and legends and islands. If I’m honest I didn’t always pick up all the allusions (particularly the classical ones) but some poems were very powerful despite this – “J’Est un Autre” with its hints of strangers following you in Budapest was particularly memorable. However, some of the wordplay lost me, and I think I’d prefer to stick with Durrell as a prose stylist rather than a poet.

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Jennings had a much more straightforward style, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t recognise any of her works at all – not even a glimmer of familiarity. Her style is more personal, dealing directly with subjects like death and old age, family heritage and fear. Perhaps this is more traditionally what would be thought to be a woman’s subject matter, although that argument would quickly be subverted by either Plath or Sexton. Jennings’ poems are also studded with religious imagery and pretty consistently downbeat. “Ghosts” was probably my favourite, a pithy little verse about how events left undone cause a house to be haunted.

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And finally to R.S. Thomas – now, there was an intriguing man! Notoriously reclusive and difficult, particularly during the latter part of his lifetime, he was an Anglican priest who was also a poet. Brought up an English speaker, he taught himself Welsh and became quite a militant supporter of the tongue, though he learned the language too late to use it in his poetry. His works are in the main about Welsh people, landscape and nature and they’re remarkably powerful. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought and to criticise his country and fellow countrymen and women if he felt it was justified. Towards the end of his life he allowed some personal influence into his poems, and some of those written after the death of his wife, Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, are remarkably moving.

The personal poems came later than this volume, where the verse is mainly concerned with Wales and its fate. “An Old Man” and “The Village” were two of my favourites, but I think the one I liked best, and will share with you here, is “Welsh Landscape” – my favourite in the book, I think.

So my first reading of the Penguin Modern Poets has been stimulating and rewarding. All of the poets have their strengths, though Thomas is obviously my favourite, and I’m looking forward to volume 2 very much.

Welsh Landscape by R.S. Thomas

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood.
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

Reading challenges ahoy!

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I often feel somewhat notorious (and a bit of a failure!) because of my inability to complete reading challenges! The first one I tried was the LibraryThing VMC group’s Elizabeth Taylor readalong a couple of year’s back, and I just about made it (though I did join in halfway through….). In 2013 their group read was for Barbara Pym and I burnt out mid-year. And this year, they went for a Great War themed readalong which I didn’t even get started with! I *did* succeed with my plan to read Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” series, however, and I’ve also completed the first volume of Proust (out of three I have) plus Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”, so I suppose I’m not doing too badly!

I'm particularly keen on this era of Penguins

For 2015 I’ve decided, along with HeavenAli, Liz and possibly others, to read “The Forsyte Saga” – nine novels plus the odd interlude so at less than a book a month that should be manageable. However, a couple of other possibilities have reared their heads…

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The most recent edition of Slightly Foxed magazine had an article on C.P. Snow, which reminded me that I have his “Strangers and Brothers” series of 11 novels on my bookshelves. I think they would be a remarkably interesting exercise following on from the Powells, particularly as Snow was satirised in “Dance” as J.C. Quiggin. The main issue I have with Snow is deciding on the order of reading, as the early novels were published in one order, but later Snow recommended a different reading order. I am one of those odd pedants who insists on reading the Narnia books in the order published, refusing to read “The Magician’s Nephew” first, so I think if I do read the Snows I shall be awkward and stick to the publication order.

Then there is Lawrence Durrell. I read and enjoyed “Prospero’s Cell” earlier in the year, and have been humming and hawing about whether to try his fiction, in particular his Alexandra Quartet. The question was decided in the Samaritan’s Book Cave at the weekend, when I popped down in search of books for Youngest Child’s university studies and instead came out with these:

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Yes, all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet in lovely old Faber editions for £1 each. Cheaper than online with no postage involved (just the wear on my shoulder carting them around town).

So there are several series I could pick up and run with (let alone all the other recent arrivals). I am *definitely* going with “The Forsyte Saga”; but as for the others, I shall keep my mind very much open and free, and if those books happen to float past me, I may well be picking them up…! 🙂

Recent Reads – Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

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I should confess up front, before going on to talk about this book, that I’ve never read anything by Gerald Durrell (not even My Family and Other Animals – though I am of course aware of it, as it’s one of OH’s favourite books of all time!) So really, I’m approaching the Durrells and their work with a fresh eye, and all that’s set me to reading this was a wonderful article in the latest “Slightly Foxed” magazine! But I like travel-type memoirs, I like old Fabers and I like good writing – so I hoped this would fulfil all the criteria! And actually, I think it does!

Wikipedia says of Durrell: “Lawrence George Durrell (27 February 1912 – 7 November 1990) was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer, though he resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. It has been posthumously suggested that Durrell never had British citizenship, though more accurately, he became defined as a non-patrial in 1968, due to the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Hence, he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. His most famous work is the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.”

The book opens in 1937 with Lawrence Durrell and N. (his first wife Nancy) arriving on Corfu in the blue mediterranean – and the prose of the first paragraph is enough to hook you! This is still a primitive place, with superstitions, lack of plumbing and a belief in the local saint. In a series of pieces of varying length, Durrell records day-to-day life and impressions on the island; their dear friends and neighbours, including four characters credited at the beginning – Theodore Stephanides, Zarian, Cound D. and Max Nimiec; and the history and legends of Corfu itself. They swim and drink, witness olive pressing and the vine harvesting, talk and discourse on history vs myth, and all the time against the backdrop of a wonderful Mediterranean island. As the book comes to a close, we suddenly find that there a rumbles of War in the offing – this seeming paradise is under threat.

Lawrence and Nancy

Lawrence and Nancy

If I’m honest, it took me a little while to get into this book, and I’m not sure why – maybe I was just expecting too much, or had just gained a differing image of what the book was like from the review. But once I got sucked in and involved, it was hard to leave. Durrell’s prose is very beautiful and evocative, bringing the island, its dazzling light, its blue sea and sky very much to life. In many ways, he gives away little about himself and Nancy, a point picked up in his Wikipedia entry which described the book as “somewhat fictionalised”. And it is worthwhile noting that the rest of the Durrell clan seem to have been spread over the island at the same time, but you wouldn’t know it from this book! I would say not fictionalised – more that the book is characterised as much by what Durrell left out so that he could concentrate on the portrait he wanted to paint of his friends and the place they were in. Count D. in particular is a wonderful character, an amateur philosopher who comes out with some fabulous sayings:

“Philosophy…is a doubt which lives in one like a hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite. Suddenly one day you awake and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five per cent of the activities of the human race – to which you supposed you belonged – have no relevance whatsoever for you. What is to become of you?”

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And there is a reason for this. At the end of the book, written in Alexandria while the war was on, Durrell brings us briefly up to date with the fate of the island after the fighting. It’s clear that he wanted the book to be a kind of tribute to Corfu and its people, a record and a memorial of his time there, reflecting his sadness at the destruction and his poignant feelings about the past. It’s a moving epilogue to what is a beautiful tale, recording a simple, in many ways idyllic life which has been lost. Innocence is destroyed by war and can never be regained.

“Two days before Christmas we climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocratorus to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bar, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Burtrino, and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities – fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring; water that had been carried up on the backs of women in stone jars for several hundred feet.”

I ended up loving this book very much – for its conjuring up of the atmosphere of Corfu, for the wonderful characters and their conversations, for the glimpse into a lost (and perhaps simpler) world. And I *am* glad I have the other two volumes to look forward to!

(As an afterthought, has anyone read The Alexandria Quartet – and would you recommend it?)

…so of course, I had to get the set…

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… although I’m not sure if they’re regarded as a proper set as such – but they feel like it to me! I’m rambling on, of course, about Lawrence Durrell’s books about Greek islands – “Prospero’s Cell”, “Reflections on a Marine Venus” and “Bitter Lemons”. I picked up PC recently as I mentioned here, following the rather wonderful piece in “Slightly Fixed”. Of course, I felt the need to have a set and here they are:

Aren’t they lovely? And yes, they’d beautiful old Faber paper editions and they were a deliberate choice. The books are available in more modern editions, but I have a huge love of old Fabers – my original copies of Sylvia Plath’s books were these, and I have many others in my collection by authors from Eliot to Charles Williams. I’ve always loved the design and  the typography, the individual look of the books. It’s strange, but if you put in front of me a nice old-fashioned Faber edition of a book like these, or a modern shiny new one, I’d very probably choose the Faber!

However, several books *have* left the house recently, to a local school fete – so I don’t feel entirely guilty……. 🙂

Midweek arrivals!

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Yes, as if it wasn’t bad enough that the lure of the charity shops keeps increasing the amount of volumes making their way onto Mount TBR, this week has seen the arrival of a few extras in the form of a couple of books I’ve ordered and one lovely gift!

These are the culprits:

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The George Konrad book is one of the Writers from the Other Europe series which I’ve been gradually collecting – it sounds like strong stuff, so I shall have to be in the right frame of mind to read it.

The Lawrence Durrell was an online impulse purchase following a lovely article about it in the “Slightly Foxed” magazine – and after a quick look at the first pages I can see that the prose is gorgeous so I hope this one will be a winner.

And finally, a lovely gift from my lovely long-time friend J in the form of Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell” – I have a couple of Murdochs on Mount TBR and this can join them, as it’s title I’ve often considered reading. J, who shared a wonderful visit to the Persephone Shop with me, spotted this in a charity shop and very kindly picked it up for me – what a lovely friend!

I’ve started keeping a little spreadsheet to track new arrivals, and it’s actually proving a little scary – when I see how many books have snuck into the house in the last few weeks I realise I really *will* have to take drastic action…… :s

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