A bit of an epiphany


In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)



A Poetic Interlude


Sentenced to Life by Clive James

One of the few books I’ve bought recently is this lovely collection of poetry by Clive James – “Sentenced to Life”. I wrote about his book “Latest Readings” back in 2015, and as I said at the time, James is someone whose been around most of my life, broadcasting and writing, and I’ve always enjoyed his work. However it was only recently that I became aware that he wrote poetry, when I watched a documentary about James, and I liked what I heard him read in the programme – so I was pleased to come across this book in the local Oxfam and I picked it up surprisingly quickly bearing in mind the state of the TBR… And after the intensity of all the 1951 reading and posting, it was lovely to dip into some verse in a relaxed way – the ideal companion to a bigger, non-fiction book I was reading.

Poetry is a tricky thing, and I’ve struggled with reading it in the past. There’s a danger of trying to read too much, too quickly, or of encountering verse that really goes over your head. With this book, however, I had no problems at all; it was one of most memorable poetry collections I’ve read in some time, and pretty much every poem spoke to me in one way or another.

James has, of course, been terminally ill for some time, and this knowledge of his condition is reflected in all the poems and also informs each one. It would be tempting therefore to expect a book of depressing verses, but that isn’t the case; yes, the poems are suffused with a kind of melancholy and resignation in places, but they’re also very life affirming and surprisingly positive in places. As James reflects on his life and the good times he had, he’s grateful for what he has left, taking pleasures in the simple things around him.

And what appears on the surface to be simple, easy to read poetry is, I suspect, more complex in structure than you might imagine. I’m remarkably ignorant of the technicalities of poetic structure, but these verses seemed to me to be very cleverly put together; I imagine making a poem easy to read without seeming facile is perhaps a lot harder than might often be acknowledged.

Author photo from slate.com

There are some really lovely poems here, and I was left with admiration for James’ many talents and sadness that he should be taking his leave of us some time in the not so distant future (although I believe he is having something of a charmed life at the moment, owing to new treatment, and is still writing a regular newspaper column – which is great news). One of the poems in the collection, “Japanese Maple”, has become justly famous and it is a very powerful piece. However, I thought I would share some lines from another one which took my fancy – “Event Horizon”. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough and very pleasingly I read that he continues to write poetry and a new book will be out soon –  more power to his pen!

But once inside, you will have no regrets.
You go where no one will remember you.
You go below the sun when the sun sets,
And there is nobody you ever knew
Still visible, nor even the most rare
Hint of a face to humanise nowhere.

Are you welcome to this? It welcomes you.
The only blessing of the void to come
Is that you can relax. Nothing to do,
No cruel dreams of subtracting from your sum
Of follies. About those, at last, you care:
But soon you need not, as you go nowhere.

Another side to a great author


The Complete Poems by George Orwell

The words poetry and George Orwell are not ones that you could normally expect to hear in conjunction with each other. He’s an author much more known for his trenchant essay writing and deceptively straightforward prose style; so the fancies of verse aren’t what you’d expect to find. Yet scattered through all his works are examples of verse and he obviously had a great love of poetry. So Dione Venables, a founding member of the Orwell Society, came up with the wonderful idea of collecting together all of the examples of Orwell’s poetry in one book of Complete Poems. Needless to say, as an Orwell completist I had to have it, and fortunately the offspring were well trained enough to produce it for Christmas!

orwell poems

This slim little book is beautifully put together and collects all Orwell’s work, down to lost scraps and verse that featured in his great works like Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s a laudable thing to do, and gives the Orwell fan a chance to look at his poetry and see what they really think about it.


So was Orwell a great poet? That’s always going to be a subjective judgement, although I think it’s fair to say that some of this is juveline work and some of it probably counts as doggerel. But Owell had a great love of poetry, and there are times when his verse really takes flight and becomes something special. He wrote love poems, celebrations of lost heroes, evocative memorials to past times, limericks and a spirited defence of his right to fight for his country. The stand-out for me was “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” from 1942, which evokes his time in Spain fighting fascism and ends with these two moving verses:

Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie.

But the thing I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.

So George Orwell may be known as a wonderful prose writer (and that’s probably how I’d like to think of him); but on the evidence of this volume and in particular those verses above, he certainly had a talented leaning towards poetry – and I’m very glad I’ve read his complete verse.

When does a collection *become* a collection?


A vexing subject for booklovers, I fear! I’m currently skirting round the issue because of having picked up a Penguin poetry anthology or two recently, and I’m a little worried that I might be in danger of starting to collect them. And the problem’s exacerbated by the fact that I already own a few…

When I dug about in my stacks I found I already had three Penguin Poetry anthologies:

older collections
The Russian one and the Sick Verse have been with me for decades, but the Imagist Poetry is a more recent one. I *do* love old Penguins and these are very stylish!





But as I reported recently, I found the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse in the charity shop:


And “Poetry of the Thirties”, a more recent anthology, came through the post last month.


So there are five books in all! Does that constitute a collection? Is there a danger I shall start sniffing out other Penguin poetry compilations? And where does that leave *this* particular volume, which has connections to these anthologies, but also to another set of Penguin poets, which will become clearer in forthcoming days…. 🙂

new poetry

A Poem for World Poetry Day



Ruffling through my lovely little Everyman Pocket Book of Russian Poets (a gift from Youngest Child) I came across this lovely poem by Vladislav Khodasevich, translated by Nabokov:


Brightly lit from above I am sitting
in my circular room; this is I–
looking up at a sky made of stucco,
at a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
all around me my furniture stands,
chair and table and bed–and I wonder
sitting there what to do with my hands.

Frost-engendered white feathery palmtrees
on the window-panes silently bloom;
loud and quick clicks the watch in my pocket
as I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
my own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
to sway backwards and forwards, and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
to myself as I sway in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
lacking any intelligent plan;
but a sound may be truer than reason
and a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
blends my accents and joins in their quest
and a delicate, delicate, delicate
pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
high above mortal matter I grow:
subterranean flames lick my ankles,
past my brow the cool galaxies flow.

With big eyes-as my singing grows wilder–
with the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly,
slowly start in a circle to sail,
and a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
handed me by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
and away the false heavens are blown:
on the smoothness of glossy black boulders
this is Orpheus standing alone.

I think it’s quite lovely – happy World Poetry Day! 🙂

Why *is* it so difficult to read poetry??


A quite wide-ranging question, really – and I don’t necessarily mean the fact that the poetry is hard to understand (although some is!). I like poetry very much, and in the past I’ve read a lot of it. But nowadays I find it hard to settle to it, and I’ve been wondering why…

I think there might be a number of reasons why I’m struggling, and one of the main ones is probably something that’s my fault. I’m a fast reader – too fast, I sometimes think, as I always seem to be wanting to finish a book, no matter how much I’m enjoying it, so I can get on to the next one. Poetry can’t be rushed like prose sometimes can; it needs to be read carefully and slowly to get the full meaning of the words and what’s behind them.

The offending doorsteps!

The offending doorsteps!

The other main issue is size – I’m thinking in particular of two poetry books which are lurking: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton and a huge volume of the complete works of Georg Trakl which I bought on a whim after reading an intriguing article about him. Both are authors I really want to read – Anne Sexton particularly, as she’s a poet that’s been on the periphery of my literary vision for decades and a visit to her work is long overdue. But both books are huge, and look as if they’d take days and days of reading carefully to get through. (Come to think of it, my Rimbaud and Baudelaire volumes are huge too, which is probably why they’re still mainly unread).

However, casting my mind back to when I was reading lots of poetry in my twenties, I was reading slim Faber volumes of Plath and Hughes and the like. A small book of poems is not so intimidating – you can linger over each one and still feel like you’re making progress through the book. Conversely, these huge collected tomes, though a good way to acquire the works, are off-putting; you can’t read through the whole thing without committing to weeks of poetry and that’s *certainly* not a good way to experience it.

So I think the answer is that I need to take the pressure off myself; read a poem or two when the mood takes me, and not worry about reading everything in one go or finishing the book to do a big review. And the Sexton is divided up into its originally published volumes, so marking each one off may be a way to handle it.

New year’s resolution – allow a little time each week for a few poems! 🙂

Echoing translations…


When I was considering posting Akhmatova’s “Echo” earlier in the week – for a long time, one of my favourite poems, I had a quick look online for a digital version. I guess I was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like digging out the old handwritten version I had, as I couldn’t remember at the time where it came from.


Well, I was in for a shock! And I shouldn’t have been, really, bearing in mind the amount of grumbling and pondering I’ve done here about the issues of translation, particularly from the Russian! But the three versions I found online of “Echo” were so different from the one I knew and loved, that I feel it’s worthy of contemplation!

Just as a little reminder, here is the version I posted earlier this week:

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

(translated by Richard McKane)

Here is the first version I found online:

Long ago were paths to the past closed,
And what shall I do with past, at all?
What is there?  Just washed with blood flat stones,
Or the door, immured in a wall.
Or the echo, that all time me worries,
Tho’ I pray it to be silent, hard…
To this echo happened the same story,
That – to one, I bear in my heart.

And the second:

There’re no paths to where the former gone is.
I don’t crave for the passed by long ago.
And what is there? The lit with blood floor stones,
The immur’d and forgotten door,
Or echo which still doesn’t have any patience
To be quite mute, though I’ve prayed much for that…
This helpless echo fell in the same station,
In which is one in my heart set.

And finally the third:

All the ways to past are now closed,
What the past for me today, what for?
What do you see there? – The bloody stones,
Or the bricked up surely so heavy door?
Or the echo, which is still repeating
Words, and never could this action stop,
I am asking it to end, but really
It is carrying weight, as in my heart, for long.

Well! What a difference! At some points, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading a different poem (and some of the lines do seem rather clumsy and strange to the English-speaking ear)! And yet, if you look again, you really aren’t – the sense of the short verse, that of the echoing weight of the past in the poet’s heart, which she’ll never be rid of, is still there in all versions. But the elegance is not.

Translating poetry from any language must be unbelievably difficult, and from Russian particularly so. I remember that in the back of my battered old film tie-in paperback of “Doctor Zhivago” from the 1970s there were translations of Zhivago’s poems – two versions, a literal one and one that tried to catch the rhythms of the originals. I recall this being actually quite a useful aid to me as a reader as it helped me to appreciate both aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose any translation of a poem is going to be a version of it; and I certainly love the version of “Echo” I’ve known for so long. I *did* track down its origin – I took it from an old book I’ve had since the 1970s, “Post War Russian Poetry” (a Penguin).  The only collection of Akhmatova’s work I have is the Selected Poems (again a Penguin), translated by D.M. Thomas. Alas it doesn’t contain “Echo” – but I would have been interested to see how Thomas rendered it!

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