Friday, 29 August 2014

Hill Climbing

The major English poet Geoffrey Hill is well-known for arguing that confessional poems of the quotidian fail to reach the immense heights of more imaginative, less-self-centred, poetry. From this position (which I have simplified for the sake of debate) then follows a dismissal of nearly all the poets, poems and poetry since 1945, including Larkin's, Plath's, Lowell's, etc.

It is good for great poets to have their own guiding lights, their own poetics, but is not so good for other readers and poets to believe them when they claim theirs is the chosen path.  Poets do not make good messiahs. The best thing that poets give us (usually) is their poetry, not their criticism - and we are best to go by that.  Empson and Jarrell may be the exceptions here.

In the case of Hill, it is hard to locate his idea of the imagination in his work, which is almost never quite as grandly imaginative in the way that say Milton's was.  Hill is a rhetorical poet more like Pope, or Dryden than he might care to admit.  He bases many of his poems on history, theology, and myth, and inter-textually relates his poetry to a certain Tradition of Anglo-centric feeling and thinking.  His poetry about WWII, or the Holocaust, or Anglicanism, for example, are triggered by real events, issues and ideas.  They are perhaps not directly personal, but they are only impersonal on a very basic level.  The choice of theme and subject a poet makes is always a signature, and is a self-revelation.

If a poet writes about being raped or punched, that is no less vital a trigger, than if they write about reading about a German priest dying in the 1940s.  One may be more removed emotionally, but that is hard to prove.  Both subjects are at one remove from the poem which is generated.

The idea that poetry is nowadays quotidian in concern may be the case, but the lofty and distant and unusual are not always the most compelling literary themes.  Much of the greatest poetry, from Chaucer, to Donne to Eliot, is concerned with human circumstances in relation to society - desire, love, fear of death, religious consolation, grief, elation - and emotionality, combined with intellect, is not owned only by those who compose imaginatively and without direct recourse to self.  Coleridge's famous Xanadu is a rare example of a poem seemingly removed from the common realm entirely, but it is hardly removed from Coleridge's drug dreams.

It may be tedious to read about a poet's love affairs, groin operations, drunken sprees, divorces, back injuries and travel; but too much War of the Roses, WWI, Troy and allusion to Comus can also become stale. As Larkin proved, great poems can come from smaller things (though arguably Larkin's major poems are on the major rhetorical themes).

I remain unconvinced that poems written from direct experience and the personal realm are necessarily going to be weaker.  They may be less magisterial.  They may be less theoretical.  And less abstract. And less Marxist. But some very poor and pompous poetry can be made from theory, ideas and ideologies, as well as the classics.

Larkin About

Poetry criticism - that is, writing concerned with poetry, poems, poets and poetics (theory) - seems to have been sent back to the Age of Arnold at the start of the new biography of Philip Larkin, by James Booth, his long-time colleague, and apologist.

Larkin is, I feel, one of the major British poets - and in this I am not alone.  He has influenced, for better and worse, my poetry: his inimitable but seductive diction, syntax and themes tempted my originality.  So I am not attacking Larkin here. But seriously, some of what is written in these first few pages (all I have read, so far) is balderdash.

Booth states that Larkin is the most popular and greatest English poet of the last century - which may be the case, but this is not easily established by merely saying it.  Kipling, Auden and Ted Hughes, let alone Stevie Smith, Betjeman, Hardy and Housman, are all serious contenders, in terms of sales, popular appeal, influence, and critical study. Booth claims - a la Arnold's touchstones - that Larkin has the most memorable lines and phrases - and it is certainly true he has three or four lines that are infamous - but Auden and Stevie Smith, at least, are close, and poets are finally great for whole poems, not snippets that journalists prefer.

Then again, it is suggested that, on the subjects of Love, Death, Age, and even Nature, Larkin has not been since bettered, and, may never be - he has almost shut down future discussion, as it were.  It is true that Larkin's poems on Death and Ageing, especially, are among the greatest in the English canon - but it is hardly sure they are definitive statements.  Poetry is inexhaustible.  Love, and Death, come in many varieties, shapes and sizes, and there are always new ways (one hopes) of thinking and writing about them.  Otherwise, might we say Bach completed music?  Or The Beatles the pop song?

Booth also makes an odd suggestion that Larkin was less nihilistic than Graham Greene, the author, and was less despairing.  Larkin was an atheist or agnostic - Greene a Catholic. It is true Greene played Russian Roulette when young - or claimed to; and tried opium, and had affairs.  But being a sinner does not make one a nihilist or a suicide.  It makes one a complex person.

On the subject of Larkin's apparent dislike of Black people (he famously used the N-word in letters), we are reminded that he also listened to Jazz played by African-Americans, and loved it.  This may be the case, but there are many racists who approve of Black athletes and musicians and actors who still wouldn't want them around for tea.

Larkin's use of pornography is softened up by suggesting the images (aside from some light bondage) are mostly of pretty girl-next-door types, and somehow reflect a wholesomeness of desire.  It may be, but it is true he still looked at these sort of images, and they inflected his way of looking at women in his poems.

We are reminded - correctly - that Larkin wanted to be a woman at some stage early on - and it may be he hid a desire to dress like one too - he certainly enjoyed writing in their voices (young women's voices) in stories and poems, often while they faced rape, or deflowering, loss of status, or some other peril, and he had complicated sexual ideas and emotions - nothing wrong there, but why airbrush it?

We are even consoled with the claim he was successful, mostly happy, and very friendly, to women, children, animals - it sounds like an apology for Hitler (who his father incidentally adored).

Apparently, Larkin's grumpy bachelor persona was a fa├žade.  He was fun, hard-working, dated numerous ladies, and genuinely content with life, and his variously crude and angry letters were just a sort of game with pens.

I am looking forward to reading on, but something tells me this is not a hard-hitting analysis that will cut very deep.  It seems mostly a rear-guard attack, meant to re-establish a canonical, pleasant Larkin, a genuine and generous man, a sort of English Heaney - healthy, life-affirming, helpful - but he wasn't, really.  He was, and this is what makes his work astonishing and impressive, a narrow personality, whose focused, neurotic poems startle with their high, narrow effects.

A great poet, but about as healthy as Baudelaire.

Sunday, 24 August 2014



Eyewear is very pleased to feature a poem by the Indian poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria today.

At The Great Wall*



Beneath a wind-blown sky

white spring flowers flutter

like prayer flags against the stone


wall which serpentines up and down

the hills, its dark density

serrations thrusting from the dragon’s


spine --which sleeps beneath the earth

wallowing in  its waste: molten

lament and power. It sighs 


as late light’s honey licks

the wall’s charcoal pores and sucks

darkness up its throat.

*From the sequence of poems titled China Suite

Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet, novelist, essayist and translator with five published books.  Awarded by the Indian Government for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature her works’ translated into six languages & is published or forthcoming in Adelphiana, Soundings ,  South Asian Review, Caravan ,Post Road, The British Journal of Literary Translation , Drunken Boat,  Pratilipi,  Language for a New Century, The Literary Review,  IQ, Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World among others. Forthcoming in 2015 are translations of Tamil mystic poet Aandaal (Zubaan) with poet Ravi Shankar, and a short story collection(Niyogi Book). She edits Poetry at Sangam.

Friday, 22 August 2014

On Learning His Godson Has The “Language Gene” Defect FoxP2 - new poem by Todd Swift

On Learning His Godson Has The “Language Gene” Defect FoxP2


Unsinging songbird, love’s signals

talon you no tune. The little ring


inside your heart never breaks,

won’t know to start. Small wing,


refrain-robbed, your language genes

are a muted branching; unheard, seen –


bright bird, tongueless, young and wild.

Confusion of syllables, lack of spring


upon a surprising note, tender

or offering, means no reason


to hear, as no care extends,

hems you in, away from flight


of singing, that breaks day’s stems

when we are woken outright


from dreaming by fowl stylistics,

their unparliamentary delight


in knocking sleep with a beak’s baton,

a symphonic rapping of night’s lectern.


O my songbird, I will sing for you,

I have this sprightly chance, Alex,


to be the line that runs from your

winged injury to my uncle’s tongue.


I’ll swoop and dive, roar the glad

sound we wish all songbirds had,


and in your silence key

a dumb way to play your defect


to perfection, as if my lyric vocals

shared across the sky to nephew –


given as love spreads its feathering.

So our duet is true, even if only


unsolo by mechanical virtue;

we break anatomy’s musical bonds


unfiring links of dopamine or mind,

to find where upfiring sound can lie


beyond its locked places, song-flight

swanning up as kissing makes union


and larks bend the sky in a risen two

so notes over notes fall out to ascend.
Todd Swift, summer 2014



I walked into the office and he looked up like he’d been expecting the Nobel Prize committee, but all that had wandered in was little old me. Marlowe, the spoil sport.

“You aren’t Miss Stein,” he snorted, and I had to acknowledge that.

“Sorry professor, I’m just the detective, come to ask a question or two”.  I showed him my Photostat, and, because he had such thick glasses, followed that with my card.

Universities were obviously doing a big business.  The panelled walls, the rich leather, the mahogany desk, would not have looked out of place in the office of a company fat cat or Louisiana politico.  The only difference was, instead of cigars and wads of cash, there were books piled everywhere.

“Porlock,” he sniffed.  Professor Langwallner seemed to have some sort of deviated septum.

“Oh sure,” I nodded, lazily picking up a book by someone called Adorno, “Coleridge’s unwelcome guest. I read poetry myself. Did I stop your chain of thought?” I expected a snort, but instead, I got an eye-gleam.

“Now that you ask, Marlowe, I was working on this –“ he held up a sheet of paper. In the middle of it was a single word, framed by a small box.  Someone had been very clever with a typewriter to get it all just so. The word was LANGUAGE, except each letter was spaced out, and the typist – probably Miss Stein – had gone to a lot of trouble to keep them apart with equal signs, like somehow a mathematician had gotten drunk at a poetry reading.

“What’s that, a poem,” I sort of chuckled.  It was not exactly T.S. Eliot.

“Well spotted, yes.”

“I see I barged in very early, sorry to have ruined your fun.”

“Not at all, Marlowe.  This here is a finished text. The whole kit and caboodle.” He handed it to me gingerly, like maybe it was made with thin radioactive linen. Professor Langwallner didn’t look like a killer.  He didn’t even look old enough to shave without help from his psychotherapist, or nanny, or valet, whatever rich kids from Stanford used as help these days. No, he was young enough to be in a high chair, but he was also hallucinating if he thought this was poetry.

“It doesn’t look like a poem to me, Doc. Sorry.”

“Ah, but you’re expecting something else, more genteel, and romantic, aren’t you, Marlowe?  Something sincere and self-confessional.”

“Sure that’s me all around, sincere and genteel.  Not an ironic bone in my body.”

“Irony is old hat, Marlowe, we go way past that.  What they’re doing in art now – abstract, conceptual, focused on the materiality of the process – that’s what the language poets do now. You should understand – we inquire, like you do, into things.  Poems open out mysteries though, for poets, we don’t close things down with solutions or pat answers.”

I studied him like he was any other lucky stiff I had to come across in the line of work – not quite a duty, not fully noble, but a vocation that didn’t settle for much guff.

“Sure, and you also have some land in Florida to sell me, size of a postage stamp, and only a thousand times the price. Look, when are you academics going to settle down, roll up your sleeves and actually do something for a change? What do you want, a medal pinned on your chest for dreaming up yet another way to confuse the common man?”

“But this is work, Marlowe.  I had to read every French and German text on aesthetics to get this right.  This took months of planning.  You don’t just spill the beans, you know – you don’t just actually express feelings onto paper.  This was as planned and executed as a cold blooded murder.”

This got me interested, so I started on my pipe.  This felt like a pipe place.

“Now we’re talking.”

He gave me a withering glance that might work on a bobby-soxer doing a BA in Arthurian Legend, but it wouldn’t knock me down.  My socks had dials on them, and came all the way from England.

“No, Marlowe, not a real murder. An idea.  Poetry is conceptual now – it’s about the theory behind the language as much as what the poem says or sounds like.  You don’t come to poetry looking for beauty anymore!”

I paused, puffed the pipe, shrugged, and turned to go.  Langwallner was maybe a good teacher, but he was a nutcase, and I wanted back up before I tackled him.

“Professor, it’s a good thing you work here in this ivy tower.  Because where I come from, when you order a cup of Joe, it better look, taste and cost like coffee.  And when you order a whiskey and soda, it better have a kick like a mule.  And when you take a dame out dancing under the stars, she better be Lana Turner, not Mr Peabody the janitor from down the lane. In other words, pal, I stand for a world where men try to be decent, women try their level best to keep up appearances and we all shave and wash our hair once a week.  A place were angels don’t fly off of church windows, and dragons are fat men who run the rackets and the goodtime gals; and life is cheap because life always has been. A place where a good man only has his word.  And it better mean something.  In that world, of slums, and cheap dives, and sawdust whorehouses, poems are things that make people feel better, that they memorise because maybe their mother or Irish granny once whispered it to them, and those poems have a music in them that’s half Armstrong and half Bach. I’m sure what you are doing here is something.  It may even be art. But it’s not a poem if the hair on the back of my neck doesn’t stand up when I hear it.”

And with that, I left him gaping like a guppy in a fish tank without any water.  It only looked like a fish tank, anyway, but was probably a metaphor. Then I went home, poured myself a drink, and never actually wrote this down.

hIStory and evil

Few wars, and few historical moments, present clear cut choices. Especially in the Middle East, a ruined region raped by successive Great Game imperial machinations for over 100 years, whose borders are debatable and often fictively imposed with force, it is unlikely any conflict will present the armchair general and seething metropolitan pundit a black and white cause for just war.  The last Good War was, it seems, WW2 - for though the motives for fighting Germany and Japan might have been imperialistic at core (protection of markets and colonies and borders; and petrol) - the Nazi regime was markedly evil, in ideology, intent, and constant deed. Never mind that Canada was anti-Semitic in the 1940s, and Churchill had mooted winnowing the weak; or that the British invented concentration camps in the Boer War; or that it was the Allies who dropped the doomsday bomb and burned Dresden - even so, the Nazi plan and the Nazi way was - and is - almost the definition of inhumanity.  It had to be stopped, and any killing done to stop Hitler's soldiers was, on balance, sadly justified.

Since then, many politicos and tub-thumpers have claimed new enemies are as validly evil (and hence subject to mass destruction) as the Nazis.  We now know that the Chinese, Koreans, Viet Cong, and even Taliban, let alone the Iraqis, are not, were not, that Great Enemy.  Communism, even radical Islamic thinking, is not quite as profoundly horrid as Nazism - for all their faults, these ideologies retain, normally, some hope for the good.

Not so, however, this new scourge - for, from the rubble of Syria and Iraq has arisen a dedicated, highly-trained, ruthless, wealthy, sadistic, and evil enemy to the West - an army so wicked even the perpetrators of 9/11 have scorned their tactics.  This group is sweeping across a vast arc of territory in the Middle East, carving out a new homeland for a form of belief so cruel, intolerant, and brutal, it staggers the imagination.  They slaughter villages; they behead innocents; they will, if they gain atomic weapons, deploy them. Their hatred of women, the Westerner, the Christian, even their fellow Muslim, is harrowing. They recruit freely from the disaffected youth of a half-dozen of our own nations. They move among us. They speak English even as they murder with a savagery of adroit ease.

They must be stopped.  Air attack will not be enough, nor advisors.  We may need boots on the ground, to save Syria, Iraq, Turkey, the Kurds, Israel, and all our friends (even foes) in the region.  To save ourselves.

This seems like the next clear cut war.  I have sought nuance here, have sought talking room.  These people make the Taliban look like Mickey Mouse.  We need to arm ourselves, and plan for a struggle that may define our age.  Or am I mad? Merely fearful.  A silly man grown long in the tooth?


"I will be voting Yes in the Scottish Independence referendum for a variety of well publicised reasons – to kick back against the dismantling of the welfare state by successive Labour and Tory governments; to put an end to being ruled by governments that don’t reflect the Scottish vote; the disarmament of nuclear weapons (as the crow flies, Faslane is around seven miles from where I live).

However the most fundamentally important reason for me as to why I’ll be voting Yes is the hope that the depressing sense of political disenfranchisement I currently feel, and have done for some time, will end with the establishment of a Scottish government invested with the powers essential to listen and ability to act upon the voice of the Scottish people.

As a former politics student and former active member of a political party it is not in my nature to be politically apathetic but the sense that my voice has not been heard, is not heard and, crucially, will never be heard by the Westminster parliament goes straight to the heart of liberal democracy and my right to have a say and influence on the governance of the society I live in.

Also, and undeniably, the rare opportunity to be part of the peaceful birth of a sovereign nation is both exciting and invigorating; the writer in me wouldn’t miss it for the world." - Marion McCready, award-winning Scottish poet.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014


I am back from two weeks in Quebec, Canada - time mostly spent in the deep Northern woods of Quebec's Laurentians where lakes and hiking/ ski trails are as common as deer and dragonflies; and everywhere there's the smell of pine. The weather teetered madly between 30 C and 12 C some days, but my family went Nordic, and took even the colder plunges into lac Labelle's clean cold waters.

When it rained, we lit fires in the cottage with its panoramic view of the lake and hills, and read, talked, and played Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Risk. Mostly we were vegetarians, and thus the BBQs were often vegetative in nature, but my mother presided over the cooking, which was uniformly superb.  I confess to trying every Quebec snack available, from poutine, to Joe Louis cakes.

I gained a few pounds.  It was a joyous and all-too-brief time together.  I was glad to see my five year old godson, Alex, especially.  His smile and humour delight me. While I read during these weeks (excellent work by Mark Ford, John Banville and Joseph O'Neill, among others), poetry and writing was peripheral - the incontestable priority of nature, so encompassing, was refreshing and moving to me. I loved seeing the chipmunks, wild ducks, hawks, deer, fish, and other beasts in their habitat.

Being well-fed, clothed, and warmed by fire, among those we loved best, able to share stories and hope, even as the young and old among us face challenges, we could count our blessings, but also sense, beyond our small lot, the fragility and terrors of the age, including the deaths in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and beyond; and the death of tormented souls like Robin Williams, whose work in Good Will Hunting, and The Dead Poet's Society, was so inspiring and humane.  So it was a full fortnight, of discussions about depression, war, peace, environmental degradation and what we can do, memories of childhood - concerns about teaching, autism, publishing, but also kayaking, biking, walking, running, swimming, and being out in the air and the sun and the mist and under the stars.

I love my family, and my Quebec home every much.  I miss them terribly when away from them, as I must be for years at time often. I have made Britain a second home, and have some good friends here, but Quebec evokes very primal, fragile feelings, of love, and what was lost, and gained. Time never felt so full of import - just being together was enough - and I was reminded of the late wise poems of Wallace Stevens, who knew the value of a home amid the natural world, in the gathering darkness.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...